Know All Men by These Presents: That we, the undersigned, have this day voluntarily associated ourselves for the purpose of forming a corporation under the laws of the State of California, and we do hereby certify as follows:
FIRST: The name of this corporation is:
INSTITUTE OF HUMAN ABILITIES, INC.
SECOND: The purpose for which this corporation is formed are as follows:
(a) The specific business is the educational and scientific pursuits and development of the human mind as fully and to the same extent as a natural person might do, and the additional objects are as follows:
1. To construct and lease or rent for profit apartments, homes, multiple family dwellings of all types, motels, hotels, and mobile parks, and office buildings.
2. To re-sell at a profit all types of structures and businesses herein-above described.
3. To sell at wholesale or retail goods, wares and merchandise.
4. To distribute merchandise.
5. To do such things in any part of the world.
6. To hold without limit, purchase and convey, exchange, lease, sublease, mortgage or otherwise acquire and dispose of real and personal property, both within and without the said State of California, and in all other states, territories and colonies of the United States, and in all foreign countries and places.
In witness whereof, on the 29th day of December, 1969, we the undersigned as to be the First Directors of said Institute of Human Abilities, Inc., have hereunto set our respective hands.
Wilbert V. Baranco Jr., Robert Kerr, Paul Robbins
Victor Baranco lounged in his shorts shooting poker chips off his backyard fence with his B-B gun. He had been lying there off and on in suburban Lafayette, California, for nine months, ever since he had discovered the answers to the mysteries of the universe: Who am I and why am I here? “Since there are questions,” he had thought, “there must be answers.” And he had found the answers and realized he was perfect. There wasn’t anything else to do but lie down.
“I am 34 years old,” he told the blue-jay who was a frequent visitor to his backyard. “I have done everything there is to do. I have been a maitre d’ in a fine restaurant, and a used car salesman. I have won cruises for being a top refrigerator salesman. I have been a peddler of phony jewelry. I have flown people to Las Vegas to gamble. Some of the great people of the world — Mort Sahl, Francis Faye, Christine Jorgensen — know me by name. I have a wonderful wife, two perfect children and a Thunderbird. I have traveled to Los Angeles, Reno, Hawaii and Mexico. And now I have solved the biggest logic problem of all.”
Two psychiatrists had already told him that it was psychiatrically unsound to teach self-realization to other people. “Since I have discovered that there are no limits on me,” he told the bluejay, “I will not accept that limit. I want others to know what I know. I want to serve the world unselfishly and make a profit.” He lay down his B-B gun. “I will call what I know the More Philosophy,” he declared, and he put on his pants and left his backyard.
It’s More! It’s the great banquet table of life! It’s a corporation! It’s the Institute of Human Abilities. Oh-oh! Sounds like another of those encounter group things. Well, no, not quite. — Aquarius Magazine, Published by the Institute, of Human Abilities
It was three years ago that Victor felled his last backyard poker chip. Now the Institute that Victor founded to teach the More Philosophy has grown to be a chain of communes so efficient and profitable that people in Berkeley refer to Baranco as the Colonel Sanders of the commune scene.
Victor knew that for making money, real estate was the soundest investment. He had bought run-down old houses, lived in them, fixed them up with his own labor, and sold them for a profit. Then he figured out a new plan. He bought a decrepit old Victorian house on a dead-end street in Oakland, and populated it with some hippie fugitives from the dying Haight-Ashbury. He told them they could live in the house if they would repair it. It took the young people more than a year to repair the fine old house, restore it to its original beauty while Victor lived with his wife and children in his comfortable Lafayette home watching the investment appreciate.
Today there are six restored houses on that dead-end street alone, and ten more in Oakland, Lafayette, Berkeley, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Hawaii, with four more in the works, and about 160 people who are full-time residents. A resident pays a $200 a month residence fee which entitles him to room and board, parties, love, affection, and the opportunity to restore dilapidated houses for free. And there are several more people who are members of Victor’s corporation which owns these homes, renovated and paid for by the rent from the many More People.
In addition to the income from the residence fees of 160 people — $384,000 a year — the Institute also collects money from some 70-odd weekly courses at $45 each. On top of this is the equity in the houses restored by More labor, and on top of that there’s a non-profit organization, TOTA, which was recently set up to collect government and foundation funds for housing alcoholics, non-placeable foster children, and parolees.
“We are aware that the vast majority of human beings on this planet are leading lives which they consider far less than perfect. This needn’t be the case. Whoever you are, and whatever you want more of in your life, we can show you how.
“Weekly groups are held in private homes. People come to make new friends and have an interesting evening playing games designed to be fun and at the same time increase awareness of how one is in control of one’s own life. The beginning groups are called ‘Mark’ groups. Yes, that’s right. Like ‘pigeon’ or victim.” —Aquarius Magazine
It was a hot night in Oakland, California. The claustrophobic apartment I had come to was even hotter: the curtainless windows had to be kept shut or no would be heard above the sound of traffic on the street. The one-room dwelling was crowded with “marks” who sat on aluminum and grey plastic chairs, lay on the single-sized water bed, huddled here and there on the floor. In the following scenes, I have changed the names of “Marks” and “evaluates” to protect the innocent.
On any night of the week wherever there are More Houses, groups of people like this one — computer programmers, teachers, students, dental assistants, clerks, pharmacy delivery boys, the pharmacists themselves, jobless longhairs, hippie chicks — pay $2.50 to sit near each other and play structured games directed by a group leader.
Our group leader was Chris, a healthy young woman whose bosoms were falling out of the front of her low-cut satin shirt. “OK, Arnie,” said Chris. “Now I want you to name five things that you want and I’m going to try to see that you get them.”
Arnie, a husky, prematurely balding college kid, sat folded shyly next to the wall on the floor. It was his first Mark group. He squirmed, his eyes looked frightened. “I feel so uptight,” he said. “Paranoid.”
“You’ve never made a mistake in your life,” lisped Bryce earnestly from across the room. He gazed at Arnie intently, like a hypnotist. “You’ve never made a wrong decision in your life.” Instead of being calmed by Bryce’s fervor, Arnie became more confused and upset.
“It’s OK, Arnie,” Chris reassured him. “Just tell us five things that you want. That’s what I’m here for, to see that you have a good time and get what you want.”
Arnie sat pulling at his bottom lip, stretching it inches and letting it snap back into place. He took a deep breath. “My name is Arnie,” he began. “I want to be free, to overcome my inhibitions, to attain my creative potential, to have a beautiful relationship with a woman, and, uh, to really know what I want.”
Chris rolled her eyes, and everyone snickered. “Arnie, how can I get those things for you? Name some material things. Five material things.”
“Oh,” he said, blushing. “Material things.” He started in on his bottom lip again. “I want a stereo, a car, a house by the ocean, some new clothes, and a waterbed maybe.”
“Well,” said Chris, breaking the silence. “It’s still hard to get you what you want. Don’t you see, Arnie, you lose by not wanting things you can get? Robin, you’ve been here before. Why don’t you tell us what you want?”
“I want a leather watchband, some flowers, embroidery thread, and some herbal shampoo,” I said.
“I’ll make you the watchband,” Roger volunteered.
