THE ODDS

Only one person in a thousand aspires to become a Subway Hitchhiker. Nobody knows why, either. Of those aspirants, only one in a thousand is chosen. That aspect’s equally mysterious.

Question: With 2,371 cars operating in Tokyo, how many Hitchhikers?

DL pondered Soviet subway systems in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Tbilisi, Baku, Kharkov, Tashkent, Minsk, Yerevan, Gorky, Novosibirsk, Kuybishev, Sverdlovsk, Riga, and Dnepropetrovsk. To say nothing of related Warsaw Pact, Eastern Bloc operations.

At least they didn’t suffer graffiti. Not with spellings like theirs. No, both Hitchhikers and vandals in those realms have different problems to confront.

Not a single ballot had been cast, either.

~*~

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A BIT MORE ON HIPPIE LIT

One of my lingering questions wonders why the intensity of the hippie experience didn’t flower more fully in fiction.

Yes, I know hippies were considered “laid back” and “mellow,” but that’s only part of the picture. A lot of what we felt was indeed incredible and new. Yet while the music of the era gives both lyrics and a soundtrack to the late ’60s and early ’70s, the literary parallel runs thin. Most of the prose is in the non-fiction side of the aisle – memoir, especially, and sociology – works like Barry Miles’ Hippie. Within that flourished a range of small publishing operations, such as Straight Arrow Books and Ten-Speed Press.

But novels are another matter.

As I’ve already noted, Richard Brautigan and Gurney Norman (Divine Right’s Trip) did give wondrous voice to the action. Add to that Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey, T.C. Boyle’s Drop City, and we’re soon at the fringe. Thomas Pyncheon’s Vineland, Lisa Mason’s Summer of Love, and Jan Kerouac’s Baby Driver get nods. I’d add Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, and John Nichols to the list. And then?

Well, there’s always my Hippie Trails series. All five volumes.

As Michael Wards, author of Bitch, a novel about Berkeley 1968-73, commented on an earlier post here, “Today I don’t think 20-year-olds would believe their grandparents were capable of anything that actually happened then.”

That, I suppose, is the entire point. We came so close to a real revolution across the social and economic spectrum. That vision needs to be kept alive and rekindled. Especially in the face of today’s repressive regime.

TUNNEL VISITATION

In the IRT Subway Speakeasy, a young poet played a Japanese bamboo flute. While DL admired black nylons straying from a neighboring table, the poet’s candy-apple choppers whispered lascivious instructions. The evening’s crystal stemware of chilled notes lobbed the Dionysian-on-the-lam into the legendary Minoan labyrinth at Knossos. He yielded to temptation, whipped out his camera, and began photographing that Earth-Mother-of-all-later-human-channels-unto-rock. Each flashbulb carried him closer to the sewage tunnels of the Indus Valley. He was soon thirty-five thousand years from the music. His must be the oldest photographs on record. DL’s Nikon began impressing lost snippets from the Hebrew Bible. Fortunately, his lenses read in both directions. From what DL could determine, Joseph of the Technicolor Rainbow Dream Coat hadn’t been thrown into a cistern after all, but had been held captive at the Dothan Station instead. This journey started to sound like modern-day hostage-taking in the Middle East. So that’s what it was like to have an ayatollah for a brother! As for everybody involved, that Joseph incident would become a pretty expensive ride on Pharaoh’s Subway. DL wasn’t so sure he wanted to know any of this.

Just as he turned about, he bumped into Dante Alighieri. At least this wasn’t Dante’s Station, the Black Hole! DL counted his blessings. No, this station was Virgil’s, that satanic sorcerer who’s capable of burrowing through entire mountains in a single night. As usual, Virgil was the tour guide. This evening was getting too thick with poets for the photographer’s blood. If DL had been thinking clearly, he’d be snapping portraits of both Italians and would thus possess history’s only known photographs of them. Instead, he was interrupted by a friendly hiss – Zimm, the lovable newspaper editor and poet from Upstate. The night was definitely dripping with poets.

“Hey! This way!” he whispered, motioning to a side corridor. The impoverished journalist had been sent to rescue the lost protagonist. “This 1810 French canal tunnel was never used,” he said, leading DL along a narrow towpath. “The boatmen united in their fear of its endless darkness. You might be interested in knowing,” he continued, “of a similar situation that arose on the Sandy & Beaver Canal in southeastern Ohio. After hearing splashing in the permanent night, no one dared enter that tunnel. Not even an offer of eternally toll-free travel could induce a barge to pass through.” In the echoes, DL heard English clergymen prophesying the fruits of damnation to anyone who dared venture into the London Underground, circa 1863.

