Interviewsand Articles


A Trip Out West

by David Feldman, Oct 19, 2020



Jeff Zaleski from Parabola magazine, forwarded a note he'd received in response to an article of mine [in Parabola, Spring 2017].
Thanks for writing that wonderful article on Laurie [A Man Impossible to Classify]. It was a wondrous time in San Francisco and brought back memories of when my best friend and I made an unforgettable three-month summer trip from the East Coast in 1967 landing in San Francisco. I’ve attached an account about the adventure. I hope you enjoy it.”—David Feldman

I did enjoy Feldman's account and it first appeared in works & conversations #33. Here it is.—Richard Whittaker

My friend Leo and I were going west—to California–for the summer. It was 1967 and each of us had about $1,000. I owned a forest-green Peugeot with tan seats that folded back into a bed, a sun roof we could stick our heads through and an AM-FM radio, a big deal in those days.
     We drove south to Virginia, made a right turn and headed west. We slept in the car, we also slept on golf courses, by the side of the road, in fields where we were awakened by cows and an occasional bull, in the backyards of people we met, at campgrounds and in national parks. We saw a Kansas lightning storm that made the sky appear as daylight at 2 a.m. We cooked on our little gas grill and we explored.
     We were interested in everything. We met cavers and went down into scary caves. We found our way up back roads to old-time swimming holes in West Virginia. We met people, wonderful and generous people, whose sense of good will spread to us, two young men having a great time.
     Our first enormous shock occurred at the Grand Canyon. This was the summer that in the US has come to be called the “Summer of Love.” Throughout the west, hippies were plentiful. San Francisco, where we would soon arrive, was brimming over, and the “easy rider” life was peaking. There was a great hippie celebration occurring at the Grand Canyon for Independence Day. And after feasting on the impressions of an outrageous sunset, we wandered over to the celebration to share in the fun. By that time, our drug days were mostly past. We had both experimented sufficiently, but we suspected that the inner states we reached using drugs could be duplicated by a different means, although we really had no idea how.
     That’s when we met Stanley. Stanley was a freaky-looking hippie, even by our standards. He had long, long hair; he came from the East Coast. He wasn’t going anywhere in particular. For one reason or another, we all immediately liked each other. We were heading to the North rim of the canyon, then on to Nevada and finally California.
     We surprised ourselves when we asked Stanley to come along. So Stanley became part of our experience. On the positive side, due to his outrageous looks, we were welcomed in communes and an entire string of food kitchens up the West Coast. On the negative side, we were stopped by police several times, detained once, and refused service in several restaurants.
     We went to Las Vegas with Stanley, where he became hooked on gambling and we had to drag him out before he lost all his money—and ours. We discovered the Diggers, a group trying to live the hippie alternative. They ran an underground network for food and shelter. It was disorganized, which fit us very well. For example, to find a place to sleep, we often had to guess which house belonged to the group and then take our chances knocking at the right door. After a while, we got better at it, or at least making up good excuses why we were bothering people.

A little more about Leo… He’d just graduated from Brandeis with a major in psychology and already was accepted to the Harvard Graduate School in psychology. The Brandeis psychology department, during the four years Leo had been there, was under the auspices of Abraham Maslow, probably the most famous humanistic psychologist in the United States. In fact, with Carl Rogers and others, they created a new school of psychology called “humanistic psychology.”
     Maslow told his classes about Synanon, a drug rehabilitation community in California attempting to live according to principles that would promote healthy human beings. Maslow had spent a good part of his life studying healthy people—a great breakthrough in psychology. Leo had gotten it into his head that we had to visit Synanon. So after Disneyworld and checking out the surfer girls on the beach, we dropped in at Synanon on a Saturday night. Synanon owned a large hotel on the Santa Monica beach and was having an open house that night We asked if we could stay a little while to lean more about them. They were kind, but basically laughed at us. Remember, we were with Stanley.

