The chill wind lashed at The Kid from behind and then coursed on down the street to find its next victim. He crammed his broad-brimmed hat down upon his head as snugly as it would fit in preparation for the next frosty blast threatening to snatch it away.
Lines on the sidewalk approached and passed as he clopped down the street, his flight bag swinging at his side. How many of those lines were behind him now? He couldn't imagine, but he knew that walking was really a drag. But then it couldn't be any more of a drag than what he had left. His life had been set down like so many concrete blocks with scarcely any room to grow or any chance to depart from the path that had been set for him. But he had escaped from that rigidly structured existence, and it felt great to be free. It didn't matter to him how they felt about it--he was gone, and, anyhow, they never cared that much about how he felt, so it served them right.
But it really was something to be here. Everything seemed to be alive and moving. There were so many flashing signs, and everything was so big. There was so much going on here and so much to do. He knew that he would like it because there was so much life and so much opportunity that anyone could really do what he wanted. Not a bit like home where there was nothing to do but maybe watch television and take out the garbage when you were told to.
There were just too many restrictions, too many rules to follow. They didn't really care if anything was right--what really mattered to them was whether it was proper. But you can be kicked around for so long and that's it. But now he could breathe freely and not be reminded that the air he was breathing had been bought and paid for with his father's hard-earned money. "Nope, no more Establishment for me," he thought, "My plastic pig parents can go to hell. They're just slaves to their possessions."
As he biffed on down the street, the heel of his right boot gave away to his striding, and he jerked forward as his ankle twisted, knotting the muscles in his calf. He caught himself and decided that he had better pay more attention to what he was doing. He was tired of walking, but he knew he had to go. He was going to have to find something to eat, and he had no idea where he was going to sleep. He never imagined that such a small bag could be so heavy, but the twin loops seemed to be digging grooves into his right hand, so he switched it to the left and kneaded his sore fingers. The cold air was dry and harsh and stung his nostrils as he snorted it in.
He had thought about taking the car, but he knew that they would catch him for sure if he had done that. The state police probably had bulletins out on him already, but if he had taken the car, they would have set up roadblocks and had him in no time. Yeah, he could just see that. They'd probably beat him up and throw him in the can, and his old man would tell them to keep him there for a while. In fact, he wouldn't be surprised if the old buzzard pressed charges against him for car theft. No, walking wasn't too cool, but he didn't have much of a choice, because it was a lot easier to avoid the cops this way. He didn't know what to do if one wanted to talk to him, but he guessed that if he were careful enough that wouldn't happen.
Boy, did he hate cops. He had no use for them. Anybody that wanted to be a cop really had to be screwed up in the head or something. Most of them were doing it because they probably couldn't get as much money doing anything else. They were too dumb. But dumb or not, there were a lot of them, so he had better watch out. He'd seen some earlier and had the urge to yell, "Today's pig is tomorrow's bacon!" But it wouldn't have been very cool if he had to face up to them. It would have been his ticket back home, and he didn't want that, so he walked on.
There were a lot of people on the street, huffing along and giving him an occasional sneer as his eyes met theirs, as though they felt that their faces were none of his business. He noticed a few couples window-shopping and discussing the displays, and he had to detour around a line in front of one of the many theaters. Some of the stores were still open, shoppers bustling in and out of the automatic doors. He had just lit a cigarette when an angular Negro lolling in the outskirts of the brightness issuing from the adjacent store window accosted him.
"Say, can you lend me one of your Marlboros?"
"Sure, brother," he said as he held out the still-open pack.
The dark stranger's lank fingers snaked forth and drew a cigarette from the box. He put it in his mouth and let it hang from his lip as he asked, "You got a light?"
"Uh--yeah," The Kid replied as he reached into his pocket and brought out his lighter. A twirl of the metal wheel brought fire, and he adjusted the flame by turning the butane higher with the nail of his index finger. It made him feel good that this dude had stopped him out of all the people on the street. He figured that this guy could tell he was cool by the way he dressed--that is, not just anybody walks down the street with a hat like his. The silver circlets of the hatband flashing back the lights of the city tended to attract attention. This soul couldn't help but know that he was in a minority, too, so that would be the basis of their communication. Blacks and youth were naturally together in opposition to the WASP establishment.
The cancer stick dimly glowed and then crescendoed in brightness as the black man slowly dragged upon it. "You wanna buy a ring?" he exhaled and drew the golden prize from his pocket letting The Kid have a look at it.
