The pieces in this collection open a window into a more innocent, pre-digital world whose traces are rapidly disappearing. The Last Bus, Clay Geerdes’s unique take on life and the world, is equal parts memoir, fiction, and social commentary. The early memoirs are based on the author’s experiences growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and as a sailor in the nineteen fifties. These stories immerse the reader in crucial detail, while exhibiting an unusual combination of narrative distance and dry-eyed wistfulness. The result is a well-defined and original Geerdes style with no obvious literary antecedents. The later stories, which are tougher and manifest a sharp-edged view towards the world, focus on the cultural and political scenes in the San Francisco area from the mid-sixties through the mid-nineties. From beginning to end, from the very moving title story through the touching essay "Miss Ganz", this is the story of a man who felt himself always alone, always apart, despite all the human connections in his life. From the evidence here, Clay Geerdes appears to have faced this ultimate aloneness, and indeed his own death, with the sang froid of a seasoned reporter in the battle zone.
The Last Bus was selected from a huge collection of documents the author left behind at his death. Many, but not all, of these stories originally appeared in the weekly Anderson Valley Advertiser of Boonville, California, a paper that has given many writers the space and creative scope that is so rarely available in today’s popular press.
Excerpts from THE LAST BUS
All excerpts copyright©1990-1997 by Clay Geerdes
From How I Lost A Ride to L.A. In 1949
The drummer walked into the Derby one Friday night, a chubby little man in a shiny blue suit with diamond cuff links, a fast-talking dandy with eyes that rolled around like little black marbles, serious eyes that belied the smile that never left his face, the eyes of a man who never let the marks know what was really on his mind. He was crafty, that salesman, smooth, a player who knew which games to avoid, the kind of guy who knew just when to drift to the back of the crowd.
Cox, Kelley, and the silent kid from Nebraska City were playing short racks on the front snooker table that evening. There were eleven tables in the Derby, four snooker and seven slop. It was mid-evening and all the tables were in play. Snooker was twenty cents a rack; slop, or rotation, was a dime. The Dinges brothers, Ray and Leonard ran the place, and when someone hit the floor with the butt of a cue Ray or Leonard came back to reset the table. Most of the men played eight or nine ball, but there were always a few amateurs who played slop. The sharks played the front tables and the amateurs might hang in the shadows and watch as Cox cleared the table, but they never got too close. Harold Cox wore a white suit and two-tone shoes, black saddles over white toes and heels, always shined. His hair was snow white and his moustache reminded folks of Mark Twain; fact is, he did resemble the man who wrote Huck Finn, but the bets would have gone against the writer had he taken a cue against Cox. Herman Kelley was the tallest man in the room and he had the habit of spearing his cue into the air after a shot. Once or twice an evening this resulted in a ringing sound as the cue connected with the shade of the green lamp above the table. Kelley always laughed and said, "hot damn." He wore nondescript dark suits and striped ties. Cox wore a black bow tie.
There wasn’t anything unusual about that Friday night. Cox and Kelley always played the front table unless someone challenged them to a game of golf or pea pool and they had to shift back to the first slop table to pick up the chump’s money. Nor was it out of the ordinary for the silent kid from Nebraska City to lose some of his money in the game. He drove a truck and when he had a stopover in Lincoln, Nebraska, He spent the evening at the Derby. If the sharpies cleaned him out, he joined the rest of the lounge lizards and watched.
From the look of Cox, the careful, deliberate way he drank his spiked 7-Up from a paper cup, the way he swirled that booze around in his gums before swallowing it, you’d think the dude was a wine taster from California, but if you walked around the corner you’d find a blue pickup truck parked two or three spots down the street and if you looked in the bed of that truck you’d see a locked trunk that contained Cox’s tools, and though there was no company logo painted on the doors of the pickup, anyone could have told you that Harold Cox was a plumber. Lincoln’s finest snooker player spent his week fixing toilets and clogged drains. His tall pal, Herman Kelley, was a carpenter, a man who, it was said, could walk into your kitchen and tell you exactly what kind of cabinets you needed and how much wood it would take for him to make them and how much the whole job would cost you, all in the time it took you to pour him a cup of coffee; Lincoln’s number two snooker and billiard player spent his week fixing screen doors and porch steps. The cabinetmaking was primarily a hobby, but there were two or three houses near completion on the South Side of town where the bankers and insurance hustlers lived and had you been allowed in the large kitchens of those houses you would have seen the work Kelley was most proud of. I’m sure he pointed those houses out to his wife and kids when they rode along South Cotner on a Sunday outing.
