Young in New York Part One: Crossing the Continent 1973

My hitching route across the country

Launch

On afternoon at the end of summer 1973 I asked a barber to clip my long hair so I could hide what remained under a baseball hat to make it easier to be picked up as a hitchhiker.  Then I went to my parent’s home and stuffed my few possessions into a big mountain backpack.  The next morning I said goodbye to my mother, father, and two brothers.  It was sayonara to residing in Oregon forever.  I walked with my backpack half a mile to the Eugene I-5 freeway entrance, and held up a big white sign with “NEW YORK CITY, STUDENT” scrawled in black marking pen.  At that moment I was feeling the full audacity of youth. 

Why So Eager to Blow Town?

I had strong motivations to leave small-town Oregon, but only vague ideas about what I would do when I reached my destination.  Having graduated college in St. Louis the previous May, I had returned to work in a plywood mill to save some money to finance a year of travel and adventure.    Unfortunately, the experience of living and working in the mill town, Lebanon, Oregon, fried my brain.  Being 40 miles away in a small mill town isolated me from my hippie friends, and made me just want to blow out of there as fast as I can without solidifying a plan.  I wanted to rejoin the wider world.

Graduation Photo, Sari and I on the right, no haircut for a year for me (ridiculous)

On the New York side I did have a contact, my college girlfriend Sari, although she was ambivalent about my last-minute decision to travel to New York.  Earlier in the month I had called her, and told her I was thinking of hitching to New York.  She reacted, “What about your other plans?”   I didn’t have a good answer to that question.  She had already enrolled in the Masters in International Affairs program at Columbia University and was very busy with class. 

By contrast, after college I had decided to take a year off.  I worked up three options.  One was to be a flight attendant for Pan American.  Pan Am responded to my application and offered an interview, but I turned it down.  Another was the Peace Corps.  They admitted me to their Nepal program, but I wanted to go to South Korea instead and turned that down too.   The third and least practical idea was to travel to Taiwan and study Chinese, but that would have required a sponsor and a visa to enter the country, and I didn’t have either one.  I was keeping all my options open in my head, but not committing to any of them.

A major source of my inner conflict was that I wasn’t ready to let go of my college girlfriend.  The summer after graduation while I was in US Plywood, Lebanon, Oregon shoving wet strips of wood into a dryer, I thought of Sari’s ever-cheerful personality, her child-like sense of humor, her straight long Latvian-Jewish blond hair, and her ivory complexion.  She was fun and attractive.  I also thought about how my post-graduation plans to be a vagabond would take me thousands of miles away from her.  Back in St. Louis when we had said goodbye, Sari idealistically assured me that we’d reunite at a later date, but come on, was that real?  I either had go to New York now, or I could just forget it.  I wasn’t ready to just throw it all away.

On the Road

Out on the I-5 entrance I held the NEW YORK sign up as a few cars went by, and before long I had my first ride.  The clean-cut look paid off right away.  A businessman, the most reliable kind of driver, picked me up and took me 120 miles north to Portland.  He told me he wouldn’t have stopped if I hadn’t looked like a student.  He dropped me off on the side of the freeway, and from there I took a big swing right and started counting down the 3,000 miles to New York.

Outside Portland I got lucky again.  A sophisticated “older woman”, a twenty-five-year-old hippie girl, picked me up, and told me she was bound for Denver.  Let’s call her Annie.  Her hair was straight and cut short.  She wore jeans, a t-shirt, and an open flannel shirt, with some simple hippie bead accessories.  As she popped pills to stay awake, we had a typical early 1970’s youth conversation, comparing notes. 

In those days, there were three qualifications to be a hippie.  The most obvious was experience with drugs, and that was her first question.

“What have you tried?” she asked, as she kept her eyes focused on the road.

“Oh, I’ve been in school and haven’t done much.  Some pot and that’s about it.  One time I did go to a party at school where a group of five suitemates plus a few others tried a “love drug,” probably mescaline with something nasty mixed in.  It did make us all lovey.  After swallowing the pill, I felt mushy.  It was a floaty ecstatic feeling.  It was great.”

“What happened then?  Anything?”

“Well, one of the suite-mates, Rich, who I thought was “hetero” got all passionate.  I was sitting there, and suddenly the big six-foot-plus guy with a Jew-fro kissed me right on the lips.  “Now we can do this.  It’s OK,” he said.  My eyes opened wide and I leaned backward. I wasn’t gay, and we weren’t even close friends.  I felt dazed.  What was this about?  The unofficial leader of the suite, Kevin, was 26 years old, while we were 19 or 20, and we listened to him.  He told Rich to cool it.  Fortunately, he enforced the rules of love-fest decorum so there were no more surprises, and no groping, gay or hetero.

