I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
Things to remember better: Ferd Eggan entered my life in San Francisco in 1969, the year I dropped out of Berkeley. I had what today are called sexual identity issues that made it impossible to concentrate in any degree-winning manner on Viennese philosophy and English literature, my ostensible areas of study. I had drifted away from classes and begun crashing at various communes in houses around the Berkeley campus. One was a Trotskyite commune; another featured a study group of Frankfurt School scholars with guest lectures by Herbert Marcuse (that also raised funds for the Tupamaros); another went in for encounter sessions and scream therapy; my final Berkeley commune was devoted to cultivating peyote cacti and magic mushrooms.
I met Ferd on a film set. He was helming a new wrinkle in the developing canon of narrative porn cinema from his own co-written script (“exhibitionist flashes nymphomaniac, fucking ensues!”—a meet-cute picture). I was “sexually involved” by that time—not on camera—with one of the stars of The Straight Banana, a tall bisexual Nebraskan refugee often billed as Mr. Johnny Raw, or just plain Johnny Raw, whose penis was a minor celebrity in the Bay Area.
Johnny Raw, aka Leonard Jones of Omaha, lived in the Marina district. I never socialized with him. I hardly knew him. I didn’t care about him. His self-involvement was hermetic and vaguely reptilian. Johnny Raw called the creeps who bought tickets to jerk off in theaters showing his films as “the fans,” and believed he was an actual movie star. He was boastful, stupid, pathetically narcissistic and sad, but such a deluded asshole it was impossible to feel sorry for him. I liked how he looked, he liked how I looked looking at him, that was literally all we shared.Whenever we stumbled over each other that summer, both in a half-drunken stupor, in the same bar, at the same midnight hour, we rushed like robots directly to the Marina in a cab, and got it on—without passing Go, without collecting $200, without spending a minute longer in each other’s company when we finished than I needed to put my clothes on and leave.
I never took my clothes off, actually. Shoes, maybe. Johnny Raw usually just pulled his dick and balls out or lowered his pants to his ankles. Gay youth of today may find it incomprehensible, but “having sex” with Johnny Raw ten or fifteen times that summer didn’t involve Johnny Raw fucking me, or me fucking Johnny Raw. I was unusually innocent for my age—and, it’s the truth, extremely pretty and sought after at 19. I admit that by my present lights, I have to agree with former President Clinton that he did not have sex with that woman. By today’s standards, I had been around far too long to hook up with men and then do nothing except service them with a Monica Lewinsky. But that was as far as I’d ever gone. No one had shown me how to go anywhere else. Incredibly or not, despite skipping grades in secondary school and thus entering a Top 5 university in a major urban area at 16, despite having read Jean Genet, John Rechy, William Burroughs, Jean Cocteau, and many others who had certainly “gone all the way” in the rear more often than they’d brushed their teeth—more directly to the point, even regardless of a precocious history of fellatio with other boys since 7th grade, I had no concept whatsoever of anal sex. I wasn’t aware of it as something many people did. A true son of 1950s backwoods New Hampshire, I thought sodomy was an arcane, specialized perversion, like bestiality. Believed, in fact, that a rectum capable of accommodating even an average penis was such a rare aberration of nature that only a handful of anally deformed individuals ever attempted it. “Fucking,” in my mind, exclusively meant male on female, vaginal penetration.
For months after leaving Berkeley, I lived in the attic of a hippy commune with no special theme going on, in a leased house on 17th Street. By coincidence, a tenant on the floor below was Johnny Raw’s co-star in The Straight Banana. Grinda Pupic, a licensed practical nurse whose legal name was Bonnie Solomon, helped secure the attic for me when I moved across the Bay, as a favor to a friend of a friend in Berkeley.
A relentlessly sultry, ebullient secular Jew, Bonnie’s extraordinary sang-froid enabled her to resume her end of an argument about local zoning laws between takes, while the bone-hard penis of a co-star remained idling in her lady parts. Among friends and co-workers she exuded a generally misleading maternal solicitude. At the Nocturnal Dream Shows in North Beach, Bonnie sang with the Nickelettes, a sort of hallucinatory second chorus line and feminist auxiliary of the Cockettes. We occasionally had sex together. I wasn’t a frontal virgin. Bonnie was awfully nice, and surprisingly tough.