“I’ll get you the embroidery thread,” said Chris. “Come to dinner at the Harper Street More House on Thursday night, and I’ll give it to you then.”
“I’ll get you some flowers,” Frannie offered between giggles, “and give them to you Thursday.”
“OK, Arthur, now you.” Chris and Arthur exchanged warm glances.
Arthur, a veteran of these group meetings, at 40 was older than anyone there, and had an air of knowing what he wanted. He had swaggered in earlier, his green drip dry shirt opened practically to his waist, and hugged and kissed Chris. Then he had sat down at the feet of the girl whose apartment it was, under a Dennis Hopper poster. Sometimes he rested his head in her lap, and stroked her shin with a forefinger.
He straightened up and smiled confidently. “Certainly, Chris. I want a waterbed, a shirt with a More House symbol on it, I want to have a good time and to make out with Chris and Patty here.” He patted her knee.
“Penny,” said the girl reddening.
“Oh. Right, Penny.”
The game continued. Ralph was chosen to sit on the “hot seat” while everyone interrogated him. He revealed that more than anything he wanted to give a certain 36-year-old sociologist her first orgasm.
“Have you taken the Basic Sensuality course?” Bryce wanted to know. Ralph had, and the course veterans agreed he’d have no trouble with his goal.
“And have you been doing your exercises?” Bryce persisted. Ralph blushed and nodded. The veterans laughed.
“What exercises?” I asked.
“Masturbation,” said Bryce.
“A More House is a residence hall; it is a training program in living; and it provides the public with a place to go and find out how to live and love it, to have what you want, to see what enlightened people look like.” — Aquarius Magazine
I arrived at the Harper Street More House on Thursday night for dinner. Chris and the other people I’d met seemed friendly and well-meaning. In my pocketbook I had a bottle of strawberry body lotion for Frannie, the girl who had told me she’d bring me flowers. Her want list had been four strawberry scented products — lotion, vaseline, soap and oil, and some body paint. Sensing that she liked strawberry, I had told the saleslady at the Body Shop to put a double dose of the scent in the lotion.
The house was prematurely dark and the halls were gloomy. In the front hall was a list of house rules that gave the place the feel of a dormitory.
No drugs of any kind
Telephone use by permission only
Public rooms — living room anddining room only
No Overnight Guests
House Closes at 11:00
Frannie appeared. She was all dressed up. Tonight, she explained, was the first night of the Institute’s six week course in Advanced Sensuality. She was very excited about taking it and giggled more than usual. The acid she said she’d dropped for the occasion might have helped, too. She looked like a fading kewpie doll, with brittle bleached hair, over the hill at 18-years. She had two circles of rouge on her cheeks, red lipstick, clownlike in the shapeless print dress she wore. I gave her the lotion and she thanked me, apologizing for having forgotten the flowers she’d promised to get for me.
Frannie led me through the house, through the dining room and behind the kitchen to a back hall where there was a room as small as a closet. It was her bedroom. The one window in the room overlooked a rubbish heap in the backyard. We had to sit down because the slanting ceiling made it impossible to stand comfortably. Plaster had fallen off the wall and there were patches of bare, dirty boards. Frannie’s touches made the place seem homelike; her upright suitcase served as a night table; a cracked mirror was propped up on a board-and-cinder block dressing table. She had hung up a blanket to give her bed privacy.
Frannie was what the Institute calls an “evaluate,” the lowest of the low on the More House corporate ladder. As Ken Brown, the new President of the Institute put it: “When people move in as evaluates we push them, treat them like victims. Say you’re working in the kitchen hard all day, doing your best, and you get to the point where you don’t think you can do any more. That’s when we tell them to drive to San Jose to get us a taco, and to top it off, we don’t give them money for gas. We prove to people that they can do more than they thought they could, so they can feel like heroes.
“As Victor would say, ‘The way to enjoy your life is to do whatever anybody wants you to do, to be a slave. Everyone is afraid that they’re going to get conned or had or cheated, or done in, or they think they’re going to have their souls stolen or something. So they’ll never be slaves. But that is exactly what you want to do. That’s what I mean by unselfishly serving the world.'”
Frannie’s duties had been mostly cleaning and scrubbing. For this the evaluate paid $200 for two weeks. Frannie said that she had borrowed the money. She said she was enjoying herself and was doing everything everyone told her, hoping to live there forever and one day teach courses of her own.
We could hear angry voices coming from the kitchen. It was Shannon, one of the house elite. “It smells in here.”
“Well, people don’t clean like they should, that’s all,” said Bryce, who was the Harper Street Housekeeper.
“Who was supposed to clean the kitchen?”
“And what about that pile of dust in the front room?” Shannon was getting angry. ‘
“I don’t know,” said Bryce meekly.
“Well, are you going to take care of it or do I have to do it myself?” Shannon was furious. The house elite were supposed to be free of such menial tasks.
Bryce stamped into Frannie’s room and yelled at her. “What’s that pile of dirt doing in the front room?”
“There was no dust pan,” Frannie explained giggling nervously.
“Well, couldn’t you have found anything else.” Bryce was disgusted.
“Of course not. All you ever do is giggle,” he said contemptuously. “Well, see that it doesn’t happen again.” And he stomped out. We could hear him in the kitchen bitching at an apologetic Frank, another evaluate.
Soon the close little room began smelling of rotting fruit. It was Frannie applying her strawberry lotion. I wandered out to the kitchen. Frank was sweeping the floor. Even though he appeared worn and upset, he insisted that he was enjoying the evaluate program. Besides cleaning, he worked all day putting a new roof on the More House. There had been a fire the year before and the second and third floors had been gutted, and the roof had disappeared. He suggested I take a look at the rest of the house.
Though the house appeared whole from the outside, just the skeleton of a house remained inside, with blankets hung and old doors propped up between the beds for privacy. From the third floor there was a clear view of the rooms below: they had no ceilings. And it was cold.
The living room was furnished in 1960 Sears-Roebuck, with tacky wall-to-wall carpeting and a television set. On a table lay a copy of Aquarius Magazine. “This magazine is deliberate,” it read. “There are no typographical errors.” There were pictures of More Housers, Institute gossip, and short stories. There was one particularly awful story about some sort of concentration camp. The characters were living in squalor surrounded by barbed wire. There were no toilets so they just squatted in the dirt. Their food was thrown on the ground with their shit. And every day the executioner would come and drag one of them to the execution block and chop off a head in full view of the others. There were lurid descriptions of the murder. At the end of the story it turned out that the characters were chickens. The story had been written by Victor Baranco.
On the wall was an out-of-focus photograph of a fat man dressed in white, one hand raised as if in blessing.
Bryce came in and said it was Victor in the photograph.
“Have you ever met him?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Not yet. Everyone else here has met him but me, even though I’ve been here for months.”
“Why haven’t you? Don’t you want to?”
“Yes, I do,” he said. “But I’m not ready to see him. He’s too powerful and I just can’t confront him yet.”
“Yes. He’s got so much power. He’s responsible for all of us.”
At dinner, the candlelit table was set for 16, but only eight people came. Frank scurried around, putting last – minute touches on setting the table, serving food, fetching koolaid. Hardly a word was spoken. Shannon sat at the head of the table. She seemed glum and depressed. She told me that she had been to a professionals’ meeting, where teachers pay $35 for a few hours with Victor.
