From Quirk (originally posted in two parts)
I decided it was time to leave New York City not long after I was attacked in the subway.
It was the late 1970s. I lived up on West 92nd Street in Manhattan, sharing an apartment with a tai chi teacher and friend and various other guys enthused about kung fu and karate and music and even God. (One young fellow from the South who stayed with us for a short time was a lay preacher struggling with what he really believed. I still remember his bearded face, his plain, articulate manner, and his genuineness.)
The core group of four or so of us used to go around Manhattan visiting different fencing salons to see how we stacked up. Or else we’d go over to Riverside Park and work out, play push hands or practice fencing.
But I did need to earn enough money to live. Five nights a week just before midnight for about a year I took the subway down to West 23rd Avenue near Avenue of the Americas. I worked the “lobster shift” at a large ad and art book printer and typography house called Zimmering and Zinn. That name amused me, named after the two middle-aged proprietors, who often disputed in raucous and loud tones, to the hidden amusement of staff, about the right way to do important jobs.
The lobster shift ran from midnight to six in the morning for me. I negotiated a six-hour shift, since that gave me all the money I needed, and because the intense, painstaking scrutinizing of every tiny letter and space for correctness wore me out. I did good consistent work, and it was hard to get people for that shift, so they accommodated me.
[Nobody seems quite sure where “lobster shift” comes from. One source attributes it to the early morning hours being the best time to catch that critter, but another theory has it that the term comes from early newspaper production:
“(The term) comes from the red hands the typesetters had after setting the morning “red banner” headlines. When they went for their coffee, with their red-stained hands, they were often heckled as “lobster men” by the early morning workers.”]
One early morning on the way back uptown to home, I foolishly sat in one of the last cars in the subway. These cars were prone to …problems since they were the farthest away from the operator or the conductor.
Sure enough at one stop a group of teenage boys moved up loudly through the car to where I sprawled bleary eyed. The largest of them waved a hatchet in my face and demanded my wallet. I remember thinking that hatchet looked just like the iron headed, worn wood shafted one I always used to cut kindling with back home in northern British Columbia. And it looked almost as dull.
Damned if I was going to give these jokers my wallet…
Somehow I leaped up and positioned myself with my back at the far end of the car against the internal door.
The biggest and bravest of this crew attempted to punch and kick at me, and I returned the favor trying to keep them back until the next stop. Nobody actually connected.
The stop came, the doors slid open, and I flailed aggressively enough to slip out the doors and onto the subway platform.
The fellow in the token booth looked on, unsurprised.
The subway whined back into motion and the last sight of my recent companions was of them high-fiving, laughing and waving the hatchet triumphantly out the window.
Along with being deeply angry and scared, I knew that I was fortunate that dark morning. And it put the seal on my growing restlessness about the dead end I was at in New York. It was time to move on.
I told myself if I went out to San Francisco, with the little bit of money I put aside, I could take another crack at the novel writing in a garret there, and I’d always had a hankering to go see the Golden Gate Bridge. And since I’d been reading a lot of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels, somehow it seemed appropriate.
Over a few weeks I wound up my affairs, gave away most of my stuff, said goodbye to my friends, took a duffle bag and a backpack with clothes and books and made my way to where the Green Tortoise bus was waiting.
I never really felt at home in New York City in the late 1970s and as the next decade appeared. The rents were too high, the people too volatile, the pace always rushed. I never found a niche in writing, or publishing, or editing.
I did a little freelance writing for a book on music festivals, proofread Abrams art books, and corrected print ads. I wasn’t setting the world on fire with my writing, which I’ve always wished I could do, despite ever a little too lazy to put the necessary work into it.
I still had dreams of writing a novel, though. By the time being attacked in the subway showed me that the cosmos was urging me to move on, I was thinking San Francisco might be a cool place to live and write. I knew some people there from the intellectual counter culture and Zen circles I hung out in for a couple of years. My parents spent some time there during their young married life. I was curious about the place.
Decision made… but how to get there, since I wanted to conserve my money for living when I arrived, rather than the traveling?
I had seen here and there around town, maybe pasted on a power pole or on bulletin boards, advertisements in a mock R. Crumb style for a very reasonably priced bus trip from New York to San Francisco on something called the Green Tortoise Bus Line.
It’s been called the last of the hippie bus lines (the Gray Rabbit was another), and Green Tortoise still exists today, although it bills itself now as an adventure tour company. It even has its own hostels in Seattle and San Francisco. In those days, it seemed to be offering an alternative to Greyhound to getting across the country, and for the price, it sounded good to me.
