Mary Louise Parker, OB Peoples, Mixed Nut House, and Me

by on September 21, 2016 · 3 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, Energy, Environment, Health, History, Life Events, Ocean Beach, Politics

mary-louise-parker-bookBy Michael Steinberg           

This past summer, while perusing library shelves 3000 miles from OB, I came upon actress Mary Louise Parker’s 2015 reminiscence, Dear Mr. You, wherein she recounts relationships with some of the men in her life.

As I glanced down the table of contents, one name jumped out and set off a set off a tsunami of flashbacks.

The year was 1984, the place Ocean Beach People’s Food Co-op, aka OB Peoples or just Peoples.

As I perused the pages, I came to this jarring passage:

“Marshall was nice and highly intelligent. He could recite half-hour polemics about Irish politics that he thought I was deeply interested in because I listened to U2.”

The passage goes on for another few pages.

I was shocked that Mary Louise would even remember this  from decades ago, much less include it in her book.

At this point I had been working at People’s a couple of years. I began in the same department where Mary Louise was starting that summer. It was called the “bagging room.” You packed and priced cheese, dried fruit and nuts and such, and received and stocked stuff in the dairy cooler. You got no pay during your “trial period,” except food coupons that were good for goods at the “company store co-op” only.

One of my first memories of Mary Louise is that she would appear at work adorned with lip gloss. Peoples hardly had a dress code. It was more like an undress code, as folks would parade in from the beach still dripping in their abbreviated swimwear.

But makeup? OK, maybe for men.

Of course Mary Louise would go on to become an iconoclastic artistic figure, so it was fitting that she would make her entrance at Peoples that way. The co-op was perhaps the perfect place for her at that time. Our workforce ensemble was always on display, our lines as often as not improvised, and the drama of our love affairs constantly in play.

But at the same time it was serious business. The co-op’s motto was “Food For People, Not For Profit.” At opening time workers put a boxes of free food by the entrance for folks who couldn’t afford organic sapotes and local baked goods.

Peoples was located at the philosophy center of OB, on Voltaire off Sunset Cliffs, adjacent to Jack in the Box, Robertos #2, and of course The Party Store. It had formerly been a dance floor, and carried on that tradition in the New Age.

I’m not sure if Mary Louise ever had a job before. But what she may have lacked in experience, she made up for in openness, poise, and a certain presence that was hard to define back then.

One day when I came in , a co-worker who had been my supervisor when I started told me she was going to fire Mary Louise  because she had messed up bad the day before.

I came to her defense. “She’s just here for the summer,” I said. “Anyone can have a bad day.”  My co-worker relented, so Mary Louise got to stick around a while longer and maybe even got a meager paycheck like the rest of us.

By the way, it was always Mary Louise, never just Mary or Louise. Having lived below the Mason-Dixon Line back East, that gave me a hint, though she had no accent, that she might have Southern roots. In the first chapter of her book, she reveals that her grandfather was a coal miner from West Virginia.

I assumed she was going to summer school at someplace local and asked which one. She answered that she was enrolled at the North Carolina School of Performing Arts in Winston-Salem, studying theater.

Fortunately she was spared from attending our monthly staff meetings We were a collective, albeit with a manager.  You never knew what might come up at these periodic psycho exhibitions. One time it was a grievance about someone who ate chicken in the vegetarian store during her lunch break. On another occasion a heated debate ensued over which recreational substances could be sold by workers to augment their miniscule wages, and how many blocks away from the co-op.

OB’s beautiful and eccentric were well represented on our workforce. In the latter category, there was The Kid. One day at Dog Beach with his faithful companion Bud Dog, there was a confrontation with Animal Control, as neither had tags or any other ID. This dynamic duo made a mad dash to an adjacent jetty, sprinted over it into the San Diego River, and escaped custody, certain incarceration and possible summary execution while doing the dog paddle onto Mission Beach.

