The lost hippie years

turning wander years into an everyday life of curious mystical adventures

Chicago’s Old Town, 1968

I was there. The 1960s, an era of grand achievements and breakthroughs coupled with massive civil unrest, social upheaval, free love, and a war both absurd and terrifying.

Hippie reminiscences

In 1970, I was prowling the streets of Chicago’s Old Town in my massive hip-hugging bell bottoms, ruffled hippie shirt and scraggly beard. I bought inexpensive black-light posters.

As I slinked around with no money in my pocket, I’d sometimes grab food from the bakery that had tossed it in the dumpster out back in the alley. I was always clean and washed, always had a place to sleep at night, but very poor. A wanna be hippie.

By 1972 I was crashing art festivals in Michigan and music festivals in Chautauqua NY, pretending I could someday be good on the guitar.

Hitchhiking was a thing

One day, on the way back from camping in Canada, I hopped out of a ride taking me through Buffalo NY. I had impulsively decided I needed to walk across the city. I’d never been there before, so it made no sense. My random urge took me on a hike from an old gas station near the Peace Bridge, past the old War Memorial Stadium and over to I-50 in Cheektowaga. It was a 10–12 mile walk where, upon arriving, I thumbed my next ride with a couple hippies in a beat-up van who quickly offered to share their hash.

I followed the Jesus Movement for a while, and ended up learning how to ‘witness’. I knew how to do it, but I couldn’t really bring myself to actually witness, if that makes sense. It just seemed so entirely cheeky and holier-than-thou.

I had become something of a young drifter. Modestly perplexed by a confusing world, after a year of college I fell into meaningless, low level jobs. I pretty much liked them all.

Laundry boy, mufflers and pipe organs

I was a laundry boy at Holiday Inn, a Pinkerton guard in steel mills in Pittsburgh, a helper setting up mobile homes in sticky North Carolina clay, an assistant manager at Burger Chef in Virginia, a VW beetle driver delivering court documents and mortgage filings for a law firm, and a mechanic on injection molding machines.

I was a supervisor in a muffler warehouse, because I was the only guy there. I manned a forklift in a cork and gasket factory.

There was that time I ran an ancient Gestetner machine that accepted small containers of custom embossed metal mailing labels that would stamp addresses on envelopes. For mass mailings. Very noisy.

Someone on the staff of the non-profit I was working for had thought it was a great find, because it was free. Of course, there was a reason for the lunky beast being given away. It was steel, big, outdated and monstrously heavy. But it matched the bulky steel-grey desks we all sat at, so there was that.

I had to figure out how to get it up on to a second floor office. It instantly became a very cranky relationship. I was 22.

I once worked part-time in a couple of phone rooms, selling car wash and pizza coupon books, and also booking appointments to replace windows in homes. I was surprisingly good at it, better than average. But the concepts of manipulation and pitching sucked. I didn’t last long. It was probably the only job I didn’t care for.

Girlfriends didn’t happen often

I was mostly a loner, happy to escape a broken home and a challenging childhood. I met my first grown-up girlfriend in Chicago while I was a night janitor. She was the daughter of missionaries to Venezuela. She was very nice. She’d leave little snacks for me in her desk at night. I never told her that I sometimes ate from dumpsters, so every little bit of help was a big deal to me.

My actual first girlfriend was Kathy. From second to sixth grade we were a thing, but then she had to move because her dad was in the Navy and got transferred. Our parents bought us matching t-shirts at summer camp. I remember the first time we kissed. It was a shy but light kiss on the lips. We held hands a lot. But that was in childhood.

My next girlfriend was from England. Her brother was a leader in the birth pangs of the early hippie Jesus movement. He seemed to have it all figured out, and built a big following and had an oversized influence that continues to this day. But she wasn’t into any of that. She was nice, too.

There’s nothing quite as isolated as a poor young man, thinking — refusing to accept the irrational as rational

My hobo knapsack was a stereo

I suppose someone could observe that all of those wanderings were some kind of suitable pursuit during an era when questioning minds were refusing to accept the irrational as rational. I don’t know. There’s nothing quite as isolated and useless as a poor young man, thinking.

In Pittsburgh, I bought a used Honda 350cc motorcycle with the long narrow banana seat like the old stingray bicycles. It would probably be called a cafe racer today. I eventually ran it dry of oil. Ruined it.

But my main possession was a Panasonic stereo with a stack of components and a turntable — all mounted in a vertical cabinet with a glass door. I also had a massive box set of 20 vinyl records of classical pipe organ music by J.S. Bach, recorded in old reverberating European cathedrals. I bought the set because it seemed cool. I lugged all of it around for years.

Avoided the love-ins

I wasn’t a war protester. I didn’t attend love-ins. I was just skinny, and a bit shaggy and aimless.

I never turned into one of the more detested members of the Boomer generation partly because I’ve never believed in exploiting others. I never became a shaker and a mover. I never bought second and third homes, and have never been on a so-called exotic vacation.

Instead of a motorcycle, today I drive a 2005 Volvo station wagon. I never expanded my possessions by much more than a small one bedroom apartment. Instead of my old stereo I have two 27" iMacs, an iPad Pro and other Apple-obsessive gear.

I still have my beard, but it’s been neatly trimmed for decades and has turned white. I went from 145 pounds to, well…

The unwinding spool of living

Aging has a lot of weird things that go along with it. One of the strangest is the time-defying role of memory. Things that happened a long time ago can seem so utterly fresh, and that can be depressing. Because when I have that crisp, frozen-in-time freshness hanging in my mind, I simultaneously look at my sagging face in the mirror or at my age-spotted hands extended in front of me. These can be deeply sobering and depressing moments.

On the other hand, l was aimless back then. Now, not so much… which is a huge advantage of aging. And that gap between the two, the one between aimless uncertainty and focused uncertainty, is maybe part of what the legendary radio host Paul Harvey used to call, “The Rest of the Story”.

I ended up becoming a construction worker. But my mind kept unspooling in true drifter fashion, as I deep-dived into Jiu Jitsu, consciousness and a shaken-but-not-stirred mix of zen, Taoism and life-earned philosophizing.

And so these days, with my life journeys trailing behind me in the dust of both good and uncomfortable memories, along with mistakes and regrets, I find myself wondering how other people’s stories are unfolding, and what they’re attempting to harvest from a lifetime of experience.

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