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Partial List of East West Musical Instruments Co. Jacket Designs
Emperor of the Low IQ
A Child of Its Time
I once heard Groucho Marx tell someone "without you, this whole event would be impossible; WITH you, it IS." Groucho might well have been saying that to Norman Stubbs, about East West. There would have been no such company without him, his concepts, and his designs. It was built upon his ideas, and even after he turned over the day-to-day operations of the firm to subordinates, it was still, possible or impossible, his.
Was the East West Musical Instruments Company a child of its times? Could it have existed in the culture of an earlier decade? Could it be that same unique organization if it were founded in the early 21st century? It's impossible to guess.
Though most of Norman's designs were memorable, not all were salable. He came up with some designs that seemed almost laughable, and which should never have gotten past drawings on paper, let alone into production, but he also came up with designs that were hugely successful. Others, even some which did not sell well, were none the less completely beautiful. That he was, apparently, not afraid to fail may have been the key to Norman's success. Norman’s business sense was intuitive and original. To me—and I hardly knew him—his business practices seemed based more on Asian mysticism than 20th century western capitalism. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Norman Stubbs was a total departure from the then-standard idea of capitalist businessman, "captain of industry," and garment-and-accessories producer. Yet Norman was very successful. The man was (and is) unique; a rare bird, the only one of his species.
It is also worth pointing out that the flashy, eye-catching and ostentatious clothing-designs for which the company is now known were a fragment of what we produced. For every one of the gaudy, flamboyant coats or jackets, there were many more conventionally-styled models. The photos of folks modeling the flashy stuff in fashion-model poses present a distortion of the East West reality.
I went to school barefoot through the eighth grade. Even now I keep my feet tough. I believe the earth transmits a healthy excelsior of vibrations through one's souls. Every morning I go out barefoot to harvest my garden and orchard. My house has never had an inside bath; I shower outside amongst the gingers and heliconias. I get wet when it rains. So what? I make an art of my eccentric lifestyle; living outside the "box".
As an adolescent, I wasn't a soccer mom's kid. There were no ball fields around. I had to ride miles on my bicycle to play with other kids. I hunted rats on my father's chicken farm for a penny apiece. I played Tarzan by myself in the jungled gulches surrounding our homestead. I relied upon imagination to entertain myself. There was discipline, too. As a farm kid, I had my chores to do.
When I was born on Maui in 1943, the culture was still colored by missionary morality. Old Hawaiian traditions were discouraged; we were striving towards a white Anglo Saxon Puritan ethic. This worked well for the wealthy missionary families who controlled the plantations and therefore the economy. When I returned to Maui in the early 70s, I could still hear their voices in the way people thought.
I rebelled first against the Church. When I escaped Maui to Georgia Tech, it struck me how confining the culture of my childhood had been. Native Hawaiians didn't bend well to the missionary work ethic so the plantation bosses imported plantation workers: Japanese, Filipinos, Chinese, Puerto Ricans and Portugese. Hawaii became a multicultural environment where differences, talents, intelligence and creativity were suppressed for the sake of racial harmony. Though Caucasians were a minority, their influence through the missionaries' preaching had become ingrained. Whites retained control of the management class well into the mid 1900s. Resentment of whites lingered into the late 90s. I would have been beaten up regularly if I didn't have my local gang to protect me.
The Great Unwashed
It's too easy to describe Norman Stubbs’ employees as simply a bunch of stoned hippies. There was more to the crews that worked at East West than drug-addled drop-outs, teenage runaways, or Haight-Ashbury street-people.
In another time, some of us would have sought positions with businesses, academic careers, become executives or engineers. If the time had been the late 1990's, and not the late 1960s, many of us might have found ourselves involved in the "dot-com" bubble. Today, information technology or social networks might easily attract our efforts. Instead, our time frame and milieu was California of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a wide open era of tune-in, turn-on, drop-out. It was the heyday of Timothy Leary, Marshall McLuhan, and Alan Watts, among others. It was important to cut loose from conventionality, find unknown roads to follow, fresh paths to explore.
There certainly were some stoned hippies in the East West workforce, people whose vocabularies ran from "far-out'' and "groovy," to "bummer!" and went no further. Some of the crew were current or former addicts of one kind or another, a few were just not particularly bright. East West seemed to welcome them all. However, the mental slouches were never the norm. Many, perhaps most had graduated college, or had at least been admitted and attended. We were far from the usual kinds of employees normally found in factories, garment sweat-shops, or other industrial concerns. We were smarter, better read, many with our own diverse talents already developing.
It's impossible to overlook the influence of the newly emerging women's movement within East West. Significantly more than half the employees were women, and they were there, in part, because of the awakening attitudes and consciousness of women in late 1960s and early 1970s. Our women were determined to travel into realms previously not part of the feminine orbit. Some were refreshingly headstrong, and committed to their own personal agendas.
Escaping from this environment was a revelation. I saw the artificiality of human culture. I had absorbed missionary values: a sense of purpose, service to community and being true to oneself and others. I knew I would always love others as I did myself but I no longer believed life had an ultimate purpose. I dropped out of college and became a dharma bum in San Francisco. I proceeded to challenge every indoctrinated precept. I took LSD and sought to understand consciousness. The walls of the "box" came down. I was free to design my own life.
I wore "Aloha" shirts as a kid but my favorites were Japanese kabe prints with their soaring eagles, samurai and misty mountains. My exotic jacket concepts don't seem so outlandish if you picture me wandering around Maui picking papayas and mangoes in my bare feet. I live in a sensory rich environment. I am not afraid of color. Nature is eccentric. I am conservative in comparison. Natural forms are mid spectrum of our aesthetic tastes, just as green is mid spectrum of vision. A dove can be elegant but boring. Wearing a "parrot" jacket is exciting. It is transforming yourself into a bird.
When I had my schism with society I was told I thought too much. But I am happiest deeply buried in my mind, thinking and designing. I am so utterly visual, when spoken to I find myself changing words into pictures. I can see a new jacket clearly in my mind before it is made. Using the image in my mind, I can make aesthetic judgments as to basic concept, line, color and harmony. I imagine the jackets on people and try to determine if they are awesome or goofy. To pull off an outrageous design, the result needs to impress beyond superficial criticism. It must be art.
The Georgia Tech reference might have clued you to my engineering talents. I was a self-taught tailor and pattern maker. Still, there was a lot of trial and error getting the fits right for my foundation patterns. After that, it was just a matter of finding the right concepts to put on those foundations.
What about the drug scene at East West? East West was part of the Head Revolution. Our people were heads, so were our customers. The dreaded hemp was consumed by nearly all the people of East West, with tacit approval by management. The stuff was considered harmless, possibly even beneficial, to the day-to-day workings of the firm. And in its own way it was harmless, as it never seemed to interfere with the functioning of either the company's management or production employees. However, there did not seem to be much (if any) consumption of other psycho-active chemicals, or stimulants or depressives. For most of East West’s existence, the "head revolution" was limited to the softest of soft-drugs.
The place was too busy, too noisy, and far too chaotic to be a desirable location for LSD, peyote, or other psychedelic substance experiences though undoubtedly most employees experimented with them outside the factories. In later years, a small number of the production-employees were secret heroin-addicts, and some were determined alcoholics, but these cases were never widely known by the rest of the staff, and not even noticed by management.
What made the East West event so unique was a complicated assembly of the special times, the singular aggregation of people, the idiosyncratic brilliance of the instigator, and other less tangible realities of San Francisco itself.
