Years ago, a friend and I had a tradition that involved reciting to the other, while driving to a holiday dinner, a list of items for which we were grateful.
“John Madden!” I yelled out one year.
“Oh, wait! Vince Guaraldi!”
Yes, the guy who wrote the score for A Charlie Brown Christmas – a TV special that, nearly 60 years later, may be the most popular Christmas show ever aired on television.
But he was so much more than that, especially to San Franciscans: a local boy; a boogie-woogie man with a wicked handlebar moustache who slid off piano benches and missed his own award shows and died young; and a beloved, talented central figure in the City’s cool heyday of nightlife and jazz.
Vincent Anthony Guaraldi was born in 1928 in North Beach, a close-knit Italian neighborhood in San Francisco.
At the time, North Beach – for the most part – had lost the unruly coarseness of the Barbary Coast days, and the beat movement had yet to arrive. But it was still an earthy place, permissive and rambunctious. Bootleggers and speakeasies found a good home there. Mixed-race jazz clubs – forbidden in most of the country – hosted traveling ragtime and New Orleans–style jazzmen like King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton.
A couple of Vince’s uncles were accomplished musicians, and the young boy hammered out beats alongside his piano-playing uncle Muzzy before beginning piano lessons of his own at the age of seven. The instrument became an obsession, and when he entered Lincoln High School (which had opened in San Francisco’s Sunset District in 1940) he did the usual musician thing, playing at dances, parties, and rallies – anywhere he could slam on the ivories. He would also meet his future wife, Shirley Moskowitz, there.
Guaraldi’s early influences were boogie-woogie players. Boogie-woogie is all about having a good time; it’s fast, danceable, and unrestrained. But it’s not easy to play. Scat singer Jon Henricks described it this way: “You have to split your mind right down the middle,” he said, explaining that one half of your mind plays the left hand and the other half of your mind the right. Guaraldi had no problem with that. He was a natural.
In the 1940s, during World War II, African-American shipyard workers and their families – mostly from the American South – moved to San Francisco and, along with musicians and other artists, helped transform the Fillmore area into an energetic jazz neighborhood deemed “the Harlem of the West.” A new kind of jazz called bebop was taking hold. Bebop evolved from swing music and incorporated improvisation, complexity, and fast tempos. The city’s jazz scene burgeoned as people kicked around town searching for all-night entertainment. Clubs were everywhere, sometimes three or four to a block. The crowds were intense and committed.
“Fog, Irish coffee, cable cars, hills, pretty girls, bridges, crazy restaurants, and jazz. That’s what people think of when they hear ‘San Francisco,’ ” wrote San Francisco Chronicle music critic Ralph Gleason.
Writer Jack Kerouac, who was slouching around the City by then and who riffed like a jazzman, talked about “the throb of neon in the soft night, the clack of high-heeled beauties . . . . Here were the children of the American bop night. . . . Everybody in Frisco blew. It was the end of the continent.”
After graduating from high school in 1946, Guaraldi was drafted and shipped off to Korea for two years, where he served as a cook. Upon his return he enrolled in a music class at San Francisco State but wasn’t serious and never graduated. He also got a job at the San Francisco Daily News as a “printer’s devil” – an apprentice-level job that involved mixing ink tubs and loading type. (Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Benjamin Franklin were once printer’s devils.) But at some point he almost lost a hand in a printing machine and quit. There was no sense risking his meal ticket.
Vince continued taking every gig he could get – a random joint in Yosemite, an all-night lesbian bar in the Tenderloin – and spending his free time hanging out at jazz clubs like the Black Hawk, which opened in 1949 at Turk and Hyde. He wasn’t old enough to drink, but thanks to a (dodgy) agreement between the owner and Mayor George Christopher, the Black Hawk skirted liquor laws by allowing minors in and separating them from the rest of the patrons by chicken wire.
Eventually Guaraldi met Latin-jazz drummer Cal Tjader, and when Tjader’s pianist Dave Brubeck was injured in a 1951 diving accident, Vince joined the trio. His rip-roaring style, combining the buoyancy of boogie-woogie and the energy of bebop, was a deluge of adrenaline. “In the beginning, Vince was so excited in his playing, it was like trying to hold back a colt or a stallion,” Tjader remembered. “Eventually he became aware of the fact that you don’t play every tune like a bebop express running 120 miles an hour.”
