Nineteen sixty-eight was a tumultuous year, rife with wars, riots, and assassinations. For me, though, the upheaval was more personal than political.
Somewhere in the autumn of 1967 I’d decided to stop paying rent and instead invest my money in things like love beads and psychedelic drugs. By November, the first cruel winds of a Michigan winter were creeping under our door, and we’d pulled our mattresses into the kitchen, next to the stove, the only remaining heat source.
We’d never heard that this could result in fatal carbon monoxide poisoning, but even if we had, months of near-constant LSD tripping had convinced us we were immune to the conventional laws of nature. So the oven and the stovetop blazed away, turning the 20 or so square feet we inhabited into a sauna while a glass of water left in the bedroom or living room acquired a glaze of ice, and the windows frosted over in eerie, sinister patterns.
We marked the New Year by being evicted. Darrell, my erstwhile friend and roommate, took refuge with a neighbor girl he’d been flirting with. In theory, he and I were supposed to stick together through thick and thin, but that flowery dream, arrived at during a long-ago acid-fueled bonding session, wouldn’t survive December’s Arctic blasts.
“You should find some college chick to move in with,” Darrell told me before disappearing into the night. He was a legendary Lothario for whom this made an easy sense, but college girls had seldom shown much interest in talking to me, let alone inviting me into their homes. I tried pointing this out to Darrell, and we wound up quarreling loudly. My looming homelessness was compounded by the loss of my best friend.
I’d been homeless before – I’d met Darrell when he found me crashed out in the stairwell of his dorm – but living on the streets is different when the weather is warm and you’ve got a little money in your pocket.
“God takes care of drunkards and fools and little children,” my mother was fond of saying, “and sometimes I think you’re all three.” She had a point, because by dawn I’d found a place to stay and what looked like a new way of life.
A new level of chaos, more like. The apartment I moved into was initially occupied by two college students, but devolved into an informal commune of approximately 34 deranged hippies. Locals called it Insanity House; years would pass before I realized they hadn’t meant it as a compliment.
I may not have been the brains of the operation – to be honest, I don’t think there were any – but I was definitely the mouth. I sounded off to anyone who would listen about how our perennially stoned band of dysfunctional idiots was going to overthrow the government and establish a new world order. It didn’t take long to attract the attention of the authorities.
By February I was in big trouble, the kind of trouble that required me to choose between prison or beating it out of town in a hurry. “Going underground” sounded exciting, and was, though not always in enjoyable ways. Among the lowlights were hiding out in a children’s backyard tree house and waking up covered in ice and snow, getting my head smashed in by a mugger’s pistol, and shunting between junkie pads and abandoned buildings on the Lower East Side.
Equipped with a fake ID and social security number, I could have earned some money, but my allergy to work left me broke most of the time. Tossed-out day-old baked goods furnished the bulk of my diet.
The unglamorous life of a fugitive was made bearable by my certainty that within a few months – a year or two at most – the revolution would be here and/or civilization itself would collapse. Arrest warrants from a bygone era would cease to be relevant.
In June I got a letter from Darrell. Apparently he’d decided we were friends again. “I’m in San Francisco!” he gushed. “I’ve got a girlfriend with her own apartment and a job. And I’m managing a band! You should come live with us!”
Life in New York was hard, and showed few signs of improving. I cashed in all my worldly goods and the 22 bucks I came up got me to the West Coast with six dollars left over.
Darrell’s rosy description had been somewhat misleading. “San Francisco” turned out to be Oakland, and the apartment a one-room studio. He hadn’t bothered telling his girlfriend that I’d be moving in with them and that she’d be supporting two deadbeats instead of one. The band he’d been “managing” fired him from his non-paying job after he sent them on a 450-mile round trip to San Luis Obispo for a gig that didn’t exist.
Within a week I was homeless again. “Either he goes or you both go,” said Darrell’s girlfriend. Somehow I wound up crashing with the band who’d given Darrell the boot.
They were an easygoing lot, except for their singer, a Frank Zappa look- and sound-alike who loathed the sight and sound of me. Avoiding him as much as possible, I used an Indian print sheet to subdivide an already occupied utility room, and promised to pay my share – $14.28 a month – of the rent. The rest of the band outvoted the singer, and I was allowed to stay.
That was my introduction to California. All these years later that summer remains a golden, tranquil interlude that felt like it could and should last forever. My fears and troubles fell away, and even if the revolution hadn’t arrived in the rest of the country, in Berkeley it was easy to imagine we were already living in post-revolutionary times. During one of the outbursts of rioting that periodically erupted on Telegraph Avenue, I looked up to see an American flag fluttering above the tear gas. “What’s that’s doing here?” I wondered.
Months passed as if they were a single day and night, but in late August, I sensed a change. Magical things still happened, like the time I was walking up Blake Street inexplicably replaying the “I wish I had a watermelon” scene from The Little Rascals. I rounded the corner and in front of me was a pickup truck full of watermelons. A man sitting on the tailgate said, “Hey boy, you want a watermelon?” and tossed me one.
But a rift was emerging in the space-time continuum. Friends arrived from back east, one of them the guy whose identity I’d been using since I went on the lam. Having two of us with the same name had seemed manageable when we were on opposite sides of the country, but not so much now that we were in the same town. He brought news, too, of the life and people I’d left behind, a world that until now I’d never expected to return to.
Through clouds of pot smoke we watched the Democratic convention and riots on our ancient black and white television. Remote and far away as it felt, we knew people who were there, and maybe felt a little guilty that we weren’t.
Someone brought over the new Doors record. Their bombastic style and apocalyptic lyrics have earned the Doors quite a bit of abuse, but in 1968 they were still a big deal. Among the standouts on a hit-and-miss album was a plangent lament called “Summer’s Almost Gone.”
I was 20, still smarting from the indignity of no longer being a teenager, and hardly ready to grapple with mortality, my own or that of the passing seasons. Yet while a California summer typically lingers on well into September or October, I knew my long, languid nap in the sun was winding down.
The revolution wasn’t coming after all, a jail cell still waited with my name on it, the parents and family I’d all but forgotten came looming back to life. Living permanently underground no longer seemed like a realistic prospect. No matter how long I postponed it, I’d eventually have to say goodbye to Berkeley and sort out my legal troubles back east.
Life would never be that raw and real again. On the bright side, I’ve managed (knock on wood) to stay out of jail ever since. And while autumn is a lovely time of year, drenched in evanescent beauty, I’m not one of those people who exult in summer’s passing.
They eagerly anticipate corn mazes, haunted houses, and pumpkin spice lattes, forgetting that those are mere decorations in winter’s waiting room. “If it’s so great that the year is passing and dying,” I ask, “ why aren’t you overjoyed at the prospect of white hair and wrinkles?”
Ironic, then, that I’ve spent one of these fast-fading last days of summer indoors writing this mournful contemplation. It’s been a bit bleak outside, with deeply glowering skies, but just now the sun has broken through and set buildings across the borough gleaming as if from within.
If I move fast, I might make it out of the house in time for a stroll down by the river while the breeze is still soft and warm. If you’re free to do so, you might want to join me. Don’t wait too long, though. Jim Morrison and I join forces to remind you: the winter’s coming on.