I kept an eye on the drummer. He had put his black sample case down next to one of the chairs and he was watching Ray rack the balls for a new round. Cox had sent one of his fans back to the john for a refill and Kelley was scratching his left ear. The silent kid still had his cue, which meant he still had enough to stay in the game for awhile. You could always divide the Derby up like that. The guys playing had some change in their pockets, the others had lost what they had or come in broke. I was jerking sodas over at the Cornhusker’s Teepee Room, and I always had a few bucks and that night I had a sneaking suspicion I could take that drummer for a few more, but the last time I saw him he said he was driving out to California in a week or two and when I mentioned I would like to go out there and look over the lay of the land he said I could ride with him, so I figured I would have to play it cagey and let the drummer win enough to at least stay even with me.
I don’t want to sound like a sharpie here, hey, I was only 15-years-old, but I had been playing pool for about three years, ever since Dick Hunning introduced me to the Derby when I was 12. Dick and I met over a pinball machine in a shoebox diner on North 10th one day when my dad and his workers went there for lunch. Dad wrecked buildings and he was working on a job nearby. Dick was friendly, the first Catholic kid I ever met, and he shared the pinball game with me and said if I went along to the Derby sometime he would teach me how to play pool. I said I’d like that. I didn’t have any close buddies out in University Place where we lived, and I had been taking the bus around since I was eight, so I knew I wouldn’t have any trouble with Mom. I’d just say I was going downtown the way I always did and I’d check out the Derby. Dick met me there one afternoon and showed me the ropes and over the years I got to be a pretty good player. I was never a sharpie in the class with Cox and Kelley, but I could hold my own against a lot of the working stiffs who came in to play a few games before going home and facing their families.
I knew I could take the drummer. He froze up on rail shots and was visibly uncomfortable with long shots and I had learned a good safety game from Dick. He always told me if I wasn’t sure of a shot, I should leave a lot of green between the cue and the next ball.
I was a standard horny 15-year-old in early 1949 and my life in Lincoln left a lot to be desired. My Dad came down with ALS in 1946, just after the end of the war, and he was sitting at home in his wheelchair waiting for the end. The diagnosis had been three years. Buddy, my pop, was the fifth guy in history to come down with what was called the Lou Gehrig disease because it killed the baseball player. Buddy’s wrecking business had ground to a standstill without him to keep an eye on things and our house had been divided up into apartments and sleeping rooms. The tenants paid the bills now. Mom was nursing Buddy full-time, because there was no money to pay for hospital care or a trained nurse. For awhile I tried to handle high school and night work but it wore me down. With Buddy’s sickness, everything that was normal about my life disappeared. All our family routines came to an end. I coped by working and hanging out with the guys at the Derby, but my main goal was escape. I wanted to get out of Lincoln, to move somewhere and leave the misery behind, to have a life of my own. I was tired of having a few dollars in my pocket but no more, of having to hand everything over to Mom, of never being able to date regular girls because my life was so irregular.
