Coming Of Age, Or When Coming Is No Longer Enough
RAG THEATER - BERKELEY
Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, in 1971, was one of the most uniquely progressive streets in one of the most uniquely progressive cities in the world. At one end stood Sather Gate—the entrance to UC Berkeley, a beautiful campus with streams, creeks, and eucalyptus trees—at the other end, the city of Oakland. But it was all that lay between that made it special. The times held great promise. Everything was possible, with or without money, and this was the place that seemed to embody it all.
I met with the leader of the meditation group that Master had led me to, and was staying in his Berkeley home. Meeting him and his family was the equivalent of meeting long lost relatives. More parts were coming together, strengthening the whole.
Mindful of the stipulations of my probation officer back east that I find employment within two weeks, I pounded the pavement of Telegraph Avenue, determined to find a job on my first full day there.
All along Telegraph were a variety of stores and restaurants, some of which seemed straight off some film studio’s back lot. Many were managed and designed to reflect these socially conscious times. There were Co-Op stores and supermarkets, owned partly by their customers. There was John’s Soup Kitchen, a great place for interesting soups and sandwiches, that donated profits to a host of city causes. Then there was One World Family, a restaurant whose exterior was covered with psychedelic images, and whose proprietor, unfortunately, was an unlikable sort. He claimed to have been abducted by aliens and selected to spread their message on earth. He sought followers by misleading them with the promise they could leave on the spaceship when it ultimately returned for him. In time, I would grow to so dislike this character and the way he treated others, that I wished I could contact that ship to come pick him up ASAP.
Next door was the Mediterranean Café, serving European-style coffees, that became the home of my new obsession—strong Italian coffee. There were bookstores of every kind. Cody’s was well known for publishing local political essayists and writers, as well as poets. Shambala had the largest assortment of spiritual books I had ever seen.
And nestled in between was Rag Theater, a hippie-style clothing store. I met with the owner, Gene, and told him of my background as a salesman and buyer for a clothing store in my hometown of Rochester, New York, where I had worked on and off since I was sixteen. Actually, I had originally lied about my age to get the job. The owner and his wife were so happy with me, that by the time they discovered my true age, it didn’t matter. They treated me like a son. It was a wonderful and long relationship that taught me much about business. I also told Gene of my experience at Paul Sergeant’s and The Brick Shed House in Greenwich Village, both, famous boutiques on West 4th Street. Gene seemed like a hip guy, so I leveled with him about my probation requirement.
“Say no more,” he said. “You’re a cool guy and besides, anybody from New York can do the job better than anyone from here. Start tomorrow!”
I contacted my probation officer back in Rochester to report the news. Gene helped with the appropriate documentation, and thankfully, I was allowed to fulfill my probation in this fascinating, progressive mecca. I was in heaven. I now worked at a very cool place in a town that strived to be a utopia. I began to think that the spiritual Master, into whose studies I had been initiated, was looking out for me.
For the first time in a long time, I was enjoying myself. I had been war worn from my exhausting LSD experimentation, not to mention my arrest and the resulting stress. Now I was part of something positive and uplifting. I never felt better or clearer. I was attending group meetings, learning more and more about the “Path,” and meditating, glimpsing that euphoric state I had been seeking so vigorously. And I was CLEAN! No drugs, not even the smoking kind! Yet, I felt intoxicated. This is when I truly found my Guru. The Guru appears when the soul is ready. And ready I was!
I spent my days waiting on customers while listening to great music, selected by all of us who worked in the store. We had a deal with Moe’s Bookstore, where we had money on deposit. This allowed us to choose new albums whenever our current repertoire needed refreshing. Out the window, the endless Fellini-style parade of Telegraph Avenue would file by. As I took in the potpourri of sights, I would find myself daydreaming that the store was mine
Tim Leary had a son named Jackie who used to hang out front of Rag Theater. Jackie was a really nice guy who was a bit melancholy. Even though he was closer to my age, he hung around with a younger group of charming mischievous children that called themselves “The Mini Mob.” I really liked those pain-in-the-ass, ballsy kids. Jackie never knew it but I would get word back to his father on how he was doing. I know Tim appreciated it. Yes, Jackie, he really cared. They never got on that well, which bothered Tim greatly through the years. It can’t be easy to be the son of such a controversial figure.
The neighborhood attracted all kinds, some interesting and colorful, others less fortunate, even sad. Marty Balin, lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, was often hanging around. Apparently he and the group parted ways and he hit the drug skids. He would come around completely strung out. I was a huge fan, and it broke my heart to see him like this. Fortunately, in time he got himself together and rejoined the band, making a comeback with some of the best songs he ever wrote, singing better than he ever had, his music sounding even more poignant after he found his way out of the abyss.
One day Gene came in to the store and approached me, holding up a set of keys.
“Here,” he said, jingling them.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Take them, the place is yours.”
“What are you talking about?" I replied, sure he was kidding.
He wasn’t. Proving once again that dreams really do come true, apparently even daydreams. He had lost so much money through his Scientology that he could no longer afford to run the business. He said that all the stock was paid for, as was the rent. I could keep any money from sales as a severance bonus. After I sold everything, I could either get up some dough to keep the store going or I could walk away and let it close permanently. I appreciated the opportunity very much, but the likelihood of my being able to raise enough money on short notice to carry the place was slim. I decided to take a different approach, a more Berkeley approach.
I immediately called in the Mini Mob and outfitted them. I invited all my friends to come in and wardrobe themselves, on the house. I sold some of the remaining stock, and gave more away to homeless and others in need.
This is an excerpt from my book "I Just Happened To Be There," which my agent is about to shop, look for Part 2 soon. Go to Aug 09 on this blog to see "What's In My Book" for more of the books contents.