photo: r. whittaker
From time to time, I'd have a fantasy about maybe doing a performance on The Moth Radio Hour. It could be a way of introducing more people to works & conversations. But I'd never done anything like it and the possibility seemed so remote I gave it little thought.
Meanwhile, I got on with my life. And more to the point, I focused on on putting together the next issue of the magazine
(issue #41 at the time of the performance). The first piece of the new issue took shape in my mind's eye when one afternoon, at an open house at a friend's home, I ran into an old friend, Dennis Ludlow, an actor with a remarkable story. I'd known about it for decades, but somehow chatting with Dennis over some excellent noshes, I suddenly knew the time had come to get his story out via an interview. Dennis was agreeable and a few weeks later we met at his home in San Anselmo. Our conversation was so quietly and deeply enjoyable, it was still resonating with me when I got an email from my friend Mia Tagano a few weeks later. It was an announcement about a class she was teaching at the Berkeley Repertory Theater: Beginning Acting for Adults.
Reading it, I lingered... I
could take it, I thought. Hmmm...
I'd never taken an acting class. And at 79 years old, why would I? It seemed a crazy idea. But on the other hand, why not? At the very least, it would be an adventure. So taking a leap, I signed up.
I figured I'd survive whatever embarrassments might lie ahead. And there could even be some nice surprises.
None of my fears were borne out, and it was indeed, a lively, positive experience. At the end of our last class, Mia took me aside - "Richard, I think the next step for you is to develop a monologue. And I'd recommend David Ford. He's really good and has been working with people for a long time. He gives classes at The Marsh Theater."
I was stunned and a bit disoriented by her suggestion. Really?
That would be a quantum jump.
I needed some time to digest it. But a week later, taking the metaphorical deep breath, I signed up for David's class.
"I'm going to blame you, Mia," I said.
In this graduation performance at the conclusion of David's ten week class, I recount a story from fifty-some years earlier - one that partly answers a question I'm often asked: "How did you get started with interviewing people?" - -- Richard Whittaker
(Four months later, after having completed a second class with David Ford, I performed a new monologue - "A Taste of Freedom.")
Here is the text from the performance above:
San Francisco, November 1967
, mid-morning. I’m out walking. I have something unusual in mind. Ahead, I spot someone coming my way. He looks like a good candidate – 40ish, nice jacket, not a hippie. We’re about to pass each other,
• “Excuse me sir. Could I ask you something? I’m kind of lost.”
“What address you looking for?”
• “I know it sounds kind of crazy, but I just feel lost.”
“What? Are you asking for money?”
• “It’s not that. I thought I could just start talking with people and maybe learn something about how to live.”
But let me backtrack
. In 1955 dad moved the family from West Virginia and the coalmines to Upland, California - about 35 miles east of L.A. When I graduated from high school, I hadn’t applied to any colleges so I ended up going to the local Junior College. I tried chemistry, psychology, sociology, anthropology, English literature and philosophy. I got a motorcycle, experimented a little with drugs. Right after graduating in 1963, I got married. It lasted 8 months
A year and a half later
I’ve been accepted at Pomona College as a junior. It's a miracle. My younger brother is already there on a full scholarship and I inherit his friends. One of them is Malcolm Hall.
Malcolm grew up in Los Alamos NM where his father and mother were both nuclear physicists.
So it’s Easter break.
I’m with my brother and our now mutual friends. We’re having some jug wine and enjoying ourselves. Malcolm’s talking about writing lyrics for a Country and Western song. "I’ve only got a couple of lines," he says - "I gave her my heart, but she had it transplanted. Now a stranger is making me cry.”
Malcolm never seemed very serious. But when both your parents helped make the atomic bomb, what’s the future in being serious?
Anyway, we're having a good time and suddenly I get an idea, “Hey, lets go to San Francisco. We could bring sleeping bags and figure something out.” - Malcolm took me up on it.
So we drive up to SF
and we’re closing in on the Haight-Ashbury, when I see a guy on the sidewalk ahead of us waving.
Is he waving at us?
(I gesture), “You mean me?”
(he gestures) “Yes. You!”
“What do you think, Malcolm. Should we stop?”
