This is a chapter from a memoir I’ve been working on. It’s takes place in 1966-67 while I was graduate student at San Francisco State, living in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood. It’s still subject to change and editing.
I went from town to town
and did not see one such as you
Can you really say
I have seen your face
When I first encountered Wolf he was standing on Haight Street sucking on a lemon half — which I was to learn he did whenever he was fasting.
“Do you know where it’s at man?” he asked
From the way it was uttered, between sucks on his lemon, the question of where “it” was “at” had vast implications. Here was a fellow seeker and spiritual friend.
Wolf was my first introduction to living Zen, or Zen as embodied in real people. With his simple, direct manner, he sometimes struck me as a total idiot, or at best a god-intoxicated holy-fool. But he could come up with surprising, piercing insights into a situation or relationship, uttered in three or four words — that would “stun the common crowd and shut the mouths of the Patriarchs and sages.”
Stocky, with a large squarish head and chiseled features under ringlets of brown hair, Wolf had once been a member of the Gypsy Jokers motorcycle club. More artistic than menacing, the Jokers were much admired for their grubby style and charisma, for which they were even respected by their ruder, more violent brethren, the Hells Angels.
A man after my own taste in sartorial matters, Wolf would find a distinctive article of clothing, such as the thick, khaki-colored coat he wore continually, until it became a part of him, absorbing his energy (along with food stuffs and various other substances) and it had acquired a delicate patina of age and venerability, like the robe of some wandering mendicant. He wore that particular coat until it was hanging in shreds down the backs of his legs before finally relinquishing it.
Wolf had a placid countenance, a calmness that gave the impression of great weight and gravitas. There was also a subtle sadness in his large, liquid, brown eyes that belied his gruff exterior. He was an orphan, but when he told me of being shuffled from one foster home to another as a child, he said it matter-of-factly, as if it was of little consequence.
In a neighborhood that was awash in marijuana and psychedelics, Wolf was unusually cautious with drugs, especially LSD. I sensed that he felt somewhat fragile in regard to the ingesting of such substances. I only heard him mention having taken LSD once and when I saw him shortly afterwards, he was visibly shaken by the experience. He said that a homosexual had come on to him in the park while he was on it.
Wolf had found the perfect employment for a former motorcycle gang member — driving a Harley Davidson delivery motorcycle around the city.
One day I was treated to a dizzying display of his motorcycle prowess when the sound of a horn honking vigorously outside my flat drew me out onto the small round porch overlooking the corner of Ashbury and Page.
The street below was empty.
Then I heard the roar of an engine coming up Page Street. An old, black delivery motorcycle shot into view and zoomed around and around the four-way intersection — from curb to curb in a speeding blur, the side-car compartment lifted almost vertically into the air.
As he sped off up Page street, Wolf grinned back at me and honked his horn again.
Wolf’s lair, a few blocks down Page Street from my place, was up a flight of steep, narrow steps in a drab Victorian apartment house. On the wall at the top of the dingy stairwell, dwarfing all the other nondescript stains and scribbles, was the word “AT,” crudely painted in large letters.
On my first visit, he reverently handed me his worn copy of “The Three Pillars of Zen” and guided me to the translation of an essay by the Japanese Zen Master Dogen, titled “Being Time” — probably the most profound and recondite work by that most abstruse and complex of religious philosophers. “THAT’S where it’s at,” Wolf breathed, patting the page tenderly with a big, blocky hand.
It turns out IT was at many places and no place at the same time.
Wolf showed me through his squalid, disheveled, sparsely furnished apartment like a tour guide in the Sistine Chapel. I couldn’t see what he was so proud of — until he lifted a rear window and gestured for me to climb out onto what I soon realized was a level section of roof, high above the streets.
Stretching out below was a magnificent panoramic view of the city, with precise rows of buildings shining in the late afternoon light, and the bay and Berkeley hills in the distance.
