Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Ronald Tipton and Patrick Flynn, 2017.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Where Did All the Flowers Go?

My flower child wife in 1967, during the innocent days of love and peace.

It is hard to pin down that decade. It wasn't really the 1960s. The first few years of the 'sixties were like a slow fade out of the Rock 'n' Roll revolution of the 1950s. Did it begin in February 1964 when the Beatles were the vanguard of the British Invasion upon the musical shores of the United States? This date certainly marked the beginning of a whole new creative breakout within the arts. I'm inclined to place it a bit earlier at the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and end it on August 9, 1974, when Richard Nixon left the White House in disgrace. Those dates certainly seem to border my own entry and exit of the Psychedelic Philadelphia period.

Although aspects of the movement date back to the Bohemians and the Beats, and small contingents of self-called Hippies exist today, as far as what people call the Hippie years was a very short period. It basically blossomed as a sub-culture with the January 1967 Be-In at San Francisco and the following Summer of Love. Its death began at Altamont in 1970.

The term Hippie was apparently coined in a 1965 newspaper article by journalist Michael Fallon about
the migration of Beatniks into the Haight-Asbury area of San Francisco. The exact meaning of the term is vague and uncertain. If it derived from "Hip" or "being in the know", it was a misnomer. I think Hippies were naive and escapist. The 1960s were hardly the "Decade of Peace and Love ". They were rather chaotic and violent, with police dogs, firehoses, cities rioting as the civil rights movement burned across the nation, and bloody and deadly as the Vietnam War raged overseas. Sticking flowers in the barrels of rifles ignored human nature and eventually someone pulled the trigger. The resulting images of My Lei in November 1969 and Kent State in May 1970 made this all too clear.

I suspected at some point the FBI or some such authority was reading my mail. My envelopes were coming to me opened or partially resealed. Why bother with me, pretty much a nobody. Who knows in those times? My wife and I had attended various protests in the city. We had been on a thing called "Pollution Trail" during the very first Earth day, riding about the area in a bus with fellow demonstrators, stopping at those places we considered the worse offenders against clean air and water, singing at them, shouting at them, getting our pictures taken by the mews media. I was writing for ultra-revolutionary underground publications, as well as letters to the editors of local newspapers, debating ministers and sending angry complaints to CEOs. I had supported and voted by write-in for Dick Gregory in the 1968 Presidential election. I subscribed to left-leaning magazines, such
as "Evergreen Review" and "Avant Garde".

One day I found a subpoena sticking from our mailbox. I was summoned to court on the grounds I had fraudulently registered to vote. This was in August of 1969. I had just begun a new job, circulation manager at North American Publishing Co. (I also wrote book reviews for their education industry magazine "Media & Methods"), and I had to take a day off from work to appear in court. When my wife and I moved to Philly we had registered as Democrats. She did not receive a subpoena, I did. I attributed this to the fact she listed her occupation as "Private Secretary" at U. of P., while I listed mine as "Writer". Arlen Spector was running for Mayor on the Republican Ticket, an office he would lose in a close race. The Republican Party was making an attempt prior to the election to take away the votes of students in the University City area on the belief they were mostly Democratic voters and I was swept up in their net. This event became the basis for my story "Toward Last November".

The people I knew or met and the situations of my life often became stories and that time frame was a productive period for me and 45% of my short fiction was penned between 1963 and 1974. The stories directly concerning my Psychedelic Philadelphia Days were collected in Keep All the Animals Warm (2004).  These were autobiographical  with "Cold", "Singing in the Streets", "Subway Stop", "City Scenes", "Tea and Coffee" and "Toward Last November" being especially so.

So where did the flowers in my bouquet go?

Diane, who wished to be a writer, just kinda drifted away.

Girard was older than the rest of us, married, divorced and father of a daughter who didn't understand the situation. He was a writer and trying to be a free spirit, but never came out into the nights and haunts with the core of our group. His situation with his family became the kernel of my story "Christmas Last" in my collection Daily Rhapsody (1971). It is the danger of being friends with a writer, your life becomes fodder for the mill of the writer's imagination. (Half of the stories in "Daily Rhapsody" were about people I knew at either ARCo ("Beach Boy", "Christmas Last", "Papier-Mache", "Most Admired Man in Rounke's Bar") or Lincoln Bank ("Fat Gal").

