Lemon tree, very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet
When we moved into our house eight years ago, I wanted to have two lemon trees growing near the house so they would be less likely to suffer during a winter freeze and so we could step out the kitchen door and pick a lemon whenever we wanted one.
I cleared the ground for a garden and dug out the redwood roots on the south-facing side of the house, a little plot I could see from my office windows, and I planted a lemon tree at each end of the plot. I watered the lemon trees and fed them and they grew into nice little bushes, but the years passed and they rarely made a blossom, and only once did one of the trees make a single desiccated little lemon.
I would visit people who had lemon trees in small wooden tubs on their decks, the little trees covered with blossoms and lemons; and I would visit people with yards untroubled by redwood roots where giant lemon trees grew in the ground and made hundreds of lemons each year.
I knew my trees were battling the redwood roots, yet stubbornly, year after year I clung to the unfounded belief that the lemon tree roots would eventually manage to descend below the redwood-root tangle and spread far and wide and empower the lemon trees to become mighty makers of big juicy yellow lemons.
After seven years of continuously battling the
redwood roots, I finally accepted that my vegetables would not grow in the
ground unless every few months I labored mightily to dig out many wheelbarrow
loads of roots. And so in my seventieth year I became a tub gardener. And once
I experienced the ease of growing vegetables in tubs free of redwood roots, I
transferred my lemon trees out of the ground into two big tubs.
As I dug up the lemon trees to transplant them, I was astonished to find that their root masses had barely grown in seven years, the little trees somehow surviving with their tiny root masses encased in massive knots of densely woven redwood roots.
Not quite two years later, the lemon trees in
the tubs are healthy, fast growing, and covered with lemons and blossoms. We
have yet to pick a mature lemon, but the day is coming soon.
I am examining my life in light of my experience
with the lemon trees.
Probably wouldn’t have gotten out of bed so early today because it was foggy and cold, but I’d arranged to meet Sally and Molly on Big River Beach for a walk and flinging the ball and so forth before the beach got too crowded with dogs and tourists. Here’s a sequence of photos to show you how things went.
When we took possession of our house at the end
of the pavement on Cummings Lane eight years ago, our eight apples trees and
one plum tree were in desperate need of pruning and watering and feeding.
The plum tree, a spindly-limbed variety
unfamiliar to me, made no plums the first year of our residency, and though she
blossomed well the second year produced just a few plums that identified her as
a prune plum.
The third year, the plum tree again had a nice
blossom set and made about twenty plums. As these plums neared ripeness, ravens
helped themselves to most of the fruit before we could pick the remaining
The slender branches of the plum grew leggy and crowded, so I pruned the tree as I had pruned countless other plum trees, but this plum reacted to my pruning by giving no fruit in the fourth year.
So I did not prune the tree at all the
following winter, and in our fifth year the plum tree rewarded us with a few
dozen tasty plums. The ravens came to dine again, so we harvested the plums
before they were fully ripe and slightly tart.
That winter, I pruned a few competing branches,
but otherwise allowed the branches to be leggy and more numerous than I would
have had this tree been like other plum trees I have known.
In the sixth year, the plum tree gave us several
dozen plums and the ravens took little of the bounty.
seventh year was not a big plum year in Mendocino, but this year, our eighth,
the plum tree made several hundred plums from which Marcia made delicious jam.
We labeled the jam skunk holler prune plum jam rather than fox hollow prune plum jam because the foxes that frequently showed themselves to us during our first few years here are rare now, while skunks traipse across our deck most evenings and stop to drink from the bowl of water at the feet of our statue of Ganesh.
This is the fourth and final article in a series
commemorating my friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees.
February 1967. Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Redwood
When Rico had two years and five months of high
school left to endure, and I only had five more months of high school to get
through, Rico bought a used mimeograph machine and he and I and Dave Biasotti launched
Lyceum, a magazine. We brought out a
new issue every few weeks chock full of articles and poems and stories. Dave
made great pen and ink drawings for the first few covers, after which we used
photos taken by Rico’s brother Steve for the covers. These photo covers were
some of the very earliest Xerox copies.
We printed a hundred copies of the first issue and
were thrilled when fifty people ponied up four dollars to have the next six
issues mailed to them. Rico then convinced Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, the
hippest bookstore in our world at the time, to sell Lyceum for 25 cents a copy, and Rico and I hawked the rest of the
copies at school.
A heady experience of my young life was seeing
several of my peers sitting around at lunchtime at Woodside High reading Lyceum. Along with drawing the covers,
Dave drew a one-frame cartoon for each issue and wrote reviews of new folk rock
and rock albums. Rico and I wrote articles and stories and poems, and by the
third issue people were submitting poems and notices of things for sale, some
of which we published.
Were we good writers? Hard to say. Were we
That spring Rico fell in love with a young woman
named Maureen. She was beautiful and smart and sexy and funny, and she enjoyed
Rico’s company but drove him crazy because she denied him the sensual romantic
connection he longed for.
Also around this time, Rico shared with me that
his doctors were not optimistic he would survive much beyond his twenties. He
told me this in the context of a conversation in which I said something about
us getting a place together, going to Europe, and living our lives as literary
“I don’t know, Murray,” he said, sounding
uncharacteristically pessimistic. “Lately I’ve been having this fantasy of blasting
off in a rocket ship and just going.”
(Fortunately, advances in medical technology made
it possible for Rico to live to sixty-eight.)
