Samhain

Let’s be clear. I’ve never liked Ouija Boards. I acquired the dislike while living with a group of other Folkies on Boston’s Beacon Hill in the 1960s. We lived in a four-story walk-up apartment that was only indifferently maintained. So during Halloween, we did not have to try to make it look like a haunted house. We called it the Folkie Palace, but it was more like the Folkie Hovel.

Just a few days before the end of the month, a sort of infectious enthusiasm took hold for the oncoming holiday. Decorations salvaged from the previous year were hauled out and strung up. Candles were lit, and Dougie, our resident Shaman, declared that he’d officiate at our Feast of Samhain. Beer, the beverage of all celebrations at the Palace, was laid in. But not all were comfortable with an actual official ritual for Samhain. Many of the residents were rejects from a local Jesuit college. They were on board for a party but less enthusiastic for a pagan celebration.

But after beer began to flow that evening, qualms and doubt seemed to recede. Dougie, who claimed that all sorts of shamanistic approaches were his vocation, brought out some black candles, very smelly incense, and an Ouija board.

First came much beer, a tremendous amount of beer, truth to be told! Then candles and incense. Then incantations, strings of syllables that no one could make sense of, and a flash of light and an impenetrable dark cloud of smoke. Finally, Dougie pronounced the scene set and announced that the spirits of previous tenants of the Palace would visit us to impart their wisdom. Next, Dougie began to manipulate the Ouija Board. Slowly it spelled out one word – Leave. Dougie asked for guidance, but the board spelled out – die.
At last, Mike the Vike took charge, and new words were spelled out -goodbye. Around this time, the smoke from the incense got bad enough that we had to open the windows. In a few minutes, the house seemed to wail and howl. Then there was a tremendous crashing sound, and large dark monsters lurched through the night, and began to grab our friends and haul them away.

Later on the street, we realized that seeing the smoke, our neighbors had called the Fire Department, who’d come and hauled our entire lot of drunken Samhain celebrators out into the cold late October evening. The wailing had been the sirens, the smashing had been firefighters coming through the door, and the monsters were the firefighters.

The landlord threatened to kick us out. But we vowed to replace the door and paint, so he reluctantly allowed us to stay. Dougie, his Ouija Board, candles, and incense were expelled without ritual.

We vowed oaths of sobriety that lasted until the big Thanksgiving celebration and the exploding turkey. But that’s another story.

Marooned

To write something that happened as long ago as the Sixties requires some digging through old memories. This morning I woke up to my cat sitting on my chest, softly batting at my nose. It brought to mind another cat and events on Grove Street in Boston. I decided to share.

Everyone had a “handle” – a nickname, at the Folkie Palace. Our fearless leader was the Teahead of the August Moon; then Monk, Mike the Vike, the Canary, and my friend Bill known as Red. Even the cat had a handle. She was called Neurotic, and she was.
Her off-kilter behavior allowed her to fit in with aberrant norms at the Palace. Neurotic was not an unwilling prisoner. She had equal rights to all the other residents, except she alone was allowed to sit on the kitchen table. If there were one rule you could not break at the Palace, it was don’t hurt the cat. People who tried found themselves unwelcome.
A visitor from New York found this out on Sunday. We just finished watching Treasure Island on television when he was caught dangling the cat from the front window.
He had earned the handle Sadist on his first evening at the Palace. It was not good to receive a handle right away. A handle got awarded on the considered evaluation of behavior. Rapid branding was a hint to leave. But the Sadist did not listen. So when he was caught dangling the cat out the window pretending to toss her, we decided he had to go.