“Victor hexed me a lot,” she said.
“He hexed you?”
“Yes. He had a whole bunch of things to say about how this house was doing.”
“Was he mean to you?” I asked her.
“Oh, no! He wasn’t being mean. Just truthful.”
“Do you like him?”
She looked at me for the first time. Her eyes grew wide and glazed over. “Oh, yes! I love him.” She left the table soon after.
I asked Ray, another teacher, what Victor had done to Shannon. What was hexing?
“Life is like an elevator,” Ray philosophized. “It goes up and down. When you hex someone you take them down, and then you can bring them up again if you want to.”
I asked Ray about the Institute courses.
“They’re all great,” he told me. “We guarantee a flash of your own perfection with every weekend course.
“In the world out there,” he continued, “you are taught that everything is wrong. We’re all doomed by ecology and wars and stuff. Well, Victor has taught us that it’s really all right. Out there you don’t feel like you can do what you want. But living here, where everybody thinks the same way as you, that they’re perfect just like they are, it works out. And it does work out. Like Victor has everything he wants — a house, a limousine. And this is the first business that hasn’t fallen through for him.”
I left the house alone. Alan, a young man from the Mark group who had asked me to meet him that night, had not shown up. And I didn’t get the embroidery thread from Chris. She must have forgotten she had invited me to dinner, because she never showed up either.
The official courses and their description from Aquarius Magazine:
Two days are devoted to comparing the More philosophy with THE WORD as written in the Bible. The parallels are startling. This course has been and promises to be one of the most dynamic experiences ever offered. $45.00.
Hexing is a conceptual game which every human being is playing every time he opens his mouth; but very few people are aware of the game. This weekend course will provide you with the history, technique, structure and applications of hexing. The extent to which one can control his hexing is the extent to which one controls his universe. $45.00.
This course is both what its name denotes and connotes. Total control of one’s hexes, of all kinds, is total control of one’s universe. It is possible to get all that Advanced Hexing has to offer. $45.00.
Two days which will show you the physical and conceptual techniques to overcome impotency and frigidity, to increase the duration and intensity of orgasm, to train partners and to experience pleasurable childbirth. Also covers completely the concept of responsible hedonism. $45.00.
A two-day seminar covering the basics of successful communication and the techniques of removing barriers to communication. This course will increase the effectiveness of your communication and teach you how not to be victimized by the poor communications of others. $45.00.
An extension of the Basic Communication course, dealing more deeply with non-verbal communication, with winning and losing, and with controlling the universe with words. Also, this course deals with both animate and inanimate objects. An incredible weekend. $45.00.
Jealousy, Money and Possession
A two-day seminar covering topics such as ownership, trust, betrayal, interpersonal relationships, money and jealousy. How to have more and enjoy more of what is already yours. $45.00.
A Weekend with Vic Baranco
A totally unstructured weekend in which the instructor will answer any and all questions asked. The content of this course is totally dependent on the student’s ability to have. [It should be noted that this course is not necessarily taught by Vic himself. But it isn’t. Recently his 10- and 12-year-old children taught this course.]
Man and Woman
This course deals with the roles and the language of the sexes and with the dynamics of the relationships these create. The course teaches how to interpret Manese and Womanese, and how to understand the math of one and two. $45.00
The granddaddy of all courses. Seven hours with Victor Baranco. In this course there will be a very limited number of students each time it’s taught. There is no limit to how high this course will go.
How to Go into Business in Your Spare Time with No Capital Investment
This is the course of courses. During the weekend, Vic will answer all your questions on the meaning, structure and teaching technique of any, or any part of, the structured courses. The course is intended primarily as an advanced seminar for teachers and potential teachers but may be attended by anyone seriously interested in how to produce from cause that which they experienced at effect in Institute courses. Participants are expected to attend with specific questions to be answered about courses they have taken and/or taught. Prerequisite: Two structured courses. Price $65.
Professional Meeting with Victor Baranco
Thursdays 2-5 PM, $35.
Linda, a sweet, bland 24-year-old girl, from Oklahoma originally, sat in another tacky More House living-room in Oakland wearing a brave smile. With her hand she gracefully stroked the underside of the shaft, the head, and the white balls of the larger than life erect plaster of paris penis which sat in her lap. Finally she grasped the thing in her fist and moved her hand up and down.
“It’s just really neat, ‘doing’ a man,” she said shrugging. “And I really enjoy it a whole bunch. It’s a really neat way to get close to some people and have a good time.” Wayne, her husband and co-teacher of the course, smiled at her approvingly and caressed a plaster vagina. And Victor Baranco smiled down on the two whom he had married two weeks before, from his ubiquitous photograph on the wall, his hand raised in blessing.
I was taking my first Institute course, Basic Sensuality. “You aren’t going to hear anything that you don’t already know.” Wayne began. “All the stuff that I’m saying will be true. We’ll reteach you how to love another person in logical intellectual steps. Fucking is such a hit or miss proposition.” The Institute recommends mutual masturbation as a “surefire way to a perfect orgasm every time.” They call it “doing” the other person, and told us how to do a perfect “do.”
“According to Masters and Johnson, the average number of contractions per orgasm for women is 6-9, and 8-12 for men. But after a couple years of training we’ve had people here at the Institute have as many as 250 contractions per orgasm!”
“Who does the counting?” I asked.
“Why, the person who is doing the doing,” said Wayne.
Wayne got on the floor with the course assistant to show the class positions to sit in while doing the other person. They taught that it works out best when the “doee” is totally passive, and the doer is active. Mostly the positions to sit in were just common sense. But as Victor would say, if you are bored by his courses, it’s you who is responsible.
For homework, we were given an exercise to do. They told us to go home and take a bath, put on our favorite perfume, light candles, and burn incense, “Then put a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door, climb into bed and masturbate.”
On both days of the course, Wayne ended the sessions three hours early.
“Forty-five dollars and they don’t even give you lunch,” grumbled Fred as we walked outside during the break. “It took me three days of work to earn the money.”
Michael was a 17-year-old football-playing high school student with braces and skin that pulsated with impending acne. He had revealed in the class that he was a virgin. “But not for long,” he told me now. “I think I’m gonna do it with Betty tonight.”
“She was there this morning. The teaching assistant.”
“You mean the lady with the grey hair who took our money?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. I was supposed to see her last night, but her son was having his 26th birthday party and she couldn’t see me.”
“How old is she?”
“Forty-eight,” he said. “But I try not to think about it.”
I wanted all things
To seem to make some sense.
So we all could be happy, yes,
Instead of tense
And I made up lies
So that they all fit nice
And I made this sad world
— Bokonon’s “Calypsos,” from ‘Cat’s Cradle,’ by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Think now of what this country’s population is made of. 90% are hung up, bound in value judgements, bored, hating, fearing, grieving. They are the living dead. Call these the less people. Grieve for them. They have resisted life. But there is hope for them. There is a complete Human Being under each one of those piles of garbage. — Aquarius Magazine
“You know that the people out there are afraid, right?” Victor told students on a recent weekend in one of his courses. “So what you have to do is give them a power structure to relate to, a chain of command. Then their fear diminishes. It’s totally fictitious, this chain of command, and this top man, too, but it’s easier for people if they know who the boss is.”
