by e b bortz
The only thing my Uncle Jake would say about Holden Caulfield was that he was a “bourgeois Rebel Without a Cause.” Uncle Jake was a communist carpenter from Bloomfield, a tight working-class neighborhood on the other side of Pittsburgh. I didn’t really care what Uncle Jake thought about Holden, I loved them both --- Holden and Jake --- and even James Dean. I didn’t really see the contradiction.
So when my English teacher Mr. Brozavich asked me the next day what did I think of Holden’s attitude toward society, Jake’s comments about Holden’s “petty-bourgeois anti-social behavior” kept ringing in my head.
But I answered, “Holden had a cause.”
“And what was that?”
“His cause was being Holden.”
“I don’t understand,” Brozavich probed.
“Well, I look at it like this. Maybe he felt that all those boarding schools were really jails for rich kids. He wanted to be free. Holden lived in 1950s America --- a pretty stale place.”
“Guess you could argue for that a little more?” Brozavich asked.
“O.k., Holden wanted to be free, like the picture on the front of the Bob Dylan Freewheelin’ album. It’s about individual freedom, but also a more free society.”
Brozavich seemed satisfied that I got something out of Catcher in the Rye.
He said, “O.k. Benji, seems like you read it,” as he entered a check mark next to my name in his rather worn black grading book.
That was a breeze I thought, maybe Broz just didn’t want to hear from me anymore. He had a whole class of oral book reports to get through this period, so I was done.
I went back to my chair and thought about the liner notes on the back of the Freewheelin’ Dylan album. I wanted to split from Pittsburgh --- hit the highway just like Dylan might do on any given morning from anytown in this 1964 America.
A yellow haze hung outside Oliver High School’s crystal clear windows. It was late May and easy to daydream about the coming summer and what adventure might bring.
I finished out my sophomore year without incident and without much effort. I was the classic “underachiever” according to the school counselor. I wore the label easily, just like I wore my soft black levis. It was comfortable. I had other things on my mind, like hitchhiking out of Pittsburgh when school let out.
Reggie was graduating this year from Peabody High School on the other side of town, and was looking to find his way into life as a jazz or modern dancer. Six feet tall, wiry and muscular, his bronze face could bring out a whole story in a couple of movements. I had just seen him perform with some avant-garde dance group on Channel 13. I knew nothing about the art, but I liked the free flow of all the bodies on the stage. It had some kind
of power --- freedom --- yeah, that idea again. Little did I know how much discipline it all took until Reggie clued me in.
So Reggie and I were going to hitchhike to New York City a little after the
Fourth of July. My dad was cautiously o.k. with the idea. “Don’t get arrested for anything,” was his parting advice.
Reggie’s friend Ramon dropped us off at the Pennsylvania Turnpike
entrance near Monroeville. It was about an hour into daylight, warming up fast, with a gray haze swirling around the distant hills past the shopping center.
We knew trucks weren’t allowed to stop for hitchhikers, so when a big red rig rolled to a stop on the entrance ramp and the driver asked us which way we were going, we were kind of surprised.
“Goin’ east to New York City,” I said.
“I can drop you off on Canal Street near Chinatown if you guys want.”
“O.K!” We both jumped in and threw our duffle bags behind the big
The truck roared so loud it was almost impossible to hear anyone speak. The trucker whose name was Claudius hated his name and called himself Clyde. We all took our turns yelling over the roar about the lousy road, the diesel stink from all the other trucks, and Clyde’s stories of losing women, money, and jobs. Clyde of course did most of the talking.
“Those goddamn dispatchers keep givin’ me the worst runs,” Clyde shouted. “I can’t make a fuckin’ living in this business. And without that, ain’t no woman gonna hang around too long.”
We sighed with each new episode, out of deference to our host, until the truck roar and afternoon heat just pulled my eyelids shut.
The truck bounced on the cobblestones up to a stoplight on Canal Street in Manhattan as we grabbed our bags and bailed out into the grimy, sticky evening. It was a short walk to the subway, and a quick ride to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.
Night had already set in but life near the fountain in the park was just getting started. Three or four guitars and a dozen voices were all doing variations of Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright. Reggie scampered over to a couple of empty wooden benches where we dumped our bags and stretched out in squatter fashion without paying any attention to who was around us.
“We need a place to crash tonight. Might as well try this spot,” Reggie explained. “We can look for a cheap hotel tomorrow.”