Carl Christensen 2011 (Edited)
Good concepts must be contemporary to resonate with the zeitgeist. Otherwise your product may be dated or be too avante garde. The economy and cultural leanings of the moment are fashion influences as much as are the latest trends. I try to digest how people feel about their socio/political environment and their pocketbooks and the current style trends. With those filters imbedded in my subconscious, I begin searching for appealing ideas. A good idea must be robust, it must also have mutually supporting components. I work the idea out in my head. When I feel I have found the thread, I lay it out on a foundation pattern. Back on Castro Street, during this process I played music so loud I couldn't think. I just drew and erased until I saw something I liked. The harmony of the design would evolve that way. Sometimes minute changes in the intensity of a curve, moving a line slightly or enlarging or diminishing a figure made a critical difference.
I designed the jackets but East West Musical Instruments Company made them. The employees were artists that made the appliqués work, hand-painted the leather that was sewn into cameos and airbrushed the eagles of the Maltese Chopper. They were talented craftsmen and craftswomen who took pride in putting together a quality jacket. East West was a place where the life style of the times could be bottled and sold. It was organic, alive, had moods, grew, nourished and eventually died. It will be remembered. It was a good time to be alive.
East West Musical Instruments Company was a serendipitous seed dropped into the fertile environment of the San Francisco hippie scene of the mid 60s. I was no more than a stirring stick that mixed the brew of the times. My name is Norman Stubbs and I got lucky.
My stop before San Francisco was Georgia Tech. My plan to be nuclear physicist had already turned into disillusionment when my brother Bob came to visit me in Georgia and left me with Alan Watts "The Way of Zen". I tuned in and dropped out all the way to San Francisco where Bob had a coffeehouse on Hayes Street called The Blue Unicorn. (http://www.freewebs.com/blueunicorn/) It was the end of the beatnik era and the Summer of Love was just around the corner. I spent several years of pathos answering life's big riddles in the gritty backroom of the coffeehouse. I was pretty crazy; you can ask Michael Rizor who later became my foreign production manager about that. He was there.
Then, when I could beat no more meaning out of life, on the first day of spring in 1967 right before my eyes my cat gave birth to a litter of kittens. Just like that, the wheel of time had turned and a new and complete moment was born. There is no past; only the present. I was free. I wanted to be the human being that I was. A return to roots. I wanted to learn how to make clothes, build shelter and grow food.
But before we can get to the part about making clothes, I have to explain how I came up with the name East West Musical Instruments Company. You see, I loved Indian music with the tamboura playing the drone of life in the background. My second venture in my return to roots was to make a novel musical instrument which I called a bowl harp. It twanged like a sitar but had electric pickups like an American guitar. Neat looking thing but a complete business and musical disaster. It was financed by easy money from my first business venture which sold a product that promised "to shut your mouth and open your eyes". (The same product that financed The Grateful Dead.) Busted but at least there was still some money left over.
Then one day a friend from the Family Dog came over and wanted a ride to check out a leather sewing machine that was for sale. She had a half finished jacket and thought she could string the seller along to get it done. We went over together and it dawned on me that I could buy the machine and begin to fulfill my ambition to learn how to make clothes. So that is where it started. We were hippies and here I was about to go capitalistic. That was socially nerve wracking for me in my peer group but then how was I to afford to buy more leather if I didn't sell what I made? Capitalistic justification came naturally.
I consigned what I made to the Boot Hook on Haight Street. It was owned by Bobby Boles. I will always
revere him as the guy who put me into business. He was highly visible and scrutinized by the Man so we had to be legit with taxes and all. I already had a business license in the name of East West Musical Instruments Company from my now defunct musical instruments empire. Besides, it was a cool non-sequiter for a leather jacket brand name. The famous leather tag that we sewed into our jackets didn't come until later.
I made deerskin pants and Bobby sold them on Haight Street to the beautiful people who wanted to return to the earth. Business roared. I knocked a hole through the back of my closet into the adjoining apartment, hired some help and set up shop. That was in an old Seaman's rooming house at the corner of Fell and Baker across from the DMV. I managed the rentals for my friend and slumlord Joe Kokula. I had illustrious tenants, like Allan Ginsberg, Neil Cassidy from Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" and a sordid and eclectic collection of methheads and bikers that I was always trying to replace with normal pot smoking hippies. I had lived there on $25 a month and a free apartment but now my living standards were improving.
I am writing about the early years of East West. You will have to forgive me if my history seems a bit sketchy; that was four decades ago and a bit hazy in my memory. I know the first jacket I sold was to Johnny who was a flashy black small time drug dealer. I don't think it was the first jacket I made because I believe I have still got that one stashed in my neighbors attic.
Although the legend of Janis Joplin coming to my apartment to ask me to make her a jacket is true, I think that I had already moved my workshop to Castro Street. I wasn't a groupie and didn't really have time to follow the burgeoning rock and roll scene. I had heard of her at the time she showed up at my door but I will never forget her because she came with a dog. I had two mother cats both with litters in the apartment. She stepped through the door into total mayhem. Poor dog didn't stand a chance; the jacket on the other hand was a sensation. We had this royal purple leather that literally glowed. I cut it with foot and a half long fringe. Of course, after that we called the copies the Joplin jacket.
The First Factory on Castro Street
Wow, Castro Street, that was nearly fifty years ago! Even the name sounds funny in my mind. Who was Castro? I never thought about it. All I knew then was that it was the name of one of those neat little neighborhoods in San Francisco. There were a bunch of Mom and Pop stores focusing on the intersection of 18th and Castro, trees along the street and the perfect double store front for rent. It was my first commercial space. I was an entrepreneur on my way up.
Okay, I am going to need some help here. I remember that I had a small retail space at the front of the unit on the left..
It was there that we used to take the girls into the dressing room to fit them into their new leather pants. They would be down to their panties with the pants stuck halfway up there thighs. Whoever the lucky guy who was doing the fitting would grab the back of her waistband and start to bounce the chick into her pants. To everyone's amazement, it always worked. There was one night that I did a jacket fitting for Peter Green while Mick Fleetwood looked on like Bogart in the Caine Mutiny, rolling his metal balls around and around in his hand. I thought he was pretty weird but can empathize because he became famous and lives on Maui like I do. One day we got ripped off. The store minder was in the back. Guys came in, picked up all the jackets on display and walked off.
The real business was in the back and next door where the workshop was. The wholesale business was growing rapidly. We made loads of leather bell bottomed pants, Joplin jackets and Renaissance suits. Edwardian jackets with their large lapels and collars were all the fashion rage. I loved it. I went overboard with monstrously exaggerated lapels and collars on the Creole and the Quake Coat. We were taking on big accounts like The Town Squire, Changing Faces and Prester John. I got boxes from the supermarket and we shipped COD.
At the rear of the workshop, there was a small upstairs office. I remember the day when a seamstress came up stairs and said, "Norman, I think you had better come down." At the front door I found a couple of shady types obviously checking out our alarm system. I asked what I could do for them. They were shucking and jiving me when I noticed them looking over my shoulder. I turned around and saw our black Great Dane approaching. Her name was Sation. I turned and said "Back Sation." I heard the guys exclaim, "Satan" and they were gone. Sation was there for just that reason; we had had a burglary through the roof at night. Sation would sleep in an armchair near the door. We had no more burglaries. But, every morning there was a ton of dog poop. On top of that, she took to hanging out in front of the meat market down on 18th Street. I think that was about the time we moved to Folsom Street and Sation moved back to Sebastopol.
