Wednesday, February 01, 2012
San Francisco, 1980-1983: a Zen Prequel
OK, as I'm sure you've figured out from looking at the cars, this is not a picture from the early '80's; it's a screen capture from Google Maps of the sort-of-Edwardian home I occupied only for one year, in 1982 and 1983. That's it, the yellow building in the center (I'm lucky it hasn't been as extensively remodeled as the rest of the street). You went up the stairs and through the red door on the right, which led to the main floor and the "basement" of the house (the latter still being above street level). I'm sure there are architectural terms for these things, I just don't know them. The house had been subdivided, and I shared in with a largely absentee roommate during my last year in law school and my last year in the Bay Area. That year was mostly a raucous party time, though largely a joyous one. San Francisco is one city where I've lived from which, after I'd left, though I didn't really miss the people, I missed the city itself - which has a personality like no other. I don't know how similar it feels now, but at that time, it was magic.
I'd moved to California in 1980, my choice of law schools influenced less by Stanford's prestige than by the pictures of palm trees on the promotional materials I was reviewing while sitting out a wet, cold winter in Rutland, Vermont. I'd been on the move since my graduation from UT Knoxville in 1979, taking a year off after my B.A. to figure out the next step. I'd met my girlfriend, who became my second fiancee, at UT during the one semester she (barely) attended there, and the two of us had gone to Vermont because we had nothing else to do, she had family and personal connections there, and she could work as a ski instructor. I spent a season as a snowmaker and lift attendant, and learned to ski from a bunch of expert instructors was to get stoned and make me come down from the top of the mountain (which admittedly, wasn't much of one. I think the ski area went bankrupt that year; I remember that we had problems getting paid). Enough said of that at the moment; we drank a lot, and you notice there's no pic of Rutland, VT, on here.
Actually, it was prior, in the basement of an old home which backed up to the Tennessee River in Knoxville which had been reorganized into a semi-commune for UT professors and grad students (my being there is yet another story for elsewhen), that I had introduced my girlfriend to my Zen books and thoughts. Please realize that it was about this time that the San Francisco Zen Center was getting really big under the leadership of Richard Baker; all that is better documented in the book reviewed in this earlier blog entry. But all we had to read at the time - for I know of no actual Zen practice in that area at that time, as an alternative - for Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, still often used as an intro to Soto Zen, Kapleau's The Three Pillars of Zen, and I remember Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, though the cites I find now show a later publishing date for that latter. That and whatever I had been taught in some classes. So I had acquired some interest, but never practiced. My girlfriend caught onto it like a house on fire, though, and the Zen seed apparently germinated during the Vermont winter, because by the time we got to the Bay Area in the fall of 1980, she was ready to try real practice.
The original situation was odd: Though we'd been living together off and on since the spring of 1979, the fiancee and I lived separately in California. I had housing in the Stanford Law School dorm, with a roommate, and she went to live with her brother and his girlfriend in Tahoe City, CA, about five hours away by car (which I didn't have with me, that first year). So I used to fly frequently from the Oakland airport to Carson City, NV, where I would be picked up and trundled through the mountains up to the Calfornia side of Lake Tahoe. It was beautiful and I fell in love the little remnants of mining and gaming towns in Nevada, a love which was probably a factor in my later move to New Mexico. The situation was fascinating in and of itself; as my girlfriend and I drifted apart over the years, I stayed close with her brother, who if he reads this will be one of the few I know now that I knew then. With him I had some of the wildest, craziest times of my existence, which could be the subject matter of quite a lot more writing. There was a lot of heavy drinking and Doors music involved, not to mention my real introduction to Kerouac and the beat writers, whose ghosts I chased through San Francisco for three years. He (the brother, not Jack Kerouac, though at time it would have been hard to tell, since both were writers and had some of the same habits) was living with the estranged wife of one of the founders of the Haight Street clinic, in a big house one row up from the Lake which had originally been bought as a place for Haight Street addicts to be taken to dry out, and which showed the scars therefrom. Wild times indeed, but lots of thoughts, white hot thoughts, seared deep into my memories.
