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6. My College Years. I Discover Drugs

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Clark University was an urban campus, in the middle of the dreary, industrial city of Worcester, with its polluting paper mills and machine plants. Even my new Worcester friends—“townies”– called Worcester “the armpit of Massachusetts.”

I began as an art major, although I ended up with my B.A. in philosophy. I lived in the men’s dormitory, where my roommate—we’d been paired by last name—was Dana Hiscock, scion of an old New England family. I liked Dana, who was tall and blond, well enough, but you couldn’t have found two young men more different. We never really connected.

My best friend that freshman year lived in the next room. George Justus, like Dana, was a New Englander from a distinguished old family, but he had a quirky weirdness I liked, and my New York Jewish eccentricity attracted him. About a month after the Fall semester began, George came running up to me in the dorm hallway, clearly excited about something. “Heimy (his nickname for me), you have to hear this!” He showed me a record album from a new group, The Beatles, I’d never heard of. We went to his room and he played it for me. I liked the music, of course, and I loved the album cover—cute guys–but what I’ve never forgotten, because it was such an amazing, prescient thing for George to say, was, “This group is going to change the world.”

How did he know?

A month later, in the late morning of Nov. 22, 1963—a Friday—we were in the dorm, doing whatever, when someone shouted, “Kennedy’s been shot!”

We all ran down to a friend’s room, where we listened to the radio report the news out of Dallas. In total, shocked silence, we heard the announcer say, at around 1 p.m., “President Kennedy has died.”

I’d met Kennedy once. Well, not exactly “met.” During the 1960 campaign, when he was the Democratic candidate, Kennedy was scheduled to appear at a campaign event—the Journal-American newspaper said so the day before–at the Concourse Plaza Hotel, where the Yankees lived. I was already a JFK fan. He was so handsome, so glamorous and young, and, like my parents, a Democrat! I bought myself a giant piece of cardboard, wrote “All the Way With JFK” or something like that, stapled it to a broomstick, and went down to the Concourse Plaza. There were wooden sawhorses on either side of the hotel’s side entrance, on 162nd Street. A small crowd, no more than ten people, had gathered. A car pulled up; the Secret Service men hopped out. Then a lean, attractive figure emerged from a back seat. He was tall and handsome, bronzed from the sun, with a shock of reddish-auburn hair that gleamed in the late summer sunshine.

I thrust my poster up. John F. Kennedy, straightening his tie in that odd little tic he had, began his short walk to the door. As he passed, he looked at the sign, then down at me, smiled, nodded, and moved on. Next to Mickey Mantle, he was the most exciting person I’d ever encountered.

Now here we were, in the dorm at Clark three years later, and the President of the United States has been murdered. Our little group, dispirited and confused, dissipated. I wandered to my room—Dana Hiscock wasn’t there—lay down on my bed, and wept. There was something about JFK’s assassination: it wasn’t just Kennedy, the man, who had been killed, something about America was killed too. The America we’d grown up in was an America of peace and progress. We’d won World War II. America bestrode the world like a colossus. We were the light of the world, the wealthiest nation in history, the country that had given other countries our Constitution, the greatest democracy, not a banana republic. I wasn’t some kind of yahoo nationalist; I wouldn’t have called myself a patriot. But something catastrophic had obviously happened, and so I wept, because I knew things were about to get a lot more complicated.

We all lived in front of the T.V. the next few days. The murder of Oswald by Jack Ruby, live on the Sunday. The funeral procession, live on the Monday, with a black veiled Jackie gripping the hands of her children. Young John-John with that salute. It was all too much.

But life went on! The shock never really went away—I feel it to this day. But it dulled. I remembered the LIFE magazine article on marijuana, and wanted to try this strange drug which, it was said, caused people to go insane. Maybe a little insanity was what I needed.

But where to find marijuana? It was illegal. I’d never known anyone who’d smoked it…well, maybe I had, without knowing. If I’d grown up in Harlem, or Spanish Harlem or Greenwich Village, I might have known somebody. But I’d grown up in the goody-goody Bronx, and now I was at Clark, which was populated by goody-goody Jews just like me.

But there was a guy, an older student, I’d noticed earlier: tall and skinny, with horn-rimmed eyeglasses, a mess of longish, curly hair, bucked teeth, and always wearing a brown corduroy jacket with elbow patches that made him look like he’d just come from a coffee shop poetry reading. I’d see him in the Student Union, alone, nursing a cup of coffee and reading Rimbaud or Proust—which meant he was a Beatnik. I introduced myself, said I was looking for some, ahem ahem, marijuana. Could he help? Of course. He obtained for me a joint. That night I decided to smoke it.

I was scared, to be honest. The LIFE article had suggested people went bonkers on marijuana: jumped out of windows, stood in traffic, went screaming naked through the streets. But I was overwhelmed by curiosity. There was something in the air, that Fall of 1963. Something was cooking in America; restless young people were stirring, change was afoot. The Beatles had something to do with it, and this marijuana was an important part of whatever “it” was.

In the end, I didn’t tear my clothes off and run naked down Main Street. I think I just wandered around for a few hours until the effect wore off. But I’d learned something very interesting: I liked this marijuana. No, I didn’t just like it, I loved it! It had unleashed something inside I’d never felt before—an orgasm of the mind, an intellectual ferment and intensified interest in the world, a fantastically elevated sense of well-being and calmness, a heightening of color and of sound, an awareness of my own, oh so interesting mental processes. I wanted more…and I wanted to find out about the marijuana lifestyle that I suspected existed, unseen, all around me.

That lifestyle, it turned out, wasn’t on campus in 1963, not yet; it was off-campus, in the backstreets and tenement apartments of gritty Worcester, where I found my new “townie” friends, most of them the children of working class Poles. There was a new crowd arising in Worcester, and in Boston and New York, and out in San Francisco. Someone soon dubbed them “hippies.” I was to become the consummate Sixties hippie: bellbottoms, jeweled rings, hair down below my shoulders, a pierced ear, and a life, as they say, of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

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