Klaudia's Castro Street
My View From the Reni Department
So, when I began my sojourn at the Castro Street Shop, I landed in the newly formed Renaissance Department. Because I was the second seamstress hired, I took my position as Second Step. There were three steps to almost all of the garments. Second step was a perfect place to land because it was the easiest....no applique required and it gave me time to find my way around the power machine, which compared to the sewing machines of my youth seemed like riding a bucking bronco. It required a soft touch and a steady hand. First step included placing the leaf patterns (Burning, Falling & Bearded) on the jacket fronts and stitching them in place, double stitching the jacket fronts and setting the snaps...using a machine that bit me later at Folsom. Second step included making the sleeves...i.e. sewing the panels together for the lower half of the sleeve, folding the pointy parts of the upper sleeves, attaching the top part to the bottom part and stitching them together. Sewing around the points was good practice in controlling the bucking Singer. Then I would sew the underarm sleeve seam. Third step, inserting sleeves, waistbands, belt loops was a pain in the neck. I was ever grateful that I showed up second rather than third in the hiring process. Third step was a pain because as the garment neared the finish line there was more weight being thrown around and the leather was no longer flat and manageable.
When I got to EW, first step was occupied by a lovely and cheerful girl named Suzanne. I think she came from Southern California...a'la The Beach Boys song, California Girls. Instead of espousing the omnipresent “Far out”, she would say “For sure!” which I found very refreshing. She pretty much showed me the ins an outs of the Reni Section, but then off she went....I hoped to a sunny beach somewhere...and I moved into First Step and the challenge of the leaves....which I accepted.
There were a few memorable characters that passed through the Reni Section. Sarah, of course, who became an ally at East West, and lifelong friend after that. I remember she wore a purple leather coat at that time. I don't know whether or not she made it. I also remember Kit. He was very good looking, with brown wavy hair and a great smile, and a hair trigger response to the world. I remember that Chains, by the Beatles would come on the record player occasionally and he would drop what he was doing and announce “I love this song!” and start singing and dancing about....every time. He also had a ship in full sail tattooed on his back. I thought it was quite impressive. He also had a serious drug problem, too, so his employment didn't last long. I remember Fran, who Sarah mentioned. My opinion wasn't quite so favorable. Seems she was on Food Stamps and Welfare while she worked at East West. She bragged about how she was scamming the system. I just thought she was a cheat and I didn't trust her. She was so blond and fair-skinned that she appeared almost transparent. I remember one day it was very hot and she lifted her flowing skirt above her waist to cool off, revealing her lack of underwear...announcing same to the rest of the room in a loud voice. I wasn't unhappy to see her move on.
Directly in front of First Step Reni station was the Glue Girl's set-up. When I began, the position was held by a girl named Trish. She was smallish and pretty, and although her hair was an ashy blonde, her eyes were dark. They may have even been blue, but they were dark just the same. She was sort of witty, I thought, and slow-spoken, but there was something about her that seemed very deep. I found out later that there were some serious drugs involved....which may have accounted for the dark aura and eventually she left....and Kathy moved into her spot. I may have been wrong about the drugs....but at that time it was always a pretty safe guess.
Set beyond the Reni Section and Glue Girl were the rest of the sewers, a couple of machines along both walls, and maybe one of two in the center....can't remember. I remember one of the sewers was Linda Benz, a real live wire and crackerjack seamstress. They produced a variety of garments. The Renaissance Section was kind of an annex, an outpost, and it remained so far into the Folsom Street factory. Linda was the wife/girlfriend/old lady of Bill McClelland, who occupied the little hidey hole in the back of the room by the stairs and directly under Norman's office loft. Bill was the first person I befriended there. I don't know whether he liked me or was just so damned pleased that someone showed up to say hello. He punched out leather parts on Gertrude, the hydraulic press, with metal dies....in the dark.
Norman had his office upstairs. Beyond the stairs was the cutting section and shelves stacked high with leather hides of beautiful texture and color. I liked sewing leather from the very beginning. It was fun working with our special naked leather. The color was so deep, the leather soft and supple.
There must have been a bathroom somewhere, but I can't remember where it was.
Beyond the cutters was the wonderful and weedy back yard. This is where we generally went for lunch....or as the case may be, to get stoned. I don't think there were actual 'dope breaks' like in Hard Leather at Folsom, but more of a natural occurrence in the afternoon. I joined in a few times, but soon found that when I returned to my sewing machine I was too foggy and discombobulated to get much done...at least not very fast and probably not very well. Also, if I had partaken, sewing was about the last thing I wanted to do. Having figured this out, sometimes I would join the break just for a visit and then I was able to function for the rest of the day. I wondered if they would notice my lack of participation and think that I was being judgemental or was just plain uncool. No one seemed to mind at all. There were those among us who could manage the rigors of a day in the shop stoned out of their heads and get along just fine. I was impressed but mostly I was amused watching my fellow passengers on the Mystic Ship Castro return to their labors stoned and goofy. Hey, but it worked.
After work, I would head back to my room on Post and Larkin and sometimes Roy would sneak off the Presidio and show up.....quite randomly, so I never knew when he might appear at my door. We would usually walk to North Beach and listen to music and then return to get him aboard the last bus to the base. It was always foggy late at night on Sutter Street where he caught that bus....very San Francisco Noir and romantic. I didn't socialize much...didn't know how to break into the social scene with the others. I wanted to, but I sort of figured that everyone else knew each other and were having a grand old time after hours. Oh well, I was enjoying the day shift. I took home some colorful leather scraps and in the evening I would sit at a little table in an alcove in my room and create collages of leather flowers...which I sent home as Christmas presents. I felt quite poetic, like Mimi in La Boheme...only without the tuberculosis...which was a good thing.
I remember after work I would walk up Castro to catch the Streetcar....I loved the streetcar...and ride up Market Street to transfer at Larkin. I would sit there feeling like I was living in a movie....as I peeled contact cement from my fingers...probably to the horror of my fellow passengers.
About the money...I don't remember if we were always paid by the piece or whether it was by the difficulty or something else. I do remember Norman wanted to increase production and as mentioned previously, it wasn't that simple a task to motivate a bunch of stoned characters to get behind the mule. He came up with a scheme to accomplish this. One day Linda, Steve Ball, Bobby Schneider and yours truly were summoned to Norman's loft office. He announced that he was initiating an incentive program to get more work done. I was in charge of the Renaissance Section, Linda was in charge of the other sewers, Bobby was in charge of the cutters and Steve was in charge of coordinating the whole operation...I'm not certain about Bobby and Steve.
Anyway, he was going to tie our salary to the weekly take. We would each get a percentage of the profits each week. Steve would get 5%, Bobby would get maybe 3%, Linda would get 2 1/2% or 3%, and I would get 2%. I do remember the 2%. Well, it was great at first, and I recall taking home $200.00 one week.”Wow,” I thought, this is terrific!” However, as might be anticipated, when the workers found out about this arrangement they would not cooperate...so to speak...and no amount of begging, cajoling or planning would break the log jam. These folks would have none of it. Right around the time of 'the Great Sandbagging” I took home a $20.00 check. “Wow,” I thought, “this sucks!” The four of us asked Norman to please go back to the way it was before the percentage pay scale. He did.
