On saying yes

Book 7, pages 126-127
 

The greatest freedom I know is to be able to say yes; the freedom to throw yourself into the arms of every single person you meet. Especially as a vagabond you have the freedom, energy, and time to be fully human toward every individual you meet. The most fantastic lottery I can think of is hitch-hiking. There is a prize every time. Every single person can teach you something. I have never said no to a ride - even if there were pistols lying on the front seat, or four sinister-looking men wearing sun-glasses sitting in the car. Every person is like a window through which the larger society can he glimpsed. A man in New York asked me to drive a U-Haul trailer down to Florida. He wouldn't say what was inside. We agreed that I was to get sixty dollars for doing it, but I never got the money. Through various sources I found out that it was the Mafia I had worked for - they preferred to use a naive foreigner for such illegal transport of narcotics, etc. Or maybe it was weapons for the Cuban exiles in Miami?

Another time, in Alabama, a poor old woman of 87 asked me to drive her to Phoenix, Arizona. She wanted to go there to die. I helped her board up the windows in her dilapidated shack outside Tuskegee, because although she knew very well she would never return, she still didn't want the local blacks moving into it.
 

She sat the whole way out there with a pistol in her hand. She was scared stiff of me because of my long hair and beard, but she had no other way of getting to Arizona. She was so weak that I had to carry her whenever she had to leave the car, but in spite of this she continued to cling to her gun. The car was so old that we could only drive at thirty miles an hour, so the trip took us four days. She had saved for years in order to have enough money for gas, but she had no money for food, so I had to get out several times and steal carrots and other edible things along the road. For most of the journey she talked about Governor Wallace and how she hoped he would become President before she died. I learned more about Alabama on that trip than I could have learned by reading for a lifetime.

In Florida, two young women picked me up and offered me a brownie. As I was very hungry and sitting in the back seat, I seized the opportunity and ate four whole brownies. I always eat what people offer me, even if it's pills, or dirt, or worse. And every time it gives me a certain insight into society.

And so it was on this day. It turned out they were hash brownies and I had eaten far too many. I got stoned out of my mind and could not hitch-hike any more that day, as I was incapable of communicating with the drivers. I walked into Jacksonville and sat in a park waiting for the high to wear off. Two harmless bums came over and sat next to me, but suddenly I became tremendously frightened of them and rushed into the bus station. I did not dare to be out on the street, even in daylight. (The hash made me extremely paranoid, and it's exactly when you send out vibrations of fear to other people that you get jumped).

That day I understood the agonizing fear the majority of Americans carry around and can't do anything about. Since that day I have had more understanding of people's reactions in America. Sometimes I, too, feel afraid of other people. One night in New York I heard a voice calling to me from a dark alley down in the sinister area near Ninth Avenue. I was absolutely convinced that if I went into the alley I would be attacked. But I was more afraid that if I didn't do it, it would set a precedent, and then I would be paralyzed, like so many others in America. I forced myself to go in there. Of course it turned out to be only a worn-out five-dollar streetwalker. I gained insight into a kind of suffering I had never encountered before, which proved to me once again that it never hurts to say yes.

As a rule, you are directly rewarded for it. In Detroit, a five-year-old boy asked me over and over if I didn't want to go home with him and take some pictures of his mother. I really did not have time that day, but I decided to go with him anyway. When we got to his home, I saw that his mother was sick in bed and four of his seven brothers and sisters had big rat-bites on their backs and legs.

I'd often heard blacks talking about rats as big as cats. This incredible revelation taught me once again to trust such rumors in the underclass, as well as the individual person.
 

In the beginning I perceived not being able to say no to people as a weakness, since I have always been very yielding. But now I have become convinced that it is a strength, and have therefore made it a habit wherever I go. This has been at the cost of my ability to choose; it has gotten to the point where I almost can't choose any more. Almost every day when I hitch-hike, at some point I get invited into a restaurant by a driver. I get the menu but it is impossible for me to choose. After an embarrassingly long pause the driver usually suggests something, and I immediately say yes. I couldn't care less what they serve me. Food is just a means to keep going. I have discovered that even the inability to choose has its advantages when you travel.

The day I left the big plantation homes in Mississippi after several weeks' stay, I ended up staying that same evening with a black pimp in Greenville, in the poverty-stricken Delta area. We became good friends, and he said that be-cause of our friendship he would give me one of his prostitutes. I didn't say anything. He took me to a bar in which four of his "girls" were standing around. "Choose what-ever pussy you want. You can have it for free," he said. I didn't know what in the world to do. I have come to love such black prostitutes with their fantastic mixture of violent brutality and intense tenderness. You can learn more about society from a black prostitute in one day than from ten university lectures. But it was just impossible for me to choose.*)
 

Then Ed, as he was called, took me home again. From then on he became more open and it turned out that he had put me to a test. He was very interested in the things I had told him, but he had never met a white he could trust, and he had wanted to see if I was like the other whites in Mississippi. That night be-came one of the most intense experiences I had ever had. We both lay in the bed he normally used for his business and all night he told me about his childhood. It all came as a revelation to me. It was the first time I had ever been in Mississippi, and it probably had a particularly strong effect on me because I'd just spent two weeks living in huge plantation homes with those enormous antebellum gowns and gold and glitter everywhere. He told me about the hunger, about how he had had to pick cotton ever since he was five years old for two dollars a day, about how he had never really gone to school because he had to pick cotton, and about all the humiliations he had constantly had to put up with from the whites. Now he just wouldn't take it any more. "Hell no," he repeated again and again. He wanted out of that cotton hell. So he had become a pimp. Both he and his girls agreed that it was better to prostitute themselves in this way than to prostitute themselves in the cotton fields. It is the white man who reaps the profit in both cases, but they made more money this way: fifteen dollars a night per girl. He had studied the white man all his life, every single gesture and thought. He felt that he knew the white man better than he knew himself – and yet he didn't understand him. But his experiences had made him a good pimp, though he was only nineteen years old. He knew precisely how to get white men in contact with his girls. But it hurt him to do it. It left a deep wound. He felt he was selling both his race and his pride; but that he had no choice. He hated the white man with all his heart, but he never dared to show it. That night I came to realize that if many blacks in Mississippi felt like Ed, there would come a day when things wouldn't look good for the whites. I was so shook up after that night that for the next few days I was unable to look whites in the eye. I had been lucky that day in that someone had given me batteries for my tape recorder. I was therefore able to record a lot of what he said that night.

Now when I travel around among the whites in Mississippi and live with them I often play that tape for myself in the evening. I want to avoid identifying too strongly with their point of view. With their charming accents and great human warmth, it is hard not to let yourself be seduced. The trick is to keep a cool head in the midst of the boiling witch's-cauldron of the South.
I saw it as a coincidence that Ed opened himself up to me, for I had really felt more like being with the prostitutes. But now I'm beginning to believe it was not just chance. It is as if there is always something that leads me into the right situations.
Letter to an American friend

* (I have since found that these unsophisticated sentences from this original letter about my love for prostitutes as an oppressed group in the U.S. and especially Britain, are almost always understood in a sexual rather than a political way. The uproar these sentences caused among Anglo-American spectators of my show made me again realize the differences that exist between our cultures. For a clearer understanding of my relationship to prostitutes, see page 240-241)

 

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