I lived on Potrero Hill not far from a grand Victorian owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In a little closet I slept, rented from an activist who drank cognac and smoked with an ivory cigarette holder. Sharon Gold: her refrigerator was off limits. When I told the head of the local party apparatus, he confronted her and made her cry.

I babysat for a prison reformer who loved to sleep with black felons. She was in and out of San Quentin every week and ate dinner on Nob Hill. She, too, was a communist. She sent home pictures of her new Peugeot to make her mother proud. She wore leather and hoped to be picked up at bars by men driving Porsche. She loved to be slapped around.

“For all I know, he’s fucking you, too.” These are words to remember. This bit of bile sits on my mind like a mustard stain on one of my brand-new dress shirts. Shit. Try getting that out. Yes, these are words spoken to me by a woman I once called my friend. She was the kind of woman—you’ve met them—who says things without thinking, like a dog that defecates on the neighbor’s trimmed lawn without consideration, without a thought in her pretty little head; the same way, one imagines, Joan Crawford once took a hanger to her lovely daughter’s bare bottom, forgotten by her the moment of impact but remembered by daughter Christina for the rest of her life.

The tears did nothing for me. I had no sympathy then, and even less now. She thought then, in her prime, of bedding our employer and now missed desperately his warm embrace, imagined as in a fever that he was fucking someone else; if not his wife, then anyone else would do. My friend’s eyes flashed as she turned around. Yes, why not you? He’d fuck just about anything that moves, it could just as well be you. I failed to see then what I see now, which is her low opinion both of herself and of me. In her defense, I now see an essential lack of conceit. She figured we were both worthy of Mr. Seidman’s attentions. We were both just whores.

How did such an attitude take shape? I wondered about this. A bright woman, well-educated, a feminist, who adored the likes of Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin. She was a mature, sensible woman shaped by her time, made to feel her worth measured by a bank account and a man. Oh, Camille, I remember. My dear old friend, so distraught, so frustrated. Now she liked our boss, an attorney who bragged about putting women up against the wall in the office bathroom. She envied the other women.

When you see yourself that way, as nothing more than a catch, it must burn not to be caught. Those posters of Mick Jagger and Steve Biko weren’t decorations as I once believed. Not at all. They were fantasies, like a soldier’s poster of Betty Grable, hidden in the springs of his pal’s upper bunk. She’d like to have been taken to bed by royalty. Rock stars or political activists would do. Celebrity cocks would have given her a sense of pride. What a blow to be relegated to playing second fiddle to our boss’s wife. What an insult for a woman who liked to goad men to violence. Prick teaser extraordinaire: how the men were made to throb, how she loved to send them to their rooms with their cocks between their legs, desperate rejects. It was all a thrilling game until our boss threw her off. No, he wanted some all right, but he’d had enough. Who could blame him?

I took classes at the People’s Law School in a back room at Glide Memorial Church.  There I met curly-haired lawyers determined to mend the world. They all knew the Mitford sister over in Oakland who ate caviar and drank the best champagne. They held poetry readings in her sunken living room. I met one who knew where Patty Hearst was hiding.

It was a Superfly summer. There was something in the air. Fellini was still alive. They were digging below the earth, making tunnels for something known as BART. The city ruled by Alioto was abuzz with famous killers, known to all as the San Quentin Six and the Soledad Brothers. It was the birth of radical chic.

I was a block away when Dan White murdered the Mayor of San Francisco. My friend Paul drove around city hall looking for excitement. There was no more talk of revolution. By now, the Black Panthers had dispersed. Poor Huey was dead. The communist lawyers I knew were desperate for clients. The party, literally, was over.

My pal came home one night to say he had struck a man in the road and killed him. The police told him to drive away and never look back. It was just a homeless nobody. We were no longer in Emerald City but living in gritty Oakland. Whilst there, the Hearst family delivered frozen turkeys to the masses, mostly frat boys from Berkeley.

Dungeons and Dragons replaced the Communist Manifesto for this generation. They played in the attic. I worked now at the Jesuit seminary on the posh end of town. They stood at the buffet, too greedy to carry their food back to their tables. They cut the centers out of three or four steaks, leaving the bone and the grizzle for their Brothers. They picked off the strawberries and left the short cake behind. They took one sip of coffee and demanded refills. We left the side door open for the Brothers returning late from the gay bathhouses. They raided the ice box for midnight servings of rum raison ice cream. In ten years, they would all be dead. There was no AIDS yet.

The last communist I knew was my professor, an Italian from Calabria, who invited us over for chess. He gulped wine and crawled around his kitchen floor. He pulled down the garbage can and sat covered in coffee grounds. He cried about not having enough money to take out women. His wall was covered with a ripped portrait of Joseph Stalin.

My pal’s orange Datsun was riddled with bullet holes. The passenger door was a mess. There were between 12 and 21 spaces where the body shop mechanic had had to drill to knock out dents from the impact of an oncoming pickup. Rich could afford the holes but not the patches.

It was 1981 and we were on our way to Vegas. We’d stop by to get Mikey, my other pal who lived in a Jewish commune with sulky dropouts from Oberlin College who were now attending Cal. They were studying Russian and kept bottles of vodka in their freezer. Their parents were professional psychologists in Chicago; that is, all of them but one. Her father was a heart specialist in Pittsburgh. The girls had all been in love at one time or another with Mikey, a curly-headed youth who smoked cigarettes out of my shirt pocket and fancied himself a character from Ulysses.