Norman. I always liked him, but I had no idea how he felt about me. He kind of glided around, always a bit removed. Again, I imagined that they all got together at night and had a grand old time, but I really didn't have a clue. He would gather us together for a meeting every now and then. He would climb up on a cutting table and sit cross-legged and we would assemble around him and he would give us advice, progress reports, instruction and a lot of philosophy in a very quiet voice....so quiet that we actually had to shut up and lean in to hear what he was saying. I often wondered if it was a strategy. It worked. I used it later, myself, when teaching small children. One day I was sewing away and Norman walked by my machine, stopped and placed a tiny bottle of Vitamin A capsules on my table. He said he's noticed that I had developed a few pimples on my face and this would help. I didn't know what to think, but I decided he was trying to be helpful....so I took the pills.
My position by the front door led to many amusing encounters. I was the first one to be approached by anyone entering the work side of the shop. Some were looking for Norman, some wanted to sell something, some were just curious, some were batshit crazy. One guy I remember came in selling ceramic buttons. They were colorful and pretty. I told him they might not be sturdy enough to work on the leather coats, but he insisted and wanted to demonstrate their strength. A small group had gathered to look at the buttons. He told me to throw it on the concrete floor and I would see how strong they were. I told him no, that I didn't want to break his buttons, but he insisted, so I finally took the button and dropped it on the floor....where it shattered. There was silence. I told him I was sorry and he looked sad and gathered his collection together and left the shop. Antler buttons worked better.
Sarah's Castro Street Memories
I started working at EW on Castro St. sometime in the fall of 1969. I had just quit my job as a long-distance telephone operator at the big Ma Bell headquarters on Bush St. With no paychecks coming in, I also had to move out of my studio apartment up on Buena Vista Terrace and into an apartment with a bunch of other hippies at the corner of 19th and Castro. It was one of those classic San Francisco Victorians with a wonderful bow window overhanging the first floor and painted a faded rosy beige.
Anyway, I had no idea what I would do for money, but soon after settling in, I was strolling down Castro toward 18th St. when I passed a shopfront with a sign in the window that said “Seamstress Wanted.” Oh boy! I knew how to sew and had made quite a few of my own dresses when I was in high school. I went in and looked around. There were several young women at their machines nearest the door, and I old them I was there to apply for the seamstress job. They directed me to the back of the long, narrow room, where there was a ladder leading up to a loft. I climbed up, and there was Norman Stubbs. I never forgot what a striking figure he cut. There was this tall, lanky, serious guy dressed from head to toe in soft yellow buckskin: a fringed jacket and skinny bell bottoms; they may have been fringed too. The most amazing thing about Norman, though was his hair: he had a long, coarse, thick tail of jet black hair and a beard to match. He looked up from the desk, and I explained that I was interested in the sewing job. The first thing he asked was not “what kind of experience do you have?” or anything else pertaining to the skills I would bring to the able. No, what he wanted to determine was “What’s your sign?” I answered that I was an Aquarius, whereupon he debated aloud on whether or not I’d be right teamed up with a Sagittarius (who turned out to be Klaudia) and the other woman’s sign, whatever it was. Only when he had concluded that the signs would work out together did he wonder how good a seamstress I was — particularly how fast I could sew. I assured him I was a whiz, and I started work the next day.
I was assigned to the Reni section, and Klaudia showed me the ropes. My job was just about the simplest: I had to glue and then sew together the varicolored panels that made up the flared lower sleeve of the Renaissance jacket. Klaudia explained it all to me, gave me a pile of leather strips, and I began. Was I ever wrong about being a whiz!
I’d never worked at an industrial sewing machine, which was much more powerful than the little gutless
household Singer I’d used, and it took some getting used to, since a fair amount of control was needed even to sew a straight and narrow seam, and then at the end, you had to reverse-stitch for an inch or so to lock the seam down. Klaudia did the much more intricate work of sewing the lower sleeve to the gothic points that joined it to the upper arm. The third member of our trio, who did side seams and hems and such, was Fran, a German girl with white-blonde hair and eyelashes and a sardonic manner. She said she’d grown up in the Alps like Heidi, herding goats and frolicking amongst the wildflowers but ran away and somehow or other ended up in San Francisco, a free spirit and a pretty wild one, too. She would flounce around making cutting quips and clashed with Bobby Schneider all the time, leaving him shaking his head and wondering why she hated him so much.
We all did piecework in teams of three. The East-West operation actually occupied two storefronts. On one side was the long, narrow space where all the seamstresses worked, with the glue girl’s table in the center. On the other, behind the retail store, were the cutters, all guys, just as the seamstresses were just that, girls. Or chicks, as we used to say. On the cutters’ sides were shelves and big tables, with stacks of hides everywhere. Pockets and pieces of appliqué and belt loops were all die-cut on a crashingly noisy hydraulic press operated at that time by Bill McClellan (I think), who only had one leg (or was that someone else later?)
The glue girls prepared the pockets and belt loops for the seamstresses, gluing the edges, folding them over, and then pounding them down with a wooden mallet; we did the same for seams, zippers, and armholes.
So all day the place was cacophonous with the noise of mallets thumping, the press clanging, and machines buzzing. That, plus the rock and roll that was played all day: Stones, Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, all at ear-splitting volume, but we were stoned and liked being immersed in giant waves of sound. The smell was pungent, too: a mix of leather, glue, and smoke, either from cigarettes (lots of us smoked) or joints, or hash. We were pretty much stoned most of the time, and it always struck me as near-miraculous that more of us didn’t sew our fingers — this did happen, but surprisingly seldom.
A few days after I’d started work at East-West, Norman came around to check up on me and said that he heard I was “having trouble being fast.” Since I’d been stitching furiously, I was taken aback. I told him that I was still getting used to the machine, the material, and the routine but swore I’d improve. After that, speed was of my essence. Eventually, Klaudia gave me somewhat more complicated tasks, like sewing zippers into the flies of the leather pants we made, which called for turning tight corners and stitching a smooth little curve at the bottom. I may have worked on the Joplin, too. With time, I could do just about anything, though in those early days, most of the designs were fairly simple, unlike the gorgeous Baroque things Norman designed later on.
Bobby Schneider was the foreman and as far as I can recall coordinated the work flow. Being a chubby, grubby young hippie in large purple bellbottoms, I wasn’t attractive to most of the guys, though I longed to be. Most of them were OK, though. There was Guy, with his dreamy blond curls and eyes of an oceanic blue. And Andy Ignani from Rhode Island, as mild and sweet as a fellow could be. Bobby himself tended to swagger about and put on an abrasive air. Then there was Gary, whom Klaudia recalls as being slimy, since he came on to all the women, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, so I was receptive to his charms. I heard tell that there were occasional erotic shenanigans in the shop — specifically, in the dressing rooms — but never saw or participated in them.
Among the women, Paula Guthrie always struck me as a dazzling beauty. Since I’d been an art history major in college, I thought she looked as if she’d just walked out of a portrait by Ingres; she had that same Ingres-style perfect oval face, ivory skin, wide-spaced blue eyes, and long, glossy brown hair parted in the middle. Despite being a hippie, she was actually quite conventional in the way she thought about things. At that time, her “old man” was Igne, a dashing dope dealer with a huge pseudo (since he wasn’t African-American) Afro and a moustache. One day, a bunch of us were having lunch at the Chinese restaurant around the corner on 18th Street and Igny told a long story about how he’d spent the morning in their apartment battling a “perfect army of ants.”