By 1954, Guaraldi was fronting a house trio six nights a week at the “hungry i” nightclub in North Beach. Established in 1950 and owned by Enrico Banducci, the place catered to beatniks and bohemians and booked edgy or nonconformist comics like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, and Phyllis Diller. Jazz and comedy at the time were both progressive art forms. “The comics and the musicians hung out together,” Vince said. “We were outlaws; we lived in an underworld, at night.” Guaraldi would finish his sets at the hungry i and then jam until dawn at after-hours clubs like Jimbo’s Bop City, where musicians got in free after 2 a.m.
Short and a bit stocky, with small hands, Guaraldi would compensate by using his speed on the keys. Or he’d use his fists, or his elbows, to add emphasis. “Vince is always pulling splinters from his fingers, driven in when he claws at the wooden baseboard, behind the keys,” said Gleason. He was intense, bending low over the piano, often oblivious to what was going on around him.
“I watched one night as [Guaraldi] bowed his head over the keys and dug into a blues solo,” wrote jazz historian Doug Ramsey. “The intensity of swing increasing, his forehead almost touching the music rack, he worked his way up the keyboard in a series of ascending chromatic figures and played off the end of the bench, onto the floor. Guaraldi picked himself up, did not bother to dust himself off, slid into place and went back to work. He lost a couple of bars, but not the swing.”
He was a truly percussive player, “a rare and wonderful combination of melody, power and jazz swing,” remembered drummer Fritz Kasten. “His ‘time feeling’ was just wonderful; he was like a freight train. You just had to climb aboard, hold on and hope for the best.”
Guaraldi’s first studio album, Vince Guaraldi Trio, was recorded at Fantasy Studios in San Francisco and released in 1956. Sales were low, but he and his wife were able to buy a tiny house in Daly City, just south of San Francisco. He started growing a ridiculous handlebar moustache. And he kept up his gigs. For a long time he played steadily at the Black Hawk – six nights a week, three 90-minute shows a night. Imagine that kind of commitment and stamina, despite the cramped, smoky environs of jazz clubs at the time. “The stage was so small that Coltrane started his solo in the kitchen hallway,” remembered audience member Dan Celli.
“There was no ventilation, and everybody smoked in those days; when you inhaled, you’d get 75 brands,” said drummer Al Torre. “It was terrible; on every break, I’d stand outside and breathe fresh air. Every day, I’d lay out on the beach and clear my lungs.”
But when Playboy magazine ran an extensive feature on San Francisco’s food and entertainment scene, with a long section on jazz, it called the Black Hawk “the most swingin’ jazz club in town, and one of the craziest in the country. It’s a smoky joint, serving ordinary drinks, but the music is the end.”
A Chronicle reporter named Jim Walls described the jazz scene in the late fifties. “Near Fillmore and in the Tenderloin, especially, those institutions known as ‘after-hours joints’ present music and entertainment until long after dawn has streaked the sky,” he wrote, while musicians “slay the powers of darkness in an endless and often exciting jam session. . . . On weekends, especially, the . . . customers will fail to find even standing room in Bop City. The musicians steam away at one end of the big room. In front of them, a wall-to-wall carpeting of jazz buffs waves to the wind instruments like a field of ripe corn.”
Those days must have been just wild. Guaraldi drummer Benny Barth recalled one incident when the trio was heading across the Bay Bridge to an East Bay gig. He was in one car and Vince and the bassist were in another. “They came up beside me. It was a warm evening; they had the windows down, and so did I. They were both sitting in the front, sharing a joint. Then Monty reached over and passed it to me! Luckily, he waited until it was about gone, because I didn’t want to have to pass it back; I took a couple of tokes and threw it out. I guess that proves that we were musicians, tried and true!”
Guaraldi’s first commercial breakthrough came in 1962, when he and his trio recorded the album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, inspired by a 1959 Brazilian/French/Italian film called Orfeu Negro that had a bossa nova soundtrack by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa. Bossa nova is based on samba music and appealed to Guaraldi’s upbeat, percussive style. One side of the album featured his interpretations of Orfeu songs, and on the other side appeared two standards and two of his originals, one of which was “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” The tune was agile and delicate but also high-spirited, with a radical range of tempo. It really swung.
“Cast Your Fate” was released only as a B-side, relegated to obscurity by the record label. But DJ and musical director Tony Bigg at Sacramento’s Top-40 KROY-AM 1240 happened to be a jazz fan and loved the song. The station’s rule was that DJs could play one personal favorite every two hours. Bigg chose “Cast Your Fate” and played it constantly for a week. He also used portions of it as the news lead-in.