The youth's eyes lingered only momentarily as he nervously nodded his "No, thank you," and began to shift his weight to the side.
"Come on, try it for size," the Negro temptingly propositioned.
"No--that's all right," The Kid retorted, "I'm really not that interested."
"Look, man, this ring sells for twenty-seven bucks," the man hissed. And then in a more persuasive tone, "I'll give it to you for fifteen."
Still trying to get away, The Kid started, "No--really I don't--"
"Here, look." The man pulled at him as he showed him the small tag looped to the bottom. "Brand new. How about twelve?"
"Look, man, I don't want your ring," The Kid jerked away, "and, anyhow, I don't have any bread, so leave me alone!" he replied as he wheeled about to stride on down the street again.
It wasn't much further when he reached the street for which he had been looking. This was why he had chosen to come here: a place about which he had often heard. This section had become known as the gathering place for the people who were dissatisfied with straight society. "All those freaks, deadbeats and bums down there," his father used to say, but whatever they were called, he was going to be one of them.
He looked to the right at the gloomy rows of dingy buildings and decided that wasn't the way. Not too much action down there. Then, as he turned left, there was his yellow brick road. A billion blinking beacons beckoned, so he went into the shuffling lines of people taking in the sensations of the street. As he got further on down, he wheedled his way through the spectating hordes, clutching his small bag of belongings near his chest.
It gave The Kid a slight pleasure as he noticed that when the people noticed him, their expressions dimmed from the glow of intoxication to a glare of disgust. He fixed a defiant sneer on his face that seemed to say, "That's right, folks, I'm one of those freaks." At least to them he was, and anyhow, it wouldn't be long before he would be. All he had to do was stay here, be free, let his hair grow wild and become a gadfly to their society. Nya-ha-ha!
He briefly smirked his amusement and kept on pushing through the crowd. "Jostle, hassle, elbow bustle," he bumpingly piloted his way along, avoiding the herds of holidaying humanity as much as possible. It seemed funny to him that this section would be the attraction for such a diverse range of people. Not only had it lured him, but all the squares were there, too, bobbing along like schools of great ogling fish, ready to be netted into the clip joints along the row.
It surely looked like a big night for booze and boobs. OK, Folks! Here it is, just what you wanted to see--topless, bottomless, backless, frontless, sideless--and meaningless. Oh, but Sunday's sermon saves the slaves of Saturday's sin. Here they were seeking the blatant sensuality of straight society, and they still felt that they could give him those pious leers.
But then, what else could he expect; he dressed the way he did to outrage their ridiculous sensibilities. Not that he was especially dressed up because there wasn't that much to choose from at home since all the stores stocked was conservative stuff for the frat types, but he figured that he could get some really good stuff here, and be a real costume freak like Jimi Hendrix. Actually, the only good thing he had was the black wide-brimmed hat with the silver "Sundance Kid" band. The rest was anything he could pick up that looked halfway cool. It was common stuff, but the combination was just right for the effect he wanted to give. It was a presence, the hat giving it an ominous quality that kept those leers distant. The small zipper bag didn't hold much, so all he had brought was the boots he was wearing, a few pairs of bell bottoms and a couple of body shirts. He had left all the other square clothes at home because he did not want to have any association with the society he had left behind. No, he wasn't going to be tied, cuffed, or buttoned down any more. he wanted to be himself, a citizen of the Woodstock nation.
But, how much farther? This was supposed to be the place to go. Everybody talked about it, and he'd read about it in the underground papers. He had noticed a few freaks on the sidewalks, selling papers and bumming money. How often should he turn them down? They did need money, and he should help them out, but he needed all he had. It had to last.
Then there was music. That must be it, he thought as he scurried toward the beat and the twang. He nudged his way into the people standing outside the place. Inside he could see a rather pale girl with teased and lacquered hair dancing topless to the backing of this group. This wasn't the place. The band was lousy anyhow. More of a jukebox than a bunch of musicians.
"Hey, can you help me out?"
The Kid turned to see a boy of about his age in a torn army shirt and rumpled jeans. The panhandler swung his head to throw his tousled hair out of his eyes and asked, "Do you have some spare change? I haven't eaten in three days, and neither has my wife. I'm trying to get her some food."
"No, I'm sorry. I'm broke, too."
"OK. Can I have a cigarette?"