A few weeks later, one of the suite-mates who was also at the love fest disappeared completely.  His roommates alerted the campus police and they searched the campus.  Eventually found him hiding downstairs in the laundry room in the basement of the dorm.  He had gone paranoid, and the campus police took him in for treatment.   I don’t think he returned to school.  Fortunately, I didn’t do any more experimenting myself.

It grew dark and Annie kept driving, playing loud music on the radio, and chattering ceaselessly. 

Participating in “the movement” was a second hippie qualification.  I had a little experience with marching down Clayton Boulevard in St. Louis, chanting: “LBJ, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?” because of the influence of a Maoist history professor.  This interest would grip me strongly and put me on a 10 year detour into East Asian Studies with no payoff.  But Annie wasn’t interested in politics.  She was more of a hedonist.

The third qualification was sexual experimentation.  By now it was after midnight.  She lowered her voice and said, “Can I ask you a personal question?”

“Yes, I don’t mind.”

“Have you ever had sex with a black person?”

“What?” I thought.  Why was she asking me that?  Why couldn’t she have a fetish for 22-year-old hitchhikers instead of black men?  That was one badge I hadn’t won.

“No, most of the black women on my campus were from downtown St. Louis. They were so angry and militant that they wouldn’t even speak to the white guys.  That was impossible.”  Racial relations on campus were tense at that time, although there were some exceptions.  One friendly black student I met from downtown St. Louis joined a Jewish fraternity on campus and that worked out for him.

Annie was just asking questions and not giving away much about what she did herself.  I liked her, but we didn’t exchange names.   I’d love to know what she’s doing now.  I suspect that even though she’s in her 70’s now, she’s still not a Republican.

Cops

Annie dropped me off at a Denver freeway exit just after sunrise.  By now I’d been on the road for twenty-four hours, and although I had made great time, crossing a third of the continent already, I was dead tired.  So, what happened now?  Shit.  Here came the cops.  A bruiser with a helmet and a Colorado State police uniform got out of his car, and stomped over and bellowed, “Son, you go into town right now and take the bus out of this state.  If I see you on the road again, I’ll throw your ass in jail for two weeks.”  He muttered something about witnessing an accident caused by someone stopping for hitchhikers.

That’s charming, I thought.  Thanks dad, but I’m not going to stop hitching.  Somehow, I don’t know how, I got myself to the Denver bus station, and then rode the Greyhound to the next small town on the freeway.  Unrepentant, I walked right back onto the highway, and prayed that I would not to run into the same cop again.

Someone up there was looking out for me.  Another businessman picked me up before the police could catch me a second time.  Thank god for salesmen!  He drove straight through to Kansas, and finally got tired at end of day, and dropped me off by the side of the road.  He was checking into a motel.  Of course, I didn’t have the sense to get a room myself.  It was near midnight, dark, and raining, and I let him drop me off on the side of the freeway.   I raised my “NEW YORK” sign again in the dark.  On the interstate there were few cars, and no takers. 

Eventually a car stopped, but damn, this time it was the Kansas State Police.  Two young toughs with crew cuts got out of the car, walked over in their striped Mounty pants, and ordered me to dump out the contents of my backpack onto the wet pavement.

“Boy, do you have any contraband in there?” 

            “What’s contraband?”

            “You’re a college boy, you know what that is.”

            I didn’t have a dictionary handy.  Somehow, I didn’t learn that word at Washington University when they were teaching us about Herbert Marcuse and the writings of the young Marx.  Anyway, I guess I didn’t have any, because once all my stuff was on the ground getting sopping wet, the two bruisers took off and left me there to pick it up.

Chicago

Eventually I got another ride and slept in the car.  Before I knew it, I was through Missouri and the boring part of Illinois, and arrived in Chicago, the city of Mayor Richard J. Daley, a segregated city with a white ethnic political machine and appalling black poverty.  My uncle residing in Chicago told me that Mayor Daley’s idea of how to solve the race issue was to build a freeway between the white and black neighborhoods, preventing the black migration from impinging on remaining white working class neighborhoods.  I was familiar with the city from visiting a friend at the University of Chicago on the South Side.  At that time the University of Chicago was surrounded by a devastating slum, and it took a train and scary bus ride to get there.

