My first stop on the way down south to learn the blues sent me on a very long detour.
I first hitched to North Carolina and hooked up with an old friend, Herb M. Herb and I had gone to Camp Adventure summer camp together for a few years. He lived in Sheep's Head Bay, Long Island, but we had kept in touch during the winters and would meet in the City from time to time to visit museums and talk about girls. Once he tried to recruit me to help him beat up his older sister's boyfriend who, she'd told him, had raped her. At the time, I'd never heard of someone being raped by a boyfriend they were already living with. It was hard for me to imagine having the option of regular sex and not being happy with it. I had a lot to learn.
Herb, like almost all my friends, had gone on to college. He was at the University of North Carolina and found me a place to crash for a few days in an old wood frame house filled with other students.
One night they had a party at the dimly lit and barely furnished house. As it turned out, this was the only college party I'd ever attend. Around 10:00, a guy, a non-student wandered in, grabbed a beer and made himself at home. He was handsome but frail, maybe 5 years older than me. He had really long hair, which none of the college kids at UNC had then. His piercing eyes seemed to mesmerize and he had the kind of personality that drew everyone to him. After watching the Greenwich Village crowd for the last couple of years, I'd have to say, he was cool. His name was Michael and he was a particular wonder to watch as he had no legs. They were all shriveled up and his lower body was paralyzed. He got around on a pair of aluminum crutches but seemed almost unaware of his handicap. While everyone drank, he regaled us with stories about his last six months traveling by himself in India. I watched, enviously, as all the girls fawned over him. I compared his unfailing self-assurance with my insecurity and wondered how you got to be like Michael. I had just hitched down from New Jersey and still had a knot in my stomach about being on the road alone. He had bummed all the way to India with no legs and seemed to be unfazed. I had so much more than he had, I could play guitar and I was whole but I had no self-confidence that at all compared to his easy way.
And India. I'd never given a thought to traveling outside the United States except for the Mexican border towns when I was growing up, but it stuck in my mind.
Herb was in classes most of the short time I spent there so I just wandered around Chapel Hill during the day, watching with detachment how other people lived, a pattern I would continue all my life. At night, we would talk intensely. He was all excited about LBJ's new Civil Rights Act which had just been passed and the growing freedom movement in the deep southern states. I'd never heard anything about it, having spent my time working or playing guitar rather than reading newspapers or hanging out at the student commons .
"Man, this work is really important. Negroes in America have been under the heal of the white man for hundreds of years and finally we're going to do something about it. Martin Luther King and his SCLC are marching for freedom and they won't be stopped. When we have a break, I'm going down and protesting. I mean, I would go right now if I didn't have classes."
"The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, that's his organization. A lot of northern people are going down on busses to Mississippi to protest for the negro vote. The southerners won't let them, you know so there's bound to be a fight. There's SNCC too, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee but they're like, more radical. They're all young and more willing to push it. You know, there was a guy here a few weeks ago telling us about the movement. I have the address of the SNCC office in Atlanta. You want it? You should go there and help out."
He shoved a note into my hand with an address on it. From a Jewish, Long Island point of view, he was all fired up about freedom in the south and as before with his sister, was sure I would see his point. He really thought I should get involved. Of course, he would actually stay in school in Chapel Hill. It sounded kind of intense to me but he gave me the address of SNCC headquarters in Atlanta and I pocketed it without thinking much about it and left a couple of days later.
Back on the road, one of my first rides was a long-haul trucker who was finishing his second consecutive south-north turnaround. He had been driving for probably 40-50 hours straight, without sleep. This was when road transportation was still regulated by the ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission) and the hours-of-service logs and black boxes which monitored how long drivers stayed in the saddle were easy to fake, especially if you stayed on back roads. If you could find the steering wheel and not fall out of the cab, you could keep driving and keep getting paid for it. Bennies and other speed played a big part of it and on a number of occasions, the first thing a half-lidded driver would ask as I climbed into the cab was "Can you drive one of these rigs?"
This driver had his own unique method of resurrection. Every hour or two, he's stop at some kind of diner, restaurant or truck stop, whatever he could find, and eat steak and eggs, and have a couple of coffees. It made for slow going but the constant caffeine and protein injections kept him upright. At the first stop, grateful for the company, he bought me a piece of pecan pie, a southern favorite but new to me. I was famished and happy to get it, sweet and nutty, it made my teeth ache. He noticed me wolfing it hungrily and so every stop after that he bought me another piece of pecan pie. After six or eight stops, I was getting a little green around the gills but my weak protests fell on deaf ears. This was a challenge to his southern hospitality and damned if he would fail his ancestors.
