By Tamim Ansary
(Here is an excerpt from Road Trips, a memoir set against the backdrop of those long-lost years, the late sixties and early seventies. This episode took place in 1969, when I hitchhiked across the continent, ended up broke on the east coast, spent a dull week in an ashram, and then caught a ride south with a couple of the devotees from the ashram.)
On the appointed day, Roger, Kent, and I climbed into a car and headed south. Somehow, as we approached New York, we got on a road with no exits, so we ended up in New Jersey. We turned and went back the way we’d come, but somehow got on that same highway-with-no-exits and ended up in the suburbs north of the city. Ralph and Kent, those freewheeling spiritual souls, decided that New York was too big, ugly, mean, and non-spiritual for them. The fact that we had missed the world’s biggest city twice meant the Universe was trying to tell us something. They decided to go back to the ashram.
I did not want to go back to Sant Bani Ashram. Even that single distant glimpse of New York had sparked a hunger in me. Technically, I was on my way to the safety of my mother’s house in Washington D.C. and having squandered all my money, I should no doubt have stuck to that plan, but instead I asked Roger and Kent to let me off. They couldn’t get into Manhattan, but I was betting I could do it, with my thumb and a prayer. It wasn’t just the thrill of metropolis calling to me. I knew a girl in New York. Her name was Liz Croce. I had her phone number with me.
When I say “knew,” I don’t mean “knew her well.” I don’t mean I knew her so intimately well that I had ever actually seen her face or heard her voice. But I knew her all the same: we were soul mates. Or so I had been told by our mutual friend Phoebe Sutton.
Liz and Phoebe had grown up together in Brookings, South Dakota. They’d been best friends since childhood. Phoebe thought of herself as restrained, conservative, inhibited, staid, shy, and conventional, and she passionately admired people who were wild, uninhibited, creative, poetic, and unfettered. In this category she placed two people above all others: Liz and (for some reason) me. Naturally, therefore, Phoebe felt that Liz and I should get to know each other, and I was interested.
Liz had blazed a rep as a rebel in her small town. She was an only child, born late in life to rigidly religious Presbyterian parents. From Phoebe’s accounts, I pictured the dread parents as the couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic. When Liz got to high school, she waded into trouble. Nowadays, “trouble” would mean shooting crack, gangbanging, or at least breaking windows.
But in 1967, in South Dakota, the trouble had to do with writing and speaking poetry. It’s true, of course, that Liz wasn’t reciting Edgar A. Guest. Blonde on Blond still lay in the future, but Dylan was already spouting words like don’t wanna be a bum, you better chew gum, the pump don’t work ‘cuz the vandals took the handles and before him there was Kerouac, spraying stuff like why the wild ground and bodies bare and breaks–I quaked when the giver creamed, when my father screamed, my mother dreamed.
Who can fathom what is happening to a girl who starts speaking in tongues like that? In fairness I should add that some of her parents’ alarm also had to do with Liz’s urge to seek out consciousness expanding drugs, but poetry was the main marker, the most palpable sign of her departure from the ways of normal folks.
It would be wrong to say her parents disapproved of this departure. Their feelings went way beyond disapproval. They thought their child had gone insane. They locked her up in the house to keep her from her friends, all of whom they considered agents of Satan. Liz tried to run away, but the cops caught her and dragged her home. Her parents then did the only thing they could do: committed her to a mental institution. I mean what you do if your kid started spouting poetry? Liz spent some months in that institution. When she got out, she knew enough to act chastened and keep her mouth shut, but she was merely biding her time, waiting for her 18th birthday.
When Phoebe first told me about this girl, Liz was living at home, caged in her room and cut off from the world. She was allowed to write to oldest-friend Phoebe but not to communicate with anyone else on Earth except her parents and through them with school authorities and church leaders. Phoebe felt her friend needed the sunshine of similar minds and classified me as one such mind. She arranged that I would write to Liz, she would enclose my letters with hers, and Liz would send responses to me in envelopes addressed to Phoebe. That was the plan.
