Interviewsand Articles

 

A Man Impossible to Classify

by Richard Whittaker, Dec 21, 2007


 

 

One of my first experiences in San Francisco was of being flagged down by a stranger as I drove toward the intersection of Stanyan and Frederick Streets at the edge of Golden Gate Park. My friend Malcolm Hall and I, both college students, had driven up the coast highway from Los Angeles in my 1953 Plymouth. The year was 1965. We were headed toward the Haight-Ashbury. 
      Maybe thirty yards short of the intersection, I saw him standing on the curb, a disheveled young man, not quite in the hippie mold. He was looking directly at me it seemed, and gesturing emphatically, an incongruous grin on his face.  As the car moved closer, my expression must have revealed my uncertainty because he nodded his head. Yes. It was me he was gesturing to. I turned to Malcolm with a look, “should we?” Malcolm was non-committal. I pulled over.
     The young man walked up to us still smiling and, without a word, pointed again. I stared in puzzlement. At this he nodded his head and, to clarify matters, repeated the pointing.
     “What do you mean?” I managed to ask.   
     “Donuts!” He said. “Do you guys like donuts?”
     I saw it then, a donut shop right ahead of us at the intersection. 
     Whatever threat this smiling stranger—maybe five foot eight—might represent stemmed more from his assault on my sense of social convention than anything else. Besides, there were two of us.
     The hippie revolution was in full flower and things were going on that crossed a lot of boundaries. Wasn’t this, in some basic way, part of the idea? I parked the car and Malcolm and I walked over to the donut shop with our new friend. Taking a cue from him, it would seem nothing could have been more exciting than getting some glazed donuts and maybe a coffee together, the three of us! This was something I could never have dreamt up on my own, an adventure both too banal and too transgressive at the same time.
     Walking in, we found a booth and sat down, Malcolm and I facing the stranger across the table.
     “What’s your name?”
     "Laurie."
     That’s a girl’s name, I couldn’t help thinking. “How do you spell that?”
     Laurie just stared at me with his big smile, and nodded.
     He had a scraggly beard and his teeth were uneven.
     “How do you spell that?” I asked again.
     “L-a-u-r-i-e.” The smile remained along with his direct gaze on us both. He didn’t seem uncomfortable, at least.
      “Do you live around here?”
      An awkward conversation hitched along for a few minutes and then he said, “Let’s get some donuts. Don’t you guys want some?”
      “Sure.” I said, getting up. “Can we get you some?”
      “Thanks! Maybe some coffee, too,” he said. 
      I don’t think I’d ever met a street person before. In 1965 I’m not sure that phrase had even come into usage. There were tramps and bums and, by then, beats, beatniks and of course, most immediately, hippies. But in Laurie’s case, no categories quite fit. This was a situation I’d have to face without them. 
     
     Struggling to relate as we ate our donuts, we swapped basic information. We told him we were visiting and would be heading back to LA in a few days. Were we going to pass through Monterey?  he wondered. Could we drop him off there? We told Laurie we’d check in with him on our way out of town and he gave us an address. The conversation hitched along. When it faltered, Laurie just looked at us with a silent grin, not making small talk to smooth things out. When we finished our donuts, I was happy to escape. 
     When the morning came to head back to LA we found the address, a boarded-up house.  Approaching cautiously, I pried back a piece of plywood. “Hey Laurie!” I shouted into the shadows. After a couple of tries an answer came back from the shadows and, sure enough, Laurie appeared.
    “You guys!” He was not expecting us. We’d awakened him. “Come in,” he said. Enough light was coming in here and there to permit our seeing a dilapidated couch, old coffee table and a couple of chairs.
    “Wow,” he said, just looking at us. “You guys actually came back.” What routines of betrayal put our simple act in such a light? I couldn’t help wondering.
    “Do you guys want to listen to some of my songs?”
    “What about Monterey?” I asked. No, he couldn’t go down there today. But did we want to hear some of his music?
     Where I come from, you don’t refuse certain things and this seemed like one of those moments. Laurie disappeared and returned with an old acoustic guitar. His singing wasn’t so good. That was my first reaction, but I listened and then something else came in; it’s what I remember most.
     He finished his song and said, "I've got a tape of more of my songs." Reaching for a beat up tape player, he said, “Hey, wait here. I’ll be right back,” and disappeared into the darkness of the abandoned house.
     Malcolm and I sat listening to the tape player and its tiny speaker. Yes, the same quality I'd heard before was coming through it, too. If I had to pick one word for it, it would be something like heartbreaking.
    