I tagged along with her on a location shoot in the Sausalito hills, riding shotgun in a pickup driven by a hippie sound engineer, a roguishly black-bearded ex-Mouseketeer with a doomed aura named Brando Batty. (According to the State of California, that was his real name. He once showed me his driver’s license.) By nightfall I had a temp job, as emergency gaffer and continuity girl on The Straight Banana shoot. My thing with the eponymous Straight Banana (we just referred to him as Banana, really) quickly lapsed, in the easy manner of the day, into a different thing with Ferd, who already had a male squeeze and a more involving embranglement with an older woman named Carol.
Carol was not that much older, chronologically. Her weariness suggested she’d survived the Titanic and much else of cosmic historical significance. Older than a thousand years, still bitter over some deal gone terribly south in ancient Babylon, Carol sat stiffly in the cab of Brando Batty’s truck all afternoon, pencilling irritable remarks on her script or flipping through Variety. I was mad attracted to Ferd, but completely spellbound by Carol. She had the vibe of somebody who’d lived the nightmare in a big, expensive way. Short, wiry-limbed, her glossy auburn hair poodled in a perky cut, she seemed implacable enough to launch a military coup in South America.
Sporadically emerging from her four-wheel bunker during lulls in the filming, she marched directly up to Ferd to give him notes before talking to anyone else. She blinked theatrically at the sun, slid her sunglasses down from their nest in her hair; aimed a studied yawn in our general direction, lit a Marlboro with a silver lighter; smoothed her throat with fingers she’d covered the yawn with; every movement set off baffling mixed signals, her private-looking little actions seductive and off-putting, a kind of selfishly generous display; as she studied her effect on people, Carol also telegraphed utter indifference to whatever effect it was. I instinctively sensed that she would push me or anybody else out of a lifeboat if she thought they were adding too much weight. But I often dismissed as paranoid a lot of intuitions that were as obviously real as giant letters on a billboard.
Ferd was easygoing. He japed, mugged, giggled, flirted, bantered with everyone while setting up shots, giving actors notes, squinting into the Arriflex view-finder, his infectious natural looseness visibly stiffening when Carol asserted her presence. His gravity when consulting her engraved a reprovingly serious circle around them. The pornographic circus it excluded looked embarrassingly silly and juvenile, suddenly.
Which it was, of course. With the likely exception of Johnny Raw, however, everyone on the set fully realized that. (Johnny Raw went on to fatuous national fame as the straight industry’s favorite penis, with a best-selling dildo, molded from his cock, named after him—“get that Johnny Raw sensation at home.” Johnny Raw bought the big sleep on a smack overdose at 30, without a dime left. If you count in porn years, he had a long run.) They—we—were making submental trash to support ourselves at something we could stand waking up for, and knew it. We had no delusions of glamor, though none of us had any qualms about making “dirty” movies, either. The stars were fucking people they would have fucked anyway, and sex for everyone involved was about as overheated as a sneeze. (The only excitement I ever had working on a porn film came from learning how to operate an 16mm Arriflex and edit on a Steenbeck.)
During Ferd and Carol’s conferences they leaned against a white LeSabre convertible with bright red upholstery, where the film action was occurring in the back seat. The naked stars would sit up looking dazed, smoked cigarettes, took bites from sandwiches. Cool breezes fluttered through the heat; we were set up on a dirt road high on a junior mountain, a dreamy elevation offering an awesome view of the Bay.
To say I fell in love with Ferd the day I met him would not be completely off. It sounds a little schmaltzy when I consider how little feeling I had for Johnny Raw from the jump, aside from a fascination with the body part that made him famous. In less than an hour spent watching Ferd direct him, Johnny more or less evaporated from my consciousness, even though he was right in front of me.
