Musta been ’73 or ’74 (we’re pretty sure it was ’73, but we lost our diary) and we were standing on the corner, not in Winslow, Arizona, but on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley near the University of California campus, not searching for soul food and a place to eat but rather an establishment that on a Sunday afternoon would cash an American Express Traveler’s check, one of a dozen or so in denominations of $20 that for security purposes we kept tucked down in our sock inside our left hippie-prole workboot---the sum of a fortune we had amassed washing dishes and tending the “salad bar” (pre-self serve era) at the Bonanza Steakhouse on Johnston Street in the Hub City.
Standing with us was our traveling companion and high school classmate P-t R-----d, a hardcore backpacker and birdwatcher (the latter a pastime we would not come to appreciate for three decades or so) who aspired to study ornithology at Cornell but wound up joining the Coast Guard (he may have gone to Cornell later, though; we lost track). We had been in the “Bay Area,” as we learned it was called, for 2-3 weeks, “crashing” at various locations, including on the ground behind a mansion in the Oakland hills where the drying-out father of a Stanford-attending friend of ours was working as a caretaker, on the ground behind a church in Berkeley, on the ground in a rancid burnt-hippie/speed freak “pad” in ’Frisco and not on the ground one night at the YMCA, where we discovered most of the gentlemen lodgers to be annoyingly aggressive in their practice of homosexuality. And there was a week in there where we rented a room in a fraying but not-bad Victorian boarding house-hotel for a grand total of $20---that was for the entire week (!) ---near the Castro District, although we chose to sleep on the floor and allowed P-t the full comfort of the four-poster bed, perhaps because of our latent fear of joining the throngs of annoyingly aggressive homosexuals amok in that pre-AIDS bacchanal. Or maybe we had developed a taste for sleeping on the ground.
So we were standing there on the corner, two aimless smooth-faced hippie boys from the provinces, when this short but sturdy black guy with an unfashionably close-cropped Afro and serious mien comes striding toward us. A man of purpose, carrying a clipboard and with a pen tucked behind one ear, wearing a camo vest and the sort of thick, black horn-rimmed glasses that today signal “I’m a cheeky would-be urban hipster, although somewhat behind the curve” but back in that day simply mumbled “Socially awkward.”
“Hey, what’s happenin'?” said we, our standard greeting of the time (these days we just say “¡Hola!"). The guy looked official, in some way, so we thought he might be able to help: “Listen, do you know where we could cash a Traveler’s check around here? We’ve been to a couple of places but they want us to buy something.”
“Yeah, just a minute though,” the clipboard-bearer said with buzzsaw penetration. “I’ve got this petition I wish you would sign.”
“What’s it for?” we asked, carrying the conversational ball while P-t grinned from the sidelines.
“We are,” the clipboard-carrier explained, “asking U Cal to offer a class in Marxist criminology.”
It took us a second to formulate a reply, which went something like: “Really? I didn’t know there was something … that there was a school of, um, criminology that was Marxist … ah …”
“There is. Would you sign it, please?”
“Well, we don’t go to school here, actually. In fact, we’re not even from around here.” Trying to be helpful.
Mr. Officious drew his clipboard back and said, “Yes, I could tell. Where are you from? Mississippi? Alabama? Just a couple of overprivileged white boys … I bet you make fun of ‘rednecks,’ right? You don’t even know why they’re called ‘rednecks,’ do you?”
We were young and non-confrontational and much more willing to take people as they came than we would be in just a few years, but that one bit down into us as we flashed on our father, from whom we were then at a chilly remove.
“No, we don’t make fun of rednecks. And we know why their necks are red,” we said, putting into our reply as much fuck-you spin as we could muster.
“Yeah, OK,” said the would-be scholar of Marxist criminology. “You can cash your check down there,” pointing to a Rexall Drug Store down the way with the distinctive orange-and-blue sign you used to see everywhere in American cities. Trying to be helpful.
We went as instructed, but of course they wouldn’t cash the check.