Life is a Series of Adjustments to Other People’s Nuttiness

No! No! No! No! No! You no order that! I tell you what you get!

Waiter Edsel Ford Fong (often called the world’s rudest waiter) shouted this to me and Debbie Jenkins in 1968 at Sam Wo’s Restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, correcting our order. Fong greeted visitors with an admonition to “Sit down and shut up!” He was known for calling patrons “retarded” and “fat”, criticizing people’s menu choices and then telling them what they should order, slamming food on the table, and complaining about receiving only 15% tips. An imposing man with a crew cut hair style, he also was notorious for seating people with strangers, forgetting orders, cursing, spilling soup on customers, hazing newcomers, refusing to provide forks or English menu translations, and busing tables before diners were finished eating. Sam Wo’s was thought to be the oldest Chinese restaurant in San Francisco and In the 1950s it was was a Beat Generation hangout. Patrons entered through the street-level kitchen after which they ascended narrow stairways to dining rooms on the second and third floors where Edsel Ford Fong was king of his own realm.

Edsel Ford Fong – Headwaiter at Sam Wo’s • San Francisco

“It slipped into my voracious man eating Rari.”

My girlfriend, Debbie Jenkins, said this to me after she stole a purple satin cowboy shirt with pearl snap buttons from the Olsen-Norte Saddle Shop and stuffed it into her huge raccoon skin handbag and gave to me in her car moments later. It was my only experience of receiving stolen goods. I still have the shirt 50 years later and sometimes wear it to Halloween parties.

The Voracious, Man Eating Rari in the wilderness

“You’re a sniveling worm of an apostate.”

This was Debbie Jenkin’s retort if you did not agree with her. Debbie was my first genius level, intellectually afire girlfriend. She had dozens of journals filled with her deepest and darkest inner musings, written in an elegant and artful, angst shadowed, spidery script. She was a literary wonder and loved books and literature above all else. She had me read Thomas Wolf’s “Look Homeward Angel” and “The Alexandria Quartet” by Lawrence Durell among many other literary tomes that she loved and lauded. Her bedroom was a warren of bookcases filled with books assembled and displayed in perfect order. For much of my junior year of high school she would drive us to Stanford’s Tressider Student Union every afternoon in her dark blue 1959 Ford Falcon, which she had lovingly named “Shit Car.” The beige upholstery of the bench seats were covered with embossed western themed cattle brands, perhaps a nod to Gunsmoke, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Bonanza, and The Lone Ranger, popular TV cowboy dramas at the time. 

When we were at the Union late at night on weekends, there was always a five minute warning before midnight over the public address system in which an immigrant worker would always say in heavily accented, delightfully broken English. “Place Cloze! Place Cloze!” which became our shared mantra for finalizing anything, anywhere, anytime.

At the Union we would always sit in the same high wooden booth, drinking endless cups of coffee and smoking her Newport menthol cigarettes as we discussed life, love, soul music, culture, poetry and books, books books. She only listened to the black soul and funk radio station, KDIA “Lucky 13 on your dial.” She had met Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, my literary hero and anti-hero at the time. She was wise, sardonic and wild beyond her years and was constantly marvelling at my relative innocence and stable home life. She took me to parties where Jerry Garcia and David Nelson (later lead guitarist for the cosmic cowboy band, New Riders of the Purple Sage) played in Victorian houses in downtown Palo Alto. 

Her father was a volatile alcoholic Lockheed engineer who spent his life designing and developing nuclear missiles. She often showed up at school with blue and purple bruises on her face and arms from beatings she had suffered in his alcoholic rages. She attempted suicide a few times with huge overdoses of Tylenol and had been rescued from high atop electrical transmission lines, threatening to jump to her death. I was spectacularly ill equipped to deal with someone with her ongoing level of issues, being filled with very dark teenage angst myself. I later had five very close friends who took their lives, so this was a grim foreshadowing of things to come in my own life. My mother did not like her and thought that she was a very bad influence on me.  At my young impressionable age I had never met anyone remotely like her, and wondered what she saw in me. I had signed myself up for independent English studies that year, and was reading James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Homers “The Odyssey”, as well as reading all of the plays from the Theater of the Absurd, so she may have liked my literary pretensions and normal home life among other things.

