The ongoing, nonstop harassments were getting to both of us. Walking out the door, although we lived in the liberal 70s, on the Upper West Side, we didn’t know what to expect. If we were in the supermarket together, there may be an angry black woman glaring at us. If we walked down the street, especially at night, there was the chance that white men would get into the act and would shout nasty words at us as they rode by in a car.
I quickly left Essence after Ida Lewis was fired but continued to run Black Creation. I also started working for the first black public relations firm, Jim Booker and Associates, on Madison Avenue. Interesting enough, my girlfriend’s magazine was only a few blocks from my office.
After long conversations, my girlfriend and I decided to move to California. We had heard so much about San Francisco and Berkeley that we decided to move to the Bay Area. Also, for me, the second largest market I had for Black Creation was the Bay Area. I could tell from that I was already well known there.
I told Jim Booker that I was planning on moving. I made a deal with him that he not pay me each week but hold my salary for the next two month and give it to me in a lump sum. Although he was sorry to see me go, he agreed. He absolutely loved the profiles, press releases and features that I churn out for our clients.
My thinking was that I still had my salary from the Institute of African American Affairs at NYU, which would last as long as I was still running the magazine, no matter where I was. Plus, my girlfriend had a well-paying job and was not a spendthrift, so, when we left for The Bay Area, we were loaded with dough.
I also learned, to my surprise, that my girlfriend was afraid of flying, so we decided to take Amtrak. Little did I know that this would be the first of countless trips over the years, back and forth, from Los Angeles to New York, and from New York to the Bay Area. The night before we left, we went to see the Joffrey Ballet at Lincoln Center. This was the same night that the Vietnam War ended.
At the curtain call, the dancers got loud curtain call after curtain call. It was nothing I had ever seen before. The audience would not let them leave the stage.
For me, after seeing so many dance concerts, thanks to my girlfriend and our free, best seats in the house press tickets—this was just a so, so show. But, I sensed that this out pouring of sheer emotion had little to do with the dance concert, as good as it was, but was a shout out to the long, contentious war that few wanted and that changed America almost beyond recognition; and the folks at the concert at the Lincoln Center were overjoyed that it was finally brought to an end.
We spent most of our time in the observation car on our way west, watching our America pass slowly by, especially after as we left Chicago and after we had changed to the larger, more comfortable cross-country train, the California Zephyr.
The landscape slowly emptied of people. From New York to Chicago there was human life everywhere, but after Illinois, where did all the people go? At NYU, the talk, after all the loud noise of the Civil Rights Movement and the War in Vietnam, was about the danger of over population. But, how could that be, now that I am seeing this wide-open country for the first time? If anything, this country seemed under populated.
I saw a lot of cows, and surprisingly, many short-tailed deer grazing among the cattle. You could tell that the deer were different in kind than the cows. The fat cows grazed lazily, contentedly, rarely taking their eyes off the ground.
The deer were lean, skittish, uptight, always looking up and around, their short tails jerking nervously around, appearing as if they were prepared to quickly run off, which they occasionally did in short bursts, only to stop and start their nervous grazing again.
The fat, lazy cows paid them or anything else little mind and only concentrated on the grass in front of their noses. But I knew that it was just that skittishness that kept these trim, freedom loving deer off someone’s dinner plate, and that was why they were still thriving in the new world.
Now and then I caught a glimpse of a smart, wily coyote, with large pointed ears, its head pointed downward, occasionally looking over its shoulders, the outline of its distinctly curved back even recognizable to a big city type such as I.
As it stealthily stalked its next victim, paying little attention to the large train passing by, I knew that was no dog.
This country was truly amazing! Full of surprise after surprise. Wily coyotes! Nervous deer! What next, buffalo, cowboys and Indians? I was amazed as a small group of young black kids waved vigorously at the train as we passed through their tiny little town in the middle of nowhere. What were they doing out here? Blacks were not supposed to live this far west with its miles and miles of empty space!
In some of the far-Western states like Utah, Nevada and Wyoming, we would travel for hours and hours and not see any sign of life, not even a telephone pole. For someone who had spent most of his life in two big, teeming old world cities like Buffalo and New York City, this was beyond strange.
As America unfolded itself before us my girlfriend was as curious as I. She rarely took her eyes off the swiftly passing landscape as we passed through yet another little speck on the map. With her face pressed against the train window, her mouth slightly open and her eyes following whatever it was that had caught her fancy at that moment, it wasn’t a passive stare but an engaged, actively aggressive stare.
The mountain state of Colorado really reached into our car and grabbed both of us by the throat as we passed over the mightily Rockies. Our heavily straining train sometimes seemed ready to fail us as we seemed to be barely hanging onto to the top of the world. The magnificent Rockies were still covered with patches of snow the higher we got. They would soon help water most of the west.
I watched as a high flying, large bird glided slowly and effortlessly by, its large wingspan stretched widely to capture the warm updrafts from the valleys below.
“Must be a bald eagle,” I said to my girlfriend, not knowing what that big black bird really was, but hoping that it was indeed a bald eagle. This would have been a far greater experience than if it was just a plain old crow.
My girlfriend later informed me, after I continued to go on and on about seeing a bald eagle, that bald eagles are not all black but have a distinct white crown and white feet.
“Sorry. Maybe it was a crow,” she said, still staring out of the window. “Or, maybe a raven, or whatever they call it so far out here, but it certainly was not a bald eagle.”
But, so what, know-it-all, smarty pants? As far as I was concerned, it was a bald eagle and would remain so in my memories of that first trip west. So there.
Finally, we reached Reno after experiencing the bleak moonscape of the Nevada desert. There was a huge banner welcoming us to, “The Biggest Little City in the World." We were also at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. While not as mighty as the Rockies, nevertheless they gave many pioneers much sorrow. For example, the ill-fated Donner: They were a group of pioneers that set out for California in a wagon train in May,1846. They were delayed by a series of mishaps and mistakes and spent the winter of 1846–47 snowbound in the Sierra Nevada. Some of the pioneers resorted to cannibalism to survive.
We set out at the end of June, and unlike the Donner party, we came to the same place, but it only took us three days, and the heavy snow was all but gone. As we started reaching the peak, we had listened to a history of the rail line and the many people that lost life and limb making it happen.
“Look down to the right,” the recording said, “If you look hard enough you can see down to where the Donner Party stayed for the winter.”
The recording also paid homage to a statue of a Chinese worker. From 1864 to the finishing of the line over the mountains to Reno in 1868, it was the Chinese the bore the most important role in finishing the work on the line.
Finally, the earth flattened, and we were in the heart of California. A new adventure was about to unfold.
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