Anyway, the mistress of that Lake Tahoe house had connections to the San Francisco Zen Center, and she encouraged and abetted my girlfriend's connection with it. I honestly don't remember how that all got started, but soon she had moved from Tahoe City to San Francisco and was living (a "resident") at what the SFZC now called City Center, on Page St. - a few blocks from where I was to live later, above. I don't remember how long she lived there, but during that time (while I lived at Stanford in Palo Alto for two years), I visited her, of course, and the Zen Center a bit less often. I remember the intro talks in the main room upstairs, then downstairs to the basement areas where the students sat zazen, and it was there, probably in 1981, that I got my first taste of it.
No doubt, zazen and Zen itself were not for me at that point. For one thing, I was heaving involved in the first year of law school, which is a fundamental revision of one's thinking that I've never escaped, for good or ill, probably both. On the other hand, I was apparently too young, at 24 (though some can do it that young or younger) for the discipline of Zen - was well as too debauched. I remember sitting through a seemingly endless day of zazen and painting bathrooms, really only dreaming of going out and getting a beer somewhere in the wonderland of San Francisco that I'd just discovered. I remember visiting Green Gulch farm, and hearing Richard Baker speak, though I don't, and probably didn't, retain a shred of what he said. I remember that the scenery was beautiful; but honestly at that time, in that area - I'd rather drink some wine.
And drink we did! In our homes, and with our friends and her brother, in aging WPA-rebuilt and redecorated bars up and down the Pacific Coast Highway, through North Beach, in Vesuvio's over the City Lights book store where in those days one could still find Lawrence Ferlinghetti and some aging beats among the wannabes. And later, during my third year of law school, I moved with a roommate to San Francisco. He had an externship with the San Francisco Public Defender, I with the US Attorney's Office. It was only during that nine months or so that I had a chance to fully explore, within my own limits and those of my student's budget, that city that I came so much to love. Mostly I remember the hungover, early morning fog-shrouded Saturday mornings that I'd walk from my home at Page and Laguna through the Panhandle and through Golden Gate Park itself, to the ocean. Seeing the old men playing at lawn bowling, the horse, the remants of the hippies, and the distinctive smell of that city - to emerge at Seal Point, at the Cliff House at the North end of Ocean Beach, to start drinking beers and wandering back across town, homeward via everywhere... eventually to wind up on the bus....
So you see, I never really got started at Zen in those days, just a lasting taste that came back years later, through other forms of Buddhism to manifest over twenty years later. Meanwhile, my girlfriend I remember stayed affiliated with the San Francisco Zen Center for some years, living after City Center with some Zen roommates, and some classmates of mine from Stanford to whom she became closer than I ever did. Later, following the event known at that Center as the Apocalypse, the fall from grace of Richard Baker, she moved on to other teachers, other worlds. I remember she was excited about Rajneesh at one time - before he had his own crash and burn and was reincarnated as Osho. And others. Her brother and I feared that the stream of teachers and teachings for her was never ending. But she eventually found her own peace and a family, it seems, and I'm glad for that. For me in those days, such things were not to be - I had a long way to go before I encountered any kind of serenity. But you know that part.
I left San Francisco in May, 1983, and returned only once after that, a couple of years later, to visit. But it has a permanent place in memory. Some day soon I hope to recover a pic from that era, and put it here. Meanwhile, I just wanted to put up these memories here, because it's a missing piece in this library of articles, the personal side of my first relationship with Zen and its followers. Maybe there's something about how, even at the time, it seemed to work as a solvent to the kind of relationships I think are really important, and to encourage something else, a communal spirit that I think, even at that time, in which I no longer believed. Maybe not - maybe I just wanted to think about San Francisco, and my adventures there. You choose.