The other place we (in various permutations and combinations) often went for lunch was the Norse Cove, up on Castro near Market Street, where they had a delicious pea salad. There was also a diner or two on the street — real old-time no-frills places.
I remember a couple of other people who worked there in the early days: there was the aforementioned Kathy the glue girl, who had run away from home (Philadelphia) and was a lot younger than everyone else. Like Fran, she had an attitude and an adventurous streak. Then there was Judy Lightning, the next glue girl, who was married to Tom Lighting, a member of the Chippewa Tribe in Minnesota. Judy was slightly plump, very girly, and talkative. She had lots of tricks, such as tying up clumps of her hair in two ponytails to make it look “fatter.” Later on, after she left E-W, I think I remember hearing that she had a run-in with the law over a little cocaine deal, and did some time in jail.
Folsom Street and Beyond
In a narrow storefront on Castro Street in San Francisco, up the hill a bit from 18th Street, was East West Musical Instruments Company’s first shop. I had seen a small classified ad posted in its window or maybe posted on a café bulletin board, for seamstresses. I had just relocated to S.F. and needed a job, so I applied.
The shop was crowded and rather dark. Young women sat in the back, busy at industrial sewing machines. Someone pointed up a short flight of stairs to a mezzanine, where Norman Stubbs had his office. He was quite unusual looking: tall, thin, with long black hair cascading to his waist. And piercing eyes. But he was gentle and soft-spoken, and after we talked for a few minutes he hired me for his new expansion into a factory building on Folsom Street in S.F.’s industrial downtown. His business was starting to grow rapidly, and he needed lots of new employees.
I was delighted. I wanted to work with my hands at some kind of craft, and had been designing and making my own clothes as well as beaded, fringed leather handbags in New York. I brought one to the interview. That was enough of a résumé to land the East West job.
Throughout school I’d planned to be a journalist, but near graduation a prominent newspaper executive informed me: “We don’t hire women as reporters, only for the society pages. And there’s a waiting list for that.” So I reeled into social work (one could do that then with a B.A. in almost anything: mine was English/journalism). Moving to New York, I became a child welfare caseworker and started grad school at night. Then—serious burnout. I wanted to produce something real, that I could touch. Stained glass, jewelry making, the leather bags. I applied for a job in a harpsichord factory in Greenwich Village. If I had gotten that job I probably would have stayed in New York, but the owners thought I would quit and return to the more prestigious social work. I also was starting to paint seriously and got involved with the art world in downtown Manhattan. But beautiful California beckoned, and after a summer I had spent in S.F. my tenement neighborhood on the Lower East Side looked just too grim. So I went back, found a small art studio for $15 a month in the San Francisco Art Center near my apartment, and began to think about how to make a living.
The Folsom Street factory was teeming with new hires, with piles of cowhides and dozens of big sewing machines and other heavy equipment. In the center of the ground floor was Norman’s glass-enclosed office, where he designed garments and ran the business, along with a secretary/bookkeeper. Sewing took place on the second floor. The space was full of machines in rows, kept humming by the genius mechanic Bob Shaw. The leathers were sumptuous, in rich colors. Mostly cowhides from tanneries in South San Francisco and New Jersy, but occasionally soft deerskin or, later, sheepskin or pigskin. And sometimes textured buffalo. Buckles looked hand-cast, zippers were heavy brass, and buttons were slices of deer antler or twigs with bark left on. All top quality, a pleasure to handle.
East West was on an ascending wave of creativity. The designs evolved from fringed and Renaissance Faire–inspired jackets to classic Western styles: pockets with flaps, curving yokes, cuffs closed with pearl snaps. And some unique ideas like the Camel, based on the cigarette package, with an appliquéd namesake. The appliqués were not easy to stitch, but the result was stunning. Some styles sported hand-painted panels: beach scenes and, later, glamorous women’s faces that Klaudia Nelson produced.
Norman named me head seamstress, responsible for training new workers. But I never was part of the management group, nor did I want to be. To me it was an agreeable, interesting job that allowed me to pursue my own creative path. When he opened a retail shop in North Beach, a hot commercial area, Norman asked me to make a sign for it since he knew I was a painter. I’d never done such a thing, but came up with a sun face and twining foliage on a redwood oval. I wonder whatever happened to that.
Norman was always the only designer, and he was prolific. New ideas kept pouring out. After he bought a remote plantation in Costa Rica, a tropical influence appeared. The flamboyant Parrot jacket was emblematic, with its pink, green and yellow sections overlapping like feathers. Later, glam-rock had an effect, with pants and jackets in silver-finished leather. Bill Webber, one of the successive floor managers, often arrived in such outfits, wearing high platform boots. When some of us teased him about his look, he said, “In six months, everyone will be wearing it.” That became a saying we applied to everything.
We workers were similar in age and interests, although I was a few crucial years older. Seamstresses were mostly lissome young women with long, straight blonde hair. The men, who cut out the garments using Masonite patterns, were lanky and laconic. We always had records playing, and usually—usually—liked the same music. Norman would give a few of us $100 to go to Tower Records and restock the music selection with the latest albums. I was never forgiven for bringing Terry Riley’s “In C” back and playing it. I had just met Riley because he was a friend of the man I rented my painting studio from, and I thought his minimalist, repetitive composition would sound perfect in the factory setting. It didn’t.
People socialized together somewhat, particularly around getting stoned. I don’t think I ever bought any drugs—they were passed around freely. Soon after I started work at East West in 1969,I went with a group to the Rolling Stones’ free outdoor concert—at Altamont. The times were turbulent: the Vietnam War, Nixon and Watergate, street riots in Berkeley, the Panthers, Patty Hearst, but we were in our own psychedelic bubble. Even at Altamont, we were sitting high up on the hillside, and were barely aware of the fatal disturbance late in the day while the Stones were playing. The music was great.
Once a couple of us were marveling at how many art-school grads or aspiring artists worked at East West. Nancy Evans was then a performance artist and is now a painter in L.A. Tom Brown, the only male “seamster,” was making a film that some of us took part in (maybe never finished). Carrie Carlton, the only female cutter, had an art degree from UC Berkeley and was making soft sculpture. Laura Sheehan brought in projects from her California College of Arts & Crafts classes to show us and discuss. Carl Christensen had a painting studio in the same building I did, a few blocks from the Third Street factory. I sewed a jacket for him in exchange for one of his paintings, “Women in Revolt.” (Yes, the women’s movement was happening too.) Others did crafts of various kinds. For years I mused about going back to New York to be a painter, but a loft studio was easier to obtain in S.F. (until it wasn’t). At least I found some small success in S.F. as an artist.
“Organic” was the byword of the time. Norman’s designs were very body conscious, long and lean (some said they derived from his own figure), fitting closely with maybe nothing underneath. No linings, just sensuous leather against skin. People were exploring organic, vegetarian food; alternative medicine like acupuncture and herbal remedies; yoga, meditation and spirituality—seeking a healthier way of life, closer to nature. “Organic” also applied to a freeform lifestyle: music (we went to hear top jazz artists like Miles Davis at Keystone Korner; Boz Skaggs played at a little club called the Matrix), movies (we eagerly awaited Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come,” and “Performance,” starring Mick Jagger), parties. We were hardly concerned about careers or the future.
