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The Pump House Gang: Introduction

Excerpt from The Pump House Gang by Tom Wolfe. Copyright © 1968 by Tom Wolfe. Published in 1997 by The Noonday Press, a subsidiary of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

I WROTE all but two* of these stories in one ten-month stretch after the publication of my first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. It was a strange time for me. Many rogue volts of euphoria. I went from one side of this country to the other and then from one side of England to the other. The people I met—the things they did—I was entranced. I met Carol Doda. She blew up her breasts with emulsified silicone, the main ingredient in Silly Putty, and became the greatest resource of the Sam Francisco tourist industry. I met a group of surfers, the Pump House Gang. They attended the Watts riot as if it were the Rose Bowl game in Pasadena. They came to watch "the drunk niggers" and were reprimanded by the same for their rowdiness. In London I met a competitive 17-year-old named Nicki who got one-up on her schoolgirl chums by taking a Kurdish clubfoot lover. I met a £9-a-week office boy named Larry Lynch. He spent his lunch hour every day with hundreds of other child laborers in the crazed pitchblack innards of a noonday nightclub called Tiles. All of them in ecstasies from the frug, the rock 'n' roll, and God knows what else, for an hour—then back to work. In Chicago I met Hugh Hefner. He revolved on his bed, offering scenic notes as his head floated by—Now, about Hefner. I was heading for California from New York and I happened to stop off in Chicago. I was walking down North Michigan Avenue when I ran into a man from the Playboy organization, Lee Gottlieb. Something he said made me assume that Hefner was out of town.

"Out of town?" said Gottlieb. "Hef never leaves his house."

"Never?"

Never, said Gottlieb. At least not for months at a time, and even then only long enough to get in a limousine and go to the airport and fly to New York for a TV show or to some place or other for the opening of a new Playboy Club. This fascinated me, the idea that Hefner, the Main Playboy himself, was now a recluse. The next afternoon I went to the Playboy offices on East Ohio Street to see about getting in to see him. In the office they kept track of Hefner's physical posture in his Mansion, which was over on North State Parkway, as if by play-by-play Telex. He was flat out in bed asleep, they told me, and wouldn't be awake until around midnight. That night I was killing time in a dive in downtown Chicago when a courier materialized and told me Hefner was now on his feet and could see me.

Hefner's Playboy Mansion had a TV eye at the front portals and huge black guards or major-domos inside. Nubian slaves, I kept saying to myself. One of the blacks led me up a grand staircase covered in red wall-to-wall, to a massive carved-wood doorway bearing the inscription, Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare, "If you don't swing, don't ring." Inside were Hefner's private chambers. Hefner came charging out of a pair of glass doors within. He was wound up and ready to go. "Look at this!" he said. "Isn't this fantastic!" It was an issue of Ramparts magazine that had just come. It had a glossy foldout, like the one in Playboy. Only this one had a picture of Hefner. In the picture he was wearing a suit and smoking a pipe. "Isn't this fantastic!" Hefner kept saying. Right now he was wearing silk pajamas, a bathrobe, and a pair of slippers with what looked like embroidered wolf heads on them. This was not, however, because he had just gotten up. It was his standard wear for the day, this day, every day, the uniform of the contemporary recluse.

There were several people in attendance at the midnight hour. The dame d'bonneur of the palace, who was named Michele; Gottlieb; a couple of other Playboy personnel; the blacks: they were all dressed, however. Hefner showed me through his chambers. The place was kept completely draped and shuttered. The only light, day or night, was electric. It would be impossible to keep track of the days in there. And presently Hefner jumped onto . . . the center of his world, the bed in his bedroom. Aimed at the bed was a TV camera he was very proud of. Later on Playboy ran a cartoon, showing a nude man and woman in a huge bed with a TV set facing them, and the man is saying, "And now, darling, how about an instant replay." Hefner hit a dial and the bed started revolving . . .

All I could think of at that moment was Jay Gatsby in the Fitzgerald novel. Both were scramblers who came up from out of nowhere to make their fortunes and build their palaces and ended up in regal isolation. But there was a major difference between Hefner and Gatsby. Hefner no longer dreamed, if he ever did, of making the big social leap to East Egg. It was at least plausible for Gatsby to hope to make it into Society. But Hefner? He has made a fortune, created an empire, and the Playboy Beacon shines out over the city and the Great Lakes. But socially Hefner is still a man who runs a tit magazine and a string of clubs that recall the parlor floor—not the upper floors but the parlor floor—of a red-flock whorehouse. There is no Society in Chicago for Hugh Hefner.

