It was the 60s, and my family had moved back to San Francisco from the suburbs. “The suburbs” suggests a far greater affluence than was true of the cultural wasteland where I had spent the 10 years of my life before the age of 14. We lived in small, cheap houses built in response to the West Coast post-war population boom. No one had a swimming pool or a den or any typically suburban luxury, though we all had little lawns. There were large expanses of land as yet undeveloped, and lots of weed lots to play war in. War consisted of our collecting a variety of seed pods and throwing them at each other. We were girls, after all, and didn’t make shooting noises. Most of our time was devoted to the collection of armaments, since throwing them didn’t take much time. We would have fit right in with any primitive hunter-gatherer group. There were still fields under cultivation (artichokes) and even a horse or two tethered in a yard. Looking back, I would have traded it all for the advantages of living in a city.
After my father’s death, my mother struggled a few years to keep us in our tiny house, earning a miserable salary as an office clerk. My aunt Rosa, always generous, suggested an improvement: she and Mom would buy a house together in San Francisco, and by sharing expenses, make life easier for us, though not necessarily for her. Poor Rosa. She didn’t realize that she was about to move in with a couple of American teenagers. She loved us through all the turmoil of my sister Angela’s and my adolescence. We discovered the freedoms available at the epicenter of the hippie movement. The city was much, much more interesting than anything the suburbs had to offer.
M. Moreau, a expatriate Frenchman and proud American citizen, was my homeroom teacher at Lowell High School. He was a bit of a buffoon, a comic stereotype of a Frenchman, all lavish gestures and emotional speech. His repeated exhortation to us kids was to love our country, the best in the world. I, in my developing rebellion, refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance, right after a well-publicized Supreme Court decision said that students could refuse as an exercise of their First Amendment rights. M. Moreau would put one hand on my shoulder and another on his heart, and stick his face in mine, closer than would have felt comfortable with an American teacher but excusable with M. Moreau on the grounds of Frenchness, and say, “But why won’t you say the Pledge? This is the best country in the world. I love this country!” His sincerity embarrassed and amused me, and I would tell him that I objected on principle to saying the Pledge. He would shake his head, confounded, tsk-ing at my ingratitude toward the greatest nation in the world.
In spite of the fact that Lowell was a college prep high school, I received astonishingly little guidance on the subject of college. Maybe it was because the school administration shared the view of the junior high school counselor who advised me against going to the best school in the city, for which you had to qualify with grades and ambition. She told me, “There won’t be anyone else like you there.” I said that was OK, there wasn’t anyone like me anywhere. I didn’t realize, until a Black friend explained it to me (she had the same advice given to her), that it meant there would be no other Latinos. Oh. The school district was later taken to task for steering Black and Latino kids away from Lowell.
In any event, I introduced myself into the hippie element, who didn’t care what I was. I did it through careful planning. I had no idea how to become a member of a social group, and none of the hippie kids were in my classes for me to befriend casually. I noticed that the area where the hippie kids congregated, “the pit” (which still exists, I believe, having read a story about that very same pit published by a more successful writer in the New Yorker), was also where kids went to smoke. It was at the back of the campus, screened by scraggly trees from view of the teachers and office staff, and away from most of the other kids. It was not a location you went to accidentally.
I wanted to be part of that crowd, but I was seriously shy. My plan was to learn to smoke so I could infiltrate the pit people disguised as a smoker. I pilfered cigarettes from my grandmother’s pack, just two or three at a time, and leaned out of the window of my bedroom late at night, learning to puff. They made me light-headed, but I persevered. When I could smoke without coughing, truly inhaling and now enjoying it, I meandered down to the pit during one lunch period and sat on the low retaining wall where the kids hung out. As kids gathered to light up and talk, I was right in the middle of them. Eventually, someone asked my name, and we talked a bit. I went back a few days later.
Soon, I was a regular. I met the kids with whom I would play at dropping out of society, as we were advised by to do Timothy Leary. I met my best friend Trish, a long-haired blond beauty, and our leader in adventures, Matt, who affected a somewhat Southern accent, which he claimed was because he came from “south of the Slot,” a rough neighborhood south of Market Street, the main street of San Francisco, though in fact, he lived in the same affluent neighborhood as Trish. Matt introduced us to his friends outside Lowell, tough kids from Polytechnic High, and I moved between the two groups, the hippies and the thugs, my curiosity and search for thrills overcoming my natural shyness.
The drop-out philosophy included a lot of school cutting. There was really no way to get away with cutting class as much as we did. Either you were absent, in which case you were on a list which was circulated to all your teachers and had to justify your absence, or you got busted for each class you missed. I called in several times claiming to be my mother, but I gave that up after a while. I knew the school would not believe I was sick three days out of every week. So I adopted a strategy of missing homeroom, so that I would make the absence list, then going to the classes I enjoyed and skipping the rest. That meant that I didn’t get cut slips. I owed the office an absence note, but I could make endless excuses. It was not a well-controlled, stable situation, and I got expelled eventually, but meanwhile I dodged the dean and avoided detention almost entirely, in between excursions to Haight Street with Trish and Matt.
One time, we got busted by the police for being kids with no good reason for walking through the Golden Gate Park panhandle, headed for Haight Street. It was a bust worth recording because of the convergence of so many varieties of police vehicles. We could have been bank robbers or drug traffickers for that bust to have been worth the effort. We were stopped by horse cops, who patrolled the park. They called for backup. Within a few minutes, we had several black and whites, an unmarked vehicle, a motorcycle cop, and eventually, for our benefit, a paddy wagon. We were loaded in the paddy wagon and taken to Park Police Station, notorious for brutality and clashes with hippies, now shut down by the City. There, our parents were called, and we were ignominiously taken home by angry parents.
