That afternoon, as the sun began to descend over the colorful mélange of San Francisco hills, we took our seats in the garden, a backyard with strange looking flora, life surrounding everything.
Our hosts looked at us with a hint of friendly suspicion. How could you blame them? We were intruders, strangers, locusts looking for answers.
But… we did sit quietly. Mostly because we didn’t know what to say.
We had traveled thousands of miles, thrown into a journey that was one-part contest, one-part investigation, and one-part discovery.
And now we were here, sitting in the backyard of an old, white-haired man named Peter Berg, trying in vein to explain ourselves.
At last, the old man spoke:
“I wanna know two things,” he said, “One is why Peter Coyote? And why me?”
So perhaps I should start at the beginning. This is a long and complicated story. And I suppose it begins in the summer on 2009, just weeks after my college graduation.
I was living in Lawrence then, interning in Kansas City, still pretending that the good life wasn’t over.
By some good fortune, I would have the perfect opportunity to sink back into college mode in June. I had somehow placed first in some national writing competition — the category was sports — and I’d been invited to compete in the Hearst Journalism Awards national writing championships.
I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant.
In the coming weeks, the particulars would come into focus. Two of my good journalism friends — Mark and Matt — had also qualified for the competition, and they’d be in San Francisco, too. We’d spend a week in the bay area; nights spent at expensive dinners with powerful suits from the journalism industry; days spent sightseeing on the wharf and Chinatown and the Russian Hill neighborhood.
We’d be assigned three stories that would need to be reported and written while we were there. And we would be judged on our work, the winner taking home $5,000.
All these details arrived weeks before we arrived in San Francisco. And in the packet of forms and instruction, I came across this name: Peter Coyote.
Now, to be honest, before this experience, I think I may have vaguely known about Peter Coyote. It sounded like a name I SHOULD have know. But I couldn’t place him, not on the spot.
There is, of course, the possibility that I made up these memories of Coyote. It’s not uncommon for people to do this. And, like I said, it certainly sounds like a name I SHOULD have known.
Again, I cant say I remember exactly what those papers said about Peter Coyote. But I imagine it looked something like this:
“During your time at the Hearst Journalism Awards Competition, you will report and write a profile on Peter Coyote, an Emmy-award winning narrator and a seminal figure in the 1960s counter-culture movement in San Francisco.”
I’m sure the words went on. And I’m sure they provided a better bio. And I’m also sure I can’t remember any of it. But I do recall the information included this:
Coyote was a founding member of the Diggers, a group of improv actors that worked and lived in Haight-Ashbury during the mid-60s.
You may know the Diggers. You may not. And part of this probably depends on your age and your opinion on Widespread Panic.
But the Diggers performed plays. And promoted their anarchist leanings. And at some point, during the drug-induced haze of the summer of love, the Diggers emerged, feeding the homeless and idealistic hippies that had arrived from the far reaches… performing for the muddied and anti-war masses that were simply looking for something different.
The group was made up of names and messages that would become intertwined with the Haight and San Francisco—a certain time and place.
Peter Berg. Emmett Grogan. Judy Goldhaft. Kent Minault. Nina Blasenheim, David Simpson, Jane Lapiner, and Billy Murcott.
“We were trying to do things that were very conceptual. Do you dig what I’m saying?”
Peter Berg is sitting in the garden now, the day and light betraying us by the minute. He’s telling stories about the past, and Goldhaft, his life partner, is sitting next to him.
Her skin is wrinkled, her voice gentle. She’s recording the interview with one of those old tape-recorders – the ones where you actually use a regular-size cassette tape. She has headphones on.
“We weren’t trying to emote,” Berg says. “We weren’t trying to look like something. We were trying to work out concepts. The idea was if you life-act this concept, you know, like free food in the park — this is how the Diggers started — we’ll make food people free food in the park. We’ll just give it to them, no questions asked.”
He’s talking about those days back in the summer of love, when the Diggers would perform, and cook food, and everything would be free. The sustenance, the stimulus, the emotion.