Debbie’s preferred brand

“Let’s just call a spade a spade.”

Frank Wiley, a black friend from high school said this to me after asking me if the father of the beautiful Leslie Jones, who he was romantically interested in, was a racist.

King of Spades

“You have thin and precise lips, just like a spy.”

Pete Wright, a friend from high school said these words to me in 1968, at Gunn High School, as we were eating lunch together. Pete was a writer and an artist and an original thinker. He, unlike me, had very full lips, the kind that people now pay good money to achieve. The sort of full, puffy, moist, plump kissable lips which are now available with with collagen injections. 

Bond – James Bond – A man with thin and precise lips

“Marijuana cigarettes are called “joints” and this is what they look like.”

A Palo Alto policeman and member of the narcotics squad was schooling us on the dangers of the demon weed in 1969 at Gunn High school. There were about 40 of us in a large classroom and he placed three joints on a plate and passed them around the room for us to look at. When the plate returned to him a few minutes later after making the rounds of the room, there were four joints on the plate.


Jean Paul Sartre

“Ontological existentialism is metaphysically empty.”

Mike Little, a friend from elementary school through high school, often said this, schooling me philosophically in 1969 after we had been assigned a paper to make sense of an existential text by John Paul Sartre, by our English teacher.

Jean Paul Sartre and Che Guevara • Havana, Cuba, 1960

“Finally! There’s a Push Me – Pull You!”

The Pushmi-Pullyu was a gazelle/unicorn cross with two heads (one of each) at opposite ends of its body from the children’s book “Doctor Dolittle.” It usually only used one of its heads to talk, reserving the other for eating (allowing it to eat while speaking without being rude). I was looking at a dead cow laid out in a field in the Stanford hills, hiking with my friend John. The cow had died in childbirth and only the head of her dead calf had emerged from the opposite end of her body, simultaneously giving her two heads, of very different sizes, on the same body.


“I am not allowed to travel without a passport! I’m not allowed to take my clothes off! I don’t know how to stop wars! I am not allowed to smoke marijuana!”

At the beginning of the Living Theatre’s confrontational and immersive “Paradise Now,” half naked actors would crawl over the theater seats, (that already had people sitting in them in them) whispering these phrases at the front of the theater, increasing their speaking volume as they slowly lumbered up through the seating sections until they were screaming these phrases into the faces of the seated patrons at the back of the theater. I was 17 when several friends and I went to Berkeley to participate in this Rite of Guerilla Theater. I had never seen anything like it before. The theater was founded by Julian Beck and Judith Melina in New York. They proposed eight levels of revolutionary action needed to achieve liberation and wanted to transform competitive hierarchal social structures and strictures into cooperative and communal forms of expression which would counteract complacency through these interactive spectacles.

After the initial statements were whispered, spoken and screamed, Julian and Judith invited everyone to come and join them on stage, which my friends and I did. We all joined in questions, discussions, spiritual and revolutionary chants and dancing – some people took their clothes off – one couple from the troupe dry humped and moaned incredibly loudly throughout much of the night. It was a wild and crazy evening!

Julian Beck of The Living Theater directs his actors

“After the revolution we will have to kill your parents. If you scratch a liberal you will find a fascist.”

Chairman Mao

Kathy Mulhern – a communist leaning Stanford student who my mother hired to baby sit for my younger brother and sister in the 1960’s made this murderous statement. I didn’t take her seriously, but I think my much younger sister did and was terrified by her revolutionary pronouncements. I went to her wedding in a cow pasture in Los Altos Hills a few years later. She had an enormous 100 pound macrobiotic carrot wedding cake that took several men to carry from the pick up truck that delivered it to a picnic table. I saw Dennis Sweeney who had been one of my father’s students, for the last time there, playing guitar for the Resistance Band during the reception. Dennis later murdered congressman Al Lowenstien in his office in Manhattan, believing that Lowenstien had implanted listening devices in his teeth that monitored and controlled all of Sweeney’s thoughts. David Harris later wrote a book about him and failed ideas of the 1960’s entiled “Dreams Die Hard,” which was later was adapted into a two-act play.