At some point, a music consultant named Ted Randal noticed that the song was getting huge sales figures in the Sacramento market (even though it was primarily played on only one station), and he began recommending the record to his clients nationally. At first the tune “got traction” mainly in California. But then cities like Memphis, Denver, and Kansas City picked up on it. It was unusual in those days for jazz instrumentals to do well on the pop charts, but the song became a hit and climbed into the Hot 100 in December 1962. It peaked at #22 in February and crossed over onto the “black” stations. (Radio was very segregated at the time.)
“Cast Your Fate” was nominated for a Grammy (Best Original Jazz Composition). Vince drove to Los Angeles to attend the awards ceremony but he forgot his tuxedo and wasn’t allowed in! And he won!
It made perfect sense that a whimsical song like “Cast Your Fate” was a San Francisco product. There were cultural differences at the time between the East and West Coast jazz scenes. Bassist Ron McClure – who would later become part of Blood, Sweat & Tears – put it this way: “West Coast music always had a lighter vibe; it wasn’t as intense as the New York bands. San Francisco was like Disneyland in comparison.”
“Greenwich [New York] is 10 years later, and 10 years more crowded; there’s nothing to groove out there,” Guaraldi said. “The West Coast scene is beautiful in its looseness and diversity. There is lots to do, and plenty of time to do it in.”
Personally, Vince was as loose as his music. He brought a mischievous excitement to his playing, with a capricious sense of humor on the side. He’d encourage musicians with shouts of “You got it! I don’t know what you’re gonna do with it, but you got it!”
Or after a song he’d crack up his band with, “Well, that was tense and nervous!”
The Black Hawk shut in July 1963. Around this time, enhanced construction on the stunning Grace Cathedral (an Episcopal church) in San Francisco was nearing completion and Rev. Charles Gompertz was beginning plans for a huge celebration set for May of 1965. He’d heard “Cast Your Fate” on the radio and tracked down Guaraldi, who agreed to compose an entire mass. The Reverend primarily wanted established hymns, but he would allow Vince to “improvise around it.”
The idea of a jazz mass didn’t sit well with everyone, and Gompertz received death threats by mail and phone. “People felt that I was bringing Satan into the church: bringing the music of the cocktail lounge – the den of sin and iniquity – into the holy and sacred precinct.” He also invited a controversial priest named Malcolm Boyd to give the sermon. Boyd was a civil rights activist who strongly opposed segregation and was one of the 28 Episcopal priests who were part of the Freedom Riders. To make matters worse, attendees had to buy a ticket, which in itself was controversial.
But the church overflowed. Vince, of course, added a bossa nova feel to the music. He also completely improvised when more than 1,000 churchgoers took Communion, which lasted at least half an hour.
In the end the mass was well received, and Episcopal Bishop James Pike sent a letter to Guaraldi expressing his “excitement and enthusiasm after hearing your contemporary setting for the Holy Eucharist.” Fantasy Records released the LP Vince Guaraldi at Grace Cathedral. And Time printed a piece with this photo caption: “Praising the Lord with blues and bossa nova.” One of the original cuts from the album, “Theme to Grace,” hit #2 on an L.A. radio station.
But Vince’s most beloved compositions, as yet unwritten, were about to hit planet Earth.
A little over a year earlier, it had been announced that Guaraldi would be composing the music for a documentary about the “Peanuts” comic strip written by Charles Schulz. It would be written, directed, and produced by Lee Mendelson, whose Burlingame company had recently done a special called “A Man Named Mays” (about Giants Hall-of-Fame outfielder Willie Mays). “I decided, having done a special on the world’s best baseball player, that I should do the world’s worst: Charlie Brown,” said Lee. He added animator Bill Melendez; DJ Don Sherwood of KSFO-AM 560 would narrate. Mendelson wanted a jazz score, and shortly afterwards he was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, heard “Cast Your Fate” on the radio, and was “blown away,” he said. The rest would be history.
Mendelson met with Guaraldi at Original Joe’s restaurant on Taylor Street, and two weeks later Vince played “Linus and Lucy” for him over the phone – an original tune with an ebulliently hip rhythm and melody. The left hand playing a definitive bass line on piano was a Guaraldi signature, and the jazzy snare was front-and-center.
The tune would eventually come to epitomize the “Peanuts” spirit. “It was so right, and so perfect, for Charlie Brown and the other characters,” said Mendelson. “Vince’s music was the one missing ingredient that would make everything happen.”
Mendelson got people like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Arnold Palmer, and even Willie Mays to appear in the film, but in the end, no one would buy it.