They all asked that, but he gave him one anyhow. "Thanks," he said and started to walk off. Deciding to get his cigarette's worth out of this encounter, the kid called him back, "Is there anywhere around here I can get something to eat?" since all he had noticed were restaurants which were much too expensive for his limited budget.
"Yeah, there's free food at The Way. Do you know where it is?"
After the directions were given, The Kid went on down the street three blocks to a more quiet section. There were only a few bars down here. It was pretty much a lower-class residential slum. Small groups stood or sat around trying to allay their idleness. He looked at his watch. 7:30. A half-hour and he wouldn't have to listen to his stomach any more. He had read about the type of people at The Way. They were called 'Diggers' in the days of "Come to San Francisco with flowers in your hair." How could one support free spirits other than through the fruits of capitalism?
He found a rare vacant doorstep and sat with the blue carryall between his feet. He lit up a cigarette and looked around as he put his pack into his waistband rather than back into his shirt pocket where people would see them. He didn't feel like giving any more away--anyhow, what was he, a free cigarette machine?
But somehow he regretted that. At least it was a way to talk to someone. Anyone. He only had three left, anyhow. And the rest of the carton in his bag wouldn't last long. He wished he didn't smoke, because it would take a good portion of his money just to keep him in cigarettes. There wasn't that much either, so he would have to make the most of what he had, and then he didn't know how he would get on.
The rest of these people seemed to get along quite well without any. They were a rather scraggly bunch, all ratted and bedraggled. Patched jeans and army surplus seemed to be garments of necessity rather than fashion for them. Not a bit like the pictures of the beautiful people that he had seen. No beads, bells or feathers were present here. He thought of those books of Indian lore that he read in order to be in the right style. He guessed that that was all out now; the tribal spirit was gone.
But not entirely. Here was a fellow, obviously a bit older than he, with a rag tied around his head in the fashion of a headband. The few lights on the street glinted sharply from the gold ring in his left ear and the gold tooth in his smile. As The Kid got nearer, the guy grinned greedily, and the star cut in the center of the tooth became visible.
"You just move out?" he asked.
"No, I just got into town, and I don't have anywhere to stay."
"Hmmm. You want some reds? I got some reds," the pusher asked as he fumbled with something in his pocket. "You won't feel the cold as much."
"No thank you; that's OK. I don't care for them anyhow."
"Oh," he sneered, "You want some uppers, then. I got some whites, too. They're good ups. I was saving them for when I got about ready to crash, but I'll let you have them. They'll keep you up for pretty long."
"But you see, I don't have any cash," the Kid answered with a sympathetic look. "But thanks a lot anyhow. Later."
The taps on his heels scraped up sparks as the dealer went on down to his next prospective customer. The Kid should have asked him where he could find a bathroom, because he really had to go now. He grasped his valise and walked to the corner. There had been no public restrooms the way he had come, so he decided that it would be best to go down one of the side streets to find a place of seclusion.
The houses along the way were all the same: shutters tightly closed, some with iron bars covering the windows. There were short doorstoops in front of a few of the narrow-fronted buildings and small alleyways locked off by iron gateways. The Kid crossed to the other side where he saw a gap between two signs that said "No Parking 5 AM to 11 PM--Loading Zone Only." He went through the narrow truck width between the two buildings and came to a small courtyard. He carefully set his baggage behind him, undid his fly and proceeded to do his duty to God and his country. He had barely relieved himself when a light went on. He grabbed his bag and quickly zipped himself up as he scurried out.
What a difference that light had made! He hadn't realized how dark the streets were. He reached back to feel for his wallet as he hastened his pace onward. No wonder this city has such a high crime rate, he thought, this place is absolutely medieval except there were no torch-bearers to cry "8 o'clock and all's well!" Which reminded him. He checked his watch. Fifteen minutes more to wait and then food.
He thought again about how easy it would be to have his pocket picked, looked about and noticed no one and stopped at the next doorstep. Zipping open his flight bag, he pushed aside his clothes and put his wallet underneath them, right next to his toothbrush. Like he really needs that! He was rather embarrassed to have it with him; it must have been left in there from the last time he used the bag when he went to the Future Business Leaders of America convention last spring. He picked up the bag again and went down toward The Way. Though the lights down there were few, at least there was light because it was a through street.
As he reached the corner again, he was glad that he had hidden his wallet. There were more people now, but scruffier than before. A few of them looked a bit trustworthy, but judging by their camaraderie, those looks could be deceiving. Dirty-looking guys and dirty-looking girls slouching against the buildings and sprawled on the sidewalks. He advanced toward one of the small groups to see if he could catch any of the conversation, but as he got nearer they stared at him, so he veered aside and lingered off the other way. A small hand-painted sign above a narrow doorway marked the center of all these cliques, the reason for their all being here. So this was The Way.
