Hi Fi on Highland Ave, Manhattan Beach
El Porto’s own Bojangles of the Comb
by William Beverly
There once was this cat who prowled the South Bay party scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. By South Bay, I mean mostly the North Manhattan Beach territory and limited parts of Hermosa Beach. This cat’s name was Highland C. Figh and his friends called him Hi Fi. They called him that because he told them that was his name. At that time, the term “Hi Fi” had a specific meaning that was generally understood by almost everybody in America. The term was short for “High Fidelity,” and was the phrase used to refer to the electronic device upon which one produced music by playing records. These were mostly mono devices and were later replaced by what we called Stereos. So Hi Fi, in a way, represented a fading technology and way of life in Southern California.
Hi Fi was a little less than average height and had a chest and belly like a pony keg. He dressed in a worn T-shirt, faded blue jeans, and leather sandals. His hair was dark brown and wavy and he wore it shaggy but not long. Hi Fi had a twinkle in his eye that made him look like a nephew of Santa Claus who had left the North Pole for the beaches of Southern California. Actually, Hi Fi came from Detroit, he also told us, which seemed entirely plausible. Having never met anyone from Detroit, it seemed as likely a home for this strange man as any. But it was hard to imagine anybody else anywhere back home, where ever it was, was anything quite like Hi Fi. He was one of a kind. He had a trademark skill that made him the center of attention at any beer bust near the beach. Hi Fi played the comb.
When Hi Fi opened his mouth in a big wide smile, as he was usually seen doing, there was a gap or a space where his right front tooth used to be. In the middle of that gap was a post, which, on closer inspection was actually a screw. Hi Fi had the first dental implant that anyone had ever seen; a screw-on front tooth. It was as much of a novelty as the comb. He had a silver tooth that he would sometimes twist on to that post to fill the void. He said that he saved it for special occasions, like a formal date, which was rare, because I don’t think Hi Fi ever had a girlfriend, that I remember. When he inserted the tooth, there were three sparkles on his face; his two blue eyes and the silver front tooth. But beneath the twinkles and in between the broad smiles, there was just a fleeting hint of sadness, like maybe he had no family to visit on Christmas or had lost something or someone he loved, and maybe that is what drove him to the Southern California beaches and the profession of partying.
When Hi Fi set out to party, he was all business. He would take out the tooth and put it in a small plastic case in his pocket. There was a reason that he did this: he either lost it, swallowed it, had it knocked out, or all of the above, when he was drunk. On a few occasions, he actually did lose the tooth, and that was about the only time he was ever down at all, because, he said that it was very expensive to replace: a common thing now but as rare as a portable phone or personal computer at the time. Dozens of people would get down on their knees and crawl around the grass or finger through the shag carpets until the silver treasure was found. Hi Fi had that kind of support because he could get along with anyone. He had friends who were surfers, friends who were bikers, chums who were students, airline workers, bankers and bums. He never spoke a mean word to anyone or about another person, but neither did he ever do an honest day’s work in all the time I knew him.
Hi Fi was at every party at the beach in the summer of ‘69. Your party was not really a party worth mentioning if Hi Fi did not appear. People would court him for weeks in advance to attend their affairs and, if they were lucky, he showed up and elevated their party to the level of the elite.
He was always the special highlight at another local character’s semi-monthly rent party.
This host was a huge bearded man who tolerated people more than enjoyed them, argued more than discussed, and bellowed more than spoke. He lived in a rundown beach shack on Highland Avenue just north of Mac’s Liquor on Marine Ave. When money got low, he would take up a collection for a keg of beer and charge a few bucks to get past the rickety gray wooden fence where one could then loiter on the uneven brick of his yard and drink beer from clear plastic cups. Shoulder to shoulder in swim trunks, towel skirts, and bathing suit tops, we floated in a sea of noise composed of half music and half excited, indiscernible chatter. When the keg got light, the big bearded host would pass a large straw hat through the crowd of probably not legal drinkers to collect money from the inebriated celebrants. Shortly after the offering, somebody else would slip off to the back of the house and call the police who would arrive and send everybody home before the next keg arrived. Thet beer collection became the rent money, or so it was rumored.
Usually, just before the keg blew, and the crowd was getting noisy and excited, Hi Fi, who had the perfect sense of timing, would seize that energy and organize a small circle near the keg and began his show. He would pull out a plain, black, plastic pocket comb, borrow the cellophane off a pack of cigarettes, wrap the cellophane around the comb, pull it tight, and begin to play. The instrument produced a sound like an electrified kazoo. For the truly special occasions, Hi Fi would bring his extra large Chrome Comb, allegedly presented to him by the citizens of some distant town many years ago in appreciation of whatever special civic contribution he had made to their party scene, but which he probably had made for himself.