Ferd was the first male person I ever found attractive who was smarter than I was, intellect never having been a conspicuous quality in the few men I had “had a thing with” before him. Decades later, after his looks went, his compelling personality continued to make him seem beautiful, in a wasted, Egon Schiele kind of way. I’ve thought a lot about Ferd over much of my life, and always found him full of contradictions, but this is what seemed never to change: his scrupulous moral delicacy; a formidable conviction that his sense of reality trumped all others; a decency of heart that was often wildly at odds with the situations I knew him in, as well as with the first two qualities I mentioned.
None of this was evident to me when I knew him in San Francisco, when he lived with Carol. I was soon tangled up with both of them, cast in confused roles as an understudy to Ferd’s boyfriend Chip (whom I never knew beyond hello goodbye) and as a wayward urchin they’d irresponsibly adopted. They collected people: runaways, burnouts, lost souls in every flavor. Carol was a vulpine sort of den mother to them all.
She reigned over the upper floors of a five-story Victorian on Broderick Street that exuded lifeless desuetude. Charles, the owner of the place, retired from some clandestine profession, occupied in apparent perpetuity a wing chair facing the fireplace in a musty floor-through salon on the ground floor. He passed the time draining tall cans of Rainer Ale while staring at a TV that was seldom actually on, stacking ale cans in green pyramids that almost brushed the high ceiling. Exactly where in that somnolent house Charles kept the box of earth where he slept, I never knew; his alleged college roommate, Steve, a more tangible, slightly corpulent man of 62, was given to “sporty” plaid shirts, fishing pants with many pockets, and muted red loafers. Steve inhabited a room in the basement. Charles was a man of no words. Steve had a degree of joie de vivre. One could in a pinch call him jolly. He wasn’t really.
In the fullness of time I became a tenant. I was given a claustrophobic chamber on the third floor containing a child’s canopied bed, a framed photographic portrait of Leopold Stokowski, and a ceiling bulb. But not yet.
Carol: eyes habitually narrow with suspicion, picking over ever-changing assortments of Ferd’s shag-mates and “models” (as porn actors were then called) like a poultry inspector in a battery farm. She spoke in rapid bursts, usually in tones of insulted intelligence. She was manic-depressive in a rapidly alternating, terrifying way. As Hoover Dam generates electricity, Carol generated fright and insecurity.
She had been a girlfriend of Lenny Bruce. Or not. I later suspected that Carol inflated and embellished brushes with the well-known, to indicate that she was only briefly, disappointedly slumming among less exalted individuals for dark reasons known only to her. In retrospect, it’s touching that the names Carol dropped were never household gods of celebrity culture ordinary people would recognize, but figures of the avant-garde: Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, Gregory Markopoulos. (Looking back, I first heard of Werner Schroeter from Carol.) With these rarefied souls, Carol shared an understanding of Art’s alchemical ways, its torturous difficulties, its isolating asceticism, communing with them in a spiritual Atlantis beyond our reach.
She lived off royalties from lyrics she’d written to a popular instrumental song that had played continuously on drive time radio in California ever since 1963. Deep in her thirties, she evoked a rueful queen deposed from richer, more soigné and consequential realms. Spectral traces of an abandoned life entered the picture from time to time, in the form of a Paramount executive named Richard C., who beamed in occasionally from Los Angeles, all Saville Row and attache case, intent on rekindling a long-ago liaison in order to “bring Carol to her senses.” Now and then, a reedy albino tax lawyer showed up with bales of papers for Carol to sign.
The autumn of 1969 was a creepy season in San Francisco. In the long rancid afterglow of the summer of love, the Haight-Ashbury had puddled into a gritty slum of boarded-up head shops and strung-out junkies, thuggish dealers, undercover cops in love beads and fright wigs. The hippie saturnalia had continued as a sinister Halloween parody of itself, featuring overdoses and rip-offs and sudden flashes of violence.
I had long stringy hair the color of rusty tapwater; I wore shoplifted drag from thrift stores mostly, “sensible” drag like pleated skirts and silk blouses. I looked androgy-nous enough to pass for a girl, unless I carried my Pan Am bag; flight bags were widely recognized as a fag accessory. I was too reticent and unimposing to be a drag queen. I looked more like a flat-chested insurance secretary on a lunch break. But pretty—everyone said so. Lawrence Ferlinghetti picked me up one day in the park in North Beach. When catcalls from sunbathers who knew my actual gender alerted him to his mistake, he did the gentlemanly thing and took me to a café for a cup of coffee and made small talk.
