The Spectre Beckons…
Sitting in the back row of Mister Kent’s art class on Monday mornings was that rarest of things in my high school life: something I actually looked forward to. The reason wasn’t complicated. I was surrounded by attractive young women.
This particular morning was bright and sunshine flowed in through the skylight on the top level of Keyser Hall. The only sound in the classroom, besides the swish of paintbrush on paper, came from the pretty brunette on my right, who was delivering a gentle monologue about her weekend’s activity.
“We went to Sausalito on Friday night,” she said, gliding a wet paintbrush. “We scored a matchbox….” She froze in mid sentence and closed her eyes. “Shit!” she muttered quietly.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, gazing over from my watercolour.
“I…..sorry,” she said.
There was another young woman on my left who had been listening to the brunette’s story. I was immediately curious as to what she was talking about. The word ‘matchbox’ resonated. It had featured in an early Beatles number which Ringo sang but I’d never attached any significance to it and ‘scored’ only brought sports and paper products to mind. I guessed that she would tell us more and turned my attention to the watercolour I was doing of Mead Theater, which was now looking pretty good. I didn’t have long to wait.
“Promise not to tell anybody?” the pretty brunette whispered to both of us. “He made me swear not to talk about this.”
We both promised.
The back row of Mister Kent’s art class was the ideal location for this conversation because, so long as we got on with our projects and didn’t disrupt the working environment, he didn’t care what we did.
She leaned close as we craned towards her. “We scored a matchbox. You know…marijuana.”
I nodded sagely.
“We went back to my house and turned on. We got really stoned.”
The word ‘stoned’ reverberated. ‘Stoned’ was another way of saying ‘drunk’ until this moment in time, which happened to be the fall of 1964. ‘Turned On,’ I’d heard disk jockeys say on the radio but, again, hadn’t attached any practical meaning to it.
I was a senior at Tamalpais High School and was, up until now, a pretty straight arrow. My father Blackie, a man of the world, had told me many cautionary tales about heroin and morphine on the ships he’d sailed as a merchant seaman.
In one of these yarns an addict in need of a fix went on a rampage wielding an axe. He was subdued and tied to a mast. His warnings about the dangers of drugs were not lost on me. So I listened to this beautiful young woman talking in hushed tones about ‘turning on’ and ‘getting stoned’ and it scared the hell out of me.
She was an exotic thing with jet black hair, a beautiful face, not unlike Elizabeth Taylor’s and probably a bit more weight on her than was necessary. This didn’t stop her being deeply attractive and I enjoyed a flirtatious friendship with her.
Whenever she tried to speak quickly, she’d invariably use the wrong words, as if a verbal traffic jam would occur in her brain and the resulting syntax was always a source of great amusement to me. My amusement would then compound her frustration at not being able to speak.
“Johnny Myers you’re a…basket ball!”
Whatever she’d stammer would make me laugh even more.
The other young lady was a different creature altogether. Thin and a bit tall with a beautiful smile, she was a good friend whose parents were German Jews. They had left their homeland early in the Nazi ascent. In fact her dad, though he spoke English through a thick German accent, refused to call himself German.
Both these two were well heeled young ladies who lived in the more expensive parts of Mill Valley. One lived on Del Casa, just up from the tennis club while the brunette’s mother and sister had a house on Lovell overlooking the redwoods.
So here I was, casually working on my water color, pretending to be equally casual at hearing words like ‘matchbox.’
Implicit in the brunette’s story about her weekend adventure, was an attitude that drinking was a drag. This was very worrying for me as alcohol on the weekends had become an important social lubricant.
I would invariably spend Friday nights in the company of my brother Jim, our mutual friend Augie and a few others. Augie’s mother, Mary, always took off on the weekends to be with her rich boyfriend leaving him in charge of their apartment on Una Way.
Once a week, we would make the trip across the Golden Gate bridge into the city to visit one of several Chinese grocery stores in North Beach.
Although he was the youngest in our midst, Augie actually looked the oldest so it was he who would go in to buy the beer that we had all chipped in for.
This was always a fairly tense business for, if the person in the store was to ask for Augie’s ID that would be that. However more often than not he got away with it.
With the booze purchased and safely stashed in the trunk of his VW beetle, we were then set up for one more Friday night. The sessions usually began about seven. Several of us would sit, drink and play records which we’d sing along to at full tilt. The Beatles, Beach Boys, Animals and Stones would be accompanied by full throated, passionate vocal performances from each of us.
‘Cause you’ll never break, Never break,
This heart of stone, no, no, no,
This heart of stone.
In addition to the uninhibited singing, these sessions also provided a platform for pseudo sincerity, in which we would let our guard down and discuss what passed for real feelings about things.
By nine o’clock we were all stinko and ready to go to the dance for this was the fundamental motivation of the entire enterprise.
The venue was a movable feast, sometimes up at the Golf Club, Outdoor Art Club or maybe even down at the American Legion Hall on Miller Avenue.