So he has gone them one better. He has started his own league. He has created his own world, in his own palace. He has created his own statusphere. The outside world comes to him, including the talented and the celebrated. Jules Feiffer stays awhile in his scarlet guest suite, Norman Mailer skinnydips in his Playboy swimming pool. He has his courtiers, his girls, and his Nubian slaves. Not even God's own diurnal light rhythm intrudes upon the order that Hefner has founded inside.

What a marvelous idea! After all, the community has never been one great happy family for all men. In fact, I would say the opposite has been true. Community status systems have been games with few winners and many who feel like losers. What an intriguing thought—for a man to take his new riches and free time and his machines and split from communitas and start his own league. He will still have status competition—but he invents the rules.

Why has no one ever done it before? Well, of course, people have. Robin Hood did it. Spades, homosexuals, artists, and street gangs have done it. All sorts of outlaws, and outcasts, by necessity or choice. The intriguing thing today, I was a find, is that so many Americans and Englishmen of middle and lower incomes are now doing the same thing. Not out of "rebellion" or "alientation"—they just want to be happy winners for a change.

What is a California electronics worker maki,ng $18,000 a year supposed to do with his new riches? Set about getting his son into Culver Military and himself and the wife into the Doral Beach Country Club? Socially, he is a glorified mechanic. Why not, à la Hefner, put it all into turning his home into a palace of technological glories—and extend that abroad in the land with a Buick Estate Wagon and a Pontiac GTO—and upon the seas with an Evinrude cruiser and even into the air with a Cessna 172? Why not surround the palace with my favorite piece of landscaping of the happy worker suburbs of the American West , the Home Moat. It is about three feet wide and a foot and half deep. Instructions for placing rocks, flowers, and shrubs are available. The Home Moat is a psychological safeguard against the intrusion of the outside world. The Home Moat guards against the fear that It is going to creep up in the night and press its nose against your picture window.

Southern California, I found, is veritable paradise of statuspheres. For example, the move to age segregation. There are old people's housing developments, private developments, in which no one under 50 may buy a home. There are apartment developments for single persons 20 to 30 only. The Sunset Strip in Los Angeles has become the exclusive hangout of the 16 to 25 set. In 1966 they came close to street warfare to keep it that away, against the police who moved in to "clean up."

And . . . the Pump House Gang. Here was a group of boys and girls who had banded together in a way that superficially resembled a street gang's. They had very little of the street gang's motivation, however. They cam from middle-class and upper-middle-class homes in perhaps the most high-class beach community in California, La Jolla. They had very little sense of resentment toward their parents or "society" and weren't rebels. Their only "alienation" was the usual hassle of the adolescent, the feeling that he is being prodded into adulthood on somebody else's terms. So they did the latest thing. They split off—to the beach! Into the garages!—and started their own league, based on the esoterica of surfing. They didn't resent the older people around them; they came to pity the old bastards because they couldn't partake of this esoteric statusphere.

The day I met the Pump House Gang, a group of them had just been thrown out of "Tom Coman's garage," as it was known. The next summer they moved up from the garage life to a group of apartments near the beach, a complex they named "La Colonia Tijuana." By this time some were shifting from the surfing life to the advance guard of something else—the psychedelic head world of California. That is another story. But even the hippies, as the heads came to be known, did not develop sui generis. Their so-called "dropping out" was nothing more than a still further elaboration of the kind of worlds that the surfers and he car kids I met—"The Hair Boys"—had been creating the decade before.

The Pump House Gang lived as though age segregation were a permanent state, as if it were inconceivable that any of them would ever grow old, i.e., 25. I foresaw the day when the California coastline would be littered with the bodies of aged and abandoned Surferkinder, like so many beached whales.

If fact, however, many of these kids seem to be able to bring the mental atmosphere of the surfer life forward with them into adulthood—even into the adult world where you have to make a living. I remember going to the motorcycle races at Gardena, California, which is just south of Watts, with a surfer who is now about 30 and has developed a large water-sport equipment business. This was a month after the Watts riots. We were sitting in the stands at Gardena. The motorcycles were roaring around the half-mile track below and flashing under the lights. Just beyond the tack from where we sat were Watts and Compton.