We had pooled about two hundred dollars together before we left Pittsburgh, but that was about the extent of our planning. Everything else was pure spontaneity. We were home for the night unless the cops drove us out. Even close enough to a toilet. What more could we ask for? I grabbed a flannel shirt out of my duffle bag as it cooled off, but other than that, a few distant voices and occasional taxi horn along Sixth Avenue were about the only thing that interfered with the way Reggie and I spent a lot of our weekend nights rappin’ about everything...his Coltrane, my Dylan, his Sonny Rollins, my Joan Baez. We both had visions of what it would be like to be in Mississippi this summer, like our friend Dale, helping to register black people to vote. But we were too young. I was sixteen, he was seventeen and they wouldn’t take us for the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. So here we were in the Village, retracing the steps of so many before us --- Dylan and the Jazz Crusaders, a mix not unlike our own unique brotherhood.
Our morning ritual was about to begin. Reggie pointed behind the hedges to a small pile of beer bottles and said, “Let’s get ‘em before somebody else does. That’s change, man.” So we went about our work gathering up the quart bottles, dumping out the remainders and putting them in a couple of paper grocery bags that we picked up out of the trash can. We went right to a store on Sixth Avenue and cashed it all in for a total of $1.30. Enough for breakfast.
“This is our daily work,” Reggie smiled.
“Like livin’ off the fat of the land,” I answered.
After a fairly greasy couple of eggs and home-fries, we started walking toward Broadway where we heard there were cheap hotels. The streets were filthy with garbage and newspapers flying around in a swirl of noisy traffic. Not that Pittsburgh was a garden spot or anything. But New York sure had a garbage problem. A rat the size of a cat scared the hell out of me as it jumped out in front of us near Twelfth and Broadway.
“There it is,” Reggie said pointing across the street. “I heard the Saint John is about as cheap as we can get.”
We walked up the old, formerly ornate hotel steps into a dimly lit lobby. An oily looking clerk was dozing at the counter, but quickly opened his eyes as we approached.
“We want a room for a few weeks, how much?” Reggie asked.
The clerk looked us over some and said he could let it go for $6 a night. We said o.k. and gave him a week’s rent.
The bathroom was in the third floor hallway and had a single shower stall. Our room was across a linoleum hallway that had seen better days. Our room was small but it had a sink and one double bed that seemed to have clean sheets. It would be hot so it was nice to have a window even if it did look out into an alleyway of bricks
and fire escapes.
Sharing a bed would work out o.k. because it had to. The price was right and I was pretty skinny. So that was it for as long as our money would hold out. When things got tight, we would come up with another spontaneous gig. Maybe we’d get to know somebody and crash at their place. We would be resourceful.
We dumped our bags, and with an open window and a small fan purring away, fell into a deep afternoon sleep --- a ritual that would be repeated many times that summer. We would wake up in time to catch dinner in the early evening at any number of greasy-spoon diners along Broadway or on some of the dark side streets. And then we’d be off to the Village, to Bleeker or MacDougal Street to see what was happening.
Reggie had an eye for the avant-garde dives. “Let’s check this one out,” he said as we passed a castle-looking facade on MacDougal Street.
It was very dark with only a spotlight at the small stage. A saxophone, trumpet, stand-up bass, and a snare drum kept beating out the weirdest sounds I had ever heard.
“It’s free-form,” Reggie explained. “It doesn’t need harmony or melody, but it does connect if you listen close. Coltrane could go on for hours this way.”
I didn’t get it. Maybe if I listened long enough I would.
“What do you guys want?” a waitress asked. “Beer is $2 but we don’t have a cover.”
It was still way too much for us. My face squirmed as I looked right into her deep brown eyes for sympathy.
“O.k. fellas, just hang tight a minute,” she said. She returned quickly with two empty Falstaff cans and put them in front of us. We fell immediately in love with this woman.
The music finally got through to me and we stayed until midnight. Just as I thought I was hearing melody, the trumpet or sax would take off into some wild dissonance. It never made any sense to me, but I liked the wildness anyway. Reggie played his imaginary bass the whole night, his own bass still back in Pittsburgh.
The folk music joints were usually packed and there was no sitting for free. We’d hear the music from the sidewalk, but that was about as close as we got. Sometimes we’d just grab a couple of trash cans to sit on and do our usual rapping for hours on end. After a couple of weeks, the tourists starting looking at us like we belonged there --- “Look honey, Greenwich Village bohemians.”
The weeks rolled into a month and on August 6 we found ourselves in the middle of a Washington Square peace rally. It was the day Hiroshima was bombed in 1945. There was a survivor of the atom bomb blast who described the horror of it all. Neither one of us had ever heard or seen anything like this. Reggie noticed the small black and white peace symbol buttons that were being sold for a quarter. We both bought one. I pinned it with conviction on my blue denim work-shirt.
