“Tell It Slant” Excerpt #5: San Francisco & “Going Naked for a Sign “ — or at least a job

Tell It Slant: Baring It All about The Elusive Nude Beach Gig; Plus, an Epiphany & After

[In July, 1974, Chuck Fager’s first marriage failed. About a year later, his two young daughters were moved to the San Francisco area by their mother. Soon Chuck followed, to stay in close contact with them. ]


After Christmas 1975, Chuck took up residence in the fabled Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, sharing a house with two other male acquaintances, just a few blocks from the seemingly bottomless riches of Golden Gate Park. The brief aromatic golden age of the hippies was past, but the atmosphere was still adventurously bohemian and welcoming. Once his bedroll was laid out, and between visits with his daughters nearby, Chuck began looking for work.

He was in luck. San Francisco was then graced by a vigorous journalistic scene, and one of its jewels was a feisty independent weekly, the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Run by Bruce and Jean Brugmann, the Bay Guardian had almost every feature of classic journalism: relentless investigations that sniffed out the reek of the city’s plentiful public and private corruption; populist editorial crusades for reform of big banks, utilities, developers and other rapacious special interests; connections to artists, musicians, and the emerging powerhouse of its gay community. And befitting its setting in a city where all sorts of people came to reinvent themselves, they were constantly on the lookout for new talent.

Chuck was a possible specimen of the latter. One of the Bay Guardian editors, who had seen a few of his pieces from back in Boston, soon gave Chuck a chance to prove himself.

The “entrance exam” was tough. Besides the hot news, the Bay Guardian published a series of special annual guide sections, on topics proven to be big draws for readers. The guides were stuffed with ads that made them highly lucrative.

Oops, took a wrong turn again . . .

Topping this list — the one which readers snatched up and writers lined up to get in on — was the nude beach guide, in late spring. And at the very bottom, which writers avoided if at all possible — though it was the most widely-read  — was the annual Jobs Issue.

Why did writers shun the Jobs Issue? Simple: In the late-1970s, unemployment was chronically high in the Bay Area. The Silicon Valley tech boom was germinating, but still mostly just a band of light seeping from under Steve Jobs’s garage door. So, there were swarms of ambitious but underemployed men, women, and other genders around the Bay, eager to grab the Guardian’s free copies, desperately seeking new leads.

But the stubborn fact was that there were damn few good jobs available beyond the usual, dead-end staples of restaurant servers, cab drivers and the like. The advertisers who filled the profitable guide pages understood this: they were mostly selling training schemes, job search aids, exotic college courses, or depression therapies. In addition, there were psychics, Tarot readers and hawkers of New Age prognostications and talismans reputed to attract good job vibrations.

Hence the editor assigned Chuck to write the lead article in the 1976 Jobs Issue — challenging him to plow the same ground the paper had gone over for who-knows-how-many years, and to turn up copy that sounded reasonably fresh. That would show whether he had the chops to survive in the low-budget world of alternative journalism. Chuck recalled:

The lead topic for 1976 was “Where the Bay Area Jobs With a Future Are.” But it only took me about ten minutes with the state employment people to figure out that where those jobs really were was — somewhere else. There were damn few such slots available locally.

Still, Chuck did his best, making it sound like becoming an expert machinist was comparatively simple, since machinists were actually in demand and well-paid around the Bay. (He skimmed over the less-attractive fact that it took ten years of preparation to be one, in which time one could become a doctor or lawyer and earn several times as much for the trouble — which may explain why there was a shortage in the first place.) Chuck also was tasked with reporting all this while keeping the reader interested — and without lying.

Chuck got it done, though afterward he couldn’t remember much about how, beyond digging up a bunch of vivid, weird, and often-humorous job-hunting anecdotes, then stringing them together into an entertaining (if not terribly informative) read. It was more a hefty dose of deflection and distraction for whiling away the hours between job interviews or in the big bleak waiting room of the employment office.

But the editor was impressed. One guide assignment led to another: big chunks of the Children’s Issue, including pointing out where to find nonsexist kids books — a genre in pretty short supply back in those days.

The closest Chuck ever got to those legendary beaches was this 1898 painting by Edvard Munch in a museum: it was enough to make a fellow want to Scream.

Though, alas — he never did get a shot at “baring the truth” for the Nude Beach issue. Yet, having paid his low-man-on-the-totem-pole dues — Chuck was soon given broader scope, and allowed to follow up self-generated story ideas. Before long he was working almost full-time and was assigned his own desk in the Bay Guardian office, even though he was still technically a freelancer. The pay was enough for him to keep up with his bills, as long as he continued to live low on the hog.

