My Christmas week in 1968, the last year I was a cadet at West Point, began with a frantic search for somewhere to go and someone who would take me in. My parents were stationed in Hawaii that year, and I couldn't afford the airfare to fly from New York to Honolulu. A trip to Colorado hitchhiking on an Air Force cargo plane, like the one I had taken with a friend the year before, was out of the question. The military brass had cut back availability for such flights for some budgetary reason I can't recall after all these years.
So, I called a girl – a young woman, actually – I had met at the Village Voice Christmas party earlier in the month and just came right out and asked her if I could spend Christmas with her in New York. She was a nurse who worked nights at Bellevue Hospital on First Avenue, and we had taken to each other at the party with a, shall I say, certain youthful fervor, and she quickly said yes. All I had to do was take the bus down to Port Authority, shoot across to Grand Central on the shuttle, take the Lexington Avenue line down to Bleecker and walk across to her pad on East 2nd Street, in the middle of a bombed-out block of abandoned tenements and empty lots where the hulks of burned-out cars competed with dead sofas and piles of household trash for bragging rights.
The Fillmore was a few blocks away, the Five Spot was up on St. Mark's Place, Stanley's Bar was straight up Avenue B, the jazz club Slugs was just around the corner on East 3rd Street, so the location was more or less in the red hot center of everything cool that was happening on the Lower East Side. I'll never forget that walk down East 2nd Street four or five days before Christmas. There wasn't a single twinkling light or even a scrap of a pine bough, all the way from the subway station to her building. Instead, there were boarded-up windows covered with sheets of tin, most of which, on the ground floors, had been peeled back with crowbars so junkies could get inside and disassemble window trim and baseboards to make fires in the kitchens with tile floors — so they wouldn't burn the building down, a junkie plan that had obviously not been entirely successful, given the blackened facades of at least a quarter of the tenements on the street.
She had warned me that East 2nd was considered "the combat zone" and not to tarry as I made my way east from the Bowery. I didn't, successfully reaching her building between Avenues B and C without incident. The steps were crumbling, the building's garbage cans were strewn about on the sidewalk, and the front door stood open, the cold December wind blowing through the first floor hall to the open door at the back of the building, carrying with it scraps of paper and empty take-out coffee cups and glassine envelopes in which heroin was sold in those days. I started up the stairs to her fourth-floor apartment, and on the first floor I could tell something wasn't right.
On the Lower East Side four or five days before Christmas, there were no twinkling lights or pine boughs — just windows covered with tin sheets, most of which had been peeled back by junkies with crowbars.
The smells of hot oil and Puerto Rican spices were mixed with something that was just off. I kept going up. By the third floor, the odd smell was gone. She was at work, and I found the key to her apartment where she had hidden it inside a burned-out light fixture and let myself in. The place was spare but well-kept and clean, decorated with a few fabric wall hangings that looked like they had been made in the Caribbean. The front room had a sagging sofa that had seen better days but was covered with more colorful tropical fabric. The kitchen was visible through the window in the wall between the two rooms that turn-of-the-century building codes demanded in all tenement apartments. The back room had a small window facing the brick wall of an airshaft. A three-quarter-size bed nearly filled it, but there was a tiny bedside table and a lamp and a couple of landscape oils that somehow made the place look homey. The tub was in the kitchen and the toilet, naturally, was down the hall.
I put my bag down in the front room and decided to go out and explore what there was of the neighborhood. Around the corner I found a Ukrainian bakery that had sugary pastries I had never seen before, so I bought one to eat and several more to take back to the apartment. Up the street was a Greek coffee shop, and further up Avenue A, I found the Peace Eye Bookstore, run by the poet Ed Sanders, whom I had met earlier that year at a party I wormed my way into at George Plimpton's townhouse on East 72nd Street (a tale for a non-Christmas story). I stopped in and Ed told me about a poetry reading on Christmas Eve that was happening at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery. He said Allen Ginsberg would be reading, along with himself and Gregory Corso and a few of the other Beat poets that were then still around. It sounded cool, so I told him I'd see him there.