It was there that I first met Hugh Banks, whom Wolf spoke of with rare respect. Huey, Wolf intimated, was some kind of Zen adept, who periodically shaved his head and engaged in long bouts of deep meditation with Suzuki, a Zen priest who had recently arrived in San Francisco from Japan. Suzuki had a temple in Japantown on the other side of the Fillmore District, almost visible from Wolf’s roof.
As the three of us lounged on the roof and passed a thick marijuana joint, I took a closer look at Huey. His hair, barely a quarter inch long, was just starting to grow out again. In an era when most of us sported long locks and thick beards, his cropped head gave him the mad look of someone who had just escaped from a prison or insane asylum. In fact, he was a certified schizophrenic (with delusions of grandeur) who had spent most of his early years in mental institutions.
But it was more than simple insanity that set Huey apart from anyone else I had met up to that point. He had a certain presence that I found strangely appealing. He always seemed to be “on,” like an actor who must pay attention to his every movement in order to fit the part he was playing. He even had a peculiar way of walking, slowly and deliberately, as if watching himself from some distant vantage, with his weight back on his heels and his feet turned outward, like Charlie Chaplin’s character, the little tramp.
Later, when his stringy, dark, blond hair had grown down to his shoulders, leaving a round bald spot at the crown of his head like a medieval friar, with a thick red beard flowing down from either side of his face, his chin tucked in and his eyes gazing upward, he was the image of Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism.
When Huey first visited my flat he said that life itself can become a work of art, which summed up my philosophy precisely. His highest compliment was to say that someone was “real,” the implication being that most people were not really real — an estimation which I also tended to agree with.
Huey and Wolf adopted me, informally, as their apprentice. I became their straight man, the foil and audience for their Zen antics. They reminded me of the two legendary Zen cutups, Hanshan and Shidei, popular subjects of Chinese ink painters, whose inexplicable banter pointed to deep cosmic truths.
I was happy to let them show me their favorite hangouts around the city — beat generation holdovers, like the graffiti and candle wax encrusted Blue Unicorn Coffee House, where poetry was spontaneously recited aloud and intense philosophical discussions routinely occurred.
Finally, Huey proudly escorted me to Japantown to sit with Suzuki. After what was, for me, an exotic and delicious first taste of tempura in a tiny street kiosk, we approached the ornate wooden facade of the “Soto Zen Mission,” which had formally housed a Jewish Synagogue.
Suzuki met us just inside the door. After we took off our shoes and exchanged silent bows, he ushered us in, moving smoothly about like a solicitous host. He was very small in scale, but with an impressive presence, an erect but relaxed bearing, crisp dark robes over a spotless v-shaped white collar, and a smoothly shaved head.
He and Huey seemed to have a special relationship, circling in stylized movements and eyeing one another like two combatants, but with obvious enjoyment.
Since I was a newcomer, Suzuki escorted me to a sitting cushion for initiation into the Soto Zen style of meditation. Although Huey had shown me the basic posture, I let Suzuki gently place me into position, basking in the warmth of his attention.
I had already meditated sporadically for short periods over the last few years and could sit in the half-lotus fairly comfortably and even get into the full lotus for a few intense minutes. But I was unprepared for what lay ahead.
Gradually, in my rapidly expanding peripheral vision, others silently entered the room, bowing from the waist with palms together towards round, black sitting-cushions, each on it’s own wide, flat pad, arranged in a precise row along an expanse of wall. Turning and bowing again to the room, they each sat down on their respective cushion and spun smoothly around to face the wall in meditation posture.
Suzuki moved silently about the room adjusting peoples’ postures, his hands touching their bodies with a tenderness that was remarkably natural and unselfconscious.
I checked my position: half-open eyes gazing slightly downward, the natural forward curve of my lower back slightly accentuated, chin tucked in, the crown of my head pointed toward the ceiling as if suspended by a cable, shoulders and arms relaxed downward, elbows out and hands resting lightly on my topmost foot with palms up and thumbs barely touching at a point just below my navel, making a circle or “cosmic mudra.”