In early 1965, though, Mendelson got a surprise call from John Allen, who worked at an ad agency in New York. One of Allen’s clients – Coca-Cola – wanted to sponsor a Christmas special. (At the time, the only TV Christmas specials were Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.) Coca-Cola wanted an hour-long show to be aired before Christmas. Yikes. Lee hurriedly got in touch with Melendez and Guaraldi but also informed Coca-Cola that that schedule was insane for a production that would take a year or two to finish. So they settled on a 30-minute show (including, of course, commercials). Even then, it was an almost impossible feat to pull off an original animated progam in six months.
Guaraldi went down to Glendale, CA, to cut the tracks for A Charlie Brown Christmas with bassist Monty Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey. The only repeat from the ill-fated “Peanuts” documentary soundtrack was “Linus and Lucy.” Vince came up with two new songs for specific scenes: one for the ice-skating scene (“Skating”) and one for the onstage party that happened when the kids were left to themselves by Charlie Brown, the play director (“Christmas Is Coming”). He also wrote “Christmas Time Is Here,” a waltz that he thought would be a good title theme. The rest are classic holiday songs rearranged by Guaraldi.
The special includes an amusing cornucopia of mini-stories – in a world, of course, inhabited only by children and pets, with no interference from adults. It opens with Snoopy the beagle leading a line of ice-skating “Peanuts” characters. The sight of a frozen pond alone was magical for me, a California kid who’d never even seen snow at that point in my life. But catching snowflakes on one’s tongue? Beguiling. And then there was Guaraldi’s captivating “Skating” theme, with notes descending like lightly falling snow. Columnist Barry Gordon would later write that “[t]he cascading notes to Guaraldi’s Vivaldi-like ‘Skating’ are the most vivid representation of falling snowflakes in music.” What strikes me is how Guaraldi made sounds that magically reflect the absence of sound that occurs in a snowfall.
Charlie Brown is, as usual, depressed and full of angst, all too aware of holiday loneliness and disillusioned about the meaning of Christmas. “Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem. Maybe Lucy’s right. Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest,” Linus tells him. Lucy raves about wanting “real estate” and loving “the beautiful sound of cold hard cash.” Charlie Brown’s little sister asks for “tens and twenties” from Santa. Even Snoopy succumbs to crass commercialism when he gaudily decorates his doghouse for the lighting and display contest. But Charlie perks up when he’s given the assignment to direct the Christmas play. The task ends up frustrating him, though, when the “actors” seem to want only to goof off and dance to Schroeder’s [i.e., Guaraldi’s] joyful piano playing of both “Christmas Is Coming” (featuring Guaraldi’s trademark Latin syncopations) and “Linus and Lucy,” with Pigpen on bass and Snoopy on guitar.
Charlie Brown and Linus go off to find a tree, and they pick up what we all culturally now know as a “Charlie Brown tree” – sad, bent, and barren. The actors scoff.
Ultimately, though, Linus is able to answer Charlie Brown’s question about the real meaning of Christmas by standing alone on a stage, spotlighted, reciting Luke from the Bible: “And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you . . . . Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ ”
Linus, by the way, meaningfully drops his beloved security blanket when he says, “Fear not.”
Then, picking up his blanket, he finishes with, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Linus, as usual, got it right.
The whole scene was Schulz’s idea. Some people thought an animated comedy was too crass for a Bible reading. But Schulz thought Bible verses were for everyone.
There’s been some criticism, however, that the show is overtly Christian. Yes, Schulz and Guaraldi were Christians (Guaraldi a Catholic), but Mendelson was Jewish. The principal theme, really, is anti-materialism, with secondary themes of love, friendship, and respect for our differences. In the 2021 documentary Who Are You, Charlie Brown? podcast host Ira Glass of “This American Life” says, “I personally don’t celebrate Christmas. I’m a Jew. . . . Christmas means nothing to me. But the Charlie Brown Christmas special . . . I mean, does it get better than that?”
When the final cut of A Charlie Brown Christmas was done, Mendelson was worried. He and Melendez thought that it was too slow and that they had “ruined Charlie Brown.” The first screening at CBS didn’t go well, either. The executives were displeased about the use of children’s voices, and they didn’t understand the jazz score. In fact, they wanted to cancel the show. But it was too late; TV Guide and other publications already had listed the special.
It aired at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, December 9, 1965.
Jazz musician David Benoit, who was 12 when he saw the show that night, would later say, “We just tripped on the music. It was jazz, not the usual sing-song stuff that accompanied cartoons. It was so refreshing: There was humor and lightness. It was hip, like the characters.” A sixteen-year-old George Winston also watched. “That piano drove me crazy. I loved that piano. It just growled; it drove me insane. I was transfixed by that piano!” Because the closing credits were ridiculously fast, Winston didn’t know who had composed the score, but the next day he bought the newly released A Charlie Brown Christmas LP in a record store in Miami, and he said it changed his life.