“Your car, your call.”
I pull over and roll down the window.
“Do you guys like donuts!?”
(he points) “That’s a donut shop right up there! Let’s go get some!”
Why not? We were on an adventure.
So we walk into the shop and find a booth.
The stranger is sitting across from us with a big smile. Not saying anything.
“Glazed donut okay with you?” (he nods)
“Would you like some coffee?” (he nods)
I bring donuts and coffee back to the booth.
“So what’s your name?”
“How do you spell that?”
“Do you live here, Laurie?”
“Yeah. Where are you guys from?”
“We drove up from Claremont, east of Los Angeles.”
“What are you doing here?”
“We're going to check out the Haight-Ashbury and explore SF. You got any advice for us?"
“Yeah. Go to North Beach.”
An awkward conversation hitches along for a few minutes and then… “Hey, Laurie, we’re going to go now.”
“Oh, on your way back, could you drop me off in Monterey?”
“Maybe. How can we find you?”
He writes an address on a scrap of paper.
Haight Street is a wild scene
. Every week, thousands of young people are making a pilgrimage to the epicenter of the psychedelic revolution. (sings) “One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small. And the pills your mother gives you don’t do anything at all. Go ask Alice when she was ten feet tall
The pills people are taking here are
doing something, and the Haight - Ashbury IS
Malcolm and I wander among the throngs decked out in bell-bottom pants and beads. The smell of incense is everywhere - mixed with whiffs of marijuana and something else... patchouli oil. Music is coming out from the storefronts... (sings) “Hey Mr. Tambourine man play a song for me. I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to. Take me on a trip upon your magic, swirling ship.. Cast your dancing spell my way. I promise to go under it.”
It was intoxicating.
And there was magic
in North Beach, too, still echoing from the Beat era 10 or 12 years earlier. We didn’t see Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but we lingered in City Lights Books.
I picked up a copy of A Coney Island of the Mind
“I am waiting for my case to come up, and I am waiting for the Age of Anxiety to drop dead. I am waiting for the Salvation Army to take over, and I am waiting for the meek to be blessed and inherit the earth. And I am perpetually waiting for a rebirth of wonder.”
We had a drink at Vesuvio’s and cappuccinos at Café Trieste. We walked around on upper Grant St. and checked out Coit Tower.
But the time came to head south.
"Malcolm can this be the right address??" We were standing in front of a boarded-up house. I walk up and I pull back a piece of plywood, (shout) “Hey, Laurie. Laurie. Are you in there?”
(after a few seconds) “Yeah. Wait a minute.”
"Oh my God, Malcolm, he's in there!"
A few moments later, Laurie steps out.
“You guys! You remembered. Wow. Come in.”
(pulling back the plywood) We follow into the darkness. There’s a little daylight ahead. I see an old couch, a funky coffee table and a couple of old stuffed chairs.
“I can’t believe you guys came back. That's so good of you. Hey, can you wait here? I have to go do something. But you could listen to a song I wrote.” He picks up a little cassette player and fiddles with it. Then disappears into the darkness.
(song from cassette player) “I’ve been searching so long. And now I’m singing this song. And how are you? And where are you. And did you see? And are you free? I hope you did. I hope you are. I know it seems so long and far. And where are you, and did you see?”
The cassette stops. (silence)
“What do you think, Malcolm.”
“He must be back there somewhere.
“I’ll see if I can find him.”
I head down dark hall towards a little light and look around a corner. It’s the kitchen - and there’s Laurie shooting up.
“Oh, I’m sorry you had to see me like this.”
Back in the living room.
“So you guys are going back?”
“Yeah. Do you want a ride to Monterey?”
“No. No, I can’t go today. But thank you for remembering me. I really appreciate it.”
It would not be the last time I’d be seeing Laurie Seagel.
I was an uneven student
at Pomona College. I got an A in Existentialism. A little of my poetry appeared in their poetry journal. I tell people that graduating from Pomona saved my life. Three months later, I’d be living in San Francisco and enrolled in SFState’s master’s program in creative writing. But a little surprise was waiting for me before I headed north.
