Bill Oetinger’s Bio and EW History
Written in March, 2011 and updated in December, 2016.
In response to the list of questions in the appeal to all East West alumni, I will attempt to provide some answers, at least from my limited perspective…
But let me insert a disclaimer here at the beginning: my memory isn’t what it used to be. This is most of 40 years ago, and a lot of the details have trickled away. As I cast my mind back over that colorful period, I am distressed to discover how much I can’t recall. I have loads of little snapshots and vignettes in my head…images that return to me vividly and with great impact. But in between those bright pictures are vast gray fog banks of forgotten days.
I’m not bellyaching about being a doddering old fossil with senile dementia. My brain still seems to function pretty well. But nevertheless, there is a lot of the old East West lore that has been tossed overboard from my overcrowded memory banks. I suspect it’s going to be that way for most of us: that we all will remember this or that detail, but will have lost track of at least as much detail as what we retain…the shelf life of memories. Each of us will contribute what we can to this communal effort, but in many cases, it may be that we remember things differently…that the revisionist-history machines churning away in our back brains will have reconfigured the reality of those days into anecdotes and images that may not bear all that much resemblance to what really went down. As the writer David Guterson put it: “Now the story you make up starts to take up space otherwise reserved for reality. For phenomena, you substitute epiphenomena. Skew becomes ascendant. The secondary becomes primary.”
We will collectively create a sort of patchwork quilt of recollections, some of them more accurate than others. But if our recollections may not agree, so be it. Any differences should merely be cause for amusement over the varieties of ways we recall those long-ago daze.
Okay, so much for my disclaimer about my Swiss-cheese memory.
First off, my own chronology covering how and when I came to San Francisco and to East West, and an overview of my time at EW…
While attending the University of Oregon in the mid-60s, I would drop down to San Francisco whenever I could get away. It was the place to be. In mid-’66, my parents moved from Portland to London, leaving me thoroughly unsupervised and on my own, just at that tipping point in my young life when I was most eager to be kicking over the traces and redefining myself as a beatnik bad boy. I filed the papers for transferring to San Francisco State, set to enroll at the beginning of 1968. But before that next official stepping stone was reached, I spent the summer and fall of ’67 doing the dharma bum thing, up and down the state of California: Mendocino, Marin, SF, Big Sur, Santa Barbara…all the places where young people were getting together and rethinking the American Dream.
True to the spontaneity of the times, with all its unexpected twists and turns, I never did enroll at SF State. I did a brief spell at the San Francisco Art Institute and then ended up in Bolinas–that bohemian haven out on the Marin coast–working in a little shop making leather accessories: women’s handbags, luggage, and belts. We sold a little of what we made retail, out of the shop in downtown Bolinas, but most of what we produced went to high-end stores, such as I Magnin. There was a vogue at the time for purses and luggage that were well made but at the same time looked hand-crafted and rustic and “folksy.” That was our niche.
I knew nothing at all about working leather, but the owner of the shop took me on anyway and taught me a good deal about working “hard leather” (luggage-weight leather) and also about sewing garments with soft hides. (I learned to sew on an ancient, treadle-powered, industrial-strength Singer.) I learned enough to be competent at the craft. I worked there on a highly irregular schedule from mid-1968 to May of 1970–almost two years–making just enough money to keep the wolf from the door, but leaving loads of free time for the adventures that were part of our lives then.