     My encounter with Laurie, as brief as it was, left unforgettable impressions. Moreover, by a twist of fate, it was not the last I’d see of him. In fact, it was just the beginning.

THREE YEARS LATER

     By 1968 I’d lived in San Francisco for two years and had recently moved in with a woman I’d fallen in love with. In North Beach, she’d cut quite a figure. Besides being tall and beautiful, she’d become a bit of a celebrity among the locals. One of the characters Karen had become friends with was named Laurie Seagel.
     “You know Laurie?” I asked in astonishment. “Laurie Seagel?”
     Karen and I lived at the top of Vallejo Street on Telegraph Hill and I began to run into Laurie regularly. Sometimes we had Laurie over for dinner along with street poet Johnny Woodrose, who I’d met while running a poetry program in the basement of a church near Haight St. Before my move to North Beach I’d occasionally seen Laurie at free concerts in Golden Gate Park where The Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin often performed for free.  Laurie sometimes jumped up on stage and tried to grab a mike to join in on harmonica. His harmonica playing wasn’t any better than his guitar playing, but he seemed unfazed by such considerations. He’d always get ushered off the stage, but I couldn’t help noticing that the band members all seemed to know Laurie and never seemed much upset with his antics.
    A longer account of my friendship with Laurie is for another time. But his freedom from worry about what others might think is one of his qualities I remember most clearly. It was something I witnessed time and again in many different ways. Perhaps this quality struck me so much because of my own lack in that regard. There were many other things I learned about him that surprised me. He’d been a gifted philosophy student at Stanford University and related amazing stories about his time spent with Gregory Bateson’s family, Richard Alpert and others.
     From time to time, Laurie would say something with a strong inflection of Zen. I remember asking him about it. Yes, he used to love being around Suzuki Roshi, the head of the San Francisco Zen Center. He told me about having a meal there one day. The monks were having a silent lunch and he managed to join the group, but Laurie wasn’t interested in keeping the silence. He kept attempting conversation with the monks sitting at table with him. Finally one of the monks complained. "If he’s going to talk, why can’t the rest of us?" Suzuki replied, “For Laurie, it’s allowed.”
      Laurie was a man impossible to classify.

     Given his talents, whatever obstacles stood in the way of conventional success must have been powerful. But the most obvious problem he faced was addiction. He’d been shooting up amphetamines at least since I’d first met him in 1965. He’d suffered from hepatitis at least once if not two or three times. Listening to his stories, I learned that he’d been arrested several times, too. He’d been severely beaten at least once while in jail by another inmate and had also been beaten more than once by police. He went through difficult times, but was always far more dangerous to himself than to anyone else. By 1968 the years of physical abuse were showing up in mental as well as physical symptoms. Laurie’s future appeared grim indeed.
     Then one day, I got a call from Laurie. He’d been in Napa State Hospital detoxing and now was out. Somehow he’d managed to get an airline ticket to Israel. “It’s my last chance,” he told me. Could he borrow a sleeping bag to take with him?
     I wondered if it was a flight of fancy, but a few days later, Laurie showed up at the door. I handed over the sleeping bag, we embraced, and I wished him the best of luck.
     Laurie did go to Israel. He joined a Kibbutz. A year later, I got a letter from him. He had married a beautiful Israeli, Talilah. He’d become a social worker. Why didn’t I come over and visit? As the next few years passed, I got more messages. First there was one child, Hadar, then Sagi then a third. I have forgotten the name.
     Then a few years later, I got a call from Talila. Laurie had died from liver failure. She told me a story about Laurie’s social work in Israel. She told me how hard it was, the low pay. He worked with addicts and others, and was much loved, she said. People thought he had mysterious powers. She told me of a woman who wanted to have children. She had tried everything. No luck. But one day Laurie met with her and held her hand. "You are going to have children," he told her. "Don’t worry." Shortly thereafter, Talilah told me, the woman conceived. She did have a child.
     I don’t remember exactly when Laurie gave me a copy of a manuscript he’d written, All Men Shall Be Gods, but I still have it. For years, I’ve wanted to publish a particular section from it, a remarkable account of an experiment in living he carried out in San Francisco in the early 1960s before he fell under the sway of amphetamines. I feel compelled to underline how striking I find this singular inquiry to have been. It's an ontological adventure that could easily have remained untold and I'm grateful, finally, to be able to share it with others. Here is that excerpt.

