Dedicated to Mitzy, and to Steve Gutmann
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“You are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security … damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls. They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage … I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world, as he who has a hundred sail of ships at sea, and an army of 100,000 men in the field.”
—Pirate Captain Bellamy, recorded by Daniel Defoe in the historical text A General History of the Robberies and the Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates
The houseboats down in Richardson Bay, when viewed from the top of Waldo Grade, are an organized mess which might be either an eyesore or a romantic thrill, depending on your state of mind.
After the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Navy designated a stretch of tidal mudflats in Sausalito as a site for a shipyard. The Bechtel Corporation, angling for contracts with the Maritime Commission, formed the Marinship Corporation. Using the powers bestowed by wartime as their legal pretext, Marinship argued that an emergency need for new ships demanded its immediate expansion into a nearby shoreline community of forty-two homes, known as Pine Point. These residencies were suddenly declared condemned, and in March of 1942, the residents of Pine Point were given two weeks to evict. Their homes were razed; the land was dynamited. Within months, approximately twenty-six thousand piles were driven to create shipways. Marin City, an area just across the way, was created to house a sudden influx of six thousand workers. Building commenced, with breathtaking speed, on Liberty ships, designed to carry emergency cargo into the Pacific theater of war.
After the war, veterans who had become accustomed to the hand-to-mouth life at Marinship’s shipyard “Gates” simply remained, improvising homes on top of whatever floating structures they could salvage. Marin City became an instant ghetto, where Marin County’s poor black residents still reside in tenements that once were barracks, isolated and contained behind Highway 1, the bay, and steep headlands. The Liberty ships became a mothball fleet, which was later deactivated and scrapped, in the early 1970s. A scavenging class of artists and hippies got hold of steel auxiliary boats, lifeboats, landing crafts, tugboats and other marine salvage to use as frameworks on which to create a wildly expressive, anarchic fungus of impromptu homes.
Some houseboats were nothing more than a row of orange foam pontoons, bearded at the waterline with mussels and barnacles, topped with several sheets of warped and delaminating plywood, and anything on top that might function as shelter—a Volkswagen bus, in one case.
Some were architecturally delirious and inspired: asymmetrical cuckoo clock houses with spiraling wood shingles arranged in a jagged style referred to as “wood butchery”; tinted Plexiglas portholes; mermaids painted on desiccated scrap lumber and other flotsam. These homes had personality and spirit, and were given animist names befitting their bone structure: the Owl, the Porpoise, the Walrus, the Hippo, the Madonna, the Cupcake.
My parents (art professor, jazz pianist), recently escaped from the tract homes of Chico, California, were ravished by the spirit of Gate 6 ½—a joyous floating shantytown of intense neighborhood pride. The whole community took pains to attend to the dock—an obstacle course of uneven planks, wobbling catwalks, and gangplanks lashed together with just enough rope and rusty nails not to float away during rainstorms—and to water the “lawn”: rusting coffee cans full of ice plant and scrubby Charlie Brown Christmas trees growing bravely against constant assaults of salt mist and dog spray.
They bought, for $9,500, a floating, two-bedroom structure which my mother dubbed the Porpentine; it suggested, to her, a Shakespearean hedgehog.
Thus we became houseboat people. We grew strawberries on the back porch in rows of wooden boxes. I slept in a ship’s bunk with a wooden ladder that my father thoughtfully inlaid with rope.
Gate 6 ½ was a tenth of a mile from the other docks, and slightly more socialized. Our neighbors were stewardesses, working musicians, playboy lawyers, inheritance squanderers, divorcées attempting midlife art careers. Gate 6 ½ represented a conscious choice to be counterculture; most residents, save a few colorful exceptions, had options if they wanted them.
Down the road, the counterculture really had no choice but to be what it was. Gate 5, the D Dock, Main and Galilee Docks existed as floating gypsy slums composed of unemployed musicians, drug dealers, people surviving on SSI, and other raw and incorrigible characters too deeply submerged in their own weirdness ever to reintegrate on land. But they weren’t lazy; keeping houseboats afloat was an incredibly strenuous and demanding occupation. To indulge in sloth was to sink.
