Learning to Haight
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Chapter 1

Jack and Dean tumbled out of the faded, weather-stained Victorian in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood on a Thursday afternoon, the streets still crowded with tourists and neighborhood types. It was what Jack liked to call a “Full House Day”: sunny, cloudless, a perfect day to drive a shiny red convertible over the Golden Gate Bridge and hang out with Danny, Uncle Jesse, Kimmie Gibler and the Olsen twins.


Still high from the bud they’d smoked upstairs in Dean’s apartment, they floated toward Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop at the center of the hood, across the street from the famous Haight-Ashbury street sign. Dean, in a wrinkled white dress shirt, dusty jeans and no shoes, walked several feet ahead, his gangly legs taking long strides. Jack, two inches taller and forty-three years younger than his companion, was having considerable trouble keeping up with Dean’s frenetic pace. Jack shoved his hands into his Lucky Brand jeans and let himself be pulled along behind, unwittingly drawn closer and closer into the Haight underworld, drafting in Dean’s wake.


The pair reached the corner, and Dean paused to chat with a young couple crouched on the curb while Jack gasped to catch his breath, slouched against the side of the building in an attempt to support his quivering body.


An impromptu field trip was the last thing Jack had expected when, moments earlier, Dean had offered to show him the Sixties. Dean had been sitting cross-legged on the floor in his living room, waving a half-smoked joint in Jack’s direction, urging him to break the rules. Jack carefully weighed the pros and cons of accepting the peace offering, conducting a quick cost-benefits analysis inside his head as Dean leaned in with the joint. Dean’s broadening smile seemed to be tearing his face in half as Jack finally took the joint between his thumb and forefinger and took a gigantic hit.


Now, Jack stood outside on the corner of Haight and Ashbury, underneath a clock hanging over the sidewalk perpetually stuck on twenty past four, breathing heavily, watching Dean converse with the couple. Jack grinned, finally getting the 4:20 reference. His head swam as he watched Dean reach in his pocket, pull out a wad of bills and offer a few to the couple sitting on the corner.


“Thanks for the scratch,” the man said, peering up from his nest of blankets laid out in front of the ice cream shop. He stuck out his long, sinewy arm, the malnourished muscles giving way to taut, exposed tendons. “We can eat this week.”


When Dean smiled, dimples perfectly punctuated his shallow cheekbones. His once dark hair was now faded grey. His teeth were perfectly aligned but stained yellow from age, coffee and tobacco. Jack had learned that Dean had once been a handsome man, the darling of Hollywood, the next big thing, but those days were long gone, lost to a lifetime of what-ifs, drug binges and shifty associates. It wasn’t for lack of opportunities. No, Dean had been front and center in some of the most important cultural events in San Francisco history, floating through life like a fly-on-the-wall as the Beat, Hippie and Hipster movements were born, flourished and eventually died. Jack had come to realize that Dean’s problem wasn’t proximity; rather, he seemed content to just be there, forgoing leadership roles to younger, more ambitious conspirators yet thriving in the afterglow of his more tuned in, media-savvy peers.

Regardless, Dean was an infamous figure in Haight-Ashbury. Born Henry Simmons to Armenian immigrants in California’s Central Valley, Dean had later taken the name of his best friend, the iconic Fifties star James Dean, after the actor died in a car accident, tragically and much too young. The two had acted together in Rebel Without a Cause when Henry was simply an up-and-coming twenty-year-old actor with what could be described simply as It. The role, the only one of his career, was tiny and consisted of only a few lines. On the big screen he spoke his dialogue softly, confident in his California country accent--a dialect born from hillbilly surfers. He elongated his vowels and consistently dropped the ‘g’ in ‘ing’. Man became maaaaan. Jumping became jumpin’. His line, “He’s a hard-luck tramp if I ever seen one, eh Buzz? Who’s he been runnin’ with?” sent movie-goers bananas. Women wanted to be with him, men wanted to be him.


Albeit a small, insignificant role, Henry’s immense screen presence, classic good looks and off-screen chemistry with the film’s stars set the studio executives buzzing, foreseeing a long and productive career for him in front of the camera. Henry had come along at the right time in the right movie, his role as a teenaged goon a burning memory in the minds of casting agents throughout Hollywood.


