1950s pundits talked about a huge gulf between “high culture” and “low culture” (or mass or popular culture). High culture was the repository of a society’s highest aspirations expressed in its classical music, ballet, fine art and serious literature. Understanding and appreciating high culture required hard work, education and experience. It was the culture of the upper classes and intelligentsia.
Low culture was entertainment, something to amuse and distract the masses: pop music, crime novels, romantic Hollywood comedies, game shows and soap operas. While high culture was a force for moral and political good, low culture was unsophisticated, emotionally distracting, and intrinsically corrupting. The pundits weren’t sure what to do with blues, jazz and folk music or the “sick” comedians. High and low culture don’t make much sense in 2015, but the division was orthodoxy in the Fifties,
High culture began in Greece and was exclusively Western. In Freshman year at Reed, my world shrank to a room full of classics in the Judaic/Christian tradition. Mid way through the second semester, I grew sick of stuffing my brain with more book learning. I needed to live instead of reading about living.
My fascination with Paris was literary. It was the romantic center of so many novels I’d read. It was where Hemingway and George Orwell hung out in the Thirties with Gertrude Stein and Picasso , where American leftists and African-American intellectuals like Richard Wright and James Baldwin fled in the early Fifties to avoid the Anti-Communist Crusade.
The United States was still densely provincial. Portland was almost rustic in 1954. Berkeley had one coffee shop where a dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon on a lousy cup of coffee transformed it to Viennese Coffee. It made you feel sophisticated for twice the price of a regular cup. Even San Francisco had only one decent coffee shop and a single interesting bookstore.
I wanted to sit in the Café Les Deux Magots in Paris where Sartre, Camus and Becket were discussing existentialism, the talk of the Reed campus. I wanted to brave cold, rainy weather with my collar turned up, drinking espresso with the rich smell of Galois cigarettes, tobacco crumbling on my lips, scribbling furiously in my journal as I took notes for the great American novel. I was nineteen.
There was also sin. Hadn’t I read somewhere that young women danced topless in the clubs of Montmartre and that unexpurgated editions of James Joyce, Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence could be purchased in bookstores on the Left Bank? I convinced Reed and my parents to allow me to take a year off from college, live at home while I worked and saved money for the trip that would start in January of 1955. I promised to return to Reed for the fall semester.
Chevron gave me a job at a local gas station when I promised that I was on the management track. I wore a neat, white uniform and a cap with chevrons to indicate I was a manager in training. My boss reminded me that the president of Chevron had started in a gas station. When I quit in January they said I’d never get a job with Chevron again. So I hoped. I had learned that I would do almost anything to spare myself from mind-numbing work.
The most exciting part of the shift was closing time at 11:00 pm. Most nights the cops came by to keep an eye on the station as I transferred the days receipts to an underground safe. Mine was the last gas station before the Walnut Creek tunnel and an easy get-a-way for criminals. The station had a history of armed robberies.
My skiing and mountain climbing companion, Doug Strong, came to Europe with me. Doug had an older sister living in Germany with her husband, an architect for the US military occupation. They would help us get a car.
Travel was a formal affair in the Fifties. In early January we set off from San Francisco’s small international airport dressed in suits, pressed shirts and ties with cheap imitation Burberry rain coats. As measured by time, the world was much larger in 1955. We left San Francisco on January 5th and flew for twelve-hours on a four-engine prop plane that sat about sixty people to New York’s Idylwild (now Kennedy) International Airport and then staggered on a bus that took us to the Manhattan docks.
Our boat was the Ryndam, a small Dutch liner scheduled to make Europe in nine days. It was the captain’s last voyage and he gambled on outrunning a North Atlantic storm to get home early by heading south and staying ahead of the storm. He lost. It took us fourteen days, most stormy enough to keep all but a hearty few in their cabins.