Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Dennis Peron Memoir

Dennis Peron Memoir

Well known as a determined medical and recreational marijuana activist for decades, Dennis Peron was also a gay activist, a civil rights activist, and a patron of the arts.

This journalist met Dennis when he had left the US Air Force, and had moved into a Haight-Ashbury commune where my boyfriend Monte also lived. Dennis was ecstatic to meet an openly-gay couple who did not hesitate to hold hands on the street and kiss in theaters and restaurants. This was risky behavior in 1969, even in the Haight, and we liked being joined by Dennis and friends.
Dennis invited us to a party, and we noticed an intense man playing a guitar and serenading some young women. We found out later that the intense man was Charles Manson, and that his "family" was also at the party.
Two women coordinated the commune and a food conspiracy, and we found Dennis in the kitchen many times, watching them load bright green marijuana into gelatin capsules. Dennis asked them many questions, which later helped him in his restaurant and club enterprises. Communal dining was a major attraction for the commune, and for other nearby linked communes, which belonged to the Kaliflower Collective. The collective promoted vegetarianism, sex without shame, expanding consciousness, altruism, and love.

Dennis climbed into bed with Monte and I sometimes, but there was not much climbing, since beds were actually king-size mattresses on floors, with Indian bedspreads for sheets. There was a communal consciousness and the hope that the counterculture could create a better world. Studying Hinduism was popular, since it offers reincarnation. The feeling was that maybe our families and friends would be more supportive and caring in future lives. We wore clothing and sandals from India, but we could not figure out Indian wrap-around underwear, which is now explained in online videos. Everyone knew not to knock on bedroom doors if they heard sitar music or George Harrison's "Inner Light." That was code for sex was Happening, so do not disturb. Dennis was shocked one afternoon, after we voted him off the bed. He had tried to bring a kitten with him.

Dennis, Monte, and I and about a dozen LGBTs  joined a crowd of over 200 counterculture Love-In celebrants in June 1970, to enjoy our own first Gay Pride party on Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park. It was a first San Francisco event to mark the Stonewall Riots that started on June 27, 1969 in New York City, the year before. My boyfriend Monte and Dennis and some lesbian and gay couples were in the midst of the throng on blankets, and on alert for very possible harassment. Instead young men who passed by said, "Cool."  One of the lesbians in my photographs said that she  thought that  they wanted to impress their girlfriends with their liberal attitudes.

Dennis and I met to discuss the organizing of a San Francisco Gay Liberation Front group, and he was excited to hear about Black Panther Party women and men appearing at a small gay meeting in 1971 in Oakland, to invite us to a Black Panther convention in Washington DC. He also enjoyed hearing about a large Berkeley Gay Liberation Front meeting that was hosted by women from the Symbionese Liberation Army. We spoke later, and Dennis said he was too busy with his business interests and romances, but that he would support gay groups, and he did.

Dennis and I had a connection even before we met. One of his jobs while serving in Viet Nam was shipping coffins back to the US. Unlike many of my friends and cousins, I was not spoiled and had to buy my own car, so I worked at Federal Express until coffins arrived from Viet Nam

Dennis owned a series of marijuana clubs, where he combined a welcoming presence with a quality product. He also endured a series of law enforcement raids, and he was shot in the leg in one incident. When I complained that people were pressing him to sell them marijuana while we spoke at Café Flore, with him still in pain and leaning on a crutch, with a Long Island accent similar to Harvey Milk's he let me know that he wanted to sell them the contraband, and that he had a stash under his bed in the hospital, and made sales there.

Dennis instantly bonded with Harvey Milk, since they had similar politics and a need to help people. Dennis financed Harvey's political campaigns, and also his successor Harry Britt's, and many other LGBT candidates and allies' campaigns.

The multi-floored Peron home on 17th Street was a fine TV viewing spot to watch Lyndon Johnson announce that he would not run for re-election and see Richard Nixon take his last official helicopter ride from the White House lawn. The home was a hotbed of anti-Viet Nam War organizing and anti-conservative Nixon legislation politicking, and the crowds at such special events felt like real San Francisco progressive values in action.

Dennis' Island Restaurant was a boost to businesses near its location at 16th and Sanchez Streets, and more than 60 people were employed there. It drew a continuous stream of guests, and many also patronized the marijuana supermarket upstairs. My German relatives were astounded when they looked into the kitchen one afternoon to see that the stoned and bleary-eyed staff were naked and mixing main courses on a table. That explained our chili merged with lentil soup lunch, and coffee blended with tea.

