February 03, 2010

From Beatniks to Hippies. The Early Sixties. A Memoir.

By Johnny Hughes © 2010

I get out of the Army in 1962 and go to this Ed Snow party, which went on every weekend for several years it seems. The "Group" at Texas Tech were a perfect blend of intellectuals, pseudo-intellectuals: drama majors, English majors, Philosophy majors, Grad students, and me, in my fifth year of proudly owning a small gambling house. Hey, I was never robbed or arrested at my own poker game and there was never a fight. I only pulled a gun three times or so. Had two robbery attempts and shot over the head of one of them. By Texas terms, I'm saying I had a peaceful place a long, long time.

Eddie was this short, black-headed guy with a wispy beard, and Beatles boots. The Group kept a table of talkers going from early morning to after sundown, or two tables, ten or twelve folks in the Student Union aka the Sub, two or three conversations sprinkled liberally with Sartre, Kerouac, Camus, et. al. Eddie Snow was crazy, but we didn't know it. He was to go on to write an article in Texas Monthly about his seven incarcerations in mental joints. Bummer. But back then, well Marlon Brandon and James Dean had this ripple effect and lots of guys mumbled to show their angst, which was the way to get some pussy. Pity and angst were selling like hot cakes because the pill was new. One young Professor was so good at that "I am depressed, screw me" angle that he made it through lots of women at the First Unitarian Church. This was this terrific time of hope and beatniks becoming hippies, and a youngish President who wasn't shot yet, and all that.

Ed has a party at his tiny garage apartment, called an alley pad, every Thursday afternoon to kick off the weekend in addition to the one, big, sanctioned "the Group" party. Everything is bring your own booze. I go in and the floor is totally covered in people. There are people everywhere outside. In the kitchen, there is a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jelly plus a loaf of bread. Fix your own, the only refreshments provided. Eddie stood on his couch reading the first lines of a Hemingway novel about it being 1919 and the welcoming of heroes was over. He would often read that and play scratchy old jazz records.

The big Saturday night parties moved around but it was the same 100 or so folks, and the observation of the bring your own, leave everybody else's booze alone worked very well. Folks would drink obscure brands. I bought Carling's Black Label. There was a tremendous amount of hustling other folk's dates, and it would rage all night. Eddie drank this syrupy Richard's Wild Irish wine. Yuck. The linoleum floor in his kitchen looked like a crime scene from the wine stains. Eddie had a couple of pretty neat girl friends over time.

I dressed like these gamblers twenty years older than me -- in very expensive clothes. Only with the group, I wasn't this outside guy I had always felt like. They thought me making my "sometimes small, sometimes large" living as a gambler was cool.

I had moved to a nice two bedroom house with a big kitchen for the poker game, and had a partner for awhile. When he left for the Army, I didn't have to cut up the score. It was then when I nervously hosted my first Group party of many. I gave this gal $100 and told her to get some chips and dips, ice and cups. She spent the whole thing, which I had not intended. By 8:30 or so, no one had showed. I hid a lot of that dip and stuff in cabinets and went off to get my date in Acuff,Texas. When I got back, the joint was packed.

This ol' tough guy pal of mine had happened by. Roy was an unpredictable tough guy. He had two black eyes, a black shirt with a white tie, and he looked scary. He and the main philosophy grad student, self-proclaimed intellect of all time, hit it off, and were in a conversation for hours. They ate all the chips and dip. Later, for the party, I'd get one bag of ice.

The Group rented a house together for awhile, three bucks a month or fifty cents in a beer can, but there were political squabbles about folks screwing in the afternoon so proudly. I moved into the perfect gambling joint. There was only one entry up a flight of stairs or so I thought. It was right next door to Lubbock Theatre Center. At those parties, we'd do acts. There were folk singers. Jimmie Gilmore and James Howell back when they were still in high school. Barry Corbin, Charles Benton, Michael Neimczyk and I did improv and the audience would call out characters, scenes, and take part. There were sing alongs to Dylan tunes way too often. Eddie Snow and Eric Alstrom did this comedy bit where they were in a World War II foxhole being different characters: Pops, Mississippi, Hi Pockets, Tex. Scenes from the movies we grew up with.

Eddie tried for many years to have rent parties but with not much luck. One night at his pad, I put on my brand new Beatles album, wondering what the scratchy jazz and Bob Dylan crowd would think. They were on their feet. Even the stiffest son of a bitch there was singing, and it was magical, and a change of some sort. They just loosened up as if some drunk or other.
I want to hold your hand.

Also at parties, we would set up a typewriter with a long roll of news print in the kitchen. Everyone would go in and add their thoughts.

