Thursday, 25 October 2007
A World Remembered
By Rabon Saip of Elder Times
[A PERSONAL NOTE: A couple of weeks ago, I received an email with a story for this blog. The sender was new to The Elder Storytelling Place, but the name leapt out at me – Rabon Saip. It’s not your everyday name, and I knew I knew this man from what feels like a century ago. It actually has been about half a century. Exchanged email confirmed my assumption.
We were not friends then, although we had many in common and sometimes hung out in the same groups at a local bar or coffee house. He was a leader among the Beatniks; I a teenager eager for the education in philosophy, jazz, classical music, politics, culture and more they gave me, and I was thrilled to sit in on the long talks into the wee hours they let this kid be part of.
More than any other single source, these people, including Rabon, shaped what I am today. So this story, of a certain time, place and zeitgeist, is as much mine as it is Rabon’s although I could not have written it nearly so well, if at all. Isn't it amazing the people we meet on the internet.]
By the time I moved there on my own, Sausalito had been in a post-war cultural transition for some time. After the shipyard workers had gone, a deep sigh of peace filled the land. Then, gradually, the authenticity of several local artists and the influence of a small Bohemian houseboat community (along with the resurgence of nineteen thirties folk music) evolved into an even broader non-conformist subculture.
The antithesis of that counterculture was represented by an increasing dominance of small nuclear families, rows of new tract houses, modern appliances and a newly emerging army that wore grey flannel suits.
Business was good; America was booming. The great wartime machine that had out produced every nation on earth was now focused on transforming its output into the latest and most innovative material desires of a vast new American market. But the similarities between mass produced products and the people who bought them seemed to some of us to represent a growing trend toward an equally mass produced mentality.
There was a nagging cultural hunger that prowled among our local population of dissatisfied youth - amorphous, persistent, hinting at something better, it told of different times, richer and more fulfilling times, when a depth of culture had carried everyone to a higher plane of existence. I learned to play chess, listened to Mahler and Mozart, read Neitchze and Schopenhauer, even though my limited experience didn’t offer much of a hook upon which to hang European philosophy.
I learned that the Greeks of ancient times had looked back to even more ancient times, to what they called a "Golden Age," when greater human beings had done greater things. For those of us in Sausalito, looking out beyond our cultural comfort zone, bordered by Corte Madera to the north and the Golden Gate Bridge to the south, there seemed to be a vast movement in America that wanted all of us not only to look alike, and live alike, but most of all to think alike.
And so we reacted with our precious non-conformity, with our books and berets, our jargon and our jazz. Like the ancient Greeks we looked to a time we thought must have been, although we didn’t know exactly when, or where. What we dreamt was more like a cultural essence, an idea, a Great Waltz of the mind - a regal dance of crystalline thoughts - the vague memory of a way of being that no one could even be sure had ever existed. Perhaps all the great cultures we’d heard about were only reflections of another time that never was.
But, whatever we were doing, and the environment in which we were doing it, soon became an attraction to those we regarded as outsiders. I remember that one particular Sunday afternoon, walking with a small group of friends along Bridgeway (Sausalito’s main street), when there were suddenly too many cars in town. We thought maybe there had been an accident up ahead. But no, it was the beginning of tourism in our beloved Sausalito. And the following weekend, it was even worse.
After Herb Caen gave us the name, "Beatniks," we became something of a commodity. From Sausalito to North Beach, in San Francisco, there was a time and place to enjoy classical music, engage in meaningful discussion, play chess and watch the tourists watching us. But with the coming of the so-called "Hippies," a different breed was moving into our former territory. The quiet depth of life we had borrowed from Bohemian culture was replaced by "rock and roll," both in music and in behavior.
By the time I left town, in 1964, the focus of counterculture had moved to the "Haight" in San Francisco. Some of us followed the flower children, but others of us were turned off by what we saw, as it seemed in its own way just as brainlessly banal as the conformity we had earlier resisted.
I guess it's all still there, beneath the slow moving layers of history, for those who come to enjoy the atmosphere and buy into a piece of the myth. But for those of us who saw the old bait shop on a tumbled down pier in the middle of town, and knew everyone we saw on the street, Sausalito was something else.
Then, at some point during those early years, in one mysterious unknown instant, that which was becoming, became, and was past. Myth embellished memory, and so remained - a lasting banner to be draped from the walls for tourists to see.