The plank was a long wide balk of wood we stored on the roof. It was barely long enough to span the distance between our building and the adjacent one. Everyone walked the plank at one time or the other. The distance between the two buildings could not have been eight feet, but it felt like eighteen on the plank. That evening we sat on the roof and drank Narragansett beer from Giant Imperial Quarts. Playfully we all began to take turns walking the plank. We told the Sadist that walking the plank was a right of passage into the Palace’s Inner Circle. The Sadist refused to walk. We began to insist.
At last, he agreed. He shimmied across on his rump. We jeered, and the cat silently watched from atop a firewall. Once on the other side, we instructed him to open the note we gave him before the crossing. In it was five dollars, and a piece of paper with a large black spot. We withdrew the plank. He sneered at us, turned, and walked to the stairwell door. It was locked. We had marooned the Sadist.
He began screaming, pounding on the door, and throwing pebbles at us. Noticing Neurotic, he started tossing stones at her. She moved further back on the roof and began cleaning herself, not bothered. The Sadist grabbed fallen clothespins, old beer bottles, and all the detritus he found on the roof and began tossing them wherever. Neurotic retreated down the stairwell, and we followed.

Soon, the sounds of a squad car was heard coming along Grove Street. The good folks next door had called Boston’s finest to take care of the problem on their roof. At the open window, Neurotic sat, lashing her tail. We joined her just in time to see officer Cappuchi escort the Sadist into the car and off Beacon Hill. Cappucci glanced up at us as we waved and shouted goodbye to the Sadist. His look seemed to say, ” You’re next, you filthy Folkies.”

Not likely, officer Cappucci.

This is not Narnia

<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">We don't think about it much anymore, but the "urban renewals" of the late fifties and sixties swept aside entire communities. When Boston decided to undo Scully Square and the West End, the adult entertainment industry migrated to Washington Street in a run-down section of Downtown Boston. The people, the West Enders, scattered. Clumps moved across the Lechmere Causeway into East Cambridge, and some migrated to Boston's North End. We don’t think about it much anymore, but the “urban renewals” of the late fifties and sixties swept aside entire communities. When Boston decided to undo Scully Square and the West End, the adult entertainment industry migrated to Washington Street in a run-down section of Downtown Boston. The people, the West Enders, scattered. Clumps moved across the Lechmere Causeway into East Cambridge, and some migrated to Boston’s North End. 

But lots migrated up to Beacon Hill. On Beacon Hill, they added to the complex variety of life that included one of Boston’s oldest Jewish Temples, an African Methodist Episcopalian church, and the State House. Health care workers, Folkies, near do wells, and people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds all congregated in a neighborhood that couldn’t have been much bigger than a square mile in size. And on the Hill’s front side, facing the Boston Commons, were some of the City’s wealthiest blueblooded residents with illustrious names dating back to the City’s earlier times. The people of the backside and those of the front mixed as well as oil and water.

So far as I could see, Pinckney Street was the dividing line. Head closer to the Common, and you were in elite territory. Head downhill towards the hospital, and you were in the working-class part the Hill, apartment houses, single room boarding houses.

There was little switching back and forth. The income difference was steep. Perhaps the social distinctions were steeper. My friends and I would periodically cross over to the elite side to look at Mount Vernon’s mansions or the neat row houses on Louisberg Square. 

The house I rented in on Pinckney Street had a closet connecting two studios. I had never paid much attention to the back of the closet until one day; a seven-year-old barged into my space. He looked disappointed. Instead of Narnia, he had wound up in the studio/ residence of Beacon Hill’s finest woodcarver ( nobody on the Hill knew it yet). He spent that afternoon watching me carve until his mother, Sarah, came through the closet door and apologized. Sarah was divorcing her husband and was now deep into single mom poverty. She had moved from the front of the Hill to the dividing line on Pinckney Street. Sarah and her seven-year-old son were waiting and hoping for a divorce settlement. Until then, she fell into the same lot as most us, too much owed, not enough coming in. 

Over the next couple of months, my friends and I taught Sarah how to shop in the Haymarket from the pushcarts at closing time. We showed her where to find fresh bread in the North End and the intricacies of cooking a hotplate meal. The most challenging part of this resocialization was teaching her a new social etiquette with people she would never have socialized with before her divorce. 