Bottom jobs, for example, were a horrendous community chore, requiring that paint and barnacles be chiseled off by hand, down to bare metal. A black market of navy surplus enabled the men to purchase a tar set intended for nuclear submarines, which was effective, but illegal because of its high toxicity. After bottom jobs, the men, yellow from toxic hepatitis, would vomit and sweat oil. But they considered this manageable—the hardest part was drinking nothing but milk for two days, since liquor made the condition worse.
Gate 5 was a collective prank: the flowering effort of a community that derived an enormous sense of identity and purpose by positing itself as a direct societal counterpoint to the mansions on the Sausalito hills. All Gates shared this sentiment, but docks at Gate 5 and lower were especially proud and devoted to sticking themselves in the eye of the rich “Hill People” who literally looked down on them.
This loathing was mutual; the Hill People considered the Gates to be unsanitary and dangerous; “visual pollution” corrupting an otherwise perfect view.
A historical abandoned ferryboat, the Charles Van Damme, leaned for years in the Gate 5 parking lot. It was a stunning skeleton of a marine beast with a big rotten paddle wheel; a decomposing rumpus room for the resident “sailing rock ’n’ roll band.” The Red Legs were an industrious bunch of scalawags, named for the stripe of bottom-job paint that they would paint down their pant legs, in true pirate style, to reinforce their pant seams.
The Red Legs hosted dances in the ferry on Saturday nights, with no permits, and would saw out amp-incinerating guitar tumult into the dark mornings. Their girlfriends, stoned and braless ladies with long greasy hair on their heads and under their arms, danced barefoot in the parking lot mud in wild, bulbous circles. They had illegitimate children, with names like Seaboy, Rainbow, and Baru, who would run barefoot and without pants over the splintery wooden docks, with brown smears on their mouths, until they were school age.
It was an outrageous, permissive, and happy time—so casually louche and nude by today’s standards as to seem almost criminal.
Sally Stanford, once the madam of Valhalla, Sausalito’s famous brothel, was at that point Sausalito’s mayor. I admired her red suit and white, Dolly Parton wig when she visited my first-grade class.
A photo of my mother from those days was taken from the vantage point of someone on a motorboat. She is sunning herself, waving in a large floppy hat, smiling, blithely topless.
An acid casualty nicknamed “Captain Rock ’n’ Roll” used to frolic nude with his girlfriends on the roof of his tiny boat in the next berth, in direct eyeshot of our breakfast table. He and his women would wave at me, as I sat eating my toast. I would wave back, squinting.
Each morning I walked past the bait shop (and its always-fascinating index of live worms) to catch the school bus in front of Gate 5’s landmark wall of psychedelic mailboxes, next to the abandoned Mohawk gas station. Sharing my bus stop each morning were short-skirted “hitchhookers,” who, in red heels and rabbit-fur jackets, would stick out their thumbs, catch rides, and return to the corner again a short while later. Since we were mutually inconvenient, I would pretend the hookers weren’t there, and the hookers would pretend I wasn’t there. Sometimes the hookers weren’t there, and cars stopped anyway. They would honk and wait and I would freeze and stand closer to the mailboxes. They would honk again and wait and I would pretend the car wasn’t there, because I was seven. Finally the cars drove away.
**** part 2
In the mid-1970s, Sausalito real estate developers began to lust after the Gates, and sought ways to legally evict the residents, in much the same way that Marinship had done thirty years earlier. A state agency was created to regulate bay development: the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC). Their primary raison d’être was to address the most inarguable case the county had against the houseboat community: the sewage issue.
Sewage for the houseboats was, almost always, a slanted piece of plywood that enabled waste to fall away from the pontoons and directly into the bay. BCBD opted to allow private marinas to upgrade their docks to provide permanent berths, replete with sewer and gas lines (and, much to the revulsion of the houseboat community, cable TV), but in order to hook into the new infrastructure, every houseboat would have to be brought up to standard building code—which meant, in most cases, that they would need to install legitimate plumbing, electricity, and carpentry where it had never been before.