When you're on the road like this, with a stranger, there's a delicate, symbiotic relationship that quickly develops or things can get weird. They need you to keep them awake and you rely on them to get you where you're going and to keep things safe and sane in the cab, in the middle of nowhere. So he continued to buy and I continued to accept his hospitality. On that trip, I choked down every pecan pie recipe known to man or woman and acted like I loved it. In my life, I have never touched another piece again.
In spite of my ambivalence to the freedom movement, the Atlanta SNCC Office was the only tangible objective I had before me. I realized that while I was searching for the blues, I would need a place to sleep. As I meandered the roads down through North and South Carolina, I fingered Herb's note still in my coat pocket and thought about what he had said. When I was dropped off in Atlanta, I walked fifteen blocks with my pack and guitar, asking directions, finally finding the SNCC office. I figured it was as good a place as any to start looking for Lighten' Hopkins (I didn't know yet he actually lived in Texas).
The office was on a hill and I dragged my stuff up a steep flight of stairs and piled it in the hallway that greeted me when I opened the door. It was an old converted house with high ceilings and dark wood wainscoting and every room I could see was filled with paper-strewn tables and negroes. Everyone was intently coming and going in friendly camaraderie, jiving and calling each other "spades" and such. Everyone was young and energized, afros, tie-dyed shirts, granny glasses and passionate exchanges.
"Uh, excuse me. I'm here to work for the freedom movement." I said lamely to the first person I met. She swept by me pointing to a room down the hall saying "See Julian."
I dragged my pack and guitar in the direction she had pointed and peered through the door. I was looking at a small-boned young man sitting at a desk, surrounded by more piles of paperwork and shelves of books. I introduced myself to Julian Bond.
"Hello, my name is David Goldberg. I want to work for the freedom movement. I was told you needed workers at SNCC."
Julian raised his head from his work and eyed me skeptically;
Obviously another one of those clueless northern kids who has no idea what the fight is really about. He's still way too clean and seems to be dragging a guitar and an oddly shaped backpack behind him. Another tourist trying to get some glory helping the oppressed negro. It irks me, but a body is a body. They're killing white kids who come to work for the movement now but if this one wants to jump in, it's on him. I wonder if he knows about the three boys.
"Where are you from?" he asked.
Without hesitating, he surprised me with "Do you know anything about printing?"
"Well, uh, yeah, I do. I took it in high school. I know how to set type for offset…."
"Well, we need someone to run the freedom press in Jackson. You can go there and do that. But stay around here a little while and get to know things. We need some help registering voters and monitoring the polls."
He went back to his work. Our interview had ended.
So, that was is. I didn't know what a freedom press was but I now had a job. I left his office and sat on the front stoop of the house with my stuff, looking out over Atlanta. I was still a complete stranger here without a place to stay or much of an idea what SNCC actually did. I sat on the step calming and convincing myself that these things would take care of themselves. It looked like SNCC was not a full service organization. It appeared that the logistics were up to me. No one came by to welcome me or tell me what to do. I watched the other workers rushing around with purpose. I also had something to do now, but I guessed I had to figure out how to do it myself.
Mary drove down Atlanta's wide streets thinking about the heat, the glaring sun, the old bug rattling, the sea of black faces she'd been swimming in for the last few of months. She was definitely out of her element but she was glad she wasn't back in Berkeley. She'd had enough of the motorcycles and gearheads, late nights in greasy garages. She was glad she'd left. Bob would get over her.
She kind of missed the dope though but she was in too deep with that anyhow, that was really one of the reasons she'd left. The acid and grass were great but the other stuff would fuck her up fast. She was smart to leave. In fact, getting two thousand miles away was the only way she could have done it. It was just too easy to slide into the life every evening when the gang got together at the shop. The long drive down from Frisco had given her time to come down to earth and a couple of months helping out around SNCC headquarters still left lots of space to toke a little and groove on it all. Nobody down here in Georgia seemed to notice if you were high or not. It was like being invisible. You could even smoke a joint on the street in the white parts of town or in your car and no one would know. They didn't recognize the smell yet. They soon would , like in California. It would be everywhere but she'd enjoy it while she could.