One afternoon I was at Rico’s and he asked me to
play some jazz piano so he could jam with me on a saxophone he’d just gotten.
He hadn’t taken lessons, but he loved jazz and wanted to make music. So I sat
down at their wonderful Steinway and played a jazzy-sounding chord or two, and
Rico blew slow long notes with great feeling. We were both thrilled by the sounds
we made together, and Rico said he might take lessons, but as far as I know he
never did and we never played music together again.
We brought out the last issue of Lyceum at the end of May, right before
school ended, and Rico announced we’d made a profit of seventy dollars, which
in 1967 was a pile of cash for the likes of us. Rico proposed we use the money
to take some girls to San Francisco for walking around and supper.
I took my girlfriend Connie, Rico brought Maureen,
and I can’t remember who Dave brought, possibly Connie’s friend Harriet. For
some reason, Connie decided the gals would wear saris and she came up with
three beautiful saris for them. We took the train from Atherton to San
Francisco and caught a bus to North Beach where we hung out at City Lights
Books, had coffee and biscotti at Caffe Trieste, went shopping in Chinatown, ate
supper at The Spaghetti Factory, and came home on a late night train—everything
paid for with money made from our magazine.
With the last of the Lyceum money, Rico got two tickets for Ray Charles at Frost
Amphitheatre at Stanford, our last hurrah together before I headed off to
college at brand new UC Santa Cruz and Rico stayed on at Woodside High.
I dropped out of college after two years, which coincided with Rico finishing high school. He decided to take what they now call a gap year before attending Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio. During that interim year, Rico rented a room in a house in Palo Alto for some months before he moved into a hippy commune in Palo Alto with Jean Trounstine who would become his first wife.
Jean was a bright energetic Jewish gal from
Cincinnati, five years older than Rico. She had a BA in Drama from Beloit and
had come to California to join the cultural ferment going on in the Bay Area. I
first met Jean when Rico took me to House of Pies on University Avenue where
Jean was a waitress. The waitresses there wore uniforms composed of skirt,
blouse, and cap that supposedly made them resemble, symbolically, a piece of
We had a hilarious time as Jean enacted the
required shtick of House of Pie waitresses when Rico, following the printed
prompt on the table, asked in the manner of Humphrey Bogart, “What’s fresh
today? Besides you sweetie pie?”
Jean batted her eyelashes and said, “Hold on a sec,
big fella. I’ll go ask our baker.” And then she sashayed away to the kitchen,
mimed asking the baker, and sashayed back to us. “You’re not gonna believe
this, but all the pies are fresh
today. And you know what just came
out of the oven?”
“The apple pie?” I guessed, the place redolent
with the scent of apple pie.
“What are you psychic?” said Jean, gaping at me. “The apple did just come out of the oven. And the blueberry and the cherry and the lemon meringue.”
I loved Jean. She and Rico were a great match and they
were devoted to each other for several years until their lives diverged when
Rico was in his late twenties.
Around the time he was beginning his relationship
with Jean, Rico heard a talk by Husain Chung, a radical practitioner of Psychodrama
as it pertains to psychotherapy, and shortly thereafter Rico began attending
group Psychodrama sessions at a house in Palo Alto, the groups led by Vik
Lovell and his Psychodrama trainees. Interesting side note: Ken Kesey, who
lived in the area, dedicated his book One
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Vik Lovell.
Rico was fascinated by the evolving use of Psychodrama
in psychotherapy, and these Vik Lovell sessions were of particular interest to
him because Lovell was, according to Rico, “constantly experimenting and
unafraid to seriously fuck up.” Rico asked me to attend one of the Lovell
sessions with him and I did.
Before being admitted into the house where the
sessions took place, participants agreed not to leave until the three-hour session
was over. Rico had told me a little bit about what went on at the Lovell
sessions, but I was wholly unprepared for what I was to endure for the next
Vik Lovell was a handsome man in his thirties with
an assured air. I am tempted to use the descriptors arrogant, insensitive, misogynist, and narcissist to describe him, but maybe he was just having a bad day.
His trainees were men and women who dressed alike in loose-fitting pants and
black T-shirts to identify them as Vik’s assistants.
Vik sat on a high stool just outside the large
circle of attendees arrayed in chairs around the empty center of the big living
room that served as the stage for the evening’s psychodramas. Vik communicated
with his trainees by gesturing and pointing, and he directed his DJ with quiet
asides to play certain cuts from a handy library of LPs—what Rico and I would
later refer to as psychodrama soundtracks.
After reiterating we were not to leave before the
session was over, Vik invited a tall bearded American man to stand in the
center of the circle and tell us what was on his mind. With little preface, the
man said he’d had sex with the wife of a friend, after which the wife and
friend broke off relations with him. To my surprise, the two people he was
talking about were there, and Vik directed the man and woman to join the
bearded man in the center of the room.
The couple was British, the woman strikingly
beautiful, the man handsome with a muscular build. The woman acknowledged she
had slept with the bearded guy, said she regretted doing so, and was grateful to
her husband for forgiving her and being so understanding. Both husband and wife
said they had no interest in rehashing the affair or having anything more to do
with the bearded guy.
The British guy struck me as intelligent and
reasonable, the British gal the same, while the bearded American seemed
seriously disturbed and obviously distraught about being booted out of his
relationship with the couple.