“Even without the philosophy,” Victor had said, “the machine still works. What you got is a situation in which you can live in a More House for $200 a month as long as there’s ten or more people there. And you can live better on the $200 than you would with $700 if you didn’t live there. And that’s with maid service and your laundry done, and your food cooked for you.”
Where the $200 a month residence fee comes from is up to the individual. Some people collect unemployment for as long as they can. Some get money from their parents. Some work part time in the outside world. What most people do is teach Victor’s vague courses to the public.
The manager/teachers of the More Houses, “house mothers” as they are called, pay a fee of $2000 for that privilege. They are never the ones who own the property; the landlords are always absent. The $2000 pays for all the courses and the consultation fee on how to run a commune, and gives the manager the right to call the place a More House.
“Everything is handled by the way Victor set it up,” says Ken Brown, one of Baranco’s right hand men, adding that the structure helped them get more out of life. Didn’t that take away their freedom, though?
“Freedom? We call it default to live unstructured, unplanned lives. It’s more fun when there’s a structure. That way we are told how to live and we can tell other people. Victor is like our father. He takes responsibility for everyone here. We always know we’ll get the truth from him.”
Considered apart from its financial involvements, and its Mark sessions and hexing and doing, the Institute has all the benign aspects of a perpetual summer camp for grown-ups. A $200 monthly residence fee buys each camper the chance to live in a family — like the one he left behind — with an authority figure who will tell everyone how to live and get along with each other; gives them chores and duties to fill up their time; and arranges planned activities to participate in.
Those who join are also given a membership badge — a shiny medallion with the More symbol on it, a sort of peace sign with a line through it, to wear around their necks. It is given to each perfect person at a special presentation ceremony, and is supposed to “remind the wearer that he is a winner.”
Planned activities include Mark groups, outings, and parties. The More People party all the time. This year’s Halloween bash at the Institute’s main house on Hamilton Street was crammed with bodies (“wall to wall people,” they call it), packed so tightly that it was practically impossible to get to the bar. The atmosphere was the sort of hilarity of people desperate to have a good time.
Standing to one side of a four-foot-high More symbol made of blinking electric lights stood a bug-eyed young man who didn’t live at the Institute, but said he liked to party with these people. “It’s nice,” he said, “the way they’re always smiling, and I think that living here makes them feel good. Most of them when they come here are really down and out, in the middle of an identity crisis, and the Institute sells them identity. But I can’t stand the way they worship Victor. It’s always ‘Victor says this’ and ‘Victor that.’
“Most of the people find a place for themselves here. They either become hustlers, like Victor, or they stay around and become servants. But I’ve got to hand it to them. They’re up front about the hustle. Like they always tell me when there’s a rich person at a party. They want me to take pictures of that person for the magazine so they’ll be flattered and join the Institute.
“And they really know how to party. If you stick around long enough, there’s always a back room orgy.”
Out on the front porch it was cooler and less crowded. A girl in a belly dancer costume did her version of a belly dance though no one paid her much attention.
Billy sat alone on the railing, watching the party. He was 15 and had been living at the Institute for a year and a half. His father lived there, too, and was the Institute’s live-in lawyer, though, Billy said proudly, his Dad didn’t do much work anymore.
He said that before he moved into the More House he was ready to kill himself. His parents had been in the process of separating because his father wanted to go with Victor, and his mother would have nothing to do with the Institute. “Everybody took sides. My older sister went with Dad and my younger sister staved with Mom. I was supposed to stay with her, too. but I didn’t want to. She hated Victor. She used to say that him and Dad should be strung up by the balls. She told me that she heard that Victor had $80,000 hidden away in a Swiss bank, and that she was sure he was going to run out on the Institute and leave everybody in the lurch. She wanted me to stay away from the Institute and my father. Finally I told her to fuck off, and I moved in here.”
Billy said he was happy at the Institute, and was better off there than at home. He had his own room, stereo and TV set. “Once we had a tour of kids from school come to visit this house. They expected a hippie commune but they were really surprised at how good we live here. We are taught that it’s OK to believe in material things, and we do. We’re good Americans.”
I met Dewey at the More House Halloween party. He was dressed like a playboy but he looked like a penguin. Dewey was the managing editor of Aquarius, which has its office in the basement of 80 Hamilton Street, in a closet. But Dewey wasn’t complaining. He said he ran the magazine smoothly from the closet. The toughest task he had each month was Victor’s column, Head Trip. Each month Victor would send him a tape he had made, which would have to be transcribed and edited.
“They’re so heavy,” he told me. I read one of them. It was about a woman who drove past a hitchhiker every day in her new station wagon and wondered if she should pick him up. Finally she decided not to be afraid of him. If there were anything strange about him, she figured, he wouldn’t be there so regularly all the time. She stopped and picked the hitchhiker up one day, and he killed her.
Dewey had just taken his first course with Victor, a new course Victor had just invented called “How To Go Into Business Without Any Money.”
“It was a special $65 course,” said Dewey. “I learned a whole bunch.”
“Why was it $65 instead of $45?”
“I don’t know, but it was worth it.”
“What did he teach you?” I asked.
“Mostly he just answered the questions that we asked him. He did talk a lot about selling love. He ran it down to us in the analogy of the vacuum cleaner salesman. See, businesses do this thing, he told us, where they advertise a cheap model, the $19.95 machine, to lure people to the store. Well, it’s called a ‘nail-down’ because the salesman is supposed to treat it like it was nailed down to the floor. His boss wants him to sell the customer the $150.00 model. And the boss is right, Victor said. He should get his asking price. He is entitled to his profit.
“Say a customer comes in. The lady needs a vacuum cleaner. And the salesman wants to make a sale. So, Victor said that the salesman should reach into his own pocket and shell out the $150.00 for the vacuum cleaner and give it to the lady. That way everybody wins.”
“But what about the salesman,” I asked. “He’s out $150.00.”
“Victor said that was the question that people always ask.”
“Well,” I said, “did he give you the answer?”
“Yes, he did. But I didn’t hear it right. Something about loving.” Dewey mused. “I’ve got it! Giving your money away is a loving thing to do, so you win by it.”
“July 28th was the scene of many parties in celebration of Victor Baranco’s birthday. Everyone who understands that life is good took the opportunity of Victor’s Day to celebrate what we call the Victory of Being. There were birthday celebrations in all the houses and love was the theme. Of course no one could resist showering presents on the one who has been responsible for the past three years of our exciting communal existence. The party at Lafayette was a beautiful affair. All of the guests received gifts from Victor, much to their surprise. The real pleasure of the evening, however, was in watching him open his gifts. There’s no ripping and tearing when Victor opens presents. Instead, each moment is savored as he experiences receiving with such studied elegance. Every detail of each selection is carefully noticed and appreciated. The guests were overwhelmed by the 2-1/2 hour present-opening spectacle. The following quote from Victor’s Man and Woman course explained to me the magnificence of this man’s, approach to giving and taking:
If I give to you so that you may have, I’ve taken
If I give to you so that I may have, I’ve given.
