Create to Destroy—news! Koo Koo Factory fire

  • Published February 9, 2014 By Amelia
  • Categories Interviews

I met Pauli and his bird, Mr. Willis, when I first moved to San Francisco in 2011 and they have been a rock in my life ever since. I went through a rough break up a year later that involved a brief stint of homelessness and his doors were always open. I know may people who have used that space in a pinch, myself included. When I wound up in the warehouse in a back alley in the Mission District, I instantly felt like I was in a weirdo haven and everything would be OK. San Francisco is rapidly deteriorating and we’re always losing spaces like this. True punks and weirdos are being pushed out as tech nerds take over with their money, absence of culture and vapid interests. Pauli turned his home into a haven for many events, including Yoga Punx and other healthy lifestyle alternatives. The warehouse additionally was a space for many recovering people to heal. Pauli has been involved with the DOPE Project OD Prevention and narcane awareness for years as well as doing work to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS or help those who have already contracted the virus. This ties into the Homeless Youth Alliance that is a sister organization to the San Francisco Needle Exchange. After this lengthy intro, it is to my disappointment to tell you that this magical space burned down on January 23rd. I am posting this to solicit support from the community in San Francisco and donations:

(And for an update on the Homeless Youth Alliance, they are still homeless but you can stay updated and get involved here.)


What was the Koo Koo Factory? How did you come to occupy that space?
The Koo Koo Factory was a warehouse space in the Lower Mission area of San Francisco. My mentor Steve Gleason lived there for many years and during the last few years, he had a meditation/discussion meeting on Mondays. It was always a space for get-togethers, dinners, parties, music, spoken word, meetings and more…

Stevie got sick with that awful Agent Orange cancer as he was a Vietnam vet. He was sick for a while and was a beloved, spiritual man. He had no desire to be a guru or anything at all like that. It went against his nature. He was amazingly well read, spiritual, artistic and sarcastic. He was my friend and mentor. He knew my family and I loved him more than I can tell you. When the cancer progressed to a certain point he asked me to move in.

Can you give us a history of the space?
I know that it survived both earthquakes (1906 and 1989) and has a lot of stories of the history. For example, it’s said to have been an early Hells Angels HQ type place.

Did you model the space after a space you had as a young punk kid?
I didn’t. Steve set up the place. He was an eclectic artist and the place was full of his and other’s art—all of which was very interesting. The space was filled with strange artifacts.

Did you have any safe spaces growing up?
When I was growing up I had my room with my head between the speakers and the volume all the way up…

Why do you think people felt so safe at Koo Koo Factory?
It just had this vibe…It was also really easy for people to speak from the heart there. We didn’t care what you said or how you identified. There were such cool old antiques and bizarre things everywhere like the barber and beauty shop chairs from the ’50s, Texas license plates from the ’40s, the original Needle Exchange posters, African masks, art by Steve and others like Glenn Fox, a cow skull, a lot Buddhist flags and stuff from the Yoga Punx, Altars, and a lot of other stuff. One of those quotes written on a chalk board was from Mary Howe of the Homeless Youth Alliance, “Heroin: Gateway drug to cigarettes and coffee.” It goes on and on. And the vibe was unmistakable. Outcasts felt comfortable there and the thing was that all kinds of people felt the same.

How do you feel punk mentality and DIY influenced Koo Koo?
It was all about that. It was all DIY every single bit of it. And punks of all ages were a big part of it. It was one of the last real artist/tenement style warehouses in San Francisco.

How did the fire on January 23rd start?
According to the fire inspector, these guys were building a recording studio next door and didn’t dispose with chemical rags correctly. It says on the can that if not stored right they can spontaneously combust. Well…boom! And the first living space it hit was my wall. There were several of us whose places were devastated.

Mr. Willis: hero


What happened? Was is a close call?
I was asleep and my bird woke me up. He was screaming and beating his wings on the cage. At first I said, “Mr. Willis (aforementioned bird) shut up buddy!” He wasn’t having it. The wall behind my head was hot but had no idea there was a really hot chemical fire on the other side! The bird got in my face and then I smelled smoke. I think the fire was already through the wall by then but I didn’t notice because I was already running down the stairs.

As soon as he woke me up, Mr. Willis was outta there! He flew downstairs and hid under a low shelf which was about the only place not covered in thick, acrid black smoke. It was amazing and terrifying. I’m one of those people who stays calm in situations like that and loses it later. I had company and I got them out and heard where the bird was cause he was chirping so I could find him. I did and he gave me this, “Um…can we go now?”-type look. I screamed for the guy who has been renting the upstairs room and didn’t get a respond so I thought he must be outside. My friend, Mr. Willis and I made it out into the street and ran to my car. We were yelling to alert people of the fire. I put Mr. Willis in my car. By the time we made it out, the whole place was enveloped in that smoke. When I got back to the building I looked and the guy who I had been screaming for wasn’t out there after all. I put my shirt over my face and went back in. People were yelling “Don’t go in there!!” and someone grabbed at me but I went in anyway!