This was the mythic Bolinas of 1968-70, and my social circle included all those famous or semi-famous poets and artists for which the town was so renowned at the time, as well as a colorful sampling of party animals, dope fiends, drunkards, rich heiresses, free thinkers, and village idiots. Our days consisted of non-stop rounds of visits to one another’s houses, sharing dope and booze and bodily fluids, telling tall tales, meandering about along the coastal cliffs in states of hallucinatory exaltation. We kited off to San Francisco or Big Sur, to the side streets of Hollywood or the canyons of west LA or the mansions of Montecito, to Taos and Santa Fe and Ensenada, to the far side of the Sierra. Wherever something bizarre or bawdy or bold was going down, we would be there. It was a grand time and something of a higher education for me. But I hasten to add that, while many of my friends and neighbors and fellow travelers in Bolinas were men and women of some accomplishment, I was just a young cub, working in a little leather shop, with not much in the way of accomplishment of my own. After awhile, I grew restive. I wanted to do something more with myself, although I wasn’t exactly sure what it might be…
Sometime in the spring of ’70, I began to feel as if I had done as much as I could do with that modest job in the little leather shop, and I was casting about for something new. In June of that year, my household in Bolinas flew apart, with folks moving away. It was time for me to point toward the next thing. And at just that moment, I heard about East West. It sounded interesting. I dropped by the shop on Castro Street and filled out a job application…then pretty much forgot about it.
But a week or two later, while relaxing in Bolinas, I received a call from Ellen Fritzlan, the office manager at East West, asking if I could come in for an interview…right now. As it happened, when Ellen called, I had just ingested a substantial quantity of psilocybin mushrooms and was sitting up on the cliff, overlooking the ocean, waiting for them to come on. But she said come in right away, so I did. I hopped in my little VW convertible and drove to the address she gave me on Folsom Street in the city, an hour’s drive from Bolinas. By the time I arrived, I was flying pretty high, but I was used to that in those days and could still function pretty well.
While waiting outside the office for my interview, I watched a couple of the fellows working in what was called the hard leather department, doing the sorts of tasks I was used to doing in my previous employment. They didn’t appear to be doing anything I didn’t know how to do, so I felt fairly comfortable with the upcoming quiz session. Norman conducted the interview, with–I think–George Golub and Ellen sitting in. I don’t remember any details from the interview. Then he sent me out to do a little skills test with David Warren, the manager of the hard leather department. I knew how to do all the things he set before me, so that was fine. In light of my mushroomy state, I might say I passed the test with flying colors. In discussing that interview with George recently (2010), he reminded me that I was wearing a pair of deerskin pants that I had sewn myself, as well as a nice belt I had made. George says those leather goods made a favorable impression on Norman and the others who were in on the interview. (I will include a photo of me taken just a week before that interview, sitting on the wharf in Bolinas, just across the road from the old leather shop…showing both pants and belt.)
So I was hired to work under David in July of 1970. I moved from Bolinas to a converted barn on the backside of Bernal Heights and rode my bike down Folsom Street to the factory. I did a range of tasks in that department over the summer and fall of ’70, including some routine craft work but more frequently–as the months went by–design work. I can’t really recall how that evolved (from fabrication to design). The lines between skill sets and job descriptions were all pretty blurry and flexible and constantly shifting, for me at least. Had I been hired as a cutter, I might have remained in that position for years to come, but there was something fluid and slightly experimental about the hard leather department, so morphing from one role to another was easier to do.
This is my recollection of the general lay of the land when I arrived on Folsom in the summer of 1970…
Norman Stubbs was the owner, designer, visionary, and general top dawg. Bill Webber was the production manager in charge of the garment operations. Others in the management tier were Klaudia Nelson, head seamstress, George Golub, sales manager, Ellen Fritzlan, office manager/accounting, and Bob Shaw, a sort of general nuts-&-bolts facilities manager. As far as I can recall, during my years there, the work force was clearly demarcated along gender lines: the sewers were all women and the cutters were all men.
What did the Folsom Street factory look like inside? For those who were there, it’s easy enough to remember; for those who were not, it might be hard to imagine it. Our spotty photo archives show bits and pieces of it, but rarely do we see the whole facility, and anyway, it was on three floors, so you could never take it all in at one glance. The decor was…would eclectic cover it? It was, first of all, a work space, dominated by the various work stations where things were fabricated. But in and around all that utility was a free form expression of the times and of the young and mostly artistic or just plain goofy workers who made it their home away from home. Posters and oddball signs and found objects were pasted to the walls or dangled from the ceiling. India-print spreads draped in floppy swags across the walls of windows. There was a record player on the second floor, with a collection of albums ranging from Otis Redding to Scott Joplin, from the Stones to John Philip Souza, from show tunes to jazz. In theory, anyone could choose what music to play, but the turntable was next to Klaudia’s desk, so you can guess who was disc jockey most of the time. There was an iron fire escape up the side of the building, from the second floor to the roof, and on sunny days, folks would take their breaks out there, soaking up the rays. Sometimes the roof would turn into a clothing-optional “beach,” with towels or blankets laid out, and boys and girls working on their all-over tans.
