The Unexpected

“You know your Center. Find your Center and the energy within it. Let it flow into the room. Allow me to channel the flow. Great things will happen!” Dishes rattled, a glass of water fell off the table. The candle flickered.

We turned the lights back on, and John, con artist extraordinaire, looked at us “And that’s all there is to it.” ” Yeah. but how did you do it?” asked Bill. “You expect me to introduce you to the secrets of the universe for a quart of cheap beer? Isn’t it enough that you know that this ages-old con is still effective?” I spoke up, “I liked it when the candle flickered.” “That was simple breath control; that’s the freebee of the night. Now I have to get over to Marlboro Street. Edith Stanley needs to contact her departed husband about their stock portfolio.” With that, John decamped to the bathroom to refresh himself before meeting Edith. We sat there thinking about the phony seance. Most in the group were skeptics, but that didn’t prevent us from admiring John’s showmanship, or how convincing the stage tricks had seemed while they were happening. Bill especially looked thoughtful.

John expected to be in town for about two weeks, or until the Bunko Squad realized he was back in town. These things, like where John might pop up next, were deliberately hard to fathom. 

Bill began to study the cards with John. Bill had to actually work hard at our temporary employers to pay tuition; John gave very little away for free; except his smile. I just observed. My main observation was that John was not teaching Bill the cards and card tricks, but was teaching Bill to use his voice, and eyes to focus attention and build trust with the “mark.” 

John decided that Bill’s final exam should be at the Folkie Palace on the following weekend. John had felt a “psychic tug,” telling him that Miami required his services. Bill was to tell the fortune of one of the Palace regulars who John thought was the right candidate.

That Saturday was the exam. Bill got into it, establishing “facts he could not possibly have known about her.” He used his body language, voice, and eyes to show empathy and build trust. Then taking her both hands within his larger ones, he began,” and now I’ll count back from five. When I say one. Expect the unexpected. Five, four, four, three, two…”

The loud banging on the door was unexpected, but the real surprise was the booming voice of Sargent Cappucci hollering out – “Hey Teahead, where’s that no good bunco buddy of yours! If you’re hiding him, you’ll be in jail too.”

Out went the joints, down the toilet went the stash, and out the fire, escape went John. Knowing that Cappucci’s partner would be at the bottom of the fire escape, he went up to the roof and used the plank we had set up to transit between buildings. He bounded from ours to the next and then to number 28. Further, than we normally went.

The Teahead got up, opened the door – “He’s not here. ” The Sargent smiled. “Oh, I know that Pauli’s down in the alley of 28 waiting for him to come down that fire escape, ‘night folks.

We don’t know if John was more than just a scam artiste or also capable of disappearing. It was years before I saw him in his new career as an aide to a politician.

Bill connected with the young lady. She was incredibly impressed with the Unexpected. Bill later admitted that she would never have been so impressed by the silver dollar he was going to slip into her hands.

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!”

Baptism of Beer

There’s a lot in a name. Take mine. There is a whole raft of people who only knew me by the name Wes. Years later, on Facebook, they discovered that Lou was my real name. Of course, they don’t know how I came by the alias.
At our exclusive back booth at the Harvard Gardens one night, the empties were piling up in front of the Tea head of the August Moon, Captain Zero ( my friend Bill), Dutchie, English Joe, Mike the Vike, and me. I was the only one not replete with a handle, alias, or nickname. I had joined the Grove street tribe about three months ago. I had so far avoided committing any blunder that landed me with an embarrassing name, nor performed some feat that gave a great descriptor like Captain Zero. It was a puzzle that my tribal seniors decided to address that very night.
While they were debating my naming, I wandered over to visit my friend Judy. Judy’s roommate Elaine was an airline stewardess, and the two usually showed up with five or six friends who worked with Elaine. Judy was like an older sister. I had to be on my best behavior around her, and with any of her guests. That night I struck up a long and involved conversation one of Elaine’s friends about how the folk music industry was changing. To be heard above the crowd at the Gardens that night, you had to talk loudly. But it became clear that although I had introduced myself to Sarah as Lou, she had not heard me. Eventually, her not knowing my name morphed into my being called Les. As we continued to drink, Sarah altered this to Wes. I was frankly too enchanted to correct her. At about eleven, Judy and Elaine gathered their brood and left for home. Sarah grabbed me for a hug and a kiss and proclaimed loudly, ” Wes! You’re so sweet.” Ah, sweet wasn’t what I was aiming for, but I saw them to their apartment on West Cedar Street before wandering back to the Gardens.
As I walked towards my friend’s table ( now buried under empties and remains of bar snacks), I saw them snickering. I knew my fate was determined. As I sat down, the Tea Head smiled and said to Captain Zero,” the envelope, please.” Bill handed him a soiled cocktail napkin. ” and the choices are Sweetie and Wes.”
He then handed me a beer and exclaimed that “lucky for you; we determined that Sweetie would demean the tribe. So we now baptize you, Wes. They then poured their remaining beer over my head. We were then asked to leave the establishment, and not return until something more outrageous dimmed the memory of my baptism. A week I think.

