24 August, 2009

A Happy Mistake

Sushma Joshi
I became a hippie by mistake. A few days before my 19th birthday, a man approached me in the co-operative house where I used to live in Providence, Rhode Island, and asked: “Would you like to follow the Grateful Dead?” “Yes!” I answered, having not the slightest clue what or who the Grateful Dead were. “Do you know what you’re getting into?” My friend Naomi, who was accompanying me on this venture, asked me. “No,” I said. “But my brother used to listen to the Grateful Dead. They have covers with skulls holding roses between

their teeth.”

And that was the way I ended up wounding my way across the U.S. in a rattling Volkswagen van, cutting a straight path from Ohio to Kentucky to Illinois to Berkeley to Eugene, Oregon in a gypsy caravan with four hippies, singing and dancing along with one of the most alternative bands on the planet. Never mind that by this time (this was 1992), the Grateful Dead were more mainstream than Bon Jovi. Who cared about their record sales when you could stand outside Deer Creek with bare feet waving two fingers up in

the air chanting “Give me a miracle, give me a miracle!” and avoiding the Christian missionaries who brought you the miracle of Jesus Christ instead of the longed for free ticket, and before long some longhaired dude would finally sneak up at the last moment, convinced of your dedication, and slip a free ticket between your fingers? (To be fair to Jesus, I did get down on my knees and ask him to appear, as commanded by miracle workers. Get up, Sush, said Naomi in disgust. To my disappointment, he never did show up.)

The strange caravan got stranger as we entered the heartland—a Mormon with two wives joined us and tried to convince Naomi to be his third wife (never mind that she was a Jew) and also split a gigantic vat of chocolate and hallucinogenic mushrooms all over our tiny vehicle, leaving Roberto, our Puerto Rican owner of the van, fuming as all of us got down on our knees and wiped up the brown sludge in a scene reminiscent of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.

But this was not the only trippy scene in the trip—before long the Mormon had vanished and we had to go searching for him in the middle of the Kansas night, and men with guns tightened their lips as we entered their stores, letting us know that despite all the love and light, four hippies of cow-loving ethnicities were not welcome in the deep heart of Biblical America.

Kansas was inhospitable, but Factory Rob in Kentucky made up for this by taking us on a snappy ride around town telling us racy tales about how he shot off the legs of some dudes who’d come to steal his radio in his beat-up car. More unintentional hospitality followed—a gigantic man somewhere near Colorado took a fancy to me and took us to his basement and insisted we carry back with us jars and jars of fresh salmon and boysenberry jam. Somewhere amongst all this somebody slipped me a sip of Kind Bud (with about 100 times the THC content of regular ganja) and I found myself staring at the Grateful Dead with tears streaming down my face, half of me saying devoutly: Brother Jerry! While the other side of me thought: these hippies! Drug users!

Then we were in Colorado with Naomi’s cousins watching blue jays and street performers in Boulder’s main street. And then somehow we found ourselves trudging up to the Berkeley campus trying to squat in their co-operative house, where the hippies would surely appreciate our green, organic, peace and love presence. After all, we’d spent a year in the Milhaus co-op, a house filled with water beds and old videotapes of the musical Hair, where you could often find people making out under the kitchen table. We were ready for Berkeley. So we thought.

I’ll spare you all the details except to mention that we did make it up to Eugene, Oregon, another holy grail of the hippie trail, and met up with some serious folks who were sabotaging the machinery of those woodsmen who came to cut down the ancient forests. Greedy corporate culture was being sabotaged under our eyes, and a

very serious business this was,

sabotage—complete with more mushrooms usage.

A few more trips followed which would take a book to write about—a trip to New Orleans to meet up with another hippie friend who’d dropped out from college and was involved in a lifestyle so alternative the Presbetarians we were living with finally had to kick us out (I have artwork that documents these crucial scenes), and then daring all I took the Greyhound bus for 52 hours all the way from New York to Santa Fe, arriving delirious and completely devoid of baggage, which had been lost somewhere along the fifteen or so bus changes I had made along the way.

Forgot to mention the trip in which I took the Juneau ferry from Alaska to Seattle sleeping outside in the deck with tough little street kids who took me under their wing and assured me they’d protect me with their pocket knives before the Jehovah’s Witness (Aka God’s Kayak Man) took me home for the night, where I met his nine children and perky wife and for whose

hospitality and pickup van ride I was very grateful.

America was a trip. But I wouldn’t have the same stories to tell if it were not for the people who came before me—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, all the beat poets and the writers who paved the way and smashed through the pretty 1950s with something more naked and more truthful than a house with a flagpole, a wife and two kids, and a dog in the backyard.

This was America riding the wave of the tsunami of the hippie 1970s, that alternative world of peace and love which refuted war and which spilled across the border of nations, bringing music and drugs and love all the way to the shores of faraway Nepal, and whose traces we can still see in the small jazz-houses and ganja brownie stores on the now non-

existent Freak Street.

Woodstock, that festival of music which started it all, was also a mistake. The organiser who put the music festival heavily underestimated the numbers of people who would show up. Before he knew it, the crowd had swelled, and swelled, and swelled-with highways blocked for miles and miles and miles around as people, disgusted with the war against Vietnam and longing for a new and freer way to express themselves, all trudged through the fields of upstate New York to reach that place where people like Ravi Shankar and Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell all redefined music, and with it, the culture of America.

This was the start of the 60s and all that came with it—and the mistake that allowed me to make my own mistakes. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Posted on: 2009-08-14 22:35:43 (Server Time)


Anonymous said...

Excellent post..more like totally groovy ;)

sanjay said...

Apart from the title, nothing in the content shows that you are happy being a hippie. Or perhaps I misinterpreted the title too. Are you happy that you made that mistake?

Jill said...

I was so relieved to see your article in the Post last weekend (Nov 15 '09). I was afraid you had left and my weekly dose of good writing/reading was gone.

Sagar said...

excellent post

Sagar said...

its excellent..