Vik gestured to his trainees. One of the female
trainees stood behind the British woman, one of the male trainees stood behind
the bearded American, and another male trainee stood behind the British fellow.
And then all hell broke loose. The woman trainee
accused the British guy of neglecting her sexually and shouted, “Which is the
only reason I slept with that disgusting pig!” The trainee standing behind the
British guy shouted at the British gal, “Bullshit! You slept with him because
you’re a whore!”
The British guy protested, “No, I don’t think
you’re a whore.”
And Vik asked, “Then what do you think she is?”
And before the British guy could reply, the
bearded guy said to the British guy, “She told me you were impotent with women
but got turned on by young men.”
“I never said that,” cried the British gal. “My
husband is a wonderful lover.”
I don’t remember the order of events after that,
but following a few more inflammatory exchanges spoken by the psychodrama
trainees, the British guy and the bearded guy started seriously brawling, the
bearded guy throwing punches, the British guy trying to wrestle the bearded guy
to the ground, and the British gal trying to intervene only to be restrained by
two of the trainees who continued to call her whore and slut.
Then an elderly man in the audience of attendees
shouted, “This is wrong, Vik. You need to stop this!”
And in the next moment the bearded guy broke away
from the British guy, pulled the elderly man out of his seat, threw him to the
ground and started pummeling him, which caused me to jump up and try to stop
the bearded guy from seriously injuring the elderly guy. But before I could pull
the bearded guy off the old man, two of Vik’s male trainees grabbed me and slammed
me against a wall and one of them pressed his fist hard against my nose and
shouted, “What’s your deal, asshole? Working on your hero complex?”
My nose started gushing blood and Vik signaled his
trainees to let up on me, which they did, and then and one of them took me by
the arm and led me to a bathroom where I stemmed the flow of blood with a plug
of toilet paper and stayed in the bathroom until the bleeding stopped.
The trainee walked me back to my chair and said,
“Don’t get up again unless Vik tells you to.” By then the chaos had subsided
and Strawberry Fields was playing on
the stereo. The British guy and gal were sitting apart from each other, both of
them weeping, and the bearded guy was lying face down, sobbing, and I don’t
know where the elderly guy was. I desperately wanted to leave but was afraid if
I tried to go the trainees would hurt me again, so I closed my eyes and waited
for the hours to pass.
Rico was very upset afterwards and apologized for
not warning me that I was never to intervene in an ongoing psychodrama unless Vik
invited me to participate. I suffered for some weeks with bruised ribs and did
not attend any more Vik Lovell psychodrama evenings. Rico, however, went
several more times and reported learning many valuable lessons from observing
what went on in those sessions.
Later in his career as a psychologist, Rico would
employ less violent psycho-dramatic techniques, especially when working with
children and teenagers. When we were in our thirties, Rico and I collaborated
on a screenplay called Any Time You’re
Ready about a woman psychiatrist who runs a home for emotionally disturbed
teens and employs Psychodrama as part of her work with the kids. We were never
able to sell the script, though we were certain it was the best movie ever
In 1970, when I was twenty-one and Rico was nineteen, Rico and Jean moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio. I’d only spent a little time with Jean before they moved to Yellow Springs, but I got to know her very well when Ilived in Yellow Springs for two months in early 1971.
While Rico was attending Antioch, Jean taught
Drama at Central State University, a predominantly African American college,
and she taught theatre games to little kids and adults on weekends. While I was
in Yellow Springs, I assisted Jean with her little kid classes, took her
classes for adults, and Rico got me a job editing a student handbook for
Antioch. I’m not sure how he convinced my boss at Antioch to hire me as an
editor, but he did.
I rented a room above Deaton’s Hardware, ate most
of my suppers with Rico and Jean at their cute little house on the edge of the
campus, and unsuccessfully romanced their good friend Kay who enjoyed me but
didn’t consider me boyfriend material.
Jean was a gourmet cook and a frequent dieter. An
ongoing source of amusement for me was that Jean would serve Rico and me
wonderful multi-course meals while resigning herself to eating a hardboiled egg
and a chicken thigh. Yet nine times out of ten, I wanted that egg and chicken
thigh more than I wanted the fancy meal. Go figure.
What was I doing in Yellow Springs, Ohio, you ask,
besides living near Rico and Jean? Well, I was waiting to hear from a major publisher
in New York to whom I had sent my first novel. In my extreme naiveté, having
recently read Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, I was sure I could write a novel as good
or better than Vonnegut’s, and while living in a hovel in Ashland, Oregon, I wrote
my first novel, The Apprenticeship of
Abraham Steinberg, and sent it to Vonnegut’s publisher, having gotten their
address from the copyright page of Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle.
On my way to New York to find out what was holding
up my rise to lasting international fame, I stopped in Yellow Springs, Ohio and
sent the publisher my updated contact numbers (Rico’s phone and address) and
waited to hear from them, not knowing they didn’t read unsolicited manuscripts
by neophyte writers unrepresented by literary agents.
In April of that year, I got a ride east with two
of Jean’s Drama students from Central State University who were auditioning to
get into the Drama department at Cornell University. From Cornell, I took a bus
to Boston and crashed in a co-ed dorm with a couple high school friends, Dan
Nadaner and Joe Tiffany, who were finishing up their undergrad careers at
Harvard, and then I went to New York to find out what was keeping my literary
career from taking off.
