Adapted from the memoir
HOME FREE: Adventures of a Child of the Sixties
By Rifka Kreiter
to be published May 16, 2017
“A mind blown is a mind shown,” Robbie said again in his mellow California way as we headed toward Montreal. We were on the road north in a chocolate brown ‘64 Volkswagen microbus with no reverse gear. It seems Robbie had dropped reverse on a dirt-road side trip somewhere in Kansas and couldn’t afford to fix it! What, I wondered, had I gotten myself into? It was July 29, 1969.
My friend Linda introduced me to Robbie on a July afternoon shortly after my graduation from City. She was friends with his sister. Since breaking my engagement in April, I had been wandering around the city in a kind of trance of pain. The open enrollment strike which shut the school down meant my college career had ended with a whimper, which only added to my sense of disorientation. In sympathy for my state, Linda invited me out to the movies that hot summer day. She had been hanging around with Robbie for a few weeks while he was in New York, visiting his family and buying camera equipment. He was planning to be a photographer.
Robbie was a wiry little black guy, about 5’7.” Although he had grown up in the Bronx, he had a California cool cultivated in San Diego, where he settled after his discharge from the Navy. He had vowed never to go through an East Coast winter again. His light, coffee-colored face was warm and open. His hair was long and rather odd-looking, flying around his head in strings. He told us that on his trip east he had stopped in a black barber shop in Texas. He flopped in a chair and said to the barber, “straighten out my Afro,” meaning please trim my hair. Then, exhausted from his long stretch at the wheel, he fell asleep. He woke to find to his dismay that his nappy hair had been chemically straightened, in the now-scorned fashion of the older generation. He related this tale rather wistfully.
“Nice guy,” I thought, “but what a jerk!”
After the movie—Robert Downey (Sr.)’s Putney Swope—we walked up sizzling Second Avenue to Drake’s Drum for their trademark burgers on english muffins, and a cold beer. Sitting side-by-side at the empty bar, we basked in the dark cool of the conditioned air. Robbie was saying how he really wanted company on his drive back to San Diego, which he planned to take across the Trans-Canada Highway.
“Why don’t you go?” Linda said to me, suddenly. I blinked. As I bit into my rare burger, I considered this. I could think of not one good reason not to go. The wedding was off and, in my guilty misery and gnawing suspicion that I had made a terrible mistake, I couldn’t imagine going to auditions. My only semblance of a plan for the future was to go to that Woodstock Music Festival, but I hadn’t bought tickets yet. I looked at Robbie more closely. I wasn’t particularly attracted to him but he seemed like a good guy and I liked how enthusiastic he seemed about his photography.
Wiping ketchup from my chin and swallowing hard, I said, “I’ll go with you.”
“Far out,” said Robbie with a big smile.
Five days later, we were on the road.
The back of the bus was outfitted with a narrow platform laid with sheepskin rugs—the only bed. He had a Coleman stove, plenty of grass and rock albums on bulky tape cartridges. The rest of the space was taken up by bags filled with cameras, lenses of varying lengths and a tripod. Robbie said he’d sleep on the floor in his sleeping bag, he didn’t mind. But that felt weird. As Katie Coleman said about those times (years later, in a TV program called “The Sixties”), for our generation having sex was like shaking hands. On our second night out, having smoked some of that good grass, I drew Robbie up onto the platform bed, my way of trying to get more comfortable with him. I did get more comfortable, but not much more. We were from such different worlds.
Having been radicalized by his tour of duty in Vietnam, Robbie shared my political views. But his mildness of manner made me extremely nervous—it was so not my edgy New York way. He’d chat pleasantly with perfect strangers at every rest stop while I sat in the bus, antsy and fearful, wishing he would come away. In his affable manner, he often suggested to obviously straight-laced, conservative people vacationing in their Winnebagos, that perhaps the government wasn’t telling us the whole truth about the war. And they would actually engage in civil conversation with Robbie, the friendly little black guy—a Navy veteran! As we got on the road again he would observe with satisfaction, “A mind blown is a mind shown”—which, after a while, made me want to scream.
By the time we got to Montreal, I was popping my prescribed Valium at the minimum intervals. (Dr. Heimarck had noted, with some understatement that, once again, I was acting impulsively.)