He noticed that the door was open, so he walked over and looked inside. A few people were sitting on the steps at the end of the small hallway, and there were some more at the bottom. The steps were filled and so was about a quarter of the hallway, so he decided to take his place in line. He went down, leaned against one wall and propped his leg up against the yellowing plaster on the other side. He rested his bag on his extended leg, and decided that it was good he had come in now because the passage was filling up behind him. His position wasn't very comfortable, so he squatted down and gripped his bag in front of him. He decided that it what all right to let go of the loops, which he had been gripping so well. The corridor was packed so tightly that no one could get off with it. No one could get through the crowd behind him.
He took off his hat and straightened the links of the aluminum band. The hat was an advantage--it kept his head warm and covered his hair, which wasn't as long as the rest of the people here. But one day it would be. This was the garden in which it would flourish. He just hadn't found the right place to plant himself. Whatever else these people were, they were free. And that's all he wanted to be. That's why he was here: to get away from the hypocrisy that besmudged his home.
He looked up as a knee nudged him from the left. Its owner didn't even look down. He just continued what he was saying, "and then that no good son of a gun still wouldnt give me any of his wine, so I kicked the hell out of him. What else could I do? I was being nice to him, and then he tries to be a smart-alec. No wino can give me that kind of guff and get away with it!"
He got up and tried to limber up his cramped legs. The position in which he had been sitting was not that comfortable, and he didn't like being down there below everyone. He thought that it would be well to avoid any hassles with the guy in front of him. He didn't want any kind of hassles with anyone. he had had enough of that at home.
That's why he had left the way he did--to avoid a hassle. It would take them a while to realize what had happened, but they wouldn't be able to do anything about it now--or ever. He should have prepared better--brought a coat and more money and perhaps some more practical clothes--but the way he felt when he left embroiled his mind beyond any thoughts of practicality. Just thoughts of escape. They didn't understand the way he was and thought so they tried to repress his ways.
What was it his father said? Yeah: "Students these days are so repressed that I can't find a parking place on campus." What a pig! A stupid pig wallowing in his materialism. He didn't understand anything that didn't have a price tag on it. He had no values that didn't have to do with the Consumer Price Index. When the revolution came, that would be over--no money, no cops, nothing but freedom for everyone.
He started slightly as he noticed the object that the fellow on his right was toying with. It cut his thoughts as it could well have cut his throat.
"Hey man, dig this, I got it today," he was saying to another on the same side of the wall, and, probably, of the law. "Two blades, tell me, you never seen a razor like this before!"
"Here, lemme see," said his friend as he began flipping it menacingly around as though he had plenty of practice with such an implement of destruction. "Huh. I don't guess you'll get much trouble from anybody that scarfs and eyeload on this mother."
The Kid thought about how he and his friends used to play around with switchblades from Mexico. There wasn't any chance or reason to use them, though it was impressive to pull one out to peel an apple at school. But these guys were the type that probably had plenty of chance to cut people, if things weren't going right, which seemed to be the order of the day, judging by their mutual scars, which he doubted that they got shaving.
A door at the top opened and a young black boy came out. "Hey, ya'll keep it down, please. They're praying now. It'll only be a few more minutes." he shushed. There was a little chatter after he went back in, but generally, it was a bit quieter. He figured that these people knew better than to bite the hand that fed them. But not much longer to wait--that was good.
Soon the door opened again, and it was time. There was a little bit of pushing from the rear as everyone got up and went on up to be fed. When he got to the top of the stairs, he turned left with the line and looked over the accommodations. A not-quite-plump girl in an old fuzzy sweater was directing the table where there were two trays of sandwiches and a pot of coffee. "Just one," she cautioned, "Don't take more than one--this has to last to feed the rest of your brothers, too." As he took his sandwich, he looked up at her and smiled. "Thank you," he said, but there was no response. It seemed as though she were trying to maintain some distance between them, and her disdain for everyone in the line made it quite easy.
As he walked into the next room, he bit into the sandwich. It wasn't much: a piece of baloney jammed into a piece of folded bread--but what could he expect for free. As he chewed the gummy mass, he wished he had something to wash it down, but he wouldn't go as far as to drink coffee--he never had liked it, and he could expect that theirs would taste like.
