“You’re either on the bus or off the bus.”
“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
I came of age in the tail end of the turbulent 60’s and early 70’s. From Catcher in the Rye and Catch 22 to Manchild in a Promised Land and Autobiography of Malcolm X, from Smokey Robinson, James Brown and Peter Paul and Mary to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Incredible String Band, from the Marx Brothers and Lucille Ball to Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory, from A.S. Neil to Jonathan Kozol and John Holt, I was led word-by-word, note-by-note, step-by-step to the profound realization that my parents’ generation had screwed up. Politically and socially, they had kept women in the kitchen, gays in the closet, blacks in their segregated places, children locked in repressive schools and soldiers back out to the killing fields to keep Capitalism king. It was wrong, wrong, wrong and I aligned myself with the protestors out in the streets and in the classrooms learning the history no one ever taught me in my schooling.
But alongside the political shortcomings was simply the feeling that this generation had not lived well. That their only advice to the next generation was “Plastics” ( see the movie The Graduate). They chained themselves to a drab American dream of dull work in the office cubicles, lived in milk-toast suburbs, watched hours of mindless TV and got ugly-drunk at the bar when the pressure was too much. The coming revolution was not just political but cultural.The counter-culture I identified with chose the more mellow and peaceful marijuana over the vomit-in-the-gutter hungover angry alcohol, the electric mind-expanding LSD over the suburban mind-numbing Valium, the body-awakening rhythms of rock and jazz over the soporific elevator music of Guy Lombardo, the liberation of free love over the repression of stilted Puritanism. We were discovering vegetarianism and organic vegetables, yoga and Tai-chi and Zen meditation, traveling more to India and Bali than Paris and Rome.
In his book the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, author Tom Wolfe chronicled the next generations anthem of freedom that followed Kerouac’s On the Road. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters roamed the countryside in a bus attracting young people seeking something different than their high school guidance counselor’s advice. They coined the phrase “you’re either on the bus”— living the colorful, cool, free, ecstatic life”—or “off the bus,” in the square grey world of Middle America. While Martin Luther King exhorted us to live a more morally correct and compassionate life, the Black Panthers challenged us to stand up to defend our rights “by any means necessary” while feeding children in need, the white middle-class hippies and yippies were exhorting us to live a more joyful life.
And here we are some 60 years later and here I was the other day walking through Golden Gate Park and suddenly feeling some re-flowering of all that energy. Biking with my grandchildren through the park, we passed the playground, carousel, hippie hill drummers, a rock band, people playing volleyball, frisbee, tennis, pickleball, tables with free library books, blooming dahlias, paintings on the street, Adirondack chairs, little tables with a coffee vendor, roller skaters, swing dancers, a three-dimensional whale sculpture in the middle of the car -free road, a picket-fence beer garden, a performance by Circus Bella, a piano (I played), an old car picnic, ending at a rally on the Great Highway to keep that JFK drive car-free. Some people spoke, I led a song and then folks spread out to knock on doors to encourage people to vote.
So here I still was, side-by-side with a counter-culture with over a half-century of practice in living better, still politically active, still choosing a collective celebration of life with more color, more pizzazz, more fun! Free love had matured to committed relationships, marijuana was now legal and used more sparingly than indulgently, the rabble-rousing chanting of the anti-war protests had its place still (a la Women’s Marches during the Trump Error), but balanced with door-knocking, postcard writing, responsible voting.
My 21-year self could only dimly imagine my 71-year old self sharing it all with my grandchildren and would be shocked at all the backsliding away from the peace, love and justice we envisioned. And yet, as I felt in the bike ride through the park, it is all with us still and feels like the pendulum is swinging upwards again in spite of the dinosaurs fighting against their necessary extinction. Let us hope so. Let us work —and play— to give wings to those feet. Feet that will both walk and fly on skateboards and scooters down a car-free JFK drive!