Hell, the Diggers even had a Free Store, a place where folks could walk in and take whatever they need.
“It’s free… ” Berg would tell them. “Take whatever the fuck you want.”
These stories are part of a larger story, a story that relates back to an old friend. And the answers are slowly starting to come out.
Why Peter Coyote? And Why Peter Berg?
When we arrived in San Francisco, Matt, Mark and I (the three students in the print competition from Kansas) decided we’d work together on the reporting.
We’d met before the trip at a coffee shop in Lawrence. We found old copies of Peter Coyote’s memoirs, “Sleeping Where I Fall” — which included ridiculous stories about drugs and Dennis Hopper (and Bob Seger and Sonny and Cher). And we decided we’d hit the phones once we reached San Francisco, sharing leads and going out for interviews as a group.
For the most part, the names were easy to come by. We could find the old connections on Google, and track down numbers and addresses. We couldn’t know that Peter Coyote had escaped from his Digger past and gone big-time in Hollywood. But I suppose it seemed that way.
And while we researched and reported, there was one name that kept floating to the top: Peter Berg.
I remember the first day we arrived in San Francisco. We arrived at the hotel for a cocktail party, an event to meet the judges and other contestants.
At this point, we had learned Berg’s name, and we knew he had a connection to Coyote. But we weren’t sure what it was.
As we met our competition, sizing up the kids from Michigan State, Missouri and Georgia, we met a kid I’ll call John. He’d just graduated from Missouri, and I figured he’d be our stiffest competition.
John wore a creamy-brown blazer and jeans, wore glasses and sipped on an Anchor Steam. We had formal introductions, and we talked about the competition. Mostly because there was nothing else to talk about, and also because everyone else had the same thought:
Well, we’re all writing a profile about the same guy. Has anybody else started the reporting?
These were nervous moments, of course, and I still remember the words coming out of John’s mouth:
“Well, I’ve got an interview with Peter Berg tomorrow.”
Really? I thought. Damn.
The cab is zooming through the San Francisco hills, one of the richest swaths of real estate in the country, moving past the pastel homes that dot the terrain.
This image, to me at least, is San Francisco. It’s more San Francisco than the wharf, or the Haight, or that park from Full House. This is where the city hangs in the background, where it’s sunny and warm and quiet.
After a couple days of searching, we were almost there. It was Thursday evening, and half the trip had already melted away.
We’d tracked down a number for Berg, and Matt had set up an interview. During those minutes of conversation, we had learned where Berg lived, and not much else.
We had also learned that John, our competition, had missed his interview with Berg the day before.
“I feel like I’m getting jerked around by a bunch of amateurs,” Berg had told Matt over the phone.
I thought about those words as we approached the house, but my thoughts were interrupted by the sound of conversation.
“We’re doing a story about Peter Coyote,” Mark explained to the cab driver.
At least, this is how I remember it.
“Oh yea,” the cabbie said. “That voice. You always remember that voice.”
As the cabbie listened, we told him about our journey:
We had already searched the Haight for any sign of the Coyote’s legacy. We had spent a few minutes in the Haight-Asbury Free Medical Clinic, a place the Diggers had worked during the 1960s. We had walked into an anarchist book store and met a young man named Johnny Tsagkis.
He had never heard of Peter Coyote. Or Peter Berg.
Moments after we exited the store, I paused for a moment and looked down the street toward the intersection of Haight and Ashbury.
I saw tourists. And headshops. And a Ben & Jerry’s.
The warning hung in plain sight on the front door: Coyotes. Real ones.
In a moment, Peter Berg was there, opening the door and walking us through a room with file cabinets and old computers.
He wore a turtleneck and dark jeans, and pulled his white hair back into a ponytail.
Minutes would pass, and the words would come once more:
“Why Peter Coyote? And why me?”
That evening in November, after the fall sun had dropped behind the drab Kansas landscape, I sat down in living room and began to think back that week in San Francisco.
This was just a couple weeks ago, more than two years since we sat in that garden in San Francisco, and I began to think about Berg’s question in a different light.
