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1969 — Moonshot

Moonshot
1969

 The strange, apocalyptic summer of 1969, the world seemed to be coming apart, but I couldn’t tell whether it was my world or the world that was coming apart. It was the summer of Ted Kennedy’s political suicide at Chappaquiddic, of the Moon Landing, of the Manson Murders in Hollywood, and of Woodstock.

      It started for me in mid-May following my tumultuous junior year on campus, at Brockport State College. I’d been elected student government president as a sophomore the year before (a strange tale itself), and impeached that March (ditto). Also that winter, I had managed to smash up a car that my father had bought me at the beginning of the semester; an incident that proved insidiously corrosive to my mental health afterward. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War had reached its peak of violence anf futility and the mood on campus, indeed all over the nation, approached a rolling boil.
      As that spring semester mercifully closed, I did not know what I was going to do for the summer. The previous one, 1968, had been unnerving, too. I’d gone to Fire Island, where my mother and stepfather had a place, and gotten a job washing dishes at a popular bistro, and could have endured it for the summer except that the assassination of Robert Kennedy plunged me into such a state of despair that I packed up and went back to Brockport and tended bar at a lumpenprole golf club, and ended up traveling to Chicago for the infamous Democratic convention where the hippies all got gassed and Hubert Humphrey emerged as the pyrrhic nominee.
     So this was a year later. Where to go for the summer? Fire Island was out of the question because I didn’t want to be anywhere near my mother, the harpy. But I was accustomed to working at beach towns. A girl I knew suggested Lake George, but I was more into salt water. So I pretty arbitrarily decided on Cape Cod, specifically Provincetown at the very tip of the Cape. I’d never been to Cape Cod before, didn’t know anybody there, and that was fine with me. I regarded it as a youthful adventure, much less hazardous than, say, going to Vietnam.
     After I had smashed up my car that year (three times in one night), my father’s insurance on all his cars (two others) had been cancelled, and he angrily confiscated it when it came out of the repair shop — which involved a humiliating trip to drop it off at his home on Long Island and a long bus ride 350 miles back upstate. So in mid-May I hitch-hiked to the Cape. It took two days — I slept in a Framingham, Mass., motel — and I had way too much stuff — a huge suitcase, a guitar, and my Smith-Corona typewriter — but I got there by early afternoon the second day.
     Provincetown was bigger than I’d expected, much bigger than little Ocean Beach on Fire Island. You needed a car to even get to the beach from the heart of town, I would discover. It also had a pronounced seedy tourist honky-tonk air that somehow hadn’t figured in my expectations — I’d had something more like Edward Hopper’s Cape Cod in mind, and that version proved sadly out-of-date. But I was there, with all my stuff, and I set about making the best of it.
      Before the sun went down I found a job as a dishwasher in a fancy restaurant on Bradford Street, and a bed in a clean and rather charming rooming house on Commercial Street. I even acquired an instant room-mate, a fellow college kid named Chuckie from Swarthmore who had also come to town to find a summer job. We’d met at the restaurant where we both got hired as kitchen slaves and decided to double-up to save money. There were two single beds in the room we found. 
      The season was just getting underway. The restaurant I worked in, the Penny Farthing, was owned by a volcanic Cuban named Benito. Mercifully, he stayed out of the kitchen most of the time. The head cook was a wirey, physically graceful guy around thirty named Rick Librizzi who at first gave the impression of being slightly retarded. But pretty soon, between the dinner hour rushes, he started talking to me about Benvenuto Cellini, and Franz Kline and I came to understand that he was a serious professional artist and no dummy. He was married and had a little daughter and winters they lived in Greenwich Village. 
