The year is 1971, and I’m sitting alone at night comfortably in our living room watching a rerun of my favorite television show, “Then Came Bronson.”
Bronson was a young man and former journalist who resigned from the status quo, bought a cool-looking Harley Davidson Sportster, donned a wool cap and leather jacket and hit the road toward wherever his heart would take him. He traveled far and wide to cities and towns bringing with him a spirit of common humanity in which he entered the lives of those he met, helped them with whatever happened to be troubling their lives, and then slipped away back onto the road and another adventure. He was my hero—the man I wanted to become at the age of 17. I basically watched that show with an unhealthy enthusiasm, thinking it was a depiction of reality.
The show started with a scene I have never forgotten. A man in a gray suit and tie is sitting behind the wheel of a four-door sedan heading to work on a busy freeway. He has a despondent, dull, conformist look on his face when he stops at a traffic light, but then Bronson pulls up on his motorcycle and the man looks over and smiles.
“Taking a Trip?” he asks.
“Yeah,” Bronson answers.
“Wherever I wind up,” he says.
The man in the suit smiles and makes a statement: “Man, I wish I was you.”
“Hang in there,” Bronson says and pulls away into the sunset.
That scene got me every time, but this particular night it took on an entirely real and 17-year-old foolish significance. I made a rash decision to leave for Florida as soon as conceivably possible. I called the airlines and reserved a one-way ticket on the first early morning flight to Miami. At around 5 a.m. I had a cab pick me up. I left a cryptic note on my bed pillow: “Went to Florida. I’ll let you know more when I get there.”
Over the past summer, I went from a private Catholic high school student who hated almost every moment of his high school years to an individual experiencing the whole and pure notion of freedom. On the milestone day in June, I was handed my high school diploma and came to the phenomenal realization that I really did not have to go to school anymore. The prospect of going to college, at least at that moment, was not entering my thoughts. All I could think of was possibly going someplace where there was a beautiful beach. I had an affinity for beaches, even though the only beach I had ever visited was a rather dismal one on Lake Erie. The coast of Florida was strongly imbedded in my mental picture of the future—Miami in particular.
As someone who grew up and participated in what I would consider a “tough” inner-city neighbor that had a strong street-fighting culture, I had a strong desire to get out, even though I had the pleasure of a home life with loving parents. That combined with a typical teenager’s strong spirit of nonconformity, fearlessness, risk-taking and curiosity took me down some interesting, oftentimes foolish, pathways from the time I was 17 through 27 (when I finally got serious about going to college).
This was my first foray to a place that was far from my neighborhood.
All I had in my head was the primary goal of getting to a beach. My knowledge of Miami was limited to knowing that it was a coastal city and nothing more. Upon arrival, I got on a bus to the famous Collins Avenue. There it was: the magnificent Atlantic Ocean and a sandy beach running for miles. I had very easily made it to my destination. Now what?
I did not have a whole lot of money, nor, mind you, a round-trip ticket. I had put myself in an awful predicament, but in my youthful ignorance I had a strong belief that I could make this work out. So, after admiring the ocean for about 30 minutes, I headed out on Collins Avenue, stopping in the many hotels, asking desk clerks if there were any job openings – be it a dishwasher, anything. I also managed to get a room – the cheapest I could find at the local YMCA, an unclean, destitute and scary place where sleeping comfortably was next to impossible. Still I was determined to make this work out and I walked up and down Collins Avenue like some madman on a strange mission, as my limited funds continued to dwindle down to zilch.
I lasted for five days. On the fifth night I had gone flat broke and slept on the beach, or at least tried to. It was dangerous and I had a frightening encounter with some mentally deranged street people. As soon as daylight came, I made a collect call from a phone booth to home, and my father bailed me out with a return ticket home. He sent a small amount of cash to a nearby Western Union branch and before long I was on an airplane back, feeling disillusioned and embarrassed. That did not stop me, however, from pursuing more of these types of risky experiments. My emergent-strategy time period was just beginning.