“Life is a series of adjustments to other people’s nuttiness.”

My dear mother, Sydney Thomson Brown, often made this pronouncement, and it is as true today as it ever was.

Sydney Thomson Brown • Heath, Massachusetts • Photo by MMB

“I was featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! as The One Armed Wallpaper Hanger from Fresno.”

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! was an illustrated American newspaper franchise, usually printed on the same page as the comics and syndicated in hundreds of papers and was created by Robert Ripley, which dealt in bizarre events and items so strange and unusual that readers might question the veracity of the claims. I was working as a 17 year old farm laborer in California’s Central Valley with my friend Steve Wolf. My uncle’s cousin, Rodger McAfee, had offered us work for the summer helping him with his dairy cows and irrigation projects. When we arrived at his farm one hot mid June day in 1968, he informed us that he was about to leave for a summer long tour of all of the communist and socialist countries of the world with his wife and five young sons and that there would be no work for us. As a consolation prize he gave me two very large green leather bound volumes of the “Collected Works of Lenin,” which I still have not read to this day, more than 50 years later. Steve and I decamped to one of his trailers for a few weeks and drove into downtown Fresno very early every morning to find agricultural jobs with Mexican farm labor contractors. I met The One Armed Wallpaper Hanger from Fresno on one of those jobs. 

We were both hoeing weeds in an enormous cantaloup field a few miles outside of Fresno when I found him attacking the row next to me. He was a middle aged man missing most of his left arm and would tuck the hoe under his stump of an arm, dispatching the weeds quickly as he pulled the hoe with his good arm and was able to keep up with the other workers without any problem. He claimed that he was able to hang wallpaper twice as fast as conventionally abled people. We were on this job on the fourth of July, and at the noon lunch break many of the crew streamed across the melon furrows to a small country store on the edge of the field. They returned extremely disappointed and agitated. The store was closed for the national holiday and many of them were unable to purchase the Ripple wine, sherry or port they were counting on to help propel them through the upcoming afternoon of hot, dusty, back breaking work.

Ripley’s Believe it or Not

“Languidly masturbating beneath the Tamarindo tree, as William Burroughs would have it.”

Lawrence Pickup (also know by his Knights of Numenor name “P-Free) said this in his usual English accent, apropos of nothing, at a vintner’s picnic in the Sonoma California wine country. Then he said it again, louder the second time. I was 18 years old and was on a wine sipping bus tour with my new Stanford dorm mates, P-Free being the most English and eccentric of all of them. Our dorm was the “Creativity House” and was full of interesting people. The future Alien Assassin Sigourney Weaver was one of our dorm mates. Lawrence had grown up on a rubber plantation in the Philippines and was several years older than me. My brother Peter knew him peripherally and later said “Lawrence was a study in mystery and was just his own man – striding around like he was the emperor of some private realm known only to him.

William Burroughs

“ Hey Bang Bang! How many of my peeps did Y’All shoot today? ”

I was walking down a sketchy street in downtown LA in the early evening, when I heard a young black hooker say “Hey Bang Bang! How many of my peeps did Y’All shoot today?” to a pair of patrolling street beat cops on a busy neon lit boulevard. I was strolling with my wife and our son, who went to school at nearby USC. He was taking us to a bar that he favored that specialized in whiskey and bourbon. 

USC used to be out in the countryside when it was founded in 1880, but urban sprawl has surrounded it and it is now centered directly between the Barrio and the  ‘Hood, sometimes creating security issues for the mostly affluent kids who go to school there. USC has sometimes been unfairly described as the “University of Spoiled Children” rather than the University of Southern California.

Los Angeles

“You need to include a layer of invisible images in invisible ink in all of your prints.”

I was having an art opening of my new, large, very colorful NightBlooms floral art at Xerox PARC in the hills above Palo Alto in 2001, when I was given this piece of unsolicited advice by one of the resident PARC geniuses, who informed me that I should always include a layer of invisible images rendered in invisible ink in all of my prints. He went on and on about this until I finally had to get away from him and wanted him to disappear and suddenly become invisible himself. As a lifelong visual artist, relying on people being able to see my efforts clearly, I could literally not see his point. 