Some houseboats, like ours, were plausibly upgradable; others were not. Many were powered by a series of extension cords plugged into extension cords that were stretched all the way through the parking lot to outlets on streetlights and telephone poles. Even for those for whom upgrading was an option, the County’s offer was regarded as insulting and invasive. Houseboaters cherished the freewheeling lifestyle my mother described as “living at permanent summer camp” far more than the idea of a functional sewer system. It was passionately argued at meetings of the board of supervisors that the bay was clean, as the tides “flushed” it twice a day. A houseboat-dwelling scientist argued that Lake Berryessa, where vacationers went to swim, had a much-higher offending bacteria count than Richardson Bay.
The true fear was that the new docks and their cable TV would herald the death of the pirate class. The Gates had already begun to be something of a tourist attraction, visited by slumming urban professionals and Japanese sightseers.
Efforts were made not to disappoint these thrill seekers.
“Come to see the animals in the zoo?” bohemians would sneer when suits came around with their clean-shod women.
One of our neighbors, a woman who was the local chapter president of the Sexual Freedom League, would greet strangers entirely nude.
Another neighbor, legend had it, would gleefully fulfill tourists’ expectations by defecating for them off the side of his boat, with a friendly wave.
In the mid-1970s, the Gates were served with a health code violation. VACATE OR REPAIR notices were tacked onto front doors. These were cheerfully ignored, and soon they were replaced with REMOVE OR DEMOLISH notices.
Marin County authorities commenced with forced removals. People found themselves padlocked out of houseboats they’d built, watching helplessly as their homes were towed out to the heliport beach by police-escorted tugboats and destroyed.
Gate 6 ½ and a few other docks rolled over reluctantly and agreed to gentrify, but found it extremely difficult to comply. There was literally no plumber, electrician, or carpenter in the entire county willing to work on the infamous houseboats, which were not only a supposed lawless society, where cops would not answer calls at night, but were also, in most cases, starting from absolute zero: virtually everything required to connect to civilization needed to be installed.
My father recalled, “Contractors would say, ‘You mean you actually want me to lay on my back in the dark in an aluminum rowboat half full of saltwater and install electricity? Ha ha ha ha.’ ”
In order to install the pumps that the boats would need to hook up to the new sewer system, every boat would need electrical service and a meter. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures: my father and his friends Mike and Ted spontaneously begat the “Pump-A-Turd Plumbing Company,” replete with brown logo sweatshirts. Together, they installed basic electrical service and macerator pumps on fifty-six boats, and went on to become licensed contractors. Fresh piles were driven at Gate 6 ½ , and new greenish-wood docks were built. The shanty docks vanished, and the feral homes were officially installed into new berths, successfully housebroken.
Gate 5, however, would never be toilet trained or brought up to code; the inhabitants were too poor to renovate even if they wanted to. This made them extremely vulnerable to the authorities.
Even on our dock, progress had casualties.
A small rusty trailer on top of orange pontoons, surrounded by a chicken wire fence, was home to two horrible black dogs—“Old Dog” and “New Dog”—given to constant, murderous barking, and Nina Two Dogs, a paranoid schizophrenic whose dysfunctional interactions with her animals were audible at all hours from other boats: “I hate you! You bastards! You fuckers! Oh God … I’m SORRY. I didn’t mean to say that. Come here.” When Nina’s floating mobile home sank, she and her dogs were forced to move into her non-running Oldsmobile in the parking lot. After a few months, she grew a thick beard. When Old Dog died, completely gray, rheumatic, and blind, Nina sold the car in order to have his remains cryogenically frozen.
“Just in case,” my mother said, “they find a cure for death soon.”
This act of love condemned Nina to life on the Sausalito streets.
Nina eventually hurled a brick through the windshield of a Volkswagen owned by a girl I knew, as she drove down Sausalito’s main strip. The brick landed in the passenger seat; Nina landed in jail. It was discovered that Nina had been driven to this act of despair when, after she was unable to keep up with rent on the cryogenic chamber, Old Dog tragically thawed.