I wrote to Liz pronto, wrote crazy surreal stuff because that’s what Phoebe admired and thought I wrote. “The moondog howls in the swamp at the edge of midnight where only God’s chosen orchids bloom and then only when the sun is in Scorpio…” I wrote.
My letters inspired Liz to write back equally nonsensical pseudo-Dylanesque verbal streams, on scented stationary, in a spidery little hand, with a thin-tipped pen, decorating the borders of her letters with floral and geometric designs and with icons that looked as if they might have significance in some unknown culture. Thus did we become pen pals. Every week or so I sent her a letter and every week or so I got one back
But in all of that voluminous correspondence, I did not learn one single personal fact about Liz nor did I impart any. It was all moondogs and orchids, Satan’s sweat and heaven’s beads. She never asked what I was studying, whether I had a girlfriend, what I wanted to do or be in life, nothing. She never asked why I had such an unusual name, and if she knew that I was from Afghanistan I don’t remember that she ever asked about it. That stuff all belonged to the trivial Earthly plane. We were meeting on a higher level.
That summer she managed to escape from home, and our correspondence slacked off. Phoebe told me Liz had landed in New York and gave me Liz’s mailing address. I kept meaning to renew our correspondence, but life kept happening. Later, I did drop Liz a mundane note to let her know I was in Oregon and going to Reed College, a place so hip, kids smoked hashish in the coffeeshop and every single student was alienated from society in the deepest, coolest way.
Liz sent me her address and phone number and told me to look her up if I was ever in New York. It was the shortest letter I had ever received from her and the only one ever to convey any concrete information, but it was still on scented notepaper and decorated with hearts, stars, and mystical symbols.
I had that letter in my pocket now, right in there with the two panes of just-in-case blotter acid. I alighted from Kent’s car, bummed a dime from Ralph because that’s what a phone call cost in those days, and hitched into the heart of Manhattan. It was five or six o’clock in the afternoon by the time I called Liz. She answered on the second ring and sounded thrilled to hear my actual voice at last! Was I staying in New York, she wanted to know? Would I stay with her, she pleaded: pleaaaaaase? She had a tiny place, a one-room apartment, only one bed—but what did space matter among friends, especially two so close as we?
Oh boy, I was thinking. Yes, of course, I pictured sex–but in the most romantic terms. The two soul mates meet at last. And she would be lovely. And there would be a hunger between us—a hunger hard to sate with mere sex, but we’d try, oh how we’d try.
Yes, I said, I could stay with her. I had no money for a taxi or even for the subway, so I walked the 40 blocks or so to Liz’s apartment in the heart of Greenwich Village, right near Washington Square.
I made it to Liz’s building and she buzzed me in. Three flights of steep stairs brought me to an open door restrained by a chain, and there she was: two shining eyes in a small, round, freckled face—that’s what I saw first. What she saw was a guy with long hair, wire-rimmed spectacles, sunburned skin, frayed levis, black boots.“Tamim?” she ventured.
She shut the door to release the chain and flung it wide. “I am soooo glad to see you! To meet you,” she added.
“We’ve already met,” I declaimed.
“Ah…” she sighed. “In the deepest way!” She stepped away from the door, giving me room to enter. Her apartment was about the same size as the largest closet in my current house. I noticed this only vaguely. I was still busy taking in the sight of Liz, trying to reconcile what I was seeing with what I had imagined on the way up here and what I had pictured during our two-year correspondence.
Her skin had a sun-starved urban pallor against which her freckles stood out. Her russet hair was gathered into a couple of sweet little pigtails. Her face was small, round and made up entirely of smaller constituent round parts—round cheeks, round eyes, a round pert little nose. She was short and just plump enough that cartoonist R. Crumb would have seen her as ripe. Her thighs stretched her levis in the way that R. Crumb liked to depict, her ass was round in the seat of the levis, and she had disproportionately large, R. Crumb-pleasing breasts. She was R. Crumb’s dream girl. I took in the incongruities of her: the plain cotton T-shirt, the unglamorous blue jeans, and the corn-fed cowgirl look, overlaid now with a layer of later experience, a hint of excess suggested by the creases below her eyes, the eyes of an urban night creature. It all added up to “cute.” Somehow it did not immediately add up to sexy, but she was certainly cute.
