Freaks Living in Our Streets: Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom
ROGER lived in Cambridge. In Leverett House, in fact, until the late spring. But he got to be too much, so Bob, who goes to Harvard, had to ask Roger to leave. For a while after that, he could be reached in care of Hayes Bickford's, but now he's really gone. He's not on the streets at least. Maybe he's split for California? Maybe he's in a hospital?
The first time I met Roger he was looking for some speed. He said he needed it because he was so depressed. He tries to organize depression and clation into a sort of cycle. Both make him uncomfortable, and he likes speed because it sort of rounds off the corners. Or that's what he said. But right then, at that moment, what he really wanted was some grass, because he had an abcess in his mouth that was moving down his neck. It stood out like a blue neon log, almost three inches long. Roger went to the free Clipic on Mt. Auburn St., but they don't do dental work. Nobody in fact does dental work. So all Roger could do was take pain killers like smack or cocaine, but that would cost him money he doesn't have, so just now what he needed was to get really stoned and dull it down.
There are lots of Rogers in Cambridge now, and more on the way. This Roger ended up here on the San Francisco rebound. He was one of the people we all read about in Life magazine. He was there for the acid summer: the summer of love when (even Life said so) Haight-Asbury was an urban pastorale. Roger said he took acid 200 times in San Francisco, and even if he's lying, what's the difference? Suppose it was only 100 times?
Roger was still there for the Coda; when the darkness of city life re-emerged as meth-amphetamine. It was a ritual victory for plastic and concrete, and Roger, after getting ripped-off and beat up, came back East. But since it all happens about a year late in Cambridge, he was just in time for the capitulation of Cambridge Hippic. He was all set, in a sense. Roger probably would not think of it in these terms. This is overview, and what Roger knows about his life now is what he new then: that he has to stay alive and doesn't have any money and can't really get a job. Roger has escaped to marginality.
At first, like the first time he ran away from his home in suburban
Rhode Island where his Father works in a shipyard, it was a conscious choice; maybe an adventure in the old romantic sense. But the choice part is gone now, and Roger's marginality is more or less permanent. Even if he wanted to work-to return to the mental place where people get up at 7:30 and go off and do things all day and eat well and have "homes" and other attachments-he probably could not do it. Too much water over the dam. Too many ways of being that he has lost, and cannot understand.
Roger may be a little special. He was an "unhappy child" who began to break apart the summer that his parents sent him off to a camp for "special" children. Everybody at the camp was crazy, and Roger began to realize that his experiences-like not being chosen for games-were not peculiar to him. Here was a whole campful of swimming, baseball-playing losers. That's what's supposed to be rehabilitative, but it blew Roger's mind.
His parents sent him off to a military school a couple of years later, to "make a man out of him" one assumes, but he was long past that sort of ridiculous patch-up job, putting madness in uniform and calling it something else, and soon he was there standing on the corner of Haight Street blowing some weed.
JUST LIKE the night I met him. He had found a place, a whole little world in fact, that ran on an insanity that he could understand. He was telling me about his troubles. About what it's like to live in Hayes Bickford's. He said that late one night a fight broke out between some stoned long-hairs and some drunk short-hairs. He didn't fight. He doesn't believe in fighting. He was also very worried about breaking his glasses, because he can hardly see at all without them.
Anyway, the fight got broken up somehow, but the next night some of the longhairs got on Roger for not joining. They said he was yellow and beat him up. Roger screamed about his glasses and the ringleader realized that Roger was completely helpless; that there was a chance here to make a good hustle. So he called off the boys and hauled trembling Roger aside and told him that he was going to let him off this time, on the condition that anytime he saw Roger from now on, Roger had to give him all his money and anything else he had like cigarettes, for as long as he lived. Roger was relieved that he wasn't going to die right there and said OK. And so another thing that Roger wanted that night was money to give this boy, because he always got beaten up when he didn't have any. I went and got him a copy of Demian. That was all I could think to do, because the exact same story happens in Demian. Roger promised he'd read it, but he never did, because a couple of days later the boy who was bullying him broke his glasses.
That really did it for Roger. He lost his remaining sensory connection-the blur extending as if from his mind out along the nerves to his eyes themselves. It was Spring then, and flowers were beginning to bloom, but if Roger was aware of them, it was only as a new blur, a distraction peculiar to the Spring. When he speaks, it is of his loneliness. He talks about girls, out there in the blur, hopelessly beyond approach. I see him shaking and picking at his skin, rapping out ten-minute long sentences. They are built like castles, but always tumbling. His foot is pounding on the floor in a frenzy, racing with his mouth.