The hard leather department was on the ground floor of the three-story factory, wrapped around the office. Also on the ground floor were a couple of store rooms and the “clickers,” stamping machines for die-cutting or embossing many of the smaller, standardized components for both garments and accessories. This was the domain of Carl Christensen, aka Carl the Clicker, a cheerfully misanthropic curmudgeon who might have served as the archetypal model for Oscar the Grouch. (His grumpy demeanor masked a very keen intelligence and a kind humor.) Although the ground floor had a front door on Folsom Street, it was never used. Everyday access was through a door on the alley that ran the length of the building. Parking was at a premium in the neighborhood and many employees parked in the alley. However, it was all marked as No Parking, and whenever a meter maid would show up and start writing tickets, the alarm would flare out through the building, precipitating a mad stampede down the stairs and out the door to remove cars before they got tagged. It was like the zebras and the lions: usually one car would get nailed, but all the others would scramble away to safety.
The garment production took place on the two upper floors, with most of the space given over to rows of sewing machines and the crew of women who operated them. The cutters had their own corner, as did the shipping room, both on the second floor. The shipping room was the domain of Steve Godersky and Tim Underwood, they of the hardcore, 1000-point Scrabble games. (They introduced me to the world of science fiction: Alfred Bester and The Stars My Destination (!)) There was also a cafeteria or rec room at the front of the second floor, overlooking Folsom Street. (We had an old pool table in the middle of the rec room. We inherited it from another leather shop, Merlin’s Feathers and Lace, and we carried it over to EW by hand…about eight guys, jogging along the south-of-Market streets with the big table, with the balls and cues rolling around on the surface.) The third floor, in addition to being home to a fair number of sewing stations, included Bob Shaw’s enormous storage carousel, an improbable, Rube Goldberg contraption for storing the largest number of garments in the smallest amount of space. There were other examples of Bob’s inventiveness around the place, including machines for processing the hard leather belts and accessories.
There were two women who were known as “glue girls,” whose job it was to apply rubber cement–brand name: Barge Cement–to the edges of cut leather panels, and to then fold them over in preparation for being sewn up into garments. Carole Wagner and Arnelle Kase were the two glue girls during my time with the company, although I think there were a few others who came and went, including that lass who came to work with a little monkey on her shoulder.
In December of 1970, Bill Webber resigned his position as production manager. I think it was rather sudden and may have had to do with some of his escapades with drugs. Most of what happened in Bill’s life had something to do with drug use. (Most of us did drugs, but some did more than others, and Billywebb did more than most.) Norman offered me the job of production manager, replacing Bill. I’m still puzzled as to why he thought I was the best-qualified person to take this on. Others had more seniority and more experience. Certainly Klaudia Nelson, the head seamstress, was more qualified to run the sewing operations. It may be Norman felt the corps of seamstresses and cutters wouldn’t take direction from a woman. (That’s just speculation on my part. Norman’s thinking on the matter was never explained to me.) Other men? David Warren, George Golub, Bob Shaw, one of the cutters…? Any of them might have been offered that job but weren’t (as far as I know). Perhaps Norman felt they were all more valuable doing whatever they were already doing.
At some point after I took over as production manager, Norman moved to Hawaii, leaving our little group of managers in charge of the day-to-day running of…everything. Or, as someone else put it, leaving the inmates in charge of the asylum. I know I had no experience as an executive/manager, and I’m pretty sure none of the others in our leadership circle did either. We just made it up as we went along, doing our best to help the company thrive; doing what we thought was prudent and responsible and common-sensical to make it a prosperous and rewarding enterprise, for the owner and for the workers alike.
