SAN FRANCISCO, 1964

We were clean-cut kids, recent college graduates, two guys and two young women. We’d been brought from around the U.S. to California for Peace Corps training. It was 1964, and we were idealists of the JFK generation, supporters of his successor, LBJ, before we became aware of the ugliness of the situation in Vietnam. Our destination, if we made it though the training and selection process, was West Africa.

Saturday night was our only time off, and we went that Saturday to San Francisco’s North Beach for the nightlife. As we passed one night club, a man in a suit came out and said, “Do you kids want to see a show? No charge. Just sit at the bar.”

We agreed and bought drinks at the bar. The performer was Lenny Bruce. He was already a legend for his brilliance and innovation, but he wasn’t funny that night. Maybe it was the absence of an audience; only one table for this early show had customers.

He spoke mainly about the linguistics of obscenity and his legal troubles. This was after his arrests and not too long before his death by overdose. He kept turning around to mime writing on a blackboard as if delivering a lecture, which in fact he was.

After the show, which was mercifully brief, we went to bar we’d been to before, where the featured drink was a Fog Cutter, which consisted of a little fruit juice plus rum, cognac, gin, and sherry.

This wasn’t a good drink for people who’d been working day and night—classes, practice teaching, papers to write, lectures, daily physical training—and the vaccinations against various tropical diseases that we got on Saturday mornings, which had the side effects of sleepiness and sensitivity to alcohol.

By the time we were drinking our second round of Fog Cutters, we were dancing our version of the High Life, a popular African social dance, in the middle of the room. We were also singing, at the top of our voices, the African pop songs we’d been learning.

In response to complaints from the other customers, the four of us clean-cut kids—the girls in respectable dresses, us guys in jackets and ties—were thrown out of the bar. We weren’t literally thrown out, but told quietly to leave.

In any case, there we were—very drunk—out on the street in the cold, foggy San Francisco night. We made it back to our living quarters only because a kind person driving by gave us a lift.

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