Laurie Seagel writes:

I decided to try to find out what were man’s basic needs. I would live without most things I was accustomed to and see what it would be like. I decided to give up words; I would only say “yes,” “yes” to every question, nothing more, a nod of the head would usually suffice. I would give up things; sandals, a thin shirt and a thin pair of pants would be enough. I knew I could adjust to temperatures in San Francisco through bodily relaxation. The fewer clothes the better; I would worry about changing when the need arose. Nothing in my pockets, nothing, no money, no identification, nothing. And no place. I would break the habit of thinking “where” and “where to?” All places would be equal. I would try to learn to be comfortable anywhere.
     I hid a sleeping bag in the bushes near Coit Tower, the highest point on Telegraph Hill, though I ended up sleeping in it only once. The rest of my belongings I hauled over to the family home in Oakland.
     Usually, I wore a hat pulled down low. I sat, relaxed my body, and watched, or listened—looked and listened. I sat in Cassandra’s, in the Coffee Gallery, the Bagel Shop, The Place—these were the main gathering spots for people I knew. There was also the Cellar Jazz Club, evenings. Still later some nights after the Cellar closed, we sojourned across town to the Black Fillmore district where jazz was played until early morning at Jimbo’s Bop City. Or I’d go off by myself, as most of the others went home.
     When Cassandra’s closed, I’d cross the street where a small cafe was good for a short stop. The small hours of the morning, three to five, I’d spend in a variety of regular ways. Lying among the empty bins in the Italian bakery on Grant just above Green, I watched the bakers working, kneading, arranging, shoving the long rows of loaves into the great oven—rhythm, movement, fire and quiet Italian talk. I enjoyed the warmth and the smell, enjoyed watching them work, like a dance it was—and they always welcomed me. I was a spectator whose enjoyment in watching them heightened their own enjoyment in the work. Invariably one of them would thrust a fresh loaf of bread upon me when I rose to leave.
     Another activity for three to five in the morning was walking through the bustling, bright and raucous produce market located then at easy walking distance from North Beach. My eyes delighted in the colors of the fruits and vegetables, and I felt energy from the surging of the men and their machines, the helter-skelter of it all. Here too, people got used to seeing me among them. I was always silent and happy, smiling from the delight my eyes were beholding. I was joyous watching the beauty of existence. Here in the produce market people called me “wolf-man,” I suppose because my hair was long and shaggy, but they always acted toward me with friendliness and offered me fruit, which I ate.
     When I was especially tired, during these pre-dawn hours and at other times also, I went into rhythmical walking, sometimes for long distances around San Francisco, long rhythmical strides, arms swinging. The action sort of turned me on, got me high, rested me.
    Every day, before the sun rose, I climbed to the top of Telegraph Hill somewhere alongside of Coit Tower, to sit and meditate. From my spot, all the sounds of the bay down below me in an arc left, right and center rose up directly, undisturbed by any edifice. I sat, relaxed deeply, deeply, and listened, watched. The sounds of the ships, of the city, of the birds were pleasant to me. I enjoyed them every day, day after day, for hours at a time. When I began hearing the coarser hum of human voices—tourists appeared about nine in the morning to look out on the bay—I lay down where I was and slept for a few hours. I liked sleeping in the sun.
     When I awoke, I usually went to Washington Square Park, or down through Fisherman’s Wharf to Aquatic Park. On the grass of Washington Square, or the sand of Aquatic Park, I’d catch some more sleep in the sun, sometimes swim in the bay at Aquatic Park, eat raw fish at the wharf, or I would sit and watch, listen, or be together with friends— “beatniks” we were beginning to be called after Chronicle columnist Herb Caen put together Kerouac’s “beat” with the “nik” from the Russian “Sputnik.”