Recently, as part of this history project, I received scans of East West documents from that period which define the duties and responsibilities of both the Head Seamstress and the Production Manager. I can’t recall ever having seen these lists before. Presumably they were drawn up by Norman. I doubt Bill Weber could have or would have wrapped his head around this much organization. The check-off list for production manager runs to 54 items, divided up into 13 categories. While I’m 90% sure I’ve never seen these lists before and 100% sure I never used them on a day-to-day basis, I have to assume that someone showed me the ropes and explained what I was supposed to be doing as production manager (although I have no recollection of any such mentoring process). It certainly wasn’t Billywebb, so it must have been Norman. Whatever learning curve was involved, I went from the bottom of it to the top of it in a very short span of time. I remember being borderline terrified to have so much responsibility thrust upon me so suddenly and unexpectedly, but I also remember being excited at having this opportunity to do something significant and creative…to make a difference.
Checklist or not, my responsibilities as production manager included all the things that any conventional factory manager would have had to do to keep production rolling. I oversaw inventory control–making sure we had enough supplies to meet the orders–and that meant not only purchasing hides and other supplies from vendors, but also keeping the various work stations within the factory supplied with whatever they needed to keep cranking out the product: process the orders from sales, keep the small parts coming from the clicker; keep the large panels coming from the cutters; keep the glue girls supplied; make sure the glue girls kept the seamstresses supplied, etc. In fact, almost all of the more experienced workers knew how to do their jobs better than I did, and the place pretty much ran itself, with just a light hand on the tiller to keep it pointed in the right direction.
Norman did the hiring (and occasional firing) of the staff while he was there. After he moved to Hawaii, most of that landed on my plate…at least the hiring of the rank-and-file workers. However, although I may have had the final call on hiring, I don’t think I would have made any decision without consulting with others in the inner management group. Certainly no seamstress would have been hired without passing Klaudia’s sewing-skills test: following the wiggly magic marker line around a scrap of leather. I had some oversight in setting the wages for the rank-&-file.
Our workload wasn’t always steady. Depending on orders, we had busy periods and slack times. I was supposed to anticipate these peaks and valleys and adjust the work schedule accordingly. We had times of working at full capacity and we had times when we worked four days and took three off. I have vague memories of other more inventive ways of adjusting our hours to meet our workload, but I don’t recall the details. And while I think I was supposed to take the leading role in these decisions, I recall them being arrived at by some sort of broad-based consensus, bringing in not only the office staff but also senior representatives from among the cutters and seamstresses.
Midway through my tenure at EW, I married, and my wife Nancy went to work there too. I believe she worked as some sort of liaison between the factory and the retail shops (although George remembers her duties differently). Frankly, I can’t really remember what the heck she did, and I wonder sometime if Norman didn’t simply create a position for her as a favor to me. In any event, she was only there for about a year and then died of cancer in the spring of ’72. Needless to say, that traumatic time threw me for a bit of a loop. Heavy weather! It was after she died that I began to lose my interest in being involved with East West. All of the things that had seemed important before seemed less so after those difficult times. I took a short leave of absence after she died, and when I returned I stayed with the production manager job through the summer and fall of ’72, with things going along pretty much on an even keel (for me and for East West). But by the end of ’72, I was ready to move on.
So that’s my basic trajectory through the East West environment: hired in July of 1970 and on to the next thing by the end of 1972. Two and a half years. Too late for the Castro shop and out the door before the move to Third Street. For me, it was all Folsom.
If this is in fact a sort of alumni forum, it would now be appropriate to describe what happened to me after my years at EW.
After leaving EW and trying my hand for awhile as a commercial illustrator (with little success), I got back into the garment trade as a mid-level executive–production manager (again)–at Esprit de Corps. (The Esprit adventure is a whole other interesting story, but not one I want to get into just now. There were other ex-East-Westers who migrated to Esprit as well.) After a few years at Esprit, I took a second stab at the illustration game, and the second time around it took: I’ve been doing it ever since–for 40 years–with mostly decent success and satisfaction. I’ve done a bit of everything as an illustrator, but eventually my work settled into a style I think of as semi-technical: I do all sorts of how-to illustrations for assembly and construction and remodeling, including all or part of over 60 books for Sunset. (The “how-to-build-a-deck” sorts of books.) I’m mostly retired now–at age 69–only working for a few old clients who still know where to find me.
