Ya, Youbetcha. Notes from the Midwest • Are You Still Hip? – Part I
Back in 1967, the hippie movement was gathering steam as thousands of young college students abandoned the life their parents had planned for them, and advanced on the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco for a summer of love, drugs and fabulous rock music. Back here in Wisconsin, while sitting on the front porch of the duplex I shared with my mother, sister and brother, I eagerly read about this subculture of refreshing idealism and longed to be a part of it. So, that’s when that little voice in my head shouted “Well, what are you waiting for?!”
It didn’t take long for me to find my “pad” on the lower east side of Milwaukee where the University of Wisconsin birthed thousands of hippies who either shared dorm space or hung out together in apartments or flats they collectively rented. This was where the whole subculture was happening. There were coffee houses where they gathered for intellectual conversations, live music or poetry readings; bookstores where one could purchase all the reading material needed to usher in the New Age of Enlightenment; unique little shops selling exotics like incense, essential oils, plaster Buddha statues, singing bowls, and beautiful clothing made in India; and little offbeat tobacco shops where one could purchase paraphernalia and accessories for the “ceremonial smokie”, as well as other drug essentials.
My apartment was on the second floor of what was at one time a townhouse. It had a large bedroom, living-dining room combo, tiny bathroom with a shower stall, and a really small kitchen with a porch that could be accessed by climbing out the kitchen window. It was perfect. I furnished my “pad” with cast offs I got for practically nothing at the Salvation Army store; acquired some really big exotic plants, a plaster Buddha and a rug for the living room; made some psychedelic curtains for the kitchen; and set up my art and music stuff in the bedroom. I was in love with Japanese style interiors at the time, so in keeping with that style, I cut the legs off my coffee table so it was about a foot high and placed some floor pillows around it for Oriental ambiance. Then, I got some beaded curtains for the living room making it look like a den of inequity - excellent! I was also learning to cook in the Oriental style and to eat with chopsticks so, when friends came over for a dinner, they knew they would be sitting on the floor and eating with chopsticks. Groovy!
I worked at the University in the Department of Social Work and got to be friends with some of the staff, and students who worked part time. It didn’t take long for the word to get around that I had a cool place to hang out in so, I soon found myself invaded by a whole group of hippies who happily raided my refrigerator and drank up my Chianti wine. I always bought Chianti because it came in charming little bottles that had a basket woven around them. When the bottle was empty, I would insert a drip candle (remember them) and allow the candle to create its’ own art form down the basket – totally organic! The hippies came to my place often (it was within walking distance from the campus), and brought along a “little green bag” to share with everyone. I always had something cooking for us and we would spend the evening enjoying a fine dinner accompanied by excellent conversations about environmental issues, civil rights, transcendentalism and eastern spiritualism. Then someone would roll a joint and the “ceremonial smokie” would be lit and passed around, and around until everyone went into their zone for a while. Then, I would light the incense and sprinkle a bit of patchouli oil on the lightbulbs to mask the smell of pot. It was a really pleasant way to spend an evening: everyone mellow, listening to some soft sitar music or a little Native American flute and drum, and happy to be together, while my cat got high and acted goofy.
The other thing the hippies discovered about me was that I owned a car. It was a big old black Chevy that could seat up to eight people, and I would loan it out to them providing they returned it with the gas tank full (they actually did this occasionally). I still remember our road trip to Old Town in Chicago one summer. I was the designated driver since I had to work the next day so, one of our group gave me a pill they were passing around that would keep me awake and alert all night (oh, yeah). We spent our evening at a strange establishment that appeared to be a coffee house with a bar and small stage for entertainment. They had live folk music. We all sat on the floor. The atmosphere in the room was hazy from the pot, the lights were subdued, and the music spoke to us in the language of the cultural revolution. It was wonderful. I got home in time to change clothes and get to work.
Life was so good then. I was a music student at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and played in chamber orchestras as well as the Civic Symphony, and dreamed of one day being a professional musician. I created artwork that was lively and colorful, had a good job at the University and hung out with people who helped me discover a new world.
NOTE: Part II will be available in the May issue of the Lighthouse Peddler.