If I take from you so that I can give to you by being a willing receptacle, I win.
If I take from you so that I might have, I lose.” — from Social Notes, a column in Aquarius
“Victor has given me a new life,” said Ken Brown, one of Victor’s most enthusiastic believers. The 51-year-old former school teacher from Daly City lounged on his bed, enjoying his leisure. “I was a middle-class man living in the suburbs with my $16,000 a year job; having sex maybe three times a week. The Institute turned me on and showed me the way to heaven. Now we do three hours’ a day worth of sex.”
Ken, whose thinning hair hangs to his shoulders, has been living at More House one and a half years as a teacher, treasurer, and now as the Institute President. He says he went to a psychiatrist for seven years before he came to More House. “We at More House believe that every day is Sunday. We believe that we are on Earth to have a good time, to devote our lives to pleasure. We call it responsible hedonism. We indulge ourselves all the time.”
He told me that teachers at the Institute call themselves priests because they are spreading the word of love. “This is a religious institution, really. It’s a business, true, but the Catholic Church is, too. It’s the same hustle in a different package. But we fit into the tenor of the times, what with the communes and all.”
“Our main function is service,” said Ken’s wife Mary, who bustled into the room where we sat carrying a tray of freshly baked cookies which she didn’t offer to her husband or me. “We teach service in the kitchen, living room and bedroom. People serve Victor totally. He has a chauffeur, everyone waits on him, he gets anything he wants. I just made these cookies to take to his house tomorrow.”
“And I serve him, too,” Ken piped in. “I take care of business for him, buy property, deal with realtors. So does Bobby Kerr. And I hustle money for the Institute when it’s needed. Like if there’s a phone bill and we’re short of money, I hit on people for their dough. Because I know that if they put $150 of their hard-earned money into the Institute, they’ll win by committing that much, unless they feel like they’ve lost. It’s their loss really. It’s up to them whether or not they feel victimized.”
“The Institute is a good scam,” said Brown proudly, his eyes smiling. His tongue was as loose as his attitude. “We call ourselves hustlers, and other people Marks. Victor hustles their asses and their souls. He takes their dough to feed himself. But he sees to it that they win, too.
“We only hustle people for their own benefit. If someone comes into the Institute with money, we push on their money victimization. We teach them to let go of their money. It’s better for them not to hang on to it for security.
“Victor is our founder, our rock, our master game player. Victor is like a father, he takes responsibility for everyone here. We always know that we’ll get the truth from him.”
Soon Ken and his family will be moving from Oakland to suburban Lafayette, where they will live with the Institute elite, and Victor himself. “To live near him is an honor,” said Brown. “He’s the highest being I’ve ever met.”
Bobby Kerr has been with the Institute from the beginning. When he first met Victor at the Sexual Freedom League in Berkeley, Bobby was a lost soul. He had watched the Haight-Ashbury die and was left confused, afraid and searching. Victor had realized that there were lots of people like Bobby, lonely and afraid, looking for friendship and something to do with their lives.
Victor was straight-looking and older, and he needed Bobby with his long hair and beard to attract Marks to the Institute.
“Come with me, Bobby,” Victor had said to him, “I’ll give you anything you want.”
“I want a Facel Vega,” Bobby said. Victor bought him the $10,000 sports car and explained his plan.
“I didn’t trust him at first,” Bobby recalls: “He didn’t think there was anything bad about controlling people. He told me that money was nothing but dirty green paper, not a cause for bad. And he was enjoying himself. His idea was to con people into enjoying themselves, too. He made sense to me, and I got hooked.”
Bobby Kerr, at 28, is no longer lost. He has found what it is he wants to do. He is retired. He has trimmed his hair and beard to look just like Victor. He spends his days lounging, taking tennis lessons, and relating to his new puppy. Occasionally he teaches for the Institute. Course prices, he told me, were all wrong compared to what Masters and Johnson, Esalen, and other growth centers would charge. “We’re like a discount house of growth organizations.”
I asked what qualifications he had to teach. He seemed annoyed, although it was hard to tell because his puffy, in-dulged-looking face has a constant pained expression.
“Hey, baby,” he said. “We sell truth and love. There are no qualifications needed to speak the truth.” It was proof that the Institute did people some good.
He told the story of one young man, whom he named, who had an “affliction.” He had come one day to a course with Victor. This fellow had two fingers missing on his left hand and held his hand in a first because he was ashamed. Victor noticed all this and called him “Stubs” in front of the whole class. The man had blanched. Victor had said the unsayable. But the words had freed him, and he unclenched his fist, and kept it that way from that day forward.
“And then there was this other guy,” Bobby continued. “A spook …”
“Spook?” “Yeah, you know. A nigger.” He laughed at my surprised expression. “It’s OK, baby. We believe here that all words are good. Like, I’m a redneck, and that’s OK.”
“You mean you go around beating up hippies?”
“Oh, hey, baby.” Now he was clearly annoyed. “I am a hippie. Why, I was there when Kesey was doing the Acid Tests. I look straight now, but I was the weirdest of the weird. I was the first hippie in San Diego.”
But these days, San Diego’s original hippie is in business. He owns two of the Institute houses. While Victor created the philosophy to sell, Bobby had handled the financial and real estate ends for him before his recent retirement. He explained the business structure of the Institute. In 1970, he said, the Institute grossed $186,000 in resident fees and courses. This year it would be close to twice that figure, about half a million dollars.
“Take ‘Lotus Land,’ for instance,” Bobby said. “There’s 12 living there.” Lotus Land is the only house owned by the Institute itself. With everyone paying the $200 residence fee, the house would take in at least $28,800 a year. And since some people make more than $200 a month teaching courses, and all money in courses goes into the house finances, that house would take in even more than that. Each house is a different corporation that is completely self-supporting. And on top of the profits made from “teaching,” is the equity in the house itself, and the value of all improvements to the property.
The commune business was so successful, in fact, that Bobby and Victor were getting feelers from land developers who couldn’t populate their developments. “One man,” he told me, “representing a large housing development syndicate approached us and offered us $650,000 worth of real estate with no money down because he saw what a good thing we have going here.”
Land developers? Syndicate? I recalled Ken Brown’s words: “We are like Colonel Sanders. We can reproduce our thing anywhere. The product is words. And the attraction is love.” And the Institute had recently found a way to tap another source of bodies — a non-profit organization called TOTA — “Turn On To America.” While the Institute could not, as a profit-making corporation, accept contributions and grants, TOTA could. It was formed for obtaining large government funds for aiding the underprivileged: alcoholics, non-placeable foster children and parolees.
I had read about TOTA in the Aquarius: “The TOTA sanctuary program is a residential program available to anyone who feels he hasn’t been able to make it out there and wants to stop pushing himself and simply lie around and do what he wants to do without having to worry about how to survive.” Grants from public and private welfare organizations would pay the $200 monthly fee.
“We’re like a little town on a trading route,” Bobby was saying, “with lots of people coming through. We’re like a soap opera, you know, like As the World Turns.”
