"Who but a bad, fearless, strungout, crazy motherfucker would come to Czechago? And we were motherfucking bad. We pissed and shit and fucked in public; we crossed streets on red lights; and we opened Coke bottles with our teeth. We were constantly stoned or tripping on every drug known to man. We were the outlaw forces of Amerika displaying ourselves flagrantly on a world stage." — Jerry Rubin.
The city was burnt and beaten, but it hunched alertly before Connie, a vast, bleak expanse of carbureted, incinerated metal. Some iron slabs stood tall and blunt like monoliths, while others had been forged and twisted into fanciful Gothic forms. She stood near the departure queue and heard the jake brake screech on the next bus in line to depart Chicago, many yards from where the buses heading into the city had dropped her off. Her shoulder ached already from having carried the knapsack through the rabbit warren of the bus station from the arrival depot.
The Loop was bustling, but impersonal and hurried: Nobody spoke a word to her, and no cabs came to pick her up. Workmen crowded the stations, but she could only overhear their gossip, not join in. They said both of the main cabbie companies were striking, and she wasn't surprised. Not a single taxi had driven past her since she had headed out the revolving door of the station, and she was dead in the middle of Chicago, surrounded by faceless robots and workaday zombies, and only a few hippie stragglers, dressed in the dregs of Salvation Army gear.
This was not what she had expected upon heading to cover the Convention.
She hadn't been writing for the paper a long time, but they had sent her on assignment anyway. Chicago was a place she'd wanted to see for a while, and the convention had seemed the perfect way to see it. There was something strangely isolationist about the city, though, and she shivered a little as she left the station, trying to hail a CTA bus to Halsted and the Stock Yards.
Tan and in his early twenties, the guy would have been good-looking if he had gotten a haircut. His dishwater blond hair was stringy and too long, but he was clean for a Yippie, and he could have been handsome a few years ago in a school yearbook. He was about her age, and he had been on the bus to Halsted. She hadn't noticed him, though, so when they went out the front door of the bus, Connie offered the stranger a smile. Visions of Janet Leigh in Psycho flew through her head. This is how bad things start, she thought, but she had already smiled, and he was smiling back by now.
Back at the bus station, the hippies had been dressed far worse than he was. The shoe-length coat, army green and a few sizes too big, was of course a requirement, but his jeans were clean, and only one knee was ripped. Besides the too-long hair, he had a nice face, with deep-set, sparkling eyes and an energetic grin. 'Property is Theft, ' proclaimed a patch on his motorcycle bag, and true to his word, it arced wide around him as he turned away from the bus, making him an easy target for pickpockets.
She shook her head.
"Cop's secretary. You look like a secretary."
Another headshake. Maybe he was teasing her. She wasn't sure.
"A reporter. From Cleveland."
That got a reaction, but not the one that Connie had expected. She had expected her occupation to be met with either boredom or questions of where her loyalties were. Instead, a flicker of impressed delight twinkled in his eye. "Huh. How 'bout that. I used to write for my school paper." He said that like he thought it might impress her, but continued when she didn't reply. "Tom Moreno."
"That's a hell of a newspaper name." He might have been teasing her again; his tone was suitably light, but his face was set in a hard line. Lips quirked upwards, and he repeated, "Connie Schultz, it's nice to meet you. I don't suppose you can get me entrance to the Center the next few days. I'd love to meet McCarthy."
So would I, Connie thought, but she shook her head. "You've got as good a chance as me. I'm just going to be in the press box. You'd get a better view on TV."
Tom didn't seem bothered by the denial. He started walking, the army bag swinging alongside him, his booted feet clunking as their metal soles hit the pavement. A hand reached up absently, scraping away his long hair from his face. "I can promise you something better to watch than a whole bunch of suited fascists and a few honest guys. Come with me."
Was this how Peter Pan had gotten Wendy into so much trouble? He had the same boyish enthusiasm as the eternal youth, and she stared at him for a long moment, feeling squarer than she had ever imagined.
"It'll be an adventure," he added.
Connie nodded, although her head felt light and she felt dizzy. "All right."