"Tom," he said to me, "you should have been here last month."

"Why?"

"The riots," he said. "You should have been here. We were all sitting here right where we are now and the bikes were going around down below here. And over here"—over to the left you could look over the edge of the stands and see the highway—"the National Guard units were pulling and jumping off the trucks and getting into formation and everything with the bayonets and all. It was terrific. And then, there"—and his gaze and his voice got a far-off quality, going beyond the track and toward Watts—"and there, there in the distance, was Los Angeles . . . burning!"

A few minutes later ten motorcycles came into the first turn, right in front of where we were sitting. Five went down in a pile-up. Bodies shot through the air every which way. I saw one, a rider in black and white racing leathers, get hit in midair by one motorcycle and run over by the one behind it. This was a kid named Clemmie Jackson. He was dead. Everybody could see that. His neck was broken like a stick. Two other riders were seriously injured. The p.a. announcer didn't mention those who were lying there, however. He only mentioned those who got up. "There's No. 353, Rog Rogarogarog, he's up and his bike looks O.K . . ." As soon as the bodies were removed, the race resumed. Luckily they hadn't had to take both the ambulances. They have two ambulances at the track, and if both have to leave, the races have to stop until one returns. They were able to get the three worst bodies into one ambulance. The ambulance, a big white Cadillac, left very quietly. It didn't even flash a light. About three minutes later you could hear the siren start up, way down the highway. Off in the distance, as they say. It was a freaking ghastly sound, under the circumstances. Within seconds, however, the race was on again, with five bikes instead of ten, and all was forgotten. As usual, there were only a couple of paragraphs in the papers about the death.

I don't think that is a very morbid incident, taken in context. The half-mile racers are the wildest and most suicidal crowd in the motorcycle life, but all the motorcycle crowds get a lot of their juice out of the luxury of risking their necks. The motorcycle life has been perfect as a statusphere. It is dangerous and therefore daring. It is as esoteric as surfing. It can liberate you physically from the communitas.

When you mention the motorcycle life, people tend to think—again—if outlaws. Namely, the Hell's Angels. The Angels and other motorcycle outlaws, however, make up only a small part of the people who have started their own league with their bikes. I'll never forget the Harley-Davidson agency in Columbus, Ohio. A guy came in the back there dragging a big Harley. It was all bent and mashed, the spokes, the headers, the cylinder heads, the sprocket, the driven chain. Everybody said, You had a wreck! The guy said, Naw, it was my wife. Everybody said, Was she hurt bad! The guy said, Naw, she took a block of cement about this bag and she—well, it seems she had smashed the hell out of it. He had first bought the Harley just for a little recreation away from the wife and kids. Then he had discovered hundreds of motorcyclists around Columbus—all drifting away from the wife and kids. Pretty soon he was meeting the boys every day after work at a place called Gully's and they would drink beer and ride up to Lake Eric before coming home, a mere 200mile trip. By and by they had a whole new life for them—selves—blissful liberation!—based on the motorcycle. Until his wife decided to sort that little situation our . . .

Columbus is the world capital of the motorcycle life. This statement, I fine, comes as a surprise and an annoyance—the damnable Hell's Angels again—to a lot of people in Columbus, despite the fact that the American Motorcycle Association has its headquarters there. On the surface, Columbus could not be more conservative and traditional. A few big property-owning families seem to control everything. Well, they don't control the motorcycle life, which has proliferation in and around the town over the past ten years in full rich variety, from half-mile racing daredevils to Honda touring clubs. They also have a local version of the Hell's Angels, the Road Rogues. The vast majority of Columbus motorcyclists however are perfectly law-abiding citizens who happen to have found an infinitely richer existence than being a standard wage-mule for whoever does run Columbus.

The two great motorcyclists of Columbus are Dick Klamforth, a former half-mile racing champion and now owner of the Honda agency there, the biggest in the country, and Tom Reiser. Reiser is truly one of the greats. He built "Tom's Bomb." He achieved an ultimate. He flew through the air of the American Midwest, astride a 300-horsepower Chevrolet V-8 engine . . . riding bare-back . . .

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