“He’s our founder, our rock, our guru, our master game player. Victor is like a father to us. We always know we’ll get the truth from him.” –Ken Brown, President, Institute of Human Abilities
People at More House say that only those close to Victor Baranco ever go to his house. Barry the photographer said that people were blindfolded when they were taken there. And Karen spoke of high fences guarded by fierce dogs. But a phone call secured an appointment with Baranco for the next day, and directions to the house.
Lafayette is a shopping center of a town, set abruptly to one side of a commuter’s freeway east to Walnut Creek from Berkeley and San Francisco. Indistinguishible but expensive split-level homes are set in landscaped plots in low hills which surround the shopping center.
Victor’s house is situated far back in the wheat-colored hills, at the end of a twisting gravel drive. And there, nestled in the trees and rose bushes was a vibrating vision: Victor’s house and his Jaguar XKE and his 1960 Cadillac limousine (with fake zebra interior) were all painted electric purple.
Bobby Kerr, dressed in purple, came out of the house, followed by Victor’s fat collie and gave me a tour of the grounds. Tennis courts will be built behind the purple garage. On the patio there is a ping-pong table used for recreation by the 14 people who now share Victor’s house or live in a tent in his back yard.
If Victor wanted to shoot poker chips off his backyard fence today, he’d need a rifle with a telescopic sight. He has 17 acres of land which is valued at $240,000.
Victor had not yet returned from his afternoon classes at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, where he is taking Rhetoric … a course described by Bobby as “the art of persuasion.” (Baranco says he doesn’t read well: his wife attends classes with him to take notes.) I was led into the house and told to make myself comfortable.
The inside of the house belied its outrageous exterior. It is as conventional and tasteful as any upwardly mobile middleclass home, with a console stereo, color television, and two five-foot high lamps sitting on tables on each side of the couch. I heard voices coming from the kitchen:
“Does Victor like what I’m making?”
“I served that to him once, and he didn’t yell at me or anything.”
The objets d’art in the living room were varied. On the fireplace mantle were two carved bird figurines on each side of the More House symbol. And on the hearth was a clay sculpture depicting eight people in bed under grey clay covers. The paintings in the room looked like premiums from a savings stamp redemption center. On close examination, one of them — a painting of a melancholy clown —turned out to be signed by Victor himself.
I sat on the couch to wait. Victor’s photograph blessed the living room from its perch in the front hall. I became vaguely disquieted sitting in view of it. This would not be the first time I’d seen Victor Baranco. A few weeks before I had attended his weekend course in Man and Woman. I had not told anyone I was a reporter, and had paid my $45 like the 25 others taking the course.
The class had been held in a trim middleclass neighborhood in Oakland, in a brown stucco More House with a For Sale sign on the front. The students sat on folding chairs and on the floor facing a massive Victor dressed in a tan guru shirt. Next to Victor sat his wife, Susie, and two teaching assistants. “In this course,” he told his students, “we four are the power. We’ve been through the knothole of life, and come out the other side. And you, the audience, are the stimulus.” He explained that the success of the course depended upon questions from the class. “Questions?” he said.
No one said a word. Victor looked around the room. A pained, martyred expression formed on his face. “It looks like it’s going to be another one of those weekends,” he finally sighed, disgusted. The students shifted uneasily in their seats, and avoided his glance.
“OK,” he said with another sigh, “I suppose I’ll have to run it down for you. It’s like this. We all know that there is only One, the universal Being. You know, the ‘I am Buddha’ thing. But if you live on that high a level, you don’t have the fun of relating. So you come down a level. Then there’s you — number one, and there’s ‘other’ — number two. And the relationship between the two is where you play.” The students nodded their understanding. The girl next to me rocked back and forth in her chair as he spoke, muttering to herself, “right on, right on.”
From there, Victor launched into his philosophy of Man and Woman. He told the class of the two languages that people speak, Manese and Womanese. One is the voice of reason, and logic; the other is “randomnity,” emotion. The role of woman was to direct the man; the role of man was to provide the power. “It’s like a boat,” he said. “The woman is the steerer, and the man the motor. And once you can relax, men, and settle down into slavery in the motor room, what a gas. They take care of you sexually, feed you, and clothe you. They take care of all your creature comforts, and all you gotta do is shovel coal.” His students laughed with him in appreciation of his wisdom.
From the boat analogy, he moved onto the parable of the hamburger. “If she offers you a hamburger on a roll with sesame seeds and lettuce and tomato and pickle and mustard instead of ketchup, and it’s all the hamburger you have in the house, and all the stores are closed, and she worked hard to make it, if you eat that hamburger, you lose. You’ll spend the rest of your life eating garbage. You’ve got to demand ketchup on that hamburger, or you’re cheating yourself, and her too. Any time that I’m willing to have us lose because of your inadequacy, or mine, we both lose.” The students listened so attentively to his theories that by afternoon, everything had been made clear. No one had any more questions to ask about Man and Woman. Victor whined at the class, “Isn’t there anything at all you guys want to know?”
One young man sat at Victor’s feet, looking up at him with admiration. “We’d like to hear about you,” he said. With that, Victor began the Story of Victor. Many in the class had heard the tale before in other classes, and settled in appreciatively, like children hearing their favorite bedtime story.
He began with the courtship of Susie. “I had such a ball with this broad. She was a young 18 and I was an old 24. On the second date, she said she didn’t like my brand new Ford, so on the third date, I came back with a new MG. We used to fly to L.A. to catch a night club act at the Crescendo, you know, $50 for lunch. We had a wonderful relationship, you dig? I introduced her to show people, Mort Sahl, Frances Faye, Count Basie. They used to have ring side seats for us, and every act of the show was for Susie. She was 18 years old, baby, 18, understand? She hadn’t seen anything. One time Christine Jorgenson was up on stage. She saw me and says, ‘Vic, come back stage after the show.’ And Sue was going out of her mind. I was showing her the world.”
Susie was the daughter of a rich doctor in Sea Cliff. Her father disapproved of Victor. “I was a bum. I hadn’t done anything socially redeeming. I made big money since I was 14, but it was always big money in shady ways. Not necessarily illegal, but shady. Like I had this whole network of corporations tied together, five of them. It had been done all on the float because there was no money there. I put four of them in my son’s name — he was only seven — and bankrupted them. That way he was liable. But what the hell, in seven years he’d only be 14. I kept the sound one in my name.” The students sat in rapt admiration of Victor’s cleverness. He went on.
“A hustler is what I was. Do you guys know what a hustler is? Well, a hustler is what I was. I pushed phony rings and watches, the whole thing. Good-looking jewelry that wasn’t worth anything. Like I would pretend to be a truck driver, with an overload of goods, or I had an engagement ring set and my girl decided to marry somebody else, and I’d be crying the blues in a bar, after the time when the jewelry stores were closed, of course. I owned a store that dealt with sailors on Mason Street, selling them diamond engagement sets, and they didn’t even know a girl! They were 17 and from Iowa someplace, and had never seen the big water before. We wouldn’t even give them a diamond. It was such an incredible hustle! We’d guarantee the thing was genuine, but what it was, was a chip. A ten point chip in a sparkle setting. And it looked big. It was worth maybe eight dollars. The box that the ring was in cost me a buck. I made a lot of money, but her father was right. I was a bum. So I decided to go straight.” The people in the class had never been close to anyone like Victor before except on television, and his sleazy past excited them.