The sound that he made with the cellophane wrapped comb was something like a swarm of bees. Hi Fi produced a powerful buzz and mastered an amazing vibrato as he sang through the cellophane. He would play with a band, create his own impromptu ensemble of sycophants, or just wail alone to a background of laughing, clapping, and foot stomping revelers. Before long, four or five others would pull out their combs, un-sleeve their cigarettes, and try to follow along, like the All Star Cracker Jack Pocket Comb Band backing the Pied Piper of Plastic. He taught some us to play, or he tried, or we tried, but there was no matching the sound perfected by Hi Fi over his years on the party circuit. His volume and tone were unmistakable. His power was astonishing. He was the music and he was the party. He was the collector and reflector of all of the youthful energy in that yard. He seemed to need that energy from others and in the morning he seemed to be spent and empty without it.
Hi Fi even wrote his own songs for the comb. One such song became an anthem at beach parties: “Bucks Down.” He said that he wrote it in San Francisco while living in Haight Ashbury, which may have been true. It seems likely that the San Francisco scene had been partly responsible for luring Hi Fi west. On occasion, a visitor to the South Bay, delivering a cargo of LSD from the north, did seem to be more than passingly acquainted with him. Their faces would light up when they heard he was in town.
But like many of Hi Fi’s stories, there was more than one version. They were all equally entertaining and all equally possible. But veracity meant little to Hi Fi and nothing at all to his audience. What meant anything at all was the crescendo to which this maestro of the 10 cent hair arranger lifted his audience as they escaped all worldly care.
Bucks down and groveling around
Groveling ‘round, all over town
Filthy Frank and Hi Fi too
Doing what they gotta do
About that time the police would show up and scatter the crowd, but not before a few of the officers would stop and chat with Hi Fi, who laughed and smiled with them all, because he had an equal number of friends on the police force.
If you were smart, you would wait and follow Hi Fi, because he would be the first to know where the next action center was going to be. The truth is that it was wherever he chose to go. If there wasn’t a house party, Hi Fi would migrate toward a dive, dance club in El Porto called the Blue Book and hold court there, playing for his drinks.
Hi Fi lived for a while in a crumbling beach cottage a few blocks off of Highland Ave. with a local academic type who had a nickname taken from a vegetable, and his roommate, a former car club guy from Inglewood. Hi Fi slept in his clothes on their couch until his welcome wore out. He was then seen less and less frequently around the beach, until he just seemed to fade away for good. Students got jobs, the shacks were torn down, and the number of people willing to share their couches became fewer and fewer. After Hi Fi disappeared, the vegetable guy died of a drug overdose, followed shortly by his roommate the car guy.
The last I heard from Hi Fi was a call from a Federal Prison in the Midwest. He was looking for a mutual friend, whom I had also lost track of. I coaxed him into telling me why he was in jail. It did not seem like a place he belonged. Hi Fi was the least threatening man on the planet. It seems he was driving a truck across country for a friend, back to Detroit, and was stopped along the way by a curious state trooper. The truck was, unbeknownst to Mr. Figh, laden with a couple hundred kilos of marijuana headed, to the east coast from Mexico. Hi Fi had been known to burn one up, though his intoxicant of choice was beer. His charm was foreign to the trooper who had never been to California. Hi Fi said he didn’t know about the cargo. He swore he didn’t. But truth meant little to Hi Fi and neither the trooper nor the courts were convinced.
That phone call was over 20 years ago and there has been no word since. No calls, no reports, no stories, and few people who even remember this remarkable and unusual man. Sometimes, when I am sitting alone, or walking on the beach in the evening, I pull out a pocket comb and find an abandoned cigarette box. I carefully assemble the instrument the way that Hi Fi showed me and play like he taught me. But when I blow on that crisp strip of cellophane stretched between my thumbs, holding it tight over the plastic black reeds, I can’t seem to achieve the right buzz, that classic vibrato. My breath doesn’t have the power, it lacks the passion, and it isn’t the right tone.
I look up at the waves that serrate the edge of the ocean. They seem to be the source of a soft wind blowing across the sand like the breath of a ghost. Good bye, old friend, wherever you are, I softly hum to myself, as I drop my comb and wrapper to the ground, then turn and walk up the hill into the night. ER
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