We finished the interview, of course, and the next morning we interviewed Coyote in an unsoiled hotel ballroom downtown. We finished the stories at a coffee shop near downtown, turned in our stories and spent our last night slamming expensive drinks with the competition at some random bar in San Francisco.
We felt like college kids again.
All this time later, I don’t think about Coyote all that much. But I do think about Berg.
The way he talked. What he represented. All of it.
“You know that’s almost 45 years ago,” Berg told us in that garden. “It’s longer from now to then, than it was from then to the 1930s. And the 1930s and the 1960s look like really fucking ancient history. So why in the world would you want to talk to me?”
Truth is, we really didn’t want to talk to him. Sure, we wanted information. And perspective. But we were there for a contest.
And yet, something changed in that garden. As you might expect, Berg had some passionate opinions about Coyote. He believed he was a sellout, a salesman, a chameleon who blended into this surroundings.
“You do know what a chameleon is,” he asked.
The Diggers hadn’t succeeded. At least, not the way Berg hoped they would. They hadn’t changed the culture, at least not in the way they had envisioned.
On that day in 2009, Berg would go on a long diatribe, most of it about the theater and social change and why Coyote wasn’t a good representative for any of this.
“Big-scale social change,” Berg said, describing his theater mission. “Not itty bitty, like ‘treat people better in the office’. That wasn’t my deal.
“My deal was end the fucking war, stop being racist, stop oppressing people for using drugs. I did one more abstract [play] about what computers were doing to people’s identities, because that was 1965, and computers were very — well, there were not personal computers. Computers were something corporations had… and the military.”
The conversation went on like this for 45 minutes. At one point, we asked Berg for his thoughts on the commoditization of the Digger culture into an image that is now bought, sold and traded on the old streets of San Francisco.
Here’s how the conversation went:
Matt: We’ve tried walking around Haight-Ashbury, and tried asking people at a bookstore or a head shop or something, if they know who the Diggers are and if they know those kinds of ideas, and they don’t seem to…
Berg: Yeah, it’s become very commercial.
Matt: Do you see kind of a parallel there between what has happened in San Francisco and what has happened to Peter Coyote?
Berg: I think it’s charming that you brought that up unaided. It’s remarkable that you brought that up without any aid from me. So I’ll quote you at length on that. Don’t quote me, you quote yourself. Give yourself credit for that observation, and stick your neck out, and watch it get chopped off.
A minute later, he added:
Berg: I think the thing I’m concerned about is that you don’t quote or portray me as being disgruntled, or full of hate. The objections I’ve given you are objections based on what has been there and what is being made of it now, that’s all.
“And about the movie business, I have no idea what it’s about… I’m a fan of films, I like to watch them. I feel bad about David Carradine killing himself.”
On that night in Kansas City, as I sat in my chair and opened my laptop, I typed “Peter Berg Diggers” into the Google search. Click.
At first, the words sort of ran together, as they tend to do on a computer screen. And it took me a moment to realize what I was reading. Seconds later, they came into focus.
The obituary from the San Francisco Chronicle read, in part:
“Peter Berg, a key figure in the Bay Area counterculture and a pioneering environmental writer and activist, died July 28 at UCSF Medical Center. He was 73.
“An actor and playwright with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and a co-founder of the Diggers in the ’60s, he also founded Planet Drum Foundation, an ecological, educational nonprofit, and became internationally recognized as a leading advocate for a concept known as bioregionalism.
“Born in the Jamaica section of Queens, N.Y., Mr. Berg grew up in Florida, where his mother moved when he was 6. He attended the University of Florida at Gainesville and served in the Army. After spending some time in New York and participating in civil rights activities, he hitchhiked across the country and settled in San Francisco in 1964.”
As I finished the obit and leaned back in my chair, I closed my eyes and tried to remember Berg’s voice.
“I wanna know two things… One is why Peter Coyote? And why me?”
Once again, his words made little sense. But this time, for a totally different reason.