From there he got a job as a manager of a drive-in in Berkeley, his home town. “It paid the magnificent sum of $75 a week. I was used to tipping a hundred. I did that for a while and then I said, ‘Hey, this is ridiculous!’ I had a few Mafia connections. I went to one of those guys and I said, ‘Hey, they got me washing dishes.’ And Jerry said, ‘You can come to work for me.’ He got me a job that paid two bills a week and every two months you get a two grand bonus. By this time Susie had begun to feel the pinch of making $75 a week, dig. She was softening up.” He had become a bookie. And after that a washing machine salesman.
“It was a cutthroat operation. The 300-pound manager took an override on all my sales. That shook me up, so I shook him up. Oh, that was horrible!” He laughed. “I complained and complained and nobody would do anything about it. By this time my old lady was pregnant, so I grabbed that manager one day and banged him into a wall a few times, just to get his attention. He actually wet his pants!” Victor laughed delightedly and everyone laughed with him.
It was after that that Victor discovered a good way to make money legally. “I wasn’t qualified for anything, really. But I was going to school to learn how to be a contractor. In my spare time I was buying old, beat-up houses, and fixing them up. You buy a house that’s the most run-down, put your own labor in it, and sell it at a profit. Remember that house in Alameda, Susie, with the hole in the floor? $5000 it cost me. That was some house, an old Victorian.”
The class sat in adoration as Victor spun them the tale of his life, how he’d been a bouncer in a night club, and worked his way up to be a maitre d’ wearing patent leather pumps and tails, how he had flown people to Las Vegas to gamble at the casinos, and finally how he had flashed to his own perfection, and retired. From buying and selling bankrupt businesses he had a stash of money in a drawer which supported him while he lay for nine months in the backyard of his house, shooting poker chips off the fence. He had discovered that he had as much right to be on Earth as the rocks and trees. He began to tell other people what he had discovered, and from there he had started the Institute of Human Abilities, and hadn’t had to work a day since.
The course was supposed to go on until 10:00 on Sunday night, but at 6:00 Victor summed up his philosophy on Man and Woman. “If you flash that you’re a man, just look and see what you’re doing, and that’s what a man should be doing. And the same for a woman. You don’t have to do nothing. Just be old you, and that’s steering. And he’ll be old him, and that’ll be motor. And the more you be you, the more he’ll be him.”
And then he made an announcement. “We usually invite our classes to stay for dinner on Sunday nights, but you are the dullest class I’ve ever had. It’s so dull, in fact, that I’m not even going to bother to come back for tonight’s class.” And with that he left.
I looked around the room to see how people had taken the news. I had expected that they would be angry, or hurt, but instead they all smiled and watched the door that Victor had just passed through. “He’s so heavy,” said one girl, and they all smiled knowing smiles at each other, and seemed totally satisfied.
As I sat on the couch at Victor’s house now, I remembered a story he had told in that class, about the lawyer who had been one of the First Directors of the Institute Corporation, Paul Robbins. “I said to him, ‘I’m not going to read the small print on the contract, but if I ever find out that it isn’t right, or if it ever causes me trouble, I’ll kill you.'”
Later, I had spoken with Paul Robbins, a short, frizzy-haired man described by a colleague as a “shlock business lawyer.” He told me that he didn’t hold Victor in awe like his followers. He did say, however, that he had contributed his services for free. I asked Robbins about that story. “You take what Victor says with a grain of salt,” Robbins told me. “He’s really just a lovable little bear who wouldn’t hurt a flea. Unless he wanted to, and then he’d crush you in his own way.”
I heard the crunch of wheels on gravel, and from the picture window saw a station wagon pull in the drive. Others in the house had heard it too, and his home was suddenly alive with voices saying “Here he is, here’s Victor.” His chauffeur, a scarfaced, pot-bellied man, jumped out and opened his car door. Victor emerged, all 6’3″ and 270 pounds of him. He had on what looked like state trooper sunglasses.
His people scurried to the front door to greet him. He walked in followed by his wife Susie, an attractive oily-haired woman who clings closely to his side. Victor strode through the front hall.
“There’s something wrong here,” he said, barely stopping to point at the foam rubber Teddy bear stuffing which was scattered over the living room rug. Two women rushed to clean it up mumbling apologetically about how puppies will be puppies.
Without breaking stride, Victor nodded at me and brusquely instructed me to come up to the “Inner Sanctum.” I followed him through a hall up the stairs. “It’s proper manners for the man to go first in this situation,” he was saying, “it’s good etiquette, and I think it’s also so that women can look at men’s asses.” He chuckled to himself.
The “Inner Sanctum” turned out to be his bedroom. Wife Susie crawled onto the king-sized bed and collapsed. “My wife will do the interview lying down,” he said.
He recognized me. I told him I had been at the Man and Woman course on Walavista.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “You were driving the Morgan.”
“That was the class you left early because you told us we were boring,” I reminded him.
He laughed. “Oh right. I remember. Actually, the reason we left was that there was a program on television that we could only get in Lafayette, so we had to come back here to watch it.”
He seated himself in a rocking chair. I sat on one of the false leopard-skin director’s chairs next to him.
“I have a lot questions to ask you,” I began.
“Yeah, well, before we do that, sweetie … I don’t remember your name.”
“It’s Robin,” I said.
“Yeah, well Robin, before we do that, if you want to succeed at your interview, why don’t you tell me what kind of shock value you are trying to develop, if you know, and I’ll answer in accordance.”
I told him I’d just like him to answer a few questions for me.
“Oh, it’s going to be like that,” he sneered. “You’re going to try and be tricky.”
“Well, if you tell me what direction you want to go in, I’ll give you the answers you want.” I repeated that I wanted his answers to my questions, and then I’d know what to do with them.
“Oh I see. You want to have a fact sheet, and then you’ll decide what the shock value is.” He seemed pleased and more relaxed now that he’d explained to himself what he thought I was up to, and smirked as he settled back in his chair. His eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, but he rarely looked in my direction anyway. He never answered my questions directly, either.
He sighed and stretched and seemed bored from the start. His voice had a familiar sound. Like Shelly Berman, or Mort Sahl, he spoke with a whiny, sarcastic tone. He treated me as a salesman might treat a dumb and ignorant customer who had come in to buy the $19.95 model advertised as a lure.
“In a recent course in Man and Woman,” I said, “you told the class that men are the slaves of women, but smart women act like slaves so the men will think that they are slavemasters instead of slaves.” I asked him to explain what he meant.
“Did I say that?” He seemed totally disinterested. “I never remember what I say because I always speak the truth when I speak.”
The interview wore on. I decided to ask some simple questions, hoping for some straight, simple answers. What did he like to watch on TV?
“Dramas of any sort. Movies. Right now Star Trek‘s on.”
“Is that a favorite?”
“No. I can tell you every hour of the day what programs are on. But mostly dramas and commercials. We watch all the commercials. For the same reason we watch dramas and television at all. We watch because it’s a total index of what’s happening in our universe.”
A woman came into the room and set a tray full of finger sandwiches down in front of Victor. The crusts had been carefully trimmed off. “Thank you, baby,” he said to her and ordered a coke with ice. She scurried out.
