Pump House Gang Essay

My rather tattered paperback copy of The Pump House Gang, by Tom Wolfe, 1968. Yes, that's the by now obligatory photo of my Tom Wolfe bookshelf. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

Tom Wolfe, photographed by Irving Penn, 1966, around the time he wrote most of the pieces in The Pump House Gang.

It started on the beach. That was where they first saw him. They weren’t quite sure which member of the group had spotted him first, but eventually they became aware of him. This guy just hanging out on the beach with a notebook. And what was he wearing? A suit? Dig, man, what kind of crazy trip was he on? And how old was he? He didn’t look that old, but he just seemed old, you know, like there was no way he would know who the Beach Boys were, or that he could possibly know anything about chopped and channeled woodies. What kind of a nutso getup was he wearing? I mean, fer Chrissake, who in the hell wears a suit to the beach, man? 

And he asked them all of these really basic questions, it was obvious he had never been surfing. They had to explain everything to him, which they were only too happy to do. KA-SPLOSH, the surf came roaring in, and it almost gets him wet, and he’s got these white buck shoes on, if he gets those babies wet they are done for, but zoom! He moves back real fast, and doesn’t get a drop on him. Nothing seems to faze this guy, it’s like he’s off on his own out in some other time zone, neither hip nor square, just in his own bag with his own groovy happening going on. 

He has this soft voice, like he doesn’t want to draw too much attention to himself, despite the Beau Brummell wardrobe. He’s got this real high, cresting forehead, with this mass of hair swooping over from left to right. He pulls out this notebook, this great, hulking green notebook with the spirals at the top, and he starts firing questions, one after the other. He’s scribbling furiously, feverishly trying to get it all down on paper as they tell him the dope on their lives. 

In the Introduction to The Pump House Gang, Tom Wolfe’s second collection of articles, which was released on the same day in 1968 as Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe described taking part in a symposium on “The Style of the Sixties.” The other panelists all seemed quite depressed about the state of the world. When it was Wolfe’s turn to speak, he said “What are you talking about? We’re in the middle of a…Happiness Explosion!” (p.9) The other panelists didn’t have the foggiest notion what Wolfe was talking about, but he was right! Sure, things might have seemed like they were going to hell back in the late 1960’s, but middle class Americans suddenly had the leisure time and money to be deliriously happy! All of the time! And, despite the stagnation in middle class earning power since then, we still have a lot of things that can distract us in 2016! iPhones! Computers! Kindles! Spotify! Netflix! We are doing less and less manual labor-which means more time to tune out the world around us and create our own versions of reality!

Wolfe’s real subject of The Pump House Gang is exploring different subcultures and how they define themselves. In “The Hair Boys,” he writes: “It is not that any of these groups is ever rich. It is just that there is so much money floating around that they can get their hands on enough of it to express themselves, and devote time to expressing themselves, to a degree nobody in their netherworld position could ever do before.” (p.103) 

There are 15 pieces in The Pump House Gang, and as usual in Wolfe’s collections, many topics are covered.

“The Pump House Gang” follows a group of teenage surfers in La Jolla, California. Wolfe describes how these kids have set up their own lifestyle of surfing and hanging out-they’re a prime example of the subcultures he examines throughout the book.

“The Mid-Atlantic Man” is a brilliant piece of reporting about a London advertising man who travels to New York City regularly on business and then finds himself stuck between being English and being American. It’s a piece of Wolfe’s writing that foreshadows what a great fiction writer he would become. It reads like fiction, since you’re inside this guy’s mind, but you know that it’s all true! This piece shows how in tune Wolfe is to differences and gradations in status. On page 40, we get a mention of Fabrilex, which is the name of a fictitious company that Wolfe has used in other books as well. It shows up at random times; look for it in The Bonfire of the Vanities. 

“King of the Status Dropouts” is a profile of Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner. It’s fascinating stuff, as during this period of time Hefner was holed up in his Chicago mansion, running the Playboy brand and empire entirely from his house! He wasn’t out on the town partying with blonde starlets; he was staying in, dressed in his robe, smoking his pipe, drinking Pepsi-Cola after Pepsi-Cola, and embracing the Sexual Revolution that he had helped to create! One of my favorite anecdotes about Hugh Hefner, dating from this same time period, is about Hefner’s appearance on William F. Buckley’s television show Firing Line. In his excellent 1971 book Cruising Speed, Buckley related the story of how a friend of his was watching Hefner’s appearance on his show with some guests from France; however, when they tuned in, there was a problem with the sound, so they couldn’t hear what the men were saying. Based solely on their body posture, the French guests surmised that the slouching, grinning Buckley, with his arching eyebrows and darting tongue, must be the publisher of Playboy, and the erect, ramrod-straight Hefner must be the conservative Republican writer and host! In all seriousness, I think Hugh Hefner is quite a remarkable guy, and someone should really write a biography about him, as I think he’s one of the figures most responsible for the sexual revolution in America. 

