Free Food in the Panhandle, 1983

[Contributed by an anonymous 1980s digger]

In January of 1983, I was living in the second-floor flat of the Victorian on the southeast corner of Oak and Ashbury. I was collecting the last of my unenjoyment insurance from the job I quit the previous summer, and spending what remained of my savings in my usual profligate manner. I played a fair amount of rock and roll with my roommate Scott, but didn't really have a lot going on at the time, besides smoking about six joints a day of the best pot I could find.

One afternoon, I looked out my bedroom window and noticed a shirtless young guy with long blond hair who was playing a flute as he walked east along the Panhandle towards Masonic Street. Something about him struck me, and as I was pretty bored at that moment, I took the joint I had just rolled and beat it on down the stairs and out the door. We smoked under a century-old eucalyptus, and he was very grateful for the turn on. We got to talking, and he told me that his name was Stehler (pronounced "steel-er"), that he and some other folks were squatting nearby in an abandoned building, and that they were going to cook up some food at the barbecue grills near Hippie Hill later that afternoon. Having just finished reading Ringolevio in an all night session the preceding week, I was very interested in any free food scene, so I asked him if I could join in. He said everyone was welcome, and advised me to bring something to cook or eat, if I could.

I went back across Oak Street, rolled four more joints, smoked one of them, and headed down Haight Street to the park. I stopped at Cala Market to buy several loaves of sourdough French bread, some cheese, and a jug of wine, then headed into the park as the early winter sun touched the treetops. The scene at the grills behind the merry-go-round was fairly grim. A dozen people were sitting around on blankets and logs, waiting for the food to be served. A few of them were young, white, playing-at-poverty "hippies", but the majority were folks who looked like they had come a long way on a hard road, uphill. A guy with a bright red beard was cooking a couple of chickens and some corn on a smokey grill, and there was a big bag of sad-looking fruit. That was it, for all those people. I was an instant hit with my loaves and cheeses, which were devoured in about three minutes. These people were hungry. They had been hungry frequently, for a long time. Food was not a matter of "what shall we have for dinner". When the chicken and corn were cooked, everybody got some, nobody got enough, and no one complained. Quite the opposite. I was literally in tears, and had to turn away and step out of the circle for a minute.

When the food and wine were gone, I asked Stehler who the red-bearded honcho in the leather vest might be; he said "Red", and introduced me. I told Red that I had a kitchen "we" could use to prepare quantities of food that would really fill some bellies. He checked me out, then started asking specifics. Where? When? Who rents the flat? What about a five-gallon soup pot? We talked logistics. Red was living in a VW van that he usually parked along the border of Golden Gate Park, so he didn't have a telephone, but he said he could get a large soup pot and would call me at ten the next morning. He did.

Stehler and Red came over, along with Alabama Bob and a five-gallon aluminum vat, and we started cooking. They had some potatoes and carrots that were old but usable, so I went down to the store and got a bunch of lentils, onions, and whatnot, and we got going on a soup. One problem that became apparent immediately was that these people were hungry. I got some sandwiches from the corner deli so that the cooks could work without eating the food they were preparing. We called up some neighborhood bakeries and actually found one that agreed to give us day-old bread, no questions asked. And just like that, we were Free Food. Bob went out to pick up the free bread and spread the word on Haight Street, and we started thinking about cups and spoons. When the soup was done, we let it cool a bit and then strapped a lid on and hauled it across the street to the tables behind the children's playground. We served out of the same pot we cooked in, and there were some mighty happy folks eating dinner in the Panhandle that evening. The cops checked us out but didn't bother to get out of the squad car to investigate further. I guess they figured we didn't look like any kind of trouble.