PARC was home to copiers, the original mouse, early PC concepts, networking and many original w.w.w. ideas. Steve Jobs went there on a tour & stole many of their conceptual ideas for the first Mac, so I was not averse to being given new and interesting creative ideas from any of the brilliant people who worked there. Using invisible images and invisible ink to portray them were not ideas that I needed to take home with me and implement, whether stolen furtively or given away freely, although the best things in life, like friendship, love, generosity of spirit and ideas as they are forming, are by nature invisible.

Venetian Migration • NightBlooms Series by the author • No invisible ink was used in creating the image

“She’s in a much better place now.”

A Better Place?

My friend Lee made this declaration as we were leaving the funeral of our friend Judy, who had just died in a solo car accident in 1968. She was my first close friend to die, and it was not at all clear to me that her death had somehow improved her situation and transported her to a better realm. It seemed like overly optimistic, vague magical thinking to me, then and now. I ran into Lee again a couple of years later and he held out his right hand and showed me a large ring on his finger, saying “I’m Clear Now!” I asked him what he meant and he explained that he had spent several months out at sea on a Scientology training ship and after having undergone their deprogramming therapy through a process called “Auditing” he had rid himself of “Spiritual Disabilities” by using a device called an e-meter, which functioned as some kind of mental and spiritual lie detector. He had been interrogated by an “Auditor” many times who was looking for areas of distress in Lee’s heart and mind.  After having undergone this treatment with the auditor and e-meter, he had been officially declared “Clear” and had a ring to prove it.

After Judy died I became obsessed with remembering the names of everyone that I had ever known, so that I would never forget them if they lived or died. I compiled a 20 page hand written, double sided list of all of those people in my neat, tiny, printed script. If I had it today, and had kept adding to it 50 years later, the list would be nearly endless, like the Mormon practice of baptizing people who died hundreds of years ago, to save them from Hell Fire.

Many years later my wife and mother in law signed up for an introduction to EST (Erhard Seminars Training) a system of personal improvement devised by the Teutonically self named Werner Erhard (born Jack Rosenberg.) “The Training” was an extensive, expensive 60 hour, two weekend long course in which participants were taught to be themselves instead of playing roles that had been imposed on them by others. It was part of what was known as the Human Potential Movement. 

After an emotional introductory session, my wife decided not to sign up for the full 60 hour course. The woman who had run her introductory session then called her on a daily basis, hectoring her to sign up for “The Training” in a recruiting technique that the EST devotees called “Playing Hardball.’ My wife finally told the trainer to stop calling her, at which point the trainer shouted “The Longer You Wait To Take The Training, The Sicker You’ll Get!”

“Let Death be your advisor.”

This quote from Carlos Castaneda’s book “The Teachings of Don Juan, a Yaqui Way of Knowledge” was attributed to Juan Matus, Castaneda’s teacher, who was a Sonoran Mexican Yaqui Indian shaman, sorcerer and mystic. Castaneda claimed to be his apprentice for a number of years. The quote came back to me after a near death experience I had following a hemorrhagic stroke I suffered in March of 2017. I was laying in a hospital bed, unable to move when I felt my spirit begin to leave my body. I felt the love of all of the concerned people who were gathered around nearby and felt a complete sense of peace, light and buoyancy fill me. I felt that I had had a wonderful life and was completely at peace and ready for whatever was going to come next and believed that I was going to move on to the next great adventure.  At that point, rather than dying, I fell into a deep sleep and was surprised when I woke up in the hospital a few hours later, still living and breathing in the same badly damaged body. 

After 5 weeks in hospitals and rehab facilities, I began a long journey back to rehabilitation, health, and finally vitality. The time since then has been the most creative period of my entire life and having death as my constant advisor since then has spurred me on creatively every day. When I was 16 my grandmother told me that “Life is short” which I did not believe at the time, thinking I was immortal as all young people do. In later life we come to  know that we are loaned the gift of life, and that one day the book of our lives will be suddenly become overdue and will have to be returned to the source.

Let death be your advisor