The Boys From El Cerrity
by Jake Rohrer, January 2, 2014
“Ala ka-zip, ka-zip, ka-zam
Horse's ass, cow's titty
We're the boys from El Cerrity!
— a party chant adopted by the boys, defining turf and maturity
High school hit me right between the eyes. Where does a freshman fit in? At the bottom of the ladder, of course. Within a student body of well over a thousand individuals, I ran smack into a social class mentality that seemed to pervade the entire experience, the elite spending their time looking down their noses at those beneath them, each class assuming a position of authority over the underclasses. The pinnacle of the social register was represented by the fraternities and sororities, membership in which would allow you, too, to look down your nose at those less than you. As a freshman, I was acutely aware of my lowly status, often reminded of it by those not so loftily positioned within their own class but taking opportunity to assert themselves at the expense of the underclasses.
Of course that’s how a pecking order works: downhill. The poor freshmen had no one beneath themselves upon whose shoes they could piss. Membership in the fraternities was reserved for the social elite: the best athletes, the cheerleaders, the coolest cats, musicians, social and class leaders, the wealthy and best-dressed, etc. Underclassmen need not apply. It didn't take long for this reality to sink in and anger many. Faced with exclusion, at least until we would be upperclassmen, we did what a lot of teens did at 14, we rebelled against the machinery that dictated that life in 1957 white America would be thus. The great rock & roll music of the era, an explosive expression of rebellion against convention, fueled our hard-headed determination to be other than what had been laid out for us.
Propelled by ignorance and raging hormones, along with a persnickety attitude, the boys and I would choose our own path. Lack of a driver's license was accompanied by pimples and an uncomprehending mind-set. We were just learning how to think and having a hard time with it, empty-headed and unclear on many concepts. Anything forbidden had to be tried, at least once. A joy ride in a stolen car provided new thrills, ignorant of how close we came to carnage and jail. We learned most things the hard way, finding that the cheap, sweet fortified wines could make you engagingly stupid and engrossingly sick.
Drinking bouts sometimes took place after hours in the local cemetery, where we'd meet to start the evening. A bus ride into the bowels of Oakland's sordid downtown nightlife could provide a drunk or a predatory homosexual to buy us some more wine. A sleazy live burlesque show invited our attendance in a tattered and raggedy theater, unconcerned about our age. If you had five dollars to spend, a new tattoo was available from 'Frisco Bob on 7th Street. If you didn't have five dollars, two dollars would get your name tattooed across your arm somewhere, in case you forget how to spell it. It was rumored that 'Frisco Bob had a “B” tattooed on each cheek of his ass, and when he'd drop pants and bend over, it spelled “BoB.” The walls of his dingy little shop were covered with the in-vogue tattoo designs of the day: daggers, panthers, dragons, skulls, roses, hearts, buxom women, cartoon characters, scrolls with “Mom” in them, and so forth, an art form all its own. I had a cartoon kitty wearing a sailor's hat tattooed on my shoulder (where it was easy to hide), chosen because I'd heard one of the older, cooler guys with the same tattoo talk about how it got him laid. The women loved it, he said. I guess I never showed mine to the right girl.
* * *
Word once got around that “Wild Bill,” a homosexual bus driver who lived in Oakland, welcomed all the boys to his apartment on 17th Street, where he would provide all the wine we could drink. “All you gotta do is show him your dick,” said one of the boys who'd been there before. “He's harmless.” I wasn't concerned about him doing us harm but not so sure I liked the idea of putting my private self on display for him. Nonetheless, there I was among half a dozen of the boys, having a laugh, and putting down glass after glass of Thunderbird wine.