DL could tell they were coming back toward the surface. In a four-hundred-yard tunnel beneath the Thames River, they passed Marc Isambard Brunel’s historic digging machine. “He spent eighteen years here, launching the modern subway movement,” the editor explained.

“Let me get a shot of it,” DL said.

“We don’t have time,” Zimm retorted. “I’ve got to be at the office in another two hours.” He set a wicked pace, and DL had trouble keeping up.

In this stretch of history, they feared the newly constructed tubes would cause buildings to collapse. A few more steps put even that behind them.

A few more steps, indeed, brought them up to 1912. A clutch of astonished engineers was too engrossed to notice the time-travelers. The excavators had just broken into a totally unknown subway all of three hundred and twelve feet long. In 1870, it seems, Scientific American editor Alfred Beach had built his private line under lower Broadway. Its fountain, wind machine, and voiture were still in place.

“Let’s go back and check that out,” DL suggested.

“DL! Come on! The world already has photos of that discovery.”

Their spiral to the surface continued.

While feathering his own nest on the elevated, Boss Tweed opposed the underground efforts.

As a burly foreman constructing the Moscow system in the 1930s, Nikita Khrushchev grasped the full power of moving ahead by snuffing entire shifts of workers in cave-ins and underground drownings.

In Tokyo, muscular young oshiya have been hired to cram more riders into each car during rush hour.

“It’s a good thing Khrushchev didn’t know about Tokyo!” DL mused.

“Hurry up, will you?”

“Ok! I’m coming!”

They circled again, betwixt Stockholm’s masterpiece and New York’s disgrace, superstitions and dreadful truths.

DL wondered how good Minoans were at Subway Hitchhiking. Why couldn’t Brunel dig at Virgil’s speed? What connection did the Catacombs of Rome have with subway construction? DL’s world had quickly shrunk in time and space. Simultaneously, expanding like a Milky Way.

~*~

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NEXUS DOWN THE LINE

Forget the office towers, exclusive boutiques, world-class symphonies and operas, museums and galleries. Nothing defines a great metropolis as much as a subway. Consider the cities that have them: London, Paris, New York, Moscow … Then consider the remainder. Underground the collective psyche of a people and place ride.

For many individuals, a metropolis becomes a destination, a nexus where dreams play out. In its locus of massive power, culture, glamour, and wealth, not everyone enjoys all the benefits, a fact one cannot avoid noticing in the subway. In the tunnels appear the price tags of the social machine – the city itself – extracts from many whose labors make it function.

Perhaps it’s simply that ancient lure of adventure – the call of the open road and countryside beyond – that gave hitchhiking and its distant cousin, bumming the tracks, their timeless Gypsy appeal. Nothing symbolized freedom more than riding the rails as a hobo or flying down the highway in the company of colorful kindred spirits. Combining subway rails and hitchhiking, moreover, re-creates a time of collision, an era that encompasses the late Sixties through early 1990s.

The conflict – between old and new, past and present, limitations and desires, the given and the dreamed – is that of a generation attempting to live simultaneously in the countryside (the back-to-the-earth movement) and in the metropolis (Bright Lights, Big City). It’s the struggle of a generation that wanted to have its cake and eat it, too – only to discover there’s no such thing as a free ride forever.

Subway Hitchhikers is ultimately a metaphor of the search for meaning in this era, station by station leading into the vast universe before arriving in an unexpected and yet nearly familiar place of communion.

~*~

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RIDING OUT GRIME AND REJECTION

When one editor dismissed an earlier version of Subway Hitchhikers as “a coming of age” novel, I abandoned chronological development and turned instead to the eventual alternation of past and present tenses. When a New York agent’s brief notes placed Daffodil in Iowa, rather than Indiana, I had to wonder how closely he and his staff read a text, period. And a small press editor responded that this work was too outstanding and deserved better production and distribution than his operation could provide, while others urged self-publication.

At one point, I feared that the subject was becoming too dated – that the period, style, and places were fading from public interest. Since then, however, news developments convinced me otherwise. Who, for instance, would have envisioned a year when Yuppie hoboes would ride the rails for their summer vacation? Or that Subway Surfing would take hold! No matter how much I’ve tried to abstract the events that underpin the presentation in Subway Hitchhikers, there were time I felt overrun by developing news events. Reports, for instance, of finding a Tibetan lama reincarnated as a Spanish boy – a decade and a half after my first draft of the novel. Or a plan considered by Paris officials to build thirty-one miles of subterranean double-decked highway 100 to 165 feet underground.