I couldn’t stand to be around Buddy. Seeing him so helpless in that wheelchair, always dressed in those depressing khaki work clothes, always staring into space, made me feel like I was dying. I felt trapped in a cycle of misery. I wanted to have sex with pretty girls, to go to some nice clubs and restaurants, to wear sharp clothes, drive a fast car, and be recognized as someone; instead, I was making sodas and fancy sundaes for the rich kids who hung out at The Teepee after they went to the Keen Time dances in the park or the latest movies. I couldn’t stand to go home. After work, I went with one of the bellhops over to Tillman’s coffee shop in the Greyhound Depot across the street from the hotel. We sat around and drank shitty coffee and flirted with the night shift waitresses until it was after four. Even then when I got home I could hear Buddy coughing out his life and I knew my mother was having another sleepless night. My brother, Ken, and my sister, Carol, both several years younger than me, were still kids. They weren’t suffering the rage and sexual frustration that I associated with Buddy’s tragic paralysis.
The guys on table four quit and the drummer appeared at my shoulder asking me if I wanted to shoot a few racks of eight ball. I said, sure, why not, and walked back to the cue rack to look for the 12 I liked. Most guys like a heavier cue, an 18 or 22, but I always liked a light weight cue with a thin tip. I had a lot of control with a cue like that. My English was a lot more precise. A larger cue meant a more solid break and sometimes I used an 18 to break, then switched to a 12 or 13. It wasn’t legal for me to play pool at all. The law said 18 or older. There wasn’t any logic to this from my point of view, because liquor wasn’t sold in the Derby. The guys who wanted to drink a beer had to go next door and drink it there. It wasn’t legal for Cox and Kelley to drink their spikes in the Derby, but I never noticed the beat cop sniff their paper cups when he stopped in during the evening. I figured he knew the score and just let it be. Someone always kept an eye out for the cop anyway and a friend of Cox would be back in the john stashing his pint before the blue coat was in the front door. Ray Dinges liked me and the other young guys who hung out at his place and he didn’t see anything wrong with our playing pool. The way he dealt with the cop was to stroll over and take my cue during the time he was making his round. I never understood that either. If it was all right for us to be in the pool hall, what did it matter whether we were playing or not?
I glanced at Ray as he finished racking the table and he nodded that it was fine for me to play the drummer. He noticed a burning cigarette on the rail of the next table and he told Felton to put his cigarette over in the ashtray where it belonged. Felton snorted, but he did as he was told. He was an old friend of Dick Hunning, but nothing at all like Dick. Felton had a chip on his shoulder, and he was always trying to get into a fight. His routine line to me was "Come out in the alley, Lucky." He was a couple of inches taller than me, short-haired; think of early Dick Van Dyke in black and white and you’ve got him pegged.
The drummer was chalking a cue and saying, "Play for a half?" and I was about to say sure, when Felton butted in and asked, "So whaddayu guys gonna play for? Can I get in?" I would have said no, because I didn’t like Felton’s personality and didn’t like to play with him, but the drummer told him it was fine with him, "the more the merrier." He had that patronizing attitude some older people get when they deal with young people. I knew I had to take him at least one extra game to make him pay for the smirk. I wasn’t concerned about Felton, because I knew his game was nowhere near mine. I also knew he couldn’t be trusted to pay up when he lost, so I suggested we ante up in a corner pocket before breaking. I dropped in a half dollar and the Drummer followed suit and we waited for Felton. Then we had to go odd man for the break and I wound up shooting last, but following Felton which was good position because his English was lousy and he couldn’t play shape for shit. It was also good because it meant I could make sure the Drummer didn’t lose often enough to make him renege on his offer to take me along on the trip to California.
We played for awhile and I stayed about even with the Drummer, but Felton was down a few dollars and not happy. I figured he would just quit, but I picked up on something going on between him and the salesman. While I was running several balls, they were whispering near the chairs that lined the wall. Not really whispering, actually, but talking softly. There was a lot of conversation around the various tables and someone had fed the juke box a quarter so we were hearing Les Paul and Mary Ford drone on about the world waiting for a sunrise. I dropped the eight with a rail shot to the corner and pocketed the buck fifty and hit the floor for the house man. I saw Ray look up from his seat at the front candy counter and I turned my gaze to the others to see if we were going to continue. Felton and the Drummer were into something, but I had no idea what it was.
