Red Witch Bar — West-4th Street — NYC’s Greenwich Village — 1967
The Red Witch became a bar of memory for me when I was served there underage. More than that, the service came from an eye-candy topless bartenderess. She was a hearty redhead with a great smile, a stronger lure! She liked me!
It was 1967 and The Red Witch, a basement bar, was on West 4th St near the corner of McDougal Street in Greenwich Village. I was a 16–17 year-old runaway from Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. My favorite band back then was The Yardbirds, not The Beatles or Stones.
Deeply enthralled, infatuated and quite taken by this topless redhead, for the first time in my life, I asked for a job at The Red Witch. Just think what my life would have become had I gotten hired — lol?
Anyway, to stay close and get money for beer to see her, I became a proficient panhandler around the corner on McDougal Street. On these beautiful summer days and nights, with everyone walking ‘round all head-banded with beads, wearing Sgt. Pepper and West Point jackets, everybody looking pre-Woodstock, I’d switch from begging coins to drifting into Washington Square Park to play chess. In those days, I’d hitch-hike all over with a chess board and had become reasonably good at the game.
Almost always present in the park, sitting on several chess tables, was David Peel and variants of his Lower East Side band. His madcapped tatterdemalioned band sang marijuana and anti-cop songs over and over, supported by acoustic guitars, tambourines, bells, whistles and makeshift drums and a choir of youthful protest.
My favorite favorite chess opponent was an elderly gentleman called The Wizard. He’d show up every day in a fine pin-striped suit, wearing a bowler hat, carrying a rolled up New York Times and two bags. One bag was his chess pieces; the other his lunch. He would only play for a nickel a game. I played against him so often I had to keep panhandling. One late afternoon, I beat him! One of my proudest moments. I jumped out of my seat and yelled at the top of my lungs, “I beat the Wizard!”
[NOTE: Later on, during the ’90s, I threw a party in Cambridge, Mass. and an elderly woman attended. It turned out she was the wife of the late-owner of a Greenwich Village chess studio I had played in before. She remembered The Wizard fondly — this was a proud moment for me!]
Clearly, a very good game!
During this exciting time, as a runaway from home, I was “shacked up” (to use the term of the times) with an older woman who lived on East 79th Street. By older, she was 10 years older than me. I may have been a prize for her, but she was a dream come true for me. She worked at The Hip Bagel, a small pastry stand near Figaro’s at the corner of Bleeker and McDougal.
Her name was Cheri, and she’d feed me these wonderful pastries which I’d take next door to Figaro’s where I’d get espresso and sit outside on the corner, in complete fascination, checking out what had to have been one of the more remarkable assemblages images of people ever witnessed in the history of America — the still-blossoming ’60s generation!
I swear Nico of the Velvet Underground walked past me one day! If it wasn’t her, she sure looked like her!
Oh, yeah! How’d a Hampton Beach, New Hampshuire kid end up in New York City?
It was an early Saturday night at Hampton Beach and four of us were hanging out clicking our Beatle boots on the seawall and listening to imaginary music in our heads, when our friend Sonny from Framingham, Mass. pulls up in his 1966 yellow Super Sports, w/bucket seats and an eight-track tape machine! He had his red surfboard on the roof. He lets out he knows a girl in NYC who asked him to visit. He asked us if we wanted to tag along. We were gone!
Imagine the car above with red surfboard on the roof!
All five of us are now driving to New York City. None of us had been there before. But we had everything we needed. Plenty of drugs, a bottle of Thunderbird wine and plenty of eight-track tapes. We get into the city but find ourselves lost in Harlem somewhere around 125th Street. Except for Sonny who was from Massachusetts, none of us New Hampshire boys had ever seen black folk before, especially in such large numbers.
Someone yelled roll the windows up and lock the doors. We did. Me, personally? I felt like I was on another planet. Remember, our age range was 15–17. But Sonny came up with a great idea. He put the windows down just a little bit and threw into the eight-track a recording of The Supremes. We lit a joint and pretended we were cool — we actually were!
As different as the black folk were all dressed for Saturday night here we were from then-still Cow New Hampshire. We had to have looked strange for anyone who noticed us: Five hippies in a yellow car with a red surfboard on top, slowly driving through with Supremes blaring from inside our car.
The fear was gone, everything fit and we cruised Harlem!
Well after midnight, we make it to his girlfriend’s apartment. This, by the way, is Cheri who lives on East 79th Street. First, she’s shocked to see us. We came unannounced. Second, she had a boyfriend with her who had been staying with her for a bit. But that didn’t matter. She really wanted to see, be and hang with Sonny. The rest of us were just baggage. She came out to check out his flashy car. Sonny then asked if he could bring his surfboard inside. She said no. She said we could all stay, but the surfboard could not.
Sonny begged and begged. Then he gave her a hug and began kissing her. She relented, and said we could bring it in but it could for only one night. You see, New York City apartments have always been small, and often the bathtub doubles in the kitchen. There wasn’t much space. Her boyfriend realized Cheri had an affinity for Sonny, he then became uncomfortable and split. When the sun came up, we all fell asleep where we were last.
The next day I came up with a brilliant idea to try and stash the surfboard in a monastery or a church rectory. Nearby where I grew up, the St. Francis Monastery in Rye, NH, had a youth program where they tried to keep young people like me off of drugs. My parents got me to go a few times. The monks were cool. I figured: Why wouldn’t they help us? Turned out to be the move, as the third place we asked agreed to help, they took the board.
Nuthin’ like using the monk connection at a young age , sanctuary of a different kind— lol! But it worked and the move freed us up, the city was ours. Since Cheri worked in the village, we all hung out there a lot. But after a couple of days Sonny got cold feet and wanted to return home, everyone else as well.
They left. Me? I’d seen too much of Bleeker and McDougal streets and Washington Square Park. How could I possibly leave the greatest excitement of my then young life. I stayed. My decision was a great one as I became next in line. It was now just Cheri and me on East 79th for about three weeks.
But, as usual, every good thing comes to an end.
One day I was panhandling near my favorite spot on McDougal Street. I’m sitting on the steps of an elegant building. After counting my money, I look up at the line of traffic in the street, stopped at the red light. I find myself staring at a car exactly like my family’s 1966 gray Galaxy-500 and directly into the eyes of Dr. Hubert Hardy, the psychologist my parents sent me to when they suspected I was smoking pot. And, sure enough, sitting behind the wheel was my father!
I let out a giant “Hi,” and jumped into the car.
Soon as I got in the car, Dr. Bert said to my father, “I told you he’d be here!” We all cheered because we were together in a magic moment in time. The ole’ man said, “let’s get something to eat and then head back.” Dr. Bert said, “I know a nice Chinese restaurant. So after Chinese food (I was starving!), and me telling the story of my experience, we drove back to Hampton Beach … only for me to run away again!
PostScript: I didn’t tell my parents about Cheri, other than to say I stayed at a friend’s apartment. I never saw her again and didn’t like that I had to leave here without saying good-buy. But to this very day I wonder about her. Who knows! Perhaps she’s on facebook and will read this — lol!
Basement Entrance to The Red Witch!
Videos of chess in Washington Square Park:
Originally published at www.facebook.com.