“Where were we, Sweetie?”
“I was about to ask you another question …”
He sighed and shot a disgusted glance at me. “You didn’t get an answer to that last one,” he snapped and then laughed derisively when I couldn’t remember what it was. “It’s gonna be like that, huh? OK, go ahead. It doesn’t matter. It was really a very interesting answer, but go ahead.”
“No, go on.”
“Well, if you’re going to watch TV from a position where you exist, but not your viewpoint, and there are a whole bunch of viewpoints out there in the universe, that magic box will give you all the viewpoints that are prevalent throughout the world. You watch NBC news about China and what you get is NBC’s filtered view of China. Take away the filter and what you get is what is happening in China.” He sat back and smiled. I felt like I was back in his class again, listening to Victor’s little truisms.
Victor rose. He lifted his V-neck sweater over his head, and his huge belly fell out of it, covered by a yellow satin T shirt. He removed his glasses too, sat down with a sigh, and rubbed his eyes like a man exhausted by the stupidity of the world. He rocked back and forth in his chair; his stomach rose and fell on his jeans. He stared at his size 13 sneakers.
He warmed slightly to questions about his early years, though he continued in bored monotone. He was born in Berkeley in 1934 of a Negro father and a Jewish mother. He described himself as the neighborhood punching bag because he was a “fat smartass Jewish kid, and because I used multi … uh, multi …”
“Syllabic,” shot a voice from the bed. Sue had lifted her head off the pillow. I thought she had been sleeping.
“Multisyllabic words,” he said. “My parents were intellectuals.”
He had been shuttled from one grammar school to another, and finally to a school for what he called “exceptional” children — where they had a two way mirror. “I knew that there was someone behind there, observing my behavior, and noting it all down on a clipboard. I remember going up to that mirror, knowing there was a face right there watching me, picking my nose, and wiping it on the glass.”
Bobby Kerr came in and sat down on the bed. “This is the funnest interview I’ve ever done,” he said to Bobby, and then to me; “You talk clean, baby.”
He went on about his childhood. At 13 he was manager of a paper route. Did he ever have a paper route himself?
“Shit no!” he sneered. He and Bobby laughed identical hearty laughs. Then he suddenly changed his mind. “Well, actually I did, when I was younger. Long enough to suck the juice out of it. In those days it was part of your credentials to have a paper route. Like being a traffic boy. I was never in a grammar school long enough to get the brownie points to make it.” He sounded bitter. Then he laughed and Bobby laughed, too. “Yeah, I was once. By God. I was a traffic boy once!”
At 11, his life underwent a drastic change. “I’d been run out of Hebrew school because of the black thing. It was an uncomfortable thing.”
“Why were you kicked out?” The question annoyed him.
“I wasn’t kicked out. Now, don’t put that down,” he ordered me, raising his voice. “I said it was an uncomfortable thing.” He calmed a little. “I don’t even know exactly what happened. It just didn’t feel right there.”
It was then that he had become a bully, and in the seventh grade was “Duke” of the whole seventh, and the lower eighth grades. He went to college on a football scholarship, but gave up football and never finished college. He said he didn’t finish law school either. (Later, I found out he’d only attended for two months.)
“I see you have a silver Cross pen,” he said. He jumped up and bounded across the room. (I remembered what Mary Brown had said: “He’s a big man, but very graceful. He plays tennis like a ballerina.”)
“Look at this,” he said, handing me a gold plated Cross pen. “Read the inscription.” It read “Philco’s Hawaii Cruise — 1959.”
“They give those to their top salesmen. I never went on the cruise. I sold it to someone.”
I asked him to tell me about when he’d flashed on his own perfection.
“I had done all the things,” he said. “Made lots of money and I lived at the right suburban address, $10 haircuts, a big dog and 2.8 kids. Actually I never got the .8. We had built our net worth. And we felt ‘Blechhh.’ Nothing was shaking. I had made a lot of money, I drove a new Thunderbird when what I really wanted was an XKE. The Thunderbird cost more, but the XKE didn’t fit my image.”
I wanted to hear about the flash.
“Well, I sat down on the living room floor one night with Mahler on the record player. I decided that there was an answer to life that could be figured out or the question would have never been asked. So I figured the son-of-a-bitch out.”
“What was the question?”
He considered it for a moment.
“Given this mess that is me … You’re not writing. Given this mess that is me, how can I arrange to unselfishly serve the world, and profit by it?”
“And you came up with?”
“Uh, … uh, which was that I didn’t have to do anything at all.”
I asked him to explain if the “answer” was what he taught in the courses at the Institute. He did not like the question and his tone again became hostile and suspicious.
“The Institute is a place were people can come to feel that they’re perfect,” he recited.
“What do you teach in the courses?”
“Nothing,” he said, “nothing they don’t already know.”
“You teach courses to people that teach them nothing?”
He straightened up and cocked his head. “It’s show business, baby. That’s what it really is.”
“Yeah, you know, like Will Rogers. He made people think.”
“But you advertise courses. People must come to learn something.”
“People come for all kinds of reasons. What they buy is a chance to relate to me.”
“Why would they do that?”
“It’s entertainment. I’m an entertainer.”
“I’ve talked to people who call you a guru.”
“No one who’s part of this Institute calls me a guru,” he snapped. “Look baby. I tell them in the beginning of each course they’re not going to learn anything they don’t already know. In all my courses I do that and they can have their money back if they want it. It’s up to them whether or not they feel they’ve been taken.”
“But you charge money to begin with.”
“Listen, baby. People can take courses free. All they have to do is ask me personally. They can write me at 1507 Purson Lane, Lafayette, California.” He sputtered with laughter: “But I burn my mail! And they can call me, but I don’t answer my phone!” He was delighted with himself. So was Bobby.
A girl came in with a tray of warmed up eggrolls. “Not now, baby,” he said waving her away, suddenly serious. He hadn’t even touched the last batch of food. “Later.”
“I still don’t understand,” I persisted. “You say you don’t teach people anything?”
“Look. I’ve explained it three times already.” He had lost patience. “Bobby, what time do I have to be ready tonight?”
He looked at the clock. “You’ve got ten more minutes, baby. Any more questions?”
“Why do you call people ‘baby’ when they have names?”
“Because people are sometimes too dull to remember their names. I find you dull,” he sneered. “I don’t remember your name. You’re not interesting enough.”
“Don’t you have any qualms about insulting people?”
“Look, baby. I tell people if I think they’re dull. It’s the most loving thing to do, to tell the truth. How do I know if it will hurt their feelings?” I put my pencil and paper away. He changed his tone completely and looked at me in the eye for the first time. “I feel as if I haven’t given you what you wanted. I would like to give you More.” All of a sudden he was sounding like a pastor. “There must be something else that you want. I’d like to give it to you.”
I did have another question. It was about something he’d said in a class he’d taught. He was talking about the future of the Institute: “As the damn thing spreads, we suck up the outside. Pretty soon we own the butcher, the garage, everything, dig it? Now if it turns out that we do the whole thing, sell everybody love, then we’ll start selling hate. The same machine will work.”
By this time I felt it would be useless to ask it. Instead I asked him for a cigarette for the road. He gave me the whole pack.