The semester was all but over. Summer was beckoning. It was my last year of art school after completing two years of studies at the School of Visual Arts. I held small exhibition of paintings in the art school gallery. I waited amongst my large figurative canvases for people to come and appreciate my efforts. I always had an inbuilt stubborn determination and self-belief that, one day I would make it into the big league. I felt my work would get me into the world I, so far had only visited as a student, an artist’s assistant and a gallery-hopper. I had painted a large painting of my new love interest, Jo-Ann, the first romance since arriving in New York. In the painting Jo-Ann posed on the Staten Island Ferry, smiling subtly like the Mona Lisa, as she passed the Statue of Liberty behind her. There was also a similar-sized work of my brother Stephen, having a bath in the kitchen of my rail-road apartment. My painting style, at the time, was heavily influenced by Alex Katz. It had undergone a transition from tight, observational realism, influenced by realist, John Moore, to a simplified, style that depended on using all the energy and information from the first, life study. I skipped the additional observation from life and photos, to complete the large work. I tried this method to bring more freshness and spontaneity to my work. It was a process I’d observed first-hand during my weeks as Alex Katz’s assistant. For six months, or more, I worked one day a week for Katz from 10 am until 5 pm. He was the master of this way of creating a painting. He drew, or painted directly from life, on a small, manageable scale. These studies were immediate, full of life and somehow both sophisticated and naïve. From these small works he had enough information to create a massive piece that he finished in a day or so, after pre-mixing his paints and using big brushes. To my delight, Alex Katz took the time to come to my student exhibition. He was amongst the first through the door and although few others attended, Katz’s appearance made up for a hundred regular attendees.
I had been a studio assistant also, to my painting lecturer at SVA, John Button. John found me jobs at other artist’s studios, including Janet Fish and Chuck Close. I chatted to John when I worked for him about art and music. I expressed a desire to get to Nashville one day. John said he’d been there. His opinion was that it was weird and worthwhile. I felt it was something I had to do, go to Nashville, once the art school year was done. I decided a day to leave NYC and my means of transportation, my thumb. I also let it be known around the art school that I was headed to Nashville. I wasn’t really looking for a travelling partner but one somehow found me. A girl in the sculpture course heard about my adventure and contacted me. I can’t remember her name so I’ll call her Terry. Terry was keen to come along to Nashville with me, even hitchhiking. I looked at her, this being the first time I’d met her. She was about 20 years old, of healthy weight and proportions, brown shoulder-length hair, with a pleasant but not overly attractive face. She was dressed in a work shirt and jeans. I liked her boots. The shape of her boots made her feet attractive to me, but nothing else sent any signals telling me we were going to be involved. We talked for a while about the proposed trip. She really wanted to go. I didn’t see any problem. She let me know too, that she was lesbian. That took care of any question about getting involved, besides, I’d recently met Jo-Ann and wasn’t looking for complications. It was agreed then. We would meet and set off in two days.
We travelled the hundred miles from New York to Philadelphia by train in the morning, then found the highway pointing towards Tennessee. It’s not really that long of a journey, only thirteen hours but when one abandons control and opens up to chance, the sense of time disappears. We headed through Virginia, towards the Smokey Mountains and that’s when the rides became shorter and stranger. We had four, or five different lifts between Philly and Nashville. They were all odd and tense in various ways. One driver started the conversation around us coming from New York. It went something like this.
‘You’re from New York? Are there lots of niggers up there?’
Dumbfounded, in the back seat of this stranger’s car, with a weird accent and a lesbian travelling companion, what could I say? I had to come up with something.
‘Yeah. There’s lots of all types in New York. It’s a crazy place.’ I answered.
‘I hate niggers.’ He responded. ‘I don’t know how you put up with that up there?’
I through a glance at Terry. Fortunately, she wasn’t adding anything to the uncomfortable conversation. We both simply wanted the ride to be short, which it was. Only a half an hour or so. We soon got another lift with an older man in a pick-up, who squeezed us into the front seat. He wore overalls and didn’t speak much. He had a rifle in the racks on his back window. We managed to travel an hour or so in what looked like back-country. Along came our next ride, the worst yet. We climbed in the back seat of the four-door sedan. There were two guys in their twenties in the front. The seemed pre-occupied and agitated. They didn’t ask us many questions; they were into their own zone. The passenger rifled through the 8-track cartridges stacked on the floor and in between them. He’d hold up one, look at it’s title, show it to the driver for assessment and if it didn’t meet their approval, he’d toss it out the passenger window. This gave me have a strong notion that the car wasn’t actually theirs. We barreled along for a while until we approached an area where gas stations and food outlets sparingly appeared. The passenger opened the glove box and in it was meaty hand-gun.
‘This one?’ The passenger asked the driver, nodding towards a gas station they were approaching.