Before the question of showing him my pecker ever had opportunity to present itself, the room had started to spin, and I knew there was about to be a great exodus from my stomach, the contents in full retreat up the path it had come down. I barely made it to the toilet where it all gushed out in a horrible, stinking discharge of undigested hooey and grist. My head hurt something terrible, and the taste in my mouth was unspeakably foul and bitter. Still, the room wouldn't stop spinning. I made it to one of the twin beds in a section of the apartment that could be closed off from the main room. Gratefully, I went into an alcohol-induced slumber, consciousness leaving for parts unknown.
Maybe an hour had passed when I awoke to the sound of Will Bill's voice coming from the other room, “…where's that big boy from Arkansas? Come along with me, boy.” He led the big boy into the room where I lay and to the twin bed just across from me, where the two participated in what appeared to be a consensual buggery, the big boy at the helm. It wasn't hard for me to feign my unconscious state, keeping my eyes mostly closed to the goings on, doing my best to ignore the grunts and groans coming from the participants.
I guess Will Bill picked the right guy. It was said that the big boy would fuck a wood pile if he thought there was a rabbit in it. Balls (Sheldon) and the Jayhawk (Mike Lasher) once caught him masturbating to pictures in a magazine in the restroom of a dental office waiting lobby. The sight of bare-breasted African women in the National Geographic he had picked up sent him into a state of arousal. Just how he could become aroused by the backside of this short, middle-aged, bald and chubby bus driver was beyond my imagining.
The evening at Wild Bill's ended without further fanfare and we caught a bus back to El Cerrito. My head was still pounding, my spirit hollow, my eyes glazed and largely oblivious to the panorama of San Pablo Avenue scrolling by outside the windows of the bus, the entire way wanting to throw myself into the San Francisco Bay to somehow cleanse myself of the rank disgust that had welled up inside of me.
* * *
North of the Bay Area, almost to Napa, was a venue called the “Dream Bowl,” an outsized honky-tonk in the middle of a pasture, with sawdust on the floor and through which passed some of the great performers of the day. The boys and I would attend various shows, usually with my sister and her friends, all a few years older than us, who would do the driving. One night at the Dream Bowl we saw the great and sometimes crazed Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps. Gene was performing with a plaster cast on one leg, all the way up to his crotch, rigid and kicked out to one side while he held onto the mic stand, growling out his songs with authority and his trademark reckless abandon. According to his drummer, who was accessible and friendly during a break, Gene had broken his leg playing chicken with a freight train on his motorcycle. He wasn't what our parents would consider an exemplary model for the youth of the day, but we loved his music and searched for the dirty words hidden in his lyrics, imagined or real. We thought that Woman Love, the B-side of Be-Bop-A-Lula, contained some especially naughty reference. Some of the fun provided by rock and roll was trying to figure out what the singer had sung.
Other luminaries who passed through the Dream Bowl in those years included Fats Domino, Brenda Lee and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was there that I also learned that sloe gin could be every bit as ruinous as the cheap, fortified wines. Though I escaped the worst of the ravages experienced with Thunderbird wine, never again did those particular beverages find their way past my lips. Funny how we remember the awfulness of something as it comes back up, so much different than on the way down.
Another Dream Bowl night, alcohol clouding what limited judgment I then possessed, I was goaded into a senseless parking lot fight against an adversary chosen by my sister's older friends. I managed to acquire a black-eye and multiple abrasions and bruises from rolling around on the gravel, bitten, punched and scratched by my scrappy opponent. It was hard to tell who looked worse when we were done. Street fighting immediately lost any appeal it may have previously had. A few “older” women, maybe in their late teens, took an interest in me after the fight, doctoring my wounds and vaunting my prowess as a parking lot fighter. Then we danced the two-step on that sawdust floor, the girls passing me around like a reefer. Following the parking lot experience, I pictured myself a lover, not a fighter.