      By the Memorial Day Weekend, the first big crunch of the summer at the restaurant, my room-mate Chuck was overwhelmed by the frantic activity in the kitchen and quit and checked out of Provincetown. Chuckie had been the pots-and-pan man, and I had been the dishes-and-glasses man. There was no dishwashing machine in the establishment. It happened, however, that I was a very efficient dishwasher, so when Chuckie left, Benito put me on both dishes and pots-and-pans. Chuckie’s departure left me a little strapped financially, because the room, at $50 a week, cost more than half of my weekly salary (which came to about $80, and was not raised when my duties were doubled). So I got a second job during the day as a clerk in a jewelry store down near the main tourist wharf where all the fudge shops and pastel portrait galleries were.
      Now there were two social facts about Provincetown that I hadn’t reckoned on when I blithely picked it out on the map as my summer destination. One was that the town was a gay mecca. (The town of Ocean Beach on Fire Island, you might be surprised to learn, was almost all families and straight single “groupers”.) The homosexual ethos mystified me more than anything else, but as the summer wore on, it gave the scene an unappetizing air of dark Babylonian excess that got on my nerves.
       Of more direct consequence to me was my unhappy discovery that the drinking age in Massachusetts was 21. I was 20. I came from a state where the drinking age was 18 and I was used to spending time in bars. To make matters worse, I was the kind of 20-year-old who looks 16. I was not a doper in those days, because I’d had some very unhappy experiences with marijuana and anxiety attacks back in high school. Drinking was my thing. Normally, I was a weekend binger, a party drinker, at least during the regular college year.
       It took me about a week to find a saloon on Commercial Street where I could establish myself as a regular and not get carded every time I walked in the door, and I got kicked out of quite a few before that. Another peculiarity of Masasachusetts law was that the bars had to closed early, one a.m., and since I rarely got out of the kitchen before 11:30, and it was another half hour for me to go home and shower off the night’s kitchen scunge, I didn’t get much time to drink — and as a fiscal matter I was limited to 35-cent beers.
      Unlike Fire Island, where I ran with a whole crowd of college kids I had known for years, I had no friends in Provincetown. I met a girl named Janice who went to Syracuse and who was working as a sidewalk shill for one of the portrait painters downtown. She was smart, arty, theatrical and musical and world-weary and jaded and I liked bantering with her on the square near the wharf after the bars closed. But I didn’t especially want to sleep with her because she bore an uncanny physical resemblence to my despised mother, and I just could not get over that. This was an interesting harbinger of how this personal crisis of the summer would develop for me, because it was basically all about my dismal relations with my parents, and my poor preparation for adulthood, and my inability to integrate my childhood feelings with my adult experience.

      In June, well before the Fouth of July Weekend that sent the summer into full swing, Benito promoted me from dishwasher to prep man at the restaurant. He recognized that I could work fast, neatly, and had good expediting abilities. In fact, I very much enjoyed the new position and I quickly acquired a huge amount of knowledge in both basic kitchen technique and restaurant practice. I learned how to correctly hold a French cook’s knife, to chop massive amounts of parsley and garlic in a hurry, and how to use old bread to make croutons, and how to make sauces and salad dressings, and how to portion out and prep large quantities of meat, and how to beard mussels and clean whole fish. It was, if anything, scungier than dishwashing. But it was very absorbing.
      I worked in close proximity to Rick at his line station by the stove and broilers and during the actual dinner hours each night (roughly five through ten), we worked together as a team. Far from being retarded Rick proved to be very bright. He just had an odd way of speaking, as if he had marbles in his mouth. Each night he gave me little mini-lectures on the artists who interested him — Kline, Motherwell, Raphael, Giotto, Gericault, Fairfield Porter, Matisse, really everybody and anybody in art history. We acted out the quarterdeck scene from Moby Dickwith me playing Ahab and Rick playing everyone else on the crew. Our teamwork at the stove and broilers became very smooth and adroit. It was a rewarding experience. In the background we listened to AM radio. The hits of the summer were Age of Aquarius by the cast of the Broadway musical, Hair, Suspicious Minds, the only good song Elvis ever recorded after he got out of the army, In the Year 2525, a histrionic sci-fi ballad about the end of the world that gave me the fucking creeps every time it came on, Sweet Caroline by the egregious Neil Diamond, and Mama Told Me Not to Come, a Randy Newman number by Three Dog Night. To this day I still hear these tunes in my head when I am chopping parsley at home. During the newsbreaks, the talk was all of Teddy Kennedy’s pathetic misadventure, and of the upcoming trip to the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts.
