1963. August 1st, San Francisco North Beach. I met up with a guy named Sky King. He wore all black and a long cape with a stiff Victorian collar. His hair was black, curling down and resting on his collar. His face was coffeehouse pale. He had a girlfriend, a chubby girl, flat faced and freckled. She was pregnant with his child. He was from the Avenues; she was from Modesto.
One thing I had in common with Sky King was that I was ready for a change. North Beach was beginning to look pathetic in the early morning light. The same people walking the same streets talking the same bullshit about Black Art, Alistair Crowley, who-do voodoo. Allen Ginsberg was in India burning bodies on the Ganges. Phillip Whalen could arrive at anytime. Gary Snyder was holed up in a cave in Japan playing Zen. Phillip Lamantia was on his way to Istanbul. Michael McClure had just published "The Beast."
All fine and good for them but, for me?
I was going nowhere but up the top of Grant to the Anxious Asp then down to the Enigma then to Wooey Lo Gooey's Noodle House on Pacific. And then up again to Ferlinghetti's City Lights to steal books to sell next door at Discovery. Going in circles. Going nowhere. Why not go to The Village and then the March on Washington? Why not?
The March on Washington was a part of coffeehouse talk on the Beach. It would be all of us from all over the country, and Martin Luther King would march at the head and we would bring the racist bastards to their knees. We were so very young and stupid we imagined we could make a difference. I suppose we did in a way. There is no more overt segregation. Now it's hidden.
I wanted to go. And Sky King wanted to go. We had $5 between the three of us. But we were the children of America and we had our river.
We figured someone would feed us. We were right about that. We started at the base of the Broadway on ramp. One sunny day. We went by hook or by crook across the land. We got a ride that went to Oklahoma City. (We had slept the night in a vineyard in Modesto so we took what we could get.) Oklahoma City was a wide swing to the south but it was still farther to the east. And that is where we met him. His name was Billy Watson.
We couldn't get a ride at the Union 76 outside Oklahoma City so we made our way onto the freeway. It is against the law to hitchhike on a freeway but we figured it was 4am so we would take our chances. At the top of the on-ramp we waited, ready to run back down if we saw a cop. A big truck flew by us and we waved our thumbs frantically. He hit the brakes and laid rubber bringing that big metal beast to a stop. We thought the truck maybe had a flat. He waited. We made no move. He started backing up on the freeway. Then we knew he was stopping for us and we ran towards the truck. I am not one to question luck but I did wonder what would cause a truck driver to back up on a freeway to pick up hitchhikers.
Out of pills. Billy Watson was out of pills. He was a small wiry sort of man. He was on his way to Elkhart, Indiana. He had driven from Oklahoma City to LA and back, picked up another load for Indiana without any sleep. He ran out of pills. So that was my job now, keeping him awake. Sky King and his pregnant girlfriend settled into the sleeper and I rode shotgun.
He had an elfish sort of look about him, this Oklahoma boy. He was the type who makes a damn good cowboy or a damn good driver. Lean and mean. Tough as an old desert coyote. It's all about endurance. Being a cowboy or driving long hauls. Not to say I never saw a fat truck driver who knew his stuff. But damn sure you never saw a fat cowboy.
Billy Watson talked for hours — about his growing up an Okey, fights he got into in bars, how he brought down some bar bully over at Port Charles, Louisiana. He had to demonstrate all the punches which made me nervous since he was driving. Inevitably it came around to the damn niggers like it always does with these guys. The usual stuff. How the niggers were ruining everything and now they were even going to ruin Washington DC. Millions of niggers marching. Who the fuck did they think they were? They already got rich off the welfare that decent white men paid for out of their hard earned money. They got time to march on Washington? Well, Billy Watson can't march on Washington because Billy Watson got a job to do and a pack of kids waiting for his paycheck so their momma could go spend it at bars while he wastes his life away in this damn truck. Damn right they got time to march around for their civil rights. Damn niggers are lazy. They got no job. You want rights you got to work for them and no nigger wants to do that. That's the hard way. That's the American way. Send them back to Africa! They don't like it here.
I just keep watching the road (hoping he will follow my example) and I say, "Uh-huh, and ain't that the truth?" when I want to bond solidly. He got suspicious once and said I looked like a damn commie. "No," I said, "not me."