We didn’t take the whole thing too seriously and decided to wend our way up the coast. We’d heard and read about Fritz Perls, 70 years old and the psychologist who created Gestalt Therapy. He was at Esalen Institute in Big Sur. That seemed a perfect destination. We had no idea what we might do there, but that made little difference. When we arrived at Big Sur, it was clear that Stanley had found what he was looking for, and Stanley decided he was going no further.
     We met Fritz and he and Leo hit it off over a game of chess. Leo was originally from Holland, so they chatted about life in Europe, Leo’s parents, the Second World War, etc. Perls invited us to watch him work with his group and then allowed the group to decide if they would let us join.
     We made a confused presentation of why they should accept us and were voted down. Had we been accepted, it would have influenced our lives more than we could have guessed. Looking back, it was one of those little turning points that might have provided a distinctly different future.
     It felt like a relatively short ride from Big Sur to San Francisco, where another Synanon facility was located. We were still smarting a little from our rejection and decided that we were going to get to live at Synanon, no matter what. The fact that we had absolutely no idea what this would entail didn’t bother us. We figured we’d stay about a week or two, and make our way up the California coast.
     On that memorable Sunday, we found our way to Synanon’s San Francisco facility, a large warehouse near the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge. We entered and saw a few people with shaved heads sitting on a bench. (They shave the heads of newcomers to give them a fresh start.) A woman in her thirties named Betty told us that Dan Garrett, the head of the facility was not in. She offered us a cup of coffee and listened to the little saga of our trip.
     When we announced our intention of living at Synanon she simply laughed and asked, “Why? Don’t you know that all the people who live here are either alcoholics or drug addicts?” And then, a tiny miracle happened. Dan Garrett walked in—a man in his forties with a crew cut and an intelligent face. We begged Betty to introduce us. She called him over and said, “These two young men would like to stay here. They are both college boys and they say they don’t take drugs anymore.
     He was quiet for a moment and then invited us into his private office where we embellished our story. He listened very carefully—a quality that was impressive, and I liked him immediately.
     “You know, we usually ask people to give up their worldly goods when they move in here.” He smiled. “Now which one of you owns the car?”
     Sheepishly, I confessed that it was my car.
     “How did you earn the money to buy it,” he inquired.
     “My parents bought it for me.”
     “Oh.” He smiled again.
     I noticed myself sweating. He’d only asked a few friendly questions, but I was starting to feel his probing.
     There was a long silence.
     “Well, I like you boys. (Clearly, in his presence we felt like boys.) This is what I can offer you. You can stay here for the rest of the summer. That will be about six weeks. I’ll pay you $5 in walk-around-money. I’ll give you both a job and a place to sleep, and I’ll let you see how we live. As for your car, you can keep it. As you’ll see, we have lots of cars.”
     Leo and I had no time to discuss anything. It had all happened so quickly; it was now or never. So we said, “Yes!”
     There was a good deal of required reading at Synanon. The ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson were well represented:

  The Synanon philosophy is based on the belief that there
  comes a time in everyone’s life when he arrives at the
  conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide;
  that he must accept himself for better or for worse as is
  his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good,
  no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through
  his own toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given
  to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in
  nature, and none but he knows what it is that he can do,
  nor does he know until he has tried. Bravely let him speak
  the utmost syllable of his conviction. God will not have his
  work made manifest by cowards

  A man is relieved and happy when he has put his heart
  into his work and has done his best; but what he has
  said or done otherwise shall give him no peace. As long
  as he willingly accepts himself, he will continue to grow
  and develop his potentialities. As long as he does not accept
  himself, much of his energies will be used to defend rather
  than to explore and actualize himself.

  No one can force a person toward permanent or creative
  learning. He will learn only if he wills to. Any other type
  of learning is temporary and inconsistent with the self and
  will disappear as soon as the threat is removed. Learning
  is possible in an environment that provides information,
  the setting, materials, resources and by being there.
  God helps those who help themselves.

By the time Leo and I arrived in 1967, Synanon had been in existence for 10 years. They’d succeeded in helping many drug addicts. However, the “cure” could only be maintained in Synanon’s therapeutic environment. Synanon was experimenting with forming an entire social movement that could help create healthy people capable of living the Synanon philosophy. It was not really necessary to start as a drug addict. So two relatively healthy college students, traveling across the country, arrived at the right time and the right place to be invited for the summer.
     A funny thing happened for Leo and me at this time. Everything seemed to fall into place along my path while he had troubles almost every step of the way. I was assigned to a beautiful mansion that Synanon owned in one of the nicest sections of San Francisco. Leo was assigned to live in a slum. My job was to work at one of the Synanon gas stations, which, for a kid who done almost nothing useful with his hands, was totally wonderful. Leo was assigned to clean pots and pans in the kitchen. We’d spend an hour or two every day walking through San Francisco, telling each other our adventures and trying to make some sense of it all.
     My gas station experience taught me to pump gas, change the oil and filters, fix tires and do minor repairs. Naturally, I felt good about all the new learning. My boss at the gas station, Price—who was an addict—knew how to fix almost everything, yet he couldn’t really read. So whenever it was quiet, I helped him with his reading. It was a nice friendship.
     My roommates were all ex-cons who’d spent years in jail. It was a world I’d never even dreamed of and an introduction to blacks, Hispanics and people who had experienced a completely different life than my own. And yet, in this environment, we had something to offer each other.
     One of the major pillars of Synanon was the group meeting that was called “the game.” One purpose of the game was to bring awareness to those particularly dysfunctional behaviors that the person refused to look at.
     The rules were simple: sit in a chair in a circle with anywhere from 8 to 20 people; don’t get out of the chair; no hitting or other unpleasant physical contact; but anyone can say anything.
     In the game the group would focus on one person at a time for anywhere between a few minutes to a half-hour, or more. The person in focus was on the hot seat, and it surely got hot. Ridicule was used in hearty measure.
     Remember this game was invented for “dope fiend con artists” who could weasel out of almost any way of looking at themselves or taking responsibility for their behavior.
     What I saw opened my eyes very wide. I saw one woman break down and admit to herself in front of all the others that in her negligence she’d drowned her own child in the bathtub. I saw people coming to grips with the insane lives they’d lived on the streets and their deep fears of going back. Many of the women had been prostitutes, and this was source of deep pain. Others had stolen from their mothers, grandmothers, and best friends, and had lived despicable lives.
     In my own case, since I’d done none of these really horrid things, the game focused on me at a much more psychological level, dealing with my ill-founded arrogance and fears that caused me and those around me a lot of trouble. Dan Garrett even invited Leo and me to a game with “healthy” people from the community, as well as with the Synanon graduates.
     It was clear that going through the game could give a person hard-earned psychological knowledge and understanding about himself or herself that otherwise might take years to acquire using less intense means.
     Perhaps due to the game, the Synanon environment had a straight-forward and sincere quality that had a power far beyond what one would usually imagine. I loved the honesty. In terms of nourishment, there is little that beats honesty and sincerity.