The last time I saw Roger, after Bob had kicked him out, he was sitting on the sidewalk. He had gotten a new pair of glasses, but they were resting in his pocket. He rolled his eyes and said "hey" but he could not recognize me and I left quickly.
The incredible thing is that Roger's story is nothing like unique. There are lots and lots of Rogers, and his despair is somewhat of a common-place on the streets. There are more coming. A story in Publick Occurrences said 30,000 this summer. Many have guns, according to the author.
LOOK OUT your window and you will see some of them. You probably won't be able to tell which have guns, or which have speed or smack habits. It doesn't matter really, they all look the same. Whites used to say that about black people. They also used to say that black people smelled bad. So if you choose to look at it in a certain way, what's happened to Cambridge is that it has become a white-longhaired ghetto. Look out the window. It's all happening, right now.
Who are they and why did they come here? Sit down in Holyoke Center and you begin to get a feeling. If you wait, someone with a pack on his back will come and sit down beside you. And if you offer him a cigarette, he'll probably ask you if he can crash at your place and you'll probably say no. You'll say sorry and he'll say that's OK, and you'll both be sitting there, taking it all in, no difference.
Maybe you'll talk. Probably about dope. Or the war, or anything else you can talk about that ends up "Shit man" with both of you shaking your heads back and forth. But pretty soon you'll probably get bored or uptight, and will stand up, maybe shake hands, and then walk off. But the other guy will still be sitting there, because he's a street freak and has nowhere and everywhere to go. You have a place.
Ask someone on the streets why he's in Cambridge and maybe (if you're lucky) you'll get a mumble. And he's right, because that isn't really a question. I mean, why is anybody anywhere? People used to give idealistic answeres, about finding themselves, or looking for truth, but that was when it was still romance. Everybody knows better now.
There is only tentative being; treading icy existential waters. Maybe it's just wanting to be left alone. Maybe it's wanting to see yourself reflected in a world as passive as a mirror. Or wanting to be rid of responsibilities to places or things or people or jobs. Or, just as likely, and just as untrue, it's wanting to create a new world. It's unfortunate that trying to destroy an old one takes up all your time. But these are questions that people in the streets will not listen to. Living in the streets means precisely that one is no longer willing to put up with such questions. And they're right, because any answer has to be bullshit.
Ask Flash, and he'll give you an answer. That's probably because he's done it so many times before that it's become his thing. He's maybe 15, with suspenders and great big braces on his teeth. Flash has been on the streets for about three years. He gives interviews all the time.
Flash says that 700 new people have come to Cambridge in the past week. Some sleep in the Cambridge Common. Some are lucky enough to find a place in someone's house. Some maybe go right back home. "For a girl," says Flash, "It's pretty easy. All she has to do is stand there and ask guys and one will take her home. It's a ball for a bed. But for a guy, trying to find a place to crash by asking people on the street is like trying to smoke a joint rolled in cellophane."
"Why do people come here? They
think that there's good dope, and they've heard that the heat isn't so bad here. The law, that is. "Which opens up a pretty touchy subject. The heat didn't used to be bad here. Since the Harvard Square riot, in April, it's gotten much worse. Flash is pissed at the polities. He says they're all from Harvard and M.I.T., and marched into the Square and fore shit out of it without thinking of the people who live in it-like Flash. But here Flash is probably the exception. Most street freaks probably think of themselves as revolutionary vippies now. The Weatherman Declaration of War that came out of the Underground a couple of weeks ago said to look for the Weathermen all over America. wherever there's free love and dope. "Freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries are freaks." Or, as a member of NAS put it in cautioning SDS against holding a rally in Central Square. "A lot of street people are into trashing now." Go to one of the "Summerthing" concerts in the Stadium and you'll realize the volubility of kids with nothing to do and nothing to lose, who also hate America. Think about it. What do they have to lose by going to jail? Or, what does a speed freak really have to lose even by getting killed? Hippie is dead. Everybody knows that except Reader's Digest. But what that means is that kids who just a couple of years ago said Peace and Love Baby and put flowers in soldiers' rifles, now say off the pig and mean it.