Subway systems are receiving fresh interest. As public policy makers recognize their importance in the functioning of a major metropolis, the older systems are the focus of major upgrading. (New York’s MTA, for instance, was subsequently cited “as the most improved system on the continent and the man in charge received the manager of the year award. And despite the way the subway is pictured on TV, filmmakers are having a hard time finding the once-familiar graffiti sprayed on subway cars.”) Elsewhere, newer systems flourish, modeled on San Francisco’s BART and Washington, D.C.’s clean, quiet, efficient operations. As new systems, such as Los Angeles, open and expand, we can ask each city: “Where are your Subway Hitchhikers?”

~*~

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HOME WITH OM FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Living in a converted farmhouse – part of it once a log cabin – flanked by birch forest in rural Pennsylvania was a picture-perfect ideal for Christmas, especially when the snow fell.

There were complications, though. We were yogis, following Hinduism to some extent. And we’d mostly come from Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant backgrounds. Oh, and we were vegetarian, hardly the traditional holiday repast in America.

The open spirit of cheer many feel this time of year was something we were trying to live out daily through all the seasons. It wasn’t easy, requiring personal purification and sometimes confrontational encounters to break through our usual egos and self-centered outlooks.

These are all important lessons and memories, as I relate in my novel.

In the past several years, thanks to the Internet, I’ve been able to reconnect with some of the remarkable individuals who were part of my yoga experience.

What I’ve heard from them, and a few other fleeting encounters over the years, makes me glad I chose to limit the novel’s scope to a single day and the events leading up to it. Extraordinary things happened, indeed, at least for some of us in the circle.

But, as I’m seeing, there’s a whole other history to be told, in time. For now, let’s sit watching the snow cover the stone wall leading to the barn. Inhale, exhale. Chant Om.

Ashram~*~

For my novel, click here.

MOVING ON FROM BLUE JEANS

Over the past few years, there’s been an unanticipated shift in the way I dress, one that’s not entirely related to retirement. One of the lessons I carry from the hippie experience is an awareness that clothing should be comfortable, rather than conforming to the marketplace – and, if possible, it should express some degree of style.

As someone who never fit into the half of the bell curve the clothing manufacturers targeted, I’d always had difficulty dressing to general expectations. Back-to-school shopping was always a terror, one abetted by our family’s financial tight outlook, and one result was my pants were always way too short on my tall, skinny frame. You can imagine my delight discovering during my college years that Levis were actually available in my size. It was heavenly, even if radical at the time. I remember breaking unvoiced rules in attending classical concerts in my denim, even while wearing a necktie. Fortunately, the shift prevailed and later, when I discovered Quaker meeting for worship, came an expectation of dressing humbly rather than for pretentious show. Viva denim!

Moving to New Hampshire, I was delighted to learn that the San Francisco-based Levi Strauss relied on denim produced in the water-powered Amoskeag mills in Manchester, where I lived. So the product linked the continent, New England to California Bay Area, with cotton from the Deep South, and back.

As prices rose, my brand-name loyalty evaporated, even at the outlet store in nearby Maine, but some alternative sources still satisfied. And then they all started tinkering with the fit and gone was that feeling of comfort. Well, all except my Amish jeans – no zipper or belt but a pair of braces (suspenders, if you will) – which seem indestructible. Mine are going on 20 years, I reckon, and just starting to show real wear. The braces, though, can be a pain, as can going to the john when I’m also wearing a sweater.

For everyday usage, I’ve now drifted into variations of khaki or olive cargo pants. I really like all the pockets, along with the fit.

This has been accompanied by a shift from the oxford shirts I always wore to the office. From my first copydesk job, I’d learned to wear my wallet in my shirt pocket rather than sitting on it and throwing my back out of alignment – and so my shirts always had to have that pocket, which never, ever had a plastic liner like nerdy engineers include. Well, with the new pants, I could place my wallet in the other front pocket comfortably and that, in turn, allowed me to move on into turtlenecks for daily wear.

Turtlenecks are simply more flexible – no need for undershirts, I don’t even have to take them off at bedtime, for that matter, and they’re warm, even in our cold house. Yes, they also go with the sweaters I used to wear with those shirts.

I am surprised by my reaction looking at men my age or older who are still going about in blue jeans. They’re appearing somehow, uh, inappropriate.