Interesting side note: while I was crashing at
Harvard, one of the guys I got to be friends with, Jerry Hiatt, was taking a
Creative Writing class from, you guessed it, Kurt Vonnegut.
In New York I stayed with my composer friend Scott
Oakley in his roach-infested apartment in Harlem and called the publisher to
inquire of The Apprenticeship of Abraham
Steinberg. After a long wait, a young woman came on the line and sweetly
explained that they did not read unsolicited manuscripts, but because I’d come
all this way she would read my manuscript and get back to me in a few days,
which she did.
I shaved, put on my cleanest shirt, and went down
to the snazzy publisher’s offices in the heart of Manhattan where a woman no
older than I met me in the lobby, handed me my manuscript, and said she really
enjoyed the story, that my writing reminded her of William Saroyan, keep trying,
and get a literary agent.
A year or so later, I was living in a boarding
house in Santa Cruz and looking for a job when Rico called to say he and Jean
were getting married, would I come to Yellow Springs and sing at their wedding.
I said Yes and was so inspired by the invitation, I wrote a song especially for
the wedding and then wrote a collection of short stories entitled What Shall the Monster Sing? which I dedicated
to Rico and Jean.
That collection of stories ultimately landed me my
first and finest literary agent Dorothy Pittman, and contained a short story
about disabled folks hanging out in a bar that presaged my novel Inside Moves.
I flew to Ohio courtesy of Rico’s folks, stayed
with Jean and Rico for a week before the wedding, sang at the wedding, stayed
another week, and flew home. Singing for all those people at the wedding in the
glen in Yellow Springs, and singing again at the big reception at Jean’s
parents’ house in Cincinnati, along with writing that collection of stories
gave me a vision of how I wanted to proceed with my life, and I have stuck to
that course ever since.
Five years later Dorothy Pittman sold my novel Inside Moves (original title The Gimp) to Doubleday. After I’d
rewritten the book with the help of my excellent editor Sherry Knox, Doubleday
sent forth the galleys and soon thereafter we had a big paperback sale and then
a movie sale, and a week after the movie sale I was summoned to Los Angeles to
meet with Bob Evans who had just made Love
Story, The Godfather, and Chinatown, and now wanted to make Inside Moves.
But rather than fly directly from my garret in
Seattle to LA, I stopped in San Francisco to commune with Rico. We stayed up
late talking and he drove me to the airport the next morning, his parting
words, “Call me if you need to talk.”
I landed in LA, got a cab to the Beverly Wilshire
with a Czechoslovakian driver who kept insisting I was Clint Eastwood, had
lunch with my new Hollywood agent Candace Lake and a vice-president at
Paramount, Nancy Hardin. After lunch Nancy dropped me off at Bob Evans’ mansion
and I met with Bob in the pool house next to his big swimming pool.
After a few niceties Bob Evans said, “You’ve
written a nice little fable here. I couldn’t put it down. But it’s too quirky,
too many cripples. You overdid the cripples. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments,
but the second act is a dud. We can fix this and it’ll be huge. So here’s what we’ll
do. We hold off on publishing while you rewrite the book the way I tell you to
rewrite it. That’s what I did with Love
Story. I told Segal what to write and he made millions and so will you.
We’ll get you a place in Malibu, a secretary, a cook, anything you need, and
we’ll get this done.”
I was in shock. Much to Bob’s chagrin, I did not
jump for joy, but said I would think about it. Somehow I got back to my room at
the Beverly Wilshire from where I called my sister who lived near UCLA and she
came and got me and I collapsed at her place.
I called my agent Dorothy Pittman and told her
what had happened. She said she would support whatever decision I made. The
book was to be published in just a few months. She had already heard from my
Hollywood agent and Nancy Hardin at Paramount both of whom had reiterated Bob’s
proposal to have me rewrite the book per his direction, for which I would be
handsomely recompensed, after which they would put big money into promoting the
Then I called Rico. He listened in his patient way
and when I was done telling him what Evans wanted me to do, he said, “Your book
tells the truth, Murray. They’re afraid of the truth. Don’t let them wreck your
story. You’ll never be able to live with yourself if you do.”
And I did not rewrite the book for Bob Evans. He
hired Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin to write a screenplay that changed the main
character from a man crippled in Vietnam to a failed suicide, and they changed
the heroine from a woman with a leg shrunken by polio to a woman with two
gorgeous gams, and they changed Max from a man with no legs to a big strong
able-bodied guy, and some months later Bob Evans dropped the movie, Dick Donner
picked it up and shot Barry and Valerie’s script and added a revenge scene at
the end of the movie that was the antithesis of the spirit of the book and the antithesis of the rest of the movie.
But the novel Inside Moves came out as I wrote it, and the inspiring story of a friendship between two physically and emotionally challenged guys, versions of Rico and Murray, lives to this day, however humbly.
This is the third in a series of articles commemorating my friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees.
March 1966. Menlo Park, California
About the time Rico and I became friends, the movie A Thousand Clowns starring Jason Robards, Martin Balsam, Barbara
Harris, and Barry Gordon played at the Guild Theatre in Menlo Park. Rico and I
both loved the movie, loved the drama of a funny creative person longing to be
free in a society of copycats, and we conflated the movie with our existential
favorite Waiting For Godot.