     Benito was a maniac, but most of his ire fell on the poor waiters. However, one night during the big Fourth of July weekend, he gave us an interesting lesson in restaurant management. The specialty of house was the Spanish dish, paella, which we only made on weekends. It required the prep of a 20-gallon tub of saffron rice studded with chorizo sausage, scallops and shrimp. We would pack this rice “base” on individual paella pans, mount two halves of a lobster cut lengthwise on the mound, slam on a broiled chicken breast, insert a convocation of clams and mussels on top, and drape pimentos over the shells, voila. Well, about halfway through the rush that Saturday night, we ran out of the rice base. As it happened, though, most of the paella pans came back from the dining room with at least half their base uneaten — it was a monstrous huge dish, perhaps accounting for its popularity. We sent a message to the dining room via a waiter that paella was “86ed,” restaurant talk for something you run out of. 
     Benito came hurtling back into the kitchen seconds later and proceeded to instruct us how to take the incoming paella pans, scrape off the leftover rice base, refashion it into new base, and then mount the usual extras. This seemed gross to us, but there was no use even trying to talk Benito out of it, so we followed orders like good Nazis. We’d run out of rice around 8:30, and we were still pumping out paellas well-past ten, though the base had gotten pretty skimpy on shrimps, scallops, and chorizo.
     This is how things went. I fell into a comfortable rhythm. My one big indulgence was breakfast at the local Portugese greasy spoon with the New York Times, following Ted Kennedy’s absurd attempts at self-exculpation after he killed one of his office girls in the drunken car crash on Martha’s Vineyard. Nixon was trying to get an anti-ballistic missile treaty going with the Soviets. Vietnam was a constant awful churn in the background, but even though this was a time of maximum casualities — something like fifty soldiers a week KIA — it very much took a back seat to everything else that was going on in the country. 
     Quite apart from the gay culture of Provincetown, there was a huge contingent of hippies there that summer; or, to put it another way, practically anyone who was young that year was a hippie. I was nominally one myself, though I was not into drugs or leftist politics. Early in July, you began to hear rumors of a fantastic three day rock concert that was going to be held in August at Woodstock, New York. All the big bands were going to be there. You could get tickets by mail. To me, it seemed ominous. In fact, the whole hippie scene was turning dark to me as it filtered out of the universities and drew in all kinds of social lowlifes, of whom there were many in Provincetown: bikers, petty criminals, sex hustlers, lobster rustlers (guys who used scuba gear to rob traps), and scumbag dope dealers. I heard a lot about heroin being big on the scene that summer, though I never went looking for it myself.
     In early July, a bunch Brockport kids who had just graduated turned up in town. They were people I didn’t happen to know very well, including a couple named Bob and Judy, who were going through a breakup. I would meet them after work in the one bar that I could get into, and a week or so later Bob split, and I ended up sleeping with Judy. She was a year older than me, a straight upstater who had not quite jumped on the hippie bus, and was headed to nursing school that fall. It was not a serious relationship for either of us. I felt I was not in a position to be anyone’s boyfriend since I had almost no free time and hardly enough spare cash to buy someone a hamburger. But I was grateful to just be able to fall into her arms after a workday of about sixteen hours. A couple of weeks later, she split Provincetown, too, to get ready for nursing school.
