THIRTEEN TRUE TALES OF THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA
(1) November, 1967. I’d been in the Bay area three months, working in the downtown office of Oakland Legal Services (poverty lawyers). Excited by the job, I felt I was at the forefront of a struggle for social change. Four of us left for lunch. The others were all raised in California. I was an East Coast escapee. Raised in suburban New Jersey, I’d gone to college in Massachusetts, then lived six years in Manhattan, first working there and later attending law school. One thing all that had taught me was that winters could be biting cold.
The temperature was in the mid-50s. I didn’t both to zip up my jacket, but the other three did. “Man,” Mark said, “Feels like winter already. It’s cold.” The others agreed. You call this cold, I thought—then realized that to them it was. Man, I felt happily, I’m home. I am never moving away from here.
(2) Perhaps the only good thing I got from the Catholic church of my youth was a love of stained–glass. Within a year of moving to the Bay area, I found a San Francisco artist who taught making stained-glass windows, a craft I’d thought was a guild secret. He was a fine teacher. I studied, slowly improved my skills, and eventually made some windows.
My Legal Services friend Hayden asked me to teach him how to work with glass. I did. He made a couple of pieces, then had the idea to visit the Berkeley City Dump to look for materials he could use to hold more works—perhaps an old metal lamp, or window frame, whatever.
We drove to the Dump, on land jutting out into the San Francisco Bay, a decade before that land was transformed into a wonderful park. At the entrance to the Dump was a gate, with a gate-keeper and a sign announcing that it cost a dollar to enter the premises. I rolled down my driver’s window, and handed the man a dollar. “What are you going to dump?” he asked. Nothing, I replied, we just wanted to go in. “You can’t go in unless you’re going to dump something,” the man declared. Annoyed, I told him that that didn’t make sense. The man was immediately insistent. “That’s the rule. You don’t have something to dump, you can’t go in.” I started returning his insistency—that couldn’t be the rule. As my voice rose, Hayden pulled open my car ashtray, and told the man we were going to dump it. “OK,” the man said.
I handed him the dollar. He took it, and handed me back fifty cents. As I stared at the change, he said, “Why should you pay a dollar just to dump an ashtray?”
(3) At the play’s intermission, I walked outside the original, small Berkeley Repertory Theater, founded by a friend four years earlier. It was 1972, and smoking marijuana was still a serious criminal offense in California, though surely common practice in the quasi-hippie “counter-culture” I lived in. Walking to the corner of the Rep building, I stood slightly in shadow, my back facing out, and lit up a joint. I turned to find two burly Berkeley policemen standing in front of me. The larger one stared at me and said, ”You’re not doing that in front of me just to piss me off, are you?” “No sir,” I replied with sincerity. “Then go do it around the corner,” the cop commanded.
(4) Mark was the first of us to burn out and leave Oakland Legal Services. The work was draining and social justice elusive. He was now working part-time for a solo-practice, corporate lawyer in San Francisco. Mark hated the work. “It’s like washing the floor all day—with your mind,” he declared. Nor did he care for venturing to the Wells Fargo building in downtown San Francisco, and riding the elevator up to and down from the 37th floor. One afternoon, he left later than usual, after five. Conventional business types crowded the elevator, then it stopped to allow a couple of more people to pack in. As the elevator resumed its descent, Mark announced loudly, “I am also a duck,” and squatted down. Total silence until the elevator reached the ground floor, and people fled as if escaping from a fire.
(5) In the spring of ‘72, my love Linda and I rode my motorcycle through rural Marin County and stopped to watch a Little League baseball game in rustic Nicassio. The parents of the Point Reyes Station team were hip—stylishly counter-cultural, men in ponytails, women in granny dresses or cut-off shorts or some other latest hippie fashion (or non-fashion). Before the game, they smiled and laughed, mellow, occasionally nipping on a joint. The Nicassio parents, many drinking beer, were farmers and ranchers—big men in blue work-shirts, with gun-racks in their pickup trucks; the women were hardy, pioneer-looking.
The Nicassio kids were up first. Whatever the kids did—often strike out—their parents called encouragement and cheered, then resumed talking and laughing with each other. They did the same when their kids were in the field, no matter how poorly, or occasionally how well, their kids fielded. When the Point Reyes kids batted, their fathers turned intense and fierce, hovering on each pitch, shouting instructions: "Keep your eye on the ball!" "Level swing!" "Follow through!" By the second inning, the Point Reyes dads were yelling orders at their kids in the field too: "Get in front of the ball!" "Two hands! Catch it with two hands!” “Down on grounders! Charge it!” The same lunacy that some fathers (not mine) had poisoned my Cub Scout baseball games with decades earlier.
Plus ća change. I’d mostly lost faith in lawyering for social change, but even worse, the hippie counter-culture vision had atrophied, or perhaps had never included how to live as a grown-up.