The resourceful and indefatigable pirates, on the other hand, declared war. Police trying to confiscate homes encountered spirited resistance; they were jousted with barge poles and beaten up. Riot cops came, tear gas was sprayed, the coast guard was called in for reinforcement. The pirate community was wholly committed to resistance.
A pile driver pulled in one day and began to drive piles for Gate 5’s new dock. This was desperate. The pirates began a campaign of sabotage.
Sitting on the mud at the bottom of Gate 6 ½ was an abandoned, sunken structure called the Big Red Barge, full of enormous holes that the tide came in and out of. A pirate named Billy the Kid and his cohorts industriously spent months in the middle of the night with droplights, driving rebar into the redwood hull and packing concrete into the gigantic holes. When the job was complete, all of the dock’s bilge pumps were collected and employed to pump the remaining water out.
At high tide, in the dead of night, the Big Red Barge miraculously floated. The pirates promptly towed it directly behind the new pile driver, dropped anchor and threw a big rock ’n’ roll party, where they purposefully knocked out all the new plugs in the hull. The barge sank perfectly, trapping the pile driver and making new construction impossible.
The Sausalito Board of Supervisors went bonkers, and brought an injunction against the barge owner … who, the county was informed, was the Baroness von Furstenburg, in Austria (apparently a relative of someone in on the conspiracy, and willing to assist). This slowed progress nicely.
The houseboat war persisted in the bay for ten more years; the legal battles continue even today. Moving arguments have been made over the years on behalf of the Gates, which have become symbolic of the right to eclectic lifestyle choices and the pursuit of individual happiness.
In the meantime, civilization has been forced to grow around them. The Gates Co-Op remains an entirely dysfunctional, non-code-compliant irritant, stubbornly resistant to progress. But even the Co-Op is too organized for some characters, known as “Anchor Outs”: iconoclasts too rowdy even for the structureless existence of Gate 5. The Anchor Outs live on boats so far out in the bay that other boats are required for them to set foot on land.
Ultimately, I fell into the water a couple of times and was fished out by my hair. This was sufficiently alarming, after the birth of my sister, for my family to move back to land, to a far less scenic and eventful part of Mill Valley.
Visiting the docks, years later, my mother saw a woman in a wool suit and high heels in the parking lot, filming the houseboats with a camcorder. It took her several seconds to realize that the woman was Nina Two Dogs, miraculously beardless, dog-less, and apparently sane.
Perhaps the Dog God had seen her goodness and rescued her.
Nina smiled at my mother, one stranger to another stranger. They’d been neighbors for years, but Nina didn’t remember my mother at all.
My father, for his part, expressed his lasting devotion to the houseboat community by printing copies of this sign once a year, and posting it on their pylons and community bulletin boards:
WARNING: HAZARDOUS MUD-FIRE AREA
The black mud of Richardson Bay bay is an oil deposit in the making. Each year, countless billions of marine animals and vegetable life-forms deposit organic oils into the mud at the end of their life cycle. The fatty oils, or glycerides, left by the marine life have been accumulating for hundreds of years. These oils and other organic wastes are converted by extremely efficient methanogenic bacteria into a wide variety of highly combustible hydrocarbon compounds.
THESE COMPOUNDS ARE PHOTO-REACTIVE, VOLATILIZE IN SUNLIGHT AND CAN BECOME HIGHLY COMBUSTIBLE. USE EXTREME CAUTION DURING LOW TIDES WITH CIGARETTES, OPEN FIRES OR MATCHES.
A MOMENT OF CARELESSNESS CAN RESULT IN A RAGING MUD FIRE.
HELP PREVENT MUD FIRES.
“Don’t get that cigarette too close to the mud,” my father overheard a woman say to a man working on her hull. “It will all go up in flames.”
(It was a joke. Mud doesn’t burst into flames.)
Yeah, you oughta. I oughta edit your book. Cintraw@gmail.com.
Artwork: “Not Ramses II,” oil on canvas, Cintra Wilson 2023
Thanks for reading Cintra Wilson Feels Your Pain ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Thank you for chronicling such an important moment in time of the Sausalito houseboat scene, a time that surely will never be seen again.
Sounds like the California equivalent of Christiania Freetown in Copenhagen. Love it