In the summer of 1967 (and for part of the summer of ’68) I worked part-time at an East Village store on 10th Street called Paranoia. What had started out as a hangout (a college friend’s cousin owned the place) turned into employment. There were four rooms: the front room, which contained consignment pieces such as clothing, big paper flowers and the like; various underground newspapers from all over the country; pipes and screens and the usual paraphernalia of the 60s. A record player spun endlessly: Sergeant Pepper, The Doors, Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane—the soundtrack of what would come to be known as the “Summer of Love”; a concept devised by the same Madison Avenue that failed to find the words for the brittle anger of 1968.
The second room was a small kitchen. There a pot of macrobiotic stew simmered for most of the day, primarily to feed the runaways who, drawn by the music perhaps (or by the shop’s name) wandered into the place, all buckskinned and beaded. Having been responsible on occasion for shopping for (two bucks and change would buy a whole lot of vegetables back then) and making this inedible thing, I can say that eating it was akin to slurping down a bowl of spit. When it wasn’t tasteless it was nauseating. But, yes, it was good for you and would keep you alive and, best of all, it kept our consciences healthy. Not to mention buffing our karma on a daily basis. Unfortunately the runaways who came to the store had for the most part left their parents’ homes in Scarsdale, Darien, Marin County (“Oh man, I hitched all the way across the country for this bowl of slop?”) and other wealthy enclaves, and while we, the employees, enjoyed our pastrami-on-rye from the nearby Second Avenue Deli, they were feasting on thin bland broth and boiled vegetables and watching us with homicidal envy as we sank our teeth into yet another half-sour pickle. The third room was what was known as the Trip Room: circular in shape, painted black with day-glo carousel animals painted on it, the whole space always in black light. And, finally, the last room, the Meditation Room, which had a few mattresses on the floor, incense sticks fizzing discreetly in their little holders, and Indian music on the record player. It was almost never used for meditation. After all, a mattress is a mattress.
Paranoia was very much a keyword of the times. Those of us with a taste for speed—methamphetamine crystal—were by nature always looking over our shoulders, itching and scratching and in general seeing conspiracies where none existed, while all of us, no matter what our drug of choice, were always wary of the cops, the narcs who, in their sheer uncoolness, didn’t resemble Pacino as Serpico but rather comically tried to blend in with their Brooks Brothers suits and narrow Don Draper ties, taking a seat at the local diner, the Eatery, while we all pointed fingers at them or slipped lit cigarettes into their jacket pockets and afterwards let the air out of their tires on First Avenue. It was around then that I began to notice—or at least thought I did—that people would be taking photographs at odd times, not of “hippies” or the more famous locals, but just of us as we walked out of stores, or went to cross Waverly Place, or ambled down to Sixth Avenue on Saturday night to watch the political agitators agitate. Even a few years later, when visiting the neighborhood, I’d see a guy in a suit snapping my photo and quickly walking off around the corner. Baseless paranoia? Or was it something more? Because to this day if I see a stranger snapping my photo I break out in a sweat. The 60s may have been long ago, but, man, old habits die very hard.
The flipside of 1967 was very dark indeed. Although nothing like 1969-weird, meaning Altamont and Manson weird, it did have its moments and its undercurrents. Three cities claimed centrality for the Summer of Love: San Francisco, New York and London. In San Francisco people skipped through grassy parks and made garlands out of wildflowers; in London it was all about music and “birds,” meaning mostly Jean Shrimpton. In New York I rarely saw anyone with flowers in their hair, or dancing merrily through the weeds and sorry wasteland of Tompkins Square Park (where junkies congregated, and where some of the best deals could be made if you knew the lay of the land and the names of the players); there was always a hum of danger and imbalance which made for interesting times. Once on a shopping trip to an 11th Street walkup to pick up some pharmaceuticals from a referral, I was met by an elegantly-dressed African-American man, complete with bowler hat, who came out of his apartment and pointed his gun at me. The fact that I’m here to relate the tale means that I can now admit that I was so cranked up on speed that I took it in my stride, made my apologies and got the hell out of there. Bravery never once came into it. But we all knew better. That dark side could eclipse the sunny moods and happy music at any time. And did it ever.
If someone had had a bad trip, word got around very quickly, especially if that someone were famous and was being carted off to St. Vincent’s in an ambo. That was never photographed, save by the cops or some amateur WeeGee. And then you’d see things that I won’t relay here, because, frankly, they’re pretty gruesome. A bad trip is one thing; a bad trip gone tragic is something else entirely. It’s not something one easily forgets. And one saw it only too often in those days.
To compound things, we also had the Mob buying up properties left and right. It was said that you could always tell that a place was Mafia-owned because it had no rear exit. There were lots of those, and once when I needed an easy way out I found none available. So I swallowed the entire box of unidentified pills I’d just bought and waited for the cop car to pull away. It was not a pleasant afternoon. There was a coffee-house called, I believe, Liberty’s, and though I don’t recall where it was, I do remember it had a great jukebox. You could listen to John Coltrane, Ravi Shankar, Allen Ginsberg reading a poem, or even an obscure, primitively-recorded Dylan single—so it was said—called “Jack O’Diamonds.” Web research reveals that Dylan himself recorded no such song, but I could swear that I’d heard it there many times. The place was known also for giving away free tea if you didn’t have money to pay for a cup. The tea you paid for was delicious and made from little blossoms and leaves; the free tea, like our macrobiotic stew, tasted like dishwater, and on the surface of it floated sticks and twigs like the leavings of bad marijuana or the sweepings from a back alley, but one couldn’t complain for a handout of any kind. One evening a friend and I were there when a few mooks in suits came in and put a stack of hundred-dollar bills on the counter. “We’re buying this place,” one of them announced. “It’s not for sale,” the guy behind the counter said. “That’s right,” said the mook. “We just bought it.” So much for the back exit.
Since those days my paranoia, at least, has lost its boil. I’ve watched that kind of irrational fear growing hot and crazy at Tea Party rallies and at Sarah Palin appearances. All the fun has gone out of paranoia, I’m sad to say. Perhaps it died when Manson and his so-called Family went up the driveway of 10050 Cielo Drive that August night; or at Altamont four months later, when things got ugly and then uglier. Maybe it’s just that since then everyone’s become a bit paranoid. After all, it’s a scary world these days.
Causes J.P. Smith Supports