About a month ago I heard John Waters being interviewed on NPR about his new book “Carsick” that is a chronicle of hitchhiking from Baltimore to San Francisco. Since he is nearly as old as me and is a wealthy and successful filmmaker accustomed to a cushy lifestyle, I was impressed with his feat. There are three things I did when I was in my late teens and early 20s that I would not do today, one of them is take LSD, the second was to drive a motorcycle, and the last is hitchhiking from Dallas to Baltimore in the summer of 1965.
As it turns out, I was giving Waters perhaps a little bit more credit than he was due. The first two-thirds of the book is fiction apparently. He does claim to have hitched across America but I wonder why he didn’t just write about what happened. Did he have someone following behind him to make sure that everything went okay, like those survival experts on cable TV who can always rely on a camera crew to rescue them from a grizzly bear? Who knows?
In any case, the main point of the book was to remind readers that hitchhiking was once a very safe and a very romantic way to go distances far and near, as well as a way to meet some fascinating characters. In an interview with the NY Times’s David Itzkoff (the author of an article on the troubled estate of Harvey Pekar that was written just after his death that led to my oft-stated litanies), Waters made the case for a dying pastime:
But more crucially, he said this journey has taught him that it can sometimes be thrilling to not know where life is taking you.
“My life is so over-scheduled, what will happen if I give up control?” Mr. Waters said by phone from San Francisco, where he was safe, sound and still surging with adrenaline.
In doing so, he said he encountered a true cross-section of America: “Pot smokers, cops, I got everybody. And everybody was lovely.”
Having started hitchhiking at an early age, Mr. Waters said he had had only positive experiences in the past. “I never had a scary person, really,” he said. “When you’re young, people come on to you a lot more.”
When I was fourteen years old or so, I used to hitchhike back home from the movie theater in the next town, as did many kids my age. Our parents had no need to worry since nearly all the people driving past the Rialto theater in South Fallsburgh were locals and totally trustworthy. Back in 1959 nobody locked their doors in the small towns of Sullivan County, the heart of the Borscht Belt. People even left their car keys in the ignition. It was like a Jewish version of “The Andy Griffith Show”.
My next experience with hitchhiking was when I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1970 and before I bought a car to get around. College students hitched everywhere and so did people in their early twenties like me. You stood out on Massachusetts Avenue that wended its way from Cambridge across the Charles River into Boston with your thumb stuck out and wait for the next VW Beetle with a peace sign on the rear fender to pick you up. Everything was groovy.
In my senior year at Bard College in 1965, the beat generation was still happening for us. This was before anybody had heard the word “hippie”. We only knew about hipsters, the characters in Jack Kerouac’s novels who were into Zen Buddhism, jazz, marijuana and hitchhiking.
I was 20 years old when I graduated and totally unsure about what I wanted to do with my life. I had just broken up with my girlfriend at Bard College and only knew that I needed a fresh start in a new location, preferably one where I could live out my fantasy as a latter-day beat poet.
With that in mind, I agreed to accompany Rick Smith, another Bard graduate, out to California in a car that we were to drive for free as part of one of those brokered deals where you transport a car on behalf of its owner. We took Route 66 out west. Rick, like me, was also living out a fantasy—in his case being a blues harmonica player and a poet as well. I just googled Rick Smith to see what he has been up to over the past 50 years and apparently his fantasy came true based on the “About the author” section from his book of poetry “Hard Landing” available from Amazon.com:
Rick Smith was raised in Manhattan, Paris, Toledo, Ohio and Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Rick Smith began writing under the guidance of Michael Casey at Solebury School in Pennsylvania. Close family friendships and Carl Sandburg and Lenore Marshall also made a lasting impact on Rick’s life choices. He went on to study with Anthony Hecht at Bard College, George Starbuck and Frank Polite at the University of Iowa and Sam Eisenstein at Los Angeles City College. He learned blues harmonica in the “basket houses” of Greenwich Village and in the roadhouses of Duchess County. Smith founded the City Lights on the Sunset Strip in 1965 and has played and recorded with the likes of Van Dyke Parks, Big Joe Williams, Bernie Perl, Clabe Hangan and Steve Mann. During the 70’s, he joined Dan Ilves to co-edit the literary journal, Stonecloud. In 1981, he and John Lyon wrote and recorded “Hand To Mouth” a well reviewed LP of originals. He went on to write and record with Mindless, Go Figure, The Hangan Brothers and The Mescal Sheiks. Smith continues to work with the Mescal Sheiks as well as with Music Formula….
After Rick and I got to Los Angeles and dropped off the car, we said goodbye. He was staying there to live with his girlfriend and I was headed up to San Francisco to find a place to stay and look for a job.
A week into my stay at a rented room in the Russian Hill neighborhood, the San Francisco Chronicle had a story splashed across the front page about a major increase in the number of men drafted to go fight in Vietnam. Uh-oh. That was the end of my poetry-writing, tail-end of the beat generation fantasies. I had to find a way to stay out of the military. My life depended on it.
With not even the slightest thought about how my ex-girlfriend would regard a proposal, I took a Greyhound bus to Dallas and dropped in unannounced. Her reaction was a mixture of happiness to see me and an exasperated “what the fuck are you doing here?” When I broached the subject of marriage, the second choice on the menu kicked in with a vengeance.