The show was obviously an insane success. It was the second-most popular TV program that week (after “Bonanza”); nearly half the people in front of the television that night were watching Charlie Brown. And critics’ ratings were glowing. “Jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s lovely, gentle, mood-setting score . . . helped give the half-hour an unexpected and attractive contemporary tone, mature in an almost eerie yet enticing way,” wrote reviewer Rick Du Brow.
A Charlie Brown Christmas was given a 1965 Peabody Award. And it would win, in 1966, the Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program. Continuing his bad luck at awards shows, Vince was late, the doors in those days were locked when the show started, and he had to watch the whole thing from a hotel!
Why the accolades and popularity? Well, in my view, using children’s voices was a masterstroke. The script, while a bit of a patchwork, was funny and sweet. And most appealing of all was the zippy, colorful, percussive musical score.
The entire show was like a refreshing drink of cider on a crisp winter night.
By the late 1960s, music’s role in popular culture began to change. Rock and roll was getting more popular. Clubs like Basin Street West were starting to feature rock and roll or R&B along with jazz. Strip clubs were taking audiences away, and jazz clubs were folding; only a handful remained. In San Francisco, “urban renewal” tactics displaced more than 10,000 Black families, mostly from the Fillmore jazz district.
Always wanting to stay current, Guaraldi began incorporating jazz versions of pop in his sets – Aretha, the Beatles. He asked his bass player to switch from acoustic to electric bass, in accordance with the times. Vince himself was using the electric piano at times, loudly. He was looser, playing jams, experimenting.
But sometimes it was to a near-empty room. In October 1968 the hungry i closed.
The Matrix shut its doors in 1971. In November 1973, according to John Wasserman at the Chronicle, only three clubs featuring jazz at all were left in San Francisco: Keystone Korner, the Great American Music Hall, and El Matador. Jazz was just about gone from the American landscape by the mid-70s. It was mostly rock and pop, with country soon to dominate the mix.
Most people wanted to hear lyrics. They just didn’t have the intellectual patience for jazz.
Still, Guaraldi was happy. His family moved north to a larger home in Marin County. He would continue working with Charles Schulz on 17 “Peanuts”-related soundtracks. Altogether he made 14 studio albums, four live albums, and an additional five LPs with Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete. And he was staying local, playing at El Matador and at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley. For a while he even jammed with the Grateful Dead.
By 1975 Vince was laying down tracks for a future album and was also beginning to gig regularly at Butterfield’s in Menlo Park, a supper club that would soon become his second home. Butterfield’s was a laid-back place with a carved-oak bar, Victorian furniture, and Tiffany lamps. Guaraldi by then had reverted comfortably back to his all-acoustic roots. He “would dress in Levi’s and a paisley shirt: sort of a hippie thing, sometimes with a vest, with long hair and big glasses. Big glasses. Coke-bottle bottoms,” said his bass player Seward McCain. “He was really, really loose at the piano. At Butterfield’s, he had a regular piano bench, not a circular type. He would rock that thing back on its two legs, and sit way back like he was riding a low-rider motorcycle! After a gig, he’d mingle with the crowd. Everybody loved him; he had a wonderful following, with friends everywhere.”
Behind Butterfield’s was a motel called the Red Cottage Inn, where Guaraldi stayed on weekends when he played at the club. During breaks, the band would hang out there.
On February 5, 1976, Vince visited Lee Mendelson, telling him that he’d been hired to play “Peanuts” music on a cruise “and was excited about that.” But, said Mendelson, Vince also wasn’t feeling well. “His stomach was hurting him. A doctor had told him that he probably had a diaphragmatic hernia, and that they might have to deal with it.”
The next day, Guaraldi’s trio had a gig at Butterfield’s. They played one set, and drummer Jim Zimmerman went back with Vince to his room at the Red Cottage Inn.
“Vince was feeling sick to his stomach,” Zimmerman remembered. “He got up to go to the bathroom . . . and went down on the floor. I tried to bring him around and wasn’t successful.”
Vince Guaraldi was “pronounced dead on arrival at Stanford Hospital at 11:07 p.m.”
He was 47 years old.
The death certificate listed the cause of death as “acute myocardial infarction, due to or as a consequence of coronary arteriosclerosis with thrombosis and generalized arteriosclerosis.”
Guaraldi was buried in Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Colma, where many San Franciscans are laid to rest. His low-profile gravestone reads simply, “In loving memory,” with his name and life dates following, along with those of his mother.
