I took off across America alone the first time when I was twenty. There were no cell phones, no internet, no parents funding the trip. I found a ride with a guy in the Want Ads. He picked me up in his rusted-out ’53 hairball-green Chevy on a dark Upstate New York morning. My mom wouldn’t come downstairs to say goodbye. My dad said, “If I was younger, I’d do the same damn thing you’re doing.”
Fifty-five years later, I wish I could intercept that wild young woman and tell her seven six things I’ve learned along the road.
If a guy you barely know tells you that there’s nowhere to sleep but in one bed, lock yourself in the bathroom, use a couple towels for a pillow and turn out the light. Especially if has rubbed himself all over with coconut oil to be alluring.
If a street freak hands you a pill or joint or drink and says, “It’s safe. I tried it myself,” tell him you need to get a drink of water first, then go into City Lights bookstore and out the back door. Peek around the corner to see the freak grinning up at the foggy sky and head on down to the Existential Bagel Shop a few blocks away.
Look in the mirror and see just how gorgeous you are. Start to learn that until you know your beauty, no guy’s desire will make you beautiful. You, the chick in black tights, no bra and a gauze peasant shirt, is who guys will see and want — whether you want them or not. It will be years before you’ll hear other women say, “It is victimizing to blame a sexy woman for how men treat her.” But for now, know that how you present yourself to the world can have consequences — painful and humiliating consequences. That’s not fair — and it’s real.
Trust your guts. When your heart and mind scream “No.” — even just whimper, get out, turn away and thank yourself. When they shout “Yes,” accept that offer to get up on the stage and read your poems, or the invitation for dinner from the corn-rowed sister who just told you that “God is coming and she is Black and pissed-off.”
Talk with the people who other people ignore: the old lady who in two years will turns out to be the friend of a wild-haired Texas blues wailer on her way to Big Brother and the Holding Company; the mom with four kids who takes you in, feeds you course after course of Armenian food and insists that you sleep in her bed while she takes the couch; the waitress who eyes your grimy bare feet and oily hair and says, “Lunch’s on me.” You’ll learn more about sisterhood than you ever will in a Gender Studies college course — which is at least thirty years away.
Pay attention to the grit and danger beyond your romantic view of being On the Road. You are not Jack Kerouac and America is not a novel. For girls and young women, the rules of the road — in the words of Squeeze, “do not apply.” It’ll be only by luck that you wake up alive on the morning after the night you slept on newspapers on the park with a young junkie trembling with the smack shakes.
Understand that this year may be the best time in your entire life — and the most dangerous. You’ll probably still take the lift with the scrawny guy whose eyes glint like fake rubies and find yourself 230 miles down the coast in a cold salt-mist near San Luis Obispo wearing a thin cotton dress with not a nickel in its pockets. But you’ll also probably stop at the door of the SRO room in Chinatown, shake the fiercely grinning speed dealer’s hand, say, “Time for me to call it a night,” walk with dignity past the old clerk smoking something that smells like spice behind the reception desk — and step out into the glittering city street alone. You won’t know it then, but five decades down the road, you’ll look back and realize just how lucky you were to have been there — and to have survived.