We fed perhaps twenty people that first night, and quite a few of them wanted to know what they could do to help keep it going. They were very impressed by the lack of "charity vibes", as one guy put it. We didn't act like we were any better than the people we were feeding because we weren't. I was the only person with a paid roof over my head, and I had been on the road and on the street enough to know that my good fortune could very well end tomorrow. A couple of folks asked me if they could maybe crash one night at my place. I felt like I had to say no in order to keep things cool with my roommate if we intended to continue cooking in "my" kitchen. It was a hard call, but I really wanted to do food again the next day, because it just felt so free…like giving food to myself.

The following morning, all interested participants met at Happy Donuts to figure out what the hell we were up to. In addition to Red, Bob, Stehler and myself, several new faces were at the table, including Tumblin' John and his old lady River. They were longtime Rainbow Family members and had some experience in feeding people, though not in an urban setting. I had obtained Scott's hesitant permission to keep cooking, as long as I didn't have a lot of weirdos hanging out. So how weird is weird, in the Haight? Like Red, John was living in his camper alongside the park; he had a connection for informal food donations through someone who was working with the free lunch program at Hamilton Methodist Church on Waller Street. He seemed pretty new-age woo-woo spacey, but came through with ten pounds of red beans and a bunch of tomatoes, so it was chili for sure on the second night. I bought some meat to throw in and the chili powder, but everything else was begged up in one way or another by the folks who were doin' the eatin', including the rice for the chili. Already, strangers were ringing the doorbell because they had heard on the street that the free food was coming from the blue house on the corner. Some wanted help, others wanted to help. I quickly found myself in the position of trying to "manage" a fairly high-energy scene that was growing larger and changing, not just by the day but by the hour.

Mostly, what I tried to do was keep the cooks happy, and keep the kooks out of the way. A lot of people responded to the love in our food; they wanted to contribute, but were really not equipped to do so. Betsy was an old-time Haight Street biker chick. She knew Sweet William and some other folks from the original Digger days, and offered to introduce us to them, but she had an unfortunate fondness for methamphetamine that prevented her from doing much besides amping out and then crashing for a day or two. Out on the far end of the bell curve was "Space Jimmy", a very young man with impossibly blue eyes, who was so disoriented that he was cared for like a four-year old by several of the more motherly street ladies. He was always taking his shoes off and losing them. Jimmy's medication had been confiscated by the police, and he could never get it together to make his psychiatric appointments at SF General to get some more. He was so grateful for the free hot food that he cried shamelessly, embarrassing everyone.

After the third day in a row of free food, a huge storm hit San Francisco. We decided not to feed in the Panhandle until it stopped raining, and to use the break for organizational purposes. The trip had grown to the point where some limits were coming into focus. One limit was the capacity of our rudimentary cooking equipment. The five-gallon vat was enough for one course for maybe fifty people; we were already using tiny, inefficient auxiliary pots because we needed rice for the chili or needed to make salad from the about-to-wilt greens we had been given. Another limit was the patience of my roommate Scott. He was still comfortable with the free food scene, but wanted to know how long this was going to continue. What could I tell him? Until it stops.

The two days without major kitchen activity helped cool Scott out, and when we resumed, I tried to set some limits on the number of people allowed in the house. Lots of folks wanted to hang out in the kitchen and "help", but what we really needed was people hitting up the stores and bakeries for supplies, and people to get the word out on the street that it really helps a lot to BRING YOUR OWN CUP! And spoon, too. The layoff had also provided time for the news to spread, and when we started up again after the rain there were many more empty bellies to fill. We had scored another five-gallon vat, so we could do enough soup/stew for about fifty, plus a salad, rice or pasta. We were getting close to fifty people a night, and some reporter had already been asking Red about what "organization" we were with and where we were cooking. Fortunately, Red was savvy enough to give the gentleman of the press a good, interesting, misleading story - Emmett would have loved it! Tumblin' John had been talking to his friend at Hamilton Methodist Church, and had been advised that any publicity at all could very easily lead to a visit from the Department of Health. We talked it over and decided that we'd just keep feeding until something stopped us, realizing that we had already sort of blown it by letting folks know where the kitchen was. Kind of hard to hide it, though, when a large group of people is waiting across the street and you come out of the front door carrying forty pounds of steaming hot soup.

