It is late May of 1967 and I am driving from Tennessee to Connecticut where I am going to work for the summer. I have drifted through three years of college, doing well in courses I liked and trying my best to be a fraternity boy. In the summers, I have made enough money selling dictionaries door to door not to be very mindful how I spent it and so come summer, I was back on the chain gang knocking on doors, smiling that smile, selling those books. Still, somehow my life feels empty. I am alienated from mainstream Southern white culture, don’t have many friends with common interests, and I have never fallen in love.
The summer of 1967 is going to change all of that.
I am heading toward a sleepy old resort hotel in Madison, Connecticut on the Long Island Sound, a few miles east of New Haven. Though I made up a lot of reasons for coming, the kicker was that I knew someone who had worked there. He really didn’t have to tell me much. When he went up there, he didn’t know who Bob Dylan was and he came back talking of nobody else. I wrote the owners and they offered me a job washing dishes for $295 a month and room and board.
I pull into the hotel about dusk. It’s a sleepy place from another time, three stories high with a long front porch facing the Long Island Sound. Just beyond the end of the street that dead ends into the sound by the hotel is a pile of large rocks small enough to pose no threat to any adventurous child but large enough to give definition to the hotel’s part of the beach. I will learn that the most soothing sound at the hotel is that of the waves hitting those rocks. And on many nights, I will find my sleep in that rhythm.
I already know the hotel is organized on a form of vacation that is disappearing—the American Plan. Many of the guests have been coming there for many years. They take the train from New York to New Haven, where one of the hotel’s drivers picks them up in a vintage Woody and brings them to the hotel. Room and all their meals are included in one price. And on Saturday night, the staff, at least the people who live off tips, serenade the guests in a hootenanny that closes every week with “Goodnight Irene.”
With the exception of the owners, a couple of managers, and the cooks, the rest of the employees are students from colleges and universities, mostly from the East and Midwest. Young women clean the rooms or wait tables. Young men are driver-bellmen and dish washers. Both men and women work as desk clerks. There is also a houseman and a night watchman.
I arrive a couple of days before Memorial Day when the hotel will open. I am ushered to the attic where most of the young men stay. Before I can unpack my bags, Jeff, an art student, sits me down on the side of his bed and plays the full album of Sgt. Pepper’s, only just out. We share a passion for the music and talk for about an hour about the meaning of the album. Before I fall asleep that night, I have figured out I am in the right place.
By afternoon of the second day, I have met the houseman Pete, who has worked at the hotel many years and oversees a lot of details related to the laundry, trash, food supplies and repairing equipment. We talk far less about the hotel than Bob Dylan. Pete plays and sings and was at all of Dylan’s Newport performances. He knows a lot and I just stand there and suck it all up.
The old hotel, I am discovering, has a soundtrack, and it plays my kind of music. The music suggests a lot of things, that some of the people at least are interested in the art and politics of song and have spent time thinking about it. Ever since I heard Phil Ochs in 1964, I have been on a lonely pilgrimage through through folk music and then the electronic music that followed Dylan back down Highway 61. Even after Dylan went electric I continued to listen to much of the folk music that preceded it. Neither the socially conscious folk music nor Dylan himself were big items on Southern college campuses in the early 60s. The hotel was another world. When I think about the old hotel, even now, I hear it better than I see it.
So much of the summer is organized around music. In nearby New Haven, there is a folk club where a regional hero Randy Burns plays often. There is a series of concerts at the Yale Bowl. I am able to see Simon and Garfunkel and the Loving Spoonful one night and The Four Tops and The Temptations another. And then there is the coastal highway which takes us to Newport, Provincetown, Boston and New York. In Provincetown, I hear Tom Rush on one visit and the Jim Queskin Jug Band on another. In Boston, we sit on a hill outside a sold-out performance and listen to Velvet Underground through the windows. At the Newport Folk Festival, we see Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, and many regional folk musicians. We go to New York a number of times but one day get exceptionally lucky. We see Richie Havens for the first time in a free concert and then later that night we get to see Neil Diamond doing all those great early Brill Building songs in a village club.
In the kitchen, Top 40 radio rules. It is the summer of “Sgt. Pepper,” ” “I Want Somebody to Love” and “The Letter,” but the song that lights up the dishwashers is “Light My Fire.” Up in the men’s quarters, it is mostly the Beatles and Dylan, though a Virginia boy knows only one song and sings it all time, James and Bobby Purifier’s “Shake a Tail Feather.”
There is a bit of dating among the staff, though less than I imagined. A few folks solidify into couples. I take out a woman from Ohio a few times, but I have my eye on a pretty young woman from Pennsylvania. She is perfect, an English major with dark black hair, a big smile, and an openness I find admirable. The only problem is that she is hooked up with the Mr. “Shake Take a Tail Feather” almost from the start.
So, for much of the summer I have a great time, but my love life is mostly an imaginary one with the Pennsylvania gal. Then near the end of July, The Tail Feather and one of his friends shake their own and, for reasons I cannot understand, leave for Buffalo to work in a pickle factory. And so, Sue, that was her name, walks out of someone else’s dream and into my life, and I fall very hard and very fast. But the best thing is: she falls as well. I have never had the experience of feeling like life with another person was absolutely perfect. Almost from the start, we spend every spare moment together. Over the summer I have been shifted from dishwasher to houseman. This means I pick up and distribute the laundry, make runs to the trash dump and to New Haven to pick up seafood.