“The Put-Together Girl” chronicles the adventures of Carol Doda, an exotic dancer in San Francisco who was one of the first women in America to get breast implants. 

“The Noonday Underground” is another piece that Wolfe wrote in London, about teenagers who spend their lunch hours at dingy discotheques listening to mod rock and buying the latest Carnaby Street knockoffs. 

“The Mild Ones” is a very short piece about “work-a-daddy citizens” who are also into motorcycles.

“The Hair Boys” is about teenage car culture, and it revisits car customizer Ed Roth, one of the subjects of Wolfe’s first ground-breaking essay, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” 

“What if He is Right?” profiles media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who had become an unlikely mid-1960’s celebrity. It’s an interesting piece, opening with Wolfe staring at, and becoming obsessed with, McLuhan’s clip-on necktie. 

“Bob and Spike” dives into the New York City art world of the mid-1960’s, as seen through the eyes of Robert and Ethel Scull, two of the most prominent collectors of that time. Ethel was the subject of Andy Warhol’s wonderful 1963 portrait, Ethel Scull 36 Times. There’s a marvelous description of a party that the Sculls gave at the Top o’ the Fair restaurant in Flushing, which was built for the 1964-5 World’s Fair. The restaurant is still there, now called “Terrace on the Park.” 

“Tom Wolfe’s New Book of Etiquette” is the funniest piece in the book. It features Wolfe’s views on cocktail parties, and the rapidly changing social mores of the 1960’s. Among other fascinating tidbits, you’ll learn that “Socially, New York today is highly redolent of London during the Regency period (roughly, 1800 to 1830).” (p.169) 

“The Life & Hard Times of a Teenage London Society Girl” is another piece from London where Wolfe does some great reporting and gets into the mind of, well, a teenage London society girl. 

“The Private Game” is yet another dispatch from London, this time about private gambling clubs that had proliferated after the legalization of gambling in England. 

“The Automated Hotel” is one of the few non-fiction pieces in which the focus is squarely on Tom Wolfe. Wolfe is the protagonist of this piece, and he has some very harsh words for the then newly opened New York Hilton Hotel, where he checked in while trying to avoid distractions and finish several magazine articles.

“The Shockkkkkk of Recognition” follows movie star Natalie Wood as she visits New York City in April of 1966 to tape an episode of What’s My Line? and to possibly buy some paintings. Wolfe gets to observe Wood at an art dealer where she looks at a variety of paintings. Had I been a dashing young New Journalist working for the New York World Journal Tribune in 1966, I would have gladly accepted this assignment! I also would have accepted the assignment, “watch Natalie Wood watch paint dry.” The day before Wood taped the episode of What’s My Line? she was in Boston at Harvard University accepting an award from the Harvard Lampoon for the “Worst Actress of the Year.” No one accepted sarcastic awards like that in person, but Wood confounded her critics by showing up. Of course, she stole the show, treating the event like she had won the Oscar. You can watch Natalie Wood’s appearance on What’s My Line? here. She’s very funny as she tries to stump the panel by adopting a Russian accent, and completely throwing panelist Arlene Francis for a loop when Francis asks her, “Are you something other than American?” Wood replies, “Well, in my mind.” 

“O Rotten Gotham-Sliding Down into the Behavioral Sink” explains the ideas of anthropologist Edward T. Hall, who theorized that life in New York City was getting worse because of overcrowding. It’s an interesting theory, and I wonder what Hall would have to say about overcrowding in cities now, fifty years later.

As noted above, The Pump House Gang was released on the same day in 1968 as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. While The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test has gone on to assume classic status and is one of Wolfe’s most famous books, The Pump House Gang remains more obscure. It’s probably inevitable that collections of non-fiction articles are rarely ever the most famous works of authors, but despite the fact that it might not be well known today, The Pump House Gang, like its predecessor The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, was a very steady seller. The copy of The Pump House Gang that I own is the 13th paperback printing, from November of 1980. The Pump House Gang went through four paperback printings in 1970 alone, so I’d say it was pretty successful for Tom Wolfe. It’s a fine example of his exhilarating writing style, and his sharp observations on contemporary culture.

Illustration by Tom Wolfe for “The Pump House Gang” 

The surviving members of the original Pump House Gang and the so-called Mac Meda Destruction Company would have been happier having never met Tom Wolfe. In their now older, looser skin, aged by alcohol, drugs, life and surf, they feel as though some East Coast Dandy flew to town in a white three-piece suit and stole their stories, re-imagining them in Hi-Def Ivy-League prep-school palaver. La Jolla, and the now legendary surf counter-culture that congregated at Windansea, would forever be synonymous with Tom Wolfe’s first impression.

