24 January 2009

An Unmediated Inauguration, Part 2

3:02 pm
Pennsylvania/New Jersey

Now, like Washington, we’re crossing the Delaware, its sullen, steely waters flecked with ice sheets and black birds that from above look implausibly like the heads of human swimmers. I don’t know if we’re supposed to stop at Philadelphia. Mostly, I suppose, I’d prefer not to, for the sake of saving time, but part of me wouldn’t mind. For all my travels, it’s one of the few big American cities I barely know at all. I’ve passed through several times on the train, but apart from that my only Philly experience was in the dead of winter and the dead of night, that time Darrell, Eric and I tried hitchhiking from New York City to Michigan.

We’d been sitting around in the Ypsilanti hippie hovel from which we were about to be evicted, bored, alienated, and desperate for something to happen.

“We should go somewhere,” I said. “New York would be cool.”

We didn’t even have money for food and been relying on the free pizzas furnished by a friend working at the nearby Domino’s, but I had a checking account. A checking account with no money in it, true, but in those trusting days, it was no problem for threee disheveled and unkempt young men to turn up at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and pay with a check for three youth fare tickets out of there.

Friends often asked me afterward why, if I was bouncing checks anyway, I didn’t spring for round-trip tickets instead of one-way, or why I didn’t take any extra checks in case it became necessary to pay for other things like, say, a place to stay or, you know, food.

The short answer was that I simply didn’t know, the slightly longer one that somewhere in the back of my befuddled mind I harbored the fantasy that we wouldn’t be coming back, that we’d be starting a new life in New York, one in which money, the lack thereof, or the need to work to obtain it, would somehow no longer be a factor.

What happened instead was that the preternaturally warm December day that had encouraged such optimism gave way to a sudden cold snap, the rough-hewn street freaks who’d offered us a place to crash morphed, at least in our fervid reckoning, into drug-crazed killers, and by nightfall we were shivering in doorways along Second Avenue, feeding on the day-old bread we’d cadged from a couple of bakeries.

There wasn’t much to go back to in Michigan. Our landlord had turned off our heat several weeks earlier in retaliation for our refusal to pay rent, but as long as the kitchen stove still worked, we could at least warm ourselves by huddling around the oven. Compared with the very real possibility that we could freeze to death on the streets of New York City, that kitchen began to look downright attractive.

We left as soon as it got light, but a day’s worth of hitchhiking took us no more than 20 miles into New Jersey. As it got dark again, and the temperature dropped toward 0, we ignored the posted warnings and tried hitching on the turnpike itself instead of at the entrance ramp, reasoning that if we didn’t get a ride, at least we could count on being arrested and carted off to what would hopefully be a nice warm jail.

When after an hour or two neither of these eventualities had come to pass, we opted for what we’d been discussing as our last resort. A few hundred yards up the road sat a police car, its idling engine filling the air with great clouds of steam. We walked up to it, knocked on the window, and offered to turn ourselves in.

“For what?” the cop asked, seeming slightly annoyed at being disturbed.

“Well, for hitchhiking on the turnpike,” said Darrell.

The trooper took a few seconds to process this information before replying. “Oh. Then get off the turnpike.”

Actually, we told him, we’d much rather go to jail, but the harder we tried to convince him, the less inclined he was to take us there. He finally drove away, leaving us to contemplate the likelihood of being found dead on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike, a fate lacking even the modicum of glamour afforded by meeting our demise in a New York City doorway.

That’s when the hippies saw us. They pulled off the road and said, “We’ll take you to Philadelphia.”

“That’s not even on the way to Michigan, is it?” protested Eric, and the hippies said no, it wasn’t, but at least it would be warm there, and there’d be food. “You can stay with us tonight and make a fresh tomorrow.”

So began my only real visit to Philadelphia, and even then I saw little and remember less. They drove us through deserted, late night streets to their converted warehouse loft, a concept none of us had heard of, let alone seen in 1967, fed us huge steaming bowls of hippie stew, and after some sort of tribal confab, decided that $80 in communal funds should be used to put us on a bus to Michigan in the morning.

Most of my experiences with hippies up to that point had been with people like ourselves: broke, hustling, eking out a mean, hardscrabble existence on the margins of society. These were the first hippies I’d encountered who not only appeared to have plenty of money, but were also willing to share it.

“We get a good feeling from you guys,” they said. “We know you’ll pay us back when you can, one way or another.” I was touched, deeply touched. All three of us were. And all the way back to Michigan we talked about how far out the hippies had been, and how repaying them would have to come before anything, anything at all we might have planned for when we got back.

But we never did. Other, more pressing needs intervened, mainly involving food and/or drugs. A week later I was homeless, a month later, running from the law as well. 1968 would be a tough year, not just for me, but for the country. We lost Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and, some would argue, our innocence. My last, best hope, at least the way I saw it, was that American society would collapse to the point where the charges against me might be overlooked or forgotten.

Things have a way of working themselves out in the long run, and eventually they did, though not without attendant measures of gloom, despair and disillusionment. As my legal troubles receded and my material prospects brightened, I often regretted – indeed, was ashamed – that I hadn’t paid the hippies their money, or at least kept in touch with them until a time that I could afford to. I can only hope that they didn’t suffer unduly for want of that $80, and note that because of their generosity, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Philadelphia.

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