Felton said yeah he was into another rack but he had to do something and he stood his cue next to a chair, crossed to the middle of the room, and walked back and out of the rear door. It was a screened door and on warm nights it was left open for the breeze. There were a couple of ceiling fans, but they had little effect on the smoke that filled the place when all 11 tables were in play. Ray was racking another table and we were waiting. The Drummer got his sample case and said he would be back, then he went out the back door. I was curious about what was going on with those two, but there were other games going on and I just watched the shooters while I waited for Ray to get to our table. He racked the balls, glancing at me to ask "still playing 8-ball?" and when I nodded yes, he popped the eight in the center of the rack, lifted it off, pocketed the dime from the end of the table and headed up front.
I waited, but the others didn’t come back. It was around 9:30 or so. There was a clock on the wall. I could see some guys standing around near the soda pop case near the front counter and I knew they were waiting for a table and that Ray would be miffed because he didn’t like to see an empty table when some players were waiting. I saw him glance back in my direction a couple of times and I shrugged but he had turned away to sell someone something.
The back screen door banged shut and I watched the Drummer hurry toward the front of the hall. I set my cue next to Felton’s and walked in the same direction. When I got to where he was leaning over the counter I could see that he was bleeding from the nose and mouth. Ray was asking him what happened and he was telling Ray to just call the police. I looked back to see if Felton had returned, but saw no sign of him. Ray shrugged and dialed the police and told whoever answered to send an officer around to the Derby. The Drummer had bloodied up his own handkerchief and Ray had some paper towels on the glass case for him to use. I wanted to ask him what happened, but he was plainly angry and not going to say anything more to Ray or me. I went back and put the cues in the rack, then I went out the back screen door and looked up and down the alley. I could see Ray’s car parked in it’s usual spot, but nothing else. It was a pretty clear night and the alley was empty. Felton was nowhere around. At the time I just thought he had run out of money and instead of admitting it he just took off. That was like him. He hated to lose face.
Pulp Fiction: PC Backlash in the 1990s
Pulp Fiction has been reviewed by all the local reviewers in the Bay Area and the reviews are raves and upturned thumbs for Quentin Tarantino’s pastiche of ultra-violence and gratuitous gore. Two and a half hours of nonstop amoral coolness, glamorizing the underworld and allowing an audience to wallow in a convoluted mix of nostalgia and negative images — it’s all hedonism here, folks; leave your critical faculties in the trunk of your car with your velcro wallet. Pulp Fiction is the end result of a decade of MTV (Mass Televised Violence) and violent video games like Street Fighter. What is missing from the reviews I have read by Mick LaSalle, Matthew Gilbert, Michael Covino, and Joe Bob Briggs is any discussion of what is really going on in this film — blatant and unapologetic racism. Since the Civil Rights Movement of the fifties and sixties, public consciousness has tried to keep up. Niggers became Negroes and Negroes became Blacks and Blacks became Afro-Americans. Political Correctness evolved slowly with a minority of students taking the lead. Certain Blacks became visible in films and on television, but these were not the Blacks one saw in the street or heard at the bus stop; they were handsome, highly educated, carefully picked people just like the pretty blondes and handsome men chosen to sit next to them at the anchor desk on the evening news. On the cop shows, the villains continued to be street blacks and longhaired hippies, the people most frightening to the inhabitants of suburban malls.
If you lived through the late sixties when Stokely Carmichael and various members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense were shifting from an NAACP integrationist consciousness to a segregationist concept of Black Power and a gradual shift to Afro-Americanism, you know that one day you were supposed to say Negro, the next Black, and the next Afro-American, depending upon where you were and to whom you were talking. You learned that older people of color (the new euphemism for colored people) wanted to be called Negroes, not Blacks, because they considered Black an insult. Younger activists wanted to be referred to as Black people, not "Kneegrows," a term they associated with a slave origin (after all, Spanish slavers called them Negroes, the Spanish word for Black, and they wanted to define themselves, not accept a slave owner’s definition). Afro-Americanism came out of the universities and was kind of an intellectual compromise. It expanded through the campus speeches of Malcolm X and the later success of Roots on television. In graduate school during this time, I heard Malcolm X lecture at UC Berkeley and I was impressed with his erudition and his rational approach to racism in America. It was my feeling then and now that black people have a right to be called whatever they want to be called. If I know what that is and choose to ignore it, I am insulting someone on purpose. My mother was from Alabama, a deep South woman, and she taught me as a child that Negro was proper and anything else was a deliberate insult. Like my peers, I said Nigger when I wanted to insult.