Actually, I used to date one of his roommates, but we’d stopped seeing each other a while back. It was her nose that had caught my attention. She was no prim thing with a small IQ. Her nose was something grand like a tropical toucan’s bill, just not as colorful. As the poet’s jar in   Tennessee, this nose was more a presence than an object. But her green eyes were not jungle wild like a bird’s; they looked to me like something out of the Warsaw ghetto. I think today of her as a thing of art, because like a carving or, even more, an engraving, her features seem immortal.

We met in Paolo’s car on the way to Rio, a local favorite. She sat in front and I right in back behind her. I had already met her nose. I couldn’t help myself and reached up to touch the nape of her neck as a way to say hello. When we stopped and got out of the car, she approached and whispered, “I like the hand on the neck.”

What a thing. The only time in my life I have loved someone’s nose. We fucked all the time, but she didn’t want anyone to know. I was only 23 but felt freed from the unknown. Had it been another time and place, we might have had a go, but we let things flounder and blew the chance of a lifetime.

Nicknamed Julio, she had giant soft tits and that is all there is to it. She wondered aloud if that was what had drawn me, as they had attracted others; she recited men’s comments. I’m sorry, my love, it isn’t your chest, not even your beautiful green eyes. It is that majestic nose, the beak of an eagle, the bride of the sky that did it.

Picasso had almost got her right with his cave-dwelling ladies. She had the same angular breasts and a grand Baroque ass. She was cross-eyed, too, and carried that nose with its high-arched bone. What he got wrong were the feet, which were not like the Spaniard’s lumbering ladies, gigantic, but small. He hadn’t caught her skin color either, which was pale and creamy, not gray, coffee, or gravy, nor that most modern of hues, blue.

She’d had a searching mind, a sly smile, a wicked, charming laugh: almost a cackle. She was a little crazy. She used to bang her head against the wall, and she said she did it because she felt worthless. She could be cold and hyper-critical, snobby and dismissive. She was capable of violence. She once punched me in the stomach and made me double over.

We took a seminar together on American lit. The only book I remember well was Faulkner’s Light in August. We all had the conceit of the 60’s, believing that only our generation had the power to shock. We believed that saying fuck you was cutting edge, and so was farting. The Faulkner novel blew my mind.  I’d never read anything so disturbing. Everything else paled in comparison. It made Vonnegut, for me, seem like old cotton candy.

I’ll never forget the nympho widow and the seduction of the black guy, Christmas, who passed for white. She hid in the bushes panting, emitting lustful grunts, waiting to be taken. Waiting for her black stud, Mr. Christmas, whose present she craved like none other. She was starved for attention, like an anorexic, desperate, but not for food, no; a nymphomaniac, deprived of attention and exhausted by years of waiting, she hunkered down that night, ever hopeful. She’d been driven to this, shamed and shunned for years for her desires, mocked and cast out of polite society. She now acted out her fantasies, lay awake in remote corners of her property, looking forward to being raped by a man who gave her what she wanted. She lay grunting in the bushes there, stark naked: you can just imagine. Hiding in wait, ready to bend over or be bent over, like a zebra or a baboon in heat, kicking or screeching. Her cries make one’s hair curl. She wanted to be taken back, back to when men dragged women around by their hair, back to the cave, back to the bush, and all for a thrill.

According to William Faulkner, the author who made her up, this is what some women want. This one cried herself to sleep after her husband passed away. And then it was Christmastime, oh boy, and did he have a present for her. She’d been eager for it, quite desperate, waiting for it, hiding among the azaleas all day and night, for years. Today she’s been waiting since nine and she’s pissed.  She’s no longer waiting; now she’s crouched over, ready to pounce like a squirrel, or a rabid raccoon. Faulkner says women get like this when left alone too long. They can go insane. This one begged like an alley cat. She screamed, “It’s Christmastime,” as he fucked her. “Hallelujah.” It is enough to make one tear one’s clothes off and head for the nearest magnolia tree to squat down in its shadow and scream, “It’s my turn!” This book is not an entertainment: it’s an emergency. My God, is this what’s been going on down there at night in the woods?

There wasn’t a white man around for miles who dared approach this wild bitch. The men were little girls. The only man man enough for her was merry Christmas, who had the right present for her, just what she’d been begging for, the very gift she told Santa she needed. This is what awaits the reader of America’s finest novel of the 1920’s, a recognized masterpiece that is rarely read and just as rarely taught, if not ignored. I wonder why? It’ll set your hair on fire, that’s the first thing. The prim will be shocked. Better keep it hidden. Is it still placed on reading lists?

Anyway, we lost touch when the course ended that same year. I saw her, though, sometime later. She was down fifty pounds. She kept her nose and her sexy laugh but her thighs and marvelous ass were gone. No longer ancient, she had become modern. She was sleek and sickly like T.S. Eliot. She was a ghost. She’d once, this Julio, had Eliot’s appetite for things; now she bore his sorrows. She still had her nose, but she had dropped her beguiling smile. I knew then and there that something was irretrievably lost. She was thin and less than lively. She was no longer Rubens’; she belonged to Modigliani. She was brittle and, I could see a mile away, no longer interested in me. I went to our friend from São Luís, who shrugged: “Some toucan prefer Venezuela.”

After getting Mikey, we headed out of Oakland at 11. It was late and we had already eaten, so it was just a matter now of staying awake. We’d arrive in the morning if we didn’t fall asleep at the wheel. Rich brought along a bag of dope. I smoked Benson and Hedges. Mikey sat in the back and asked questions. Rich took the wheel and kept the music flowing. It was very much a matter of this or that until he pulled out his recording of Apocalypse Now. For three and a half hours, we listened to that.


For all installments of “By the Bay, By the Bay, By the Beautiful Bay,” click here.