One appealing aspect of the job was that it was four days a week, leaving time for other pursuits. Sometimes orders flowed in, and we worked more days. Other times orders fell off and we were laid off temporarily. We could take time off and then return, all very casually. Even at the low pay, the cost of living was even lower and we could save money. Enough that I could take a half-year off and travel around the Mediterranean with Greg Underwood, one of the cutters. Janis Reed and Mara Murray went with us on the first leg of that trip, from Mexico City to Madrid, on open-ended plane tickets. Greg and I went south to Morocco while Janis and Mara went north to Paris. We all went back to work at East West when we came home.
Then the ascending wave entered a long, slow downward arc. Norman’s designs were being copied as soon as they were shown in public. Knock-off jackets were being made in the Far East cheaply, in inferior materials. They were plastic-looking, not the heavy, supple cowhide we used. East West tried to counter the thievery by having some garments, made in Korea. But the end was coming, and we had to search for other options. Some of us became graphic designers or art directors, or got city jobs, or started doing construction and remodeling. Some went on to other garment manufacturers, such as Esprit. Norman was spending more and more time in his native Hawaii, where he had bought property.
I left before the actual close of the business. At the end, some people divided up the record collection. I never did get that copy of “In C.” I’m sure no one else wanted it.
When my studio rent doubled overnight, I left the city. My husband and I eventually moved to a small town known for its artists’ community. I finally made use of my journalism degree and started working at the local newspaper, then on to other writing and editing. And I’m still painting, in my backyard studio.
—Nancy Steele, 2016
The Accessories Department
The East West Musical Instruments Company's accessories department is not well remembered by the alumni who still gather and/or exchange correspon-dence from time to time. But for those of us who participated in "hard leather," it was our part of East West history. The hard leather department (bags, belts, etc) basically went out of business around the time the whole company relocated from Folsom Street to 3rd Street.
Other than marketing, the garment section of East West, and the accessories section operated almost entirely as two separate and independent companies, with little contact between the two. Hard leather occupied most of the ground floor workspace at 1175 Folsom, and garments had the two top floors. The fact is, the two crews barely knew each other, and had little social contact on any given workday. And they used distinctly different forms of leather.
Compared with the thin softness of the top-grain mostly cowhide leather used in garment-making, we used the much thicker, less pliable types of leather developed for saddle-making, many centuries ago. These came in two forms, latigo and skirting-leather. Skirting leather is very strong, thick, and has little "give" to it, making it well suited for making belts. It's usually light in color, about the same shade as the "manila" paper, used in grade-schools for crayon drawings. Latigo is usually a shade of dull-yellow, and has enough "give" to it to make it unsuitable for belts. Wearing a latigo belt for a few months would give the illusion of losing weight, as the belt gradually became looser, as the leather stretched out with age.
We also used some garment leather, for example, in the crowns of caps. The head-band and brim of the cap would be latigo, while the main head-covering would be of soft and pliable (and colorfully dyed) garment leather. Also the bodies of most of the bags we made would have garment-leather panels, wherever softer leather could be allowed. These added an element of color and reduced the weight of the bags.
"Hard leather" had its own clicker, with one operator who dinked-out all three kinds of leather, full time. He used a special set of dies, all with wooden matrixes, and produced the parts for all our bags. Belts, however, would be cut out of full hides of skirting leather on a specially-designed table that could turn out a dozen or so belts at a time, of uniform width, that could be cut into the desired lengths.
All of our bags, hats, and caps were designed by David Warren, a man a bit older than most of us, a friend of Norman Stubbs. David's designs were totally original and imaginative, some bordering on being bizarre. One of his belt-decorations (clicker-stamped into the length of the belt) seemed to be a omewhat risqué depiction of the Kama sutra, and another was based on the Tibetan-Buddhist sexually-based practice of Yab-Yum. Some of David's decorations for bags were based on marijuana-leaf motifs, other erotic images, or tropical flowers, like orchids.
The hardware for the accessories included belt-buckles and buttons. These things were made of brass and cast-bonze that we had made to our designs at local foundaries. They depicted birds, flowers and other figures that echoed the themes of David's designs. All were custom-designed by a man named Chuck Koehler who had died shortly before I started working in hard leather. Eventually, David Warren moved away to Norman's recently-purchased property on the island of Maui. Roy Nelson succeeded him as our foreman. David continued to design bags and belts for the hard leather department from Hawaii, while Roy ran the day-to-day operation in person.
To the more refined and cultured workers upstairs, the hard-leather crew looked like a foul mob of dirty, drug-addled, smelly reprobates, staggering around in an unreality of disagreeable smells, filthy clothing, dangerous-looking machines, filthy coveralls, and resplendent aesthetic insults to the senses everywhere in sight or smell. This colony of lowlifes, blundering around in the ruins of industrial history, stoned, with diminishing intelligence and degraded mentalities, must have seemed like something out of Dante's inferno or the halls of Bedlam.
The end of the department seemed to be near. Accessories were not selling very well; there were rumors that our customers didn't really want our accessories, and that our sales-people were doing some arm-twisting to get them to accept this stuff with the more popular line of garments. Whatever was happening, the department did not make the move into the new digs at 3rd and Bryant Streets with the rest of the company, and was all but forgotten by 1973.
Roy's Hard Leather Department
A certain percentage of the funky flash of the belts and purses we turned out in Hard Leather was due to the hand painted designs on them. David Warren (I think) drew most, if not all of the patterns,which were translated into metal dies by a shop which specialized in such things. Carl the Clicker would place one of these dies on a piece of latigo lying on the bed of Gertrude, the Clicking Machine. The machine would then whack the die with great force, permanently embossing the surface of the leather.
These embossed pieces soon found themselves at the painting table, where Carl, TK, Bob Hilder, Greg and the others would spend all or some of their days painting the patterns with Fiebing's Leather Dye; which came in about 20 different colors suspended in a volatile solvent that evaporated the second it hit the leather. The open dye bottles were held in a rack in the center of a table with several guys hunched over it, dabbing this dye on at a steady clip.
I noticed that sitting at this table for a while produced a physical effect similar, if somewhat less pronounced to that of huffing a paper bag charged with model airplane glue. Therefore, concerned about the long term welfare of my crew, I got Bob Shaw to punch a hole in the adjacent wall and install an exhaust fan. The painters responded by not turning on the fan. They liked the fumes and could hear the stereo better without it.
It didn't seem like the seedy marijuana most of us smoked had a detrimental effect on production. Maybe I was so stoned I didn't notice how slowly we were all moving, but Norman didn't smoke much of it and I never heard him criticize anyone for staggering around in the glassy eyed stupor in which he periodically encountered us. He was an amazingly indulgent employer, who genuinely seemed to believe in the innate goodness of humanity, and in their unalienable right to expand their consciousness. Even on his time!
Whatever the case, every morning around 10, someone who was holding and feeling generous would strike the Tibetan yak gong suspended over the work floor and we'd all file back behind the Sheetrock partition that created a narrow alley inside the front of the factory. I don't remember why this alley had been created, but it served to isolate us from any of the general public, who might open the main door and walk in unexpectedly. It was here that several fat joints were ignited and our attitudes were adjusted.
Carl Christensen would attend these meetings, but he didn't smoke pot. "Because then I'd be just like you," he'd say. He spent the 20 minutes or so working on a mural he was drawing on the wall with Magic Marker. I don't remember Barbara Lawrence smoking either, although she, our sole female associate was usually there with us. Barbara was, and hopefully still is a good girl. She was a steady worker and a strong member of the team. I'm not sure why she held still for our crude jokes. She was easy to shock, therefore, it was amusing to shock her.