When I left East West, I moved back to Bolinas. While there, I hooked up with Kathy Keiser, who had been a friend of my wife Nancy. Kathy would become my second wife. We are still together and still happy, most of the time, 44 years later. Kathy has worked as some sort of graphic designer for most of her life, and designed mail-order catalogs until she retired. We have a daughter and son, both living in Chico, where they both attended college. Robyn works at Chico State, is married, and has two daughters, who are of course the cutest, smartest grandchildren in the universe. Evan recently married. He has a job in high tech. For the Esprit years, we moved back to SF–Potrero Hill–but in 1983, we bought a nice house on a pretty, wooded acre outside Sebastopol, an hour north of the Golden Gate, and we’ve been here ever since.
Kathy devotes a great deal of volunteer time to liberal political causes, mostly centered on the local scene in the North Bay. I devote a great deal of volunteer time to the Santa Rosa Cycling Club and to cycling in general. From cycling to work at East West to the present, I’ve never stopped riding, and when we moved to the country, with all its nice back roads, I really got into it. Now, not only do I ride a lot, I write about riding a lot. Journalism was my original major in college, and now, many years later, journalism is almost a second career for me, as I write or edit hundreds of articles for cycling publications, cycle-touring guide books, and web sites.
Now then, back to East West…what about some color, some texture, some funny anecdotes?
During the years when EW was going strong, the mainstream press was fond of cranking out articles about what they came to call “hippie capitalists.” Like most articles in the mainstream press that attempted to explain the counter-culture and beatnik-bohemian-hippie phenomena, they usually got it wrong, indulging in shopworn clichés and stereotypes. But if they had wanted one company that might have served as an exemplar of that sort of enterprise, then East West would probably have come close to filling the bill.
It really was an extraordinary place to work and to socialize, and I think one would be hard-pressed to find anything else quite like it, either before or since. Which probably goes some way toward explaining why we’re still talking about it, 40-plus years later, and why the clothes and accessories that were produced there still have such cachet for trendy fashionistas. In some ways, East West has parallels in the back-to-the-land communes that sprang up at the same time around the Bay Area: that sense of being in on a novel experiment: learning a new way to live and to manage our lives. Only at East West, we were producing more than just carrots and god’s eyes, and we had indoor plumbing.
Even for those of us who were there, in the thick of it, it would be very easy to fall into lazy, shorthand epigrams about what went on. It would, for instance, be easy to say that everyone was into drugs. Or that everyone was into rampantly promiscuous sex. But it was never that simple.
Yes, many people were doing drugs, not only privately but quite publicly, in that special workplace. (Many of us took doobie breaks instead of coffee breaks.) But not everyone was doing so. And among those who were doing drugs, not everyone was sampling off the same shelf in the pharmacy. Many were into the most obvious psychoactive agents: marijuana and hash and the occasional psychedelic pill or mushroom. But others were skating out onto the thinner ice of heroin, opium, crystal meth, coke, uppers, downers… Some managed to swim through that chemical stew while keeping their health and most of their brain cells intact. Others didn’t fare so well. And meanwhile, in amongst all that mind-altering activity, quite a few members of the EW team were quietly plugging away at life, with nothing more stimulating in the way of recreational additives than a few beers or a nip of tequila.
Yes, there was a great deal of sex in and around the workplace. Along with the drugs and the rock n roll, and all the rest of that strange paradigm shift we found ourselves living in, there was the post-pill liberation of sex: free love. (“If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”) We were young and carefree and careless, with hormones hitting on all cylinders, and it was all before the plague of AIDS was let loose upon the land. But not all of the workers at EW were on that particular bandwagon. Many were in committed, monogamous relationships. Others abstained for all the reasons that anyone might abstain from such a free-for-all. With the 20-20 hindsight of 40 further years of experience, it’s easy to say now that some of what we did was irresponsible. Nor would much of it stand up to today’s standards of political correctness. We broke all sorts of rules, partly because we didn’t care about those silly rules and partly because we simply didn’t know any better.