In the Harvard Gardens on Halloween, you didn’t stare at the men in drag. You didn’t drink alone – always in a group. You weren’t bashful and shy about a direct sexual advance – you made it very clear that you weren’t interested, physically, if needed. There were lots more. Through it, Sarah proved adaptable to all her abusive husband and fortune threw at her. She always wore a single strand of pearls when we all went out socially, which gave her the nickname Pearl.

In the spring, her divorce was final, and she received a settlement. It wasn’t much but enough to allow her to move off the Hill and into a decent Cambridge apartment. She found secretarial work at a Boston law firm and rarely guested at the Folkie Palace. Eventually, she quietly slipped away from us.

Over time we all slipped away. The Hill changed, and most of us moved on. One day I was in line at the Harvard COOP Bookstore. In front of me was a woman wearing a single strand of pearls; her scent was Tea Rose. I automatically thought back to Sarah, who had also worn that scent. Perhaps I breathed in too deeply or sighed too loudly, but the young man standing beside her looked in my direction and stared at me. He quietly commented to the woman something that I missed. She turned to face me. I was afraid that I was coming across as some pervert who went around sniffing random women. Then she smiled. “Wes?” Yes, I was startled. By this time, no one called me Wes anymore, and it took me by surprise. “Sarah?”

We caught up over coffee at the Blue Parrot Coffeehouse. Sean, her son, was starting at Harvard that fall. I was teaching at a college north of Boston while making up my mind to finish my Ph.D., or not. Sarah had completed a law degree and was living in New Jersey. Our final meeting was as much a matter of chance as our first had been.

Sean looked over at us. ” do you remember that first day I wandered into your studio thinking I was going to find Narnia?” Sarh laughed, ” A rather strange sort of Narnia. Shopping at closing time for food that might otherwise be discarded by the pushcart owners. The wall to wall mattresses at the Folkie Palace. The strange Halloween Trick or Treating on Beacon Hill where there were more Tricks than Treats!”

Thinking about that time of our lives, I replied: ” in a lot of ways, it was much more like Through The Looking Glass.” 

Sarah looked at me again and said: “Hell, it was a heck of a lot more fun than Narnia!”

Confrontation

Winter on Beacon Hill was one long slip & slide down the slushy streets. Landlords didn’t seem to care if tenants fell flat on their back coming out of their apartments, and most tenants felt that if it were the landlord’s duty to keep the sidewalk clear, they’d be damned if they’d do it. So everyone slipped and slid.
One morning feeling particularly civic-minded, my friend Billie got me out of my warm sleeping bag to go downstairs and shovel the walk in front of the Folkie Palace. While doing it, we attracted several guilty looks as windows opened, heads popped out, and people scrutinized the strange sights and scraping noises of a sidewalk being cleaned.
In a few minutes, we attracted a few more assistants, and after clearing our sidewalk, we moved along to the building just downhill from us. That building was an infamous location where you’d almost certainly risk plunging into the street from a slip.
From across the street came a snowball hitting Bill square in the back of the head. In no time, a snowball fight erupted between the two sides of Grove St. Our side had excess workforce, and we rapidly deployed that excess in constructing defensive ramparts. Cries went out across the street of “No Fair!” They doubled down and called forth reinforcements from inside. Bill decided to sally forth from our defensive position behind parked cars and high snow berms. The offensive got beaten back by the concerted efforts of a battalion of mothers and their children. Our skirmishers returned to our side of the street. They were refreshed by the Folkie Palace Auxiliary’s hot cocoa.
By this time, the combatants easily numbered thirty to a team. Through traffic had slowed to a crawl as valiant groups of sappers, skirmishers, and heavy infantry used the traffic to veil thrusts into enemy territory. Not a single garbage can on the street had a lid as we snatched them up to use as shields.
It was inevitable that someone would call the Fuzz. And somewhere into the half-hour mark, we heard the approaching siren of a police car making its way through the congested streets of Beacon Hill. Bill called a hurried truce with our valiant opponents. All action ceased as everyone stood around peacefully. Eventually, the squad car pulled up, a window opened, and out came Officer Cappuchi’s head. “What the hell’s going on here?!”
From across the street came the cry of ” get the Fuzz!” Both sides erupted into a fusillade of snow as the squad car got pelted with dozens of snowballs.
As rapidly as it had started, the entire street emptied of combatants. Officer Cappuchi knocked the snow off his cap, looked directly at the windows of the Folkie Palace, and hollered out – ” and don’t do it again, you worthless bunch of hippies!” As the squad car moved down the street, Bill opened the window and hollered back, ” and that’s Folkies to you, Officer!”

