Days That Were

In the late Sixties the main path for the young gripped by wanderlust ran from India, where it picked up a lot of Aussies, across Asia to Istanbul. There it forked. One branch went to Egypt and the Middle East, the other to Europe. Istanbul was the hub. In jeans and boots, with backpacks and shoulder bags, kids arrived from Bombay and Katmandu, from Sydney and Brindisi and New York. Most were between eighteen and twenty-five. They wanted to see far places and astonishing things, and simply did it, as kids will. They had little money. They didn’t care. They pooled to buy decomposing minibuses and casually set off across Persia.

In Istanbul their — our — habitat was the Sultan Ahmet district, in the shadow of the grand domed mosque that loomed against, when I was there, grey wintry skies. Dirty ice squeezed from between stones of winding streets and a whiff of wood smoke hung in the air. Dark-faced and vaguely dangerous looking men who in fact weren’t hurried by in thick coats. You were Somewhere Else. It was magic.

Many of the wanderers wore beards. These were the freak years, and anyway shaving is a nuisance on the road. They were motley: college girls from Barnard, a black smooth-talking DJ out of Jersey, drugged-up spindrift from the hippie havens of Europe and North Africa, a guy from somewhere east with a parrot. Some were truth-seeking tumbleweeds pursuing enlightenment, others just adventurers. There was an artist from Ohio who showed us photographs of a blue fiberglass sculpture he had made of his ex-wife’s backside. It wasn’t obscene, just rounded. All of us were caught in the craving for new things that besets late adolescents if they’re worth a damn.

I was a bit of an oddity — pretty much out of the Marines by then and traveling with a shot-up squid named Len Vanderwood who had been in PBRs in the delta and gotten ambushed. He did all sorts of heroic things, like chopping the paravanes and using a Browning .30 like a fire hose, which only happens in the movies but Len didn’t know it. We were exotics among hippies, poets, and seekers. On the other hand they had crossed Afghanistan in VW buses, passing through towns where both you and your girlfriend could get raped and sometimes were.

Most were just kids with an itch, and stayed at the Yucel Hostel, pretty much the standard European gig: a buck-fifty if you had a sheet bag in a bunkroom with five other people. They would travel for a year, remember it forever, and go back to Belgium to be doctors. A few were different.

These stayed at the Gulhane Hotel. The Gulhane was for the lost, the doomed, for people too low-caste to sleep under bridges. You went up narrow dark stairs and came out on the roof where sheet plastic covered a two-by-four framework to form a skeletal barn in the January cold. You could stay there for twenty-five cents a night. It was a good price for kids who had sold their passports to buy drugs and had nowhere to go. Len and I went to see it in a spirit of anthropological curiosity.

Your two bits bought you squatter’s rights to a decomposing grass mat on the floor, on which to lay a sleeping bag. Maybe a dozen people stayed there. There was no electricity. From a crossbeam at either end a hash pipe dangled on a cord. At night the inmates sat in circles beneath the hash pipes, jacketed against the chill, staring at what appeared to be pie pans of bluely burning alcohol.

The pipe went around. When it burned out, etiquette was that whoever then held it filled it from his stash. The flames danced, shadows leapt strangely, especially after a while in the circle, and some freak from North Africa tweedled on a soprano recorder. He didn’t quite play it, but neither was it unmelodic. The camaraderie of those who knew it was cold outside gripped us, a conspiracy of warmth. We told stories of Goa and Marikesh, of mortar flares hanging ghastly in clouds over the ugly thumb that was Marble Mountain.

From time to time, so help me, a Turk from the hotel came through and called, “Hasheeshkabab, twenty-five cents.” Lamb, dog, road kill, morgue meat, I don’t know. It was well spiked with the herb.

The lost too had their place in the order of things. I wished them well.

We were the first drug generation. Ritalin was the preferred amphetamine, not yet being used to subdue schoolboys. Kids gobbled it and for a couple of days were very intense. If you got close to them you heard a faint “bzzzzzzzz” and smelled hot insulation. A plaque of hash the size of a Heath bar cost three bucks. Most of us experimented for a few years, enjoyed the sense of shared misbehavior, got bored, and quit. A few ended up at the Gulhane.

The scam of the times was selling traveler’s checks. You sold them to a South African for forty percent of their face value, unsigned. His operatives then forged them for face value. You went to the American Express office and said that you had lost your checks. They replaced them. A long line of kids waited at the Amex office to report lost checks. It was no more moral than shading your deductions, cheating on your wife, or downloading music.

Yenner’s, if memory doesn’t lie, was the roasted-meat den near the Pudding Shop. It was dark and blackened by smoke, like a medieval torture chamber but without the cheer. You knew immediately that it wasn’t Kansas. The roasts were savory, greasy, and smoky. A clothesline ran diagonally across the room. On it in those pre-Internet days travelers left notes to each other, held by clothespins. One I remember: “Will the girl in the green dress I met on the bank of the Ganges ask for me at the Youth Hostel? Mike.”

That’s how it was. Wherever you were going, somebody had been there, and knew what to do. Calcutta? Sure, try the hostel on Sutter Street. (I did. Coming out one day, I saw a naked man with no feet rolling down the sidewalk to beg from me.) Israel? Ask them not to stamp your passport because then you can go to Arab countries. In Delhi the Pahar Gange section is really cheap, the Venus hotel is fifty cents a night. You won’t find it in a tourist guide.

I don’t know where kids go today. I just hope it is as good.