Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 7 No. 1 | Spring 1985

kickaad /zMMliqcui. Uk lud tile in. 198k; ^ir^uii itiic^&ied kiA. body Uri yearn V W J ■tUiti Qi I' first got to know Richard Brautigan in San Francisco in 1966. I had moved from Monterey to San Francisco that Spring and had taken a job at Pan American airlines. Monterey I ran around with Price Dunn, who had served as model for Lee Mellon, the hero of Brautigan's first published novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur. When Price came up to San Francisco, we drove over to Richard's apartment on Geary Street. He answered the door. My first impression of Richard was that he looked like a tall slim cross between Mark Twain and a heron. He turned and led us down a long hallway to his apartment in the back of the slum building. The hallway was lined with old tpngue-and- groove shiplap paneling and there were posters of readings hanging all over. I glanced into Richard’s writing room and saw an old IBM typewriter and piles of magazines and manuscripts. - Price and Richard traded jokes. They had several routines to choose from. One lower-class life of logging and commercial fishing and “stump-ranching" on poverty- stricken farms, there was no room for art. Once he said to me that he didn't know provides an instance of this self-knowledge. His art insisted on the value of the present living life, no matter how ephemeral or insignificant it might be in accepted cultural terms. The job was clear: the art had to be self- k created. And it had totecreated, at enormous odds, out of the materials at |>. hand, no matter how banal or one-dimen- sional or fantastic they might seem. In his first two books, Trout Fishing and Confederate Generalhe insists on the primacy of the will and imagination is insisted on, and much of the humor comes from the collision of the learned cultural knowledge ' with the lived cultural experience. I was very much taken with this view, of life. I had attended college in the Northand fiction. Of course, Snyder was multicultural, using Indian myths, Japanese and Chinese models, and anything else that would help him to write. With Brautigan s work, the starting place was always very primal. He found ways of seeing famous cultural items in a Northwest downhome perspective. It Leonardo da Vinci lived in America, he would invent a fishing sions and inventing myths for each other. Of all of us, Price had the most fantastic imagination. And he was not a writer. The thing about Price's imagination was that he acted upon it. There was never a clear line with Price between what was reaf and what was imagined. I remember we were standing in front 0^ oMiAe at the tune (tictna/inl ueaA w d west for a few years and had been told way through the tourists and stood there I beaming at them, as if they were old buddies of his. “You know we used to catch them down South!’’ Price shouted back at us. Richard and I drifted in behind him. A few of the spectators began to shift.into positions of flight. They didn't like the looks of us and indeed they were right. - Richard was wearing his battered grey hat and his vest with various emblems stuck to it. I was in a large white kneelength smock with HIPPO embroidered on the back, and Price was in his usual gear of jeans and a T-shirt with broken granny glasses and curly frizzed hair, looking like a Hells Angel on a lunch break. “Gars!’' Price hooted again. "Why we used to land them just as big as that. You know how we did it?" “And then you get a long bamboo pole, you know the kind. Put a line on it with a hook and then you put the corn cob on the hook and you throw it in the river.” Price waved at the huge 6-foot-iong fish swimming around in the tank with the improbable snouts of alligators. “And when that old gar comes up for the corn cob. you can see them real clear, and hell, they’re as big as a house anyway—so when the gar comes up tor your corn cob, you. ..drop the pole and pick up your rifle and you shoot them? The minute that Price said he shot the fish, the tourists fled, sure that he was about to relive those childhood memories with the help of his two weird henchmen, who were probably concealing the guns under their clothes. Richard and I looked at each other. — -------- —— ------— heard, but more than that you don 't shoot fish, you catch them. The other thing I remember about that first day with Price and Richard was chili dogs. Strange to say, I had never eaten a chili dog before. We were broke, and so we stopped off at the Cable Car Drive- In for something cheap, and Richard pointed out that the chili dogs were the best value for our limited funds. «As a young writer I was fascinated by w Richard lived. He had no job except that of a writer. It is no exaggeration to say that in 1966 I had never met a writer who supported himself with his work. All the writers I had met were teachers of some sort, or had jobs doing something else. None of them were just writers. Richard was. Richard tried to live off the money he made from reading his poetry or selling his writing. For me he became an example of a dedicated artist. Of course at the time Richard was not famous, only that worst of all possible artists in San Francisco, a local writer. I was living in a back slum apartment myself at Un KeM. AMott was Price’s coffee. Richard had only in- f stant coffee. He was too poor to afford any better. Price only used the strongest commercial coffee available, but then he had money from time to time. Price would make “sheepherder's coffee.” He would boil water in a saucepan, throw in the coffee on top, turn off the heat and let it steep. Then, when the coffee formed a rich thick scum on the top, he would blow it off into the sink and then add a little cold water. After letting it settle, he would pour out the coffee into cups. It was electrifying coffee, mainly because Price was an extravagant person and never used too little. I left them to their routines and went into the bathroom to take a leak. The bathtub had a tear-shaped rust mark under the nozzle. The ceiling plaster was hanging down. Then I saw the royalty statement from Grove Press. Confederate General had sold 743 copies. From its