Roy Nelson 2016
At first, I did not participate in the "dope-breaks." These would happen twice a day, when someone would ring a special bell, and we'd all walk out to the front entrance hall, on the Folsom-Street side of the building (this entrance was not used in East West days), and pass around joints. At first I stayed away, since I don't really enjoy weed, and dislike the way it makes me feel, i.e. stupid, and also seems to "slow-down" time, not the effect I like when I'm working a repetitive job. But the others convinced me that the dope-breaks were a part of the social-life of the department, and so I'd go, but like one of our former Presidents, I would not inhale.
Almost no one used the front door of the 1175 Folsom Street factory, except for the postman, and a few delivery-men. In fact, most of the workers didn't even know there was a front door. They used the entrance in Rogers Place instead. The front door opened into the main first-floor room occupied by the 'Hard- Leather"(accessories) department. There was a complete set of "show-room"-style windows cross the entire facade of the ground-floor, but no one could really look in or out of the windows, since there as a wall about 3 three feet inside the windows, leaving a narrow passage across the entire width of the building. This wall was put up, most likely, so as to conceal the leather clothing inside, which would have been targeted by would-be burglars as a valuable commodity. The hard-leather crew used this narrow hall-space as their assembly point for morning and afternoon "dope-breaks," where weed was rolled and smoked.
Each morning and afternoon, when dope-break time came around, the entire accessories crew would troop into the narrow hallway. Some of the sewers, from the garment production floors above, would overhear the dope-break bell, and come down to participate.
One afternoon, the company's production manager, Bill Oetinger joined our dope-break. He looked at the blank expanse of white-painted dry-wall behind us, and said "We should do a mural on that wall. I'll do part of it: what about someone else helping with it?"
Bill was something of an artist, or at least a cartoonist, and I knew he'd do some clever illustrations on that surface. I volunteered to help, knowing I could do a bit of cartooning myself. Bill said "Great! Let's do a war. You take that end (pointing at the right or east), and I'll take this end (the left, or west end), and we'll meet in the middle." I thought this was a terrific idea, and began thinking about it.
I got started that same day. I figured he was talking about a war in the modern style, like WWII or something, and so I started drawing tanks, jeeps, soldiers in helmets, and some artillery, planes dropping bombs and so on. It was fun filling that huge empty canvas. We both used "magic markers," those thick ink-filled pens. I believe I used black, and Bill used blue.
When I next came to draw, I saw that Bill had begun to fill in his side of the war, and I was already defeated. Instead of taking the narrow view of modern warfare, he had taken a far more imaginative direction, and was drawing in his army using Roman Legions, dinosaurs, catapults, Neanderthals wielding clubs, monsters, dragons, Saracens with scimitars, aliens with ray guns, Comanche warriors, evil magicians, anything he could think of. My puny army of conventional soldiers looked silly compared to his half of the mural, which was a history of centuries of human conflict. I'd been had! I had to finish filling in my end of it, but my heart had gone out of the battle. My end could have been as much fun as his, but it was too late to change strategy. The war was over.
Carl Christensen 2011
Carl's Folsom Street
Clickers are a very old type of machinery from the early days of shoe-production, in the early 19th century. The actual name of this type of machine was (and is) "industrial die-cutting machines." They are basically a press, a device that strongly hammers a cookie cutter right through a material, to form exactly the desired shape product from the material. They were first used to chop out the various small pieces of leather that are sewn together to make a pair of shoes. The shaped knives are called "dies".
I'm not sure how the device got that name, since the only sound they ever made could not be called a "click," but was more like the sound of a serious traffic-accident, a kind of metallic "slam!!" sound. Those of us who operated the clicker machines did not like to be called "clickers". We were "clicksters" and were not humble machines. This became apparent when Norman realized the wonderful facility clickers exhibited in producing leather appliqué. He began designing more and more of his garments with appliqué, mostly the women's designs. What would be an arduous and difficult task for a cutter to produce with scissors, a complicated, and often very small. intricate appliqué could be punched out on a clicker in a matter of seconds, and be an exact match for each coat. It must have given us something of an edge over other producers, who hadn't even heard of clickers.
In a way, clicksters were really cutters, only on a smaller scale. Like the cutters, we had to be careful about the colors, lack of flaws, avoidance of using stretchy "belly-leather," and all the other things that the cutters had to attend to in their work. One major difference was that clicked-out parts were all of one size, so none of the cutter's problems with using six different patterns, applied to clicksters, However, it is little wonder that many clicksters moved on to become cutters, when positions opened up for them at the cutting tables. Not all cutters had been clicksters, and not all clicksters became cutters, but it was an excellent way to learn the craft, starting on a miniature scale.
While Eddie Lauer was still working a clicker, he made a name for himself by being the first and only streaker in East West history. He had told a few of us that he intended to do this, but I was totally unprepared for the sensation this would cause on the factory floor. It wasn't just because he ran the entire length of the building in his birthday-suit, as much as it was the mask he wore when he did it. Eddie had found a fairly large dark leather scrap, and probably clicked-out eye-holes in it and wore it over his face. I suppose the mask was there to conceal his identity, turning him into a naked Bat-Man or Zorro, but it did not fool anyone much. Somehow, his running style or physique was instantly recognized by table after table of busy seamsters. The mask only made him look hilarious, a comical distraction in the industrious factory. It was a great day for Eddie. Waves of shocked laughter followed this run through the works. He must have had clothing stashed by the front door.
The three hytronic clickers in use at the 550 3rd Street factory were kept humming all day. But old Gertrude, the relic of the industrial-revolution, who had made the move from Folsom Street with the rest of us, was never unstrapped from her shipping-pallet. She just stood there, disused and forgotten, off to one side, while the newer clickers, and their clicksters did the work.
At Folsom Street one of the new hydronic clickers was operated by a skinny, long and limp-haired guy named Gregg, who was from New Jersey. Almost immediately, Gregg (not Greg Underwood, who came in 1973) let me know that he was on a "macrobiotic" diet. I was familiar with this aberration, since one of my closest friends in NYC had suddenly decided on the same strange eating-fixation for himself. From this experience, I realized that Gregg would probably not welcome any mockery or snide comments about his dietary choices. Back in New York I'd tried to bait my friend by singing a line from a Bob Dylan song,"I ask for something to eat, I'm hungry as a hog, You give me brown-rice, seaweed, and a dirty hot-dog." (Dylan had it slightly wrong; there are no dirty hot-dogs on the macrobiotic menu, although they might make a welcome addition). In Gregg's case I kept my opinions to myself.
Everyday, a few of the sewing-machine operators would come down-stairs to ask Gregg or myself to turn out replacement pieces for garments. These were either miss-matched by us, or flawed by sloppy clicking, or else had been made useless by sewing mistakes. We'd stop whatever we were doing to comply with these requests, but at times Gregg went unaccountably missing. Gregg had a VW bug he kept parked just outside the factory, which he was fond of jumping into whenever he got the urge, sometimes just to make a mid-day visit to Golden Gate Park, and once a week to the Bank of America branch at 17th and Market, in order to cash his paycheck. Anyone else who needed to do the same was welcome to come along. That branch was a block and a half from the original EW location, so the tellers were accustomed to cashing East West paychecks, with little or no identify-cation required, no questions asked. Gregg often drove an entire carload to the branch. These rides were my first actual meetings with my co-workers from the upper two floors.