A surge of pride came over me. This wasn’t so difficult.
I went over Suzuki’s instructions, counting my breaths from one to ten, starting over at one whenever my mind wandered into fleeting thoughts or sensations.
After awhile I went to the next step — watching my breath, simply letting it go slowly in and out through my nostrils, slightly emphasizing and prolonging the outbreath. Whenever my attention strayed, I pulled it gently back to my breath.
Finally, I felt my concentration was sufficient to attempt the final step — Shikantaza or “just sitting,” the ultimate goal, the pinnacle of Soto Zen practice. Concentrating on the blurred light coming through half closed eye lashes, I explored the feelings in my body.
My body! Holy shit!
My body was screaming at me, “What are you doing, have you gone mad!”
My folded knees were being pierced with hot steel rods of pain and my feet were turning into huge, numb blocks of wood. My shoulders and neck contracted like vises cranking tighter and tighter. I broke into a sweat as time ground to a halt. The ensuing minutes crawled painfully past. I repeatedly imagined standing up abruptly and dashing for the door.
Finally, just as I was convinced I couldn’t stand another second, a deep, resonant bell sounded. I bowed to the wall with palms together, following along with the others on either side. We rocked from side to side, got off our round, black cushions, fluffed them up with both hands, stood up stiffly, bowed again, turned, and very, very slowly began walking forward, each step taking us only a few inches as we snaked slowly around the room.
I looked over the line of shoulders. Up ahead was an exit that I decided I would bolt out of the instant I reached it. But as the line painstakingly flowed past the doorway, I was unable to make my move, as if I was being pulled along, like an object on a conveyor belt.
The sharp sound of a wooden clapper signaled the line to speed up to a normal pace — until we each stopped again in front of our black pad and round cushion, bowed, turned around, bowed to the room, sat, swung around and faced the dreaded wall again.
I nervously folded my legs into the half lotus. To my surprise, I felt refreshed and comfortable as I renewed my efforts to count my breaths and relax into “just sitting.”
As the second forty minute period neared an end, time once again slowed to a halt. The minutes stretched out like hours and I began to wonder if the timekeeper had fallen asleep on the bell. As the pain became unbearable I did what I’d done many times on LSD when things got too extreme and threatening — I gave myself up, surrendered, and threw myself into the void. The pain didn’t go away, but I stopped fighting it, relaxed, and merged with it. Before I knew it, the bell sounded and I stood up, exultant to have survived.
Afterwards, I felt buoyant and naturally high, my feet seeming not to touch the pavement as we walked back through Japantown. I marveled at how something as simple as just sitting still for a length of time could have such far-reaching religious implications. Facing the wall, there was no escape. It was like facing the vast pain of humanity. I thought of Jesus nailed to the cross. Everything, all creatures, the great earth, the entire universe, all of time, was contained within the simple practice of zazen.
After that I started going to the afternoon sittings in Japantown. My own meditations received a huge boost and a renewed focus. I began meditating every morning when I first got out of bed and every evening before going asleep, for the length of time it took a stick of incense to burn down, or about half an hour.
I also went to Suzuki’s weekly talks. I felt like he was talking directly to me — as I suspect many of us did. I’ve since heard people say that his English was poor and he was hard to understand but all I remember is how simple and clear were his explanations of often subtle and recondite matters, even to a neophyte like myself.
Unlike the recollections of many of his students, some of whom insist that he never even mentioned the word “enlightenment,” my memory of him is of urgent exhortations to develop a “way-seeking-mind” and to practice with all our might, “as if our hair was on fire.”
Most everyone who sat with Suzuki in those days appeared to be in their early twenties like myself. His formal students, a few of whom were already wearing black robes, seemed to be quite impressed with themselves. I sensed that they looked down on Huey and I, as drugged-out, hippie outsiders — unlike Suzuki himself, who accepted everyone just as they were.
