In the summer of 1971, I went hiking through Yellowstone National Park as part of a cross-country group trip sponsored by the YMCA.
We were walking along, minding our business, when a guy with a walrus mustache stepped out from behind a tree.
“Hey man,” he said, “want some acid? Want some red devils? Want some yellow-jackets?”
We said no thanks and scurried away; not feeling threatened, just uncertain.
That trip was my first exposure to the Midwest, the Plains, and the West Coast. We even swooped down to Tijuana.
Of course most of us were in our early teens and a bit too young to reflect deeply on some of the things we perceived –
Namely, the discomfort we engendered as fast-talking suburban kids.
You couldn’t miss it in the eyes of housewives when we descended on a laundromat in Abilene, Kansas, filling the machines and then sitting around waiting for the clothes to be done.
You could see parents gather their children when we swarmed into a diner near Colorado Springs. Everyone stood back. We drew wary attention wherever we went.
One might think that the generation gap, still in the news at that time, had reared its head. But now I don’t think that’s the case.
It had more to do with the locals’ recognition that we came from out there, not here. That makes sense because in 1971, although most Americans owned a television, a culture gap persisted between those who lived within and those who lived outside of metropolitan areas.
Nothing new, of course. The 1920 U.S. census was the first in which more people resided in urban than rural regions. During the decade that followed, the expansion of radio and rise of mass culture enabled access to new information, fashion, and ideas no matter where one lived.
But one thing that did not change was the image of the dangerous city, with its corrupting influences, which prevailed in parts of the country with dwindling populations. People who believed and behaved differently – largely immigrants; also “city slickers,” “high society,” and other urban stereotypes – often aroused apprehension if not fear.
So it’s not surprising that during the early 1970s, even a bunch of gregarious white kids could bring out strong feelings: Who is this? What is this?
After Los Angeles the tour wound down and we made short work of the rest of the trip, driving northeast through Missouri and Kentucky, on to the village of Nyack, N.Y., from whence we started.
And then how lovely to return to the hometown groove, back to Mt. Vernon, a place just as comfortably familiar as Abilene, Kansas, was to its citizens.
The ice cream store, dry cleaner, pharmacy, bakeries, stationers, Woolworth’s, Chinese restaurant – a streetscape still etched in my mind.
And now, located between a funeral home and a pizzeria, something new had appeared: a store run by the man who had stepped from behind the tree in Yellowstone. It sure looked like him.
Of course it couldn’t be. This guy wasn’t selling drugs (so far as we could see).
Rather, upon entering his shop, you bumped into a glass case full of what’s now called “Boho” jewelry. Batik pillows, wood carvings, and ceramic incense holders covered various surfaces. Tie-dye shirts, dashikis, and peasant blouses hung in the back. And tumbling from the ceiling, spider plants suspended in macramé hangers. The latter were integral to the unfortunate decor of the seventies.
Already the counterculture had morphed into “over-the-counter culture,” to quote Susan Sontag.
In the course of a few encounters, we found the proprietor to be a very nice man. But how on earth did he land in Mt. Vernon? Definitely a miscalculation!
Our city’s young people, largely middle-class and racially and ethnically diverse, gravitated toward Army & Navy stores on the city’s South Side.
He would have fared better in the affluent village next door, where most of the kids actually wore love beads and walked around with lots of cash.
The store couldn’t last long. Within a year, it closed.
I wonder where he came from and where he went next; a hippie merchant, passing through in the seventies.