Everyone else was plopping down on the various mats that were scattered around the floor. This looked like the place that many settled down--a communal crash pad. A lot of these people must have been like him--displaced orphans of the street--no home, no bed, nothing. But his condition was one of choice. He did have a home and those other things that go with it. But he wasn't going back. Not any time soon. Not until they wouldn't be able to do anything about him or changing his ways.
He crossed the room and lay down on the mattress under the window. he chewed a while on the last bite of the sandwich and with a little difficulty swallowed the gummy lump felling it slowly work its way down to his stomach. Well, that ought to keep him nourished for a while, he thought as he brushed away the few crumbs and settled himself putting his bag behind his head and pulling his hat down over his face. It would have to hold him for a while because he would have to make do with as little as he could to make what he had last.
But he had the feeling that it wouldn't take long in the city to get himself set up. Because this was where the music was. He'd find a group, and he could live with them. he could be their road manager, and though he couldnt play an instrument, he would be able to sing, because everyone knows that you don't need that good a voice to sing rock. Look at Dylan, for example. He'd write words, words with meaning, and they'd put them to music. Hell, he'd be making more money than his father. Then he could go back to his old man and show him. But then if he had money, his father would be proud of him.
It didn't look much like he'd be able to get any sleep, so he sat up, pushed his hat back up on his head and proceeded to look around. The sign on the wall to his right amused him: "No Smoking--of any kind." Small groups of people had clustered together in the several parts of the room taking it easy and rapping. One fellow was playing a guitar. His attention fell upon the man walking across the room toward him. It was one of the guys from behind the food counter who must have noticed the new face and was coming over to ask him about himself. Instead he addressed himself to the fellow who was occupying the other half of the mattress, "Well, John, how's it going?"
"Oh, all right, I guess. I went to the doctor, and he says it's tuberculosis. He gave me some medicine and told me he wanted to put me in the hospital."
Well, this was enough. He always had a weak stomach, so he decided that how was as good a time as any to leave. He grabbed his bag, got up, and went downstairs and onto the street. It was a bit darker now, and he went over to some steps across the corner, sat down with his satchel on his lap and started cleaning his fingernails.
"Just moved out?"
He looked up, and there was a black man about thirty or so with a goatee. "No, I just got into town," he replied.
"Oh. Are you staying with some friends or something?"
"No, I don't know anyone," he replied a little more confidently since he noticed that the man was shorter than he.
"Well, I was just wondering," the black man said. "Look, if you need a place to crash, you can stay at my place."
"Ah, well, that's all right." This guy couldn't be for real, he thought. He must be up to something.
"It's just around the corner. Come on up. I'll show it to you. I've got plenty of room."
"No, really, it's OK. I'll get along," he said apprehensively. He didn't want to go around the corner and meet up with one of those toys that the fellow in the hall at The Way was messing with.
"All right, do it your way, baby!" was the black man's puzzled reply as he walked off down the street.
This section of town was getting to bother him, so he went back up the street where there were more lights, and things seemed safer. He got through the crowds in front of the strip clubs without too much trouble and went on down to the main street and paused on the corner. A kid about his age was selling the local underground paper.
"You want one. Only a quarter."
"No thanks, I don't have the bread. I just got into town. I got better things to do like find a place to crash."
"Well, this is what you need," said the vendor. "They've got ads for free crash pads in the back of here sometimes. Anyhow, I just need to sell one more, and I can buy a hot dog."
"Hmm. OK," he said as he set down his bag and fumbled in his pocket for change. Then the wind lofted his hat up and sent it flying down the street. He jumped around and chased it down. It skipped down the pavement until he finally snatched it back. What a relief! He thought he'd lost it. Without it, well, without it, what was he?
The Kid turned around to walk back and get his paper, but the boy wasn't there. Nor was his bag. He ran to the corner and looked around, but he could see no sign of the person that had just taken off with everything that he owned. All he could see were the carousing crowds in front of the bars. He could have lost himself among them easily.
There was a pay phone on the wall nearby which The Kid walked to and shakingly picked up the receiver. He tried to choke down his grief as a salty droplet fell from his cheek and splashed against the metal covering the telephone cord. He pulled out all the change in his pocket and found a dime, which he deposited in the slot and waited for the tone. When that came, he dialed the last digit. There were three buzzes and a voice asked, "Hello?"
"Operator," The Kid stammered, "Can you get me the police?"