Seeing that I had no future with her, I asked her to drive me to the outskirts of Dallas where I could start hitching on Highway 80, a road that ran through the south. Although I was pretty apolitical at the time, I was looking forward to traveling on the same road that became famous (or infamous) for the Selma to Montgomery Freedom Marches that took place just three months earlier in March 1965.
I had no idea that hitching on a road that was also known as the Dixie Overland Highway would entail any risks. In my immature and deeply romantic mind, this was like sticking out my thumb on Mass. Avenue.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember all the people who picked me up or what I saw on Highway 80 but to this day, nearly 50 years later, I can remember in broad brushstrokes what I am about to tell you now.
In Arkansas I was picked up by a Black truck driver who was hauling logs, a primary commodity in the state. Since the Selma-Montgomery freedom marches were galvanizing Black consciousness across the Deep South, he had no trouble expressing himself as we drove across the state. He was also happy to talk to a New Yorker since he probably assumed that anybody from New York would be sympathetic to the civil rights struggle.
For the better part of six hours, he told me about his refusal to put up with racism. The South was changing and he was not going to put up with Jim Crow. Listening to him was like being in the company of the hero of “Nothing But a Man” that had come out a year earlier and that was a breakthrough film about a Black railroad worker who refuses to kowtow to white bosses.
Despite being fairly apolitical, I had a deep admiration for any Black who was defying racist injustice so much so that I went to hear Malcolm X speak at a Militant Labor Forum during winter break at Bard College. It was the event where he praised the Militant newspaper. Little did I suspect at the time that I would be hawking the paper only two years later.
In Mississippi his polar opposite, a white racist GI on leave, picked me up. He told me that he was headed toward Fort Myers, Florida. After I asked him about how big the base was, he explained that Fort Myers was the name of his hometown, not a military base. That was not my first gaffe. When we stopped at a roadside café, I ordered chicken fried steak. When the waitress brought something that looked like a breaded veal cutlet rather than a steak, I told the GI that she must have brought me the wrong order, even though it tasted good enough. He told me that this was indeed a chicken fried steak, which would have been more accurately called a breaded steak. Years later when I moved to Houston to work with the SWP branch, I had chicken fried steak once or twice a week. I guess that’s where the bad LDL comes from.
The GI was not very talkative but every chance he got, he railed about “the niggers”. I was not going to challenge him on this given my reliance on his transportation as well as a fear that it might lead to a confrontation that could have dire consequences. As was the case with many of the whites I worked with at Texas Commerce Bank a few years later, the guy was very decent on a personal level. I wonder to this day what could make them hate Blacks so much.
Highway 80 was a two-lane road that occasionally overlapped Interstate 20, a four-lane expressway that was under construction at the time. For much of its length, it was indistinguishable from any country road. I remember being let out on 80 just a mile or two before the next town, somewhere in Alabama. I walked toward it in the hope of finding a place to have lunch and to wash my hands and face.
As I walked along a turn in the road, I heard a strange sound from just around the bend—a kind of “flap-flap”. As the sound grew louder, it sounded even stranger since there were no other sounds except for the cars passing by and the crickets in the roadside grass. And then finally I saw the source: an intellectually disabled (what used to be called mentally retarded) man sitting on the sidewalk slapping his hands on the concrete with a huge grin on his face.
This was at a time when empathy for such a sad and solitary figure was far outweighed by my overactive literary imagination. The first thing that came to mind was William Faulkner’s “Sound and the Fury”, in which the opening pages are meant to reflect the thinking of an intellectually disabled 33-year-old man. Everything was converging on me as I walked past the man: Vietnam, my estrangement from my ex-girl friend, a realization that my bohemian days would soon be behind me, and a forlorn but exhilarated sense of being “on the road”.
Later that day I got picked up by a portly man in a white suit and a rosy complexion that I guessed was the result of drinking too much who was more than happy to drop me off at one of Montgomery’s best but eminently affordable hotels as he advised me. In keeping with his appearance and his general boosterly attitude about Alabama, it turned out that he was a minor official in the municipal government. He was not interested in talking about race, even though I was a Yankee. His main topic of conversation was “opportunities” in Montgomery.
The hotel itself was like something out of a Tennessee Williams play. A king-sized bed sat underneath a ceiling fan, while a neon sign blinked on and off outside my window. I was too tired to allow the sign to interfere with my sleep.
In North Carolina a guy picked me up in the middle of the night in his forties who seemed genial enough. I can’t remember what he looked like but in my mind’s eye, I see someone that might have had a pencil-line mustache, wore a seersucker suit, and had a Panama hat on his head.
Within an hour of being picked up, the guy turned the conversation to sex. He asked me about the “girls in New York” in an obvious effort to either figure out my sexual orientation or to see if I could be hustled. I played it cool and everything turned out okay as he left me off in Virginia.
In northern Virginia, a guy in a hot-rod picked me up. He was driving it to a race that he was entering. The car had no top and the engine was exposed. Even if he was in the mood to chat, neither of us could hear each other over the roar of the engine. As much as this sounds like bullshit, it really happened. I don’t know about John Waters but I much prefer fact to fiction. That is why my attempts to write a novel after leaving the SWP came to naught. The car looked something like this:
When I got to Baltimore, I decided that I had my fill of being “on the road” and took a Greyhound bus to New York and began trying to find a graduate school that would accept me for the fall 1965 term. That was the New School and my introduction to Trotskyist politics.