His grin broadened. "All right!" he repeated, although it was more approval than agreement.
If this was where they were living, Connie wondered how they could have made it through the week. From the look of their camp, though, they had done just that, and she grimaced at the sight of it. The hippies were supposed to be all about saving the planet, but the litter and debris and the tents that sat there, scraggly and straggling, made her think of only destruction.
Margaret Mead would have a field day in this camp, she thought, and watched Tom as he stopped at one tent to say something quickly and quietly to them, and murmured to another group of people. There was a strange feeling of conspiracy, something that bothered her but that she couldn't quite put her finger on.
"What's going on, Tom?" They'd stopped off for Cokes before they made their way to the parks on Clark Street, and she took a sip from her glass bottle as she waited for his reply. "These are your people. Got that. They're your friends. But there's something going on."
He scoffed at her question. "There's not enough going on. Not yet." He clapped his hands together, rubbing them as if he was a stage villain in preparation for a deathblow, and she wondered about that. These folks were as weird as she had been led to believe, but at least they were earnest, and at least they would make for good writing.
He stopped at a canvas-and-pegs structure that she might have believed to be a tent if it hadn't been in the process of falling apart. No one was in there, and he flopped out on the expanse, arms and legs akimbo.
"There will be something going on soon," he told the ceiling of the tent, and she moved to sit down next to him, Indian-style, resting her hands on her knees. She didn't dare touch anything in the park. God only knew what had contaminated it. "I'm not one of the big guys, but I've got my own stuff going on." He propped himself up on an elbow, studying her. "Get ready. The times, they are a-changing." The Dylan quote was sarcastic.
She had expected to be in a hotel near the International Amphitheatre, and now she was ten miles away from the convention, in some crappy park with a stranger she'd just met, but she felt less bothered by it than she had expected to be. "The convention?"
He nodded. "Fuck 'em all, man. McCarthy's all right, but they're all fucks."
She longed to tell him that the hatred solved nothing, but she would only earn scoffing. She kept her mouth shut, as much as she longed to talk.
Silent and seemingly thoughtful, Tom reached up into the ceiling of the tent, drawing down a plastic sandwich bag. She thought it was strange that nobody had stolen anything. At least the hippies and Yippies were honest — grungy, yes, but they weren't thieves. He held the bag up with pinched fingertips, showing it to her.
"You ever —?" Tom began, but she cut him off by snagging the bag. At least she would have the opportunity to surprise him now.
Tip and papers naturally followed, even if Tom handed them over uncertainly, unsure of what she was about to do. Moments later, he clearly was impressed that she knew how to roll her own joint. He sat watching her silently, motionless, but as she licked the paper to glue it together, he let out a low, impressed whistle. When she set fire to it and stuck it in her mouth, he told her, "I didn't think you'd ever smoked before. You look like you work for the Man."
"I do," she said, and exhaled.
War. That was all she saw when she made it to the convention center. A red-lettered sign, its font jagged and harsh, caught her eye: "Welcome to Prague." Its holder was unremarkable, a Yippie with a flying pig button, and she felt straitlaced in the crowd despite wearing jeans and boots.
The barbed wire and checkpoints turned Connie off as much as they must have annoyed the demonstrators that swarmed around her. She had a press pass, but she was tired, and not looking forward to being searched. Some kid, barely fifteen and with bad teeth and acne, grinned at her from amongst the mob. She turned away from him.
"Up against the wall, motherfuckers!" She couldn't be sure if that was a cop or a dissident. She figured it didn't matter. The crowd surged forward, and she heard the convention building roar with anger, saw it bristling like a wild beast. Carl Sandburg was right. Chicago was alive.
"Here," he said, finishing a bottle of beer with one hand, and holding up a piece of paper to her mouth with the other. "Taste it."
Connie bit the paper and held it on her tongue to let the acid dissolve, and then moved to kiss him. It was a pathetic place to make out, here in this trash-strewn, freewheeling park, and she could instantly envision cops with batons rapping on the fabric on the tent, but no one came.
.... There is more of this story ...