I do not know the final destinations of most of the core group, other than some apparently dropped their artistic dreams.

Jane (pictured right), who I often traveled up to Temple University with, for she lived in North Philly, may have defected to Cuba, but I really don't know. She was studying art and was active in the Black activist community. She was the one who introduced me to an editor in the Underground Press. Her boyfriend was a photographer in those same publications and by 1970 he had defected to Cuba. Jane kept urging me to not take day jobs, to trust my talent and live by it. Sometimes, perhaps more so, I wish I had listened to her.

Jim, who wanted us to start the band "Ethereal" became a Doctor of all things, perhaps the last thing any of us would have expected.

Joe (pictured left with my wife) and I had collaborated on a few pieces, but he was never fully committed to the kind of life the rest of us dreamed about. He was content to sit in Jim's basement or go to the Square with us. His number came up in the draft lottery and he ended up going to Vietnam, where he was wounded and heroic. After he came home he married and named his first child after me, stayed with ARCo and moved to Los Angeles when they moved their headquarters there.

I lost contact with him sometime after 1980.

I do not know what happened to Dot, the poet (pictured left), or to Michael and Maureen, the Actors (pictured right). I have googled the
names, but turned up nothing. If Michael and Maureen ever fulfilled their hopes of the Broadway Stage I do not know.

Part of the breakup lies with me. By 1970 I was getting published regularly and had also begun selling stories to the international pulps, "Magazine of Horror" and "Startling Mystery Stories". In a way I had moved beyond the group. The chatter in Jim's basement and around the Rittenhouse Fountain was always about some future time when we'd all be famous in our
fields. It was talk of projects we planned to do. It was talk and not doing. But I was doing. More and more I was writing and less and less going to these get-togethers to gossip and dream.

And then we moved from the city and after that the decade called the "sixties" had disappeared into the mid-seventies and everything changed and new eras began.

We lived during those Philadelphia days near Clark Park. Clark Park had the distinction that Charles Dickens once spoke there on his American tour. The Park was on the edge between the West Philadelphia communities and the Universities. During that decade it was decided to make the park a symbol of Love and Peace. It was the darling of the media for a while, but in the end it remained Clark Park and nothing more. (I based my story "Community Park" on it.)

Writers can't help but write and all the world becomes ink for their pen.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Hangin' at Jim's and other Hip Hotspots

"I think we should start a band," said Jim one night well into a second or third pitcher of Screwdrivers. That was our beverage of choice, easy to make, vodka and orange juice.

We met often in Jim's basement somewhere on the 1500 block of South Carlisle Street (pictured left). There was an old piano off in a corner, varied chairs and a beat up old sofa, some battered tables here and there, the main one holding the Screwdriver pitcher. It was dimly lit and filled with smoke, for we all smoked. I sometimes puffed on a pipe, like my father before me, but more often I lit up an extra-long, brown-paper wrapped Nat Sherman. This must have been before I quit my job and had money because you had to order Sherman cigarette and they weren't cheap then or now. I actually gave up smoking while still at ARCo. This is where most of us in our group had met originally.

This "we" were kindred in circumstance and desire. Most of us worked at ARCo during the day and attended college at night, and all had aspirations to the arts, with the possible exception of Joe, who was my closest friend at the time who went where I went and Lois, my wife. Girard, Diane, Jim, Dot and I were writers. Maureen and Michael were actors. Jane was an artist. Dot and I were also poets and Jim was also a composer, which is why that statement came that late evening.

The name we chose was Ethereal and Lois would be our lead singer. She would wear delicate and flimsy clothes that would leave the audience guessing if she were naked underneath her gown. (Pictured right, the core of Ethereal l. to r., Jim, me and Lois.) Jim would write the music and I the lyrics. It never came about, but we were quite serious for a while.