Martin Balsam, who reminded me of Rico’s father
Robert, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in A Thousand Clowns and the movie became
an instant counterculture classic. At some point our WaitingFor Godot
nicknames, Didi and Gogo, gave way to nicknames derived from A Thousand Clowns: Murray and Irving. In
the beginning we were interchangeably Murray and Irving, but over time I became
Murray and Rico became Irving. In retrospect, I understand these nicknames allowed
us to be Jewish with each other without overtly acknowledging our Jewishness.
I remained Murray to Rico for the rest of his
life, and he was Irving to me for several years until one day I began a letter
to him Dear Rico, and thereafter he
signed his letters to me Rico and I
never called him anything else.
When Rico and I became friends, I didn’t realize
that my physical disability and Rico’s physical limitations were part of what
made us comfortable with each other, nor was I aware that Rico being Jewish and
my being Jewish (before I understood I was
Jewish) also united us, but both things were true.
As far as I was aware at the time, we became best
friends because we clicked emotionally and intellectually, which was a huge
relief to me at a time when I knew almost no one who felt as I did about the
world and our society. Rico was only fourteen at the outset of our friendship, but
he was far more perceptive about human affairs than anyone I knew, adults
included. He was, I came to realize, a wise old soul in a young person’s body.
Born with osteogenesis
imperfecta, which roughly translates as bone development imperfect (also
known in those days as brittle bones),
Rico wore braces on his legs until he was twelve to keep his bones straight as
they grew, and because he suffered many childhood fractures, he was often in
casts. As an adult, he was short of stature and slight of build and he could
not run. He loved to swim, which was the main physical activity of his
childhood and teenage years, and he loved to go fishing with his father and
Rico was the middle child of three brothers, Steve
the eldest, Kevin the youngest, neither afflicted with osteogenesis imperfecta, both of them robust and healthy. Rico’s
mother Barbara was an artist and art collector, and Rico’s father Robert was a
real estate investor. They lived in a beautiful one-story house in Atherton
full of modern art by well-known contemporary artists. Originally from Chicago,
Barbara and Bob were members of nearby Congregation Beth Am, a Reform
When I met Rico, he and I related to each other as
aspiring beatniks intrigued by the hippy counterculture of the Bay Area of the
1960s. The most Jewish thing about our friendship was that Rico introduced me
to the delights of Jewish deli, notably lox and bagels with cream cheese,
pickled herring, and pastrami sandwiches with all the fixings, such goodies frequent
lunch entrees at the Rees household.
The summer after my junior year of high school was momentous for many reasons. Not only was Rico now my good friend with whom I spent lots of time, but I had another new friend Dave Biasotti who subsequently became Rico’s friend, too. Dave was an excellent artist and a fine guitarist, and he was writing and producing musicals with another of my good friends Scott Oakley.
Dave and I started writing folk rock songs
together that summer and formed a band called Joy Ride. We were enthralled with
Jefferson Airplane, and by far the best concert I ever saw by a rock band was
Jefferson Airplane at the Berkeley Folk Festival in July of 1966. This was before Grace Slick replaced the
marvelous Signe Anderson, before Skip
Spence left the band to form Moby Grape, and before drugs eroded much of the
With Signe as their female vocalist, Marty Balin’s
voice yet to be compromised, Skip Spence superb on drums, and Jorma Kaukonen at
the top of his guitar-playing game, their three and four-part vocal harmonies were
heavenly, and the concert setting with a fantastic sound system, as opposed to
the cavernous echoing Fillmore, was ideal for the interplay of their virtuoso
playing and gorgeous vocals.
One night when Dave and I were writing a song for
Joy Ride, he encouraged me to play the piano to accompany his guitar playing, and
though I could only muster a few simple chords to begin with, ere long I added musician to writer and actor on the
list of things I aspired to be.
In August of that summer, I went to Europe for the
only time in my life, a three-week trip with my family to Ireland, Scotland,
London, Paris, and Amsterdam, the excuse for the trip a psychiatric convention
my father attended in Edinburgh. I was deeply smitten with Europe and hoped to
return one day, but never did. The Beatles had just come out with Revolver, and I brought home with me the
British LP of Revolver that had two
songs not on the American LP. Was I
hip or what?
The fall play of 1966, my senior year and Rico’s sophomore year, was On Borrowed Time. Rico was cast as Pud, another little boy part, this one a major role, and I was cast as Mr. Brink, the personification of Death.
The gist of the play is Mr. Brink comes to claim
an old man, Gramps, played in our production by Joe Tiffany. Gramps is the
guardian of Pud who recently lost his parents in a car accident. Not wanting to
leave Pud without a loving parent, Gramps tricks Death into climbing into a
magic apple tree from which Death cannot escape unless Gramps releases him. With
Death trapped in the tree, nothing and no one can die.
To outwit Gramps, Death entices Pud to climb into
the tree from where Pud falls and mortally injures himself; but the little boy
cannot die and end his terrible suffering until Gramps allows Death to come
down from the tree and take him and Pud to the hereafter. Your typical cheerful
high school play.
What I remember most vividly about the production is
the scene in which I entice Rico into the tree and mesmerize him so he loses
his balance and begins to fall…Blackout! In early rehearsals, Rico and I played
the scene as if we were Didi and Gogo in Waiting
For Godot, imbuing our lines with the abstraction and bewilderment of those
two lost souls. Our wonderful director George Ward allowed us to play the scene
that way for a few rehearsals, enjoying our theatre-of-the-absurd
interpretation, and then looked over the top of his glasses at us and said, “But
seriously, folks,” and we got the message and thereafter played the scene in
harmony with the rest of the play.