One of the perks of being the houseman is that I have a small hotel room to myself. At night Sue slips from the women’s quarters located in a cottage behind the hotel into my room. We are sexually inexperienced but sleep little, mixing fits of passion with long hours of tenderness. In the early morning, she sneaks out in order to escape the eyes of management. We count the hours by the routine exchanges the days afford and by stolen moments for lunches at restaurants in the town.
The days and nights are perfect, but the coming and going of each one makes the end of the summer closer. Finally, Labor Day arrives and the season ends. It takes a few days to get the hotel ready for winter. After that, Sue and I drive to New York for a few days and then I take her home to Pennsylvania, where I spend a couple of days. I wish for more privacy, but I am nonetheless happy to be with her and torn about leaving. Sometimes, I have thought that if we had a $1,000 between us we would have gotten married right then. Still, being with her any way I can is better than not at all as I will discover the morning I leave to drive home. It is the loneliest drive of my life.
Fall semester is difficult though we manage to see each other four times. Sue is willing to transfer to Lambuth the following semester. We talk of marriage after that. It is so perfect being together, but I am also fearful. What if she came and it didn’t work out? Could I handle the responsibility for her uprooting her life? I had never faced these questions before. I didn’t realize then these questions would haunt me every time I considered marriage. In the end, I am afraid for her to make the move, and things fell apart after that.
It is easy to think we were young and really didn’t know what we were doing. I have thought that sometimes. But I have been haunted by another thought, a more romantic one, that we were a tight fit and would have weathered whatever had come. It didn’t work out that way though. We both were married twice, and we thought of each other when our marriages failed but always found the other one married at the time. We had a moment, but we weren’t given another one.
The hotel changed me in other ways. It showed me that the pool of people in the world was much bigger than that I had experienced in the South, that music was a great connection when you found people of a common mind, and that I didn’t need a lot of money to be happy. When I went back to school, I dropped out of the fraternity and made new friends, more intellectual and political, both men and women, and my first black friend. I took mostly courses in history, literature and philosophy. It was the best year I spent in college and I was sad to see the year end.
A few years ago, before the old hotel was torn down, I spent a couple of nights there. It was a changed place to fit a new culture, but still housed in the old buildings. There wasn’t much to roll a memory up in except the sound of the water splashing up on the mound of rocks where the road to the beach ended. I opened my window so I could listen to that sound throughout the night, as we had done all those years before, but no magic put Sue in the bed beside me. I had gone on a trip for reverie but found melancholy instead.
I was in my 50s and I wondered if the only love I was ever sure of was love I hadn’t received or that I had walked away from. The other kind, the marriages that added up to 15 years and an engagement that had added a couple of more years, had come to nothing and left me with little. I didn’t know it when I met Sue, but, though I longed for love more than anything, I surrendered to it poorly, vexed as I usually was by inability to make the commitment.
Throughout the night, the waters of the Long Island pounded in my head posing a question that seemed like the question of my life. What would have happened had I reached out for what I wanted with Sue? The adult in me insisted this relationship would have fallen into a familiar pattern and ended like all the others. But the young man, still alive, countered that life with Sue might have changed the pattern and set me on a different course. In the pre-dawn hours, the pounding of the water on the rocks brought up something from that summer and changed it slightly to make it more dramatic.
We are on a ferry leaving the Newport Folk Festival. We have spent the day there and heard a lot of music. Judy Collins is everywhere, giving workshops, talks, spreading a lot of good will, and she is there at the end of the last concert as fog starts to surround the stage. Lit by violet lights, she stands in the middle of a stage that slowly becomes so covered in fog that she seems more and more dreamlike, visible one minute and the next only a haunting voice that seems strong for all its invisibility. She is closing with the title track of her big album of the summer, “In My Life.” Though the Beatles song is very familiar, I feel I have never heard it until now. Finally, the show is over and we make our way to the ferry. The boat makes its way through the fog guided by buoys with bells that keep it on course. We press close enough to feel each other’s breath. The fog is so dense it is impossible to see anything and yet the little bells ring, we are close and the course is true. We can still hear Collins’ voice and we know she is singing just for us.
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life, I love you more.
It is a movie, I know. Two lovers stand close in a fog guided by an unseen hand. You can tell by the soundtrack that the boat is not going to crash, that the lovers will land safely. And you know by the intensity of the scene and its uniqueness that this is an exquisite metaphor for romantic love, so exquisite that you don’t want them to leave the boat. You would rather they just travel back and forth in the fog, guided by the bells and the sound of Judy Collins’ voice. But because we are adults and live in a broken world forever incomplete, the ride can go on forever only in the movie.
Still in the memory of one lover, and perhaps two, it lives on almost 50 years later as one of life’s most beautiful moments that changed you somehow and has made bearable life’s darker elements, the sickness, the hurt, the tears, the anger, the hatred, all of the people who come only to ultimately leave.
Like other responsible adults, you have lived a life devoted mostly to looking for something and moving on though jobs, cities, people, yes even marriages. And still you are beset by a restless longing that seems to go on and on in a world where there are few bells in the fog. You don’t know that a time awaits you yet when there is nothing to do but to accept the life you have lived, to surrender to the solitude it has left you and to know that it is all past and if nothing new beckons you to something akin to love, the power of your past to hurt you ebbs as well. You aren’t where you expected to be, but at some point the only thing you can do that makes any sense is to accept the fog, shed a tear for the missing partner and keep one ear attuned for a bell.