When Dick Gregory died last month, I stared at obit pictures of him, seeing a scruffy guy with a long white beard and gaunt face. He didn’t look much like the comedian I had seen perform at the Hungry I in San Francisco years ago.
Bob Fitch Photography Archive
Back then he was clean-shaven, on the portly side with short dark hair, and wearing a business suit.
That was in June of 1962, the year before my husband and I wed. One of his sisters was getting married in his hometown of Santa Barbara, and my grandmother paid my way from D.C. to L.A. so I could be in the wedding.
We took a cheap cross-country red-eye flight, a prop-driven plane that stopped twice—in Chicago and Denver. O’Hare had just been built, and it was a labyrinth of an airport. I know because there were no meals on our flight, and we decided to fortify ourselves with sandwiches. We had to run through endless corridors to get to a concourse where we could buy food—then sprint back so we wouldn’t get left behind. We should have waited until Denver which was a tiny rural airport about the size of my high school auditorium.
The wedding in Santa Barbara was on a Sunday, and Norman and I were staying an extra week in California. We wanted to drive up to San Francisco together, but I could see his mom was uncomfortable about an unmarried couple going off alone. So we decided to take his youngest sister with us.
She was only fifteen, but mature for her age. Could we waltz her into some of the clubs we wanted to visit?
She’d brought along a fancy dress, and I helped her put on a lot of makeup. Then we took her to the Hungry I where we sat at small table, a few yards from the stage.
Dick Gregory came out and did a comedy routine, and I can only remember a couple of jokes. He talked about what it was like to be a black man who had moved into a formerly all-white suburb. One day when he was mowing his lawn, a neighbor came over and asked, “What do you charge for yard work.” Gregory replied, “I get to sleep with the woman who lives here.”
Another quip was, “I never believed in Santa Claus because I knew no old white guy would come to my neighborhood at night.”
Those were pretty daring commentaries for the time.
Then there was our next stop. Norman insisted on taking us into a club where we could see the ladies room—wallpapered with pages from the Kinsey Report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. (Side note: My dad was a psychiatrist, and that book was on the shelves of our den. I’d already read it.)
After that, the trip was a little more mundane. Good food is always high on Norman’s list. We got ice cream at Blum’s (a San Francisco landmark long since closed), ate at a prime rib restaurant and drove up Telegraph Hill.
Back then I hadn’t written any books, but I think it’s my novelist’s mind that remembers all those details years later.
Rebecca York’s latest Decorah Security novel is Boxed In.