Shortly after On
Borrowed Time, in November of 1966, Rico and I went with Bill Kane, Rico’s
English teacher, to a poetry reading in San Francisco. Bill Kane was young and not
yet tenured. He wore a suit and tie to work every day, kept his hair cut short,
and did nothing to make the conservative administrators presiding over Woodside
High think he was anything but an obedient servant of the cookie-cutter system
What those administrators didn’t know and didn’t
find out until Mr. Kane was granted tenure and showed up for a new year of
teaching with long hair and wearing jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt, was that he
was a rebel with a cause, and his cause was to awaken his students to books and
ideas that questioned the dominant ideology of sameness and conformity.
But before he got tenure and started rocking the
boat, Bill Kane and his wife kept their counterculture leanings secret to all
but a few people, and one of those people was Rico, and another, by
association, was Todd.
And the poetry reading he took us to was not just
any poetry reading, but one of the legendary poetry readings of the Sixties, a
lineup of the great Bay Area Beats: Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth
Rexroth, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, and David Meltzer.
In 1996, thirty years after Rico and I attended that
life-changing poetry reading, Bantam published my novel Ruby & Spear, the novel prefaced with a poem by Philip Whalen
and including Lew Welch’s great poem I
Saw Myself. A fictional account of that poetry reading figures prominently
in the early pages of Ruby & Spear,
complete with a cameo by Rico.
Here is that account.
And now I’m seventeen, just getting comfortable with my cane, climbing onto the train with my friend Rico, heading to San Francisco for a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch.
We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in
the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two
rows in front of us. “It’s Robert Duncan himself,” Rico whispered reverently.
“My god, my god.”
“Who is he?”
“My favorite poet,” said Rico, his eyes full of
tears. “My numero uno hero.”
“What did he write?”
“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into
The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried
to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become now that I couldn’t play
basketball? My parents wanted me to be a doctor, or failing that a lawyer. I
was singing in a rock band from hell, my antidote to screaming pain, but I had
no illusions about making my living from that. And what about college? Sex?
Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight,
looking like Errol Flynn, dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the
microphone and crooned, “I’ve been hanging out at the zoo talking to the lions.
Rrrrrr. Rahrr. Roar!” All the women
in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation
of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed.
And when the house lights came up a few glorious hours
later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums,
spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I
wanted to be. A poet.
I wanted to live in North Beach, to eat my meals at Mike’s Pool Hall, to take buses and wear a beret and hitchhike into the wilderness. I wanted to publish six astounding books, each containing seventy-seven truly great poems. I wanted lovers, lots of lovers. I wanted a Turkish lover and a Swedish lover and a Mexican lover and a young lover and an old lover and a black lover. I wanted a rich lover. I wanted a lover who worked in a bakery. I wanted a lover with long arms and a ring in her nose. I wanted to grow marijuana in my attic under a geodesic skylight from seeds sent to me by friends in Mexico and Lebanon and Thailand and Los Angeles. I wanted to drink red wine and read poetry until three in the morning in a pool hall on Broadway and have every word be so crisp, so clear and true that all my lovers would cry for joy, their tears laced with resin from my marijuana. And then I’d lick their wet faces and get stoned out of my mind and write a poem so charged with truth that all the poets who ever made love in San Francisco would be resurrected and given one more chance to write one last poem.
My great friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees, died recently at the age of sixty-eight. To celebrate Rico and the myriad ways our lives intersected over the years, I am posting a series of remembrances entitled The Rico Chronicles. Here for your enjoyment is the second of those memories.
Spring of 1966. Woodside High School. Redwood City,
When I was sixteen and a junior, much to my
surprise I landed the part of Conrad Birdie in the musical Bye Bye Birdie.
I had been in constant pain and walking with an
extreme limp for the year preceding being cast as Conrad Birdie. The medical
diagnosis of my malady was ankylosing spondylitis, a premature fusing of the
lower vertebrae in my spine. For the first few months of dealing with ferocious
pain in my lower back and hips, I could barely walk. Eventually I was put on a
regimen of anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers that significantly dulled my
senses but allowed me to go to school. For most of my junior year I was excused
from PE and spent that hour every day in the school library reading plays and short
My disability marked the end of thinking of myself
as an athlete and decided me on trying to be an actor and a writer. I would
eventually overcome many of the physical challenges associated with ankylosing
spondylitis and become a backpacker, a physical laborer, and an avid playground
basketball player, but when I was sixteen the medical prognosis was for a
sedentary life dependent on painkillers.
To play Conrad Birdie without a limp was one of
the great challenges of my young life, and many years later I discovered that
contrary to what my doctors believed, I was able to transcend my physical
challenges because the root cause of the inflammation was not physical, but
rather the severe emotional distress I experienced in relation to my parents.
When I was performing, both my emotional distress and physical pain disappeared.
In Bye Bye
Birdie, a teenage girl wins the honor of being kissed by Conrad Birdie as
part of his farewell shenanigans before going into the Army. The girl’s father,
mother, and younger brother are important characters in the play, and Dick
(Rico) was cast in the role of the younger brother. In makeup and dressed as a
little kid, Rico was entirely convincing as a goofy ten-year-old, though he was
fourteen and had a deep voice.