“Peanuts” music was played at his funeral.
Philip Elwood wrote in the Chronicle, “Charlie Brown and his buddies lost one of their real pals when Vince Guaraldi died Friday night. . . . Guaraldi’s music, whenever and wherever, was always the perfect accompaniment to the life of the Bay Area. One of the main cogs in our musical life has fallen out. Without Vince, things just won’t run as well, or sound so good.”
“He could swing, man,” said jazzman Jon Hendricks. “He swung like a front gate.”
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
September 7, 1974 [age 18]:
“What I am currently ‘getting off’ on – tequila, reading hungrily, Ted, San Francisco, eating breakfast out, used bookstores, driving further and further, working as a teacher aide with no boss, little kid customers at Rexall, Jack Kerouac, my City notebook, non-parental weekends, sunflower seeds, Bob Dylan, sweet folk music, sleeping out on the balcony in cool night air, the 60s and all they represented, moderation (Bocciardi’s theory of), the vision of Christ-like Frank, wine, long-distance phone calls, photography, FM radio, bare feet, white clothes, accompanying [my sister] Janine on the guitar, night and cities and youth and drunkenness and life, writing writing writing and my idealistic dream of a grand discovery of America.”
September 8, 1974 [age 18]:
“[My brother] Marc and I are home alone this weekend. I wanted to go to Frisco or Santa Cruz but everyone was working. So I proceeded to begin a long epic letter I had promised Jeanne – hauled the typewriter and my favorite onionskin paper and carbons and my little torn-off bits of hastily scribbled notes and a bottle of Kahlua and Tequila up to my room and typed for hours slowly getting drunk. Then Marc and I drove (he, of course, behind the wheel; me trying to hide my condition but talking a lot) to Macy’s where Ted fed us sandwiches, doughnuts, and Cokes in the empty restaurant. On the way home we eventually discovered, much to our disgust but later hilarity, that we were nearly two hours behind because of a power failure the night before. So it turned out we had had lunch at 3:00 (we were WONDERING why Ted had looked at us so strangely.) After dinner of frozen egg rolls and TV dinners Marc wanted to go play cards at Joe’s but Ted and I were uninterested so I suggested going to Santa Cruz (I was sober by then). Once there Ted and I had a great time eating ice cream and drinking Cokes and walking in the dark along the beach, skirting the tide and talking on some steps near a railroad trestle. He is the boy I love most but platonically. Santa Cruz was a storyland of magical colors. But between my amateur driving and my night blindness, the ride there was terrible and we’re lucky to be alive.”
September 14, 1874 [age 18]:
“I really love my new job [as a teacher aide], and this week has gone by in a blur. I’ve somehow also kept up with [my part-time job at] Rexall. I’ve corrected stacks and stacks of test papers this week and am getting to know the names of all the kids. I’ve gotten lots of appreciative smiles from them and I LOVE it. But sitting home on a Saturday night now, with nothing to do, has prompted me to feel sorry for myself and my subservient condition. The parents have gone out and arbitrarily ordered us to stay home and do nothing. This simple demand irks me no end because it was unreasonable and unfair, and here I am paying room and board, and I’m subjected to this unmitigated crap. I’m 18-5/6 years old!”
September 15, 1974 [age 18]:
At work today [Rexall Drugs], after Mr. Jordahl [the pharmacist/owner] left for the day, I called in and won a Beatles album from KARA, and then when [my brother] Marc [who also worked there] and I had closed, locked the doors and all, we began going nuts, wildly throwing the cigarettes around and screaming, when we noticed that there was an old lady still in the store!”
October 4, 1974 [age 18]:
My day at school [where I was a high school teacher’s aide] was full of a lot of emotions, as usual. The kids are almost beginning to love me; in 5th period, in fact, the less-well-behaved ones clustered around and asked me all about myself – what I wanted to be, how old I was, etc. Julie [Miyahara, one of the teachers] told me that her dream would be to go up to the City and work, and I answered, a little loudly, “Oh, yes, my dream is to get an apartment on the wharf and work in a dusty bookstore.” And there was no disabling stare but only a knowing smile. The possibility is becoming more real to me, this vision of making San Francisco my home. I could be a writer in jeans and a workshirt. Ha! And Mrs. Schwalen talked to me for over an hour after school about religion and education and old towns. If I did not have an agonizing cold, I would run outside and shout wildly.”