     Though I was working very hard, I was unable to attach an appropriate sense of purpose to what I was doing, in the most pragmatic sense. My simple goal should have been to simply save enough money to get my own car insurance at the end of the summer, and find a way to repair relations with my father so he would forgive me for being an irresponsible asshole, and persuade him that I had grown up enough to have my car back. It really should have been that simple. But I literally didn’t know what I was doing. I couldn’t face these practical problems. I was too terrified of my father to even think about working things out. And instead of working systematically toward those pragmatic goals, I just floated, pissing away my little spare money on beer and lodgings that were too expensive. I could have economized. I probably could have moved in with some other people, saved enough money for car insurance. It’s ironic that the organizing and prioritizing skills I showed working in a professional kitchen, I was utterly unable to apply to my personal life.
      Instead, I entered a psychological process of mythologizing, abstracting, and demonizing my parents, and finding myself more and more psychologically lost in a maze of anger, fear, blame, longing, recrimination, and self-pity — a vicious cycle of unresolved adolescent emotion. I doubt that I wrote to them more than a couple of times that summer, and I certainly didn’t call them, but it is remarkable how increasingly preoccupied I became with them. In the process, I entered a spiral of anxiety and depression that sucked me deeper into a dark vortex every passing day.
       I began to struggle with bizarre frightening thoughts. I developed a set of phobias. I became frightened of the knives that I had to use at work. Just seeing them would cause me to panic. I developed a kind of agoraphobia that made me very uncomfortable out on the street. It even bothered me to leave my room and walk the few blocks to my breakfast joint. Provincetown began to assume an off-kilter look like the sets from the German expressionist movie, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I had an oddly clear recognition that I was cracking up psychologically, and this only deepened my general sense of anxiety and helplessness, a fear that my thoughts and feelings were slipping hopelessly out of my control.
       The result was that as July wore on, I became very shaky at work. I lost my concentration during the dinner rushes when I had to focus. The moon landing, when it finally happened, after all the build-up in the newspapers and the three-day trip from the earth, totally freaked me out. Rick the cook had brought in a little black-and-white portable TV so we could witness the Great Moment. But I could barely get myself to watch it. It scared the shit out of me. I didn’t want to imagine myself being up there, that far away, untethered from the earth. The idea unhinged me. Outside, I couldn’t bear to look up at the moon in the night sky knowing that there were human beings cavorting around on it. I couldn’t even read about the goddam thing in the newspaper.
      I sought some help from the few older male figures in my limited realm. One was Rick, who was preoccupied with his wife and young child, and tried to joke me out of my funk. But jokes really weren’t what I needed. He didn’t really understand how blue and spooked I was. I turned to my landlord, Frank, a German immigrant about forty who ran a nice establishment, and had a really beautiful apartment on the first floor of the big wood frame rooming house, and had a stable relationship with a live-in girlfriend. Frank recommended that I go see his psychiatrist. I think he did perceive the difficulty I was going through, and his suggestion still seems decent and well-intentioned. But the shrink was a good hour away down in Orleans. I didn’t have car and I knew shrinks were very expensive. Looking back, I wish that Frank had just given me some of the practical guidence that I desperately needed, namely to save money for car insurance and get straight with my father. But these were the 1960s, and the parental role was in low repute. Casual acquaintences didn’t naturally fall into it. 
      I did make an appointment with the shrink for my day off, Monday. After my morning stint at the jewelry store, I hitch-hiked down the Cape to Orleans, which actually did look like someplace straight out of Edward Hopper. I had given myself a lot of slack time-wise, in case I had trouble catching rides. But I ended up so early that I had two hours to kill, and I ended up just sitting in a little grove of trees by the roadside reading a paperback of Robert Brustein’s essays on theater. (In the “real like” of college I was a theater major.)
      My session with the shrink was a liminal experience. His comfortable consultation room looked out on a beautiful salt marsh. He was indeed a fatherly figure. I never wanted to leave that room ever again. I blathered mostly about my symptoms, the phobias, the anxiety, my trouble concentrating, and he tried to establish what was really going on in my life, but I don’t think we got very far in that session. He suggested more sessions, of course, but I knew that was not in the cards financially. He charged me thirty bucks. I paid him in cash, and I hitch-hiked back to Provincetown feeling notiveably relieved.
