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.
David Peel & The Lower East Side
Almost always present in the park, sitting on several chess tables, was David Peel and variants of his Lower East Side band. A mad-capped tatterdemalion, Peel would sing marijuana and anti-cop songs over and over. He’d always be backed by acoustic guitars, tambourines, harmonicas, bells, whistles and real and makeshift drums — it was all a choir of youthful protest!
Beating The Wizard
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 assemblaged 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!
Young Beach Kids Find Harlem
So how’d a New Hampshire Hampton Beach kid wind up in New York’s Greenwich Village 1967? He first had to move through Harlem!
It was an early night at Hampton Beach and four of us were hanging out, clicking our Beatle boots on the boardwalk and the seawall and listening to imaginary songs in our heads. It was then when our friend Sonny from Framingham, Mass. pulled up in his spankin’ new yellow Super Sports, w/bucket seats and an eight-track tape machine! His red surfboard was on the roof.
Sonny lets out that he knows a girl in NYC who asked him to visit. He asked us if we were game to tag along. We were gone!
All five of us are now driving to New York City, neither of us had been there before. But we had what we needed: lots of pot and other drugs, Thunderbird Wine and plenty of eight-track tapes. We made it to the city but found ourselves in Harlem, somewhere around 125th Street. Except for Sonny who was from Massachusetts, we New Hampshire kids had ever seen black folk before, especially in overwhelmingly large numbers.
Someone yelled, “roll the windows up and lock the doors.” We did. Me, personally? I felt like I was looking out the window of a spaceship on another planet. Remember, our age range was 15–17. But Sonny came up with a solution to calm our fears.
He put the windows down a bit and played The Supremes into the eight-track. Volume maximum! We lit a joint and we were instantly back to being hip again. We actually were, since the whole experience untapped what was needed for us to finally address our own sense of racism. And anybody learning that is way cool!
That night it seemed the Black city folk were all dressed up. But even though we were from what was then considered Cow Hampshire, we were weren’t looking bad ourselves: We were dressed for rock n’ roll! In fact, we were five long-haired hippies in a yellow sports car with a red surfboard on top, driving through Harlem with The Supremes blasting out from inside our car.
We gave eyes and we caught eyes. Our fear was gone — everything fit and we were cruising Harlem!
The Girl Welcomes Us
Well after midnight, we make it to Sonny’s girlfriend’s apartment. Cheri lives on East 79th Street. First, she was shocked to see us since we arrived unannounced. Second, she had a boyfriend with her who had been staying with her for a bit. But that didn’t seem to matter much.
She really wanted to see, be with and hang out with Sonny. Let’s not forget the fact that Sonny drives a Super Sports! The rest of us? I’m sure, to here, we were just baggage. She came out to check out his flashy car. Staring perplexed at his surfboard, Sonny asked if he could stash it safely inside her pad. She said: No. We could all stay, but the surfboard could not.
Sonny began begging like a puppy dog. To the sound of “please” he gave her a hugs and kisses. She relented. She said we could bring it in but only one night, that we’d have to find a place to put it.
She didn’t have to explain to us how New York City apartments are often small, and a bathtub sometimes doubles as a kitchen sink. There really wasn’t much space. While the surfboard was being sorted out, Cheri’s boyfriend realized her affinity for Sonny. He discomfort became clear and he eventually wormed his way into the night, saying nothing as he left.
When the sun came up, we all fell asleep where we were last.
The next day — or further in this next day — I came up with a brilliant idea to store 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 reached out to young people like me, to keep us off of drugs. My parents got me to go a few times. I found the monks were cool and that they liked our music. I figured: Why wouldn’t they help us? Turned out it was the move. The third place we asked agreed to help. They took the board.
Nobody but me could have possibly known: The Silver Surfer was first a seminarian — lol!
Nuthin’ like using the monk connection at a young age — a sanctuary of a different kind— lol! But it worked and the move freed us up. The city became ours. Since Cheri worked in the village, we mostly hung out there. But after a couple of days Sonny got cold feet — likely worried about his car — and wanted to return home. He did, and everyone else left as well.
I was seeing too much. Bleeker and McDougal streets, Washington Square Park, the whole Village scene. It felt like I was living in my own movie. How could I possibly leave the greatest excitement of my then young life. No way was I going back with them. I stayed.
My decision was a great one as I became, for Cheri, the man next in line. It was now just she and I on East 79th street — I had everything I could possibly want.
But I was too young to have all that. Plus, in America, nobody’s supposed to have that anyways.
So, as usual, every good thing typically comes to an end.
One day while panhandling my favorite spot on McDougal Street, while sitting on the steps of an elegant building, after counting some change, I look up at the line of traffic stopped at the red light. I find myself staring at a car looking exactly like my family’s 1966 silver Galaxy-500. More than that, I was staring 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 The Old Man, my dad!
I let out a giant “Hi,” and instantly jumped into the car.
Soon as in the car, Dr. Bert quipped to my father, “I told you he’d be here!” My dad said, “You were right!” We each cheered at the irony of it all, how we came together in a wonderful magic moment of time. My dad said, “let’s get something to eat and 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!
I never told my parents about Cheri. I just said I stayed at a friend’s apartment. Sadly, I never saw her again. I hated the fact I had to leave without saying goodbye. But to this very day, I still wonder about her.
Who knows! Perhaps she’s on Facebook — Will she read this? We we reconnect? Or could I perhaps rediscover the still lingering image of the wench of The Red Witch, that redheaded bartenderess who, like a sorceress, had me all google-eyed and more!
Chess in Washington Square Park
This was originally published as a Facebook Note.