I asked him if he had seen the radical troublemaker and Yippie organizer Abbie Hoffman. Ed said Abbie was in the hospital up at Mount Sinai being treated for hepatitis B, which he had contracted earlier in the year when he was arrested at a demonstration in Washington and forced to take a blood test. Nobody arrested for minor offenses got blood tests except Abbie. Ed said he was convinced the D.C. police had used the blood test as an excuse to expose him to a dirty needle they knew was infected with hepatitis, and his lawyer, Gerry Lefcourt, had already sued them. (The D.C. cops would settle the case for enough money that Abbie could pay his bills for the next couple of years.)
You may be asking yourself how a West Point cadet came to know the founder of the Fugs and Abbie Hoffman, and it's a good question. The answer is that I had a level of curiosity about the world, and New York City in particular, that was about the size of Staten Island, and since I had entered West Point in 1965, with its proximity to the city, I had made it my business to poke my nose into every scene I had read about in the New York Times and the Village Voice, to which I was by then contributing letters to the editor – jazz clubs, the Fillmore East, and uptown parties I read about and crashed like Plimpton's. If there was a door, I was going through it. If there was a room, I wanted inside it. If there was a street, I walked down it. If there was an interesting cultural figure, like, say, Norman Mailer, I found his address and wrote him letters – which he was good enough to answer, and in the process, occasionally to drop me some choice tidbits like the aforementioned party at Plimpton's, which I proceeded to crash.
For me, 1968 was like that – frantic and dazzling and filled with fantastic delights and strange coincidences and opportunities and promise. In New York for the holiday season, I was determined to mine the scene for every nugget I could find.
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Back at the building on East 2nd Street, the Puerto Rican cooking aromas had dissipated and on the second floor, I was hit full-on with the smell I hadn't been able to identify before. I sniffed at one of the doors and then another, and the smell practically knocked me down. There was a dead guy in one of the back apartments.
I went back outside and asked somebody where the police station was — on East 5th, it turned out — and reported the dead body. A cop gave me a ride back to the building, he got the building super to open the door on the second floor and confirmed it. He turned out to be an old guy in his 80s who had died peacefully in bed a few days previously. The cop told me they found dead bodies at least once a week on the Lower East Side, always the same — lonely men or women who had outlived their spouses and were more or less abandoned by their kids, if they had any, who had usually moved away from the city to the suburbs. The cop got the guy's ID, found a number for his son out in New Jersey somewhere and called him with the bad news. The ambulance took him away, the cop threw open his windows, and by later that night, the Puerto Ricans on the first floor had fired up the stove, the spices had dominated the stairway once more, and the sickly-sweet smell of death was gone.
Back at the building on East 2nd Street, the Puerto Rican cooking aromas had dissipated and on the second floor, I was hit full-on with the smell I hadn't been able to identify. There was a dead guy in one of the back apartments.
My insta-girlfriend returned from a double-shift early the next morning, we shared a couple of Ukrainian pastries and went to bed, establishing a schedule that would extend through the holiday. She was taking shifts over the holiday for nurses that were married and had kids they wanted to spend time with, so she went to work around 4 p.m. every day and came home around 4 a.m. I stayed out late every night going to listen to music and exploring the East Village, came home around the same time she did, and we would sleep through the day until we did it all over again, eating Chinese takeout from down on Canal and the Bowery, or Ukrainian perogies, or pastrami sandwiches from Katz's or Ratner's, or sometimes just scrambled eggs and toast made with fresh bread from the Ukrainian bakery.
Her schedule over the holidays left me with nights to myself. I had met Bill Graham earlier in the year one night when I went to the Fillmore in my Dress Gray uniform. He walked up to me in the lobby and asked what the hell a cadet was doing there. When I told him I was there to see the jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who was third on the bill behind Three Dog Night and the Faces (who turned out to be Bill's best friend), he took me backstage to his office and gave me a door and backstage pass and had his majordomo Jerry Pompili put me in house seats in the fourth row, and that was that. Every time I got myself down to the city, I went to the Fillmore and hung out backstage and watched whoever was playing — the Grateful Dead, Janis, Paul Butterfield, you name 'em – from the wings.
