I set out for California in a three-quarter ton GMC panel truck that burned oil quicker than gasoline. No matter, I had some pals, some cash, a stash, a map, and a mission. When I landed in San Francisco, I re-joined the Mime Troupe, a radical theater company that performed free shows in the parks and took them on the road. We adopted old plays and characters from 16th century commedia dell arte and pounded them into a Viet-era theater for the oppressed.
Lured by our warm up music and a commedia-costumed parade, a crowd of assorted humans and dogs would sprawl in the grass around our funky portable stage. During shows full of masks and feathers, pratfalls and décolleté, our spectators laughed, lounged, and swapped green gallon jugs of Red Mountain wine for tokes of sugar-cured Mexican weed. After the show, the Mime Troupers would pass the hat and hustle spare change.
One sunny Saturday after the show and before SF’s wintery summer fog rolled into the park, I threaded through the crowd, hat in hand. A diminutive man stood up. He wore wispy mutton-chop whiskers beneath a cloud of thinning hair. A warped pair of metal-rimmed glasses clung to the bridge of his nose
The diminutive man smiled and dropped a white pill the size of an aspirin into my commedia character’s military-green beret. “You’ll like this,” he said and disappeared.
Dope in the hat? I didn’t inhale, swallow or otherwise ingest substances that well-wishers dropped into my costume hat. The Haight-Ashbury was losing its hazy sunshine glow; meth and heroin had begun to tear up the community.
I peered into the hat — crumpled dollar bills, dimes, quarters, two rolled joints, a condom and a cookie. The little white pill gazed up at me. Maybe it was okay. The diminutive man’s smile felt unpretentious, authentic; he lacked the phony glow of hippiedom’s hysterical gaze. Besides, there was something familiar about him.
The crowd dissolved. We changed out of our sweaty costumes, struck the portable commedia stage, packed the props and curtain into the back of the Mime Troupe truck and scattered, just as the wintery summer fog charged over the park, ragged white birds against a blue sky. I tucked the pill into my jeans’ pocket and split.
That night, I rambled from my Waller Street pad to Van Ness and ventured into the Avalon Ballroom to check out the bands that Chet Helms and the Family Dog had assembled. For a buck and a quarter, you could dance, listen, watch, or trip to Bo Diddly, Country Joe and the Fish, The Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Jefferson Airplane (pre Jefferson Starship) Janice Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company and a straight-ahead Brit blues band called Fleetwood Mac before Stevie Nicks hit the scene.
A gallery of Avalon event posters hung in the lobby. Dancing around a central image, each poster announced a different musical lineup with psychedelic but precise intricacy. Transfixed by the concert posters, I fished the white pill out of my jeans pocket and swallowed it.
The Avalon Ballroom featured an open floor that often coaxed people to dance in a circle. Nobody set the rules but dancers, with or without partners, would begin to swirl to the music, forming a fluid galaxy spinning free, always counterclockwise.
Already buzzing, I walked to the edge of the floor feeling the dancers whirl by. My head floated toward to the ceiling. I must look all stretchy, I thought.
Onstage, Bo Diddly pumped out his signature clave rhythm — one long triplet, two quarter notes. Look at my hand, I murmured. Five fingers, one for each beat. Just right. I watched Bo Diddly play.
How does he play so matter-of-fact while luminous lines rippled off his silhouette? The universe keeps him straight with square black glasses and a black Stetson with weird medallion. Bo Diddly’s square red Gretsch guitar reverbs the clave beat, Bo Diddly professional in a red plaid jacket. This man is freaky like William Burroughs but he rocks ‘way different.
Avalon bands played loud. Mammoth Marshall stacks fought the draconian PA system for decibels. Kids curled into fetal positions inside the mouths of PA speakers. The concussion of each beat massaged the room. My head returned from the ceiling and I began to move.
Quicksilver Messenger Service guitars flash sound from mercury strings. I reach out stretchy arms and dive into the vortex of limbs and hands and fingers and hair and teeth and smiles.The world goes real — easy, slow, strong, calm.
One side of the ballroom was lit, the other in semidarkness, as if we were the earth, all the people spinning together from light to darkness, each rotation taking no time and an eternity. Quicksilver finished their set. The spiral continued, unstoppable. In the silence between bands, no lights, no canned music, the vortex rotated, dark to light to dark, hair, eyes, mouths, bellies, breasts, legs, sexual, sensuous, asexual.