(6) I left Legal Services in 1973, burned out and knowing I was irrevocably changed. For me, life was about processes, not results. I meant to live passionately, doing processes I loved—freedom wasn’t about dropping out, but dropping in.
Big deal, inner condemning voices attacked. All your “passion” and love of “processes” is just a cover for selfishness. So what if your politics remain left-wing? You won’t actually do anything to help. You’re just going to take and not give back.
I’m with Thoreau, my intransigence growled back: “I did not come into the world to change it, but to live in it, be it well or ill.” Still, I nurtured vague hopes that following my passions would lead to contributions I couldn’t anticipate. A few days after I’d quit poverty-lawyering, I walked out of my ground-floor Berkeley apartment in the evening. As usual, I’d left the living room lights on so that my stained glass windows glowed radiant-colored light out towards the street, often busy with people walking to the nearby shopping district.
A conventionally-dressed middle-aged couple, probably headed for the burgeoning Berkeley Rep paused, and the woman asked me, "Did you make those windows?" I said I had. "I just want to tell you how much pleasure you've brought us over the years,” she said.” We always park on this street so we can look at your art."
(7) In 1977 our Oakland law firm—Hayden, me and Merv, all of us ex-Oakland Legal Services lawyers in our early thirties—broke up. We’d managed to cope financially for three years, but then fell on hard times. None of us were from the Bay Area or had connections here to people with money. The only way we could imagine hustling up clients was to “network.” As Merv put it, “That means try to hang out with rich people we don’t like.” Most of all, we’d all had enough of the grind and stress of private practice. At Legal Services, we’d worked for a cause—social justice. After burning out on that—specifically on using law as a means to further that—our experiment with private law was now over. My two partners had money. I had none. So they could readily move on, and did. I had to continue being a now solo-practice lawyer until my just-initiated search for other ways to make money produced results. Until then, lawyering, drag that it was, at least (as I said) “beats driving a cab,” my other economic option.
I struggled by, barely. A friend asked what kinds of clients I wanted. I replied, “Anyone who can pay a hundred dollars.” After almost a year, I was surviving and even had some assets—clients billed, accounts receivable, a few personal-injury cases sure to settle. What I didn’t have was cash. Near broke, I cast about for alternatives to borrowing from my parents. Beyond the humiliation of a grown man having to borrow from his retired parents, I’d have the added burden of knowing that I’d rejected their hopes that I follow a traditional-lawyer career path. No, I didn’t want to work for a big law firm. No, I didn’t want to be a law professor. No, no, no. I wanted OUT.
I’d maintained a law-business account with the nearby bank that had handled our firm account. The banker we, then I, dealt with was a handsome man, also in his mid-thirties, who’d seemed to enjoy our high spirits and irreverence. Hey, I thought, I’ll apply for a business loan. I’m not broke; I just have a “cash-flow” problem. [The problem being that all my cash had flowed out, and none was flowing in.] I got loan papers from the banker and dutifully filled them out, listing my assets, and requesting five thousand dollars, at the time enough to carry me for four to six months. On a Friday morning, I brought the papers to the banker. He looked them over, nodded his head and said that it all looked fine. Then he looked at me and smiled. “How would it be if I had the money in your account by this afternoon?” I smiled back. “That would be fine,” I answered, realizing that he understood my financial reality, if not the precise details. An untypical banker, he was.
We shook hands. As I was leaving, I asked him how he became a banker. He smiled again, “Oh, I came to California a few years ago, got layed, and decided to stay.”
(8) Kendell and I were out for a celebration dinner at Julius’ Castle, a San Francisco restaurant on Telegraph Hill, offering gorgeous views of the Bay. Tonight, in the spring of 1977, we were in a haze of romance, magical feelings that had brought us to living together a few months before. Seated by a bay window, we were separated from other diners.
Our waiter—charming, funny, Chicano—brought us our first glasses of wine. Toasting ourselves, we spoke of our unorthodox love. She was 24, I was 37. I’d met her in Berkeley when she was the teenage actress girl friend of an actor, my then-roommate. We became friends, then better friends. Occasionally, we’d meet for lunch, or later dinner, sharing our lives: her erratic acting career, my retirement from lawyering for Legal Services. Subtly, our conversations grew more revealing and intimate. We shared much, including laughter and a love of marijuana. Then, astonishingly, we became lovers, and soon after, she moved in with me.
Our wonderful leisurely meal flowed on. More wine. More laughter and joy. Our energy radiated; our waiter joined in. A fine dessert, accompanied by two glasses real Sauternes. Holding hands, we looked out to the shimmering lights below. Our waiter returned, asking if there was anything more he could bring us.