I landed in a blighted area somewhere in the inner city.  As I walked around looking for the “EL”, an oversized poor black woman told me, “You’re crazy to be out here.  There are bad people here.”  Now I realize that was good advice.  She was astonished by my naiveté.  If the muggers she warned me about weren’t bad enough, I learned years later that John Wayne Gacy was also picking up hitchhikers, torturing them, and killing them at this same time.  I listened to what she said and got on a city bus and headed downtown.

Susan

Before leaving Oregon, I’d sent a postcard to a college classmate, Susan, telling her I might drop in to her family home.  I called her and found her parent’s apartment in an urban neighborhood near Lake Michigan.  She was glad to see me, but a little surprised to see my backpack.

“Can I stay here?”

“What?  This is a surprise.  You just said you were going to call me, not stay.”

“Well, I can go stay with my uncle.”

Susan talked to her mother.  They had an extra room because her brother was away on a trip, so I was delighted to settle in and enjoy life with her family.  Susan was orthodox Jewish, and in fact now she is a Religious Studies professor at Amherst.  She had some hippie vibe going, and back at school she was rebellious enough to have a non-Jewish boyfriend who her father disapproved of.  Her boyfriend was a normal student, not one of the bikers who hung around the WU student union.  Susan was brilliant.  She was charming.  She was sexy.  She was the envy and heartthrob of the orthodox Jewish students and of the rest of us too.  When I showed up, I don’t know if her boyfriend was still in the picture.  Susan and I were “just friends”, and I have to admit that I was also one of her fans, although I felt she was completely out of reach.

We spent the next couple days walking around the city and visiting some nightspots near her house to dance.  We bonded by telling our police stories.  Mine, which you have heard, was frankly pretty trivial, but hers was not.  She said she was kidnapped as a teenager in Chicago and talked her drug-addled captor into releasing her.  The police believed her story but wouldn’t arrest the guy because he was connected with the Daley political machine.

We were already friends before and now we got closer, right to the edge of a romantic attachment.  This led to an embarrassing scene when it was time for me to leave. When I said goodbye, she motioned to kiss me, and to my infinite embarrassment and regret, I clumsily avoided it.  I was traveling to see Sari and I told Susan I couldn’t do it.  I managed to stay loyal to my mission and stay on course.

The Big Rig

 Sad to leave her, I went to see my uncle who worked as a photographer at Chicago’s Women’s Wear Daily.  We caught up, and then he got me a ride in a truck with his troubled son-in-law, a reputed wife-beater who packed a pistol.  It still seemed safer than hitching out of Chicago, after the warning I got from the woman on the street.

We got into the big rig and introduced ourselves.  He was driving straight through to Pennsylvania and had a driving partner with him.  The two-man team would take turns driving and sleeping in the compartment behind our heads.  Once we got on the road we talked, and I overheard my uncle’s son-in-law boast that he had picked up a hippie woman and fucked her in the cab while his partner was driving.  Her leg hung out from behind the curtain behind the driver and flopped around in the cab.  She wasn’t willing, and his partner and I realized in disgust that he was boasting about a rape.  Besides, I didn’t forget that he was confessing in front of me even though I had met his wife, my uncle’s step-daughter, and felt some loyalty to her.

His driving partner was a regular guy, not a nut case.  Before the partner went to sleep behind the cab, the son-in-law admitted that he was going to court in Pennsylvania for an 85-mile-an-hour speeding ticket.  His partner admonished him to drive carefully, and then climbed up into the bed behind our heads.  I had to stay awake with the outlaw and was nervous talking to him as the big rig vibrated and shook its way down the highway.

I maintained rapport by not challenging his bullshit.  I nodded when he asked me if I liked my uncle.  He told me that my uncle was an “intellectual.”  That wasn’t a complement.  I said yeah, but realized that although my uncle talked a lot and was fun and street-smart, he kept a gun cabinet in his house with hunting rifles, had his trophies on the walls (a Moose head and several deer heads), kept a portrait he took of himself with Richard Nixon in his living room, and wasn’t exactly a pointy-head like Noam Chomsky.  I’m not demonizing him; my uncle was one of the good guys, providing for his two sons while badly hurt financially by divorce, and always finding a way to have fun without getting into any trouble.  But an “intellectual?”  He was too down-to-earth for that; he would have denied it.

Quakers

Finally, the next morning, THANK GOD, the two drivers reached their destination in Pennsylvania.  I was relieved when they dropped me off on the roadside, especially because in the future I’d make sure to never meet the outlaw again.