However, one incident convinced me that Huey was the only one among us who had actually realized Suzuki’s True Mind. I can’t remember where we were, or even if we were high, or on what, but I suspect we were, since in those days we were high more often than not.
Huey was sitting off to my left, when, suddenly, I “saw” him — not with my usual eyes but with an eye that we somehow both shared. Perfectly still, looking slightly downwards, his face in profile, radiant with golden light, he was the Ancient One, completely clear and present, with a Mind that cut through the usual stream of phenomena to give me a glimpse of something eternal, something infinitely mysterious and subtle that embraced all of creation but was still intensely intimate and personal. For that timeless moment we were one being.
Huey was indifferent to the respect I accorded him, pointing out that he was actually a year or two younger than I was — the implication being that as his senior I had no business acting like he was my teacher. Such a relationship was unspoken, but I was convinced that, despite his imperfections, he had managed to drink much deeper from the mystical experience to be found in this life than most of us ever will.
Although he was so adept in many ways, Huey was definitely crazy. In fact it might have been that craziness, his schizophrenia, that allowed him to realize such deep states. Even his schizoid delusions were just rational enough to make me wonder if there might be some truth to them.
For instance, like most of us he frequented the incredible array of concerts in San Francisco during that time, some for free outdoors in the Pan Handle near my flat and others at places like the Avalon Ball Room and the Fillmore Auditorium. He claimed that various bands, most notably Buffalo Springfield, had asked him to travel with them, presumably to be an “audience,” a shill, who could generate the ecstatic energy that would bring everyone together with the music in a crescendo of bliss.
Through meditation one can become acutely aware of such states as they come and go and it’s easy to imagine that one is consciously creating something, like the coming together of music and audience, especially under the influence of marijuana or LSD. I had experienced such moments at concerts many times myself — the difference being that I wasn’t convinced that I was causing them to happen, but that I was probably just a part of a spontaneous arousal.
He came into my flat one day manically exclaiming about an experience he’d had sitting in the front row at one of Suzuki’s talks. He said they were both vying (with their minds) to control the flickering of a flame on a candle nearby and at the end of his talk Suzuki pointedly strode over and blew out the candle.
Much of Huey’s delusive thinking was self-referential in the connections his mind made. Following, or “tripping,” on a string of personal associations, like verbal puns and double meanings, can be very compelling. I found that if I fixated on a certain word or phrase that it would appear everywhere in my environment, as if in a mental mirror. It’s natural for the mind to pick out such connections but this seemed to go beyond that.
I was amazed at how easily I was able to adopt his view of causation — as if schizophrenia could be learned or caught from someone else.
As his mental state deteriorated, Huey’s delusions and hallucinations became more prolific. He told me that little men were all over his apartment — a common apparition in both schizophrenic and shamanistic visions.
Huey had started injecting meth, which was beginning to invade the Haight with malefic consequences, destroying minds and casting a dark pall over the neighborhood. I instinctively avoided using speed, except for the occasional Benzedrine for working all night painting for classes, which, while quite effective for putting off sleep, didn’t produce the best work,
I did smoke what was probably an early form of crack cocaine once, with Huey and some of his friends. After a few deep hits, a stream of bliss engulfed me, lighting up all my senses, especially my visual sense, with indescribably ecstatic feelings. It only lasted a few minutes and I was left wanting more and bereft of any of the insights LSD and marijuana sometimes provoked. I could see that it was addictive and indulging in it further would be a mistake.
Huey finally ended up injecting “speed balls,” a combination of meth and heroin. Before long he reported that his wife had taken their young son and left the City. He spoke longingly of how smooth her skin was and how much he missed her.
After I’d left town myself, I heard that Huey was living on the street and had lost all his teeth. I recalled how he had once told me that nothing really mattered and it was OK to take drugs, because this was all an illusion anyway.
The last time I saw Wolf he was managing a head shop in Marin County north of San Francisco. He had grown his curly brown hair out into an impressive Afro and was wearing bell bottom pants.