The most important function of the inebriation was to break down one’s inhibitions about asking girls to dance. The fairy tale of success with the women did, on very few occasions, actually come true, but more often than not, you experienced failure with one or two young ladies and, with the inhibiting dawn of sobriety creeping up, you went, hands in pockets, to the gaggle of guys who congregated in the well lit hall just off the dance floor. Here, members of greaser royalty would hold court, regaling the less muscular with their tales of daring and heroism. So if you flunked out on the dance floor and didn’t get anywhere with the girls, you would spend the rest of the evening listening to these clowns and, gradually, sobering up.
The vital ingredient of this ritual was alcohol. It was the magic potion which gave you the courage to return to the dancefloor weekend after weekend and to hear it suggested that drinking was a drag threatened the very way of life I had come to embrace.
After all, I was now a senior. I had climbed the social ladder. I was a well known character on the campus and had managed to construct an illusion of being successful with women. This new turn of events threatened all that.
I could not, however, ignore this change in the cultural landscape. I needed to know more and managed to get myself an invitation up to the beautiful brunette’s place on one of those Friday nights while my brother and Augie were busy boozing.
I walked up from our house on Catalpa through the leafy back streets over to Miller then up to the bus depot. It was a beautiful evening with a clear sky and the walk up Throckmorton to Old Mill School was pleasant.
Her house stood just off the road on Lovell with an open garage space for two cars. It was a modern wooden structure with a huge deck and a glorious view.
She was there along with her equally beautiful sister and mother was nowhere to be seen. The two were entertaining this guy from Muir Beach who I had known from the number two bus.
When I was in grade school we had a choice of two yellow school buses. The number four came from Mountain Home which was within Mill Valley, but the number 2 came all the way from Muir Beach, a place I recall as dark and damp. The kids on the number two were unruly and seemed to smell a bit odd. Unlike Stinson Beach, which was all golden sand and swimming, Muir Beach was rocky with lots of sea anemones and slimy kelp. So I always preferred taking the number four bus.
But that was years before and now, here was this guy, no longer a smelly child on a school bus, but a six foot something young man with slightly long hair and a pork pie hat on his head.
Sitting on a stool in the kitchen of the two sisters, he was, a bit like the greasers at the dance hall, holding court. But the patter was totally different. He talked slowly and softly, punctuating his sentences with “man.”
“Oh man,” he purred, “We were in this supermarket, you know, looking for the peanut butter, man, and suddenly this guy I know from school comes up and, you know, says hello and we’re, like, trying to decide, do we get Skippy or the other brand, you know what I mean? So I tell him, look man, I’m sorry, but we’re a bit busy here and I start laughing because, like, we’re really stoned and this guy is straight as a cue ball.”
The two sisters were howling with laughter at this tale which continued for some time and must have rambled to a conclusion of sorts though many of his stories that evening didn’t seem to reach an ending at all.
There was no weed in evidence but they were all behaving as though under the influence, not that I had any previous experience. They seemed to speak more slowly with a smiling attentiveness.
At one point he asked if anyone had ever had a pork chop sandwich and when the answer was no, one sister went to the fridge, got out some pork chops and began frying. We ate pork chop sandwiches and they were celebrated as one of the great delicacies of all time.
There was music playing, just like at our drinking sessions but in addition to the Beatles and Stones, the girls played Bob Dylan’s albums. Definitely no Beach Boys. Augie and Jimmy would never have put up with that.
While preachers preach of evil fates,
Teachers teach that knowledge waits,
Can lead to hundred dollar plates,
As goodness hides behind its gates,
But even the president of the United States,
Sometimes must have to stand naked.
Lyrics like these were thought provoking and, though, weird, seemed to have truth about them.
One track by the Stones took on a new quality for me. Everybody Needs Somebody To Love from The Rolling Stones Now! album had an eerie, haunting sound to it. The falsetto voices echoing in the background sounded like ghosts and this made everything about the evening a little bit spookier.
As the tall young man talked and the girls laughed, I just listened, soaking it up. It reminded me slightly of Bela Lugosi in Dracula with the three beautiful vampire women. If they’d had a joint there to smoke I don’t think I’d have tried it as it was all a bit too new to me, but they didn’t, so I guess they presumed I was a ‘head,’ just like them. In addition to ‘head,’ they also used the word ‘paranoid’ quite a bit. All new lingo to me.
We went for a ride in the guy’s pickup and drove up to four corners in the bright moonlight. He headed down the winding road towards Muir Woods. He put the gear shift in neutral, turned off his engine and switched off the lights. We coasted around the bends in the road with no propulsion except gravity and no illumination except for the bright light of the moon. “Far out,” he cackled as the girls cried with laughter.
These are the only memories I have of that night but it was, for me, like seeing the cloaked figure in the crowd of Edgar Alan Poe’s Masque Of The Red Death, only the cloaked figure was this guy from Muir Beach and he was a warning of what was to come.