This time I was fortunate to hook up with a nice couple on their way to Manhattan.  Maybe they were Quakers.  I was so delighted to be back with the much-maligned hippies, or Quakers, or whatever they were.  After passing through the Lincoln Tunnel, they drove part-way uptown and I jumped out of their van near 72nd and Broadway.  

Manhattan

This was the moment I was waiting for.  I put my pack down on a bench and kissed the Manhattan sidewalk.  I felt ecstatic.  I had made it!

It was a pleasant fall day, and a curly-haired man in his early 30’s confidently strolled down the sidewalk, in fashionable slightly worn blue jeans and a blue worker’s shirt with an open collar.  I recognized this as one of the uniforms of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Some of us, myself included, adopted the garb of the proletariat, and made it a semi-mandatory fashion.  The man glanced at me but didn’t pay that much mind.  I thought, “that man looks so comfortable in his skin.”  In contrast, I looked out of place.  My hair was short and was stuffed under the baseball hat.  I was wearing hiking boots, a black t-shirt, and blue jeans, and carried a bulging mountain backpack.  I thought, I must look like a farmer.

My Oregon garb

Manhattan looked like no place else in the country.  I took in the scene of Broadway with its four lanes and benches in the median.  Litter was strewn haphazardly on the sidewalk.  Cars and yellow taxis careened down the street, dodging from side to side.  All sorts of people walked by:  businessmen in suits, longhaired students, nannies and wealthy women with strollers, bag ladies, drunks, and vagrants.  It was dirty, bustling, and anarchic, just like I’d seen in the movies.  It was different from the neat fields of Pennsylvania, the pristine suburban atmosphere of Eugene, Oregon, and even from urban St. Louis.  It made me feel alive.

Street scene

Subway
Subway
Times Square

I tore my NEW YORK, STUDENT sign into pieces, dropped them into a wire mesh trashcan near 72nd Street station, and asked for directions to Columbia University.  At that time, even I knew that one had to be very careful about where they walked.  Some places were OK, and others, like Harlem or Morningside Park near Columbia were off limits.  The 1960s racial strife and a still expanding heroin epidemic had spawned a lot of muggers.  The invisible borders had to be taken very seriously.  Later we all developed a map of the city in our heads, with areas we could go to and areas that were out of the question.

Columbia University

After I fortunately took another rider’s advice and switched to the local train at 96th street so I would end up on the high side of Morningside Park (“Needle Park”), instead of in Harlem, I made it to 116th Street Columbia University.  I recognized it right away from the movies.  While I was still in High School in 1968, a group of student radicals took over the Columbia administration building, and one student, David Shapiro, had his photo taken sitting behind the president’s desk, smoking a cigar.  The Oregon Republicans took advantage of this image, and in my home state the Republican Bob Packwood defeated anti-war Democrat Wayne Morse by harping about the student with the stogie.   He said, “This is just going too far.”  This appealed to the union members and got Morse defeated.

Student David Shapiro smoking cigar while sitting behind Columbia University president’s desk

 I also recognized the square in front of the majestically columned Columbia Library from a scene in a film called “The Strawberry Statement.”  In the climactic scene of the movie, the NYPD chased innocent students and knocked them over the heads with batons.

I crossed the campus and reached Amsterdam at 116th Street, and found the modern-looking graduate women’s dormitory, Wien Hall.  Now I was really excited. I anticipated that after four months apart I’d be happily reunited with Sari.  The dormitory had a reception office with a sign-in sheet and a doorman.  I put down my backpack and asked the receptionist to call upstairs.  She dialed the number and got through the first time.

Anti Climax

Sari came right downstairs.  I was delighted to see her, but she seemed taken aback when she saw me.  Her first remark was jarring: “What happened to your hair?  You look queer.”  By “queer” she meant conservative.  She was embarrassed to even be seen with a man with short hair, a symbol of conservatism, of the establishment.

I replied, “It was to help me get rides.  I just hitched 3,000 miles to see you.  Aren’t you happy?”  I felt a huge twinge of disappointment.  Didn’t she understand what I’d gone through to get here? 

Sari brought me upstairs, and I started my life in New York sharing a single bed in a tiny room in the Columbia University women’s dormitory.  If someone tried this today, the school would probably toss them out of the women’s dorm right away.  Fortunately, the doormen did not object when I called upstairs after that, and I had a precarious foothold in Manhattan.

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