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How a convicted killer introduced me to his girlfriend – who loathed him. What I thought about love aged 21. The lawyer who took me back to his office in Brooklyn. Running out of gas in a Ford Pinto on the New Jersey Turnpike. Soviet statues in Washington DC. Being charmed by Mexican con artists on the Redwood Highway in Northern California.
Welcome to “The Americans”. Who are they? What can they teach us in the 21st Century?
You can click straight to each episode from the links above. Please share this story if you find it interesting. I am working on a book based on this piece.
The first thing I saw were his butcher’s arms: broad and sheened with sweat. Next, I saw tattoos and a square jaw, thick with stubble, set in a sullen half-smile. A broken six-pack of Schlitz was wedged between his thighs on the driver’s seat.
Schlitz – the beer that made Milwaukee famous. What made Milwaukee famous made a loser out of me.
Heading west on I-40, 1979
Was it dangerous to enter the cab of the old Ford pick-up? Standing by the roadside outside Durango in the cooling evening, I had the usual split second to decide. I weighed contradictory feelings: fear and an urge to keep moving.
‘Where are you heading?’ I asked. (more…)
In 1979 I hitch-hiked for seven weeks around the United States. What became of the carefree, relaxed young 21 year-old of these pages? Can I reconnect with those qualities, forty years later?
What about America itself? Was it better then, or worse?
Perhaps the US needs to reconnect, too.
You can read more episodes from this journey on my page, The Americans.
Here is how I set off from New York on my first day of travelling, on 3 July 1979. Pictures below!
Leaving New York
On Tuesday morning, Harold and Dorothy drove me from their house in Ardsley to the Major Deegan Expressway, heading south for Washington, D.C. The road stretched out ahead. First target was to reach the New Jersey Turnpike.
How was I not terrified?
Dorothy Berkowitz seeing me off on the Major Deegan Expressway
Aged 21, my primary emotion was excitement.
Looking back, I think: “how can I reclaim that boldness, that clarity of purpose, that focus on the present, that carefree calm?”
Things I was not worried about:
– my career. It had not yet started. I had nothing to screw up;
– money. I had all my cash, for seven weeks in the US, in traveller’s cheques on my person;
– other people. During my trip, I wrote several letters and postcards home. I tried to make one phone call, reversing the charges because I had no coins, to Harold in Ardsley – I can’t remember why. On the line, I heard him telling the operator he refused to accept it;
– information about the rest of the world. The Internet did not exist. I do not remember buying a newspaper. I had a tiny transistor radio (thanks, Harold) but mostly listened to music;
– death, injury or other cataclysm. Sure, hitch-hiking posed risks. But what would life be like if it consisted mainly of avoiding risk?
Things I was worried about:
– how quickly will I catch a ride?
If living in the moment had been invented, I would have been doing it. (more…)
In 1979 I hitch-hiked for seven weeks around the United States. What became of the carefree, relaxed young 21 year-old of these pages? Can I rediscover those qualities? And what about America itself? Was it better then, or worse?
You can read more about this journey on my page, The Americans.
This is what happened on the night of 27 July. To TC and Miguel: if you’re out there, get in touch.
Valley of the Rogue
TC was too young. Miguel was older, but didn’t like being asked to show his ID. So when their ancient Chevy had wheezed into the gas station in Crescent City, we pooled six grimy dollars and I went to buy the beer.
California coast near Monterey, 1979 – photo Robert Pimm
In California at 20 you can have sex, smoke dope, and die for your country, or someone else’s; but you can’t get a drink without a friend. The two Mexicans and me, Oregon-bound, were old friends for the night.
So how did I end up with TC and Miguel in Crescent City?
In summer 1979 even the most laidback, doped-out, rock-lobotomised New Yorkers said (more…)