(This is the transcript of a story I told as a standup routine in January 2008 for the Porchlight Storytelling Series at the Cafe du Nord in San Francisco)
The New Me: Stories of Reinvention
John Coate, January 2008
I came of age as a teen in the 1960s right here in San Francisco.
Everything you have heard about San Francisco in the 60s is probably true - for better or worse!
The Fillmore and the Avalon ballroom were just $3 a night and they didn't serve alcohol so I started going there when I was 15. I saw everybody.
The Haight-Ashbury scene was an easy walk from my house, or after school I could just roll down the hill to Golden Gate Park where this group called The Diggers would give out free food while some band, sometimes even Janis Joplin or Steve Miller, played for everyone.
Once on a Thursday afternoon in the Park I went to a free Grateful Dead concert where thousands of people danced ecstatically for hours. I had never imagined such energy. To this day it is still the most Dionysian event I ever witnessed. I thought, "I want to be part of this."
Two months before I graduated from high school Martin Luther King was shot. Three days before I graduated, Robert Kennedy was shot.
Six months after high school I was a witness in a notorious murder trial of a white off-duty cop who shot an unarmed black man where all the cops lied on the stand to get their guy off.
I was disillusioned. I wanted nothing to do with mainstream society, Viet Nam, the corporate agenda, or living how someone else thought I should live.
Like a lot of teens, I wanted to find meaning in my life and at the time I thought most of what society had taught me was wrong.
So I turned on, I tuned in and I dropped out.
I lived on the street in Berkeley, lived in the hills in Big Sur, hitchhiked up and down the coast and rode freight trains across the desert.
I lived on a commune in AZ where we paid the rent by going out to farmers' fields and getting bent carrots that wouldn't be sold in the market, then juicing them into gallon jugs and hand delivering them to the hippies around the city.
I was drafted to go to Viet Nam. At that time there were 500K US troops there. But the Army shrink rejected me at my physical for being what he called a mystic nomad.
I dropped out so far that later in 1983, I got a statement from Social Security saying that from 1968 to 1983 I had made a grand total of $3000.
In 1970 I joined a group of people who followed a long-haired hippy guru.
I banded together with a group of 75 people. We pooled all our money and bought a bunch of buses so we could go on the road as part of this big bus caravan that was heading out from San Francisco.
One day out in Sutro Park by the Cliff House, this guy spread his jacket on the ground and we all lined up and put our money in a pile. By the end we had $9K. We used it to buy nine buses plus food and gas money. I lived on one of those buses with as many as seven people at a time.
We traveled in a caravan of about 50 buses, went all over the country to colleges and churches talking about peace and new ways to live. Real 'new age' stuff.
Once in Greenwich Village we couldn't make a turn in a tight T intersection because a parked VW bug was in the way. So we went out, picked it up, put it on the sidewalk, made the turn and then put it back where it was parked.
Later on that trip I handed a pound of weed to the police chief of Salina KS inside their police station and walked away uncharged. I'll save those details for another time.
After the Caravan we wanted to stay together so about 300 of us bought some land in Tennessee and settled there. We just called it The Farm.
I spent most of the 70s there farming, building, fixing cars, trucks and tractors, and running a hauling and scrap business. I got married and started a family. I was a complete vegetarian and lived seven years without electricity.
In 1978 I moved with my young family to the northeast to live with other farm people in urban communes.
We squatted in a building in the south Bronx when it was at its most bombed-out. They had the worst health care in the country so we started a free ambulance service.
My daughter was born in that squatted building, delivered by a midwife. Back then there were no home births in New York City. We had to convince a doctor to sign the form as if he was present even though he wasn't, in order to get her a birth certificate.
Later we lived in DC for 4 yrs in a big house with ten adults and thirteen kids. It sounds crazy but it worked out well. We helped found the first bi-lingual free clinic in DC, and it still operates today.
But by 1983 it was time to move on so we moved back to California.
I worked for three years in San Rafael as an auto mechanic. I dumpster dived behind thrift stores for stuff. That's part of how you make it with four kids and a $10/hr job.
But my boss expected me to commit consumer fraud - so I got sick of it and quit.
I was at a party talking with a friend about my situation and he said, "I need help. Why don't you come work for me." He was the one-man admin crew for a dialup online service in Sausalito called the WELL. It was an offshoot of the 60s sourcebook, the Whole Earth Catalogue.
I said 'sure' not really knowing what to expect. The day I went to work there was the first time I ever sat in front of a computer.
The WELL was one of the earliest online group communication systems and one of the first ways for the public to dial into the Internet. It was a group of people who were among the first to experience the joys and heartaches of what became known as online community.
It didn't take me too long to figure out that we weren't in the computer business - we were in the relationship business. When I saw that I thought, "Ah...this I know something about!"
I was hired as the marketing director, but I didn't know much of anything about marketing, and since we didn't have any money anyway, I figured the best thing I could do was help the experience be so meaningful to the people using it that they would market it. And they did. We became pretty well known as a place where people could use a computer network to develop meaningful relationships - either work or personal, or both.
The WELL was sold in 1991 to a new guy and I left with lots of ideas about how to mix edited material like journalism with direct public dialogue. I was hired by the Chronicle and Examiner to conceive, build and run an online experiment. That became SF Gate. It was the first big news operation to get on the web.
I started by hand coding the pages and copy/pasting news stories into them. We got the news from a bunch of sources but we wrote our own stuff too. We had a lot of fun with it for those first years, making it all up as we went along.
As each year went by it got bigger, more money was involved and the stakes got higher. Big media started to realize that someday this tail wasn't just going to wag the dog. It was going to become the dog.
Soon enough, there I was wearing suits talking to big media executives.
In 1997 I was invited up to the very top floor of the BofA building to give a presentation about the Gate and new media to the family that owned the Chronicle, KRON and a bunch of other media.
That month Wired Magazine did a cover story about the WELL and I was one of four people in the cover photo. The CEO gave me this big intro and showed them all the cover of Wired.
Standing there in my high-end suit at the top of San Francisco, looking out the window past all those millionaires I thought, "boy, I have really come a long way."
I described to them how the Internet was going to change everything.
A couple of years later, they sold everything they had including the Gate along with the Chronicle.
In 2000, Editor and Publisher, the newspapers' main industry magazine, decided to run a big multi-page profile about me. They sent one of their reporters out to follow me around for a week and then write about it.
Naturally he wanted to know my background - had I gone to a prestigious journalism school? Was I an experienced newsman? Not wanting to lie and figuring the news world wouldn't care all that much, I described my path and how I got to where I was. Of course I also spent lots of time talking about how I thought the news ought to work on the Internet and some of our other ideas, but he was so fascinated with my weird background that he pretty much devoted the whole story to that.
One day in the hall Phil Bronstein looks at me sort of sideways with arched eyebrows and says, "so I found your profile in E&P rather, uh, interesting."
Pretty soon my new boss, Hearst, brought in their own guy, I was given a settlement and let go - freed up for another round of reinvention.
Not long after, I became a cartoon character named Brojo talking all day online to teens. But that is another story..