She thought about where to score her next bag in this town. She hadn't put it together quite yet since she still had a generous lid left but some of these spades had to have connections for their favorite, willowy white girl. It was kind of nice being the only whitey around too. Lots of eyes her way. Life was a big float and it was good.
An old Volkswagen bug pulled up in front of the headquarters and a long-legged, blond, got out. Her straight hair fell halfway down her back. She wore round, rimless, very dark sunglasses against the searing light and an above-the-knee tan skirt and flats. She stood a moment observing the street then walked slowly and lightly up the stairs, stepping over me to get inside. She was the only other white person I'd seen in this part of town so naturally, I fell in love.
About ten minutes later, she came out and sat down on the steps next to me.
She stared out at the city and said "Hey."
"David… Goldberg. You working for SNCC?"
"Yeah. I'm going to Jackson to run the freedom press there. But I'm going to help with voter registration here for a while," I said importantly.
"Have you got a place to stay?" she asked. I guess my pack and guitar had given me away. It was really nice to have someone paying attention to me. Especially her.
"No, I just got here. I'm actually traveling through the south searching for the blues." I said, nodding toward my guitar and hoped it sounded like I had an real plan, "But I'm going to help out here for a while."
She watched me with a kind of detachment. There was a unhurried, ethereal quality about her, as though she was witnessing it all from far away. We talked about the work and I found she had been in Atlanta for a couple of months. Like me, she'd found you just did whatever needed doing.
"There's not a lot of organization here", she said, "but there's plenty to do. You just come here in the morning and someone will need help with something. Did you meet Julian yet?"
"Yeah, he's the one that sent me to Jackson. I learned printing in high school."
"How old are you?" she asked.
"I'm 19. You?"
"I'm staying at one of the SNCC pads and I think there's room there. You want to come along? I'm going over there now." she asked.
"Yeah, sure. That would be great. Thanks." Alone, in a new place, this connection meant a lot to me. I reached out for the lifeline. After my friends had gone off to college and I went to work, I'd been mostly alone.
The SNCC workers stayed in a network of apartments and houses around Atlanta. They were secret, safe houses where everyone crept in and out after dark, slept on the floor in sleeping bags for a night or two, then moved on. Their presence couldn't be known to the neighborhood or the addresses made public for fear of retaliation. Some of the houses in Atlanta and other southern cities had been shot up or set afire. Workers who had been caught coming out or going into a SNCC identified apartment had been badly beaten or shot. SNCC workers were being watched constantly by segregationist organizations like the Klan and so we had to be as fluid and invisible as possible.
The apartment we went to that night was much like the others I would stay in - no furniture, sleeping bags and personal belongings piled in corners, people slipping in to crash for a few hours at all times of the day and night. These pads were donated to the movement as tail-ends, empty and used for crashing the last few weeks of someone's lease. I never stayed at the same house more then a few nights.
I did start to hang out with Mary a lot, though. She seemed to like me and I was happy to have her company and her car. It was a relief not to have to walk and hitch everywhere, especially with my guitar. We threw all our stuff in the back seat of her bug and more or less lived out of it. We started doing most things together.
Mary was from the fabled land of California, Berkeley. At 28, she was almost ten years older and way more experienced in most things than me. She was a real woman. Her husband was a motorcycle mechanic, some kind of Hell's Angel or something, and she had left him and the west coast with just her few belongings and driven to Atlanta in her VW. After a week there, she was still the only other white person I had met working for SNCC.
We were sent out by headquarters to canvass the Atlanta black ghetto and spread the word that everyone needed to get out to the polls and make their choices known. This was the Freedom Summer of 1964. While technically, constitutional amendment XV had given negros the right to vote almost a hundred years before, Jim Crow had effectively stolen that from them through violent intimidation. They were kept from the polls by a systematic program of poll taxes, literacy tests, threats, beatings and lynchings. Only a very small number of dedicated colored activists ever made it through the gauntlet and saw a ballot. The average ghetto dweller, whose life was a day-to-day survival race in the hostile south, couldn't have cared less about fighting for the vote.