In the first category, Mary Louise attracted her share of attention. I certainly turned some of mine her way, and wanted learn more about her. “Where are you staying?” I queried. She gave me an OB address I was well acquainted with, since I had lived there with other co-op folks, including a certain someone who Mary Louise wrote of in her book, in which I made a cameo appearance as Marshall.

Mixed Nut House

We called it Mixed Nut House, and a wooden sign reading such was affixed to the front of our humble domicile.

The previous summer, while working in the dairy cooler, I heard an irritating tapping on a fogged up display door. I looked up to see my housemate Leenane, not looking too happy. She opened the door to tell me that the landlady had come over, “and she said we all have to move out right away!”

I started to break out into a cold sweat, but had to wait until I got off shift to go over to talk with the landlady. She lived nearby, as  I knew because I was the one who delivered the rent check. We always paid on time, and took good care of the place, OK, I’d blast the Sex Pistols and The Clash, but no one complained except my housemates when they were carrying on deep tissue massage sessions.

Anyways, while still at work I’d concocted a story to buy us some time. When on knocked on the landlady’s door, she answered with a stern look. “Hi, I said, “I got your message.” There had been no written eviction notice. “And?”

“Well, we’ll leave, but could you give a little more time, like until the end of the summer, when more places open up?” There was some silence and then she replied,” “Aright, but that’s it,” and closed the door in my face without a goodbye.

After I had time to think about it at home, I wondered if it had anything to do with the guy who had moved into the back house, which was part of the same property. He was decidedly unfriendly and kept to himself. I couldn’t prove anything, but, as a veteran of the San Francisco Tenants Union, I had my suspicions.

When I spun this yarn and related my suspicions to Mary Louise that day at Peoples, she immediately replied, “Yes, him and the landlady cooked up the whole thing, because he wanted to get rid of you all and buy the property.”

It turned out that Mary Louise was staying there because she was friends with the creep in the back’s sister, who was sharing the former Mixed Nut House with her.

I admired Mary Louise for her honesty, and for the fire and fierceness in her words. She could have been putting herself at risk of losing her own home by doing so.

Actually my involvement with this place began before I lived there. When Maria and her family called it home, I would come over occasionally so she could cut my hair. And when another OB family occupied the space, I’d volunteer child care for Tony and Domi, which consisted in trying to referee their lively wrestling matches. Tragically, on of the boys was murdered by the cops, who we called “the brown shirts” and worse.

I’d returned to OB from the Bay Area in the early 80s, and my first home was Rock House, a notable radical community house. .

By the time I got there, the original residents had relocated, ironically across the street from what would become Mixed Nut House. The new folks included Maria’s younger sister, who I worked with in the bagging room at Peoples. Also there was her younger brother, Hector. Hector was like a young force of nature ,talented, wild and hilarious. We called him The Vacuum Cleaner because nothing ever got by him at shortstop. I enjoyed playing music with him, at which he was also quite accomplished.

But paying rent was a new concept for Hector, against which he rightly rebelled. His sister and I talked with him until he finally agreed to chip in.

I was away for the summer visiting my folks Back East, and while still there got a call from Denny in OB. He informed me that Rock House had rocked out of existence, but that he had salvaged my pitiful possessions. So I returned to OB homeless.

Upon my return George let me know that Billy had a place to himself and maybe I could stay there. Billy had moved to OB after being in the Clamshell Alliance in New England, which was fighting the startup of a nuke plant in New Hampshire.  In OB he started Rebel Bakers, a sister store to Peoples, where I met him and we became friends.

By the time I arrived at his house, Billy had left the bakery behind and wanted to be alone and practice Tai Chi. So he wasn’t inclined to let me in, but George raised the social justice issue and pressed it until Billy gave me a break.

After I moved in Billy built a loft in one room, involving some major renovations. When the landlady found out she freaked.

While there Billy and I started the San Diego Military Monitoring Project, in response to the Reagan Reich’s war fever. I documented San Diego’s role in US intervention in Central America, development of the Cruise Missile, and continued the work of Dave Helvarg in exposing the presence of nuclear weapons in San Diego Harbor.