But — people are arrogant and selfish and opinionated and egocentric and they don’t want anyone telling them what they can or can’t say and what we are beginning to see in films like Pulp Fiction is a backlash to PC. Everyone in the cast of this film says Nigger, not Black or Afro-American, and Quentin Tarantino is a calculated racist. The major villains in his film are black and they get punished in rather interesting ways. The head gangster, Marcellus, is run down in the crosswalk by a white man. He is captured by a couple of other white men and raped by one of them. A young black drug runner has his head blown off accidentally by white John Travolta. This man is nothing more than a cleanup problem for two hit men; his life is considered meaningless. No one in this film has any moral position; the cast members being lowlife scumbags who fail to justify the amount of time spent to portray their meaningless lives onscreen. There is no balance of sympathy, no one to identify with. Pulp Fiction is a paean to ugliness and brutality. I realize Tarantino is deliberately reversing the moral point of view of film noir, but, hey, I don’t like it. What we have here is a big booger joke at the dinner table. Trashing of the bourgeoisie. What did Henry Miller call his Tropic Of Cancer — "a gob of spit in the eye of God?" This is it and more. I am concerned about the lack of any moral position by the critics I mention. Blatant images of hatred, brutality, racism, and violence are praised as though such a plethora of imagery had some kind of inherent aesthetic value — bullshit! This film is a parade of sensation for it’s own sake and built into it’s structure are a lot of white racist fantasies. There is no truth here. The major drug dealers in this country are not black men; they are rebel CIA ops who import the major crop of Peru and Bolivia — cocaine. Lethal Weapon told the truth and had both a black and a white hero who punished th e guilty. In the real world the guilty go on to become presidential candidates and die of old age, but what film fan could get off on that?
There are no good guys in Pulp Fiction so the bad guys win by default. A salt and pepper hit team stroll off into the sunset. A couple of unregenerate scumbags rob and terrorize a restaurant and get away scot free to spend the money. Hey, it’s the midnineties. Crime is all. It pays well. Drop out of Sunday School and steal a gun. Shoot up a Day Care Center. And, hey, remember, Black people are just as evil and crooked and scary as you thought they were — Quentin Tarantino said so.
Morris "Moe" Moscowitz (1921-1997)
When I was doing the research for my biography of Thorne Smith back in 1985, I combed the city for copies of Smith’s books and found very few of them. Ultimately, I had to borrow most of the more obscure and earlier works from the archive at Dartmouth. When I stopped in to ask Moe if he had any of Smith’s books, he said he thought there were a couple down in the Science Fiction Section. Then he added, "who reads Thorne Smith these days?" I said I did, for one, and that lead to one of those short little conversations Moe liked to have with customers while he was shelving books. One of the endearing qualities Moe had was his thorough knowledge of his stock. I think he knew where every book in his store was located and I can’t say that about a lot of other bookstores in Berkeley. Moe didn’t say, let me check the computer; he walked right over to the shelf where the two Smith paperbacks were and pulled them out for me. Topper and The Stray Lamb. Well, I had both of them, but the conversation was worth the drive up to Telegraph.
