By Christopher Newton
When I was in San Francisco the other day, I dropped by to visit my old friend Chet Helms. I knew right where to find him thanks to Greg Hoffman, who is writing Chet’s biography and makes it his business to check on Chet’s whereabouts.
The job’s not too time-consuming. In fact, for the foreseeable future, Chet will be residing with the artists, musicians, bankers, captains of industry and possibly Emperor Norton at a swank retirement getaway in the Richmond District known as the San Francisco Columbarium. Except no one gets away.
I stopped at the reception desk to see if Chet was in. He was. The receptionist was new and couldn’t tell me his apartment number, but the manager came out of her office when she heard Chet’s name.
“Are you here to see Chet?”, she asked, implying a certain intimacy. “You can go right up.” She rattled off Chet’s rather involved address on the third floor and I pawed for my notebook to jot it down. She had it memorized.
As I walked up the stairs, I could hear workers below pushing a scaffold across the marble floor below and shouting to each other something about Carlos Santana. I thought, “Oh no, what new bad news haven’t I heard?” But I checked when I got home later that day and Carlos is doing fine. I guess they just liked Carlos Santana. I kept climbing.
Chet’s keeping a low profile these days. All boxed in, you might say. Not so long and tall as the day I met him in the summer of 1962…(picture gets all misty and we dissolve through to a busy downtown street filled with gigantic cars and buses all spewing exhaust fumes into the bright air)…
That day I was hanging out at a protest on the steps of the main post office at Seventh and Mission in downtown San Francisco, tuning my Mexican guitar and entertaining the picket line with my faultless impersonation of Joan Baez singing I Am A Rake And A Rambling Boy.
I had nothing against the mail being delivered, you understand. It’s just that the Federal District court was on an upper floor and the judge was hearing the case against the crew of the Everyman, a trimaran that had sailed into waters scheduled for atomic detonations. Ka-Boom and all the little fishies were to receive their first dose of strontium-90. It was the age of “atmospheric testing”, and apparently someone still wasn’t sure if H-bombs worked or not, because they kept testing them and testing them. I thought it was a bad idea.
The story of that protest deserves to be told in detail – it foreshadows all the demonstrations and sit-ins and eventually the mass student strikes that characterized my youth. But at the moment I’m looking across the street at the Greyhound Bus Station, watching a tall, skinny young guy with lank hair and black-rimmed glasses come out of the depot, see the demonstration, and hop over to see what’s up. And, well, look at that, he’s sporting a peace button. Yeah, it was Chet, fresh off the bus from Austin, Texas. I had the fortune to meet him on his first hour in San Francisco, scene of so many destinies, including Chet’s and my own.
I hate to admit it but in those days I only associated with people who passed the coolness test, and was quite ready to snub any impostor with a Texas accent, but I could not snub this cat. Chet’s ingratiating smile, his little heh-heh laugh, his unfeigned interest in everyone – within an hour he’d made the acquaintance of most of San Francisco’s peacenik community – I liked him immediately. And he was back the next day, don’t know where he slept. He was standing right in front that night when the real Joanie Baez showed up and sang on the post office steps to encourage us. Maybe he tried to sign her for a gig at the Avalon, I get mixed up sometimes.
Funny – all those years ahead of him, full of friends and rock and roll and great parties and fame of a sort, but now they’re over. Now Chet’s residing in a vase, a big doorstop. Dust, our common fate. To quote the prince of Denmark,
“Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.”
Oh dear, am I growing grave? At least Chet has his own apartment, not far from Harvey Milk’s place. And he’ll never have to leave San Francisco again.
Photo by Patricia Newton