March 7th, 1976, a cold but sunny Sunday afternoon, the Twentieth Century Limited crawled out of its tunnel under the Hudson River and pulled into Penn Station. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and stumbled up the narrow, dirty stairs into a utilitarian clearing room, low ceilings, cluttered with fast food shops and news stands, candy stores, cheap electronics and shady characters lurking in the shadows. The old Penn station, one of the glorious masterpieces of the Industrial age, had been pulled down and replaced with an ugly stadium while I was in New York running WBAI. The new Penn Station made a depressing impression on me, but I wondered how I looked to New Yorkers with my jeans and work jacket, long hair, beard and a gold band in my left ear.
My 1960’s WBAI buddy Richard Elman had offered to put me up. I took the subway to 110th Street and Broadway and walked to Richard’s apartment on West End.
Richard hadn’t changed. Tall, lanky, slightly stooped to minimize his height, hair receding, a massive grin, a deep, smoker’s voice. Richard was living alone in a two bedroom apartment. He had cleaned out his back room for me. He was separated from his wife and seemed glad to see me but was bemused by my intentions in coming back to New York.
I dropped my backpack on the shag rug and sat down on a white sofa in front of a glass coffee table littered with literary magazines and books, worrying that any dirt on my pants would transfer to the sofa. Richard’s apartment windows looked out over West End Avenue at the apartment houses across the street. It was now dusk and the living room was bathed in eerie shadows. I had a feeling of complete unreality, as if I had suddenly been set down in a stage set without knowing my lines.
Richard filled an awkward pause by offering, in honor of the endless Martinis we had downed during WBAI’s intense dramas a decade before, to make authentic martinis from the Fifties, 1/3rd dry Vermouth, 2/3rd gin, stirred very cold with a twist, and he went into the kitchen for his preparations.
I picked up the April copy of The Nation Magazine but couldn’t read it in the dim light. I put it down and looked at my backpack. Inside, a dark brown suit, a couple of dress shirts, a tie and an unfinished manuscript of a novel I called Fast Eddy and the Acid Bandidos. The novel was based on the Llano outlaws and an imaginary exposure of the country’s power elite to a guided acid trip in the Colorado Rockies. It was in the spirit of … but not, I fear, in the quality of … The Monkey House Gang by Edward Abbey, which had come out in 1975. My plan was to get an advance to finish the novel and then establish myself as an up and coming New York writer.
That’s what I told Richard over our first Martini. I had nothing else to offer but obligations and balls, or as Richard put it, “chutzpa,” with his characteristic guffaw.
My case was not unique although I felt very much alone at the time. In fact, I was one of many “dropouts” returning to the mainstream after a few years outside. We came back to a changed America, the idealism of the Sixties smashed by drugs, police suppression and a grueling economic recession.
When I dropped out in 1972, Richard Nixon had just overwhelmed George McGovern, who only managed to get 67 electoral votes. McGovern was a weak candidate, but he represented the values that Sixties progressives had fought for and young people worked their hearts out for him. Nixon’s victory felt like a rejection by America of everything progressives stood for.
Nixon said America was at a historic moment that called for “two-fisted” types, blue collar working class men. His base would be “Catholics, Poles, Italians, Irish. No promise with Jews and Negroes.” It was a big part of Roosevelt’s old working class coalition. Nixon called them “the Silent Majority” adding them to the white Southerners who had fled the Democratic party after Lyndon Johnson passed a Civil Rights Bill.
Republicans called Nixon’s win “a victory of ‘the New American Majority,’”… “a victory of traditional American values and beliefs over the claims of the ‘counter-culture,’ a victory of the ‘Middle America’ over the celebrants of Woodstock Nation.” Pat Buchanan said it was the beginning of a new “realignment of parties” and Richard Nixon would be the “successor to the Roosevelt coalition.” Attorney General Mitchell said, “This country is going so far right you won’t recognize it.”
Nixon’s victory released a pent up anger in some Americans. After National Guardsmen killed four students at Kent State, construction workers in New York City, wielding heavy tools, violently descended on anti-war demonstrators who had come out to protest the Kent State killings. The construction workers pursued protestors through the streets of New York’s financial district, sending seventy to the hospital. They raised a flag lowered to half mast to honor the four dead students.
“Okie from Muskogee.” released in September of 1969, became the country’s anthem.
We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We don’t take no trips on LSD
We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street;
We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.
Muskogee was a place “where even squares can have a ball,” and “white lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all.” It’s a place where sartorial conformity is still enforced, where people don’t let their hair “grow long and shaggy, like the hippies out in San Francisco do.” And “leather boots are still in style for manly footwear; Beads and Roman sandals won’t be seen. … Football’s still the roughest thing on campus, and the kids here still respect the college dean.”
That’s when I had decided leave town in 1972.
Much had changed by the time I returned in 1976.