T.J. Nelsen remembers Juanita

Juanita Musson cut a formidable figure in her heyday.

Long-time waterfront resident T.J. Nelsen has written a very personal memoir of Sausalito’s Gate 6 community, entitled “Houseboats, Drugs, Government and the 4th Estate.”

Nelsen discovered the Sausalito waterfront in the early 60s, and soon moved to Don Arques’ property at Waldo Point Harbor, where he worked at various odd jobs. In 1969, he was offered control of the harbor, where Arques and the houseboat owners were under threat of abatement by Marin County.

The book recounts Nelsen’s observances of the 70s Houseboat Wars from the marina management’s point of view. It also contains some wonderful historic vignettes, such as his recollection of legendary restaurateur Juanita Musson aboard the ferryboat Charles Van Damme, which was beached off Gate 6 Road until it was declared uninhabitable and bulldozed in the 80s:

A bunch of us waterfront types helped Juanita Musson move her restaurant from what is now Harbor Drive, across from Clipper Yacht Harbor’s office building, to the ferryboat Charles Van Damme, which resulted in so much free food for me, it became embarrassing. She would see me and loudly pull me to the front of the line, so I ended up going elsewhere to eat.

Juanita was a celebrity in Sausalito, and her restaurant on Harbor Drive was her second or third (or so I was told). The first time I saw her was when I went to eat at her place with a good friend, John Wheelwright, who had helped me with tree work and had introduced me to much of the waterfront.

John was a gentle, austere young man from an old and prominent Marin family who made his living mostly as a carpenter. He was also 6’8” tall, and he dressed and looked like a lean Paul Bunyan. We were sitting at one of Juanita’s shared tables, starting to eat our ham and eggs, hash browns, English muffins with marmalade, and coffee—a generous staple at Juanita’s—when one of her cats (she was and continued to be known for the animals she allowed loose in her restaurants, like garden-variety cats and dogs, chickens, and sometimes a goat) jumped up and started to nibble at John Wheelwright’s breakfast. Being hungry, Johnny took umbrage at the uninvited moocher and gently swept the cat off the table, causing it no real discomfort and certainly no injury.

Juanita saw him do it, grabbed a frying pan, and came directly to our table. Her intent was clear, and Johnny stood up and up and up to defend himself. Juanita stopped and leaned back to look him in the face. It was the only time I ever saw her back down from anything. I guess she decided no real harm had been done to her cat.

The first rule in Juanita’s restaurant was “eat it or wear it,” which must have struck a chord with the eating public because her places were always crowded. After her move north to the Van Damme, there would often be a line outside waiting for breakfast. On Sunday mornings, some were in evening gowns, furs, and tails after a posh all-nighter in San Francisco. I saw them, locals, highway patrol, and Hells Angels sitting together at her big, shared tables, all minding their Ps and Qs. Juanita was the undisputed law in her domain, and nobody wanted to cross her. It was slumming at its finest.

Juanita told me another story about Arques that had occurred while she still occupied the Van Damme. She had gotten in trouble with the IRS for not depositing money withheld for taxes and the required employer and employee contributions, so she went to Donny—she called Don Arques Donny— and told him her problem and asked what she should do. He told her not to worry, and she went away. She said she went to him a second time and said, “Donny, Donny, they’re going to close me down!” He reassured her again, telling her not to worry, and again she went away. A third time she went to him and cried, “Oh Donny, they closed me down!” He looked her in the eye and said, “Well, we put up a hell of a fight, didn’t we?” Vintage Arques.

In the introduction to his book, Nelsen notes: “The information presented here is not the result of research, interviews, or a scholarly analysis of data, and I do not suggest it is balanced, complete, or fair to all those involved. It is simply about what I experienced and the way I saw it.” The book goes on to detail all sides of the free-spirited community: the freedom, the squalor, the creativity, the drugs, the camaraderie and the violence that were all part of day-to-day life in the post-Haight Ashbury/Summer of Love era. Nelsen casts his critical eye on various sides of the Houseboat Wars, including the protesters, Marin County bureaucrats, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, law enforcement, and the media (the Fourth Estate).

“Houseboats, Drugs, Government and the 4th Estate” is a must read for anyone interested in the colorful and controversial history of the early houseboat community. It’s available at the Ice House (780 Bridgeway), Book Depot in Mill Valley, Amazon.com, and other online booksellers.

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