* * *
My years as an underclassman couldn't pass soon enough, but I somehow managed to survive them. By the time I got my driver's license, near the end of my sophomore year, I had assumed a new maturity. I had a serious girl friend with whom I spent most of my free time, a lot of that at the drive-in theater where a first-run movie itself was the secondary feature. Alcohol had ceased to be a main attraction, replaced by the sweet and intoxicating charms of the fairer sex. I had my own car and access to many. Gas was only 30 cents a gallon, but I had to buy my own and I worked a steady schedule, after school and Saturdays, in the service department at dad's auto business.
Sometime during that year, some of the boys and I hooked up with members of a renegade fraternity from neighboring Berkeley High School. They were called “Saxons” and had been expelled as a fraternity from that school for reasons now lost in the mists of the years. The invitation to join their fraternity where we could have our own jackets, pins, secret codes and other such exclusive accessories, had a strong appeal, even though we knew we would be outcasts at our own school. Mingling student bodies within a fraternity was a brand new idea. As far as we were concerned, we had already been cast out. None of us fit existing social requirements for invitation to join the sanctioned fraternities at our school. We would sanction ourselves. The further thumbing of our noses at existing social conventions seemed an okay idea. Why not a fraternity for misfits and the socially challenged?
At first we had to take the expected crap from those who felt threatened by our boldness. We had shat upon their exclusivity, essentially serving notice that, not only do we not need you, our preference is otherwise. That may have sounded high-minded at the time, but the Saxons would thrive in their new incarnation, eventually becoming entirely an El Cerrito social body, creating our own exclusivity and morphing into something very close to what we sought to overcome in the first place. We nonetheless managed to retain a renegade soul and a sovereign attitude. By the time my junior and senior years arrived, all the social exclusivity that had once made me feel an outsider seemed to melt away. I was now a part of the whole, among my peers, and gaining respect from the upper class. Having been looked down upon quite enough, most of us were void of any need to look down on anyone else.
As graduation neared, the Saxons had gone from renegade misfits to accepted social reality. We joined with the other fraternities and, together with the campus sororities, held a gala graduation party hosted at my parent's home in Kensington. We devised a semi-Hawaiian theme with lots of bamboo, paper lanterns and floral decorations. As an exotic touch, we ordered orchids for all the ladies. A 3-tiered fountain provided punch spiked with many half-gallons of vodka, all gone in surprising short order. Music was provided by the Blue Velvets, who in coming years would become the mighty Creedence Clearwater Revival with an enormous audience spanning the entire globe. My parents were very cool about not being visible that night. I remember mom, always a music lover, strolling in at the end of the evening and asking John (Fogerty), then a high school sophomore, if he might play a song for her. John played her a jazzy solo guitar version of Up a Lazy River, a hit song from her generation. Like most who would aspire to greatness in the music world, John's musical sophistication and special talents were apparent early on.
The Blue Velvets
My date that night was my wife-soon-to-be, Jeanne, together with our unborn son, conceived one night in the generous front seat of my '59 Chevy Impala. I was all of 17 and ready to take on the world, much of my confidence flowing from my father. I was always trying to grow up too fast, thinking it cool to pass for 21 at the local bars, ready for marriage and fatherhood without much thought to the realities and responsibilities that came with them. I was ruled by the three bad kings: Smoking, Drinking and Fucking. The benevolent king, Thinking, would be kept in the dungeon for some years yet to come. I was comfortable with the idea of marriage and very fond of Jeanne. This child was our responsibility and we would accept it head-on. A sobering moment came when my former “serious” girlfriend arrived on the arm of the fellow who followed me as president of the Saxons. The Saxon mantle was now his, but it hit me right in the gut that I wasn't ready to relinquish the other, an impossible longing that stabbed at me deep inside, confidence turning to helplessness. It would pass.
