Professional journalists make great effort to keep ourselves out of stories we report. In this case however, I break the rules to both narrate the story objectively and to appear in the story as the central character and subjective narrator. By so doing, we visit the heart of this story on various levels. The Prologue gives the reader a quick sketch of what I was like before undergoing a dramatic personal transformation, starting in the sixties.
In 1967 I was working as an audio editor, radio announcer and reporter at United Press International wire service in New York City. Being the young guy in the office they sent me to cover a massive anti-Vietnam War demonstration when President Lyndon B. Johnson was in town and a Grateful Dead free concert in the East Village. I found myself swept up in the energy. I smoked pot, went to Woodstock, ate magic mushrooms and joined many thousands of my generation in an exciting breaking free of conventional restraints and personal conversion of thinking and lifestyle.
I did not join The Farm commune undercover. I came a couple of years after “dropping out” and arrived on the scene in San Francisco, one of those adventurous human beings looking for freedom, adventure, fun and a fulfilling life. For thirteen years, I was so totally absorbed in living adventures that the idea to write about them did not occur to me until after I lived almost thirteen years collectively, when I moved out of the commune.
Being the only experienced journalist in our remarkable experimental community, it was clearly my karma to write Voluntary Peasants, an endeavor that grew into a thirty-two-year labor of love. The process has provided me with deeper understanding of what really happened back there in California and Tennessee.
Enlightenment, What’s It Good For
A reporter’s journey over the edge in search of enlightenment
Author’s Back Story and Prologue to Voluntary Peasants
This is what Joyce called the monomyth: an archetypal story that springs from the collective unconscious. Its motifs can appear not only in myth and literature, but, if you are sensitive to it, in the working out of the plot of your own life. The basic story of the hero journey involves giving up where you are, going into the realm of adventure, coming to some kind of symbolically rendered realization, and then returning to the field of normal life.—Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss
The words of the prophets are written on subway walls.
—Simon and Garfunkel, The Sounds of Silence
Greenwich Village Joy Ride
CEREBRAL SYNAPSES SIZZLE AND SNAP as half-century-old memories reignite and a crystal clear scene appears in the vast limitless theater of my mind. White clouds race across the face of an autumn full moon high above the well-lit George Washington Bridge. A black souped-up hot-rod Ford convertible, top down, mufflers roaring—races across the bridge towards Manhattan.
Zoom in and see a car full of grinning, joy-riding teenage Jersey boys. I see myself in the back seat, chilly autumn wind in my face. Guys, car, bridge, wind, dark shimmering river below, moon, clouds and starry sky above—mindstuff, all mindstuff.
The year—1957. Destination: Greenwich Village. Happily, we hot-rodded down the West Side Highway along the Hudson River. I breathe deeply brackish smells of the river as we pass wharfs and piers and colossal ocean-going ships.
We drop suddenly down a steep narrow ramp. Gears slam and tires thump on rough cobblestone, echoing off rock walls. A sharp left and we bounce merrily east on an eerily deserted, history-drenched Canal Street. Another quick left, then Pete Cohon our driver and self-appointed guide to the Village, parks on a dark West Village street.
Pete and I were classmates at Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, New Jersey. A year older, Pete seemed a man among boys, tall and handsome with a deep man’s voice, and he was one of the first in our class to own a car. Pete was a free spirit, artist and musician. He clearly enjoyed his life. Pete’s enjoyment was contagious, and I felt a kind of contact cool just being with him.
“You fellas ready?” Pete asked. We climbed out onto the street and walked as a posse into what seemed another world. Darkness and silence turned abruptly into full-blown Friday night in the Village complete with cool-looking Bohemians, artists, folk singers with guitars, flutes, bongos and congas all flowing together with wide-eyed tourists. The very air we breathed was charged with excitement and scented with aromas of exotic food, incense and an intriguing sweet smell I could not identify.
The Heat Wave was a crowded, noisy, two-bit strip joint on West Third. Over Pete’s objections, our gang of six under-age Jersey boys walked in nervous, stood tall and managed, with no IDs, to pass for eighteen. They were not fussy. I had just turned fifteen. A pale woman in a ghostly green spotlight danced and stripped slowly to the provocative drum rhythm and haunting saxophone wailing of Harlem Nocturne.
The bartender was urging us to drink up and buy another round when Pete said to us, “Come on, let’s get out of here! This place is a tourist trap. I’ll show you the real Village.”
That was when our party split in two. Half the guys stayed at the Heat Wave. Pete, another guy and I got back in the car and drove to the Half Note, an authentic cool, out-of-the-way jazz club on Spring Street. Pete explained his wealthy father was a patron to jazz musicians, and Pete knew the progressive jazz greats playing that night—tenor sax men Al Cohn and Zoot Simms and pianist/songster Mose Allison. Man! Those cats could wail, and we got to hang out with them during their break.
That night in Greenwich Village was memorable, fun and mysteriously stimulating, but the mystical highlight for me came unexpectedly in the San Remo bar men’s room. As I stood at a urinal peeing, I scanned the scribbling on the wall in front of me. One message jumped out and grabbed me—seven little words:
What is Truth? A bird sings. Zen!
BOING!!! I had never heard of Zen or pondered the nature of truth, but those seven words set something mystical in motion and rang bells in my head—bells that continue to ring to this day. My whole world seemed to shift on its axis, and I felt an exciting mysterious, indescribable something. I now believe my first whiff of enlightenment resonated something deep within, what Buddhists call bodhicitta—“a spontaneous wish to attain enlightenment, motivated by great compassion for all sentient beings.”
[The San Remo was a fifties hangout for iconic beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki. One of those Zen beatniks, or perhaps all three in a drunken round-robin, could have written that free-form haiku koan.]
Turning me onto the Village that night Pete inadvertently led me to my first contact with Zen. Pete Cohon later changed his name to Peter Coyote, became a movie actor, author, activist and Emmy-winning narrator and is currently a Zen lay priest, turning more people onto Zen.
Over the next few years, I returned to the Village whenever I could to escape
humdrum suburbia existence and have little adventures, encounter interesting Bohemians, beatniks, intriguing weirdos and winos and experience a change of consciousness. I felt I just existed in New Jersey but really lived in New York.
I fancied myself not a tourist but a serious explorer of Greenwich Village mysteries—checking out coffee houses and roaming streets: the lively streets—MacDougal, Thompson, Houston and Bleecker; mysterious back alleys leading to new discoveries—rent-raising parties—with whoever showed up with a buck—sitting around dark, dingy “pads,” drinking cheap Gallo Muscatel and Thunderbird wine, “rapping” (conversing) against a background of hand drums, flutes, guitars and poetry.
And there was often the sweet smell of marijuana in the air, but having grown up on negative government propaganda, I felt I should never touch the “evil weed.” Unbeknownst to me however, I was experiencing “contact highs.” At the time, all I knew was that I felt mysteriously good and different when I went to the Village. In a Bleecker Street book store, I felt drawn to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s book of beat poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, and I dug how reading Ferlinghetti made me feel.