Some part of my desire to make it to San Francisco, I have to admit, had been that I thought that if I went there maybe I would meet a beatnik. This interest dated back to high school, when I probably first heard the word from Roy. As a member of the high school annual staff, I had drawn cartoons of the seniors and had depicted one of them—a good friend—as a beatnik, so it is certain that I had heard the word by then and knew that it had something to do with poetry, freethinking and San Francisco. Since I dressed my cartoon figure in a beret, a bulky sweater, and sandals, I evidently knew how they stereotypically dressed, although what kind of weather would inspire someone to wear sandals with a heavy sweater was a complete mystery to me in Central Florida.
In Tallahassee, I had met a person who dressed that way, wrote poetry, and had been to San Francisco. When I asked him at a party if he was a beatnik, the conversation that followed was heated and long. Everyone there was adamant that no labels could be applied to them. When someone said that the circle of friends had been accused of emulating the Bloomsbury group, the famous artistic group that centered around Virginia Woolf in the early 20th century, Roy said that he would never make such a vainglorious claim. Roy was fond of the word “vainglorious.” Some said we were not really Bohemians because we were all students, at least off and on, in between expulsions. I was left with the idea that if I laid eyes on a real San Francisco beatnik I would be in a better position to answer my own question about the person I had met at the party.
One of the first things I did after Mike and I settled in Oakland was take a half day off work, unbeknownst to Mike, who had already refused to go with me, and ride the bus to North Beach. There, I walked around aimlessly, checked out the City Lights bookstore, noted the prevalence of strip clubs, had a cup of coffee, not espresso, and saw no one that I would have been willing to call a beatnik. Clearly, I had missed them. I was too late to meet a beatnik. They were all gone and hippies had not been invented yet. My disappointment did not last long, however, since what I had really been looking for were people who most closely resembled my Tally friends and there were plenty of those at Oakland City College and certainly plenty in Berkeley.
The irony that I was the one so interested in going to San Francisco but it was Mike who got the job there and commuted there every day was not lost on me. Whereas Mike did borrow a car from his cousin to take us on a tour of Marin County, where I squandered a lot of money on handmade sandals in Sausalito over his objections, Mike had no sympathy for my view of San Francisco. It was about that time I think he first realized the degree to which our paths were diverging.
Charles, on the other hand, encouraged me with great glee. He himself had an excellent claim to whatever might be left of beatnik-hood, simply by virtue of having a beard, being a folksinger and performing at the Blind Lemon in Berkeley. To my great sorrow, I never saw him perform there but have spoken to many people who did. What I got was private performances at his apartment or mine while Mike fretted about disturbing the neighbors. Charles had a fantastic voice that would boom through the thin walls and far was it from me to restrain him in any way.
Not long after I moved into my apartment in Berkeley, I began dating a fellow who claimed to have known the beatniks and to be one himself. He was another one of the people I met through my neighbor, Dennis. He had come to visit Dennis, probably to score some dope, and finding him gone, had knocked on my door to see if I knew when he would be back, then hung out to wait for him. Patrick claimed to have lived in North Beach when there were beatniks there and to have personally known Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He also claimed to be a poet himself, but I could never sit still long enough to listen to any of his poetry. I was not very hip at that time but I did know that a real beatnik would probably not claim to be one, just as my Tally friends had resisted all attempts to label them. I knew Patrick was either lying or exaggerating his claim for his own nefarious reasons but he clearly knew more about beatniks than I did, so I put up with it because it made for some interesting and educational conversation.
I cannot say that Patrick gave me my first marijuana because, upon reflection, I realize that I got my first marijuana from a Marine I dated when I was staying with my sister in Cherry Point, North Carolina, in 1961. Why else would he have pulled the tobacco out of the front half of a cigarette, stuffed it with something else he had in a bag, told me that it was only special tobacco, and then encouraged me to inhale it and hold it even though he knew I faked inhaling when I smoked cigarettes? Why else would I have such a vivid memory of how beautiful a yellow beach umbrella became soon afterwords and that I had spent perhaps an hour staring at it while he grinned at me? My first cannabis, I imagine, had come from Vietnam on a military plane or from New York City.
Several people at OCC had tried to get me stoned and, it seemed to me at the time, had failed. It is only upon reflection that I realize that I actually had been stoned but too subtly to have known it at the time. Patrick, seeing my report on these events as a challenge, did give me the first marijuana that convinced me I was stoned at the time. In fact, I owe Patrick for that experience because it inspired my famous coat.
Patrick showed up at my apartment one Saturday as I was preparing to take the bus to New York Fabrics in downtown Oakland and look for fabric sales to make myself some new Berkeley clothes. New York Fabrics had been one of my favorite lunch time hangouts when I worked in downtown Oakland. We smoked Patrick’s joint but he declined to go with me to Oakland, saying that he hated buses, especially when stoned. He tried to discourage me from going, worried that I would have a bad trip, being a new smoker in a situation I might not be able to handle, as inexperienced as I was. But, I was accustomed to riding the bus a lot and failed to understand the problem. So, after ascertaining that I was fairly functional, Patrick put me on the bus and I continued on my errand.