* * *
Until I attended college classes the following year, I was a crappy student, barely getting by and thinking that homework was unfair and meant for somebody else, not me. I managed to learn proficiency at the typewriter, a skill that has always served me well. I excelled only at physical education and metal shop, where the instructor, Dick Grimm, took a shine to me and, in my senior year, installed me as the foreman in three of his classes. I essentially had my own way, working on projects of my choosing and doing as I pleased. I was also his “ringer” and played center field for the short-handed faculty baseball team, which he managed. All I had to do was pass the civics class in order to graduate, which I somehow managed to do. Baseball and football had been a part of my curriculum in my freshman and sophomore years, abandoned when interest in cars and women came along, bringing with them a need to earn money rather than practice after-school sports.
Neighboring the metal shop was the wood shop. The instructor was “Duke,” a man of large proportions with a dour expression and a craggy face, lined as though with a chisel. If he ever smiled, I missed it. He often walked around looking as though he might be in a trance, like maybe he was getting in character for a role in a zombie movie. I would have entertained the idea of a wood shop class, but the thought of Duke as instructor was unappealing. One afternoon Sheldon (aka “Balls”) was in a back corner of the shop supply room, kneeling at a drum of machine oil while filling a container from the spigot for the metal shop. Duke walked in and, looking around, missed the fact that Sheldon was there—whereupon he lifted the lid on a barrel of glue, stuck his head all the way in and helped himself to the intoxicating fumes with a mighty inhale. Hah! So it wasn't a zombie movie after all. Then he spied Sheldon and gave him a look that said breathe a word of this to anyone and you'll curse the day you set foot on this campus. Sheldon returned to the metal shop, trembling a little from the arrant weirdness of the encounter. It was a few days before he told the boys about it. Duke was likely a full-on “glue-head” with a free and generous supply of his chosen elixir.
* * *
My younger brother, Robbin (aka “Louie Young-Kid”), was in the graduating class following mine, and having the same hard time we all did coming of age. Whether from a diving board or just plain raising hell, always seemed to create a bigger splash than most, maybe so he wouldn't be lost in the wake of another. He was one wild kid, a streak of mean kept in check by a kind heart. The moment he got his driver's license, he found a black 1938 Pontiac 4-door cruiser and made it into his own police prowler. The doors were painted white and included a badge-like star on each side under a printed legend that read, “Lou's Paddy Wagon.” He and his pals would cruise around like Chicago mobsters disguised as the police, creating mild mayhem and teen hijinks wherever they went. Ralph Jensen, Albany's Chief of Police and a good friend of our father's, wasn't amused, especially when the paddy wagon was parked near the police station, located across the street from dad's business, Howard's Motor Sales. He made a special plea to dad, asking at least that it not be parked around the station.
On the heels of the paddy wagon, Robbin acquired a '32 Ford roadster street-rod. Cruising home one night, slightly drunk, he managed to run into a stone-pillar street marker in north Berkeley and was arrested. When dad went to claim him at the Berkeley police station, the cop told dad, “…in addition to his underage drinking, Mr. Rohrer, your son has referred to me as an 'asshole'.” Dad, perhaps mockingly stern, turned to Robbin and said, “Bobby! (his birth name). Did you call this officer an asshole? Why did you do that?” To which Robbin replied, “…because, dad, he's the biggest asshole I've ever met!” Robbin had (still does) our father's knack of seeing opportunity and making a dollar. I once got a quarter in my lunch change at school, a shiny silver coin dated 1919. I showed it to Robbin, then an astute coin collector, who inspected the coin and said, “…I'll give you ten bucks for it.” I just made $9.75! It wasn't long before he sold the coin for $125. When the boys discovered how to make home-made beer, Robbin brewed a batch and sold some to a neighborhood kid. The kid got drunk and proceeded to commit destructive vandalism at the local school, breaking windows and setting off fire alarms. “Where'd you get the beer, kid?” asked the cops. “Bob Rohrer sold it to me,” said the kid. I still remember mom's distress when they came and hauled him off to juvenile hall, a 14 year old bootlegger.
In later years we became addicted to the dollars available in the cocaine trade. They came easy until we discovered we were addicted to the drug, too — subject to all the bad shit that came with it.