Dennis' largest and most successful medical marijuana club was on Market Street at Van Ness Avenue, on 4 floors with a large elevator, that employed more than 80 people. The elevator made the club accessible to disabled and ill people, and it drew many wheelchair users. They are vulnerable on streets and in parks, while seeking pain relief, and the large club had greeters helping them on every floor. It was appreciated, as was Free Dope Day on Thursdays. Grateful guests fell at Dennis' feet and kissed his hands in gratitude while standing in that special line, and they helped him when he ran a campaign for governor as a Republican, to stir things up. Gagging sounds were heard in the background while I posed him in front of an American flag for the campaign promotions.

Dennis was the center of attention at many events, even at weddings and funerals, where mostly young people gathered around him. My lover Beau and I celebrated our 8th anniversary at the Valencia Rose nightclub. Jose Sarria performed "Madame Butterfly" on stage. In attendance was famous erotic film star Scott Anderson ("Boys of San Francisco"the filmmaker thought it would be funny to include me in a parade scene, and I never asked Dennis how he knew so many of the film's stars). Owners Hank Wilson and Ron Lanza helped serve shark dinners and the large cake that we brought was served. All through the event Dennis was the center of the overflow audience's attention, even when Jose drew the film star Scott on stage to join the opera actors and be mauled. 

What drew people to Dennis was his promotion of freedom to indulge in marijuana and sexual freedom. He also gave away joints, sometimes throwing handfuls from stages into enthusiastic crowds.

A large encampment of tents welcomed friends at a Summer of Love anniversary near Ocean Beach, and as they walked closer to the tents they saw huge glittering carved marijuana leaves, and Dennis waving to them. He had a grand presence with activist followers at street fairs, parades, the Rainbow Gathering, and Burning Man.

Some of Dennis' TV appearances included his friend Jo Daly, the first lesbian police commissioner, appointed by Mayor Dianne Feinstein. Jo told multiple audiences that she lost her appetite during breast cancer treatment, and that medical marijuana had revived her interest in eating, and saved her life. Physicians and other caregivers recommended their clients to Dennis' clubs, and his warmth and caring was on view every day. He spotted people with gray or green skin tones, and others walking with difficulty, and he seated them, and brought service guides to them.

His large office at his Market Street club was a whirlwind of activity. Bay Times journalists joined CNN and CBS news crews on couches, watching giant duffle bags and suitcases of product hauled in the door, along with a huge man wearing a horned helmet and biker gear who carried THC-infused Rice Krispies squares. He introduced himself as a Hells Angels Motorcycle Club baker. 

Dennis dedicated himself to helping people with HIV/AIDS after his lover Jonathan died. Jonathan and I discussed his condition one afternoon, while Dennis placed morphine from an eyedropper onto Jonathan's tongue to alleviate the pain of Kaposi Sarcoma in his mouth. Rainbow flag creator Gilbert Baker stopped on his way to the hot tub, listened to us, and then dropped his towel to break the tension in the room and get a laugh. Then I saw that people seated behind Jonathan, including Dennis, were crying. 

Dennis sponsored my photography show at A Different Light Bookstore, which was also sponsored by James Hormel. Mayor Willie Brown spoke and gave me a proclamation for Rink Foto Day in San Francisco. Dennis asked to see it and spoke about his many awards over the years from thankful leaders in the political and art spheres.

Gilbert Baker was a longtime friend of Dennis' and was given a free hand to redecorate Dennis' home, clearing away macramé, hanging bedspreads, and potted plants. It was a lavender wonderland when Gilbert was finished, and guests said that it had a new feeling of joyousness. Dennis funded Gilbert's flag and costume creations, and his art work. Gilbert provided lavish decorations for many benefits for a variety of causes hosted by Dennis.
Dennis welcomed the founder of Gay Liberation Harry Hay and his lover John Burnside to live in the home, as refugees from Southern California. More than a dozen Radical Faeries stepped forward to serve as caregivers for the thankful couple.

Wonderful events were a part of Dennis' activism, including the time that he was invited to debate with Australia's prime minister. He staged impressive gatherings all over the world, with overwhelming press coverage.

My last visit to see Dennis was a Prop 215 anniversary party at his home, which is now a B&B, and it was filled with friends of many years smoking Dennis' dope and reminiscing about his generosity. Dennis was in his bedroom, and as he had said many times before, progress has been made in furthering civil rights, women's rights, LGBT rights, anti-war activities, and many other worthwhile causes, but marijuana was still seen as a threat instead of a national treasure in too much of the US.