She held out her arms, but it was more like that Jesus Christ pose you see on postcards, not an invitation for me to come closer and be physical. She began to speed-talk: “I’m so glad you called, I’m so glad you’re here. You know, some guys, I wouldn’t even let them come up to my apartment much less ask them if they would stay with me because they’d make it into something sexual, you know? But you’re different. I can trust you. I know you live on a higher plane, it’s so great to be with someone like you where you know it’s a spiritual relationship and it’s not going to turn into something crude and crass, like physical or something, you know? I mean you’re incredible, Tamim, because you’re different, you’re not like other guys.”
I puffed with pride about my difference from other guys, although at the same time, deep down, secretly, I had to admit, even at the time, I felt a little disappointment about my elevated consciousness. As usual her words pulled me into the shape they described. I felt inescapably locked into becoming the guy she was praising. Already I was rearranging my fantasies to make this be exactly what I had been looking forward to with Liz, an elevated, spiritual interaction. We would smoke a few joints and talk about cosmic things, this would be oh-so-good, none of that ugly physical stuff.
“How long can you stay?” she chirped.. “At least a week, I hope! I’m going to this big rock concert upstate, everyone’s going to be there, the Airplane, the Dead, even Dylan maybe, it’s near where he lives, but not if I have to go alone, will you come with me? Please, please, will you come?”
So far, I had been with Liz for five minutes, and already I’d agreed to spend the night with her but not touch her and to go to a rock concert with her, not in the city but someplace upstate. This was, to my mind, more than enough business. Now I was hungry. I was about to ask Liz what she had in mind for dinner, when she blurted out, “Hey! So you’ve just hitchhiked across the country? Ohmigod, that’s so cool!”
“Mostly across Canada,” I noted.
“Oo, double cool. Canada! If were a man, that’s where I’d go, even if they didn’t try to draft me. Canada is all about peace, man. Far out! So you’ve been hitching?” And then something occurred to her “So you’re used to it, huh. You must be good at it,” she exclaimed. “I’d like to hitch to Boston, but it’s hard for a girl. You want to hitch to Boston with me? I’d love that. Let’s hitch to Boston together, wouldn’t that be so cool? You and me, on the road together. Wanna’?”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s do that someday. When do you want to go?”
“Right now!” She had just settled onto a huge pillow but she jumped up again.
“Now? But I just got here.”
“So you’re still in the traveling mode. And I’m ready. So you into it?”
I didn’t want to say no. I didn’t want to say I was tired and hungry, and I just wanted to have some dinner, drink some beer, smoke a joint, have some sex, and crash out. Cool people in the know always want to go and go. They always long to find out what lies beyond the horizon, a thirst they can never quench because no matter how far they go, the horizon is still out there, unreached and unreachable.
I didn’t want to be the guy who stopped reaching for the unreachable. Also, I didn’t want to take a stand on what Liz and I should do together. I didn’t want to commit to my version of the Liz’n’Me club, lest it cost me my membership in the Liz’n’Me club. I was only an affable member of the club, by no means a troublemaker, certainly not someone who was going to buck the rules, just someone who needed a little clarification. What were they again, the duties required of members? That upon arriving in New York City, one get the hell out of New York City? Fine, fine, no problem. That’s pretty much exactly what I myself had been wanting.
“Hitch to Boston,” I said. “Cool. Let’s go. We’re already late.”
(To be continued)
Tamim Ansary wrote the memoir West of Kabul, East of New York, selected as San Francisco’s “One City One Book” in 2008. He will read from Road Trips at the Alley Cat bookstore in San Francisco on December 29.