The six weeks zoomed by. A few days before we were about to go, Dan called us into his office. “Well, do you want to stay?”
     Silence. Was he serious? After all, he lived there. But no, neither Leo nor I were ready for that, and maybe properly so. I had to finish college and Leo was enrolled in graduate school. It was another possible future that was not lived out.
     On the day we left, there was a massive send-off as we said goodbye to the 100 or so people who lived at the facility. The love and goodwill simply blew me away. I felt so loved and accepted the tears just poured out. The same happened for Leo. The sense of being part of a community was deeply satisfying.
     We slowly drove (floated) back across the country in one of the happiest seven days I’d ever spent.When we returned, I found an apartment within walking distance of Columbia University. This area of Manhattan was very appealing—stores, movies and bars stayed open all night with many college students and a general sense of life in the streets.
     It was my last year of college and I chose many psychology courses. Synanon had a facility in New York and I became one of the regulars of the “game.” Every Tuesday night I visited and met many new people. I began living with a young woman, Torie, and she joined the Synanon game, too. I was also volunteering at a halfway house one night a week. I explored psychodrama at Christmas, spending a week at Dr. Moreno’s place in upstate New York. I read a great deal about working with groups and joined an encounter group that explored people’s feelings. It was quite interesting because we took different names and, to some extent, invented a personality. It was my first brief attempt at playing a role, and it was very liberating.
     In March, Torie and I decided to visit Synanon in Santa Monica and take what they called a “trip”—a 48-hour marathon session with no sleeping. It was an extended Synanon game with many opportunities for walking on the beach, dancing and facing oneself. Whether it was the sheer fatigue, the insights we received, the energy generated by the group of fifty people, the beautiful beach, or all of that, we both ended up high as we could be.
     I’d scheduled an interview at Sonoma State College north of San Francisco. They had an unusual graduate program specializing in humanistic psychology. Even the interview was unusual; it was a group interview.Not surprisingly, I was exuding enormous good will and was accepted and offered a full scholarship. This was another choice that would have changed the course of my life had I followed it. But as it happened, I declined.
     Not knowing how to proceed with our lives, and overwhelmed with the experience at Synanon, Torie and I decided to get married. It was the decision of two very young people both afraid to face life alone. After all the arrangements were made and invitations sent, I couldn’t sleep. My anxiety was so high it was terrifying. I became sure neither of us, especially me, was ready for marriage. I broke the unpleasant news a few weeks before the wedding. Of the various decisions at that time of my life, the decision not to marry at 21 years old was one of the best. And within two weeks, I graduated from college.
     Several choices were now available. The first was Synanon. At that time, it was an extraordinary success. The people at Synanon had created a place and a lifestyle very difficult to duplicate. But something about Synanon was not right for me. A second option was graduate school in psychology. I’d been accepted with full scholarships to Sonoma State in California and to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Both had non-traditional approaches that appealed to me. However, neither offered what I wanted at that time, which was a direct contact with a person whose aims would blend with my own. I declined both and, surprisingly, Duquesne extended the offer for a year if I wanted it.
     However, a little voice was telling me to go to Boston and link up with Cesareo.* I hadn’t consulted with him, but I packed my car. I decided that I would never take money from my parents again, I would support myself and finally grow up and become an adult.

* An important role in Feldman’s life story revolves around his connection with Cesareo Palaez, best known as Marco the Magi and founder of Le Grand David, a well known and long-running stage magic show. For years, Feldman was himself part of the stage show as a juggler and in several other roles.      


About the Author

David lives with his wife, Catherine, on a small farm in Ipswich, Massachusetts with four dogs, three horses and a gaggle of chickens and ducks. After a life full of adventure he is now a mediater and a therapeutic dog massager focusing on elderly dogs and hospice work.   


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