The Duck

Karen lived a couple of doors down on California Street. She drove a mid-sized American car of some sort. Her friend, Bonnie, lived with her parents in San Mateo and had one of those small English cars. I think it was a Morris Minor. They’d drive out to Ken Kesey’s place in La Honda and be gone for days getting high on acid. I should have gone, too, but never did. Can’t say why.

Karen and I drove down to Ocean Beach one beautiful night and walked out on one of those jetties that go out almost a mile over the water in the utter darkness of that California night. I’m not sure that’s what it’s called. It’s more like a catwalk that runs out over the huge pipe that reaches out over the ocean. The seas were pounding then, crashing over this thing, drenching us in icy Pacific water. It was dangerous. We were literally walking over the raging sea, the land out of sight somewhere behind us. People got swept out to sea, lost forever, doing that. We tried to see how far we could go and finally it was too crazy and frightening and we turned back, soaked and freezing.

Thirty or forty young black people sat on the beach below the seawall, a dozen or so playing congas, some dancing, and the rest sitting around talking and laughing and drinking and smoking around a blazing fire. We joined them by the fire and were soon warm and dry. Somebody passed us the jug of California Red and then that was the end of the wine. We took up a collection and jumped in Karen’s car and a half hour later we were back from the liquor store with enough wine to last us all the rest of the night. The drumming never stopped. As one drummer fell out, exhausted, another took his place and all night long the beautiful rhythms of Africa inspired the moonlit night. Karen and I weren’t having a sexual relationship but that night we sat and lay on the beach wrapped around each other kissing and feeling each other up under our clothes. By dawn the drumming had finally drifted to an end and someone had a radio tuned to a black station playing a song I’d never heard called “Do the Duck” by Jackie Lee. Brand new, most of us there didn’t know it and a beautiful young black girl in a bikini got up and demonstrated the moves, doing a slow, sensual “Duck” as the sun eased up over the horizon. That’s an image I’ll never forget, as I’ll never forget the image or music of the children of African slaves at the western edge of America drumming through the night.

Bonnie drove the twenty miles up from San Mateo just about every night. Often as not she’d come by my place and off we’d go. We never had a dime so we’d sometimes start out at an all night supermarket where she knew there was just one clerk keeping the place open. I’d be asking him for help or otherwise keeping him occupied while Bonnie stuffed steaks and whatnot under her clothes. Then we’d get in the car, drive back to my place and eat like royalty before heading out to North Beach or some other place. One night we were hanging out in the downstairs cellar part of City Lights Books where they had small tables and chairs set up for the convenience of readers such as ourselves too cheap or broke to actually buy any books when Woody Allen came in and browsed the film section. “There’s Woody Allen!” I said. “We’ve got to talk to him!” I wracked my brain for a good opener. It had to be something smart and funny. We worked it over and over, and finally I said, “I’m gonna go up and say, ‘Hey, aren’t you Martin Balsam?'” “Who the hell’s Martin Balsam?” Bonnie wanted to know. I said I kept seeing this guy around North Beach that looked exactly like the movie actor Martin Balsam except he wore kind of cheap clothes and I couldn’t figure out if maybe he really was Balsam trying to go unrecognized because he surely could afford some fine clothes. By the time all this was explained Allen was gone. Damn!

A friend of Bonnie’s came in. He had a stack of some free mimeographed poetry magazine he just put out and gave us a handful. When he left I said, “We can sell these to the tourists,” and we went up to Broadway and made enough to buy a couple of beers at Vesuvio’s. Bonnie said we could go to the El Cid and lean against the plate glass window and feel the vibrations from the rockin’ bands inside. We were doing just that when this guy comes up, middle-aged straight looking guy, and starts chatting us up and telling us how much he admires and respects young hip people such as ourselves and finally it comes out he wants to have sex with Bonnie. “Talk to my boyfriend,” she says knowing full well she’ll never have sex or anything else with this pathetic bourgeois bastard – a type that was to become very common in years to come, thinking beats and hippies believed in so-called free love and would therefore be easy pickings for rag trade schmucks on business trips who would return home and vote for family values and other inhuman repressions. He tried the “I’m an artist and want to paint your girlfriend and I have a lot of money” shtick on me. I said it would cost him a car and round-trip tickets to Paris to fuck Bonnie and somehow he remained interested and it took us an hour to finally shake this guy somewhere around Telegraph Hill where Bonnie and i finally wound up alone, just the two of us and the statue of Christopher Columbus in the middle of the night.

Another night Bonnie took me to a party. A friend of hers wanted to go back to his place and pick up some dope and asked to borrow her car. She wouldn’t lend her car but said that if I was willing to go she’d let me drive it. “Sure,” I said. “Cool. I’ll drive him.” She gave me the keys and when we got in her car I told this guy I’d never driven before in my life. “You’re gonna have to tell me what to do.” This was a standard shift, too. Man, I was crazy. You have any idea what it’s like navigating those San Francisco hills when a guy next to you has to explain the clutch and shifting and stepping on gas thing and you’ve both probably been high for several hours already? Well, we made it. We didn’t die or, worse, wreck Bonnie’s beautiful little Morris. That’s exactly where I drove for the very first time in the great driving life of mine.

For some insane reason I decided I had to go up to Vancouver. Why? That was a much stupider decision than driving Bonnie’s car. Two great girls, a very cool part-time job in the mailroom of the Hartford Insurance Company, the company Wallace Stevens had been vice-president of – a fact no one there knew and which I brought up endlessly – a great apartment shared with an up and coming filmmaker and photo artist and a guy on the top floor who had infinite supplies of the best marijuana. Everything was perfect. So maybe that was the best time to go, after all.

No it wasn’t. My last night in San Francsico both Bonnie and Karen drove me to the Greyhound station. With a couple of hours to go till the bus left we picked up a bottle of Mountain Red and wandered around the Market Street district drinking out of the paper bag, and sat on stoops or on the curb getting drunk, both girls urging me to reconsider and stay. Finally on the bus and all the way up to Vancouver, a twenty-four hour trip, I felt utterly stupid and incomprehensible to myself and overflowing with longing for the city and everything disappearing behind me.

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