Deb’s Saturday Psychedelica – On Becoming a Hippe – Chapter 11
Written by Liam Sweeny on May 16, 2020
In addition to driving or hitchhiking to San Francisco for music, there was plenty of music right near our home in and around Santa Cruz. The center of activity was the Pacific Avenue pedestrian mall. This was the major hangout spot. There was always music there. There were always buskers (street musicians). I once saw Arlo Guthrie playing on a street corner. We hung out for a little while, and he told me that he liked to busk because it was a good reminder of where he came from. Paul and I occasionally busked there too, but he was working full-time, and we had our first baby, so our time was limited. That didn’t mean we weren’t playing tons, just not on street corners. We once went to a party and jammed with Sammy Hagar. Another time, I sat in on vocals with Don McCaslin’s band, Warmth, at the Cooper House, an old courthouse from the 1890s turned into a restaurant and café. They played there every day and night, usually outdoors by the sidewalk café. There were great clubs, too. The Catalyst was a cool, funky venue right in the hub of the action. Unfortunately, it was destroyed during the big earthquake that happened there years after we were gone. It was rebuilt but had lost its funky quality that made it so warm and welcoming.
There was always something or someone interesting to be found on Pacific Avenue. One day, as I rounded a corner, there was a man in full combat gear, guns and all, just standing there like a statue. I thought at first that he was until he moved slightly. He was protesting “the police state.” Another day, I was walking along when I heard a familiar voice. Back when we were living in Connecticut, just before we decided to leave on our big adventure, we had picked up a hitchhiker near Hartford and brought him to our apartment where he stayed for almost a week. His name was David. He was homeless and traveling the country by thumb. He played harmonica, so we stayed up night after night jamming and partying. When he left for the west coast, we gave him some winter gear, hat, coat and gloves, so he wouldn’t freeze. David had the most unique voice. It had been destroyed by cigarettes and alcohol but had a very melodic, though raspy, quality to it. Now, here he was, holding court on Pacific Avenue, playing his harp and regaling all the hippies with his stories. He recognized me immediately and insisted I sit with him for a while singing along.
We were often running into people we knew. Paul randomly found a former co-worker from Connecticut, and I found out that my cousin Tommy was living in Santa Cruz. By the time I tracked him down, he was moving on the next day. He was only a couple of blocks away from our apartment, and we had a nice visit. We also ran into the woman who had given us a ride out of the blizzard in Big Springs, Nebraska. Then, there were the folks we just ran into in San Francisco. This still happens to me all the time. Five years ago, I went out to Oregon to the Oregon Country Faire, a huge hippie festival held every July Fourth weekend/week. As I was walking through the packed crowd of thousands of people, I saw an old friend from Albany who was vacationing there. Neither of us had been in touch for a while and were quite surprised to see each other there. Though, I have to admit that I’m not really surprised by much these days.
My life changed in so many ways while living there. I was raised on fast food, TV dinners, instant mashed potatoes and Velveeta cheese. Suddenly, I found myself in an environment where there were food coops and people harvesting wild foods. There were natural healers using plants instead of chemicals to cure illnesses. There were nursing mothers everywhere of all ages, not just young hippies. I started learning all of these things, using herbs for healing, learning about vegetarianism and finding out more about nutrition than I’d ever imagined. There was a wonderful bookstore on the mall simply called “Bookshop Santa Cruz.” One day I found a cookbook in the free box on the sidewalk outside entitled “The Bread Book.” I started baking my own bread. I made bagels and pizza dough, bread, biscuits, muffins, coffee cakes, and more. I still own that book and use it often, as tattered and stained as it is. It still has the best cornbread recipe I’ve ever found. I also got the Tassajara Bread Book at that bookstore. It was in Santa Cruz that I ate my first taco and discovered my love for Mexican cuisine. I ate my first taste of Jicama at a potluck dinner in San Francisco that was a fundraiser for a Hispanic community and met Malvina Reynolds there.
We also discovered Peyote in Santa Cruz. We’d heard of it, of course, but hearing about it and trying it are two vastly different things. We got a batch and cleaned it thoroughly, removing all of the little while strychnine hairs. It was disgusting to eat, but once you vomited, it was like entering another world of light and color. It was the opposite of mushrooms, which I always found dark and foreboding. It was worth feeling like I was going to die for those minutes, which did seem like hours, until I purged the poison. It was easy to get, and eventually, we made it into iced tea. Our favorite snack became iced tea and pot cookies. Pot was readily and easily available as well. The Vietnam War had ended in April of 1975 and California was getting Vietnamese refugees. Some of them were a little sketchy, but we were all about peace, love and acceptance, so when we met a guy who offered to sell us a pound at an unbelievable price of $100, Paul decided to take the chance.
That was a lot of money for us back then, so we hit up two other friends to see if they wanted to get in on the deal. Of course, they did. The dealer was understandably very paranoid so they came up with a plan for Paul to walk through San Lorenzo Park and leave a paper bag with the money under the designated bridge where there would be a paper bag waiting for him there. He was not to stop but had to just pick up the bag and keep walking. When he got to the bridge, there was the bag with the dealer standing nearby. Paul picked it up and walked on. The dealer picked up the bag with the money, took a quick look inside and ran like a bat out of hell. At that point Paul looked inside the heavy bag and found a pound cake. By that time, the other guy was long gone. Paul came home a very seriously cut up the pound cake into equal portions and we all ate our hundred-dollar cake with a chaser of iced tea. Luckily, our friends were understanding, and we all chalked it up to a lesson learned.
So, why did we ever leave? That story is coming up next.