Just like fellow Rebel hoodlum Dennis Hopper, who actually did go on to have a successful movie career, Henry’s part in the 1955 classic endeared him forever to an entire generation that recognized their own coming of age struggles in Post-War America.


Over the years, America’s celebrity culture kept the newly christened Dean Simmons in the limelight, and those around him--leaders of various social movements and causes--sought to take advantage of his name and face, his constant need for attention. But Dean was no James. While the movie star was a natural leading man, Dean Simmons settled into the life of a sidekick, always a familiar face in the background, never up front and in charge.


Jack’s head began to swim as he stared blindly at the conversation in front of him, watching mouths move but failing to hear the words spoken. The San Francisco June heat radiated off the sidewalk, causing sticky pools of sweat to collect and drip off the end of his jaw. He slowly sank to the ground, his shoulder keeping contact with the wall. First his knees touched the sidewalk, then his butt, finally the back of his head.


“Hey kid, you ok?” came a female voice next to him. Jack snapped out of his drug-induced daze and realized a woman was hovering above him. She must have been the wife or girlfriend of the man to which Dean had given the money. Her hair was dirty and matted but her eyes were wide, crystal clear, apparently immensely interested in the young man lying next to her on the sidewalk. “Whatcha doing? Taking a nap?”

Jack shook his head. “Just resting my eyes,” he responded, waving the woman away. “Just resting my eyes.”


The woman shrugged and turned her attention back to her boyfriend, who was still engaged in conversation with Dean, who had looked down at Jack still crumpled on the sidewalk. He extricated himself from the friendly banter and nudged Jack with his unshod foot. The black stained appendage came dangerously close to Jack’s face, the smell of gym clothes, ashtray and street grime wafting under his nose.

“Ok, ok, I’m up,” Jack said, sitting upright and wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. He struggled to his feet and stood gingerly next to Dean, swaying back and forth in his shoes. He ran his fingers through his short, black hair, pulling the strands taut, sending a wave of masochistic pleasure searing through his scalp. The extra minutes he spent that morning getting the perfect “bed head” look were now wasted, his carefully manicured ‘do lost in a frizzy ‘fro.


“Jack, time to move on,” Dean declared. He firmly shook the hand of the man on the sidewalk and nodded goodbye. And with that, he bounded down the street in the direction of Golden Gate Park, Jack stumbling in his wake, his legs taking on a life of their own. He followed Dean past the head shops and T-shirt boutiques that lined Haight, grabbing hold of Dean’s shirttail, his head on a swivel as they weaved in and out and around the masses lining the sidewalk, a puppy incessantly trying to smell every street sign and fire hydrant as he’s being pulled along by his leash.

“Hey Dean, what’s up, brotha’?” shouted a disheveled man lying slumped against the front of an organic food store with a Styrofoam cup at his feet, his face and hair smeared with dirt and grease. A young hipster in tight black jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of Che Guevara giving the finger stepped over the beggar as he exited the store. He paused as he recognized Dean, smiled broadly and stuck out his hand toward the local celebrity.


These, this crowd of miscreants, drifters, anti-heroes, were Dean’s main constituents these days: strung-out, wannabe bohemian transients lured to the life by the promise of free love, cheap drugs and no responsibilities. They came looking for like-minded souls to share the streets. What they found was Dean, a familiar face and name, a man who understood them, galvanized them, helped them.


“You coming to the poetry reading at the People’s Café tomorrow night? Janice Mirikitani will be performing new verses.” Dean grasped the young hipster’s hand and shook it vigorously. He looked Dean directly in the eyes and continued to pump his hand, apparently transfixed by the great man’s presence while ignoring Jack who was still holding onto Dean’s shirttail, the color of his knuckles starting to match his pale complexion. Dean managed to wriggle free without breaking stride and shouted back, “You know it, man. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”


Jack glanced at the man in the Che T-shirt as he was pulled forward by Dean, noting an expression that beamed in Dean’s wake, his silly grin never fading. He acted like he’d just touched Jesus. And in these parts, he pretty much had.


Dean seemed to know everyone in this funky, eclectic neighborhood, Jack thought, as he struggled to hold on and keep up. Back when the two ended up sharing that cab ride across town and hatched their plan for launching Jack off the news desk and onto the front page, he had seen Dean as a sympathetic figure, someone who had been shat upon, a hard-luck traveler who was given a shot but had it taken away. He could visualize the lead paragraph, right there on the front page, below the fold with a jump to page A-10: Dean Simmons has spent a lifetime fitting in, moving from movement to movement, constantly giving away a piece of himself to help those around him. Attention is his nourishment. His name is the only currency he needs.