The bus ride was no problem at all. In fact I enjoyed it. I was in a particularly rebellious frame of mind and the pot did nothing to alleviate that. I wanted to break away even more than I already had from my closet full of office clothes, tweed skirts and white blouses that Mike had liked to see me in. I wanted something completely unique but I had not planned much beyond that point. When I stepped inside New York Fabrics, I suddenly appreciated why people smoke marijuana. I had started out with some notion of economy and practicality, looking for sales, but those goals faded rapidly away as I was bombarded with stimuli. After wandering about for some time, drinking in the colors and textures, I ended up at a sale table stacked with bolts of colorful handwoven Guatemalan wool. I found two bolts of the same woven design, one in mostly red and one in mostly green. Ignoring the voices of disapproval echoing in my head—my mother, my sister, my estranged husband—I bought myself a length of each.
It was a purchase I never would have made, had I been straight, but one I have never regretted. I had no idea what I would make with this fabric, so uncharacteristic of me, or the person I had been in recent years, but I did admire a leather coat worn by my friend Hazel, a very hip coat that she said she had bought in Greenwich Village, with cape-like sleeves and leather thongs lacing up the side seams. I knew I could never afford a leather coat, though I had wanted one for years, but when, to my great surprise, I saw the pattern for Hazel’s coat in the Simplicity pattern book and realized I had enough yardage to make it, I bought the pattern. Just to defy Simplicity, I adapted the pattern somewhat. I made it longer and reversible, eliminated the lace-up side seams and made the cape-like sleeves more cape-like. Then I put big gold-look lion’s head buttons on the front.
When Patrick saw it, he said, sardonically of course, that I would be a hit at any beatnik party wearing it. I still have the coat, treasured for 50 years, and I still wear it on occasion. There were people in Berkeley, when Berkeley started going psychedelic, that tried to buy it off my back, and failed. I wore it to the 30-year reunion of the FSM and met people who did not remember me, but remembered my coat. After the coat, Patrick used to jokingly call me a “baby beatnik” so I guess that’s what I was. There may have been no beatniks left in North Beach, San Francisco, but a “baby beatnik” like me fit right into Berkeley.
The coat figured into my divorce in a strange way a few years later. There was no urgency on either my part or Mike’s to get a divorce, since we had divided our meager belongings amicably, there were no children, and neither of us expected to get married again. Both of us were poor and a divorce, we learned, would cost $200. But Mike’s family was eager to get rid of the shiksa, so a few years after we separated, Mike’s grandfather offered to pay for the divorce. No-fault divorces in California having not yet been invented, we got together and made up a story supporting mental cruelty. It was a completely absurd story, placing the blame on Mike. Knowing that his career would probably be more affected by such things than mine, I offered to take the fall, saying we could make up a story that would blame me for mental cruelty. But Mike, through belated remorse or lingering gentlemanly inclinations, insisted that the story blame him.
Mike found a lawyer and made us an appointment to speak to him. I arrived with my black boyfriend, dressed in my colorful Guatemalan coat and black leather miniskirt, and stepped out of the Volkswagen bug with my long hair swinging. Mike arrived wearing a business suit and tie with his fraternity key displayed prominently on a chain draped across his vest. He was the picture of the lawyer he would become. We met outside on the sidewalk and I introduced him to John, who was going to wait for me in the car. It was all very civilized.
Inside, the lawyer explained to us that he was obligated by California law to attempt to reconcile us before he could proceed with the filing of papers. Mike was sitting on one side of the room across the desk from the lawyer and I was sitting on the other. After his straight-faced and rather prim speech, the lawyer looked carefully at Mike in his business suit and then at me in my Guatemalan coat, miniskirt and high boots and we both looked back at him and then at each other. All three of us burst into heartfelt laughter at the same moment. The attorney said, chuckling, “I’m guessing there’s no chance of a reconciliation. Am I right?” We both laughingly agreed and we all proceeded to the signing of the papers.
There was another occasion where the coat served me well. I had been visiting my sister in North Carolina for Christmas, driven there from New York by Gale, who had paid my chartered plane fare so that he could assess his chances of my marrying him and living in New York. On the return journey from New York, walking through the crowded terminal, I passed line after long line of grim, gray and silent passengers waiting to board their flights. I was wearing my distinctive coat with my black leather miniskirt and munching on an apple. In the distance I spotted a moving, colorful, boisterous line of younger people. When I got into earshot, they all began yelling at me, “Hey, baby, yeah, this is the plane to San Francisco!!” and I teared up immediately. My people, I thought, I’m going home.
© Jentri Anders, 2016