And then there was a real surprise. Joan Baez, dark hair flowing, climbed on to the stage and sang Dylan’s Blowin in the Wind. The couple thousand or so people stood in complete awe and silence. “How many deaths will it take 'til he knows that too many people have died?...the answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.”
After all the speeches and music we joined in a march to the United Nations. I felt connected to something much bigger than anything I had ever experienced. I wasn’t religious but it seemed like some kind of spirit was certainly moving through the crowd. Reggie ended up walking with one very beautiful woman named Judi who had chestnut-colored hair and a quick smile. Reggie was the good-looking one, no question about it. But we all walked together and felt the moment as one. Judi was in her early twenties and a graduate student at City College. Reggie and I lied and said we were two years older than we actually were. Reggie was now 19 and I was now 18. Maybe that was still too young, but she seemed really interested in how we hitchhiked to New York and how we were living on our own.
“So what are you guys gonna do after the summer?” she asked.
“Good question,” Reggie answered. “I’m hoping to go to Buffalo for a dance gig. Yeah, Buffalo. The choreographer that I know said there would be a two month show there and that they could use me in the troupe. Then maybe on to New York or Boston.”
“Sounds good.” Judi was impressed. “And what about you Benji?”
“I’m going to Pitt in September,” a lie I could never reconcile with being a high school junior.
“What will you major in?” Judi asked.
“I think journalism or maybe poetry,” I quickly answered hoping it wouldn’t lead to another question.
“There’s a big difference between journalism and poetry,” she said.
“Well, I guess you could say I’m just not sure of anything. I’m pretty undisciplined for journalism, so maybe it’ll be poetry. Or maybe even political science.”
“Ah-hah, political science, well that’s me,” Judi jumped in. “In fact I’m a communist.”
My mouth dropped as I looked at Reggie in disbelief. “My Uncle Jake is a communist, but I didn’t think there was anyone under 40 who was a communist.”
Judi was a little insulted, but anxious to explain, which she did in some detail, including what dialectical historical materialism was. It was more than Reggie and I had bargained for. But we were really curious, and somewhat infatuated with this “older woman” so we listened closely.
When the march ended, the three of us went to Forty-Second Street to eat. New York had a way of starving me, so Reggie and I splurged on the biggest pasta dinner we could find. Judi knew right where to go. And she bought a big bottle of wine for us to celebrate our newfound friendship. Reggie talked about jazz and dancing, Judi lectured on politics, and I just took it all in. I was comfortable in my role as the official sponge. As we were getting ready to leave, Judi gave us her phone number and address and told us to definitely call her before we left New York. We could come and visit her if we wanted. I knew Reggie wanted to kiss her before we left the restaurant, so I got up to go to the bathroom.
Their lips were still locked on each other in a quiet corner of the cafe as I opened the bathroom door and started walking back toward the table. They quickly broke it off as I awkwardly stared away from them. I felt left out, a little sad, but also happy. After all, Reggie was my best friend --- no, brother. I was glad he might make it with her. Her eyes definitely had that gleam when she looked at him.
We, I should say, Reggie, didn’t wait too long to call Judi again. In fact he called her the next day. And wouldn’t you know, Reggie’s birthday was coming up in a few days and Judi wanted to have a cake and throw him a small party.
We cleaned up our best for the party at Judi’s apartment on the Lower East Side.
A dozen people, all strangers to us, came to the apartment with wine and food of all types. I ate falafels, hummus, and baba ghanoush for the first time. They must have been trying to make communists out of Reggie and me, even if we were undisciplined bohemians, bordering on “lumpen,” most definitely not “vanguard” material in my opinion. When the guy in the black beret started smoking a joint and passed it along to me, another first was recorded. It worked on me quickly and it took some real effort to pry me away from the fried zucchini, also spiked with hash.
So that’s what the communists were up to now. Maybe the grass will end up making them more like me, than making me, like them.
When I woke in the morning, people were strung over the whole living room. Much to my surprise, I ended up on the couch. Reggie and Judi ended up in the bedroom. There were still quiet giggles floating out into the hallway as everyone else raised their voices slightly in order to avoid eavesdropping.
The sun broke through the eastern windows with a boldness I could only think of as an awakening. I had seen and felt something totally new and was ready to move on for those last torturous years of high school. Leaving New York ended up being the most restless farewell. Reggie decided to stay on with Judi until it was time to go to Buffalo. We wished each other the best of luck, brothers to the end, regardless of where things might end up. I went back to the dingy hotel room to pick up my duffle bag, and then headed toward the Holland Tunnel. A summer thunderstorm was just breaking open as a trucker from Arkansas pulled up toward the tunnel entrance and offered me a ride, my little cardboard sign simply saying “Pittsburgh or Anywhere West.”
I climbed in as the thunder and downpour became the road ahead.