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Awakenings Abounding – Part 1

September 10, 2012

Over the summer between my freshman and sophomore year at San Jose State, three of us Almaden “hayseeds” rented a very spartan one bedroom apartment on Ninth Street, near Reed, in San Jose, only a few blocks from the campus proper. At the corner of Tenth and Williams, about a block from our apartment, was a gas station, a “Ma and Pa” sort of grocery and a more modern big plate glass storefront that was home to the local pizza place, the “Pizza Haven,” or the P.H. as we came to call it. The year was 1967 and we hovering right around 19 years of age. While the Haight-Ashbury scene was near its peak and had begun thriving, the older, more sedate, black-clad beat generation was still a well entrenched counter culture element not unknown to this campus community.
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The manager of the P.H., some of his staff and a lot of his friends were big time, dyed in the wool beats. These beat people thought of us hips as a passing fancy, frivolous and flighty light weights of the moment. While maybe we were light weights, I think it is safe to say we lasted a good deal longer than those beats expected. But those beats were definitely heavy weights in their black turtlenecks and closely cropped beards. While we did marijuana and hallucinogens, they did smack (heroine) and barbiturates (very heavy downers).
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I came to notice something I could never figure out, which was that so many, many of the beats were from big, east coast cities, with their harsh accents and gnarly brows and thin lips and very white complexions. When they spoke of their home towns like Boston or New York or “Philly,” it always gave you the impression that these old cities never saw blue skies or real sunlight, only the street light incandescence or what dribbled out of half hidden basement windows. Such a specter gave me the creeps and absolutely no desire to venture east of the Sierra Nevada. I came to have the view that we hips were superior, intellectual and visionary extensions of the classic California surfer bums. Clean, empty beaches and pristine mountain redwood groves were our environment, bathed in golden sunlight and free spirited karma, that’s what we born of, or so I thought for awhile.
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One night a couple of us hip youngsters were quietly sipping our beer in the P.H. when one of the manager’s friends sidled in the front door, with very suspicious sidelong glances and a very grim demeanor pasted across his face. Everyone noticed and the place became instantly silent. Some of the cooks took notice and left their stations, a couple of the waitresses dropped their order pads and they all clustered together, whispering and murmuring among themselves, glancing over their shoulders with much paranoia and subdued panic. Within seconds, the guy who had just come in, left the place at a dead run. The cooks and waitresses made for all the big, plate glass windows and hurriedly dropped the long, skinny venetian blinds. The manager shut all but essential lights. All of the patrons hunkered down in their booths, all with wide, inquisitive eyes, no one knew what any of this was about.
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The guy who brought this bad news reappeared at the glass front door and pushed it open with his shoulder, his arms supporting the weight of a black haired woman dressed in nothing but black. Another guy came though the door supporting the older girl’s other shoulder and arm. The woman made no effort to support herself. She was like a rag doll, even in the thin light, she was deep gray in the face and hands. The manager flung his arms across the biggest table in the place, clearing it of silverware, glasses, salt and pepper, and people. They put the gray woman on the table and one of the older guys who recently got out of the Marines pulled her head back and tried giving her this new technique called “CPR” or, as we called it, mouth to mouth resuscitation. No one in the room even blinked. It was all clear now, she OD’ed (overdosed). The woman’s arms were hanging off the table, elbows down, palms up. She was breathing ever so shallow and all eyes were on her chest. No one moved, everyone hoping for one more breath just after the last. One more, please, one more, then another, please. Then, . . . there was not another, . . . and the rest of the room didn’t breath as well. What now?
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The manager, who had been kneeling next to her, slowly rose. He looked up, then around and as he jerked himself out of the moment, he yelled for all of us punks to clear out, for our own good, split now, RIGHT NOW! I’m sure he meant to use the phrase “young students” but “punk” is what came out. No one looked at their bills, no one bothered to chatter “see ya’ later” or calculate a tip, we all just filed out the door, shuffling out as silently and quickly as possible. As I left, I saw the waitresses break out in tears and I saw the older people who remained starting to wipe everything down with dry rags. Later, I found out, they were doing this to remove and smudge as many finger prints as possible.
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In these days there literally was no tolerance for drugs of any kind. Guys were getting a hundred years for just having a joint. Hard drugs were tolerated even less mildly. Beats were into hard drugs. Truly, this was sure to be treated as the most heinous crime scene possible. The whole neighborhood took on the pallor of mourning and paranoia.
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The college administration and the San Jose police organized a day full of dull and oft repeated anti drug propaganda that culminated in some highly technical drug movie to be shown in Morris Daily auditorium at the center of the campus. I avoided most of these activities but I was curious about this “factual” movie that was supposed to transcend the usual pedantic and overstated propaganda rhetoric. The movie was touted to be the definitive word on drug usage. When I arrived at the movie, the huge auditorium was filled to capacity and had it not been for some friends who were student government officials, I would have probably not gotten in.