When not hangin' in Jim's basement, we would meander down to Rittenhouse Square and waste the night away gathered at the center fountain. I looked at images of that fountain and they all show its basin full of clear water. I remember it usually drained and dull looking, if filled with anything then it was brittle fallen leaves from the bare trees that dotted the landscape. I seem to remember those Philadelphia years more in winter than any other time of year, as in my photograph of the Square on the left.  We'd be there in the grim, cold nights, shivering in our bellbottoms and pea  jackets trying to look cool instead of cold.

The people of the park would float about us in the fog of their own breath, the colors of their varied costumes, for what were the outfits of that time but costumes, all turned to ash in the garish light of the lamps. People like us, I suppose, escaping that plastic world either by their artistic dreams or by the chemicals they ingested. They waltzed in the early hours, dancing almost, happy in their delusion of freedom, chatting, chanting or chattering into the wee hours, and we stayed until those wee hours, until the life drained away from many faces and the motions slowed and when faces came close you saw either the dilation or the desperation in their eyes. In the last moments the Gay men would drift through like a little steady stream, not in bunches usually, but somewhat detached from each other, strung out like a ribbon. They didn't linger, they just passed through our midst and went wherever they went as they came from wherever they came. It was by then the hour the bars closed. And then at last we too drifted off in our own directions.

Lois and I lived to the west, across the Schuylkill River and on clear nights we walked home. It seemed safe once upon a time in Philadelphia to do that. We would walk many places in the evenings without much apprehension for there were always crowds about then. I''ve walked in many city at late night and felt that way because things were alive and people were out, New York and New Orleans' French Quarter. I fear the streets in dead cities. Atlantic made me nervous. It was like an episode from The Twilight Zone where all the people disappered. Even on a Sunday afternoon the streets were eerie for their emptiness.

We would walk or ride the trolleys or the El to the coffeehouse theaters. Our favorite was The Trauma,
down in the middle of a block on Arch Street (Pictured right). The Trauma didn't sell alcohol. but you could say the smoky air was intoxicating.

I read recently a piece saying The Trauma closed because it couldn't compete with the Electric Factory, which had opened "several blocks north". In actuality, the Electric Factory opened at 22nd and Arch in an abandoned tire warehouse only about a half block down the street from The Trauma. As far as what put The Trauma out of business this is the story as I learned it at the time.

In the same year, 1967, as The Trauma opened Frank Rizzo became Philadelphia Police Commissioner. Rizzo was a tough cop with a vendetta against the alternate cultures of the time and political ambitions. (I'll speak about how Rizzo's ambitions effected me directly in a later post.) Rizzo liked to see his name in the headlines as single-handedly fighting the evils of the city as he saw them. It was said that he personally padlocked The Trauma. At any rate, he led the effort to shutter these "dens of inequity that drew the wrong kind of people and ruined the neighborhood for decent residents." Thus The Trauma, which drew both Hippies and outlaw bikers to it venue had to go. My wife and I had stood in line with members of The Warlocks to attend Tim Buckley's concert at the Trauma.

Not long after The Truama closed a barroom opened on the site, thus bring a better clientele to the neighborhood. Although The Electric Factory still exists, it too shut down at that location in 1973, the year Rizzo became Mayor of Philadelphia. It was resurrected in 1995 several blocks north of the Arch Street location on 7th Street near Spring Garden in a former electric company (how appropriate).

We also traveled out to Manayunk to a theater called Kaleidoscope, a place with a Psychedelic facade and theater seating. Acts such as Earth Opera played there. My most vivid memory of being at Kaleidoscope was it having co-ed rest rooms. Remains of the Kaleidoscope remain inside a warehouse (pictured right).

It was in the square and on these streets that I collected my stories, sometimes autobiographical and sometimes about my friends and sometimes about these strangers who touched me now and again. I'll speak to the roots of some of those stories in my next post.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Psychedelic Philadelphia and Me

We moved to Philadelphia in the late sixties. I was unemployed; that is, I wasn't employed by any place that gave me a regular paycheck. Some months before it seemed to me a good idea to quit my job at ARCo and spent my days writing a novel and sending out stories to various magazines and collecting the resulting rejection slips.

