1967 and the death of Groovy

Photo by Marc Riboud at the Pentagon, 1967

1967 was one hell of a year. I’ll try to make it short. It broke open in February, six weeks into my second semester at Rhode Island School of Design; the art school administration, in an attempt to purge hippies, used rule 153.b. in the college handbook to throw me and twenty percent of the freshman class out of school without explanation, and told us we had 24 hours to get out of town.

My mother popped three dexidrine, gassed-up her Pontiac Firebird and raced up to Providence, Rhode Island at 90-miles-per-hour. “You’re stupid,” she’d bark out every few miles as we drove to Westchester, “you know that?” By the time we got home my father was there; Mom and Dad had officially divorced just a few months earlier, the first legal divorce due to “irreconcilable differences” in the history of New York, or so my mother told me somewhat later. “Maybe the army would do you some good,” Dad yelled, but I’d grown up watching Sgt. Bilko and there was no way I was going to join up to fight in Lyndon Johnson’s stupid Vietnam war.

I bought a VW bug for $400 and got a job at a sheet-metal fabricating factory over the border in Connecticut. That lasted just a month or so, until I felt too threatened. The guys at the plant were what we’d now call blue-collar Trumpists; coarse, loud and aggresive. “Hey Al, did ya remember to bring them scissors so we can cut college boy’s hair after lunch?,” manager John Stelmak would yell over the deafening noise. “Go Airborne,” he confided in me privately.

Meanwhile, I’d applied to the NYU Institute of Film and Television, and been accepted, so in early summer I found an apartment at 8 St. Marks Place in the East Village, a studio on the fourth floor in an old tenement walk-up a few blocks from The Magic Circus. It was in front of the Circus one evening that PR Bobby tore off my beaded necklace. “You know who I am?,” he said threateningly, “I am Lucifer, I am everywhere.” He waved his hand, “Now go away, Bitch!”

I filled my apartment with kitch and a mattress on the floor, and began to introduce myself to other tenants. The “super” was an old guy named Joe, who passed me off to his nephew Johnny Benigno. Joe, Johnny explained, was actually Crazy Joey Roma, short for Romatowski. “Crazy Joey was part of the Dutch Schultz mob,” he said pridefully. Johnny was a street-smart, lower east side kid with a fast mouth filled with only a few teeth. During a period of three days employment at Radio Shack, he boasted he’d put half the day’s cash receipts into his pocket instead of the cash register. After I’d moved out, I heard he’d moved to Woodstock and had a gun.

Johnny shared a studio with Pinkie, so named because he was missing one. A middle-aged auto mechanic, Pinkie had let his blond hair grow long figuring it would help him score with  hippie chicks, but his perennially greasy hands and dirty fingernails escaped his attention. There were plenty of hippie chicks, many of them runaways. Kitty Findlay from Silver Springs, Florida shared my apartment for a few weeks along with her white cat she’d named “cat”. Kitty ended up pregnant, and a guy named Lee Littleton was the father; I was told she named her son Silver Fire.

Lee was an aspiring rock musician and compulsive womanizer who lived on the ground floor. He got a gig at a bar mitzvah in Long Island and since I could carry a tune he invited me along. When we got back to St. Marks Place he revealed that he’d stolen three velvet tablecloths from the temple. When I introduced him to my girlfriend Peggy a few months later, he complimented her boots. “Beautiful family, man,” he told me, grinning.

Unlike my street-side studio apartment, the units in the rear of the building were dark, tiny studios, with two miniature windows looking out into a soot-stained air shaft. The radiators in the building never worked properly, but the gas stoves heated the rooms adequately unless it got down into the 20s, when ice would form on the inside of the windows. Hidden behind their tightly-locked metal front doors, long-term residents went about their busines silently, avoiding the hippies who had invaded their space, but we’d run into them at Stachu’s, a Polish restaurant around the corner on Avenue A; we lived on their doughy pirogis, which cost like seventy-five cents each.

NYU was a bust. I dearly wanted to join humorist Paul Krasner’s protest march to levitate the Pentagon, but that plan interfered with writing a 42-page paper on the poems of Dylan Thomas. I decided to withdraw, and explained my priorities to the Dean of Students. “Yeah, sometimes I feel like tossing these file cabinets out the window,” he empathized. Years later, Paul told me some Pentagon brass reached out to him in advance of the march to set up a meeting and find out more about his “levitation plan.”

I hitched a ride down to D.C. with a guy named Lenny, a carney pitchman who practiced his patois on me for the entire five hour drive. A few hundred thousand of us marched and then congregated in front of the steps of the Pentagon and watched author Norman Mailer get arrested; by ten at night the crowd dwindled to a couple of hundred seated diehards warmed by fires set in metal garbage cans. I left after the surrounding soldiers emptied their canteens on us; I crashed in a stranger’s apartment, and caught a ride back up to New York City the next day. Despite our best efforts, the Pentagon never lifted off the ground, not even an inch.

Then Groovy died. Groovy was a lower east side icon, an affable and outwardly innocent flower child who happened to overdose on hard drugs. His death hit the St. Marks Place community hard; our alternative newpaper, The East Village Other, made a big deal about it. The Summer of Love was over and flower child culture slipped into the icy grip of modern chemistry and New York’s looming winter.

The Draft Department had me report to 25 Whitehall Street for a physical; I prepared by not bathing or changing my clothes for a week and given my wretched appearance and demeanor they shuttled me off to the psychiatrist’s office right away figuring I was a druggie. When Dr. Engels leaned toward me asking, “Tell me Larry, do you like girls?,” I knew I’d be rejected. They sent me home 1-Y, unsuitable for the military except in an emergency.

I moved through a series of odd jobs; they were easy to find but hard to keep. I nailed plywood on the windows inside of an abandoned soap factory; by the end of the day my shoes were caked and covered in animal fat renderings from the floor and I had to throw them away. I tried being a delivery man using my VW, but racked up more in parking tickets than I earned at $4.25 an hour. I worked at Village Movers for three days; hauling furniture and heavy boxes up and down four flights of stairs left me physically disabled for a week. When all else failed, I’d wander to the West Village and panhandle for quarters until I had enough for a couple of cans of tunafish.

One late October night, I found myself in a nearly deserted subway station with no money and the realization that I had a key in my pocket that opened only one of nineteen million doors on the entire island of Manhattan. By then I had a shit job as a file clerk alphabetizing receipts in a windowless room filled with cigarette smokers. Freezing as I waited for the A-Train, I told myself, “If your fate is to be 18-years-old and have a shit job, you can be 18 and get a shit job someplace warmer.” I’d already moved in with my girlfriend up on West 87th Street and by the end of December we’d saved enough to board a plane to San Francisco where my first sight of the fog crawling over Twin Peaks left me speechless.

I never looked back.

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