      It didn’t last long, though. I took up a third job in the early afternoons, after jewelry shop and before the restaurant. The job was in an apartment complex under renovation. I was assigned to clean stoves that were being refurbished. In those days, people actually cleaned and repaired appliances instead of just tossing them out. Anyway, it was a foul, disgusting, demoralizing assignment, and a week of it pushed me over the edge. I was working practically around the clock, getting nowhere, and I decided to pack up and leave. It was the same week as the Charlie Manson murders in Hollywood and all the hippies in Provincetown began to look like homicidal maniacs to me. I wanted to take refuge in a place where the cultural meltdown was not so pronounced, and Brockport, isolated and backward, seemed perfect. Brockport is about fifteen miles west of Rochester and I splurged on a Grayhound bus back. It was a twelve-hour trip, including layovers in Boston and Albany.
      By the way, I hadn’t been to the beach for more than an hour the entire summer.
      During these years, I had been living in a very groovy place off-campus. It was an old barn that had been turned into an antique store, located in a little crossroads hamlet named Adams Basin, about four miles from the college. Originally three of us had rented the place and, with the landlord’s permission, put up some stud walls to make separate bedrooms. There was a rudimentary kitchen and a bathroom with a sheet-metal shower, all pretty basic, but fine for us. The third guy, Eric Carlson, flunked out of school that first semester in the barn. That left me and Billy Grant, my best friend during those years, with various other friends coming and going over the three years we were there. The whole place rented for sixty dollars a month, and the gas heat was cheap in those days.
       Adams Basin had been an old Erie Canal town, and the canal itself ran on the other side of a field behind the barn. Our barn stood adjacent to a little country store / post office where you could get hamburger meat, beer, cigarettes, stamps, aspirin, and all the other necessities of life. Billy Grant had been there all summer holding down the fort. My room was waiting for me with all the rest of my stuff in it. It was a great room, too. The landlord, who had operated the antique shop there years earlier (and was also the post-master and grocer next door) left some beautiful furniture in the place for us to use. I had a brass bed and a mahogony chest of draws and a brass hatstand. Once I got back, I couldn’t understand what had ever possessed me to take off that summer. Surely I could have found a summer job around the college. Billy had one, delivering bundles of the Rochester Daily newspaper to all the little country stores in Monroe County. It was an easy job, mostly just driving the country roads a few hours each day. There were very few strip malls or housing subdivisions in those days, and the countryside, which was the flat apron of Lake Ontario extending twenty miles south, and was composed mostly of farms and apple orchards, had an austere midwestern grandeur.
      I was achingly glad to be home, and it was home to me, much more than New York City was.
      However, I did nothing to resolve the business still hanging with my father, who had possession of my car, which I suddenly needed again. I just goofed off the rest of the summer, rationalizing that I had worked extremely hard since May. I did cover Billy’s newspaper route during the five days that he went down to the Woodstock Music Festival — I had absolutely no desire to be there, what with my feelings about the hippies, and Charlie Manson, and my agoraphobia, and I never regretted not going. Billy left me his Volkswagon and caught a ride down with some other friends in their car.
      I’d come back from the Cape with no more than two hundred dollars. I probably could have gotten myself car insurance for four or five hundred, and could have even found a way to pay for it quarterly, and taken a trip to Long Island to get my business straight with father — in short, I could have been mature. But the basic problem was this. I was not mature. I was not prepared to act like an adult. I couldn’t make the leap. I didn’t know where to begin and I didn’t even know what kind of help to ask for to begin learning.

About James Howard Kunstler

View all posts by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency and the four-book series of World Made By Hand novels, set in a post economic crash American future. His most recent book is Living in the Long Emergency; Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Jim lives on a homestead in Washington County, New. York, where he tends his garden and communes with his chickens.

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