Big Brother, out of tune as always, set up the first song. Janis makes her entrance, floating above the crowd, beaming down, sister in a homespun cotton dress, arms extended. A wide soft smile makes my face shine rosy. We all live together in this town and we call it Free City.
The diminutive man appeared before me. I pointed to a poster projected on the screen.
“You’re him.” I said.
“Mister Stanley Mouse.”
“You took the pill,” he said.
I went all giant and stupid in a blissful way. I twined my fingers through all the hair in the room. When I returned, mister Stanley Mouse had vanished.
For years, I tried to understand what that little pill was all about. It wasn’t acid. Yeah, there were hallucinations but mostly Mouse’s gift created a warm, strong, simple place where the galaxy came to earth. Later, I learned that — about that time — people were experimenting with methylenedioxymethamphetamine, a compound first synthesized in 1912 that re-surfaced at San Francisco University, the compound that would become ecstasy.
Thanks for the little white pill, mister Stanley Mouse, the man who illustrated a culture.
# # #
Find more of my stuff at www.charlesdegelman.org and @CDegelman
All graphics © Stanley Mouse
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.
Great story, Charles. I so wish I had been there in those magical times. SF. The Avalon Ballroom. The Mime Troupe. Incredible! How did you figure out that the little man was Stanley Mouse?
Thanks, Suzy. That poster was on the wall behind him. That’s how I knew.
Go ask Alice when she’s 10 feet tall. Or something like that. Thanks for taking us on another one of your great adventures, Charles.
Thanks, Betsy. Funny, I had put first put that ‘Ask Alice…’ line from Jeff Airplane into the first draft because my diminutive man also looked a bit like the mad hatter! One mind! — john coltrane
Blew me away. Thanks, Charles.
Thanks, John. Gonna have to watch I don’t repeat myself 😉
I’m just starting to read some of the stories that were written before I discovered this site. I hitchhiked up to the Haight many times back in the day…still have a Stanley Mouse Joint Show poster in pretty good condition. It’s probably worth something by now but I can’t part with it yet. You’re a wonderfully evocative writer, Charles, and in this story you’ve captured scenes I lived the equivalent of down here in L.A. where it was the Shrine Exposition Hall…Jimi Hendrix, Mothers of Invention, The Doors, Pink Floyd, Grateful Dead, Big Brother, Cream. Amazing light shows.
Thanks for your interest, Barbara. Yes, I think things ran pretty much in parallel in many of the urban scenes from that day. I’ve also written a fair amount of stuff set in the Back to the Land movements, collectives, communes of the time and am now revisiting my years in the political theater scene in SF in the late 60s and thru the 70s. Just feel that it’s important to revisit those people, places, events, the whole gestalt of the beast. I hope I do it justice! It was a pivotal time, often diminished and denied by the system’s need to level things out. Of course, these days, there is no leveling, no playing field, only a battle field. This, too, shall pass, but it’s agonizing to watch it collapse.
You definitely do justice to the gestalt of it all, Charles…you bring serious and thoughtful insight with evocative language and imagery. I am more of an emotional casualty…it was pretty much all sex, drugs, and rock and roll for me…too much of it, with much too little thought. In retrospect, I might not change a thing, but I do appreciate reading other people’s more coherent time capsules. And BTW, your description of that ecstasy trip was pure perfection.
Thanks for your kind words, Barbara. And yeah, there was plenty of sex, drugs, and rock and roll along with the political passions. And I’m glad you enjoyed the ecstasy trip, if, indeed, that was what it was!
This was a trip! I ended up looking up Stanley Mouse on wikipedia. About as cool as me being in line behind Allan Ginzberg for the free vegetarian food at Yale during the May Day 1970 marches in solidarity with Bobby Seale and Erika Huggins. (But happily, Allan did not hand me a white pill or anything.)
Delighted to have tripped you out, Dale. I usually consider linear descriptions of highs to be failures before they begin, but I tried it anyway. Shakespeare had the definitive words for tripping in Midsummer Night’s Dream when Bottom wakes up and says:
“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was.“