Tip of the Iceberg

Stoney was what we called her. Nobody knew her real name. She certainly wasn’t offering it. Stoney was one of the “weekend hang arounds” at the Folkie Palace. During the week, she lived with parents in the ‘burbs while attending college in the Back Bay. We weren’t sure why she came around. She wasn’t involved with anyone at the Palace. She wasn’t into any of the available chemical substances that passed through in the pockets of regulars like Mike the Vike, and she didn’t drink. She just sat around with her note pad, scribbled and sketched. Occasionally she’d become involved in discussions with habitues of the Palace about the meaning of the Palace and ask, “But, where are you going?” If she made the mistake of asking this of the Teahead of the August Moon ( Teahead by the light of the Moon, account executive by day), she received a monologue on free will that surely was from his theology courses at Boston College.

I like to believe that unlike the later hippie phenomena, Folkies were diverse as a group. At the Palace, the Teahead worked as a white-collar drone during the days, Bill and I worked casually saving for the next Frolicking Detour, Mike the Vike was into the transcendental use of psychotropics in a studied manner. The Monk was a failed Jebbie who looking for his savior while trying to serve the poor. Other regulars had an urge towards a goal, without any distinct method for finding it.
During the weekends, the Palace’s population grew as visitors passed through, and the “weekend hang arounds” hung around. The Monk would put on a massive pot of spaghetti to feed the hungry. Guitars would come out, and by midnight the banging on the ceiling would have started from the apartment below. By one, a few diehards would be gathered around the kitchen table, whispering in the candlelight. I’d be there just picking random melodies, and by three, the conversations ran to the sorts of confessions you choose to reveal only before dawn. Stoney whispered she was studying Anthropology, and we were a research project for her senior thesis.
The reaction was silence. Stoney waited silently for a response that did not come. Mike picked up the thread of his most recent Magic Mushroom trip without pause, and I continued playing. I’m sure that some of us would have loved to tell her you shouldn’t ever try to play a player. Her secret had been out two weeks into the semester. A friend going to the same college dropped the dime on her.

We were sitting at the Harvard Gardens on a Monday evening when Todd told us a fellow student had been telling stories at lunch. She was studying some “Beatniks” and was doing her thesis on them. ” You guys have any idea who these turkeys could be?” Dead silence, followed by rage, followed by laughter.
In the following weeks, the Palace had never been so full of drama, so whacked out with lousy improvised poetry, or so angst-ridden with revelations on “where we were going,” or as the Monk quoth – Quo Vadis. In short, we had never had such a good time. Bill and I even delayed a Froliciking Detour to beautiful Buffalo to see how it played out.
Then came the anti-climax. Stoney had left her notebook after a weekend visit. Now, the only things that were actual private property in the Palace were the Teaheads bed and my guitar. It was just a matter of course we’d use the notes on us for an improvised dramatic reading.
After about four pages of field notes, and five minutes of laughter, the Teahead went silent. Then in a different voice, he began reading the introductory chapter of what had to be a torrid bodice ripper. We were all there. The character playing the guitar was a weak-willed druggy, Bill was in a blazing three-way with Tanya and Celeste ( both of whom were supremely uninterested in men). The Teahead was a sort of lothario luring young women into his lair – well, that was almost true except he struck out more often than he scored.
Stoney had been playing us. The revelations about the Anthropological study covered for her interests in creative writing.
We had been gazing at the tip of the iceberg, never suspecting what was below. How should we respond?

