It isn’t likely you’ll be seeing any swell 40th-anniversary tie-dye fashion spreads about it in the Times, but on July 12, 1967, after cops arrested and beat a black cab driver, Newark blew up. The riots lasted a week; 26 people were killed, 725 injured. Half the town burned down and hasn’t quite come back yet. Ten miles away, we knew something was up the first night, when a Trailways Bus came through the Lincoln Tunnel with the windows shot out.
That was the game, the balancing act between the Summer of Love and the Summer of Hate. This was no news to my fellow redcaps, all of whom, save myself and a couple of other dropouts, were black. The majority were older, in their forties and fifties. Several had been working at the terminal since it opened in 1950. There were also half a dozen guys my age. Called the “college men” with varying degrees of scoff and pride by the older redcaps, they were in between semesters at places like Johnson C. Smith and South Carolina State.
These were my buddies, Andre from Washington Heights and Ray from St. Albans. They both had grown-out Afros and had to use bobby pins to keep their red caps on. This was a source of constant amusement to the older redcaps, who used to lump the three of us together, forever threatening to bring shears to work so they could cut our “damn hippie hair.” That made us a little team, our own little pan-race New York hippie cabal.
On the job, we worked the time-honored “tips and clips” scam—i.e., the Port Authority, which we deemed rich enough already, did not get every quarter we collected. I never felt so rich, before or since, with all those crumpled bills jammed into my pocket. The terminal was crawling with characters those days. A favorite was a cabbie who called himself Jack the Gyp. We’d bring him customers headed for the airport, or some other far-flung destination, and he’d lay us a dollar or two before taking them for a ride much, much longer than it had to be. “Someday they’ll put my face on TV,” Jack used to say. “And every little old lady in the city will scream, ‘That’s him.’” It wasn’t quite peace and love, but it was fun.
After work, we’d party. Getting off the swing shift, on the brother side of midnight, we’d go uptown, to Small’s or the Baby Grand, where Andre’s brother played the piano. Sometimes we’d hang around the terminal, stepping over the bums to scarf hot dogs at Grant’s, or skulk through the low amusements of 42nd Street, which hadn’t bottomed out yet, but close. More often, though, my buds wanted to go downtown, “to see the hippies.” I couldn’t understand why they wanted to mix with filthy East Village longhairs when we could go to fabulously romantic Harlem (almost burned to the ground only three years earlier), where a body might chow down on a stenchy plate of chitlins and listen to gutbucket R&B in a nasty little club filled with razor-blade-wielding junior Superflys. But I guess they’d read about the Summer of Love in Time magazine, too, or at least looked at those pictures of those hippie chicks dancing with their tops off. Besides, I knew a guy on East 7th Street with $15 lids of grass that kicked the shit out of that seedy reefer they sold uptown. Andre said I was their “passkey to hippieland.”
One night in particular stands out. Only a couple of days before, a whole bunch of us, many of the older guys, too, had left work early to attend a memorial service for John Coltrane in the Village. One of the redcaps put up a sign outside the Ninth Avenue exit of the terminal. THE TRANE IS DEAD, CARRY YOUR OWN BAGS, it said. On the night in question, however, we followed our usual Summer of Love script, first stopping in at Hung Fat on Mott Street, the hippie Chinese restaurant of choice, and ordering several plates of those trayf-overload bacon-wrapped shrimps. From there, we went up to Warhol’s Electric Circus. They were still painting faces then, a hokey hippie affectation my friends found hilarious. Usually, we would chase some Jersey hippie girls, only to wind up on a park bench in Tompkins Square Park drinking a six-pack of Big Cat malt liquor. On this night, however, we ran into a freak who laid some mescaline on us.
We were lying on the asphalt path by the East River beneath the Williamsburg Bridge contemplating the undercarriages of passing trucks when these three cops came upon us. Big, blushed faces screaming curses hung over us like angry red planets. The cops started in on my fellow redcaps, like what were they doing down here if they weren’t heroin pushers. The typical hassle. Then, as if they hadn’t taken notice of my presence until right then, the cops turned their attention to me.