Forty years ago, at the outset of the Summer of Love, my mother and father were not thrilled to hear I’d dropped out of the University of Wisconsin—a fine, publicly financed institution—to become a redcap at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The parents did not view this as a career move in keeping with the onward-and-upward trajectory of our family’s immigrant experience. “A porter?” my mother wailed, pacing beneath the fluorescent rings of our Queens kitchen, not unmindful that no college meant no 2-S draft deferment, which meant LBJ and General WasteMoreLand would now be free to stick me, her only son, on the front lines of the war against my hero, that great leader of the people, Ho Chi Minh.
I was sympathetic to Mom’s position, especially the getting killed part, but felt no choice in the matter. How to explain that, just as being a redcap at the grungy Port Authority wasn’t just another summer job, the upcoming July and August was not just another summer. It was a critical juncture, a decisive moment.
For the teenaged New York beatnik-in-training, the so-called Summer of Love approached as a dilemma. Here we were, under the impression we were growing up in the undisputed center (Flushing being slightly off-center) of the universe, where Dylan sauntered and there was always a really cool double bill at the Thalia. Then, without warning, the Zeitgeist dropped like a fleet of saucers on the other side of the continent. The Diggers, the Angels, the Dead, Owsley and his acid, the naked girls, they were all out there, at the end of a very, very long hitchhike.
Of course, everyone who could went out to San Francisco to check it out. Not to would have been tantamount to sticking a generational head in the sand. And yeah, it was great. Communism might have been geographically predetermined to unfold in Russia, those long stretches of tundra so conducive to lengthening breadlines. But when it came to the regeneration of the American Walden by uncounted baby-boom Adams and Eves, the dreamscape of California, with its primordial redwoods, cosmic coastline, and ahistorical behavioral blank slate, was the perfectly placed nirvana.
The problem was we were from New York. There was so much we didn’t—couldn’t—get about what was suddenly the best way to be young. For instance, it was hard to grok (to reference Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, another of those lame-o Frisco required texts) terms like dirty hippie. Coming from a life on the F train, everyone out there looked so squeaky (Fromme) clean. Clean, white, blond, and tongue-tied. Where did the fuzzy unanimity of the pot-smoking masses end? Didn’t anyone ever get mad at anyone else—before they pulled out their gun and blew your head off, that is?
Truth be told, we New York hippies, so bristling with pushy City College politics and vibe-harshing proclamations about what constituted taste both good and bad, were probably always too obnoxious for our California pseudo-brethren. We were a bringdown; they never trusted us. But what were we Queens and Brooklyn longhairs to do? Watch Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire, and ask, “Okay, what else ya got?” No, man, what was happening was what was happening. In the vernacular, we had to deal with it. Figure out how to be New York freaks.
We did our best to put on a Summer of Love, New York style, we really did. Ten thousand people came to a Human Be-In at Central Park and ran around with giant replicas of banana skins that were supposed to get you high. But it was a doomed project from the start. How was one to stay requisitely mellow while accommodating the spatio-temporal hem and haw of the rush-hour IRT after dropping a slate-gray tablet handed to you by one Sally from Pelham, or being busted at a Smiler’s Deli for shoplifting a gladiola to wear in your hair? The brutish everyday ingressed from every angle, especially for the barefooted. Too many coastal contingencies could not be bridged. In California, hippies, drunk on the volkish munificence of the land and food stamps, did not have to work. Here, in the New Eden–deficient five boroughs, where the steam of hell billowed from manhole covers and great dragon scales of rust molted from el trains overhead, even mainlining jazz musicians had day jobs.
This was how I wound up spending the Summer of Love riding a hand truck through the monoxide-choked Port Authority Bus Terminal, freak-flag hair stuffed under my red cap. It fit the sort of New York hippie I was. The dank spaces of the lower concourse might not have qualified as a back-to-the-land trip, but for the firstborn of union members who went to their graves believing Albert Shanker to be a sub-messiah, it made sense, in a civil- service way. Plus, you didn’t need Uncle Wethbee to tell you which way the wind was blowing that particular year. Love wasn’t the only sort of summer in the air back then. There was the Long and the Hot kind, too.