Another easy, shorthand description of East West–and one that I suspect many of us have employed many times in describing the place to someone who wasn’t there–is to say, “We made clothes for rock stars.” It sounds so glamorous and it was, at least to some degree, true. Many stars bought and wore East West apparel. I recall doing things for Elvis and Stevie Wonder. You can see an EW jacket on one of the members of Santana in the Woodstock film, and Mick Taylor of the Stones wears an EW jacket in Gimme Shelter. I also remember taking measurements for a lovely, perfectly proportioned, midget stripper and for a 7’5” giant named Treebeard. I also got a phone call from Mick Fleetwood once, inquiring about buying one of Norman’s funny drums. There really were Musical Instruments in East West’s history too. Initially, Stubbs had designed some weird drums with strings in them that could be plucked and drummed at the same time, I think.
But does that mean that all of us at the factory were hobnobbing with those stars? Hardly. Most of them bought their outfits at one of the many retail stores that carried our lines, in New York or Las Vegas or LA…but not at the factory. For the most part, we made the clothes, but the rock stars wore them somewhere else. However, that doesn’t mean we didn’t enjoy an occasional flutter of excitement from the world of glam and glitter. East West parties often attracted folks who were connected with the bright lights of San Francisco show biz, so in the midst of some riotous party, you might have found yourself sharing a joint or a bottle of wine with some rocker or porn star or other minor deity from the ragged fringe.
It would also be easy to say that we were some sort of cultural pioneers: that we were intentionally reinventing the working world, striving for something new and fresh, outside the conventional business template. Perhaps Norman had that sort of overarching vision, but I think most of us simply fell into the world of East West as if we had fallen into a warm swimming pool, accidentally and taken mostly by surprise, unaware of what we were getting ourselves into. Each person who worked there has a different story about the circumstances that got them off-track from a mainstream career, but all of us, by way of various forks taken or not taken along the road of life, stumbled through the front door of East West. And for most of us, it was like…hey, this is cool! I can do this! We didn’t plan to be there. We found ourselves there, and then, while we were there, we found ourselves. Serendipity…kismet.
One of my favorite anecdotes from East West, and one that helps to illustrate the deeply weird ambience of the place, is the story of the Great Firewall War.
The fire marshals had decreed that the building needed a dedicated, open hallway that would move people from the stairwell to the front door (the front door that was never used). So Bob Shaw, our all-around tinkerer and constructor of things, threw up a good, solid stud wall and covered it with sheetrock. The hallway behind the wall was entirely private and apart from the work space on the ground floor, so it became the obvious spot for taking a quiet joint break during the day. Sitting out there one day, puffing away, looking at this 30-foot long, floor-to-ceiling wall, entirely blank and white, it occurred to a few of us that it needed some decoration. So Carl Christensen and I set about fixing that.
Aside from whatever our duties were at East West, Carl and I were both artists of one sort or another. In the context of this story, we were both at least moderately talented cartoonists. What we decided to do was have a cartoon battle all along the wall, sort of like one of those grand, epic paintings of a famous Napoleonic battle…with a cast of thousands! I don’t remember who had the idea first, but according to Carl, I did. Based on his much more credible recounting of other details, I will defer to his version. We grabbed a handful of big felt tip markers and began drawing armies working from the ends of the wall toward an engagement in the middle. One of us used purple markers and the other used black. The black army was made up of standard-issue soldiers, plus tanks and jeeps and howitzers and all the usual, standard army arsenal. The purple army was anything but standard. It was a hodge podge of goths and vikings and huns, trolls and dwarves and roman centurions. Catapults and crossbows, broadswords and lances and long bows….refugees and rejects from the Ring Trilogy.