Low on the hog also meant riding “the dog.” More than once  in his Bay Area sojourn, Chuck traveled by Greyhound bus across the country and back. In 1976, Greyhound, still a professional company with unionized drivers, made such adventures affordable, if not particularly comfortable.

Chuck’s meditation-mobile: ideal for coast-to-coast rolling retreats $99 round-trip; bring your own breakfasts . . .

One such deal was an unlimited, go-anywhere-in-the-Lower-48 pass, good for 14 days, for only $99. Chuck took the deal and made a round trip back to Boston to tie up some loose ends. And somewhere on that long haul through the prairies and the heartland, as the radio stations’ call letters switched from starting with the letter K (KGO, San Francisco) to W (WREN, Topeka!) he had a much-overdue epiphany.

He had picked up a book about intensive journaling from the Bay Guardian’s spare review-copy pile, and passed many miles doing exercises in it. One such was about jobs and career, which even at the age of 33, Chuck had not really resolved. The first assignment was making a complete list of all the jobs (paid or unpaid) he had held. The goal was not résumé-building, but spurring reflection. Expanding his list all the way back to his sophomore adventure at Ramey High in Puerto Rico with the Little Black Book, Chuck eventually closed the notebook, sat back in the narrow swaying seat, and had a long-sought moment of clarity:

In the list, Chuck discerned two patterns, unfolding simultaneously. First, since midway through high school, he had put his foot on the bottom rungs of several distinct career ladders: flying planes; an Air Force officer; activist organizing; technical editing; newspaper editing, academia, and more. But he had not continued or advanced along any of those paths. This wasn’t a record of failure or rejection, though there had been hard knocks. He really felt no regrets, for instance, at not being already halfway to a military pension; or on the brink of tenure at some college. But something along each path left Chuck feeling not drawn to the field.

The second pattern, Chuck perceived, was a thread, brightly-woven even in the journal’s road-shaky ball-point, that ran alongside the first: writing. Except for several silent months in Selma, and a low period after splitting with his wife Tish, he had been writing or editing — with & without pay — since he was a teenager: high school and college yearbooks; columns for the Colorado State U paper; a daily and various weekly newspapers; three published books (plus a couple of misfires); and so forth.

Gazing out the window at the telephone poles ticking by, Chuck had what he recalls as the Greyhound Epiphany: I’m a writer. That’s what I’m supposed to be. And that’s why I haven’t ended up being something else.

This sketch, by the late cartoon artist David Omar White, was drawn one day in the Bay Guardian newsroom in 1976. Chuck made it a personal logo.

In 2024, Chuck is still acutely aware that this should have been baldly obvious, but it took him this long — 33 years — to meet. . . himself!

He arrived back in San Francisco, carrying a resolve about vocation that has never left him. Somewhere, he imagines, in the middle of Nebraska, there must be an invisible historical marker along the interstate: “In early 1976, near this field, Chuck Fager found his vocation as a writer.”

An epiphany, however, is not a prophecy; more like satori, the Zen experience of enlightenment rather than a forecast: Chuck didn’t yet see how he would earn a living as a writer; nor was there any assurance his work would become famous or influential in a world crowded with earnest wordsmiths. It didn’t even mean that writing would make him happy. It came down to, in outdated hippie argot, That’s your thing, man: Do it.

Recognizing himself as a writer, Chuck then figured that to earn a living — especially in journalism — would involve covering many topics, people and events. But he also knew his mind and fingers continually itched to write about Quakers.

Now that was another conundrum: a few people probably would read about Quakers and Quakerism; but who would pay him to write about them?

Had he been conventionally ambitious, Chuck might have returned to Catholicism: there were many Catholic papers, magazines and publishers. Or maybe he could have converted to Judaism: Jews were always writing about their history, its triumphs and tragedies. But no such luck: Chuck wanted to know and write about Quakers. How would he get to paid do that?

Going to Meeting

The standard answer to such questions is the Quaker platitude: Way will open. Chuck believed in it; or at least, believed he believed in it. So, besides work, he soon searched out San Francisco Friends Meeting.