As we moved into our second week of free food, the core group became more organized. Red and John were the cooks, 'Bama Bob and Stan the Punk did washing and cutting, Stehler co-ordinated the food deliveries, and I kept everybody mellow and arbitrated disputes, since it was "my" house. I installed long leads on my stereo speakers so we could listen to Dead tapes in the kitchen, and we'd party along most of the afternoon as the soup got thicker and the mounds of carrots and potatoes were transformed into FOOD. It was a pretty good group; nobody needed to be the leader for very long at a stretch. The only real trouble occurred when I made the mistake of buying a fifth of whiskey to celebrate our tenth feeding. A couple of the crew drank way too much and got nasty about the six o'clock cut-off. That was when Scott got home from his job, and I wanted everyone out of the house by then.

We usually fed at five, so by six we would hopefully be done. Red and I would bring the vats and utensils back, and the kitchen would already be clean - if everyone had done their job. If not, we'd clean it as Scott prepared his dinner, asking us about the day's events. He liked the idea of free food, but did not like the reality of strangers in his house. He hung in there, but by the end of the second week his patience was frayed. Odd-looking people would knock on our door at night, the 'phone was always ringing, and although I had not allowed anyone to crash there, it was obviously a bit of a scene. Scott didn't want a scene, he wanted peace and quiet after an eight-hour day. I couldn't blame him, and also had to agree that we weren't a soup kitchen or a social welfare agency. He finally pantomimed giving someone "the boot", and I didn't need to ask for clarification.

Shutting down the free food was way too easy; all we had to do was stop cooking. By then, a lot of the initial rush had worn off. It wasn't new anymore; it wasn't romantic or Diggerly or anything but an awful lot of work, every day, for no pay. The group split on the issue of what to do next. Stehler, Bob, and Red wanted to find another private residence to cook in; Tumblin' John, Stan, and I wanted to give the utensils to Hamilton Methodist and start working with John's friend there to get food to our "clients". We were not able to locate another house, and eventually gave our equipment to Hamilton, telling everyone who had come to expect/appreciate the Panhandle free food to go there for sustenance - except that Hamilton only did lunch, not dinner. Other places did dinner, but that still left a pretty big hole in a lot of local stomachs.

In the end, we simply didn't care enough to secure the resources needed to keep our scene going, either at my house or somewhere else. It would have required a very concerted effort for us to continue, and it was not anyone's first priority to do that. So we didn't achieve critical mass, but we did feed a lot of hungry people, and we also learned something about what the word "free" actually refers to. Free may not have a lot to do with whether there's money involved, although free food certainly implies that the consumer doesn't have to pay money for it; but at some point somebody paid for it, either in money or work or by giving away what came to them for free. Perhaps free does not refer to the nature of a transaction but rather to the nature of a relationship. If I can express what I really think and feel, if I can act to secure what I and those I love need, then I am able to relate freely with my boss, lover, landlord, or parent. I will feel freedom within those relationships. If I must hide who I am, and cannot act in my own best interests, then I am a slave. Free is magical because we have all experienced far too much slavery in our lives, and the idea of free is revolutionary precisely because there isn't much freedom in the land of the free these days. America keeps everything locked up pretty tight. As Phil Ochs put it, "freedom will not make you free".

Through the power of the freedom we assumed, we were able to transform a small slice of the Panhandle into a magic circle for a few days in that winter of 1983. We also were transformed, and that time seemed to be a turning point for everyone involved in the free food. Four months later, I had been evicted from Oak Street and was on the road myself. I have somehow kept in touch with 'Bama Bob, Stan the Punk, and Biker Betsy for many years, and lately heard that Red is up in Humboldt, still feeding people. It's safe to say that nobody who was there will forget that little piece of free we managed to whittle down from a much larger stick of "what might have been".

"When comes the time to leave this world someday
What you get to keep is what you gave away"

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