     Looking and listening were for me ways of quieting my mind, teaching it to not think, breaking habits of thought like: what to do? where to go? But after awhile, looking and listening became something much more: I came to see and to hear the world, existence, more and more acutely. The more I watched and listened, the more I saw and heard, more keenly, more distinctly.
     Every day I gained more and more pleasure from this listening and looking, always seeing and hearing more clearly. As time went on, I appreciated how glorious and beautiful existence is, living. I saw how busy, preoccupied were most people with doing, making. Existence was already so much to enjoy, so grand and lovely, so exquisite. Just to see, to hear the sights and sounds that were there made me happy and delighted. I was truly happy and at peace. Everywhere. All the time.
     Throughout those eight months, or a year—I’m not sure exactly how many months went by—I had not the slightest inkling of trouble of any kind. The two policemen on the beat, when they passed me they said, “Hi Laurie,” and that was that. I did what I wanted, when I wanted to, sometimes with others, but most often alone.  I roamed freely, drank lots of water, ate enough somehow and was always serene in enjoyment of the beauty of all I saw unfolding before me, day into night, night again into day: the warmth of the sun, the cool breezes, the fog, the wind, the sea, sky and stars, trees, flowers, children playing, old people, young mothers with their children, the Chinese, the Italians, the French, the Basque.
     My attention became so keen I saw in crowded coffee shops and meeting places, how people’s bodies reacted to each other’s without their consciously knowing it.
     When I sat at a live jazz session, my hearing was so sharp, it was like what poets call “a sensitive ear in the audience.” I would hear each particular instrument, separately. The musicians told me that when I listened, they began to hear themselves more distinctly, then each heard the other, and the music grew in intensity and those jam sessions were really something else… at the Cellar, and on weekends, at the Coffee Gallery.
     It was all a part of that community spirit which existed, the spirit that both allowed me to be on “this trip” and to live freely in the midst of it. The life of North Beach nourished me, fed my spirit and my body. It was fun to be with this happy throng, to share with them the sounds of talk, laughter, music, nature, the clanging of the cable car bell, the sound of the seagulls, Sonny’s saxophone, Max’s bass fiddle, Bill Wiesjon’s piano, Chuck Taylor’s drums.
     What are the basic needs of man? What did I learn during this time? I lived very contentedly on almost nothing. I required little sleep and little food. I drank water copiously, had abundant sunshine, walked and ran tremendous amounts, meditated, rested much, did not feel the need for sex, though I enjoyed frequent human companionship, or at least proximity.
     I came to regard my needs as so scant that you could say that what you need is what you want. Air, water, rest, exercise, a little food, this is all I seemed to need.
     I did have an acute sense of something like regret or sorrow that other people were not enjoying existence as much as I was then. If only they could sit more quietly and look, listen, feel. I felt that people could live better that way and that society would be better, life would be better that way. But I didn’t talk. I didn’t think I could start talking and somehow teach people to be that way, change the world.
     When I finally did decide to end this period, I just hoped that somehow, some way, I could express what I had experienced and learned and somehow bring some of it back into existence, at least into my own existence, and perhaps for others as well…
  
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine

 

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