Hube the Cube - 1958

Midnite in North Beach

In the late 1950s, having returned to the USA after four years in France where, conscripted into the US Army to help defend the Free World, I'd served at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) and, after somehow receiving an honorable discharge, had proceeded to demonstrate my disdain for the travel ban instituted by then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles by daring to travel and film (as an NBC-TV "special correspondent"), threoughout China. As a result of which, in addition to being denied renewal of my passport, I'd become a public film-lecturer touring the country with my documentary INSIDE RED CHINA. Being on a very limited budget, wherever possible I'd accept the hospitality of local friends who were able to provide accomodation. One night, after showing my film at UC Berkeley, I was to stay at Armando del Torto's. Armando, a relocated Los Angeleno, rented a tiny studio in North Beach. Almost filling the floor of his broomcloset-sized bedroom, in stacks alongside a thin mattress, crouched the collected works of Leon Trotsky. The wall was adorned with a large map of San Francisco on which colored stick pins indicated the location of police stations, national guard armories, telephone central offices, radio & television stations, and other such facilities which, in combination with the presence of Trotsky's writings, could lead a hyper-active imagination to conjecture that whoever lived there was plotting revolution - an impression somewhat heightened by the presence of what looked like a World War One army surplus bolt-action rifle and bandoleer of ammunition hanging on a hook directly above the map. I was to sleep in Armando's kitchen in an old army surplus "Fart Sack" mummy-type sleeping bag on the wood floor under the sink.

Arriving around midnight, and seeing no light in the windows, Armando having told me that, if he was out or already asleep, the door would be unlocked, I let myself in.

Turning on the light and looking down I was confronted with the spectacle of a diminuitive shrunked-faced bearded man wearing a black beret and very dark sunglasses lounging in a "fart sack" similar to my own underneath the kitchen table. In front of him on the floor was a large aluminum film can filled with bits of stems and crumbling leaves; and surrounding which were dozens of very skinny hand-rolled cigarettes. "Hi," he muttered through the cloud of pot smoke which filled the tiny kitchen. "I'm Hube - you must be Cohen. Would you like a joint?"

Being extremely discrete, especially since I'd recently defied the Eisenhower-Nixon Administration's Cold War foreign policy by going to China, and assuming that our nation's protectors were not above compromising those who disagreed with them, I declined his offer.

Turning off the light, which left the glow from Hube's joint the only illumination, I crawled into my own "fart sack" under the sink and went to sleep. I woke up a few hours later - 3:00 AM or so - and saw from the glow that Hube was still smoking under the table. When I arose the next morning around 8:00 AM he was still there, still wearing his beret and sunglasses, still rolling and smoking joints. Noticing my puzzled expression, Hobe explained "I work as a cleaner and roller in a pot factory. As pay I get to take home the stems and leftovers."

I'd bump into Hube occasionally over the next few years when visiting San Francisco. Jay Hoppe, whom I'd known in Paris in the mid-fifties as an antique dealer, and had then moved to North Beach and opened a small coffee house which he'd named "The Co-Existance Bagel Shop," used to give Hube free food for sitting in the Bagel Shop's front window.

It was an act of genius because the San Francisco newspapers, always on the lookout for the unusual, were able to illustrate their stories about the rising tide of "beat generation" counter-culture with photos of a bearded Hube, "authentic bearded beatnik" - Hube, costumed in his black beret and sunglasses.

The idea that there was a place where such weird-looking types were welcome attracted others who felt stifled by the then-prevalent button-down-collar, gray flannel suit, short haired, clean-shaven conformity. Art Hoppe (no relation to Jay Hoppe), the widely-read columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, fell in love with the Bagel Shop and the developing North Beach scene; and wrote about it extensively - as did others. First magazine articles, then TV sit-coms, and finally feature-length Hollywood films began featuring Hube look-alikes.

Hube told me that he always carried a letter from a psychiatrist stating that he was mentally unstable. When stopped by the cops he would throw a fit, foaming at the mouth, writhing on the sidewalk, and vomiting and pissing in his pants. This tactic, he boasted, enforced by the letter from his shrink, had saved him from going to jail on many occasions, especially after he'd gone from working in the pot factory to peddling "glass" (amphetamines) to curious college kids who'd come to North Beach to score drugs.

My last encounter with Hube was in the early sixties. "Do you have a thousand bucks?" he asked one night in the Bagel Shop. "Because if you do, and you'd like to turn it into two thousand bucks in one hour," Hube continued, "I can do it for you." He went on to tell me that a merchant marine sailor had arrived from the Orient with a kilo of heroin which he was prepared to sell for $1,000 - and that he, Hube, knew where he could immediately resell for $3,000. "So, if you give me $1,000, I'll sell it for three, and split the profit with you," he proposed.

"I'm sorry," I answered, "for several reasons: First of all, I think selling heroin is a very bad thing. But even if I didn't, just as a simple criminal business deal, since I don't know this sailor, how can I be certain that he's an honest drug smuggler who's really selling heroin, and not a mixture of baby laxative and talcum powder, much less strlychine? And finally, Hube, how can I be certain that you, despite our years of acquaintance, are sufficiently trustworthy for me to give you $1,000 with which to carry out this illegal exchange?"

Even if I'd been prepared to share in the profit from buying and re-selling heroin, which I wasn't, I assumed that the "merchant seaman with a kilo of horse" was probably an imaginary device he'd concocted in order to acquire cash. While Hube was a friend, knowing him to be an addict, I was not about to place such temptation in his path.

I never saw "Hube the Cube" again.

© 2003 - Robert Carl Cohen

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