The next weekend when Stoney appeared, she was casually handed her notebook. The rest of us carried on as if nothing had occurred. Stoney sat down in her usual corner and commenced taking notes and making doodles. At some point, she turned to the bodice ripper, and gradually became scarlet. The regular cast of the Palace counted among their number more than a few dropouts and even local university graduates. They had extensively copyedited her bodice ripper, grammar and spelling corrected. The marginal notes, in red, outlined ommissions and errors in content and style. The first page had a jumbo crayon C, and a comment: ” not a bad virgin outing, but please try again!”

Sub Rosa

I always think it best to start with the disclaimers. I am not now nor ever was associated with any intelligence agency. Like most of my ilk, Folkie, I believe that intelligence and government agency represents a truly tactless oxymoron.
That, having been said, Billie and I were fixers, scroungers, and locators in a small way. We were not operating a racket. We were always running a little “commotion.” It was how we avoided gainful employment. We were careful to be just this side of legal, and we had a good sense of how far we could go and stayed to that line.

So there was a bit of trepidation when Brother Isaac pulled into our booth at the Harvard Gardens one evening.
Brother Isaac should not have been there. He was part of the Church of Revealed Disciples. They showed up once a month on a Saturday morning to attempt to lead the Teahead of the August Moon to salvation. The rest of us inhabiting the exclusive Grove street digs were never bothered, which was strange.
Brother Isaac sat down, grabbed the Teahead by the arm, almost spilling a beer, and just said: “Johnnie, it’s all over. Won’t be seeing you again Keep your nose out of bad snuff.” with that off rode Brother Isaac into the sunset, and it was the last heard of the Church of the Revealed Disciples.
Billie was sitting there with a bemused expression, but I just put it down to the healthy surrealistic life we lead those days. A Pooka could have appeared in the Harvard Gardens, and I would have given it a chance to explain itself. The world was a miraculous place for me then.
Over the next year or so, I found out more about my friends. Both of them tasted intelligence operations at some point in their military years. I had pieced that together from things unsaid, said, people met, and uncommonly odd bits of knowledge. Their long term association, our Folkie Flop House, our forms of making a living, and our endless traveling habits all said Folkie. But, it did not add up.

Years on the Teahead has become a conservative shock jock on the radio, Billie dies in an avoidable car accident in Baltimore, and I have begun to morph into a staid anthropologist. Then I went to grad school. I began drinking with a former marine. Who, after taking in enough bourbon to float the ark started talking about the Church of Revealed Disciples. It was a cover used by Naval intelligence for an operation. Not being as sloshed as he was, I coyly asked, ” So, how’s Brother Isaac doing these days?” All of a sudden, not quite so high, outshoots: “who’s Brother Isaac?” “You know – Church of the Revealed Disciples.” He claimed to have never heard of it, but the remainder of the night, he kept on looking hard and deep at me. I tried a shot totally in the dark – “Have you heard from Mike the Vike recently?” I thought he’d explode – ” Jesu Christi!” I smiled. The Vike had been another of the continual threads of life on Beacon Hill. The Vike was always in supply, always on the move and never who he seemed to be.
Over the next couple of days, I spiced life up by dropping hints in George’s presence that implied that I knew more than I did. His paranoia grew, but we became fast drinking buddies. Through him, I came to recognize who else in my Department were also former intelligence types.
But nobody made me. I was an enigma, and George, one night in a DC hotel, pulled a little pearl-handled .32 and point-blank asked me whose dog I was. I flippantly answered, ” the DAR’s.” Not long after this, George passed out, and I secured the thirty-two where he wouldn’t find it and went back to my room. Our friendship was at an end.
Life slipped into high gear after grad school. I eventually wound up working only a few miles away from the old digs on Beacon Hill, but the cognitive distance was enormous. I rarely thought of the Teahead of the August Moon, Brother Isaac, strange churches that were fronts, not even my friend Bill. I eventually wandered into working for the federal government.
And that’s where it gets funny again. I was a GS-12 programming officer. I did not need classified information, but they required that I get clearance. I dutifully complied with the request for data, but the inquiries always came back unanswered. What was wrong with me? And I answered that in truth, there was nothing. That was not wholly true. During my time in the Navy, I’d had a high-security clearance. Not because I was so essential a person, but because the work my squadron was doing was, and presumably still is sensitive. The reason they would not grant me a confidential was that my top-secret was still operational. This item pissed off the local hierarchy. If a secret document came into the agency, a lowly GS-12 would be the only one allowed to read it.
Thinking about this, it came home to me that the evening in a DC hotel was explainable. Somebody had run my file and found out that I was a total cipher with an impressive clearance. To people of a certain mindset that read intelligence agency. I was also a pretty bland sort who none the less had a history. Whose dog indeed?
Everyone I’ve written about in this is dead. Convenient. So we’ll never be able to check it out, but if you are out there, don’t ask about the Church of the Revealed Disciples, and whatever you do, don’t get involved with Brother Isaac.