“The Pump House Gang” was first published in 1968 to national acclaim. In book form, it was the second major success for Tom Wolfe following The Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. The collection explores various American and English sub-cultural movements,  and the stories tend to imply that Wolfe has privileged access to the people he is portraying. In the case of “The Pump House Gang,” the people of La Jolla seem to disagree. An article in San Diego Magazine titled “Forgiving Tom Wolfe” revisits the people Tom Wolfe portrayed, and its clear that the community feels slighted, if not offended, by the portrait Wolfe created, and they deny the degree to which he was granted access to their group.

The Pump House, Windansea Beach, La Jolla

Wolfe’s narrative flows through legendary moments in the early years of the Pump House Gang, which is an amalgamation, according to La Jollans, of the Mac Meda Destruction Company, who occupied the parking lot north of the Pump House, and the Pump House Gang themselves, stationed at the beach near their namesake. Wolfe’s Pump House Gang comprises the young “very upper-middle” surf crowd of La Jolla, aimless in their habits, rebellious, and “tuned-in” to the “Oh Mighty Hulking Pacific.” They range in age from sixteen to twenty five (twenty-five being the terminal oh-god-kill-me-now age that the youth never expect to reach) and their skin is bronze and their hair is tan. They live out of garages and hustle for change for their “keg-parties” (we call them keggers now, and the hustling for change is currently referred to as “spanging”). Their world is the insulated small-beach-town two-car-garage free-to-have-fun bubble made possible by the cash-flush post-war era. WWII is a history lesson; Vietnam is a country nobody has heard of. 

The point-of-entry into this world is ground level, with the appearance of a black foot, a panther, what the Rocket-Power generation would refer to as a “shoobie” and what surfers have always called a “kook,” simply one who wears shoes on the beach. As Tom Wolfe describes it:

“they all look at the black feet, which are a woman’s pair of black street shoes, out of which stick a pair of old veiny white ankles, which lead up like a senile cone to a fudge of tallowy, edematous flesh, her thighs, squeezing out of her bathing suit, with old faded yellow bruises on them, which she probably got from running eight feet to catch a bus or something. She is standing with her old work-a-hubby, who has on sandals: you know, a pair of navy-blue anklet socks and these sandals with big, wide, new-smelling tan straps going this way and that, for keeps. Man, they look like orthopedic sandals, if one can imagine that.”

For the Pump House Gang, these “Panthers” are the walking-death—that awful shape that awaits their own gorgeous bodies on the other side of twenty-five. Jesus Christ of the Oh Mighty Hulking Pacific, kill me now.  

Mac Meda Destruction Company sticker

Ultimately, this is the crux of “The Pump House Gang.” It’s not about surfing, or La Jolla, The Mac Meda Destruction Company or Kit Tilden or any of his friends. It’s about the Cult of Youth—age segregation—the immunity and immortality of the immature and naive. A place in time and development that everyone is familiar with, but that was granted a special scope, vibrance, and dyanesian glory in Post-War Southern California. Within this moment in time Tom Wolfe saw its contradictions and flaws. 

Perhaps what is most offensive, and most memorable, about “The Pump House Gang” is Wolfe’s retelling of a Pump House trip to Watts during the riots. John Shine, Artie Nelander and Jerry Sterncomb take John’s VW bus to Watts. The first impression is of the kids’ recklessness and bravado as they galavant through a quasi-war zone getting piss-drunk while the cops inform them that they will not receive any protection. One imagines these white kids laughing and busting windows as they stroll through the streets, completely oblivious to the external tension and political struggle that has manifest itself in deadly violence. We feel sorry for these kids. They try to encourage the blacks to get more violent, and in the end it is clear that their own violence and actions is disturbing the black residents who just want to be left alone, but cannot escape the Mac Meda Destruction Company’s insufferable partying. 

The surviving members of the Pump House gang will tell you that these were just the antics of a group of kids looking to cause good old fashioned trouble. They weren’t racists or anything like that. Sometimes their antics were viscous or mean-spirited. They’ll admit that some of them were real assholes. But their major contention is one often present when a group is depicted through an outside perspective. These are not Tom Wolfe’s people. They are not even a part of his generation. What the people who grew up in La Jolla want to remember is the good-old-days of the golden age of surfing, when Windansea was a local’s paradise. What Wolfe points out is that even in this alcove of suburban bliss, there are still the same national tensions of race and privilege percolating towards the surface. He sees the clear lines drawn between young and old, black and white, cool and un-cool. By pointing out the moments when the Panthers cross over into Pump House Territory, or when privileged white youth infiltrate the ghetto, Wolfe makes it clear that the paradise was, and will always be, a myth of the privileged. 

Tom Wolfe’s The Pump House Gang, a collection of essays on American and English Counter-cultures.

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