When the father of one of the present day executives of Green Tortoise, Lyle Kent, founded the company in the early 1970s, he discovered he could make a living carting hippies around the country in an old bus.
And so when I boarded the green, round cornered, worn-looking vehicle in New York City in 1980, I could tell this might be a little different from your typical Greyhound journey. For starters, all the luggage was piled in racks on top of the bus.
As a hippie sympathizer from way back, I appreciated the whole alternative, laid-back trip: the communal vegetarian meals, the foams laid out on a flat surface where you could sprawl and sleep and play cards as you wished, the occasional illicit substance making the rounds, the camaraderie with people, even then, who were more likely to be Australian tourists than your original hippie.
We rolled through the United States, all the way to San Francisco, stopping here and there at scenic spots to eat or camp, chatting, sleeping, smoking and with nary a stop at any greasy spoon roadhouses.
I think it was late summer when we arrived in San Francisco. I stayed in some rundown hotel overnight, and the next day, consulting a newspaper’s want-ads, found a boarding house way down Market Street, near Noe Avenue.
It was a second-floor walk-up with five small rooms, a shared kitchen, dining area and a couple bathrooms, owned by an elderly Chinese woman who seemed well-acquainted with the traits of slightly disreputable young men. At least she didn’t mind renting to them…
My fellow renters, whom I came to know at least a little bit, were each odd in their way. I’ve often thought of their unique characters over the years. All were relatively young, twenties or thirties.
One fellow had a bad leg, or suffered from a progressive nervous disorder, it was never quite clear. He worked as a bookkeeper, but I remember him mostly for his worship of Richard Nixon. He followed politics closely, and never lost an opportunity to voice his approval of Nixon, who at that time had resigned in disgrace six years before. This fellow had a very dark five o’clock shadow himself, and I always thought he resembled his hero uncannily.
There was a gentle black guy who kept to himself usually, but it did come out that he had spent some time in jail for petty theft and had had a rough time of it. He was apparently reformed now and working steadily in a hardware store. He confided to me once that the secret to doing jail time was to let the other inmates feel you were both psychotic and unpredictable. I’ve always considered this valuable advice.
Then there were the two guys I came to know a little bit better. One was a warehouseman during the week… mild, unassuming, a friendlier person you could never hope to meet. On the weekends, he would binge drink, and in his cups, his personality changed radically. He called it “getting simple.” He liked to say things such as “I’m going to kill you” in a deranged serious way, just to see the reaction. The first few times he told me this, I kept a close eye on him and the kitchen knives, but he would just grin drunkenly and eventually I understood he didn’t mean it. As far as I could tell.
We became friends in a strange sort of way, partially because I listened to him, I guess, and was not too frightened of him in his drunken excesses. Although a couple of times on these weekend binges he brought back drunks and druggies even farther out there then he was (and one of them, I remember, was truly frightening).
He liked to go bar hopping on the weekends. (I made it a point never to go along.) He was this little wiry white guy, and he’d go up to the biggest black man in a bar and insult him or do the death threat number. By Monday, he often would have bruises or a black eye. One Saturday evening he played this dangerous game, and the big black guy took one look at him and laughed. They were fast friends after that, which meant they both got tanked up on the weekends and got real nasty together.
The last fellow was perhaps the saddest story of all. He held down a regular job at a supermarket. But his true calling, it seemed, was working out and keeping fit. He’d get out of the boarding house every day for a long session of shadow boxing and running.
He had been a promising semi-pro boxer, he told me, and then discovered speed. He liked what it did to him, how it made him feel unbeatable when he boxed. He went around town for awhile high on meth challenging all the martial arts masters and beating them up often enough.
Then he got into the barbiturates, and others, that ended his boxing career. So he’d talk to me about yellow jackets and ludes and black hollies. We’d play chess. He was a smart man, insightful. He wasn’t around on the weekends – I never saw him high. But he liked his drugs, and saw no real reason to give them up.
I asked him to teach me boxing. He did, showing me how to push off the right foot for the left jab, get the body behind it; rotate the hip and foot for the right hook; throw some combinations. But he refused to spar with me. “If I get going, I don’t know when to stop,” he said, and as fast, big and strong as he was, I was no doubt fortunate for his refusal.
I can see him now, sloping around the kitchen, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet, goofing around, when we heard on the radio in December, 1980 that John Lennon had been shot and killed in New York. I remember we both sat down at the small dining table, instantly still and saddened.
Oh yeah, I did start working on a novel. I tore it up a month or two later. I couldn’t find one sentence I liked.