And so it was that I found myself one night just before Christmas, or after — can't remember which — at the Fillmore on the night the MC5 were playing and the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers broke in and tried to burn the place down. I was "engaged" with one of the UAWMFs in front of the stage when Bill got lashed across the face by a Hell's Angel from 5th Street swinging a bike chain. Pompili was up on the stage with a fire extinguisher putting out one of the stage side curtains the Angels had set on fire. The MC5 were out the stage door and on their bus by the time we got the place cleared and the fires out. Bill took the stage crew and the ushers and the people from the Joshua Light Show to Ratner's and we told war stories about the night the Fillmore almost burned down into the wee hours.
I was sitting in St. Mark's Church just before the poets began reading when I detected the scent of patchouli and a whoosh of feathers and fur to my right as Jimi Hendrix and his girlfriend and a couple of other friends slid down the pew.
On Christmas Eve, the poetry reading at St. Mark's Church wasn't as crowded as I thought it would be. Looking back at 1968, I guess listening to Allen Ginsberg read and seeing Gregory Corso glower and hearing Ed Sanders chant comprised a microcosm of hip that was simply taken for granted. I mean, you might run into Ginsberg crossing Astor Place, or Sanders at his bookstore, or Corso lurking in a dark corner of the Cedar Bar or Stanley's. The incredible talent on display in New York at that time was unremarkable, at least to the locals. For me, it was a gloriosity for the eyes and the ears and the feet as I criss-crossed the East and West Villages digging as deeply as I dared into one scene after another.
I was sitting on a pew in St. Mark's just before the poets began reading when I detected the scent of patchouli and a whoosh of feathers and fur to my right as Jimi Hendrix and his girlfriend and a couple of other friends slid down the pew. Hendrix sat down next to me as boas were unfurled from necks and raccoon coats were doffed. I was thinking to myself, what am I going to do, should I introduce myself? My question was answered as Ginsberg took the mic and began reading in his musical tones from a poem I recall dimly was comical, even as it took on the subject of the Vietnam War raging tens of thousands of miles away. Hendrix leaned forward, elbows on his knees, peering between the two people in front of us, transfixed.
So was I. Spending Christmas Eve in the presence of such enormous talent on display at the mic and in the audience — it was like a galaxy of hip stars shone down from the sky that night on us, and us alone.
The next day, I took a subway up to Mount Sinai to pay Abbie Hoffman a visit. Somehow, Abbie had glommed himself a single room in the gigantic hospital complex and was laid up in bed with an IV in his arm under treatment for the hepatitis. I had stopped off at the Voice a couple of days earlier and picked up several posters by the artist Tomi Ungerer advertising the Voice with the slogan "Expect the Unexpected." I figured they would make an appropriate Christmas gift for the clown prince of the radical left. When I handed them over, Abbie pressed the nurse button on his bedside table and got them to bring in some masking tape, and we put them up on the walls of his hospital room. We sat around talking for a while, and then Abbie got sleepy, so I took my leave. Just as I reached the door, Abbie called out to me. I turned, and he threw me a little tin that had held breath mints. "Open it," Abbie commanded with a big grin. I did and found three glistening little pyramids of hashish. "Merry fucking Christmas," Abbie called out with a wave.
I went to see the bluesman Slim Harpo at Steve Paul's Scene at 46th Street and 8th Avenue that night in the midst of a blizzard, about which I have written previously in these pages. Slim and his drummer and guitar player invited me up to their rooms in the Hotel President a few snowy blocks away on 48th Street where we drank straight liquor from water glasses with a couple of ladies of the evening that the hotel management had thoughtfully sent up.
My last memory of Christmas night 1968 was sitting in Slim's room listening to his guitarist pick a bouncy blues as the drummer kept up the beat with a pair of drumsticks on the seat of a wooden chair. Outside the window, snow swirled against a black sky over 8th Avenue, and I thought to myself, if it gets any better than this, I'll do whatever's necessary to be in the room.