Over a period of weeks, during our morning or afternoon smoke breaks, Carl and I would add more figures to our grand canvas. And when they actually came to grips with each other, we would cooperate: “Hey Carl, can you give me a soldier with his head flying off?” And then I would draw the gladiator whizzing through the hapless GI’s neck with a wicked-looking battle-ax. Or I would supply Carl with a goblin who had just been center-punched by a blast from a bazooka. While we worked, half a dozen or more of our co-workers would be sitting in a row along the opposite wall of the hall, passing a joint back and forth and offering commentary on our work and suggestions for further mayhem we might add. Others would drop in from upstairs now and then to monitor our progress. It was all great fun. I guess our interest waned after awhile, because we eventually stopped. There was no overall winner of the battle, as we had it drawn up. Just a vast mass of cartoon carnage, not unlike an S. Clay Wilson rumble out of Zap Comics. But the purple ink faded over the months, while the black ink stayed strong, so finally, the conventional army of black soldiers was seen to be grappling with a legion of lavender ghosts.
There is a point to this story, beyond whatever might be inherently amusing about it. It may seem as if this whole exercise was a waste of time and represented a colossal loss of productivity on the work floor. But it wasn’t, and it didn’t. We did what we did on our breaks, and we never neglected our proper work chores. We met our deadlines and did the things we needed to do, all in their proper order and time. This is what it meant to be a part of the East West family: we could have fun, be creative, be goofball…and still get our work done. We were figuring out a way to produce interesting and unique and creative garments and bags…and to have one helluva a good time while doing so. We were the living proof of the old saying that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. We were discovering that a nicely balanced mix of work and play could turn a whole factory full of Jacks and Jills into one big, happy family, with not a dull boy or girl in the bunch.
Years later, we have seen so-called enlightened management adding gyms and meditation rooms and other sorts of recreational options to their workplaces as a way to let the workers unwind and replenish their creative juices during the day. Well, hey, we had that going way before most of the business world thought it was such a great idea. Now, in these parlous times, with the corporate bean-counters grinding the workers so hard, it’s good to remember that it doesn’t have to be all work and no play.
My two-and-a-half year career at East West represents about 4% of my entire lifespan. Not much. It was not the most amazing nor most important nor most pivotal time in my life. It was not the high point, and it hasn’t been all downhill since then. It would be pretty sad if that were the case. But there was something about the place–and the people who lived and loved and worked there–that was very special, very original, very unique. To use a modern buzz term: we were thinking outside the box. A great deal of the credit for this goes to our Founding Father: Norman Stubbs. I didn’t always see eye to eye with Norman, and there was always a bit of reserve between us, even though we did quite a bit of partying together, away from work. But I still have great respect for him and for what he did with East West. I salute him for having the vision to even imagine it could be done; for having the courage to put his money and his energy on the line for such a wild gamble; and for having the flair for design to come up with such a potpourri of crazy and inventive and zany styles and fashions. Most of all, I honor Norman for allowing the culture of East West to grow and thrive in all its messy, lively, anything-goes vitality.
After he got the culture started, he stepped back and watched it grow, as it took on a life of its own. It became a family…no, a village. It was like a psychic pot luck party: everyone brought something to the table. Everyone got to share in the feast. Some contributed more; some less. But all were taken in and allowed to add their energy and enthusiasm to the whole. It was a brief but intense efflorescence of creativity and playfulness. Probably it could only have happened at that moment in cultural evolution, when so many of the young boomer babies were looking around at the humdrum, workaday world and wondering if it really had to be that way….so routine and regimented and boring: the dead-end street of conformity and respectability.
If the East West experience had a lasting impact on me–and it did–it was because it presented me with a kind of epiphany about how I might live and work in this world: that life did not have to be all work and no play; that work could include play and creativity and spontaneity. At the age of 23, more or less fresh out of school and not at all sure how to shape my future adult life, the people and the process of East West showed me a way to be. I’ve traveled a long way since that brief interlude on Folsom Street, but the lessons learned there have stayed with me, almost as a sort of talismanic reminder each day to never let life become routine and ordinary…to always look for the joy and laughter and the creative spark that keeps things fresh. For whatever part East West played in forming that perspective and those values in me, I am grateful.