Deb’s Sunday Psychedelica (Chapter 5)
Written by Liam Sweeny on March 15, 2020
After having hitchhiked across the northern part of the United States, we were so relieved when we finally made it to California. For one thing, we were no longer standing outside in the bitter cold wind and snowstorms. As soon as we got out of the car in Sacramento, Paul took his heavy coat on then, 5 minutes later put it back on again. We hadn’t anticipated that the Northern California winter would be damp and dismal. But that was still okay with us, we felt as though we were finally home. Now we just had to make our way south to San Francisco where we could land for a little while until we figured out what to do next. It was early in the morning, and unbelievably, it took us all day to make it down the coast to the city. We waited for 5 hours in Oakland for a ride across the bay and finally arrived in the late afternoon.
Paul’s sister lived in an intentional community located on Howard Street in the warehouse district of San Francisco. We rang the doorbell and waited. We got a very gruff greeting and were left waiting on the street until his sister could be found. She finally came down and assured the door keeper that we were cool and could be let in. The security was very tight there because the police and FBI were always trying to gain access illicitly. When we walked in, our minds were blown and continued to be blown for days afterwards.
Project One was a six-story candy factory/warehouse that had been abandoned and taken over by a bunch of hippies. When they first acquired the building, there were no interior walls. The tenants rented square footage and built their own “space” within the larger building. There were communes within the commune, and we stayed in “The Estates” which was one of those. We were so thankful to be taken in by these eccentric people. A requirement for living there was that you had to be in the arts or technology in some way. This was where I first learned about alternative education at Symbas Alternative High School. Little did I know that this form of education would later on become an important facet of my life and work. There was also a very cool preschool run by Ray Patch, who was a large hairy hippie. I loved seeing him with his little charges.
The place was filled with radicals, and this was when my real education about alternative politics really began. We were there during the time that Patty Hearst was wanted. There were people in Project One who knew where she was hiding, which was very close to the police station. I guess it’s true that if you want to stay hidden, hide in plain sight. There were members of various radical groups trying to keep a low profile, which is why the security was so high. We were told, as soon as we arrived, that we were welcome to stay the night as visitors, but any longer-term stay had to be subject to a vote. There would be a voluntary meeting at which people would vote on whether to allow us to stay or not. We had already been accepted into The Estates for a short-term but indefinite stay, so they spoke up for us. The way the votes worked was anyone could vote no, and we would be out. Luckily, we were accepted by the larger group as well.
There were also drugs everywhere. I was disturbed by seeing three-year olds smoking pot. I found out many years later that there was sexual abuse happening among some of the older children towards the younger ones. Most of the parents there were responsible, but like anything, there were a lot of mistakes made. The whole project was a vast experiment started in 1970 that inspired two other projects, Project Two and Project Artaud. I visited a friend from Connecticut who was living in Project Artaud at the time and wasn’t impressed. There were pets there, and people let their dogs run free in the building and not cleaning up after them. I was relieved to be where I was.
We were staying on the third floor, sleeping on the couches in the communal living room. In the middle of the third-floor hallway was a huge igloo looking structure. This was the bathhouse. When you first walked in, there was a big curved dressing room with benches built into the walls. Across from that were three sinks with mirrors and beautiful mosaic work. Walking further in, I saw the shower room with three shower heads and no curtains or walls. At the very end was a very large bathtub with a sign that read, “minimum of 6 people for a bath.” After being on the road for weeks, I was dying for a shower, but I had never been naked in front of strangers before and really only in front of my lovers. I was also very uncomfortable with my body. I had severe scoliosis, a curvature of the spine that caused my body to be twisted making me a hunchback with one breast very noticeably smaller than the other. During high school, I wore a steel and leather brace that ran from just under my chin, stretching my neck, to just below my hips. I had been bullied and ridiculed all four years and was still affected by that treatment. The last thing I wanted to do was expose myself both physically and emotionally.
Finally, I waited until 3 am the next day, hoping that no one else would be there at that hour. I undressed and started my shower. Aaah, the warm water felt so good. Then, in walked Michael, a man from The Estates. He nonchalantly undressed and stood under the shower head next to me. I was mortified, but he just started having a conversation with me as if nothing unusual was happening. Eventually, I relaxed and enjoyed both my shower and the conversation. As we were getting dressed together in the dressing room, I realized that I wasn’t rushing to cover up. I didn’t care anymore. We both brushed our teeth and walked back to The Estates to turn in for the night. That experience certainly cured me of any modesty I had. It took Paul quite a bit longer to get accustomed to the idea but, after making me stand guard outside the entrance the first time, he finally accepted it, too. What an education we both were getting, and that was just the beginning.