A Memoirby Bill Barich
That autumn, my first in San Francisco, I ran short of money. Anybody could see it coming except me. I’d saved nearly a grand as my grubstake while teaching school in New Jersey, and my idea, hardly original, was to start a new life on the Coast. At twenty-six I harbored dreams only the West could fulfill, or so I believed. This new life involved sleeping late, then writing amateurish stories and poems I’d never earn a dime on. I knew that even as I scribbled in my notebook, but illusion often trumps reality. Only when my landlord reminded me to pay the rent did I face up to the truth. That grubstake was almost gone.
I needed work right away, so I went to see the man I’ll call Arnold Fast. He was a legend in the Haight-Ashbury. He owned a wholesale book and magazine company and had a reputation for helping the draft resisters, anarchists, potheads, and lost souls scraping by in the late 1960s. I assumed he must be a younger man, but he was almost eighty, a polio victim paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, his lungs emphysemic, his kidneys failing, and his eyesight clouded by glaucoma.
He occupied a tiny office at the front of his warehouse, and I managed, with some difficulty, to squeeze into it. The room was an extension of his body, cramped and twisted, its pathways blocked by piles of old magazines and an armchair spilling forth its padding. I could smell a slight odor of urine despite the fresh flowers on his desk and the incense burning in a rose-colored ashtray. Next to the ashtray Fast kept a cigar box, into which he tossed the cash from passersby who stopped to buy a New York Times. The box was full of bills and coins, Fast’s version of a piggy bank.
After a brief conversation, he offered me a job as a stock boy in the book department. That was how he operated—no résumé, no formal interview. He liked you or he didn’t and made his determination by instinct. He had a forgiving nature if he thought well of you, hence the handful of ex-cons he counted among his employees. As I was agreeing to his terms, a blonde in pink hot pants dashed in, looking to change a fifty-dollar bill. Fast merely nodded to the cigar box, but I was knocked off balance. It was only ten-thirty in the morning. California might be more than I can handle, I thought. The blonde worked at a massage parlor next door, and after dipping into the box she departed with an air kiss and a breathy, “Thanks, Arnold, you’re a sweetheart.”
This happened all the time because the johns seldom used credit cards, and it could be awkward for Fast if his religious friends, all men of the cloth, were visiting. They dropped by regularly—priests, rabbis, ministers, even Zen Buddhists—and stayed to chat, seated in Fast’s wheelchair while he sat at his desk. They didn’t have to ask for donations because Fast believed in God, although for him Judaism reigned supreme, and he was a notorious soft touch. He gave to the Sisters of Mercy and B’nai B’rith, and nobody ever mentioned that his contributions derived in part from the sale of pornography. True, he carried left-wing journals, literary quarterlies, and quality paperbacks, but he earned a lot more money on Vixens in Chains. It was a funny situation. All over Israel trees were growing because Fast, a libertarian, supplied Swedish marriage manuals to the patrons of Frenchy’s K&T.
He asked Orlando, the shop steward, a slender and kindly Asian man, to give me a tour of the warehouse. Upstairs the union men assembled the orders destined for the city’s newsstands. Cigarettes dangled from their lips as they glided in slow motion past the long wooden tables where the magazines were stacked, adding three copies of Art in America, say, to five of Ramparts, then bound the package with twine and tallied the bill. On days when the skin mags went out the tables looked obscene, littered with photos of breasts, butts, beavers, and boners but the workers never blinked. They’d traveled beyond any ordinary notions of perversity and trailed their clouds of blue smoke, chatting about the Giants’ game or a nice filly entered at Golden Gate Fields.
I followed Orlando to the basement, where thousands of paperbacks were stored or shelved. Every important publisher was represented—Random House, Doubleday, Grove, the lot. The company’s salesman, Hank, a lanky, amiable Texan, was doing an inventory, and we got to talking. He described his job as a “piece of cake,” but I thought his charm must’ve helped, as well as his ability to bullshit. He could sell a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull to a Stanford prof. Fast’s raspy, disembodied voice came over an intercom and interrupted our conversation, ordering Orlando to report to the office. Whenever the old man was forced to pee into a Styrofoam cup, it was Orlando who emptied it. That showed the devotion Fast inspired in some people. Others disliked him, Hank confided, and would gladly dump the cup in his lap.