1968 – Working on the Waterfront
1968 was a year of many parts for me. I had turned 21 while staying with friends in London on a trip which included hitch hiking around Europe and even finding myself in Paris during the student riots of that year. I was in the early stages of recovery from a nervous breakdown. A bad psychedelic experience in the summer of the previous year resulted in me being picked up by the Highway Patrol on the Tiburon bypass and incarcerated in Napa State Hospital for three weeks. This was followed by months of group therapy, heavy medication and an ultimate descent into deep depression. So, for me, not much about the following year, 1968, was very joyful. Certain things, however, were interesting.
For example I voted in my first presidential election. I could never have voted for either Richard Nixon or George Wallace so it was Hubert Humphrey, or ‘Hube the Cube’ as my sister Katie used to call him, who got my vote.
I was by this time working on the San Francisco waterfront as a ship’s clerk, a job I got through my father Blackie. I was saving my money to return to London which had a magnetic pull for me. Secretly I wanted to be a singer but I was so buried inside myself that I could only daydream about being on a stage in front of an audience. However, on my trip to London I had met a young American guitarist and vocalist with whom I struck up a song writing partnership. He was Marc Sullivan, the son of Elliott and Norma Sullivan. Elliott was a blacklisted American actor who was an old friend of my father’s. I had known that Marc had an experience similar to mine with LSD and this provided a bit of common ground. So the possibility of writing songs with Marc made a trip back to London something I had to do.
It was the dream of living in London which kept me going all those months I worked on the waterfront. Having a good paying job was therapeutic for me as I gradually came back from being very crazy indeed. The heavy medication which had slowly brought me down from my wild eyed state, kept me going down into the deepest and darkest psychological place I had ever been. The loud mouthed wise guy I had been as a teenager was locked away somewhere else and I found myself barely able to talk to people. Jimi Hendrix’s song I Don’t Live Today described perfectly the state I was in.
When I had returned from my European trip and was very jittery, I went to see Dr Weinberg who had run the day clinic I’d attended. “I can put you on the couch and charge you twenty five bucks an hour John,” he told me. “But I don’t think that’s what you need. What you need is a job.” He did, however, prescribe me some tranquillisers which calmed my frazzled nerves. I was living at my parents’ apartment on Russian Hill and that’s when I started working on the front again.
Most weekdays I’d get up early and make my way to the hiring hall near the Ferry Building. The place was packed with men smoking cigarettes. Though I smoked during this time I could never face a cigarette until after lunch so I found this fog of tobacco smoke disgusting. If the dispatcher called out my name, I’d go up and be told to report to a pier on the north or south side. The Ferry Building was the central point of the waterfront and all the piers to the north of it were odd numbers and those to the south even. I had cut my long hair short to please Blackie as there was a considerable prejudice against men with long hair on the front at this time.
The job involved doing the paper work of whatever transaction you were assigned to. One day a teamster arrived at pier 27 to collect forty sacks of coffee beans, so the head clerk handed me the relevant paper work, told me and the teamster where on the pier they were located and off we went. When I got there I found a team of longshoremen waiting by the sacks which were stacked on pallets. The teamster drove his truck down the pier to where the pallets were and the longshoremen hauled the sacks up onto his truck. Every stevedore carried a hook which was an essential tool for jobs like this. With the hook in one hand he would drive it into one side of the sack then grab the other side with his hand and swing the heavy load up onto the truck. Every movement of goods had to be checked off by a ship’s clerk. Sometimes I went down into the hold of a ship with a team of stevedores to load or unload cargo. If they were unloading, they would stack whatever it was onto a pallet which was then lifted out of the hold by the ship’s winch and over onto the dock. A waiting forklift truck would then drive it to a pre-determined location on the pier.
The world of the San Francisco waterfront in 1968 was a totally male environment. I don’t remember any women ever working on the Embarcadero except in bars and coffee shops. Today this is different as my nephew Matt Thornton and his wife Eileen are both ship’s clerks and belong to the ILWU. However all their work is over in the east bay as the piers on the Embarcadero are no longer in use.
One reality of an all-male environment was a lot of swearing and quite a few dirty jokes. The language of the longshoremen was always entertaining. I was down in the hold of a ship with a team unloading large boxes and when the pallet was full, one of the guys would holler up to the winch driver to lift it out. The guy operating the winch on this day was not experienced and he didn’t lift the pallet evenly. It swayed from side to side causing a few of the boxes to fall off. He had to lower it back down again so the team could re-stack the pallet. It was still swaying a bit but he managed to lift it out of the hold and get it down to the dock where a forklift truck removed it. The dockside team then slotted the winch’s two bars onto an empty pallet which the winch driver lifted up above the ship’s deck and over the hold but again it was swinging and banged against the side as he lowered it. The most senior of the three longshoremen shouted angrily up to the driver that he had to be more careful with the pallets or one of them could get hurt. I’m sure this guy tried to be more careful but as I recall the loads kept swinging from side to side. Eventually the head longshoreman was more amused than angry and shouted up to the winch driver: “Man, I’d hate to see you in bed with your old lady.” At this the other men fell about laughing.
I remember working with two longshoremen who were joshing each other as they hauled big sacks of cocoa beans. The first guy complained about something the other had done. “I can’t help it,” he replied. “I was born that way.” “You weren’t born,” said the first man. “Somebody turned over a rock and there you were.”
The waterfront was an exciting place to be. I remember walking down a long pier stacked high with goods on pallets when an earthquake struck. Suddenly these enormous stacks were swaying back and forth like long grass in a breeze. It only lasted a brief moment but a very long moment it was. That none of the loads came tumbling down was a miracle. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was participating in a way of life that would soon no longer exist. Containerisation is now the way that freight is moved across the world.
