To the West coast
It was three weeks before I could steel myself to go back
to the Lower East Side. Coming to pick me up at the Hotel Chelsea, Ron
all but had to hold my hand. The whole neighborhood-formerly the Jewish
Ghetto, now full of hippies, blacks, and Hispanics, many of them drug
users or pushers-for me had something sinister about it.
Actually, I wasn't staying at the hotel anymore (one week
there having cost me more than I thought I could afford in view of what
little money I had left) but at the friendly night clerk's around the
corner, a spacious if simply furnished place shared by one or two others
on a temporary basis it seemed.
One of these was an attractive yet slightly strange young
fellow just released from juvenile detention center on Rikers Island,
who kept saying to me, apropos of nothing, so you're aspiring to higher
I suppose he meant higher things, having been told by our
friend the night clerk that I was a filmmaker. But immediately the old
paranoia returned and I thought maybe he was talking about expediting
me to places beyond human recall.
Another new acquaintance I made through the good offices
of the kind Englishman (offering me his hospitality without any quid pro
quo) was a young singer called Gilbert Price; no relation to Leontyne
Price, the black primadonna I'd met while still at Columbia, or in her
class, but a former member of the Harry Belafonte Singers.
Gilbert at the time was touring resort hotels in the Catskills,
and on one occasion asked me to come along. He sang a medley of Beatles
songs that went down very well with the audience of mainly Jewish New
York housewives. He was also auditioning, he told me, for one of the leads
in an upcoming musical based on the life of Alexander Dumas, for which
among others the comedienne Hermione Gingold had already been signed.
Ron in the meantime had taken himself off to Timothy Leary's
open-to-all community in upstate New York to go on mind-expanding trips
with the Prophet of LSD that really freaked him out. I tried LSD too,
but with results even more disastrous than when I'd taken 'speed'.
It was a real horror trip. Before my eyes, Ron, who was
meant to supervise it, turned into a cadaverous little man with wispy
Ho Chi Minh beard, frightening me to death rather than providing reassurance.
Not long after this Ron went back to the West Coast. When
my new friend Gilbert, having got the part in the Dumas musical, also
departed for LA, I was left high and dry in New York. What's more, with
hardly any money left in the bank. Believe it or not, I'd gone through
5000 dollars (worth a lot more then) in just under a year. Fortunately
I had enough left for a one-way ticket via Greyhound to San Francisco,
costing me 99 dollars I think.
Much as I'd loved driving across the continent, this was
a hellish trip, sitting up day and night on the bus. Somewhere along the
line, in the middle of Iowa, when the driver stopped to drop someone off,
I felt like getting out too and just walking away with them, like Charlie
Chaplin into the sunset.
But, lo and behold, when coming out of the Bus Depot off
Market Street in San Francisco, who should be there squatting on the sidewalk
but good old Ron, in colorful hippie garb, selling the rebellious student
paper, The Berkeley Barb.
Off we went to Ron's pad on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley:
a windowless room where when you turned the light on the walls were crawling
with cockroaches, scurrying away as quickly as possible, only to reappear
the minute it was turned off. Thank God this infested idyll didn't last
Not far away in Fulton Street were the premises of the Vietnam
Day Committee, the student organisation that planned most of the anti-war
demos in the Bay Area. When Ron started hanging out there with Jerry Rubin,
the hippie leader who a year later helped organize the violent demonstrations
during the Democratic Convention in Chicago, I thought the time had come
for me to take myself off to LA to look up my singer friend.
During rehearsals for what its producers hoped would be
a Broadway hit, Gilbert was staying in a studio apartment near Farmer's
Market in Hollywood. A diabetic, he had to inject himself three times
a day, but occasionally forgot.
Rushed to hospital on one such occasion, without the producer
being told, the latter came looking for his missing leading man at the
apartment, and not informed as to his leading man's private life either,
was amazed to find me there.
It was the summer of '67, and Number One on the Hit Parade
was the haunting House in New Orleans. Backstage, in-between matinee and
evening performances, we played cards with Hermione Gingold and Gilbert's
understudy, high most of the time.
Despite indifferent reviews the show went on to San Francisco. There it flopped, and Gilbert returned to New York, bequeathing me his pad just below Nob Hill, with a hippie girl called Janet for a neighbor. (By all means tune in again next time.)