The car pulled up to the gas station. I was feeling sick. Terry was quiet once again but kept her cool. The passenger guy took the handgun from the glove box, stuck it in his pants and headed inside the gas station. The driver said nothing. Terry and I were frozen in the back-seat. In a very short time, the passenger hurried back to the car but didn’t run, then got in.
‘Not this one.’ He said to the driver. ‘It’s not good.’
They pulled off with a small screech. My heart was racing. We had to get ourselves out of this car, and fast. I broke through their wall of concentration as if they’d forgotten we were still in the vehicle.
‘Oh, hey, we are pretty close to where we need to go! We can get out around here. Just drop us anywhere here. That’ll be fine.’ I bumbled.
They didn’t question us and simply complied. It was an incredible relief to detach from that doomed ride. It took one more lift with a trucker, to get us to Nashville.
We found affordable accommodation with two single beds, near the music strip and headed out to the bars around 9.30 at night, both in need of a drink and some winding down. Nashville’s music row, on Broadway, in 1977 was far simpler than the Disneyland it is today. It consisted of a long strip of old bars, many with cowboy, country artists plucking their guitars, trying to get noticed. The bars were relatively rough and attracted a tough crowd. Ernest Tubb’s bar and The Orchid Lounge were two main attractions. We found a table in a shabby old bar and ordered beers. I had only known Terry for a couple of days and wasn’t sure of what to expect from her. I was surprised to see that she came alive in this rough setting, going so far as to give a leering cowboy ‘the eye’. I was tired and taken aback by her flirtation because the cowboy looked at me, sizing me up to see what it would take to get me out of the picture.
‘What are doing Terry? Are you trying to get me beat up? Cut it out.’ I said.
Terry was nonchalant. She wasn’t aware of any threat to me, or apparently sure of what she was attracting. What happened to the lesbian I wondered? After a grueling trip this was the last thing I needed. My plan was to remain the observer, not the target. After semi-heated exchange we came to an understanding. Terry stopped giving ‘come-ons’ to the cowboy and we finished our drinks and exited, without incident. Somehow though, I had had enough. I didn’t feel comfortable travelling any further with Terry, and I felt disillusioned with Nashville after just one night. I decided to ditch both the next morning. We discussed the situation and agreed to go our separate ways. Terry would catch a Greyhound back to NYC and I would head off by myself, hitchhiking to NYC via the coast. I pointed myself to South Carolina and managed to get a couple of stress-free rides to Myrtle Beach. Arriving in the afternoon, carrying very little, I was dropped at the beach. It was warm. Surprisingly, the beach seemed deserted. I dropped my stuff, took off my clothes, and ran on the sand. I felt such a release after the tension of getting to Nashville and the unpleasant evening there, that after my brief run in the sun, I masturbated and fell in a heap for a while.
With no knowledge about where I was, or any plans, I dressed and just walked around. Somehow, I got talking to a certified hippy, who was very friendly. Perhaps my accent made me unthreatening and interesting enough. He invited me to have some food and even stay over at his place nearby. It felt OK so I ate and stayed at his place, which he had built himself. It was in the shape of a pyramid, a large, single room with a shower and toilet off to one side. He was a pleasant guy who was into Indian philosophy, particularly a guru named Paramahansa Yogananda, who had a popular book out called The Autobiography of a Yogi. He raved about the book and the guru and gave me a copy of the book as I left the next morning for NY.
I managed rides all the way to Baltimore where I was dropped off near the Greyhound Bus Station in the evening. I was an innocent, not realizing what a dangerous area I was in, after midnight, near the highway. In my mind, I was just headed home. Near the highway were some black guys who watched me for a while as I tried to hitch. One guy approached me with a bottle in a brown paper bag.
‘Here, have a drink.’ He offered.
I slid the bottle out of the bag a little to see it was a bottle of ‘Night Train’, a fortified, cheap wine that has a 17.5 % alcohol content. It has the reputation as The Bum’s Wine. I wasn’t fussy. I took a big swig, then thanked him. It was chilly in Baltimore. After a long wait, a sedan pulled over for me. It was a nice, hip looking black couple. They were out for a ride and not intending on going anywhere very far that night. They talked to me for a while asking me where I was headed and why, as they drove. They were curious and, once again, my accent probably helped. They decided then and there to drive me all the way to New York. They would surprise some friends with a visit. This was fantastic. It’s about four hours from Baltimore to New York. They drove through the rest of the night and arrived at their friend’s place, in Harlem around 8.30 am. I was included in the morning visit. I was fed and listened to records, then the joints came out, which were shared with me. Strong stuff. We then went to another home not far away to visit more friends. We spent an hour or more here, with more food, more records (Aretha) and more joints. I was starting to float away by this stage and it was only mid-morning. There was news of a festival in Central Park so that was to be our next stop. We drove there. The car was parked and we headed into the park. I was very far gone by this point and can’t recall much of what happened in the park, only that I lost my friends and wondered around for a long time before re-orientating myself to my surroundings and heading through the park to find my new girlfriend, Jo-Ann’s apartment, on the upper West Side.