Flashback to the Vallejo

Vallejo sketch by Phil Frank  |  post by Larry Clinton

In 1969, Jim Gibbons dropped out of college and headed west, ending up in Sausalito, where he joined other dropouts living free on the water during the 1970s era of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.” Now he has written a book about his adventures, in Sausalito and elsewhere, entitled Flashbacks: A Memoir.  Here are excerpts of Jim’s recollections of the ferryboat Vallejo and its legendary residents, Jean Varda and Alan Watts:

My first few weeks living at Waldo Point made me realize that I wasn’t going anywhere else anytime soon. I liked hanging out on the Sausalito waterfront, meeting boat people, and partying on the back deck of an old sunken potato boat almost every afternoon.

Usually a few others had already arrived, maybe with a guitar and a six-pack, or willing to walk over to the Bait Shop and buy more beer. Sometimes we’d just crank up the music on KSAN, which blasted out the back door, alerting the neighbors that it’s party time.

But I needed a place of my own, a little privacy, and to do that I needed a job. I applied at the Tides Bookstore and the Sausalito Post Office, but I was broke now. So, I thought for a minute…what would be the best way to spend my last dollar? Open a bank account? Invest in the stock market? Donate to charity? That just brought me back to my original choice—a cold beer!

On my way to spending my last dollar on alcohol, I ran into Greg Baker, who told me an artist named Jean Varda, aka Yanko, needed someone to do clean-up work in his studio and will pay $2 an hour. Two dollars an hour was what the bookstore paid, which was normal for a service job in 1969.

Greg went on to explain that Yanko shared a houseboat with Alan Watts, called the Vallejo, which was docked at Gate 3.

So, Greg took me over and introduced me to Yanko, already in his seventies, but spry and willing to show me his cluttered studio, with scraps of colorful cloth and paper scattered all over the floor and on his paintings. His main thing was collage, sticking these scraps onto painted plywood sheets of different colors and sizes to make seascapes, village scenes of women adorned in colorful clothes, and a few unfinished pieces that looked more like, according to my old journal, “…a 6th grade art class project.”

Varda told me I could start tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock, so suddenly spending my last dollar on a beer became a celebratory act. The next day I showed up on the Vallejo on time and spent the morning picking up and cleaning up after him, while he put the finishing touches on a collage that looked like a woman wearing a peacock on her head.

Lunch was something else, with people from all over stopping by with wine and cheese, sharing stories of their worldly adventures, and according my journal from April 17, which was my very first day, I mention that we had four bottles of wine between seven of us.

Yes, I got to eat with him and his guests, mostly artists and writers who lived in the Bay Area and down along the California coast. When Yanko was ready for his nap, people politely said adieu and left. My next job was to stand outside on the back deck and make sure nobody bothered him while he was napping. Tough job but someone had to do it.

The best part of this job was when Alan Watts, who lived in the forward half of the old ferryboat, would come out during his “writing break” and chat.

We usually talked about local stuff, or the smog you could see across the Bay on days when the wind died down.

He felt psychedelics helped “induce the mystical experience and users are entitled to some constitutional protection.” He was angry he couldn’t continue research in the field and called it a “barbarous restriction of spiritual and intellectual freedom.” I couldn’t have said it better.

I made $38 in three days, and was offered to stay on a small houseboat anchored out on Richardson Bay, which included a skiff to row back and forth to shore.

By the end of May, Varda said he “didn’t need my services anymore,” which was fine with me because I had fifty bucks in my pocket, a free boat to live on, and figured I’d be hearing from the Post Office or the Tides any day.

Hear more about Jim’s Sausalito adventures On Tuesday, June 12 at 7:00 p.m. in the Edgewater Room of City Hall when Jim reads from his new book. Copies of the book will be on sale after the event, and are also available at Amazon.