Then Billy decided to go to Europe to fight Ronnie Ray-gun’s scheme to put new nuke weapons over there. I was thinking of going to Ireland to support its freedom struggle. Billy encouraged me to take that trip, and we planned to meet up in Belfast. He also told me he wouldn’t be coming back to OB.

After he left I tarted seeking out new housemates. That’s how Mixed Nut House  started to shape up. One day Hector showed up. He needed a place, and of course had lived there with Maria before. We had space so I checked with  the other folks and they OK’d it. The next time I saw the landlady I told her about it. “Hector!” she cried. “No! No!” I assured her he’d become a responsible rent paying adult. She said nothing more.

Hector stayed with us for a while, and then moved on. Subsequently he suffered an early demise, another OB youth whose life was cut short.

As for Billy (Nessen), he let me know he’d been kicked out of all the countries where he’d gone to protest the Euromissiles, and was already back in New York. Later he became a radical cause celebre after he barely escaped with his life fleeing the Indonesian dictatorship.

Turning 20 in OB

Meanwhile, back at Peoples, I was continuing to enjoy getting to know Mary Louise better. Knowing of her interest in theater, I asked her to go see a play in La Jolla, where we had a good time. She was in her element, and I got some glimpses of who she was besides the “new girl in the bagging room.” and who she was becoming.

Sometime after that at the co-op (contrary to this account, we actually did get some work done there), she let me know she had a birthday coming up.

“Which one?” I wanted know.

“Twenty!”

Plans? She didn’t have any. So I suggested an out of the way place in OB to go eat.

A few evenings later I came over and tapped on what had used to be my front door, my first time there since the eviction. “Come in!” I heard her, stepped inside and saw Mary Louise up in Billy’s loft. She was having an animated conversation on the phone, and waved me up. I climbed quickly, feeling at home right away.

I admired the colorful way she’d decorated the spot for a while as she talked on. After finishing up she said, “That was my mother.! Let’s go!”

On that balmy August evening wbe climbed a steep hill and found the Chinese eatery I knew up there. Below us the Pacific Ocean and the beach reminded us of why we lived here. During our meal, for some reason I got into a long spiel about my trip to Ireland the year before. It was only a few years then after Bobby Sands and nine others died on hunger strike to internationalize the 800 year old Irish freedom struggle.

I might have mentioned Bernadette Devlin, who had been elected to the British Parliament during the 60s as a protest candidate. She was known as “Che in a miniskirt,” and I imagined Mary Louise would be the ideal person to play her on stage.

I don’t know how appropriate this was for Mary Louise’s birthday, but she seemed t be listening at rapt attention. If she wasn’t really that interested, she sure gave a command performance.

When I next looked up I noticed that it was dark outside, and that I gotten lost in Mary Louise’s gaze. The restaurant was otherwise empty, except for a couple workers looking at us anxiously, as the clock showed it was past closing time.

On our way down the Pacific was black now, save for ships at sea and the lights on OB Pier. At the former Mixed Nut House I wished Mary Louise a very Happy Birthday and said adieu.

Not too long after that it was time for Mary Louise to head back to school. The next time I saw her was on a silver screen in Durham, North Carolina, in her breakout role as Ruth, “who came for three months that summer,” in Fried Green Tomatoes At the Whistlestop Cafe, a Southland story about womanly love, male abuse, Black Lives Matter, communal living, and lots of great Peoples Food!

Michael Steinberg is a veteran activist, regulator contributor to the OB Rag, and author of 12 books. Contact: blackrainress@hotmail.com.

 

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Gerald Sweeney September 25, 2016 at 6:15 am

Thank You Michael

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avatar Genie September 30, 2016 at 12:30 am

Well Hello Michael MiniCycle… Wonderful story.

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avatar Michael Steinberg October 6, 2016 at 2:29 pm

Hi Genie,
Thanks, great to hear from you…where are you and what have you been up to? I’m in CT until Halloween and then will be back to SF on my broom! Best to you and all, Michael

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