I rarely showed up for homeroom anymore, and when I did, M. Moreau rewarded me with a special display of love and dismay. He was so happy I had come to homeroom, but where had I been? Didn’t I know how important it was to come to school? I was so lucky to be an American! Couldn’t I please come to school more regularly? What could he do to help me? Did I have a problem? Did I need to talk to someone? I could come to him any time. He only wanted to help. He went on in a way that no teenager could help but find embarrassing, yet I didn’t hate M. Moreau. I thought him a bit of a nut, but not a bad guy. I do believe he would have done anything to help me. I think if I came to him and told him I was pregnant or on drugs, he would have tried to help and not judged me. He was just too absurdly sincere for an American teenager to take seriously.
This is a snapshot of my life as a teenager. If you add in the fights at home, you get the general idea. But high school doesn’t last forever, especially when you’re expelled in your senior year. I was supposed to go to a continuation school, a type of school where high schools sent their problem kids and kids who, for whatever reason, were too old for high school but had not yet graduated. If this was intended to help me graduate, the district miscalculated. The school was a couple blocks from Haight Street. Where did they think I would go?
After giving up continuation school, I drifted for a few years in and out of S.F. City College, the junior college system requiring only that you be 18 to enroll. As I aced the entrance exams, which were designed to place you either in college or remedial classes, I found that I could be a college student without the necessity of graduating from high school. This was an opportunity that I eventually took seriously, but those first few years of being a high school drop-out and sometime college student were largely dedicated to partying. In that period, I reconnected with Fat Allen, a kid from another school, a friend from my pre-hippie era, who now rode a motorcycle. Suddenly, Fat Allen was far sexier than he used to be. This is my secret, and I’ll share it with you if you promise not to tell. I’m a slut for a motorcycle. Sex was not an issue for me anyway, being into free love as I was, and I liked him well enough. We began a relationship, which involved, as far as I can remember, a lot of motorcycle riding.
Fat Allen had something besides a motorcycle, which few of my other drifter friends had: a job. He had an actual trade. He was a printer. He took me on an after-hours tour of the print shop where he worked, and I got to see how the plates were made and how the machine cranked out printed materials to the heady smell of ink. Fat Allen looked better to me all the time.
So when he proposed that we move in together, I didn’t think twice. I was 19. High time I had my own place. I could be a student, and Allen would support me. For six months, I made an attempt to have my first real, living-together relationship. My friends helped carry my furniture up to our third-story apartment in a nice part of town adjacent to the Haight. It was the thought of my friends with my heavy dresser on those stairs that made me stay even six months. Fat Allen and I were not compatible. He did not read. He was not bright. He was not liberal. All those things I had overlooked, dazzled by the motorcycle and the job, slapped me in the face when we were living together. Oh, I wanted it to work. I cooked the two or three things I knew how to make, over and over: chili and beans, spaghetti, and coq au vin, a bastard version. I tried to keep the place tidy, hauled laundry up and down three flights of stairs, and endured sex with one of the worst partners I’ve ever had. I was even determined to see that we had a real Christmas together. I bought a little tree and a few lights, and borrowed some ornaments from Mom.
I needed a Christmas gift for Fat Allen. I saved some money from my orphan’s Social Security check, which I got for being a student whose father had paid into the system and then died. I decided to get him something sexy, something unusual, something that suggested a passion that I did not feel. In those days of briefs or nothing, I remembered my father’s boxers. I would get Fat Allen a pair of silk boxer shorts. Back then, boxers, especially silk, were exotic, a luxury item. I went to the best known men’s store downtown. At 19, even having had the free-ranging adventures that I already had and having a very liberal view of sex, I found it intimidating to go into a men’s store and actually buy a pair of men’s underwear. I was uncomfortably aware that everyone in there was a man, and the salesmen were all, well, men, too. I summoned my nerve and asked one to direct me to the boxers. There, I said it. I found the boxer corner and started pawing through the stacks of shorts, looking for something acceptable in an extra large.
“May I ‘elp you?” The French accent was familiar. I turned to the salesman. To my horror, it was M. Moreau, taking on a Christmas job during the school break for extra cash, I guessed. We stared at each other. He recovered first.
“Ah, my dear Sirenita! And how are you? Everything is well?”
“Oh, yes, everything is just great,” I said, not sounding convincing even to myself. I half expected him to put his face close to mine and ask if I had been going to school. But M. Moreau didn’t probe.
“And what can I help you to find?” asked my homeroom teacher, as though I were any other customer.
This was a test. Was I a kid, or was I a woman of the world? Should I pretend I was looking for the ties or plunge right in? Feigning an insouciance that I did not feel, I answered, “I’m looking for a pair of silk boxer shorts, extra large.”
“Oh, but we have lots of beautiful boxers!” The same enthusiasm, the same sincerity, as he held up one pair or another, and asked, “How about this? What do you think?”
“Um, I was thinking blue...”
He displayed a pair of shorts with a discreet pattern in blue.
“Yes, I’ll take those.”
“Will you want them gift-wrapped?”
I turned down gift-wrapping. I had to get out of there.
I paid M. Moreau, gaining a little confidence from the fact that I could produce that much cash for a pair of underwear, and he presented the bagged shorts with a flourish. “Thank you very much, my dear.”
“Thank you,” I said and turned to leave. I stopped, turned back and gave him a real smile, finally seeing the humor in the situation as I was about to be released from it and grateful for the unexpected aplomb and sensitivity that went with his theatrical presentation. To the only teacher who cared enough to ask if I had a problem, comical as he was, I said “Thank you.”