Castaneda's Story Telling in the Pre-Don Juan Years:
Bruce Bebb's Recollections
by Corey Donovan
The following summary is from an Aug. 17, 1984, piece from the L.A. Reader written by Bruce Bebb, describing his experience living in the same rooming house as Castaneda in the late 50s. The piece is a great find, since I haven't seen it mentioned in any Castaneda bibliographies before, and because it relates several additional tall tales Castaneda was telling about his "personal history," from 1957 on, at least three years before he was supposed to have met don Juan.
In 1957, Bebb and Castaneda were both living on the third floor of a rooming house at 854 W. Adams Blvd. They took their meals a half block away in a rundown Victorian mansion, long since demolished, at the southwest corner of Adams Blvd. and Portland St., owned by the proprietor of the rooming house. Other residents of the building were Latin American students, and Byron, Carlos's only friend in the bunch, who was "from Panama or Costa Rica and flagrantly gay."
When Castaneda knocks on Bebb's door one night to talk, he sniffs Bebb's pot and tells him he doesn't use any drugs or alcohol anymore, because he wants clarity. Bebb remembers Castaneda's "prodigious energy," which Castaneda claims comes from meditating. He claimed that he could get by with three or four hours of sleep each night thanks to meditating. Castaneda told Bebb that, besides attending L.A.C.C. and State College, he was working at various part-time jobs, including driving a cab and translating from Portuguese. (Uh-huh.) He also describes quitting a job because the boss expected him to eat at a particular time.
In April 1957, Castaneda knocked on Bebb's door, acting drunk, and holding a copy of Time, claimed that his uncle was going to be president of Brazil. Bebb was dubious, because of the different spellings of their name. CC looked disappointed and didn't bring it up again.
Bebb reports that a woman used to "sneak up to Castaneda's room sometimes," and Castaneda told him it was for cunnilingus: "That's why she comes up here, scratching on the door like a little mouse."
Castaneda tells him stories about missions for US army intelligence. He claims he'd broken down after three missions and had to be hospitalized, a physical and mental wreck. That's where he'd met Byron. The two would cackle about meeting in an army psychiatric ward, and fooling the doctors into releasing them with medical discharges. CC claimed, "Byron isn't homosexual. He's just lazy. He doesn't want to make the effort to go after girls." He claimed the US army sent him twice to Europe and once to South America. He claimed they'd taught him to be a barber and a tailor so he could assimilate into the local population. He showed him how he was trained to use a knife to kill a dog chasing him.
The third mission involved a gypsy woman who read Castaneda's palm: "You are not who you say you are . . . " and an entire ring of spies. The daughter of the group's commander and Castaneda had supposedly fallen in love. The group was captured and slaughtered. Castaneda claimed to have been stabbed in the abdomen (he showed Bebb a scar on his groin that disappeared into his pubic hair) and left for dead. After being rescued he was crazy with shock and grief. How did he get out? "I decided to stop playing crazy." He also claimed that he used to play jazz trumpet in New York.
After Bebb mentioned his daughter, he said he had a daughter too, and went to his room for a snapshot of a little girl. He claimed she was with his parents in Brazil, because his wife was a heroin addict. "Castaneda had set up a big bust with the NY police and had all his wife's junkie friends arrested. And there was the time he stole an ancient relic from a prehistoric tomb in Peru." Bebb comments, "Castaneda was not convincing as a drunk, but when he got into creative autobiography he was spellbinding." Byron told him, however, in a moment of passing irritation, "Carlos lies too much." Bebb eventually moved, but would still see Castaneda around the LACC campus.
In Spring 1959, one of Castaneda's poems won first place in LACC's annual writing contest, and two of his poems were printed in the school newspaper. Bebb recalls one line, "Strange shaman the night!"