The heaviest part of all is that deep down nobody really thinks it's going to get any better in America. There are just too many who can't understand that its no more ridiculous to yell off the pig than it is to work at a job and pay taxes to a war you can't understand. Polities is happening because it's happening. And you know, someone will say to you in the streets, revolution is far out. I can dig it. I hypothetically answer. Even though it's crazy, and maybe even wrong. You have to accept a lot of craziness these days. I side with the craziness of young people because it's in some way a response to the original monstrous craziness of the Vietnam War.
There are other responses besides tripping out. They are probably much better. They require a confidence in who you are and how what you do relates to America that street people probably don't have. I doubt, for example, that Quakers feel an existential need to riot to serve the Vietnamese. Nor must they take acid to prove to themselves the disparity between their world and that of their fathers. Their fathers are probably Quakers too.
And although frustration and despair are valid responses to a world so clearly out of control, there are places where one can give time and concern and see results that don't depend on a particular theoretical analysis. What this means is putting the pieces of the world that you still recognize back together inside your head, and then sharing your wholeness with others.
One such "place" is called Project Place, and it's for runaways and street people who don't have any other one. They operate a 24-hour 7-day-a-week emergency switchboard, and a referral service to get kids shrinks and jobs and bail, and all the other things kids tend to need. They also have a crash pad and a runaway house and a drug education program for high-schools.
The give-away is that Project Place was started by seminary students from the Harvard Divinity School. It is concerned, motivated, hard-working, and liberal in the way that any program that tries to give people anything more substantial than ideas must be. Project Place has to do things like go to Mayor White and say. "Look, these kids need help," or "they trust us." It would be easy to say that such statements are counter-revolutionary - who in the world really wants to talk to Mayor White anyway? -if they weren't also true. What about 14-year-olds shooting up dope? How groovy is that? What about a horde of middle-class kids invading a city? Are they supposed to make a revolution so they can have a place to sleep?
Abstracts get jumbled out in the real world. Divinity School students get things done because they have an answer to THE BIG QUESTION. They are also very kind people. I talked to a member of the staff at Project Place named Aram Shiller. He seems to live a sort of informed passivity, and says in the middle of a long day. "I won't call what I do fighting. Our philosophy is that you don't have to be where the person you're talking to is at to help him. You don't have to be strung out to help someone who is. You don't have to have tripped to talk to someone who is having a bummer. We sit in the middle, trying to get people to be sensitive to each other."
Everyone agrees that Cambridge is going to be pretty heavy this summer. The University, not wanting to play the fool again, closed down the Houses this summer to keep street people from staying in students' rooms. There has already been a mini-riat. More are promised. Drug rip-offs are happening all the time. People have gotten shot trying to protect their stashes.
Flash says that Cambridge needs a Community Center. Shiller says so too. There may be one soon. A new project called "Sanctuary" is opening this summer at 9 Mt. Auburn St. It will do some of the same things as Project Place, and may also have a hostel, where kids can crash for 25 cents a night.
The project is very important, and good people are trying to make it happen. But right now this moment the street people I have been talking about are out there hustling and tripped out and stoned out of their minds every time they get near any dope, and they will never be rehabilitated away by the Divinity School students.
There is a fourteen-year-old boy who has been tripping all night, and he has the I Ching clutched in his hands. And there's another boy not much older, an acid dealer, who is tripping and trying to hide his dope before it gets too light. And a little girl named Roberta with a crumpled velvet dress and great big eyes. And a guy named Rufus who has left his wife and child in Maine and wants to go to New Mexico to look for Don Juan, who was the peyote man in a look. Rufus wants to be a crow. To fly with mescalito. I had forgotten how sensible the vision was. And the private language that it is all woven in.
I ask Rufus what he would say if he were to write about street people, and he tells me: "We are all searching. Sometimes we are allowed to forget that. We fill our lives with objects. Some of the objects were people once, like my wife and child. In the streets you know that there is something like a river, and that all along you have been trying to fight your way upstream. In the streets, you flow downstream, and are aware of the energy that moves you. But that doesn't mean that it's easy.
I would talk about people. In the streets you know people really exist, no matter how tripped out you are. You never really have to worry about anything. You can always eat. You can always sleep. But you know that your life involves people first of all and they are always there to share your life."
LOOK OUT the window. It is a children's Crusade.