I was often in Moe’s old bookstore during the years I was a grad student at UC. It was a lot more user-friendly place than the campus library where you had to climb all those stairs, enter the stacks, climb up and down a lot of other stairs to get from level to level, only to find someone had pulled out the reference book you were looking for and left it in a carrel somewhere. Moe got me in the habit of buying used books, then reselling them to him for a percentage at the end of the semester when I no longer needed them. For awhile, he didn’t even mind some underlining. I was majoring in literature, and Moe always had the novels I needed. When I was writing my book on Thomas Hardy, he had them all, even some of the earlier ones. Today Moe has neat little carts on which the newly traded used books are stacked until someone gets around to shelving them, but in the sixties I went down in the basement and there were boxes and boxes of paperbacks all over the floor and I had a ball looking through all that stuff.
If Moe was in the store — which was most of the time if he wasn’t schmoozing with some radical buddies in the Med across the street — you knew it the minute you walked in the door by the odor of his cigar. You never had to ask an employee where the boss was. All you had to do was follow that noxious odor and you’d find Moe moving boxes of books around. Even after he quit smoking years later, he was easy to find, because Moe was not one to speak softly. If he was talking, he spoke at a volume all his customers and employees could hear. He often lectured a customer or a reporter from the local college paper as he pushed his cart around in the basement and anyone browsing among the remainders could hear everything he said. If he was having trouble with an employee or someone in his family, everyone knew it. Moe’s thoughts and opinions were public; if you happened to be in his store at the right time you heard all about what was bugging him at the time. I heard a reporter ask him one afternoon what he thought about People’s Park and Moe said he was sick of People’s Park. "I don’t want to get into that. Ask me something else."
Younger people may not know the extent of Moe’s influence on Berkeley, but Herb Bivins, now a partner in Black Oak Books on Shattuck, learned the trade working for Moe. Moe used to deal records as well as books in the basement of his old store, but he decided to drop the records and concentrate on books. If he had not, the record/CD scene on Telegraph might be very different than it is now. The Reprint Mint was formerly The Print Mint and it began as a couple of tables selling Fillmore and other rock posters inside Moe’s old store. The Print Mint did very well at the end of the sixties when the poster scene flourished and It was Moe who put up the money for Don and Alice Schenkor to move to another location and expand their business. Bob and Peggy Rita joined them and soon they were publishing underground comic books. It was Moe who put up the money for the Print Mint to reprint Robert Crumb’s first issue of Zap Comix. Moe was once fined for selling Snatch Comix, a parody of the old eight-pagers by Crumb and S. Clay Wilson.
Moe prospered not by overcharging people for old junk books, but by dealing fairly with all of his customers. The only place he charged collector prices was in the Rare Book Room on his fourth floor. The last book I bought from him, two days before his death, was an old 1964 Dell paperback with a cover price of 40¢. It was Brett Halliday’s A Redhead For Michael Shayne. I had read Halliday as a teenager and I wanted to see how well he measured up today. Moe charged me 20¢ and the last words I heard him say were "would you like a bag for that?"
Moe had a good rapport with his employees and I know most of the people working in his store have been there for a decade or more. I’m sure they were all deeply upset when he finished his day’s work on April 1st of this year and went home to die of a sudden heart attack. Moe grew up in Queens in New York and came to Berkeley in the fifties after trying his hand at an acting career. He was married to Renee and had two daughters, Doris and Katy. Moe Moscowitz was the Bill Graham of the book business and most of his Berkeley competitors set up memorials to him in their windows the day after his death. I stopped in for a moment and the store was strangely quiet, a stillness had spread throughout the new building Moe had been so proud of when it opened some years back. I stood there in the doorway for a few minutes as people paused to read the obituaries from the local papers and look at the photographs of the smiling man with the cigar in his mouth, then I turned and walked toward Dwight Way. Already the street felt different.
At home, I sat down in my bedroom and glanced around, realizing that most of the books on my shelves, my Chaucer and American Literature, my major reference books, all came from Moe’s. No doubt this is true for most of the older population of Berkeley. People used to go to Moe’s and browse until it was time for the movie to start at the Telegraph Repertory Cinema, then after the movies they would stop by Moe’s again before going on to Larry Blake’s or Kip’s for a midnight snack. Moe left a fine legacy for us and our community.
Thanks for being there, Moe.