Ferd shot smack more as a fashion statement than to quell an actual addiction. His personality was too controlling for him to enjoy the passivity of a heroin addict. Psychedelic drugs were taken like aspirin in San Francisco and heroin users were seen as the truly daring souls, more “seriously” troubled than aimless run-of-the-mill LSD dropouts. Ferd and Brando Batty, his partner in pseudo-addiction, sent me on missions to local emergency rooms to cop syringes. Ferd insisted that I go in drag, to what advantage I can’t recall. At the hospitals I confessed my lack of insurance coverage, got parked in an examining room, stuffed a handful of needles in my flight bag before the doctor arrived, then sneaked away, never to be seen again. It worked every time.
I lived on no money, with no fixed address, becoming a ward of whatever boyfriend or commune whose orbit I drifted into. For a while I lived with one of Ferd’s other smackmates, a torpid, troubled, horse-faced woman named Mary Blakey, aka Hamburger Mary, who usually came along on a nightly caravan to clubs and events with Ferd, Carol, Brando, and me, which sometimes included Ferd’s other boyfriend, Chip. Mary hoarded drugs and secretly shot much more smack than Ferd did. She had a more developed habit, though neither of them was a junkie in the full-blown ‘I’ll do anything for a fix’ sense.
Mary never seemed fully conscious. She inhabited a private world where life’s volume had been lowered to half-decibel, like the darkened bedroom of a chronic migraine sufferer. The banished daughter of a Marin County ear, nose, and throat specialist, she had played Ferd’s sister in a hard-core incest film with arty ambitions, Billy Rainey’s Brother, and kept the model file for Lowell Pickett, Ferd’s producer, up to date. For a month or so I slept in the Hollywood closet of her apartment on Leavenworth, while she “dated” a paroled gangster. We considered it the ultimate chic to consort with a genuine underworld type.
Lionel was svelte and Italian and sexy, and really did have an air of danger about him, though who he really was we never knew. We plotted a bank robbery with him, an intricate scheme worthy of a bad screenplay that never advanced past the outline. I couldn’t say now if we were serious or not. It was never clear at the time. We felt desperate for something real to happen that would have consequences beyond our little deer park. In any case, we all discussed the great plan so often and freely on the phone, between Leavenworth and Broderick Streets, that our mob friend decided we were amateurs who would get arrested entering a bank. Lionel tired of paying for Mary’s heroin, and disappeared.
We went everywhere in a posse, collecting rootless, powerfully attractive, emotionally flattened hippies of both sexes, who were soon employed on the psychedelic fringe of the porn business, which orbited around the Sutter Theater in the Tenderloin.
Local impresarios were shedding their squarish image, personified in the elephantine tits and corny floor show of burlesque queen Carol Doda in North Beach, by showcasing flower children and generally pandering to a the waning hippie movement, presumably to capture a nonexistent youth market. Since the films held little interest for this target demographic (why watch other people fuck, when you can easily do it, and probably them, yourself?) the porn theaters threw LSD parties and gala premieres that filled up with local celebrities and stoned kids from the Castro. Janis Joplin, all boas and bangles, turned up at one gala where my erstwhile porn boyfriend screwed an actress on an elevated duvet in the lobby, while the Nickelettes performed their version of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” (“Deep in My Solar Plexus”). (I often ran into Janis on the street, where we both hunted for cock every day. She usually advised me to get a better wardrobe and asked if I had considered a sex change. She died later that same year.)
Our merry band dropped acid or mescaline or psilocybin and tripped off to the Noctural Dream Shows in North Beach, where the Cockettes performed at the Palace Theater on Fridays. Or dropped into The Stud to shanghai boys to audition as porn models. The menage on Broderick Street was becoming well-known as one of the less skeevy portals into porn employment. Whenever I found a prospective boyfriend, Carol or Ferd went to work persuading him to fuck an actress on camera. I was in love with Ferd, and thought if I let him co-opt my lovers, he would love me back. They were feckless lovers, anyway. It was amazing how instantly they turned heterosexual for a little cash.