Like Gregg, a surprising number of these folks had taken up dietary fads. This kind of shocked me, since I didn't attach much importance to what I ate, probably because in those days I ate so little. Food seemed like such a trifling matter for so much discussion. On the way to, and from the bank, much of the conversation was about food. These people, (mostly women, for some reason) seemed obsessed by food, diet, and "health-food" stores. At one point, I voiced my opinion that if you bought your food from one of these stores, and subsequently became ill of anything, even a common cold, you should be able to sue the pants of these stores for False Advertising. This idea was met with total derision. It was as if what I had suggested was blasphemy! These people so wanted to believe in "health-food" that they were willing to give up their legal protections against fraud! Weird. Some of these food-fad folks would even say vicious things about the "stink" of "meat-eaters," etc. It was like their own special form of elitism. I learned to keep my opinions to myself on these trips.
The Norman Calendar and other Idiosyncrasies
Strange work-weeks were trialed in the early days of East West, at the 1175 Folsom Street factory. When I first started at East West, I had to go on guess-work, not knowing whether to come to work the next day or not, until I got accustomed to the "names" of the days in the work-week. It wasn’t difficult, once I learned to discard the old days-of-the week routine.
Sometimes, when I asked the others if I should show up the next day, they'd reply, "Today is Third-day, so come back tomorrow, but not the next day," or something similar. So, during most of the year, we would show up four days in a row and then have a two-day weekend. This sat well with most of us, who liked the luxury of working only four days a week. The pay was less per month this way, but not by much, since there were almost as many workdays- per-month as normal, so those of us on hourly pay didn't really complain, and to those doing "piece work" or on the "step" system, it made little difference, except for having more frequent week-ends.
It also created a few minor problems.
For those with families or those with spouses who worked a normal schedule, our four-day work-week created conflicts, since our weekends rarely coincided with anyone else’s. Saturday and Sunday invitations and family outings would sometimes conflict with our workdays, and it was hard (or impossible) to predict months in advance, where our "week-ends" would fall, making long-range planning difficult.
Our calendar also baffled the delivery-people, who never knew if there would be anyone around to open the doors and receive mail, leather hide shipments, UPS packages, or to pick up shipments of finished garments. And of course, THEY never showed up when needed on our weekend-work-days. So there were complaints about the "Norman Calendar" from all these people.
Another problem was lunch. Mike's Deli, across the street, never opened on "regular" weekends. There was a very similar place, a long block east on Folsom that carried much the same fare, (but no hot meals) that was open on Saturdays, but not Sundays. For Sundays, there was another "deli" (really just a liquor- store that made sandwiches) on 9th Street between Folsom and Howard. That was a hike away, and unpopular with East Westers. It had an unpleasant aroma, and the proprietors were a couple of rather nasty Palestinians.
All of these calendar experiments came to an end when the company moved to 550 3rd Street, or shortly thereafter. To facilitate the big move, all production was halted and most of the male workers were put to work, doing the big move. I was not around for this, but returned to the firm just as it was finishing up. Some of the guys who had been doing "the move" and setting up the new place, told me that they had been working without a day-off for more than a month. This was a clear violation of state labor- law, and someone may have complained to the labor-department. I heard they laid down the law to Norman: "time-clocks," regular weekends for everyone, time-and-half-pay for overtime, double-pay for Sunday work, etc, etc, etc. And that was the end of the Norman Calendar.
Some of us East Westers wondered about the strange decorations that were seen around the 1175 Folsom Street factory. These unaccountable hangings, decoration, and knickknacks could be seen throughout all three floors of the place. There were also strange, unexplained banners and posters. One near the stairway on the second floor read "Indian Village." It showed a Native American—complete with the standard feathered "war-bonnet" worn by one of the plains tribes—mounted on the typical pinto-pony of those buffalo times. No self-respecting Native American would display himself that way and, anyway, American Indians don't consider themselves "Indians". They call themselves "Lakota" or "Miwok" or "Algonquin," or whatever their tribe was. Was this poster originally from some "Wild West Show" like Buffalo Bill's? What was it doing on the wall of a hippie leather factory? No one ever asked. No one even mentioned noticing this weird artifact.
Then there was the famous "psychedelic cash-flow chart" on the wall of Norman Stubbs' office, on the ground-floor. All of us in "hard-leather" could see this weird design hanging behind Norman's desk, whenever we glanced in that direction, but what did it mean? Was it really the secret financial program the entire firm was functioning on, or was it merely symbolic, or just an appropriate decoration? Or did it help Norman on his business "trip"? No one out on the floor knew, and no one had the nerve to ask Norman about it. I wonder if he remembers it.
The second floor Folsom Street break-room had an old refrigerator where lunches and beer- and soda-cans could be kept chilled, as well as lunches brought from home. Some of these had notes scrawled on them, people's names, written on the brown-paper-bags that contained them, in hope they might prevent confusion, or worse. There were no thieves at East West, but there were always a few borrowers who could not resist the opportunity of a novel, serendipitous luncheon-experience, or the taste of an ice-cold Olympia Beer, or Rainier Ale.
As a result, some of the paper-bags had less-than pleasant messages scrawled on them. Such as "Poison! Beware!" or "Rat-food." Some carried the familiar skull-and-cross-bones label, applied by "magic marker" pens. Once in a while you'd see a gruesome drawing of a rat, with the normal scrawny, thinly-haired tail, sometimes with a bandage on it, for effect, and with the words "Rodent Vomit" written on the outside. Even that was not always effective against the borrowers. We all soon learned to buy our lunches and brewskies fresh, across the street at "Mike's Deli."
"Boogie" was Joel Rogo's little black dog, one of several that East West workers brought to work each day. Others were Taurus, an Airedale brought by Collin, the cutter from Arkansas, Thorin, owned by Janis Reed, and Tom Knieffel's large black dog, whose name I've forgotten. And there were others, as well. And most of the time all these dogs got along peacefully. Thorin was famous for his escapes, which always seemed to culminate in a phone-call from the staff at the Fairmont Hotel, for someone to come and get him, Clearly, Thorin wanted to associate with a better class of human beings.
My memories of the last days of East West are not as clear as I would like. Somehow I ended up with a stack of former East West LP's, apparently after the collection had been picked over by my fellow employees, because none of the big favorites of the old days are in my stack. No Beatle, no Stones, no Neil Young. Just the sides that no one else wanted. I still have them, and sometimes it's fun to look through them as a bit of 1970s East West nostalgia.
Carl Christensen 2011 (edited)
East West Musical Instruments Co.
Closed Its Doors in 1979
WHEN LIGHTNESS AND BEAUTY HAVE GROWN GRACEFULLY IN YOUR HEART
YOUR KARMA WILL BEND TO THE LOVELY EARTH
From the letterhead of East West Musical Instruments Co.
EAST WESTers BIOgraphieS
Some of the bios below deserved to be in the history section above but were either too late coming or were too much information. For those of you who want a complete picture of the workings of East West Musical Instruments Company, these bios fill in a lot of the appurtenant pieces of our business model with its enhanced epiphenomena. Some are pure entertainment in themselves, like Roy Nelson’s Bio. Some will contain surprises that East Westers did not know about each other, like Tony being born in a London air raid shelter. These contributions are very much appreciated and we hope that other East Westers will submit their bios for inclusion as we build our legend. Nancy Steele’s and Sarah Burn’s bios are included in the history above.
11. Roy Nelson’s Bio