October 5, 1974 [age 18]:
“At work [Rexall Drugs] we are always looking out of the window. Joe once commented on this, asking, ‘What is it that we hope to see out there?’ All of life is one big expectation. This thing that we wait for, that we hope to see, is something grand and wild, something that will by its magic pull us out of those dark corners that comprise our lives. People can never recognize their own happiness. They can’t. They dwell in the past, because the present is never quite enough. It never quite satisfies us. Hence, the hope that tomorrow will be brighter, that soon the days will grow sweeter.”
October 6, 1974 [age 18]:
“I drove [my sister] Janine and three of her friends to the Century to see a movie, and in the intervening time I wandered around downtown. I stopped in at Jack-in-the-Box to eat, then stumbled upon a record I have been searching for for months, and had given up hope that it even existed. There in my favorite used bookstore, the one that abounds in Jack Kerouac, the one with the basement, I found my dream album. Yes, I found the soundtrack to ‘Easy Rider.’ “
October 13, 1974 [age 18]:
“Mom and Dad went to Reno and told us to stay home the entire weekend again (ridiculous!!). So we started out with [my brother Marc] intending to have a quiet evening of study with at home with Joe. But somehow it ended up with 6 of us lying drunk in the living room. Bruce had come over and re-described the Elton John concert I’d heard about so many times before, and soon we all got so excited that we put Elton John on the stereo at tremendous volume, called Morris to bring beer (we’d already had some for dinner) and vodka, then Ted came over, and we all sat around and had GREAT conversations about the future till two in the morning. It was so intimate. I loved it, but at the same time, all of the love in that room saddened me, for some reason.”
October 12, 1974 [age 18]:
“Oh, brother, another embarrassing condom episode! At work today [Rexall Drugs], a man came in and asked for what I thought were condoms. I couldn’t understand him very well even though I’m usually able to understand people with accents. So I did what I’m supposed to do – I put the condoms in a paper bag surreptitiously and rang them up for him. He left, but then a few minutes later, he came back in with another guy. The condom box was open and the friend pointed to what he’d really wanted (behind me on the shelf): FLASH CUBES! Oh, man, I could have died!! He must have thought I was a pervert or something!”
October 17, 1974 [age 18]:
“Only little things today, only little things. In science class [at my teacher aide job] I stuck my hand in a beaker and shattered it, cutting my finger badly and trying to nonchalantly hold a paper towel to my skin so as not to disturb the class with the oozing redness. At home I read a news story about a poetry reading in San Francisco with Kerouac’s old beat-poet friends – Ferlinghetti, McClure, etc. – and now I am excited about going up to the City to see them with my own eyes. At work [Rexall] later, we crowded around the front register watching the [World] Series on my T.V., and I lost 75 cents to pools, a bottle of RC to [my brother] Marc, and a Tequila Sunrise to Terry. At midnight we were at Joe’s with Ted to celebrate Joe’s emergence into adulthood, eating cake and ice cream, playing Password and O Hell and Mini-Mysteries, listening to the stereo, and talking about nightmares and dreams.”
October 20, 1974 [age 18]:
[NOTE: This is a really long one, and I am using the initial “M” to protect the sort-of guilty]
“It was an incredible night. Bruce, M., Ted, Marc [my younger brother], and I decided to go bowling, and after much driving around all over town in Bruce’s car we found an alley (Plaza Lanes), but, disgusted with everyone’s terrible scores, the high 80-cent line fee, and my being unable to find a light enough ball, we left early with plans to stop at the Bottle Shoppe, leave M. off to get a couple six-packs, then drive up Sierra Road like we had done this summer, to sit in the weeds and talk. Well, it was magical then, but it wasn’t magical tonight. First of all, it was cold – our jackets weren’t able to keep out all the cold. Plus there was alcohol this time, enough to make us all extremely paranoid. Bruce pulled off the road, and the five of us climbed over barbed wire to sit down on a grassy hillside. About two minutes later, Ted leaped to his feet and shouted “Cops!” An unidentifiable car crept toward ours at about 5 mph, with something that may or may not have been a searchlight. I thought: “TRESPASSING. OPEN ALCOHOL IN CAR. MINORS POSSESSING ALCOHOL.” My adrenalin surged and I galloped blindly downhill, full speed, in the blackness, not being able to see a foot in front of my face, terrified, thinking of broken legs, only dimly aware of others crashing along somewhere beside me. Eventually we stopped and huddled at the bottom of the hill, and the car passed. We never knew if Ted had made a correct judgment. Scared, Marc and I persuaded the others (with little trouble) to leave. All we wanted was a quiet place to drink our beer and talk. Bruce suggested a place near Anne Drew’s house, but we drove away when he led us into someone’s driveway. Then Ted told us about a secluded road up above Suncrest, and it sounded perfect, so we joyously drove up. “See that house?” Ted