New York in 1971 at the end of the Hippie dream
I finished college in summer and we immediately embarked on our big adventure. We were heading off to discover the rest of the planet. The USA seemed an obvious place to start. I wanted to have a look at the New York City scene and get across to the West Coast and savour the atmosphere. After that it was Mexico, back home and then Africa, India and South America. Only it didn’t quite work out as planned.
We’d saved up to get the flights to New York and lied through our teeth to get visas that would enable us to work for three months. We had to state that we had $500 each, surety of $5000 and a flight home, and two contacts in the States of people who would vouch for us and take us in if we fell on hard times – oh and health insurance. We had none of that. When we finally stood on the sidewalk marvelling at the huge size of the cars and cops on these weird motorcycles with three oversize tyres, we had fifty dollars between us and a telephone number of a person a friend of us knew in Boston scratched out on a scrap of paper.
Entry had been laughable. We stood in line, had our passport and visas checked and then stood behind a line until we were beckoned forward by a stern man with a lectern on which was a very large thick black book.
‘Are you a communist?’ he asked staring at me suspiciously. I could not help thinking that if I had been a communist intent on entering the United States with the intention of overthrowing the government I would be highly unlikely to answer yes. I answered no, even though those hard glassy eyes of his made me feel like a communist.
‘Have you ever been a communist?’ – ‘No’.
‘Have you been to communist meetings or joined any affiliated group?’ – ‘No’.
‘Do you know any communists?’ – ‘No’.
Finally, though obviously not entirely satisfied with my answers, he suspected I was a communist, he turned to his big black ledger. Looking at the name on my passport he ran his finger down the list of names. If my name was there, for whatever reason, perhaps a casual conversation with a communist in a café, a march or sit-in, I would be denied entry. I certainly felt like a communist. It even made me feel like rushing straight out and joining up. But I wanted to get in and he seemed to be taking forever. My heart was pounding despite having no real reason. He made it obvious he did not like long-hairs. My name wasn’t on the list and he grudgingly waved me through.
Welcome to America – land of the free.
He processed Liz a little quicker.
We found ourselves standing on the sidewalk in New York with our good friends Pete and Julia. Our flight had included a hotel for the night so we checked in and went for a stroll. The four of us seemed a bit out of place with our long hair and colourful clothes in the midst of a crowd of grey commuters streaming mindlessly along the sidewalks, avoiding eye contact and intent on getting somewhere quick. We had time.
We strolled down the concrete and glass canyons heading for Greenwich Village, looking at the American flags flying everywhere. America sure liked to remind itself of who it was.
Pete had been before and took us into a hotdog bar. It was mind-blowing. I wasn’t particularly keen on hotdogs. In England you got a sausage, made of some congealed and rather bland plastic that bore no resemblance to meat, in a soft bap with a dollop of stewed greasy onions and a choice of tomato ketch-up or mustard. It just about made the trade descriptions act of passing for food but was hardly nourishing. This place was different. There were at least fifty different types of sausages all with utterly unpronounceable German names. I had no idea what the difference between a snitchleweinerwurtzle and sniedersnitcherwurze was. So I pointed. It was a different experience!
We walked past a pizza place, a hamburger joint and then an ice-cream parlour boasting 53 flavours. 53 flavours!
We take it for granted now. We have all of it everywhere, but back then life in Britain was still in the post-war greyness. We had three flavours of ice-cream and Wimpy’s for hamburgers (cardboard burgers). It was dire.
This was exotic.
Greenwich Village was a fading relic. We wandered around Bleeker St and visited the Café Whaa?, Bitter End, the Big Fat Pussycat and Gaslight. There was nobody on that I wanted to see. The days of John Lee Hooker, Dylan, Dave Van Ronk and Phil Ochs passing the hat were long gone. It was already history. But a bit of the atmosphere was still there. There were lots of long hairs playing guitars, sharing and smiling. It had a carefree feel to it. People were laughing, colourful and friendly, even if there were a lot panhandling, playing for the tourists who had come to gawk at the hippies (there were actually coach tours going by with straights rubber-necking out of the windows as the guide pointed out the hippies – that was us!) and some dubious characters who were latching on. It had become seedy.
The sixties were over but none of us wanted to let it go. We were holding on to that dream for dear life.
We talked to a few people and asked what there was to eat that was cheap. We were told to try knishes. We did. They were cheap and delicious.
We wandered back to the hotel in the early hours. The bustling streets were completely empty. Our footsteps echoed. Only taxis careered past and disturbed the steam coming out of the gratings. What is that steam all about? Is it just a New York effect? I’ve never encountered it anywhere else. It was a little nerve racking. These were the streets of the notorious muggers. All the punters kept to the busy and highly lit up Broadway and Times Square. Only the British were nuts enough to walk down the darkened streets. But then we had nothing to rob and that must have been obvious.
Not having been killed once we arrived back.
Tomorrow it was off to Boston and the contact on our scrag of paper.