position above the toilet paper I could imagine what Richard thought about this. At that time Richard had only published three very slim books of poetry plus Confederate General. I was a young writer with no books published, a few poems in literary magazines. So far in my career, I had earned one dollar as a writer. I identified with Richard's situation tor that reason—he was also living in poverty. But we both had other things in common. Both of us had been born in Tacoma, Washington, and gre,w up in the Northwest. We had both left young. We both were Aquarians and given to extravagant thinking. We shared a sense of the lower- class rural life in the Pacific Northwest, In his short story “A Short History of Oregon.” Brautigan ends with a vision of himself as a teenager standing before an isolated house in the woods with rain pouring down. A bunch of ragged children stare at him from the porch. The yard is full of metal debris. He says, “I had no reason to believe there was anything more to life than this." The isolation, rain, dark woods and poverty I had fled too We used to joke about the Indian stories from the Northwest, the long fantastic adventures of Coyote and others. What else is there to do but get out of the rain and fantasize? I felt a kinship with Richard’s work because he had solved the problem of what to write about and what to use. If his work is read carefully, it becomes Clear how fragile the things of culture are in his work. His style functions with that fragility, in its ability to fantasize change rapidly. To me that is a very Northwestern trait. We used to joke about the fact that we didn’t know anyone who could be called an artist when we grew up. In the hard _______________________________________ sssiB: ■ GARFISH, Miu D OGSAND THE 24 Clinton St. Quarterly PSA si i® I uu f Aju * I i o }JUMAN IORCH 777 Haight Street just below Divisadero. I was personally aware of only two writers then. Besides Richard, Kenneth Rexroth lived around the corner from me and walked his dogs. I was too shy to go up to him and talk. I had moved into the district because housing was cheap and available. Once I started to walk around the neighborhood, I discovered a lot of people who were similar to me. These people turned out to be hippies, according to the newspapers. At the time, they were simply local people who wanted apartments and pleasant nearby parks to walk in. They were, like Richard, strictly a local phenomenon. Brautigan's relationship to this phenomenon has been both a blessing and a curse to his work. His work, with its penchant for self-creation and joy. was representative of what people were doing on Haight Street in 1966. (I would not say it had much to do with what people were doing after 1967 in the Haight district.) I am sure that his work would have survived without it, but the fact is that without the audience that was there, it is difficult for me to say that his work would have reached as many people. That is a blessing, a mixed one, but still a blessing. However, something needs to be made . clear about this relationship between Brautigan’s work and the hippie scene. Richard had already written his first four novels before 1967. He did not produce those books to cash in on the craze. As I got to know him, I discovered that he had been on the dole from Grove Press. They had bought his first novel. Trout Fishing, and his second. Confederanyone who was now an artist who had been given any encouragement when young. From the homely and shopworn images around him, Brautigan created his art. He was aware of this process. The chapter in Trout Fishing about the Kool-Aid wino that culture was somewhere else, back East, in Europe; and I was given examples very foreign to my life in the Northwest. With the exception of Gary Snyder’s early poetry, no one else that I was reading in 1966 used the places, names and lure called The Last' Supper. But to return to that first d; Richard and Price: we went to lay with Golden Gate Park. We ended up at the Steinhardt Aquarium. By the time we had walked there, the three of us were already creatattitudes of the Northwest to create poetry ing a stream of running jokes and alfuof a tank of garfish when Price crossed the line. That was the first time I had ever seen a garfish. They are a southern fish, found in the rivers. Their huge bodies have an alligator snout tacked to the front of them. Bizarre fish. ‘'Garfish!" Price shouted. He pushed his ___ _________;_____— — ____ — . ------------------- ------------------- — Neither Richard nor I said anything. We were watching the rest of the tourists watching Price. There were a great deal more of them than us, and Price's exuberance was sure to offend some of them. I “First you get a corn cob,” Price said. People were backing away from him. Both of us had been seasoned Northwest fishermen, raised with a reverence for trout and the almost chivalric code of catching them. We took Price by the arm and led him away from the gars. We both I had the same thought: this was the most i bizarre way to get a fish we had ever | ate General. They had only published Confederate General, in 1964; it sold the aforementioned 743 copies. His third, In Watermelon Sugar, had been rejected, and there remained an option on his fourth, according to his contract. Each dole check put Richard deeper and deeper in debt, and there seemed to be no way out for him. He left the Grove Press dole when he submitted his fourth novel. The Abortion, and they rejected it. . I don't know if this account is correct in its details, but at the time I admired him for his courage and his belief in himself. All I am sure of is that Richard was extremely poor at the time I first knew him. How poor? He would walk over to my apartment on Saturdays or Sundays from Geary Street. The bus fare was only 15 cents but he walked. Once I asked him if he would like a sandwich before we walked up the hilt to the Haight Ashbury. ■ The way he said yes and the way he ate the peanut butter and jelly sandwich stayed in my mind. From then on I would have some food ready when he dropped by and we would eat a bit before we started on our rambles. Continued on next page Clinton St. Quarterly 25