A 70′s Story of a House: Radical Roomers
by Penny Skillman, November 3, 2010
The Chicago Eight
In 1970 editor Dwight Macdonald in Tales of Hoffman referred to the 1969 trial of the Chicago Eight as "the most significant kulturekampf of our time." The Tales book was essentially a copy of the trial transcript. The defendants in the trial included Abbie Hoffman, David Dellinger, Bobby Seale and Jerry Rubin, all accused by the US government of going to Chicago in August 1968 to the Democratic National Convention with the intent of causing a riot. In the course of the trial Assistant US Attorney Richard G. Schultz cross-examined a witness for the defense, Linda Morse, who had been the office manager for the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade committee. Schultz asked her, "And the more you realize our system is sick, the more you want to tear it from limb to limb, isn't that right?"
Morse answered, "The more that I see the horrors that are perpetrated by this government … the more that I see things like the oil fields in the ocean off Santa Barbara coast where the Secretary of the Interior and the oil companies got together and agreed to continue producing oil from those offshore fields and ruined a section of the Coast; the more that I see a system that teaches middle-class whites like me that we are supposed to be technological brains to continue CBW warfare, to continue working on computers and things like that to learn how to kill people better, to learn how to control people better, yes, the more I want to see that system torn down and replaced by a totally different one; one that cares about people living adult lives that are responsible, fulfilled adult lives, not just drudgery, day after day going to a job, one that gives people a chance to express themselves artistically and politically and religiously and philosophically. That is the kind of system I want to see instead."
In the 70s I rented out rooms in a house of San Francisco's Bernal Hill, and when I recently came across a paperback, Tales of Hoffman, I was reading for the first time the foregoing quote of Linda Morse, and realizing that she had rented for me shortly after that 1969-1970 trial. She and others lived on the second floor in the house on upper Fulton Street which back then was a neighborhood for working-class San Franciscans, not the enclave of the upper middle-class it later morphed into. Linda was a slim, intelligent, attractive blonde who said she was pursuing a premed curriculum, and it wasn't until decades after when I chanced to see a reenactment of the Chicago Eight trial on TV that I realized she had been an important antiwar activist, or, for that matter, even a participant in the Chicago trial. She didn't mention she had lived in a Berkeley commune and was a political activist, but in those days that was equivalent to saying nowadays you are into micro-lending or documentary filmmaking. I paid most attention to talk of her plan to complete premed studies which meant she'd be a reasonably responsible tenant with a focus, a good renter.
In any case, I was interviewing her sitting in a Chinese red and lime green kitchen furnished with an authentic picnic table with six-foot benches and funky collages on the wall and refrigerator door, showing her a bathroom upstairs papered with flattened Anchor Steam beer sixpack cartons, the bathroom at the end of the hallway painted dark plum down to the bottom of the stairs near the Folsom Street door. The common room next to the kitchen had a patched together crazyquilt carpet of green, tan and pink, and no furniture. The refrigerator collage was of old American working class photos, one I recall had a photo of a grocery store with an ad in the window for 43¢ a dozen eggs. Prospective rumors were not likely to rent if "proper" furnishings were important to them. I do remember that Linda Morse had a cat, Samantha, and a day or two after she moved in I came home to find that she had taken the kitchen back door off its hinges, put it on the picnic table and was cutting a cat door in the bottom of it with a power saw.
At that time, the early 70s, I was trying to put together a manuscript of interviews of women who had been rape victims, as an editor, and only later in the decade when I begin to write for alternative papers like the Berkeley Barb and much later go on to review books for the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications, write a book and do op-ed pieces for the San Francisco Examiner. Back then none of us really had a handle yet on the pursuits that would later on own us. One renter, Pam, a dedicated gardener, would go on to author books on gardening in the Bay Area and still later write a gardening column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Another of the tenants, John Ross, would become a journalist for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and other publications, specializing in Mexico, and go on to publish ten books, the latest published this year, El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City. It was deemed "gritty and pulsating" by the New York Post. Perhaps more impressively, Green Apple Bookstore in San Francisco chose it as their book of the month when it came out around the beginning of the year. When exercising on the treadmill at the gym this month I came upon a Time magazine quote by John Ross on the occasion of Mexico's 200 years of independence from Spain and it showed good insight into modern dilemma social phenomena: "Revolutionaries in their armchairs complained that revolutions must have ideologies and display class allegiances: this narco-insurrection seems to be all about barbaric killing and taking power, not the liberation of the working class. Yet, given a globalized world in which the market seems to be all, a narco-insurgency may be the best revolution this lacerated nation is going to get." This must be a sobering insight for a once-60s-influenced radical to entertain, I thought, when I came across it, since there is no space for hope or optimism in the equations of narco-insurgency. Whatever else a great lot of money confirms, it does not enhance common sense nor elevate disinterested compassion. But when I read this quote I realized there had been high ambition lying underneath the surface of the "radical" roomers I had rented to.