We made St. Louis in the early afternoon. It was a hot sweaty day in the dead heart of the midwest. Lord knows that is some ugly country to my eyes. I know there's men that will die for it, but I can't say why. It's flat. No trees. Just fences and flat fields as far as you can see. Nothing to break the monotony.
Nothing, that is, except knowing that ol' Billy has been up for days and he's still driving a damn big truck with a full load of steel framing right behind the cab. And god help me if he fucks up because that load of steel is going to come right through that sleeper and Sky King and his little fat Valley girl and right on through. We will be speared and smashed in a hot second.
So that was keeping me awake.
Traffic picked up big time as we coasted into the heart of the city. Ol' Billy paid no attention to anybody. He changed lanes when he took a fancy to it. He did not waste his time checking his rearview mirrors. He turned on his signal light and more often than not went into the opposite lane from what his signal indicated. I watched the cars skittering away like so many cockroaches down there. They were so scared they never even gave him the bird. He was a madman in charge. He wasn't talking about the niggers anymore. He was just tightlipped and focused on getting through. They were slowing him down. He was on a roll.
The one thing a trucker don't want to do is shift down. Because once you do that you lose your momentum and with a full load it's going to take forever to get it back up. That's something people don't understand about trucks. You get in front of a truck and dawdle along, that means nothing to you because when you're ready you just gun it and you are sailing. You see that truck riding your bumper? You best get out of the way. If he has to gear down because of your sorry ass he is going to be one pissed off motherfucker and he just might pass you and inch over the line and try to push you into the guardrail.
I've seen it done. If you piss him off enough and he has been doing a fistful of LA turnarounds he might just push you through the guardrail if the opportunity presents itself (no witnesses). Then what happens? You die. You don't think that would haunt ol' Billy for the rest of his life do you? I don't.
So here's the thing. He fell asleep. One minute he was demonically focused on not gearing down and the next minute he fell forward onto the steering wheel. I climbed onto the consul or what ever that is in the middle and grabbed the wheel as he careened out into the middle lane. I kicked his feet off the gas where they were pushing down. I beat him with my elbows and screamed, "Wake up you stupid jackass racist bastard! Wake up!"
He woke up. He said, "You ain't got nothing to worry about sweetie. Every time I fall asleep a giant angel beats its wings on the windshield and wakes me up."
So we got to Elkhart alive. Sky King and his sweetie were well rested. Billy Watson opened the door to the cab, tried to take a step down and missed it. He pitched face down in the dirt and there he stayed. No way to wake him up. You could have beat him with a club, poured hot scalding water on him. Whatever you wanted but Billy Watson delivered his load on time and he was on his own time now asleep in the dirt beside his truck. It was still running, of course, because the other problem was if you shut it off it would not start again. And he was a wild catter so he would have to fix that problem himself.
Turned out it wasn't so easy to get back to the Interstate. This was Shaker country. We saw lots of guys with long hair and beards so we thought we had it made. Unfortunately their long hair and beards were different. They were a closed religious community. No one gave us a ride. I mean no one. We walked all night back to the Interstate. Good thing Sky King got some sleep, but his bitch was whining early on.
We got to Manhattan and panhandled for a couple of weeks, sleeping in doorways and on the benches of a folk bar in the Village where they let people sleep after closing time. On the 22nd of August we got back on the road to Washington DC for the March.
We never got there. All routes were blocked. We stuck out our thumbs and the cops swarmed us. "You got two choices," they said. "If you're going to Washington we will put you in jail right now. If you want to go west or turn around then you can do that. But you are not going to Washington. Get it?"
We tried. There were thousands and thousands of us trying to get there but the cops had shut that city down. They even stopped the Greyhound buses. Poor people would be coming on buses and hitchhiking and none of those people ever got there. Some say they had roadblocks and checked people's driver's licenses.
Blacks and hippies were turned back. I am not sure on that because we never got even close to Washington before we were stopped. They say 200,000 people were in the march on Washington. 200,000 people heard Martin Luther King say, "I have a dream." But what if we all had made it? How many would there have been?
We went home to San Francisco. We landed in North Beach with five bucks just like we left. Never missed a meal. Living off the fat of the land and making a revolution.