My wife procured a position as private secretary to the head of University of Pennsylvania's Chemistry Department making her our main provider. I was picking up some pittance writing term papers, speeches and other essays for college students too lazy to do their own assignments. As a result I was carrying an A average in three schools I never attended, Community College of Philadelphia, LaSalle University and St. Joseph's University. I was just establishing myself as a local writer with "Philadelphia After Dark". None of this together paid enough to support one person much less two.

I dickered around with pen names on the theory of preserving my private life under anonymity. One didn't want to be pestered in public once those prizes, such as the Pulitzer and Nobel, started rolling in. A writer could have the best of both worlds, fame and fortune under some phony byline and peace and quite under his given moniker. If Mark Twain walked into a saloon and said, "Howdy, I'm Sam Clements," they probably bought him a sarsaparilla and told him tales of life they would never have revealed to the famous author. I considered being "Lem Brown", which sort of preserved my family links as well as my initials.

Ghostwriting for others never reveled my name at all, of course. My client's signature goes under the title and they get the credit. No one would ever know my involvement, unless I told, as I am, or they told, which they wouldn't. They couldn't very well saunter up to their professor and say, "By the way, I hired someone to write this for me." They'd find their golden A had quickly become a red F.

I signed the essays written for "The Communicator" as "Loop" and underground publications, such as "Psychedelphia Period", as Eugene Lawrence. It was too little too late. I was on the newsstands in "Philadelphia After Dark" under my full name. When my stories started to sell to a wider market it was under my full name and just about everything there after.

These were days when between writing assignments I would wander from trolley stop to trolley stop looking for dropped change. A quarter would buy a bag of soft pretzels at any street vendor, a bag containing three. Quite often this would be both my breakfast and lunch, a mobile meal I could consume as I walked about the city. I'm afraid this is a habit that has stayed with me; both eating soft pretzels and walking about.

(I titled a collection of essays about Philadelphia Pretzels For Lunch, as a matter of fact.)

Always a walker, it became a nessesity when we lived in Philly. It was the cheap way to get around. My assignments from "Philadelphia After Dark" took me hither and yon about town, from Quince Pye on the tiny alleyway of Quince Street East of Broad (the picture on the right is of that location as it is today) to the Pocket Playhouse at 2601 Lombard.

The actors of the Pocket Playhouse lived together in a commune somewhere on the Hippie Streets between Waverly and South off 26th Street. Those
Hippie streets of deteriorating buildings, second-hand clothing stores, bell, book and candle vendors, head shops along with the Pocket Playhouse and the colorfully painted sidewalks are gone now, covered by brick townhouses and gentrification. The Hippies displaced by the Yuppies and even the Yuppies probably displaced now.  It isn't the same as when I and friends oft visited to buy psychedelic posters and cheap clothes.

South Street retains the reputation of hipness, but those streets then were sweeter and more innocent, often joyful, while South Street today is gaudy, noisy and jostling. (Photo on the right, titled "Buttermilk Toast on South Street" was taken in 1968; photo on left is South Street today.)

We lived in West Philadelphia, the area known as University City, because of the institutes of higher learning located there. There was a dormitory of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy right behind our building. We rented a studio apartment on Chester Avenue just off 42nd Street. The Commodore still exists as an apartment house. What its clientele is today, I do not know, but then it was students, Hippies, druggies, prostitutes and us.

We moved into the "No pets allowed" apartment with a hamster and an Iguana, sneaking their cages in at midnight. Coming in we heard the Super's voice down the hall. We dashed into our digs and shut the door only to discover the hamster had escaped. Not long after we heard a woman scream and thought someone found Hammy. But the little beast showed up three days later, its back greasy from being under the refrigerator.

Women's screams were not unusual. The pair down the hall sometimes broke the night calm with her screaming in the hall, attacked by invisible critters in her drugged state, he trying to ease her back to their room.

There were different screams at night above us. A prostitute lived there and from our bathroom you could hear every sound of her business. We had the most erotic bathroom in Philly. It was common, too, to hear the clickety-clack of a big wheels, ridden up and down the hall at 2:00 AM by the 8-year old son of the other prostitute, who shared the same floor with us.