My original co-renter of the house, Jim, became a well-paid computer programmer after he moved out and Mike Shannon who had done political documentaries of the left kind and video special effects now has a DVD out for tourists about radical events in the Bay Area and does video art. The later purchased a lot in the Bayview and built a house by himself, starting the foundation digging with a shovel. Some of the house's inhabitants were short-term visitors, out of a place to live temporarily. One, a now and again guest at Folsom Street, was Rebecca Rees, who published a book on building community for people with terminal illnesses titled The Gil Lopez Buddy Network. Visitors included the artist Frank Holmes and Harriet Farraguto, who lived on the east side of the Bernal Hill. She shows and sells her paintings these days in a North Beach gallery, Live Worms, and he's done the cover of the Beach Boys Smile album and has a bluegrass band. Jenny Ferris, a jazz vocalist who appeared with the Bryce Rhode Trio and later wrote words for the jazz classic, "Good Bait," was another frequent visitor along with doctors, artists, poets, attorneys, bar buddies on a one night stand, and various day trippers looking for leafy enlightenment. Back then we co-renters had no really well-defined idea of ourselves as artists, the exception being journalist John Ross who, I remember, when upon meeting I asked what he did for a living, answered, "I'm a writer." Even if he didn't make a living from it then, he knew he did that to the exclusion of other things. We were simply attuned to a liberal art oriented viewpoint of life and wanted to pursue that with a minimum of fuss. And that may have been our innovation, a viable living mode of four or five independent inhabitants in one rented space.
The house was well-run, a utilitarian set up, rent cheap enough that we had money left over, including for occasional, mostly spontaneous get-togethers. We generally led separate social lives and kept our own counsel and had no -- and for the most part never needed any -- written rules. And it worked. We stayed busy, but cleaned up after we used the kitchen or bathroom and put out the garbage according to who was around at the time. Whatever worked.
The kitchen was our meeting room if we wanted company or food and it may be for this reason culinary preferences stuck in my mind. John Ross could be found there eating his daily can of menudo which he ate with a tortilla; Linda Morse often had a can of Campbell's tomato soup with Triscuits, I did fast and easy cheese or tuna sandwiches, and Mike Shannon would bring down a small TV, put it on the picnic table, and wok-steam vegetables in the company of his artist girlfriend Donna. I don't remember Jim ever using the kitchen for cooking. The future garden columnist was the only serious cook I can remember passing through that house and I remember she started from scratch often, leaving a trail of white flour in the kitchen. (I had hope by now that we were all doing organic sprouts, salads, beans and multigrain organics.)
Our recreation at the house was provided by our friends and us sitting around the picnic table talking -- although I remember Mike Shannon at least once showing a film when he lived there -- sometimes mellowing with various things like beer, brandy, marijuana, or mushrooms. The view out the kitchen window of the top of Mount Diablo was a pleasing backdrop, a lovely view, yet not so great it would be considered luxurious. We sometimes listened to vinyl records of readings like Richard Brautigan doing The Confederate General at Big Sur, or Gerald M. Hopkins' poetry, or the music of Pharaoh Sanders, Billy, John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye, Carol King, Otis Redding, Sandy Bull, Janis Joplin, the Chambers Brothers, Dave Mason, and some of those rare Warner Bros. records of the blues.
We lived a non-communal existence, one that afforded independence with privacy yet not isolation, workable, inexpensive, low-tech, with no house TV or toaster or waffle maker or coffee percolator or can opener on the wall -- and low stress. Simple, responsible, but not rigid. No one was assigned chores or days in which to do anything or meals to cook or times to eat or communal meals for that matter, as was the common custom for living groups in those days. We were equal access roomers bent on maximizing time and energy to focus on our individual pursuits. Eventually of course we all moved on into couplings or marriage or to other cities for the sake of jobs.
Were we anarchists, radicals, or communalists? Not in our own eyes. In pursuing our day jobs and art we had simply forged a living arrangement that fostered social intelligence, openness to experience, tolerance, community, and at the same time self-reliance, and financial responsibility: altogether positive results of our lifestyle.
What we writers, activists and artists had in common, I think, was that none of us liked taking orders from authority figures we couldn't respect. Yet we all turned out to be meritocratic Americans, maybe even patriotic, and hard workers at our chosen tasks, despite having once been considered radical, or non-mainstream. I would speculate that the world has changed more to our once atypical viewpoints than have we ex-co-roomers changed to adopt mainstream thought or ideologies. Just the passage of time makes what was once "radical" perfectly mainstream. But time can haul in the idealism of youth, often referred to as radicalism. I rarely voted back then and I don't remember any of the other roomers in that Folsom Street house ever discussing voting as a personal act.
So I will reveal that I just voted a straight Democratic ticket in this year's election. With an exception.