A couple of months earlier a friend had sent me a clipping from the SF Chronicle
about a poetry contest in San Francisco sponsored by the Ina Coolbrith Circle. I imagined a bunch of older poetry lovers, probably fans of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats. Maybe E.E. Cummings. Not Alan Ginsberg – “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, hysterical, starving, naked..” That wouldn’t be their cup of tea.
But they’d know about Dante’s The Divine Comedy:
“Midway through life I found myself lost in a dark wood.” And it turned out I'd already written a poem I thought would be perfect for them. It was a little tame, but I still liked it - and I’d sent it in.
Now I had a letter from the Ina Coolbrith Circle. (opening it) A check for $75. And I’ve won first prize! Wow!
Could I attend awards ceremony and read my poem? September 28. Great. I’d already be living in San Francisco by then.
I find my way to a 3-story brick building
that had seen better days, enter a once-elegant foyer and see a hand-lettered sign "Ina Coolbrith Circle".. I open the door into a large, wood-paneled room with maybe 50 people in folding chairs. There were 8 prize-winners.
My turn comes to read:
A fox ran along a low ridge in the sun
And the sun shone from his red fur
He ran down through the grasses
And along a stream and climbed again into the sunlight
Standing there listening, he measured odors on the breeze.
The trees swayed around him and all the things of the woods moved in their own ways.
Light fell to each in its own manner
Green to the leaves
To the flowers it fell in many colors
To the rocks in their quiet ways
To the streams it fell in mirrors for the still parts
And for the running, in a dance.
Somewhere in that wood
Dante had rested before setting out upon his journey.
Modest applause. “Thank you. I just moved here. Does anyone know of a job for a versatile young man who's willing to work? If you do, please see me after the program.
Afterwards a young man came up to me: “I loved your poem. And my father would have loved it, too. We’re Irish. We love poetry! He’s looking for someone to help him. Is painting houses something you could do?”
I’d started classes at SF State
in their MA creative writing program and now I was working part time for John McCaughan.
It wasn’t a bad job.
We spruced up bungalows in the Outer Mission, the Excelsior and Ingleside Districts. I’d take a bus out to Silver Ave. and wait for John to drive up in his 1958 Cadillac with two ladders strapped to the roof, and we’d drive out to the job site.
I liked being far up on a ladder scraping peeling paint off the side of a house with the marine air washing over me. And views could be terrific. But I was running into difficulties. I was bored to death by my classes as SFState. And I was far too shy to read in any of the venues in SF where poets read in public. And a friend from down south had visited and I let him talk me into trying heroin. I shot up once .. and came down with hepatitis.
I dropped out of SF State. When I was feeling better, I went back to work for the Irishman. One morning he says, “Richard me boy, why the long face?”
I didn’t try to explain.
At home that evening
I was trying to write a poem, something sublime, when I saw myself. I was writing from the top of the mountain. But I was lost in the forest below. I needed to learn how to live, and make my way through the forest. Maybe then I could climb the mountain.
There were plenty of people who didn’t seem to have this problem. What would stop me from approaching strangers directly and talking with them to see what I could learn? Was the idea too crazy? Was I too afraid? - Almost...
The next morning I was out
walking. I had something unusual in mind. I spotted a man coming my way. He looked like a good candidate. Fortyish. Nice jacket. Not a hippie. As he was about to pass by, "Excuse me sir. Could I ask you something? I’m kind of lost.”
I did that for about two weeks.
I remember the last person I approached. I was walking in the San Francisco Civic Center and went into the Library. I saw a man sitting alone at a library table. He looked like a good candidate. I went over sat down and waited for him to look up: “Excuse me, sir. Can I ask you a question?”
“I feel lost, like I don’t really know how to live, and I thought I’d start talking to people to see what I could learn.”
“You’re lucky you approached me. I’m a psychologist. Maybe I can help you.”
This is what he told me, “You have to figure out what you want. Let’s say you love sailing. Well, you know you’ll need a boat. That’s something practical that you can chart a course toward.”
That was 55 years ago…
Looking back, I realize it was almost perfect advice: “Let’s say I love sailing....”
But let’s say, “I love life
What kind of boat would I need for that? -- For sailing life’s ever-shifting and timeless waters?
.......I’m still working on it. ∆
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