A curtain of sparkling grime hangs over these memories, probably an after-effect of so much LSD. We were allergic to daylight. By day San Francisco felt like a graveyard under a bell jar. It had the muffled, overlit, queasy erotic gloom of Vertigo. Something in the grain of the air during the day was a constant, desultory reminder that the dreamtime we lived in was sleepwalking to a bad end. In retrospect, it was its own bad end, a circular drama without any legible plot.
Ferd was a born leader, more so than was strictly good for him. Charismatic, more overtly willful than anyone else in his vicinity, besides Carol. His mind was opulent, quick as lightning, stuffed with the all the vintage furniture of western civilization; his political notions were vaguely terroristic. If Carol behaved like an deposed monarch, Ferd suggested a restive Trotsky, marking time in exile with literary and aesthetic distractions. We aped his sensibility, his inflections, copied the style of his convoluted, Jamesian sentences. He would have liked to have been born in Symbolist Paris, clutching a calla lily and gargling absinthe. He said things like, “We can’t shoot with Sandy today, she’s been remanded to the custody of her parents.”
Murkily, though, Carol steered his decisions, and seemed to color every thought. She often withdrew in neurasthenic silence to the top of the house on Broderick Street, at which times a convalescent pall descended over the rest of us. Whatever we happened to be doing, an image of Carol, in dark velvet dresses with crepe-de-Chine collars, pacing in solitary rumination, one scarlet fingernail holding her place in a volume of Mallarmé, was never far from anyone’s mind.
They were a formidable couple. Fond of elaborate, cruel psychological games, like characters in Laclos. They attracted paramours and hangers-on like regents of a medieval court, or, to put it more plainly, they operated with a good-cop, bad-cop team work, of a type I later observed in certain “power couples” of the ‘80s art world, and elsewhere.
Ferd dallied with people, to use a nice archaic word: he inspired a true maniacal allegiance in everyone drawn to him, as he was uniquely quick-witted, and at twenty-seven possessed a quirky, haunted beauty of Strindbergian intensity. His looks became less beautiful, but more disturbingly intense in later years. I barely remember the few times we had sex; it was always a rushed, furtive blowjob, usually in Brando Batty’s pickup, or the toilets of bars, or the porn theater where The Strait Banana eventually ran for several months—I was never alone with Ferd much longer than a few minutes. There were always, always other people around, starving for his attention.
Carol seduced people into complicity with her grievances against him. In that way she alienated him from them instead of her. She capriciously elevated this or that member of the tribe to the status of “special friend,” a dauphin to service the queen while the king serviced him. Or turned on various friends and banished them forever, as whim dictated. Our coven cast a Baudelairean spell over its accumulating human wreckage; it was notorious in the circles it touched for the internecine intrigues, secret liaisons, and byzantine exit strategies everyone in it constantly formulated. It was not quite the Mansons, more like a watery version of the sinister Lyman Family on Fort Hill in Boston, home of The Avatar underground newspaper, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and Maria Muldaur, now all long-forgotten, anarcho-mystical artifacts of the ‘60s American Underground. It was lumbering towards an unpleasant finale from the outset, but we were young, gifted, and pretty in 1969. None of us gave a damn about where we were going and hadn’t a clue what to do when we got there.
Somewhere in the course of the magical mystery tour, when summer died and the bay breezes gained a chill, I migrated from Hamburger Mary’s to the child’s room in the house on Broderick. Moving my belongings was simple. I didn’t have any. Once installed, I found the room so constricting that I became a piece of animated furniture in the other parts of the house, most of the time in awkward orbit around Ferd and Carol.
Gary Indiana is an artist and writer whose novels include the American Crime Trilogy (Resentment, Three-Month Fever, and Depraved Indifference) and, most recently, The Shanghai Gesture. He had a one-person exhibition of photographic works and videos at Participant, Inc. in 2013. A video installation is featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. I Can Give You Anything but Love is his first and last memoir.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.