(Left: Lois at the Commodore, 1969)

"I think we should start a band," said Jim one night well into a second or third pitcher of Screwdrivers.  Ah, but this brings us to who we hung with and where we did the hanging. We will save that for the next time.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Fickle Finger of Fate Don't Bend So Much These Days or A High Five Might Bring Me Low

Okay, so where were we before being rudely interrupted by nostalgia? Oh, yeah, wobbling on the brink of old age and its requisite aches and pains. We'd just scooted to the doctor and been hustled off to an emergency colonoscopy, if you can call a week later hustling. It was a long week, too, because the "Big C" hovered about my brain like an angry wasp. Praise the Lord, and I don't say that flippantly, I mean it most sincerely, it wasn't that dire.

It was merely angioectasia in the cecum, a medium hiatal hernia, granularity and friability in the antrum and an ulcer in the distal bulb. The last was the bloody culprit, an ulcer (the only word I could recognize other than hernia in all that) in the duodenum (for those such as I who don't know where the distal bulb is). There is no sense to going to all those years of medical school and racking up all those student loads if you are going to talk in plain English. Just saying, "You got a bleeding hole in your gut," doesn't sound worth all that effort learning those sesquipedalian words. (I was an English minor in college so I should throw around words worth my effort too.)

We've rather dealt with my lower G.I. problems in past posts such as Glory Be, the Lord Must Know How Much I love Tomatoes. (By the way, once upon the time "potatoe' with the "e" was the correct spelling, and in fact was the preferred spelling within "The New York Times" until 1988. The Sun Valley Potatoe Growers still use that spelling. So you say "potato" and Dan Qualye said "potatoe, so lighten up you spelling elitist, by any such spelling it is still a starchy tuber. I know it is besides the point, but tomatoes reminded of that to-do over nothing.) Anyway, as I was staying, we've dealt with my intestinal perforations so let's move on to my other bodily ravages.

My gastroenterologist must have done something while poking about in there because my bleeding ulcer stopped seeping and he told me I could eat what I wished. Oh, I came out of that follow-up appointment clapping my hands, but three days later not so much. I couldn't clap. My right hand was swollen up, was red and hurt like a tank had run over it...twice. 

Yeah, I am use to these arthritis attacks. They put one in agony for  few days, ease up, go away and then after some nonspecific time period return to plague a different joint. Not so this time. Pain gripped me like grim death for a week, for two weeks and it spread from my middle finger to my index finger and back again, like it was playing tennis with my digits. Once again I was driven to another long-named doctor, a rheumatologist. 

I got some damage in that hand that I guess is permanent. My pinky finger has an unnatural bent to it and my pointing finger has no bend at all. It just pokes straight out there with a hook at the end. I must forever avoid fights for I can no longer make a fist. Still in all, the good doc put me on a steroid (Prednisone) for three weeks and the pain and swelling dissipated. You can't stay on that stuff long though or it turns you into the Hulk.

Now I am on an antimetabolite and antifolate substance called Methotrexate,  the same drug used in
 cancer chemotherapy. It comes with a long list of scary possible side effects (one of which is hair loss, but as you can see it is too late for that to worry me). 

The biggest threats to me are to my liver, thus I must go for blood tests every four weeks to assure that organ isn't fizzling out, and suppression of my immune system. This latter side effect has the somewhat positive effect of reducing my psoriasis. So if my liver goes and I die I will at least have pretty skin.

I find myself getting tired more these days, which is another possible side issue of this treatment. And so again I claim I now qualify as elderly. Oh, I also have to take a daily dose of Folic Acid. Remember that term for this stuff, antifolate? Yeah, it depletes your folic acid and you need a bit of that. If you don't have it you may have:  diarrhea, macrocytic anemia with weakness or shortness of breath, nerve damage with weakness and limb numbness, pregnancy complications (I doubt this!), mental confusion, forgetfulness or other cognitive declines, mental depression, sore or swollen tongue, peptic or mouth ulcers, headaches, heart palpitations, irritability, and behavioral disorders, impairment of DNA synthesis and repair, which could lead to cancer development.

Ain't we gots fun when we gets old?