Purple Haze

A speedy tour of the Morehouse commune

The Morehouse commune outside of Lafayette doesn't bother advertising in Common Ground. Rather, it exists in limbo like a museum piece of some tripped-out '60s utopia, a soldier trapped without a radio on a South Sea island, refusing to believe the war is over. Started in 1968 by Berkeley appliance salesman Victor W. Baranco, the so-called "Col. Sanders of communes," Morehouse adherents are also known by locals as the "Purple People" because of the commune's brazenly violet-colored buildings, standing out against the grassy hills in an unincorporated area of Lafayette.

The attached More University is certified as a degree-granting institution, where one can earn a doctorate in "sensuality" or "lifestyle" at any of the More homes scattered throughout the Bay Area, Atlanta, Boston, Long Island, and Hawaii. University classes cost from $25 to $16,000, and include "Basic Sensuality," which uses plaster casts of genitals, and "Mutual Pleasurable Stimulation of the Human Nervous System," an advanced six-week curriculum of sensory awareness, partner exchange, and other topics.

A recent visit to the 16-acre compound yields a strange feeling, like stumbling onto a Peter Fonda hippie-exploitation movie set. Empty grapefruit juice cartons are stacked next to a pile of crumbling bricks in a clearing between purple buildings. A knock on a residence door elicits immediate panic among the inhabitants, who demand to see identification. A guy finally comes out in shorts, puts on an odd-looking pendant and says he'll have to take you to the front gate. Asked if he has ever heard of the nickname Purple People, he answers, "Do I look purple to you?"

Escorted down a gravel road, you pass several purple, egg-shaped living structures, hidden in tall trees and elevated about 10 feet off the ground, sort of a futuristic Disneyland-Monsanto-meets-the-Flintstones architectural design. Women and children are busy repairing a roof. A swimming pool, a heart-shaped artificial pond, and a basketball court are not visible beyond the egg-pods, nor is the television studio, the boxing ring, or the cocktail lounge.

Nobody knows how many residents are at Morehouse, but estimates range up to 150, including many homeless, much to the neighbors' irritation.

Farther down the gravel road are parked a Winnebago and several Cadillacs, models from the '60s and '70s -- all purple. (Members reportedly also drive golf carts on paths made of carpet remnants.) The whole color thing reminds you of the Rajneesh and his orange fixation. Asked why purple, the escort replies, "It's the favorite color of the owner's wife." He doesn't answer any other questions.

You arrive at a small ground-level guardhouse, also purple. A guy in his late 40s watches color TV, a half-eaten sandwich on a plate near his chair. You check to see if the sandwich is eggplant. He wears a pendant similar to the escort's, an unusual, modified upside-down peace sign. He patiently listens to questions but answers few of them, instead looking at the ground for the moment to pass, before sending you off down the road. You look back and notice a sign on the guardhouse:

"Do not enter uninvited unless you want your feelings hurt.

 
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