The wonderful George Ward (who died just two weeks
after Rico died) directed Bye Bye Birdie
and surprised everybody by casting me in the role of Conrad Birdie. George was
the longtime Drama teacher at Woodside High and had a gift for bringing out the
best in his young thespians. How he brought
out our best was something Rico and I discussed at length when we were in Bye Bye Birdie together, and again the
next year when we were in On Borrowed
We concluded that though George had his favorites,
he rarely cast anyone in a part they weren’t inherently suited for. This may
seem like something all directors would do as a matter of course, but in the
theatre world favoritism often trumps talent—not so with George.
Nor did George begin rehearsals by describing how he
wanted us to play our parts. Instead he allowed us to find our ways into our
characters over the course of acting out the scenes with the other characters,
and as we became familiar with our lines and the flow of action, he would occasionally
comment about a line’s delivery or a character’s motivation in a particular
Prior to being cast as Conrad Birdie, I played the
part of Mr. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne
Frank, my first major role in a play. Mr. Van Daan is a terribly conflicted
person and the nemesis of young Anne. I remember a rehearsal a week or so before
opening night when we did a scene in which Mr. Van Daan is particularly cruel
When the scene ended, George said to me in his
quiet way, “Are you angry? Or are you frightened? Or both?”
And in that moment I understood that though it was appropriate for me to mask my fear with anger, less anger—a more transparent mask—would make the scene work better and make my character more believable. This understanding not only changed how I played the scene, it transformed my character for the entire play.
In one scene in Bye Bye Birdie, Conrad enters the kitchen of the family in which
Rico played the brother of the girl he is destined to kiss. Breakfast awaits Conrad,
but instead he gets a can of beer out of the refrigerator, makes a mess opening
the can, guzzles the beer, and belches.
Time and again I overplayed this scene until George
said, “I don’t think Conrad does this on purpose. I think he’s oblivious to
And thereafter I stopped trying to be funny and played the scene as if no one else was
there; and then the scene was funny.
Birdie was the first play Rico
was in at Woodside High, and we met for the first time backstage at the first
rehearsal. The moment we saw each other, we both felt a jolt of recognition.
So I limped across the expanse between us, looked
into Rico’s eyes, and said the opening line of Waiting For Godot, which I’d just seen for the first time and then
read and was enthralled by. “Nothing to be done.”
Rico’s eyes lit up and he replied, “Are you Didi
or Gogo?” (the nicknames of Vladimir and Estragon, the two characters in Waiting For Godot)
“I never can remember which one is Didi and which
one is Gogo. Who do you want to be?”
“Either one,” he said, shrugging. “I don’t think
Then we blathered on for a few more minutes as if
we were characters in an absurdist drama, which of course we were, and then rehearsal
The next day at lunchtime, I found Rico hanging
out with the counter culture kids of our high school, known as the Water
Fountain Gang because they congregated by a certain water fountain—kids into
Drama and art and folk music and folk rock, the first hippies of our
generation, a daily potluck of mostly girls and some boys, the boys letting
their hair grow long, the girls nascent feminists—rebels fighting The System designed
to squish us into versions of our conformist parents, high school a genteel
prison we longed to be free of. And when we were free, then what? We didn’t
know, and that was our bond: not knowing.
I hailed Rico with “Didi!”
“Gogo,” he said, raising his hand in greeting.
And for the next few months we were Didi and Gogo to
each other and it didn’t matter who was which so long as we were together in
the absurdist drama of our young lives.
My great friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees, died recently at the age of sixty-eight. To celebrate Rico’s life, I will be posting a series of remembrances entitled The Rico Chronicles. Here for your enjoyment is the first of those memories.
October 1957. Atherton, California.
I was just about to turn eight, riding on the big
school bus on our way to Las Lomitas Elementary situated on the border of
Atherton and Menlo Park. A sunny morning, Mr. Viera, one of the kindest and most
patient human beings I have ever known, was driving the bus down Atherton
Avenue in his never-hurried way. The morning ride to school was usually a calm
affair, in contrast to the afternoon ride home when things often verged on
chaos, the main instigators of that chaos holding sway at the back of the bus.
I loved Mr. Viera. His first language was Spanish
and he only spoke a little English. Nevertheless, he connected with each of us
in a friendly way as we got on and off the bus, unless he was in a bad mood,
which he sometimes was, and then he was merely silent.
He ferried me and many of my classmates to and
from school every day from First Grade through Sixth, and when my dog Cozy had
her one litter of puppies when I was in the Second Grade, he came to our house
with his wife and they took two of the pups, after which he gave me occasional
reports about que buenos perros they turned
out to be.
My bus stop, which was right across the street
from our house, was near the beginning of Mr. Viera’s route in the morning, so
I always found an empty seat halfway back where I would sit by the window and
hope someone I liked sat beside me. Sometimes kids I didn’t especially like would
sit with me because I never had the heart to tell them not to sit with me. Many other kids saved the space beside them for
kids they liked and wouldn’t allow other kids to sit with them.
I always sat on the right side of the aisle (right facing forward) because this afforded me a view out my window of the kids waiting for the bus as we approached their stops, as well as a view of them getting on the bus, which for some reason I just loved. We weren’t supposed to stick our heads out the windows that were easily opened in those bygone days, but I sometimes leaned out my window to watch the kids getting on and maybe call out to a friend before he or she ascended onto the bus.