The next morning everyone in the household started calling me Wes. Eventually, I began to think of myself as Wes. When I enlisted in the Navy, Wes went onto my record as my alias, and the name has followed me ever since. Names have consequences.

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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.

White Horse Circle

Most of us have events that echo through the corridors of our lives. Thirty, forty, fifty years later, it remains like a rhythm track beating at an intersection from a car seven cars ahead. You can’t make out the song, but you hear the beat. I have that sort of track inside me, and it emerged briefly to thump into action this morning as I emerged from the house into the downpour to go to the store, out of quarantine.
It was 1960, something. I was standing in the pouring rain in Hamilton Township New Jersey at the White Horse traffic circle. It was me, my soaked clothes and a guitar. The guitar had some extra clothes wrapped inside the case to keep the guitar dry. I was praying for a ride.
Out of the night appeared a large black sedan full of African American Church ladies. I heard one of them holler out to me, “hurry in, there’s room for one more if we squeeze!” and squeeze we did to Philadelphia.
They grilled me: did my mother know where I was, what was I doing in the middle of nowhere New Jersey in a storm like this? It went on, but in such loving terms that I soon broke down in tears. Out it came the current romantic, financial, and existential crises of my life off the rails.
Then a quiet voice asked: “May we pray for you?” and pray they did. All through the dark wet night from White Horse circle on NJ 226 to North Philly. Letting me out where I could catch a train, I was told: ” you’ve gotten prayed over good. Don’t forget; God loves you.”

OK, it wasn’t my tradition. I’m a Methodist escapee from a Catholic upbringing. But the rhythm, the memory kept returning, and I am in that car with those ladies praying for me. And, as I said, its like a powerful rhythm track. I can’t hear the words, but I feel the powerful beat. I am so grateful to those ladies; they prayed over me so well that all these years later, It’ still there. Thank You.


Well, here it is. It took about an hour of digging around to locate. It’s a list.
A setlist. It contains a listing of the songs that I regularly performed when I composed the list. It’s very late, probably around 1977. But, the first 28 songs all date from sets I did from the 1960s in the Village. Some I still know, and could play blind drunk on the floor of an apartment on Christopher Street. That happened, not to me, but a very famous performer who passed out in 1964 in said apartment. I think it might have been Van Ronk or Havens who said: “put his ax in his hands, and I bet he’ll start playing.” He did. In those days, almost everyone knew lots of performance material cold. Coffeehouse playing wasn’t necessarily lucrative, but it was a living. We all had setlists, and mine was neither distinguished nor as expansive as some.
So whether he was giving us all a rise or not, we all howled at the result. And we respected how professional the performance was under challenging circumstances.

This one was more of a reference list of stuff I could put together in different ways depending on mood or need. Narrower ones might get taped to the top of my guitar. Depending on what I was playing, it might be my nylon string old friend “Charlie,” or the speed necked Gibson “I.O.U.”
The spill on the list looks like beer.

Van Ronk once put together a song of all the Towns on the Garden State Freeway – Garden State Stomp. Most of us could have composed similar material of all the coffeehouses, bars, cheap clubs, street corners, and parties that we frequented while keeping it all together. We knew this stuff better than we knew our girlfriends’ names, and that may explain why we had so many bad relationships.

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.


I sat down to watch the movie ” a Mighty Wind” with some trepidation. Within moments I was groaning at the portrayals of people who were almost that of Folkies I had known. The movie cut, in a humorous way, just a little too close to the bone. The preoccupations of the performers opened to public view. The jealousies, and innuendos, it was all there. We took it so seriously, and the movie exposed how mundane we were.

It was tough to watch because I know friends who either never picked up a guitar again after their last gig or those who practiced endlessly for a gig that will never come. Think of it; thousands of folkies, male and female, practicing in their basements waiting for the Folkie Apocalypse to come. Do you think I’m joking? We may be getting old, but, Folk Music is a powerful drug.

I have not been able to watch the movie ” Inside Llewyn Davis.” Just watching the trailer gave me bad flashbacks. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Greenwich Village, and I loved my life there. But, to get shoved back inside it again. No. Much too much crazy stupidity. But oh for the beautiful afternoons, evenings, nights, and entire weeks of playing that music.

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