In Montreal, we crashed at the barely-furnished basement apartment of some young Quebecois longhairs. Robbie approached them in the street to ask if they knew where we could get a shower. As in the U.S., there was a great brotherhood of young people all across Canada, a community in lifestyle as much as politics. In Robbie’s company, I gradually started to feel like one of them. We recognized each other easily: the men had long hair, beards, afros; the women wore long skirts or dirty bell bottom jeans. Everyone wore bright colors and loose, flowing fabrics or fringed leather. When we passed each other on the road we flashed the peace sign: two fingers in a V-formation. There was no problem distinguishing Us from Them—the crewcut older generation who were, as so many of us saw it, trying to kill us with their unjust war.
We usually parked the bus in a campground overnight, cooking simple meals on Robbie’s Coleman stove. One night in Ontario, I spread the sleeping bag on the grass and, despite Robbie’s warnings, spent the night under a dome of stars more amazing than I had ever seen outside the Hayden Planetarium. I awoke at dawn covered with insect bites, but it was worth it. My grief over losing Alan was starting to abate.
In cities, we often ate at soup kitchens run by the Diggers. These Diggers were hippies, namesakes of the 19th -century English anti-capitalists who created alternative systems of an economic community. They gave away food and clothing wherever they could. Rock music was everywhere and as we traveled west, Robbie and I heard reports of astonishing happenings at Woodstock: thousands of us in the open air, smoking pot, sharing LSD and making love in the mud and sunshine to the soaring sounds of free music. We knew it was a milestone. Society was on the brink of the Age of Aquarius and we would change the world, no question.
The further west we drove in the little brown bus, the looser I became.
Robbie always picked up hitchhikers, and there were many. It seemed that our whole generation was on the road that summer. My favorite hitchhiker was a guy named Gino, a curly-headed Canadian with a huge smile and boundless enthusiasm. We picked him up right outside Sault Ste. Marie and he traveled with us through most of Ontario. Gino said the three of us looked like the Mod Squad. Tooling along the highway, we smoked some grass and he and Robbie talked for hours about all kinds of stuff. I sat in the back, tuning in and out of the conversation, listening to music that made my heart rocket with a sense of expanding possibilities: The Steve Miller Band’s Children of the Future; Blood, Sweat & Tears’ The Child is Father to the Man; and of course, Steppenwolf:
…Like a true nature’s child,
We were born, born to be wild…
God, that backbeat!
About a week after we dropped Gino off, we spotted him again, thumbing a ride somewhere on the endless prairies of Saskatchewan.
“Gino, Gino…” we cried as we pulled onto the shoulder of the highway. It was like meeting a long lost friend.
When the bus broke down in Winnipeg on the three-day Canadian Labor Day weekend, we looked for kindred spirits in a city park. It was raining, so we asked around for a crash pad. Every town of any size seemed to have one, an apartment or house where you could just go and stay for a few nights and maybe eat, if you or someone else brought food.
We were directed to a house in a working class neighborhood. There were ten or fifteen mattresses and sleeping bags on the floor in different rooms. Incense burned all day and sequined Indian print cottons, spread on chairs, windows and beds, helped alleviate the impact of the dishes piled high in the sink, scraps of food on the table and floors, grime and dust balls in every corner. At night, we sat around in a circle with maybe eight other people, some travelers, some who lived there or nearby, passing joints, talking, listening to music. Later, we could hear couples and new acquaintances making it on various mattresses around us.
On the road again, the boring plains finally gave way to mountains. The Canadian Rockies were breathtaking in more ways than one, since I was terrified when it was my turn to drive through them. The bus, which couldn’t do more than 55 miles per hour on a flat surface, inched up the mountain roads with their steep drop-offs. When another VW bus passed in the opposite direction, it took all my nerve to take one hand off the wheel to flash the requisite peace sign to the other driver.
We reached the coast about two-and-a-half weeks after leaving New York. Both Robbie and I loved Vancouver, though we thought there was a close call with a narc in a café where we hung out one rainy day, talking too freely. Robbie said he had a second sense about undercover cops. It seemed they were much more of a problem in reactionary San Diego than in New York where people commonly strolled down city streets smoking joints.
Robbie did most of the driving down the rugged coast of Washington and Oregon, so I got to enjoy the ocean views. When we got to the redwoods, I was awestruck. Walking among the towering trees in California’s Muir Woods, I couldn’t understand why Robbie had lugged all his camera equipment into the peaceful forest. Some kind of ego trip, I harrumphed to myself.