The thing was that I didn’t have time to explain I wasn’t going all the way in but just ten feet and up his stairs. I was screaming, “GET THE FUCK OUTTA THERE NOW!!!” at the top of my lungs and he opened the door. We made it back out. Poor dude was absolutely hysterical outside.

What was ruined?
Everything basically. The worst part was that I lost all my songs. I had piles of notebooks of songs I’ve written over 30—35 years. They are all lost. My amps, some of them vintage were soaked and smoke damaged. I got the acoustic and steel guitars out and I don’t know what the damage is yet to them like the pickups, etc. But they are playable. My 1970 Gibson Les Paul and 1968 SG were at the rehearsal space and not there, thank God! It was devastating.

How did the community respond?
It was and is incredible. I have a lot of friends. I am loyal like a fucking dog to my friends and it came back. People raised a lot of money for us. It took four hard days to dig out and I had a crew each day for that stinky, smoky work full of loss. It was amazing. Of course we had some gawkers and some people politely scavenging but they were the few. Another friend, Jack didn’t have money to pitch in and started an online fundraiser for me that I wasn’t even aware of for awhile. It made a lot of money and I am humbled by the depth of kindness of so many. I am lucky beyond words.

You are a very loyal friend. What are your future plans?
Umm…well, going to keep rocking! One of my new bands, The Dicks of Hazard is playing Feb. 21st at 50 Mason and the other new one, Shot in the Dark is playing there the next month. I’ve been in the White Trash Debutantes for a long, long time and we’re still rocking too. I play some country on the side. I’m going to keep doing Harm Reduction work like Needle Exchange, Hep C Groups and Task Force, the PROP program for MSM who do speed and OD Prevention for the DOPE Project Importantly, a solid group of people are working hard to keep the Koo Koo meetings and Yoga Punx going until we can find a new space. So many people created something very special there and we want to keep it going. Any help with this is welcomed.

"This where I was asleep. My head was on the right. The bird got me outta there about a minute before the smoke and fire came through the wall. You can see where it did that."
“This where I was asleep. My head was on the right. The bird got me outta there about a minute before the smoke and fire came through the wall. You can see where it did that.”

Where are you staying now?
With friends. I’ll figure something out. I have to leave it up to the Universe and let go of the results. I’m on the run with the bird. When cops have lost a suspect they say he/she is “In the Wind”. That’s where Mr. Willis and I are now. it sounds cool to tell people that anyway. We’re just traveling around in my car and being basically inseparable. My Navajo friends have told me he is a spirit guide animal and they’re right. How many birds or other animals fly towards the fire to save someone? Animals run or fly away but not him. So I am very determined that the two of us are OK. Makes my heart swell when I think that he wouldn’t leave without me. He got me out of there JUST in time and I could get others out so, by proxy…he saved the lot of us. Doing your best and letting the Universe drive is easier said than done but I am trying.

Where do you work? Have you been able to go to work?
I mentioned the DOPE Project OD Prevention which I’ve been doing since 2004, the other work I do actually full time is for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation where I have been an employee for 15 years. I get to do a lot of service to others. All the above things mentioned are under the umbrella of the AIDS Foundation. The salvage/move took hour grueling days and I went back to work the next day.

How is the current economic situation in San Francisco making it
harder to pull yourself up by your boot straps?

It makes it pretty scary. I’m trying to not think about it. It’s so in your face messed up. I have to take one thing at a time. But you know, it’s not as scary as escaping death by a minute.

How can we help?
If you hear of any cool meeting spaces for us let me know. Living spaces too. Um…keep spreading the word about the community in such a wide format and keep rocking DIY Maximumrocknroll! Oh my God that is so cheesy. Oh well!

How can we stay up to date with the status of Koo Koo?
There is a Facebook page called Koo Koo Faktory Klub. It’s great. Please join us.

How can we best contact you?
I’m on Facebook as well. Those of you who know me and know my number: text is best. I’m still overwhelmed and not answering the phone.

Any last words, Pauli?
Keep Rocking in the Free world. Be good to others and to animals — they might save your life. Since the fire I’ve had times of being really shaky and emotional so please excuse the corny parts of this. Oh yeah, and keep real San Francisco alive. Support the local artists and businesses and places that are real and unique like this city is supposed to be. That is the SF we fell in love with. Fucking fight for it as much as you can.