Because of my parents’ left wing politics, I expected the people who worked on the front to be of the same persuasion but that was not the case. Most of the men working on the front were very conservative politically. They supported their union, the ILWU and its president Harry Bridges, but that was because Harry and his officials were tough negotiators who got the longshore workers good wages and conditions. The war in Vietnam was raging at this time and most of the guys on the waterfront were all for it. They were also ferociously opposed to the student radicals in the Free Speech movement over at UC Berkeley. When Mario Savio, who had led the student rebellion at Berkeley. tried to work on the front as a ship’s clerk, he was hounded out.
I first worked on the waterfront in 1966 and one day I was assigned to pier 50 on the south side. There were only three of us on the pier that day: the head clerk, a man in his late fifties, another guy who was about thirty and myself who was nineteen. On the previous day, rioting had broken out in Hunters Point after a white police officer had shot dead a twelve year old boy who was black. I said something complaining about police brutality and racism. Both these men were instantly infuriated by my voicing such opinions and started shouting angrily at me. “When I was a kid,” bellowed the older man, “Our police officer would come down the street and if we couldn’t give him a good explanation of what we were doing he’d knock us to the ground.” The younger man ranted about law and order and it immediately became clear that I was not dealing with people steeped in the finer points of political debate. And as we were were the only three clerks working that day I was totally out-gunned. So I simply shut up and stopped talking. Interestingly these two guys became very friendly towards me as the day progressed. It was as though they had forgotten completely about our disagreement.
But by 1968 I was a different person altogether. My flipping out in the summer of ’67 and subsequent depression, meant that I had neither the will nor the confidence to speak my mind. It also meant that I was no longer able to participate in the dope smoking activities of my generation. Dr Weinberg had told me when I first met him that I would no longer be able to smoke marijuana. Naturally I didn’t believe him but it soon became clear that he was right as every time I got high I became paranoid.
One positive aspect of my condition was that it made me 4-F with the draft board. In June I went over to Oakland for my Army physical. There was only one person I knew from Tam High there and the poor fellow did not look at all happy about going into the Army. After the physical was over I went to a desk where a uniformed officer sat. I presented my papers. With his right hand he raised a rubber stamp up over his shoulder as he rapidily said: “Is there any reason why you cannot be inducted into the United States Army?” In this brief moment of time before his hand came down I scrambled quickly to produce the letter from Dr Weinberg. Like a cartoon character this guy morphed from a fairly neutral facial expression to one of granite faced displeasure as he read Dr Weinberg’s words. It was like watching his face melt into a frown. I was held over for 24 hours to have further examination the next day. I have no memory of that experience. The only thing I do remember was the Chronicle’s headline the next morning that Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated in Los Angeles.
While hitch hiking in Europe earlier that year it was on the rock of Gibralter that I learned of Martin Luther King’s assassination. One aspect of my mental condition was a kind of emotional detachment which meant that I didn’t react to either of these utterly shocking events as I would have done before my breakdown. I remember in 1966 my friend Gregg Parker talking about Bobby Kennedy as someone who was gravitating towards an anti Vietnam war position and that he felt he was smart enough to see that it would be a good platform on which to run for the presidency in 1968. Martin Luther King had made his opposition to the Vietnam war a regular feature of his civil rights struggle. So the violent deaths of both these men came at a time when I was emotionally numb.
My visit to the rock of Gibralter was in marked contrast to all the other places I’d been to in Spain. For starters I saw British bobbies patrolling and was also surprised to see wild monkeys roaming around the place. I purchased a Daily Mirror along with the first white chocolate bar I’d ever encountered. The paper’s headline informed me that Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis.
My hitch hiking trip had begun in Paris where I was staying with my friend Marc Sullivan who was living with his girl friend in an apartment on the Rue de la Harpe. Marc was working with a folk band called Les Troubadours. The flat was a transit hub for travelling folk musicians so a lot of hanging out happened there. In California most hippies smoked marijuana but over on this side of the world it was hashish and the way that joints were rolled was completely different. The imbiber would pull a few Rizla papers out of its packet and, licking them together, would make a much larger rolling surface. Then the tobacco from an ordinary cigarette would be crumbled onto the paper. Next they’d take the nugget of hash and pass it over a flame, then rub the bits onto the tobacco. With a tiny cardboard filter, they’d roll up this enormous joint. The downside of this process was having to inhale the tobacco smoke along with the hash. As I was now adhering to Dr Weinberg’s advice, I never indulged.
Marc had a motorbike and one day I rode on the back with him. This was during the student uprising and we soon found ourselves in a back street full of police vehicles. We both had long hair and looked like hippies so the police stopped us. At this time I didn’t speak a word of French so Marc did all the talking. He must have convinced them that we were not student radicals and they let us go on our way.
After about a week I’d had enough of hanging out and set off to hitch hike south. Hitch hiking back in the bay area had been a reliable means of transport for me throughout the 1960s and, in addition to getting where I wanted to go, it also offered the opportunity to meet people from very different walks of life. One time I got a lift from the city into Mill Valley with a nice guy who was a few years older than me and he was talking about hitch hiking around Europe. As we came down Waldo Grade he described it as the first time he had ever been all alone and that fact had brought him to tears. He was describing his loneliness as an important turning point in his life and it made an impression on me. So here I was in Paris with a map of youth hostels to stay in and I picked as my first destination Orléans because I loved the name.
To be continued: next time – the presidential election of 1968.