The Alley Coffeehouse

My friends described the backside of Beacon Hill in the ’60s as a working-class slum. Not at all an accurate description. Worn at the heels, seen better times, shabbily genteel; those were better descriptors. The populace were refugees from Boston’s urban renewal in the West End, healthcare workers from the Mass General and Eye and Ear, and Folkies. The neighborhood had many charms for its residents. It was cheap, convenient to transportation, had a 24-hour drugstore, and you could roll down the Hill into the Emergency Room at the MGH. Being that most of us did not have things like medical coverage or primary care physicians. The ER was were we routinely got treated for everything from drug overdose to pediculosis. Power users of these services rarely paid. Many had no fixed abode, and the bills would go into mailboxes and from the mailboxes into the trash.


Legal, illegal, and dubious commerce flowed freely along the main thorofare of Charles Street. Coffeehouses, restaurants, antique dealers, clothiers, and head shops flourished. Habitues of both sides of the Hill had to do their business there.
On any given Friday or Saturday night, there was an influx from the suburbs of teens. Most were wanna be Folkies, proto-hippies, and the hungry eyed drugsters from the burbs that knew that they might find their need satiated here.
Some haberdashers catered to the need for just a better cut of a chambray shirt, embroidered jeans, or hat. Then there were also people satisfying other needs. Afterward, quite a few of those wound up in the ER at MGH.


The inhabitants of the third floor Grove street flat occupied by the Teahouse of the August Moon, myself, and my friend Billie had a more genteel racket. We sent Bill, a natural carnie if there ever was one, out befriend the starry-eyed and bring them back to an actual wall to wall Folkie paradise. There we would ply them with Narragansett beer, folk music, and entrust them with confidences about how life really was on Wild Side. In the process, they provided reimbursement for their tuition. They received a more humane fleecing than our friend Dutchie was providing down the street. Many returned in subsequent weeks for graduate work.
Weekday evenings we could be found at the foot of Grove street in our booths in the back of the Harvard Gardens. The table in front of us littered with twenty-five cents 8-ounce glasses of beer that the Evie, our waitress, brought to us by the dozen. One night I was a nasty drunk. I had been told by a coffeehouse owner that I had auditioned for that I wasn’t “sexy” enough. My friend Bill, always the one for wild solutions to problems, looked at me and said, “shit, we’ll open our own coffeehouse in the alley behind his. That began the Alley Coffeehouse in it’s one and only incarnation. The Teahouse of the August Moon gathered some folding chairs. Bill invested in paper cups and a bottle of cheap Chianti. I brought my guitar. Like a rapid guerrilla operation, we set up in the alley just behind the Charles street coffeehouse location. As soon as we had everything set, I began to play. Free Chianti and music began to attract customers. Bill, with waiters, folded napkin over his arm, greeted each and every new arrival and showed them to a seat. The sound of musical notes penetrated into the building in front of us. We were joined soon by one of the performers at the coffeehouse and some of the clients. Soon a screaming proprietor emerged with threats to call the police. Having achieved our goal, we began a procession down the alley towards home singing a bawdy rendition of the Kweskin Jug Bands “Washington At Valley Forge.”
Later back at the Gardens, we celebrated a successful raid upon the Establishment.

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