In 1972, I needed a new registration for my first motorcycle and, since the law in Pennsylvania was that you had to be over 21 to own any sort of vehicle, my trusty Yamaha 250 was “owned” by my brother. I went into a Notary Public in West Philadelphia and told them my sad story—how my brother had hitchhiked to Mexico City to watch the World Cup of soccer and I needed to get the bike legal since I was riding 30 miles a day at 5am to a dye factory in North Philadelphia and got pulled over about once a week.
I remember the woman behind the counter giving me a very deliberate inspection. Decision made, she pulled open the second drawer down in her desk and turned on the light bulb that was already wired in to the drawer. Then a flat piece of frosted glass came out and was placed crosswise on the drawer. I gave her the original registration with my brother’s signature and she placed it on the glass, lined up the new application, and traced the signature.
It couldn’t have taken 2 minutes and I think I had to pay an extra 10 bucks.
The important aspect of this tiny transaction was how it typified so much of my life in the 70’s—a time when both the government and the people simply didn’t have that much respect for the law. In Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo’s police force under was a black-leather jacketed gang that was in the process of simply killing Black Panthers. In Chester, they were a part of the McClure Political Machine—the oldest in the nation.
When I sold ice cream in South Philly, real mobsters would make sure that I was safe so that the kids on their street would get their double-scoops. I got run off the road on my bike by a car with Jersey plates and, I swear to God, the guy who got out was wearing a black patterned shirt with a black tie and dark jacket and had his .38 in a belt clip. In the end, all I had to undergo was 10 minutes of extremely inventive cursing but when I called the police, the desk officer asked if I was willing to make my name public. After about 10 seconds of thought, I said “no” and the officer just laughed and said, “Smart boy.”
I worked as a truck mechanic for the ice cream company and was paid in ice cream to avoid taxes, I watched Harley riders just walk away from police cruisers and then lose them in the turns. One of my friends from the gas station where I worked in the winters told me about how “everyone would come out and salute” when the Pagans would ride through town. He said it was “a feeling of pride.”
I hitchhiked across country once and back and forth to New York City and Florida dozens of times. I slept in abandoned motels, under cars, and just rolled in a green plastic tarp under a hedge. In the Keys, there was a campground called Fiesta Key where $5 got you a space on the grass for your tent, and all the scenery you could stand. I worked as a busboy in the old Stardust on the Vegas strip and watched as a waitress almost fainted when she spilled some glasses on the men seated in the “special table” in the corner.
In 1973, I moved to DC and became a motorcycle courier. First off, this required going through traffic like a crazed banshee and considerable inventive lying if you got caught. One of my friends had two drivers’ licenses—his dad had made a mistake on the birth certificate—so the police were always calling and threatening one of his alter egos with jail for the thousands of dollars in fines he’d racked up. Up and down 13th and 14th Streets, the burlesque clubs, gay baths, and stripper bars were lined up and the working girls did the stroll out front. And finally, yes, Eddie the Monkey Man was real. I would see him on his wheeled board outside the downtown Woodward & Lothrup begging for money and, when he passed away, the Washington Post ran an article about how he spent his winters in Florida as the high-living owner of two hotels—even dancing in his prosthetic legs.
It wasn’t a story or a magazine that gave me the sense of noir I try to put into my books. Life was really like that—the law and the lawless were almost in competition. J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI as his personal Praetorian Guard—judge and jury in one. That feeling of paranoia you felt in the peace movement turned out to be COINTELPRO and very, very real. Richard Nixon ran the Federal Government as an arm of his re-election committee and entire police forces were on the take.
The public reacted with flagrant disregard of whatever laws they felt were just silly. You smoked everywhere, dope was a mainstay of every party, and you could dance all night in Adams Morgan if you knew where to go. Non-violent protests turned into riots and then real riots made the protests look like picnics. I used to fuel up my motorcycle at 3am at the station where the pimps stopped—that place had gas even in the depths of the fuel crisis.
Oh yeah, and we were in that blessed decade between The Pill and AIDS.
Damn but it was a fine time to be young!