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All I know is that I am not a Marxist.

Karl Marx, attributed in a letter by Friedrich Engels, 1890


Whitey's chess partner moved on just in time to prevent a way of passing the time from becoming a way of killing it. Hobbies so easily become habits. The cast of transients had turned over completely in ten days and the threat of repetition loomed. Nothing necessarily wrong with that – stability is the word with the positive spin – but it's a different trip and it requires an adjustment.

Hanging out with simpatico strangers who shared your wide-eyed exhaustion was a gas-gas-gas; watching equally pleasant people churn through the changes you faced the week before could be a serious drag. Of course, it did present opportunities to take a leadership rôle (snap to it, chaps), but in freak society anyone who wanted to take charge was likely to be rejected by the putative chargees, who voted with their feet in a hurry. This didn't stop young men from trying it on to pick up chicks, usually without much luck; nor did it stop young women from batting their baby blues and asking dumb questions of cute guys, with a somewhat higher success rate. Some patterns are hard to lose.

Sticking around called for a kind of settling down. For a few days, maybe a week, there was plenty of stimulation from mastering the local logistics. This room OK? Where to eat? Is there a chemist – drug store – village shop – place to buy some fucking Lomotil? Where's the poste restante and did we tell anyone to write here? Do we need to score? What, how, when, where? What do you mean, 'Why?' we're almost out. Can we string the clothesline on the roof? You didn't leave the Tide in Teheran, did you? All the inconsequential details of daily life, the stuff you do without thinking so you can live a modern western life at all, became engrossing, sometimes challenging, when you hit a new town in a new culture that may not have heard of the problems you want solutions for, or not when they're phrased the way you put them. Case in point: Why search for Lomotil if what you wanted was to seal yourself up to take the all-night bus? Opium was cheaper, more effective, and much more widely available. Probably had fewer harmful side-effects, too, temporary attacks of narcolepsy being useful under the circumstances.

Step two was to know all this shit and still find ways to keep yourself entertained. Getting off and getting it on were always possibilities but despite widespread and often hilarious accounts in the tabloids, gleefully encouraged by over-articulate and under-occupied young drop-outs, fucking and fixing by themselves were rarely enough to satisfy the brain's incessant clamor for sixteen hours of multi-channel programming. Even the junkies could be seen daily taking the air in search of raw material for their home movies, until they got so close to the great rush in the sky that we and they and everyone else might as well forget about them.

Compulsory screwing was certainly a popular item in the curriculum, sex having been invented by stork-delivered baby boomers in the mid-sixties, but it evoked multiple levels of emotional complexity, acknowledgment of which was almost completely taboo. And (whisper it not in the halls of the Playboy mansion) even Hefner himself couldn't keep it up around the clock (well, not every day) and Barbarella was only a Barbie with a temporary patina of exoticism – aerobics was always her thing, and the daily workout was never intended to take all day. If the professionals had their limits, so too did the enthusiastic amateurs. Games are not much of a way of life. Fun, though.

Whitey was used to watching. Back to the birth of modern cool, in the days of be-bop and beatniks, the central image has been the silent loner leaning on the doorjamb, head tilted to let the smoke curl past the eye, imperturbable yet restless, questioning but all-knowing, beautiful and disheveled ... in a word, James Dean, dead and therefore immortal. Whitey had learned that part and he played it well. It had carried him through scenes he wanted to see and earned him a measure of distant respect that almost made up for the loneliness he brought to it, the pain that gave his dark eyes their depth and goaded his self to the strength that strangers admired.

For Whitey was also used to being watched. The unhip secret of cool is that the self-contained loner needs an audience to ignore and to fascinate. A million teenagers practiced their posture in front of the mirror and hit the high street to strut their stuff and brave the gentle ridicule of the grown-ups for the look and feel of other adolescents; most of them copied their style from the outside in, whereas the irreparably hip evolved the look from the inside, but the kids were onto the act at some important level. The poseurs of Berkeley, California, faced the posers of Berkeley, George, and concluded that God, like hell, was other people.

So Whitey, in his ineffable detachment, had defined himself in reaction to, and had lived in connection with, his surroundings. By inclination, he was not an intellectual; he didn't get off on freewheeling bouts of the verbals. How amazing it was that this so neatly fit the stereotypes of his childhood. Not a single teacher had made a serious attempt to adjust the imprints of his family and their friends. Girls, they understood, couldn't do math and darkies had best be given vocational training so at least they could be useful. Even his best, perhaps his only, friend and companion, who knew beyond a peradventure just how smart one had to be to invent a self and a life and hold them together under pressure, sometimes fell into the trap of associating words with whites and equating vocabulary with intelligence. Blackie didn't know he was doing it, which is normal, but Whitey didn't know how much he was hurt, which is sad.

Picture an emotional Helen Keller: a maelstrom of emotions inside, separated from a storm of sensation outside by a lonely boy with neither the psychic nor the literal vocabulary to discuss the reality of his life, but with the strength to yawp a no and the need to build a yes with tools no one had ever told him existed.

At home, the sounds and the scene papered over the void. Sixties pop was the sound of sensation, the father of rock and the legitimate child of rock'n'roll (whose bastard took after grandpappy Hank Williams and hijacked half of country music). It signified with a smile and coded cool in the words for journalists to (mis)interpret, but it served to calm and to cover as much as to wake and to lead. In this it mirrored as it defined the scene around, the questing, questioning, querulous calls for battle without blood, for instant evolution, for change – right now, all the way but not too far.

Establishment cynics grumbled that the kids weren't serious but never acknowledged how hard it is to conjure up a new destiny. When you call, like Emma Goldman, for a dancing revolution – "Je suis Marxiste, tendence Groucho," said the insurgent students of '68: "I'm for Groucho's style of Marx, brother" – you risk the seduction of the dance for its own sake. Better that by far than the body-numbing and brain-killing monotony of hopelessness that comes with acquiescence. Feeling anything is better than feeling nothing – a credo for freaks and therapists alike.

So Whitey in Herat was losing his crutches and slightly scared to walk. On the road, the traditional sources of sensory overload were mostly lost, although the intensifiers were emphatically present. But there were buses and trucks, there was a highway out of town, there was the allure of motion, the invitation of the new. Why stop to think? There was more to see.