said, pointing. “It’s the only one around.” The house was quite a distance away. We drove to the end of the road, and – guess what – our headlights lit up a house not 10 feet away, and these two dogs, which we could not see, were barking ferociously, making all kinds of noise. Paranoid, we drove away, getting a glimpse of the dogs. They were little bitty things, Malteses or something, and we burst out laughing. But we were still scared, and when a car approached slowly, our hearts lept [sic]. It turned out, however, to be a car we had seen back on Sierra Road, a sight which led us to believe that that HAD been a police car previously, if it was enough to make this other car leave, too. Finally, Bruce agreed to let us use HIS house. When we neared his driveway, we realized that he wasn’t supposed to have anyone in his car, so we backtracked to M.’s. We all got in HIS car, and transferred the beer on the way to Bruce’s, out of the range of the curious glances of [M.’s younger brother]. Everyone but Ted, who brought the beer in by the side entrance, walked calmly in through the front door, past Bruce’s parents, and into the poolroom, where we relaxed, took off our jackets, and drank our beer. Marc didn’t have any, Bruce and Ted had a can apiece, I had two, and M. had two or three. It was really fun (except for clock-watching because we had to be home by midnight). I swear that I cannot hold liquor at all, because I can remember me once, when we were playing cutthroat, trying to shoot at a ball which WASN’T the cue ball. Anyway, at five minutes to twelve we packed up to leave, suddenly remembering that M. had to drive us all home. I was a trifle worried about his condition, especially when we were doing 45 or so on Piedmont Road. Then, as the new stop sign, which had just been put in at Sierra and Piedmont, approached, I saw to my horror that M. wasn’t going to stop. I shrieked “Stop!” but his reactions were delayed, and, though slower, we drove right on through. I held my breath, awaiting a siren, but there was none. However, coming along Suncrest, there were headlights in the mirror, and Ted looked back and said, “Swear to God, it’s cops.” I can’t even describe my fear. For one brief instant, after we pulled over, we sat in the car terrified. Then, to look “nice,” we all got out. It was a sheriff. He talked to M. while the three of us stood, in the cold, worried about our curfew. It was then that I remembered something Bruce had done when we left. He’d shaken up a car of beer and walked up to M.’s window, pointed it at our innocent selves, and – well – there was beer all over the upholstery, the window, and the side of the car. Anyway, by now the preliminaries were over and I happened to glance over at M. and there I saw something which shook the living hell out of me. The sheriff was shining a light in M.’s eyes, asking, “How much you had to drink tonight, son?” and M. kept kind of shrugging and didn’t answer. Then the cop said, “Now, look here, I can tell you THREW your liquor out the window ‘cause it’s all over the car here, son,” and I guess M.’s explanation must have sounded a bit contrived. Then the sheriff made him walk a straight line (which he could) and stand on one foot, which he managed only after three or four tries. (Later he told me it was fatigue – he’d gone on a long mountain climb that day.) I was tipsy myself and was nonchalantly trying to walk along the curb to see what’d happen if they tested ME. I don’t know to what extent they can prosecute intoxicated minors (me). But the sheriff was interested only in M. Never spoke to us. Finally he said, “Well, you won’t have to go in this time; I’ll just write you a ticket.” (It was only for 10 bucks.) I heaved the biggest sigh of relief you ever heard, oh, we were so lucky, and there was so much FEAR all night long. I swear I will never do that again – never!”
October 20, 1974 [age 18]:
“I’m reading Kerouac as fast as I can, eating Milk Duds, and growing old.”
9 thoughts on “Frisco’s coolest cat”
This was most enjoyable, Paula.
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Thank you, Erlinda. It resonated with a lot of people!
Bravo!! I just love your writings old and new 😊
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Thanks so much, Gigi!
I’m not going to read the diary entries even though I always love them. I’m just going to bask in the glory of this tribute. I’d never thought about the man behind that wonderful soundtrack even though I noticed his name. Thank you for taking me into his world, from the jazz clubs to the printing press to the beautiful Christmas landscape he helped create. I’ll be thinking about this blog entry for a long time. It was a treat from start to finish.
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Oh, my goodness, this is my favorite comment of all time! And you’re one of my favorite bloggers, so thank you so much, LGG!
Wonderful, can’t believe he died at 47
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Neil, thank you so much! That means a lot, coming from you. Oh, by the way, regarding next Sunday, I’ll have to refrain from wishing good luck to a Philadelphia sports team just this once!
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This is a FANTASTIC essay. You’ve captured Guaraldi, and San Francisco, magnificently.
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