On First Meeting Chet Helms

When I first began to consider writing and publishing The Chet Helms Chronicles, I consulted with my friend, Christopher Newton, who has, for the past few years, been churning out exquisite pieces about many subjects, but mostly about the pre-invasion Haight Ashbury, in a blog called The Pondering Pig, the link to which is included in The Chronicles. I urge you to check out The Pig if you haven’t already done so. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry; you’ll learn stuff.

Christopher, who is the real deal – a baby beatnik who was born and (mostly) bred in San Francisco and who met and befriended Chet Helms literally minutes after the tall, skinny, Texpatriate stepped off a Greyhound bus from Fort Worth on June 1, 1962, and who is a very nice man and, in my opinion, a very thoughtful, sensitive and wise one besides – encouraged me to give The Chronicles a go and so I have.

A month ago, I stumbled across the following piece, which I had written the night I met Chet Helms for the first time and had completely forgotten about. I sent it to three people, including Christopher, who asked if he could publish it on his blog. I said he could, and , bless his heart, he did.  Gave The Chronicles a nice plug as well.

Since then, the other two people to whom I sent the piece have been agitating for me to include it in The Chronicles, but I have ignored their requests…until now. So, due to popular demand (by two – Count ’em! – two people), here it is:

At 6:00 p.m. on November 9, 2004, Chet Helms closed the door of his small, cluttered, ground floor apartment on the corner of Bush and Mason in San Francisco and stepped out into the damp, bone-chilling air.

He was wearing a pair of thick-soled, black shoes; baggy, wrinkled khakis and a heavy black coat that was buttoned up to his neck, around which was wrapped a bright red scarf. A black bowler was perched atop his head which was ringed by his flowing, white hair and long, white beard. He looked like someone who might have fallen out of the pages of a Dickens novel.

Chet crossed Bush Street and continued down the steep Mason Street hill to Sutter, where he turned left. A half-block later, he entered the Hotel Rex and walked past the reception desk into the spacious, dimly-lighted lobby that doubles as the hotel’s bar in the evening. There were a dozen people, mostly couples, scattered throughout the room, talking quietly. Several of the patrons nodded at Chet and he acknowledged the greetings with a smile and a small wave.

He carefully folded his tall frame into a straight-backed chair at a small, round table near the center of the room and crossed his legs. Once settled, he slowly unbuttoned his coat and removed his scarf, which he draped across his lap.

A few minutes later, a young, Asian barmaid approached the table. Chet ordered a cup of hot tea and honey. His soft, deep voice carried the hint of a Texas accent. His enunciation of each word, of each syllable, was impeccable.

The barmaid soon returned with a delicately-patterned, ceramic tea pot, a matching cup and saucer, a spoon and a small container of honey.

“Thank you,” Chet said, almost inaudibly, but with unmistakable sincerity. He didn’t just say it, he meant it.

He spent the next several minutes meticulously preparing his cup of tea. His movements, from pouring the water to spooning and stirring the honey, were excruciatingly deliberate and almost hypnotically graceful. It was as if he was performing some sort of ancient, sacred ritual that required a precise choreography.

When he finished, he encircled the tea cup with his large right hand, raised it to his lips and took a small, exploratory sip. Satisfied that he had achieved the desired result, he gently placed the cup back onto the saucer, leaned back and laced his fingers together across his ample stomach.

Then he did something he loved to do, something at which he was well-practiced, masterful and indefatigable.

Chet Helms began to talk.

He began to talk about himself.

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Published in: on May 28, 2008 at 3:50 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hey fellow readers, I am one of the three early readers who kept pestering Greg to publish (or blog) this piece. This particular piece of writing just tears my heart out. I’m not sure exactly why, though it is such a tender portrait of Chet, so simply and yet…

    So Greg, thank you for including this in The Chronicles. I think that it allows your readers a fair assessment of just how in tune you are with your subject, the sometimes elusive Chester Leo Helms.

    In reading this as well as your other writing, I feel such a longing for those never to be repeated days. Who knew that we would lose Chet…ever. I just assumed that he would always be there, across the bridge, easily accessible. One need only drop by Atelier Dore, for an afternoon of good conversation, and if time allowed a cup of tea or coffee together – just around the corner.

    I want back into those deep connections, our glory days, that I probably took for granted. That I thought were my delayed birthright. They certainly made up for the defiiencies of childhood.

  2. I’m happy to oblige, Silky.


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