He’d thought the story would write itself and the process would be painless, consisting of an hour or two with Dean who Jack would let babble on like he had the day they met. Jack’s vision certainly did not include racing through the Haight, wasted off his ass, shaking hands with street people. But, then again, nothing had gone as expected since that fateful cab ride, and nothing, certainly not this fantastic journey on Dean’s shirt tails, seemed that bizarre anymore. Despite this sidetrack, Jack was excited to get the opportunity to write his first feature for the San Francisco Daily Mirror, recognizing his chance meeting with Dean as fate.


Stepping over people lying on the sidewalk and sitting on the curb, Dean swam through the crowd, pulling Jack along behind him through a populace that was begging for money, selling drugs or simply enjoying the sunshine.


The Irish cops in Boston where Jack grew up would have never stood for this type of loitering, Jack thought, as he nearly tripped over a leg belonging to a woman selling figurines made from discarded wine corks. Stubby arms and legs protruded from the rotund cork bodies, reborn from discarded hangers found in a dumpster behind a local drycleaners. The paddy wagon would have cleaned up this neighborhood long ago, Jack thought, but perhaps this was why he had recently left the quaint colonial city for greener pastures out West. These people were unique individuals, free of pretension.


The duo reached the end of Haight Street, dead-ending at an entrance to Golden Gate Park. They left the crowded sidewalk, following a sloping asphalt path to an underpass and the gateway to the park. A group of young pot-heads wearing baggy jeans and hooded drug rugs sat in a circle on a patch of grass next to the tunnel and watched them as they passed.


“Green bud,” one advertised, his penetrating eyes fixated squarely on the trailing passenger. Jack stuck close to Dean, turning his head in the other direction. He wasn’t quite ready to alter his persona of the occasional user with friends--undoubtedly a mooch--to become a cannabis connoisseur, one who actually purchased herb and hallucinogenic baked goods from people on the street. In contrast, Dean waved and smiled, receiving an earnest greeting in reply.


The two weren’t half-way through the tunnel when the rhythmic beat reached them. Back in Dean’s apartment, Jack had secretly hoped this was where they were going when Dean promised to “show him the Sixties.” The hair stood up on the back of his neck as Dean quickened the pace, tugging him toward the concert. Up on a hill on the other side of a large grassy field, dozens of spectators lounged on blankets reading magazines, chatting or simply sitting and listening at the music being orchestrated in front of them. A group of twelve or fifteen collaborators held court, gathered around a park bench, hammering out a slow, rhythmic beat on an array of implements. Dean led Jack to the center of the crowd, plopping him down on the grass, high up on the hill, and focused his attention on the musicians below them.


Some members of the ragtag band of performers huddled around the weather-stained park bench and beat on a variety of percussion instruments--a set of bongo drums, a xylophone, a big bass drum more than three feet tall--but most improvised on other objects like an aluminum shopping cart, a plastic garbage can, the park bench itself. A particularly grungy-looking musician banged out a beat on a grey, water-stained tennis shoe that he held over his head, so lost in the beat, he didn’t seem to notice his bare foot, stained black from walking the city streets, keeping rhythm in a murky puddle. The ringleader, a dreadlocked black man in an immaculately pressed three-piece suit, set the tone for the rest of the group, his long dreads whipping around as he nodded his head in time with the beat. His lips cried, “Yes!” over and over again as he changed the beat every few minutes, leading his disciples to serenity.


A wisp of fog rolled over the hedge of trees across the grassy field and streamed toward the concert, slowly swallowing the scores of kids in brightly-colored jerseys playing in a rec-league soccer game and their foul-mouthed parents yelling on the sidelines who secretly wished they themselves were playing. As the temperature began to drop, Jack remembered to pull on the fleece that had been tied around his waist throughout their adventure. Dean was in a trance, nodding his head to the music, repeating “Yes! Yes!” over and over again. Jack slipped off his shoes and leaned back, letting the grass tickle his ears. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on the music engulfing him, letting the sound overtake his consciousness.

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