“Only a Thai stick,” I joked (my then-favorite type of marijuana). He chuckled and left.
Many of the diners had left, while we continued to linger, enchanted, when the waiter returned, holding a small silver-colored plate. On it was a joint.
“Your Thai stick,” he announced. Kendell and I stared, then laughed, and I picked it up. We thanked him, and he left.
He’d also brought some matches. At least slightly protected by our semi-private seating, I lit the joint. It was indeed a Thai stick. (He later explained that he’d gone into the kitchen and said he needed a Thai-stick—not just any joint would do. Somebody gave him one.) Kendell and I smoked it, trying to appear neither furtive nor attention-seeking. Both stoned, we floated together into pure magic.
(10) In his early thirties, my Legal-Services friend Steve, was stricken with severe melanoma. A superb athlete, happily married with three young children, and a still-dedicated lawyer for the poor, he’d been a vision of health his entire life. Then his wife finally compelled him to see a doctor about that spot on his back, and within hours he’d been rushed to a hospital for emergency surgery. After it, his prognosis ranged from bleak to uncertain. He had massive chemo, lost many pounds off his already lean body, and pursued every healing path he could find, from acupuncture to diet, with intense concentration on meditation and visualizations. His fierce struggle lasted months until, finally, the cancer was gone. He’d survived, and returned to his former vibrant health. I asked him what lesson he’d learned from his ordeal. He said, “Now I totally want to live life fully and intensely … and I still have no better vision how to do that than I ever did.”
(11) I’d written my first Nolo Press self-help law book, on estate planning. I’d become a writer, if not the great novelist I’d dreamt of being when young. TV folks from the news department of a San Francisco TV network station wanted to interview me about my Nolo book “in my office.” But I didn’t have an office, just my home desk, so they came to my apartment, set up their lights and cameras and whatever, as I talked to the director about what they wanted. “We want to do an in-depth interview,” he said. Good, I responded straight-faced, then asked how long he thought that would run. “Oh,” he said, “Probably four minutes,” as if that were equivalent to the length of Gone With the Wind. “And if it was going to be a really quick, light piece, how long would that run?” I asked. “Oh,” he shrugged dismissively, “only thirty seconds.”
(12) A Nolo colleague spoke of a program his wife had started, WriterCoach Connection, tutoring in Berkeley High English classes. The program seemed terrific. A coach (tutor) worked one-on-one in school with a student on his or her assignment. Crucially, every student in the class worked with a coach. No kid was singled out as needing remedial help or being dumb. Coaching seemed to be a process I could do well and would like, so I signed up.
Today’s coaching group, six women and me, entered a 10th grade classroom. The teacher, a large, middle-aged man, called out seven names for the first session of coaching. A slender black teenager with a hoodie pulled over his face muttered, “I don’t want no coach.” I quietly told my fellow coaches, “I’ll take him.” As the other six students left with their coaches, the teacher walked to the hoodie student’s desk and said, “Get up, you’re going with your coach.” The student pulled the hoodie tighter. “I said I ain’t going with no coach.” “Yes you are,” the teacher ordered. The standoff continued for several more volleys, as I stood silently by. Eventually, the teacher announced he would call Security and have the student taken to the Principal’s Office. The student slowly stood up and the two of us silently exited the classroom. We walked down the hall in continued silence, until the student abruptly threw back his hoodie, turned to me and said, “Sorry to be such a jerk, but I really hate that teacher.”
(13) WriterCoach Connection had expanded to our first school in Oakland, Media Academy, one of the schools of what was formerly Freemont High. The Media student body was about equally black and Chicano. I’d coached there for two years, and loved it—a new world for me, and often wonderfully surprising.
It was our final coaching session of the school year. Again, 10th grade English. The assignment was to write a sonnet about love—a classic sonnet, fourteen lines, rhyming AB, AB, etc.
I’d only had the student once before, in the previous month. He’d had been cooperative and intelligent. I knew that he was sixteen, a three-sport athlete, handsome, big and strong and a recent transfer from Berkeley High. I asked why he’d transferred from Berkeley, certainly the better known and more prestigious school. “I wanted to live with my father,” he said. Then I asked if he’d written a sonnet. [My previous student had not.]
“Yes,” he said, “but it doesn’t all rhyme.”
I asked if I could read it, and he handed me a paper with a carefully handwritten poem of fourteen lines. Silently, I read the title, “The Greatest Gift,” then the poem. It was definitely a love poem. I recall one line: “You halt my tears before they reach the floor.” More, the poem seemed to be addressed to someone. “Did you write this poem to someone?” I asked.
“Yes, to my girl friend. We’ve been together since we were thirteen.”
“It’s a beautiful poem. Don’t change this version for her. You have to give it to her exactly as you wrote it.”
“Do you think she’ll like it?” he asked sincerely.