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As expected, the movie was just a newer and slicker propaganda device but there was one part that really made me sit up and take notice. The woman who died at the Pizza Haven had overdosed on barbiturates, not your usual street drug. Barbs, as they were called, were more expensive, more exotic and much harder to come by than heroine, acid or grass (marijuana) and were very much stronger and more destructive. This cop provided movie had an entire section that showed images of very, very thin slices of the brains of drug user’s. The narrator in the movie would describe some irregularity in the slice they were showing and a floating pointer would make sure you were looking at the right thing that was not right. The irregularities were often hard to make out and were pretty subtle and boring. However, when they came upon a series of pictures of brains that had been strung out on barbiturates, it all changed. These brains clearly had something happening to them: they had black splotches in the middle of them.
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The narrator took a different tone with this set of images. He explained to the viewer that, unlike the other street drugs, the Barbs would not just affect the brain cells but would actually destroy them. The black splotches were pockets of dead brain cells floating around in your live and operating brain. They explained how the healthy brain tissue was firm and fleshy, about the consistency of the meat of a cantaloupe. The black, dead pockets were more like jelly. Hearing this description from the movie’s narrator made me stop and put a 3-D picture together in my imagination. I almost threw up and I really wanted to not refresh this image again, it got me feeling really, really creepy. While none of the other propaganda ever really made a connection with me, finally, they finally found my hot button. The thought of hauling around some gooey, snotty black jelly inside of me, especially in my brain, that really got me all weirded out, big time. As much as I tried, I couldn’t completely clear myself of that image, that feeling of avoidance and denial, absolute revulsion.
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I was never a doper and would never become one, but, congratulations propaganda writers, you get a huge A+ for “Mission Accomplished.“ Whether the images were real or contrived, if the narration was true or simply made-up rhetoric, you’d never get me near any of that stuff, no way, ever. Mando Yuck!!
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Just before school was to start, the Pizza Haven tried a new promotion; on Tuesday evenings they would give you an endless plate of spaghetti for 50 cents. To be sure, it was nothing fancy but the pasta was never hard nor overcooked, the marinara sauce was straight out of the big can and it wasn’t served on the big plates, but they stuck to their word, you got all you wanted.
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They tried it out on us local guys who remained in the neighborhood during the summer break so they would have the kinks worked out by the time school reopened in September. It was a smart move by the P.H. guys, for when school did start, Tuesdays nights had the students lined up around the building, eagerly waiting for their 50 cent spaghetti. Living not even a block away, our bunch of guys always made sure that someone got there early to save us a table (any table except for the one where the girl had died). Man, we’d camp out there for the whole night, usually until closing, crowded up with a few cute girls we’d meet during the earlier evening.
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One Tuesday, I was the early one, to save the table. I eat a lot for my size and even though I was early, I still had my first plate of pasta sitting in front of me on this table that could easily seat six people. The tables all around me were already filled and waiting line was already out the door. The warm fall sunlight was brightly flooding into the room almost making sunglasses a necessity, but stubbornly, I never wear sunglasses, nor hats. After about fifteen or twenty minutes of wallowing in the nearly white sunlight, I spied a solitary figure against the backdrop of the waiting line. I saw this figure through the bright glare gleeming from the polished table tops and the shiny floor, the solo figure was a glistening siloutte but really, it was sort of hard to make out. While none of the guys I grew up with were athletes, they all were hard working farm boys and we all had substantial shoulders, barrel chests and fairly tight waists. Even when we picked up a pencil, plenty of muscles rolled around under our brown skin. This figure lost in the glare had a bushy head of hair and a clean chin, but he stood there with shoulders drooping, a chest lost in a rumpled, green corduroy suit coat and his hips and legs were also lost in the green corduroy matching slacks. He looked to be a real wimp, and maybe even, a bit dull witted.
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His wire rimmed glasses were like from the cowboy days and the old, leather satchel he clutched with his right hand seemed to be of the same era. His eyes were soft but not effeminate, just confused and without direction. His brow only emphasized no direction. Like me, he had been raised in restaurants, I knew this as whenever the waitress offered him a large table for his 50 cent spaghetti, he would pass it on to the next group waiting in the line. He didn’t need the large table, he only needed a deuce, a small table for two. He didn’t want to screw the waitress out of bigger tip from the bigger group, rather than his solo self at an overly big table. I could see that he was a poor fellow and he grew up in restaurants, and he respected the restaurant livelihood, not a bad match. I offered the wimpy guy a seat at our table, telling him that I had friends coming, but he was welcome to join us. I had a feeling he might not fit in real well with our bunch, but he might be waiting all night to get a small table.
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This wimpy guy’s name was Chuck, and he was no wimp. He grew up in Daly City, San Francisco’s most immediately southern suburb. Though not a full year older than me, he was already a highly regarded jazz saxophonist in the younger circles of San Francisco’s North Beach jazz community and, also, in the emerging psychedelic rock bands of the Haight-Ashbury. Chuck is the guy who birthed me, screaming and kicking, into the 20th century art scene. My exclusively Russian and European 19th century literary expertise was soon to be torn wide open to a whole new world I’d never even heard of in the agricultural backwaters of Almaden. To some extent, Chuck was going to force me to become “urbane,” to become an artist of a broader knowledge and a more open perspective than I had ever been aware of. Urbane, something which I still try to hide and openly deny in the modern day.
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