On this particular morning in October, the bus nearly full, we stopped on Atherton Avenue just west of Selby Lane, and after the few regulars got on, a pretty woman with black hair, half-carried and half-assisted a little boy with braces on his legs up the stairs onto the bus. He had two short metal crutches attached to his wrists by what appeared to be metal bracelets at the tops of the crutches. As the little boy reached the top of the stairs and the woman released him to stand on his own, Mr. Viera directed a kid in a front seat to relocate to make room for the little boy.
I was amazed and awed that someone so small and fragile and walking with crutches would get on a school bus and go to Las Lomitas where before school and during recesses and after school, the corridors and playground seethed with unhinged children racing around and crashing into each other. How, I wondered, would this fragile child survive?
This child was Richard Rees. He was six-years-old, though at the time I guessed he was four or at most five. I never imagined that eight years later, when I was sixteen and a high school junior, and Dick (Rico) was fourteen, a freshman, that he and I would meet backstage in the Woodside High multi-purpose room where we were both in a play, and we would become instant friends and best friends for life.
It wasn’t until we’d been high school pals for a few weeks and I found out where he lived, that I realized Dick was the little boy I had watched get on and off the bus those many times before I went off to junior high, and how each time he mounted those steps to get on the bus he was more and more capable of getting on without assistance, how he became progressively bolder and more talkative as he rode to school, and how ever after he was my hero.
Several hundred years ago, when the Vatican was a powerful city state and the Pope commanded a great army, Jews escaping trouble in Europe and the Middle East settled on the outskirts of the Vatican, their population grew, and soon there were thousands of Jews living in close proximity to that most Catholic of places. Cardinals and bishops were outraged and petitioned the Pope to send his army to clear away the heathens who were, according to Christian dogma, the killers of Christ.
The Pope at that time, his name
eludes me, was deeply pious and spent many hours a day communing with God, so at
first he ignored these petitions from the bishops and cardinals. But finally he
was compelled to listen to their demands, and he said, “Arrange for me to meet
with the wisest of the Jews and then I’ll make my decision.”
A proclamation is sent forth into
the Jewish community that on such and such a day, at such and such a time, the
Pope will be enthroned at the entrance to St. Peter’s awaiting the wisest of
As you can imagine this proclamation
sends the Jewish community into a tizzy as one group claims their rabbi is the wisest and another group
says, “Are you kidding? Our rabbi’s little finger is smarter than that guy.”
And so on. The bickering continues night and day, and no one is chosen to speak
to the Pope.
The day comes and the Jewish
community prepares for the worst. The Pope takes his place on his throne in
front of St. Peter’s and a red carpet is rolled across the plaza and lined with
soldiers of the Papal Guard. Hundreds of Jews venture as close as they dare to
witness the terrible failure of their community leaders to choose a
And who should come walking by just as the momentous moment arrives? Zemel the Fool, an unemployed bum and one of the more problematic members of the Jewish community. He sees the red carpet and all those hundreds of soldiers holding their swords in salute, and he feels inclined to take a stroll down that beautiful red path.
Assumed by the Vatican honchos to
be the wisest Jew, Zemel is not impeded in his progress and ere long, after
complimenting the soldiers on their nice duds and impressive swords, he comes
to where the Pope awaits him.
The Pope looks at the man in rags
and is reminded of Saint Francis who eschewed all worldly goods and was a
friend to all God’s creatures.
Zemel looks at the Pope and is
reminded of his old friend Ezekiel Goldberg who also tended to overdress on
The Pope raises one finger skyward.
Zemel considers this and raises two
Now the Pope opens his arms in an
Zemel thinks for a moment, raises both
hands a little, palms up, and shrugs.
Now the Pope takes a bite of a holy
wafer and follows this with a sip of wine from a bejeweled goblet.
Zemel nods, takes an orange out of
his pocket, peels the orange, and eats it.
The Pope watches Zemel relishing
the orange, rises from his throne and proclaims, “The Jews may stay.”
As you can imagine, this gets the
cardinals buzzing angrily and they assemble around the Pope and demand an
“The Jews agree with us entirely,”
says the Pope, still elated from his encounter with such a wise person. “They
are every bit as reverent and knowing of His truths as we are.”
The Cardinals are dumfounded and
ask the Pope to explain further.
The Pope says, “We conversed in the
silent language of spiritual understanding. I raised my finger to say, ‘God is
the father,’ and he raised two fingers to says, ‘And the son.’ Then I lifted my
arms wide to say, ‘God is everywhere,’ and he made the holy gesture that means,
‘God is here.’ Then I ate of the body of Christ and drank of our savior’s
blood, and then that wise man ate of the holy fruit of Israel. I tell you the
Jews are our brothers and may stay.”
Meanwhile, Zemel is carried back to
the Jewish settlement on the shoulders of his cheering brethren and deposited
in front of the four most popular rabbis, all of them having watched in horror
as Zemel communed with the Pope.
They begrudgingly thank Zemel for
saving the community from annihilation, and ask what went on between him and
Zemel frowns. “That guy was the
Pope? I thought he was just a rich guy with a big house.”
“But what did he say to you and how
did you answer?”
“Oh that,” says Zemel, scratching
his head. “Well I get there and he puts up one finger that means, ‘I’ll give a you
one.’ So I top that with, ‘I’ll give a you two.’ Then he says, ‘What are you
doing here?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know.’ Then he eats his lunch and I eat mine.”