A few short years later, I start acting in plays and the poker kind of dry's up, and I am big broke for the first time in a long time. There were no poker players and the bigger games were hurting. Some of the big road gamblers moved off. Poker drought.

I moved into Eddie's tiny apartment upstairs in this old apartment house at Main and X, across from Bob's Cafe. He made me a pallet on his floor. I had hocked the diamonds and pistols, and stored the fancy clothes at my parents, who had moved back to town. It was near my last semester after eight years as an undergraduate. The Group called tennis shoes, and sloppy clothes, "rehearsal clothes" and they sure beat those hard leather shoes. Eddie would set the alarm for seven or so, and put it on a ten minute delay, and it would go off every ten minutes until nine, when he'd turn it off for good and sleep. He'd throw his dirty socks on my pallet. As all those couch people in South Austin tonight can tell you, if you don't pay rent, shut up.

I scored some money and moved back to the pad by the theatre, and got my first job, for McGraw-Hill. They paid me. Then, without any risk of me getting broke, they paid me again. All those years I had looked down on the square John, nine to fivers took on a new look. I still never really nine to fived it.

Eddie moved into a pad at 806 Ave U., and tried to give parties for a living in 1965, and the group expanded, and hippie was in the air. The cops raided a big party the next year and ran straight to the two guys in the bathroom who had a little bit of weed. They laid felony charges on them and the three dudes renting the apartment. When the laws ran in, there were some black folks near the door, and folks were dancing, stereo blasting. The cops told the blacks, "Run, nigger." And they opened the door. I said I'd run, and I was the first one out, abandoning my young bride. I testified before the Grand Jury. I said I didn't smell any marijuana, and they asked how I knew what it smelled like. I said it smelled like burning leaves, and I'd smelt it in Mexico but I did not inhale.

Then the guy asked, "Were there people with beards at that party?"

"Yes." says I.

"How many?" he asked.

I told him I didn't know only, to be asked if I had counted the folks in sandals.

Eddie moved down to Austin awhile, and folks said he was getting too crazy. When I went down he was planning a trip to New York. He went and stayed in Barry Corbin's apartment, as Barry was doing dinner theatre down south. Eddie would have delusional times, and lucid times, and all I know of his misadventures, he told me.

Eddie was severely bipolar, and the booze washed out the horse sized pills they'd give him. He had this literary delusional system involving himself, with his father, Norman Mailer, and his grandfather, Ernest Hemingway, and Joe Namath, the football player in there some way.
Eddie kept writing Mailer letters signing them the Texas kid.

"The Texas kid is coming to town for the big shootout. Me and you. Mano a mano."

Mailer was running for Mayor of New York, and Jimmy Breslin was running for Vice Mayor, I think. They canceled a rally because of Eddie. Eddie is also stealing his food,bouncing a tennis ball off buses for exercise, and living with a too-young runaway when he decides he is John F. Kennedy and ends up in Bellevue. Right off, he meets another dude that is also convinced he is John F. Kennedy and reinforces Eddie's delusions. His brother came up, but Eddie would not go with him.

After a few mental hospital trips, and living in Harlingen, Eddie arrives back in Lubbock on the exact day we are headed out for this ill-fated rock festival in 1970, that had 600 cops from all over Texas, and 3,000 festival goers. The Hog Farm would throw out a head of lettuce every now and then to symbolize something. The wind and dirt are blowing and the staff of this underground newspaper is in the back of this truck, most high on life and psychedelics or whatever acid like. Everybody is sitting in the back of this dark, rented truck, when Eddie starts scaring the folks, doing a number saying he is fresh out of a mental hospital and that he might or might not be violent. Then he turns to this Air Force Captain's wife, and said, "You are my little dancer. Come with me." She did. She left her husband, and she and Eddie moved in together, and he finally got his degree in English.

During that time, I saw him walking though the Student Union, with no shoe on one foot and his sock rolled over his toe, and he is kicking imaginary extra points. Joe Namath. Get it?

He'd sit on the end bar stool in Fat Dawg's, almost motionless, holding a cigarette up face high in an abnormal way. He'd just sip the beer and make it last for hours. His fingers were nicotine stained and he'd burn himself. A couple of times he called me at last call to come pay his bar bill or they'd beat him up. He wouldn't speak to me I drove him home.

Eddie moved back to Harlingen, near Mexico, where he grew up and where his mother lived. He just drank out his days at local bars. I wondered if he ever told them about the Group, and when he was the hero in that bright and shining time we unwisely called youth.

Johnny Hughes is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom.

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