“Can’t you just enjoy being here, now?” I demanded, self-righteously. He was silent but, as usual, my intolerance hurt his feelings. I could see it on his face. Nevertheless, he proceeded to set the camera on a tripod, strip off all his clothes and seat himself in a cross-legged pose in front of the giant ferns and trees. Dour, I agreed to snap the shutter. Later, when I saw the magical picture Robbie created—primeval man in the primordial forest—I was ashamed of myself.
We reached San Francisco towards the end of August and crashed with some friends of Robbie’s. There, I dropped LSD for the first time. Until then, I had feared that acid would puncture the ego-strength I had worked so hard to build in my five years of therapy. Now, after all my recent challenges and adventures, I felt free enough to take the chance.
* * * * * *
I’m on the passenger side of the vinyl bench seat of the VW when the LSD starts doing its work. Robbie told me he has dropped a lot of acid; he is used to tripping. Still, I am amazed he can drive so normally up and down the hilly streets of brightly painted Victorian houses. My senses are running riot as we ride around the city. All at once, it seems the universe is revealing to me a glory I had never imagined. We stop in an open air café for an apple turnover. In the restaurant bathroom, I am astonished to feel my entire alimentary canal from the inside, including every inch of my intestines from beginning to end.
In Golden Gate Park, nature’s amazing palette of greens makes me weep with joy.
“A mind blown is a mind shown,” says Robbie softly.
I look over at him and see that he is absolutely beautiful; a liquid love fills me. Simultaneously I am aware that if one could really see any other person with perfect clarity, as I am now, they too, would be absolutely beautiful.
We continue to drive around the city and insights flood my consciousness. The stone wall of my limitations, at which I have been chipping away in therapy with a hammer and chisel, is becoming loose gravel. I know I can sweep it all away if I am quick enough. Incredibly excited by this possibility, I start talking fast, trying to tell Robbie what I’m seeing. He pulls over and sits quietly, listening to my stream of consciousness, exuding love, acceptance and a sense of wonder.
Back at the house where we’re crashing, we sit in the living room, rapping with our hostess Joanie about what to eat. In response to a suggestion from Robbie I hear her say, “Mmmm, vegetables,” as if they’re a delicious treat. This surprises me inordinately; I have never heard anyone speak of vegetables this way. California people are definitely different.
There’s a knock on the door and Joanie leads two guys and a chick into the room. (I’m picking up the lingo, I see.) I get a bad feeling about these people, which quickly expands into a sense of dread. Are they actually real?
Suddenly, my mind is spinning in fear. Is that me crying? Somewhere in the distance, Joanie is trying to talk me down from my panic but I am desperate to get away from these strangers. With soft words of reassurance, Robbie leads me out to the parked bus, where we lie on the platform bed. I cling to him like a drowning person. The air around us is alive and Robbie and I are mere points of energy, an assemblage of seething particles of blue light. I can’t breathe. If I don’t hold on to Robbie, I’ll fall off the edge of the universe. I hold on.
Hours pass—or is it minutes? Gradually I realize, intellectually at least, that this feeling is just a fear. I’m calm enough to go back into the house, though I must still hold on to Robbie’s hand for the rest of the day, even while he goes to the bathroom. He accepts this with gentle tolerance. By evening, with the bathroom door closed, I’m able to let him pee alone while I gaze into the mirror over the stained sink.
With wonder, I think, “I’m looking into the eyes of someone in a psychotic state.”
This makes me laugh. I’m so grateful to Robbie for sticking with me.
I have fallen in love.
* * * * * *
From San Francisco, we gave a ride to a pretty French girl whom we met in Haight-Ashbury. She always wore shades, since her eyes had been injured by tear gas during the student uprisings in Paris in ’68. She was planning to hitchhike through Central America, following in the footsteps of her compatriot Regis Debray, the revolutionary hero who joined the guerillas in the mountains of Bolivia. I was jealous of Robbie’s attentions to her, but he told me in his diffident way that he loved me.
I stayed on with Robbie in San Diego, meeting his friends and reveling in our new love as he showed me around. I had planned to return to New York in September but when the time came, the thought of separating from Robbie was too painful.
“I’m thinking of moving here,” I told him. His face lit up.
I spent a month in New York, saying good-by to friends and family and to Dr. Heimarck, who was highly skeptical about my impulsive move. I asked my friend Roberta to keep my books, sold my furniture for a pittance and gave my dear Lady Flea to Uncle Bill and Aunt Noni, who promptly renamed her Ketzele.
I returned to San Diego three weeks later to start a new life.