Atlanta, that summer, was sweltering. The poor neighborhood streets reeked almost unbearably of pungent garbage and dead animals. As the sweat poured down my face, I banged on screen doors of hovel and shack and introduced myself to slow-moving folks who spoke hardly any comprehensible English. Many, I suspected, had never spoken to a white person before. I would go into my schpiel about how they could vote now and try to focus their attention on the preliminary ballots I was handing them. They would look at me quizzically and shake their heads, saying "Naw, we cain't vote. Negroes don't vote nohow." Over and over again, I met people who had lived their whole lives here in the U.S. of A. believing they did not yet have the right to vote. Their living conditions and their complete devaluation by the society around them was an eye-opener for me.
Mary and I stayed in safe houses at night, rolling our sleeping bags out next to each other on the hard wood floors, but one afternoon, she said,
"Lets go camp out tonight. We can find a place outside of town and have some privacy."
This was different. Sounds interesting. " Do you know a good place?"
"I've checked out a couple of places. It's beautiful out there in the woods. There's lots of spots we can camp. Let's go out to dinner tonight and then we'll sleep out."
Oh, this kid is sweet. He's so serious it's cute. He came to the south to learn the blues! He should have gone to Berkeley. There're more blues players on the streets there than anywhere down here. He follows me around like a puppy but I like it. It's a nice break from having to deal with all the jive the black guys throw at me - one of the drawbacks of being the only white girl in SNCC Atlanta right now, which is quite an honor, I guess.
These people have balls. This work needs to be done but I think there's going to be a lot more violence before it's over. I couldn't believe what they did to Jimmy Travis. They blew half his face off. This is really insane. It's like another planet from Berkeley and it's right here in the US.
But David's cute. I don't even think he's turned on yet. I guess that can be my job. I'm smiling. I think it's time we slept in the woods. Nothing's going to happen at one of the safe houses, that's for sure. I know he really wants to fuck me but he's so shy. It's adorable. I don't mind making the first move, though. Maybe tonight…
As the sun went down, we cruised in the little VW out of Atlanta, through lush, rolling hills swelling from plentiful southern downpours, finally picking a spot for the night on the far side of a hill in a deeply wooded and grassy area completely hidden from the road. We spread our sleeping bags on the hill and lay down next to each other. The velvet dark surrounded us with just enough moon to reflect off Mary's blond hair.
This was nearly the only time I'd ever slept outside and I was a little edgy. The last time was when I was boy scout growing up in Tucson and our troop leader, a full-blooded Indian, snuck us up on to the reservation for a camp-out on some holy butte. We were almost scalped that night by a drunken mob of his brothers. I listened to the warm breeze rustling the leaves above and tried to relax.
Mary and I lay on the grass for a few minutes, absorbing the pure silence. It was heavenly after weeks in the city. She raised up on her elbow and looked down at me staring at the stars.
"Have you ever gotten high?" she asked. I wasn't sure I'd heard her correctly.
"What do you mean, exactly?"
"Have you ever smoked grass?"
"Uh, no." The dark forest seemed especially quiet.
"I've got some if you want to try it. It's really good stuff. It's nice. You'll like it," She said. She had her hand on my arm.
My mind raced. This was the marijuana I'd heard so much about. This was Mary, from Berkeley and San Francisco, a real hippie, offering to get me high. I'd always wanted to try it but I had so many questions. Once I started, could I stop? If I did it, was I heading down a one-way road to a lost life. Were you supposed to call the police like we'd been taught in school, when someone offered it to you?
Until now, I had learned to trust and respect Mary. I'd been trying to spend as much time with her as I could since I came to Atlanta, not just because she had a car. She was beautiful and I loved her unique self-assurance and easy-going way. She always seemed to glide through each day. And, amazingly, she liked me. She was cool in the way the Greenwich Village crowd had been cool, slightly aloof, not seeming to get dragged down much about anything. I didn't want anything to change. I told myself to relax. I began to feel this was a door opening to something important, the one I had waited for, for a long time. It was my initiation.
I continued to stare at the stars but said, "Yeah, OK. I'll try some."
"So, don't worry about anything when it comes on, all right," she said quietly. "Just let your mind go and relax with it. It'll take you on a trip and just let it. Whatever happens, I'll be here."
I heard her rustling around in her bag. She brought out a rolled cigarette she'd already made somewhere, somehow, and lit it with a match from a matchbook. She took a few drags and then handed it to me.
"Take a puff, inhale and hold it in as long as you can," she said, holding her breath as she spoke.
I did. It made me want to cough but I didn't. I held it for a long time. And then, again. And again.