He missed Cambridge Meeting in Massachusetts, now so far away. Yet much of the Bay Area version was familiar and reassuring: Quaker jargon, announcements from Friends projects, talk of testimonies, the silence. The new setting, though, was dramatically different: In Cambridge, the meetinghouse was large, yet inconspicuous. But San Francisco Meeting, then located on Lake Street, directly overlooked the vast, postcard-perfect sweep of the bay. Chuck could sit, and through its big window, follow boats and ships moving past, while sinuous bands of gray-white fog streamed in from the ocean, making the Golden Gate Bridge towers vanish and reappear like gigantic friendly ghosts waving outspread cable arms. In 2023, recalling one vivid experience with San Francisco Meeting, Chuck wrote:

When meeting began, the room was mostly full, and there were the usual rustlings, quiet sighs, and occasional cough. Someone rose early to thank God for the beautiful day. (Normally, weather reports as spiritual messages sound banal to me, but this time I couldn’t argue, even silently.) Soon the handful of children stirred and trooped off downstairs.

“…some important testimony
I wanted to share…”

I don’t know if this vista would have been mystical enough for Rufus Jones, or sufficiently Christian for an evangelical Friend such as Everett Cattell; but for me it was like the world’s biggest lava lamp, and just as hypnotic — er, meditative.

Usually. But sometimes, a reminder of the city’s streak of genuine indigenous weirdness blew in like a chilly eddy of the shifting mist.

On that spring First Day morning, the scene initially looked as good as ever. The sun was coming out, the fog was in retreat. I arrived early, found my favorite spot, and settled in to watch the bridge gleaming in the crystal air.

Others trickled in. A newcomer came and sat right in front of me, partially blocking my view. But he was young, trim, and didn’t fill up too much visual space; I could still take in enough of the bay.

After settling again, A Friend spoke about the coming 1976 presidential campaign, and the issues of war and peace that hung on it. (I couldn’t decide if this had been recycled from FCNL or NPR, then shrugged it off.)

But mentioning the election was a signal; not to me, but to the young fellow in the next row. He stood up, looked around, flashing a shy, appealing smile.

“Yesterday,” he began, “the national Democratic Party Platform Committee held a public hearing, here in San Francisco. I had some important testimony I wanted to share with them. But I didn’t get a chance to.”

He glanced out the window, then gave us another fetching smile. “So, I’d like to share it with you.”

He reached for a shirt pocket. I heard papers unfolding.

“It’s not long,” he soothed, then cleared his throat. “It’s only — seven pages.”

He started to read. Something about freedom and peace, I think. But I wasn’t following the words. I was stretching my back, straining to peer over his shoulder at the sheets of paper in his hand.

Finally, I saw them: OMG–they were typed, single-spaced: solid blocks of text that would stretch from here, one could think, halfway across the wide bay to Sausalito, or even Mill Valley.

I sagged back in my folding chair. It creaked. The bridge was forgotten. Seven pages of what were rapidly becoming less than coherent ramblings? What could be done? Help!

Help did arrive, but not until midway through page two, when I had completely lost the thread, if there was one.

I didn’t know the older woman who stood, but she qualified as what some would call a “seasoned Friend.” That is, one with gumption enough to interrupt.

She was gentle about it, I thought; but also spoke clearly, and loud enough to break his flow.

“Excuse me, Friend,” she said, “but this is a Quaker meeting for worship, and your interesting statement is not really suitable for this setting. If you like, I’d be willing to talk with you afterwards, and hear more about it.”

He stared at her for a moment. Then he nodded. I heard the papers folding, and he sat down.

There was a long moment of tense silence. Just as my gaze was moving back toward the big window, he stood up abruptly and walked out of the room. The front door wheezed shut behind him. His shoes clicked down the front steps.

So much for the beautiful day. And it didn’t end when the elders shook hands to close the meeting. The ritual of announcements had hardly begun when a younger woman, a regular attender, interrupted to denounce “us,” and especially the “seasoned Friend,” for the terrible “violence” she said we had just done to this defenseless visitor.

Terrible violence? That’s not what it looked like to me. But of course, the agonizing and second-guessing was off and running. I stayed for a while and tried to stand up for the beleaguered “seasoned Friend,” but it was still going when I left. In those days I didn’t get to business meeting much, so I don’t know if the dispute migrated there.

What I had seen was a woman Friend who had the resolve to stand and “take one for the team” by defending the meeting and its worship; but on whom the tables had turned and was now about to take one from the team. I hope she was “seasoned” enough to have reckoned on that possibility too. (Does this qualify as, “No good deed goes unpunished”?)

How to order.

More excerpts  from Tell It Slant are online at:

> Excerpt #1: A Quaker’s Life in Our “Interesting,” Tumultuous Times:

> Excerpt #2: “Fighting for A Future”:

> Excerpt #3: A Whippersnapper & His Elders:

> Excerpt #4: “Tell It Slant”: Author Emma Lapsansky-Werner Speaks

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