We lay back in the dark and watched the stars through the trees. They began to twinkle very brightly and the woods around me seemed to become a deeper, richer black. I grew larger and my perception of everything around me became more acute. The unimportant ideas in my mind fell away as I lay there listening to my breathing. The trees, stars, another person.
"How are you doing?" a voice boomed. A kind voice. I liked that voice.
"Good." That seemed enough.
"Something." That word explained so much.
"OK. Just let go to it."
We lay there not speaking for a while. Then Mary touched my hand again and drew all my energy to the spot.
"I'm hungry. Let's go to a restaurant. I know a nice one near here."
Hungry. I wrapped my mind slowly around the word. I was a little hungry, it seemed. It sounded like a good idea. We got up and things began to revolved around me. Mary held my hand tightly and I focused on it to stay tethered to the earth. It was confusing but pleasant at the same time. Mary's fingers entwined in mine, her bare arm on my skin, I felt safe with her and just let her lead me to the car. I had no sense of direction but everything was all right.
She drove to a little, candle-lit restaurant and somehow we were seated at a table with a white tablecloth. The wall next to the table was made of river rock and after a minute started to flow like lava and then turned into a waterfall but I never got wet. It was amazing. The glow and specular flare of the candles on each table, the piercing tastes of the food, the slight vertigo that felt so pleasurable. And then we were outside the restaurant. I breathed clean, fresh air as I had never breathed before and was exhilarated.
After dinner Mary by some miracle, found our hidden camp again, still safe and untouched in the dark. We sat on our sleeping bags which she had this time zipped together. I wanted to play guitar and took out my Martin. I slowly strummed a few chords which seemed to permeate and engulf the entire woods, each one a complete symphony, suffusing over us and through everything. It was incredible. I stared into the woods listening to the last note die out.
"Come lay down." Mary said softly.
I put the guitar back in its case and lay down next to her. She put her hand on my shoulder and I felt a thrill rush through my body. For the last few weeks we had been sleeping in safe houses, side by side, but there had been no privacy. We hadn't really talked about where we were going. We just hung out. This was the first time we had been alone together at night.
Mary slid her hand down to my rib cage and slipped it under my shirt. I felt her touch on my skin radiate through my whole body. Now there was no question of where we were going. She leaned down and kissed me and I pulled her face to mine and kissed back, my fingers entwined in her beautiful hair. I rolled on my side and began stroking her through her thin blouse. Mary was a real woman, not one of the high school girls I had been with before. Swords of excitement pierced my body. After long kisses, she slipped out of her clothes and she was slim and long but her breasts were full and beautiful. She undressed me and we began to explore each other.
Oh god, I needed this. He's got a beautiful body, too. His skin's so smooth, probably from all those showers he takes. He smells good. And he's so responsive. He can't have done this much before but he's trying to make me happy. And it's working. I think he's going to be a good man some day.
Whoa, Mary, don't get carried away. He's 10 years younger and has a lot of growing up to do. You'll be back in Berkeley in a little while anyhow and you have a lot of life stuff to clean up. Just let this be what it is.
Oh god, that feels good. He's so subtle and sensitive. Man, they're right when they say "guitar players do it better". I am so wet. Ooh...
My turn. I'm going to make him feel so good...
We held each other, our mouths joined, our chests and bellies touching lightly and then more urgently. I rolled her over to enter her when she pushed me away. She held me down on my back and put her long-fingered hand lightly over my mouth to silence me. I lay there watching her, everything still in deep slow motion. With her other hand, she caressed my penis, already so hard with expectation. Her head traveled down my body, her long blond hair brushing across my chest and stomach. I felt her warm wetness. She pushed my penis deeply into her mouth and slowly rocked, down and up. This was the first time anyone had ever done this with me. My heightened senses focused on her every exquisite movement and my blood raced.
After a while, Mary released me from her mouth and hovered over me pushing me deeply into her. She was so open and lubricated we coupled effortlessly. We made love for a long time, our sleeping bags stretched over the grassy ground, on the wooded hill, engulfed in the night's warmth. Eventually she shuddered with a grateful orgasm. I remained hard and had none. Or maybe I'd been having one all night. I just didn't know. When we were finally done, we lay entangled, me still deeply inside her, gently quiet at last, all tender arms and legs and sweet stickiness.
Her fingers in my hair, smiling, she whispered, "Don't worry. You'll have one in the morning."
There would be a morning? And we'd do this again? What an amazing night of firsts. I fell deeply asleep in Mary's arms.