Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
  Expert Witness
Books:
  Going Into the City
  Consumer Guide: 90s
  Grown Up All Wrong
  Consumer Guide: 80s
  Consumer Guide: 70s
  Any Old Way You Choose It
  Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
Writings:
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Playboy
  Blender
  Rolling Stone
  Billboard
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
  Recyclables
  Newsprint
  Lists
  Miscellany
Bibliography
NPR
Web Site:
  Home
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell:
  Carola's Website
  Archive
Venues:
  Noisey
CG Search:
Google Search:
Twitter:

The Supreme Achievement of the Second Industrial Revolution

This all happened. I know most of it by hearsay and research. The name of the chief character has been changed because he doesn't think the piece is representative of him. It probably isn't. Take it as notes for a novel I will never write because there are so many real stories left to misrepresent.

I

With nothing specific planned for next day, Bowne would spend the night reading and awaken in the afternoon, the winter light seeping into his room through the broken-sashed windows that could never be opened or closed. The cold would come through the windows, too, and quickly he would put on his clothes--a flannel shirt perhaps, Wranglers, loafers, and wool socks--and walk through his parents' bedroom and down the stairs. Then he would read in one of the clumsy chairs or slowly munch a snack in the kitchen before bundling into his huge overcoat for the journey to school.

The house had a triple garage, a rarity in New York, but it wasn't used for cars; the family had converted it to work and storage space--even domiciling Bowne there one bad year--and street-parked its old Chrysler. Had there been an extra car, Bowne couldn't have driven it--he had flunked the license exam--so like almost everyone else at Queens College he took the bus. He would stand and read at the Q65 stop across from the American Rectifier Corporation on 15th Avenue, read as he was trundled past factories and aging stores and houses with asphalt shingles, and read down College Point Causeway and along the mucky Flushing River until he transferred to the Kissena Boulevard bus at Main Street. He would joust for a seat with giggling Catholic schoolgirls, and, sitting or standing, read until the bus reached the college, just across the Long Island Expressway. The five-mile trip took 40 minutes. A dozen students, done for the day, would be ready to take his place as he got off.

II

Queens is a tuition-free commuter school, unprestigious but superb academically, that every year turns out armies of schoolteachers and accountants and a smattering of geniuses. Most of its students are Jewish. Neither college nor borough has much appeal for the urban sentimentalist. The vast blandness of Queens, with its new high-rise apartments and decorous brick houses, does not seem to produce proletarian brooders like Brooklyn's Irving Howe or CCNY's Bernard Malamud. The campus is a bleak mélange of mauve stucco remnants from its days as a reform school and the inevitable gray brick boxes of an ongoing construction program, softened somewhat by a view of the Manhattan skyline over improbable fields, the agricultural wing of a city high school. Until recently, annexes slapped up for the GI rush were also in use, after almost twenty years.

Perhaps it is the school's peculiar geographical vantage, midway between urb and suburb, past and future, inspired by skyscrapers that seem almost to rise out of the anachronistic fields themselves, that conditions its taste for things American. Most likely it is the charisma of one philosophy teacher, John J. McDermott, who has been talking "American studies" for a long, long time. Now McDermott discusses the psychedelic as a new kind of frontier; in Bowne's time, he merely began with the pessimistic existentialism characteristic of undergraduates and developed it in an optimistic American context. James, Dewey, and Emerson took their places beside Nietzsche, Sartre, and Dostoyevsky; Turner's frontier beside Kierkegaard's abyss. The frontier as extension of self, empiricism as the fruition of existentialism, technology as the image of man, the dignity of material things--all were bywords.

In the past ten years, Queens College has nurtured its share of American heroes, kids like Paul Simon of Simon and Garfunkel, Andrew Goodman, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1964, and Alan Seeger, the first conscientious objector successfully to defy the Army's Supreme Being requirement. Burgeoning Jewish communities, especially the one in Forest Hills, have been turning out a new breed--kids whose families have replaced the traditional ethnic sustenance with material things, kids who come to regard the borough as their own private desert and the college (like it or not) as their oasis. They cluster in small, overlapping groups, their contacts limited as much by preference as by the physical fact that they live at home, and retire whenever possible to campus enclaves. In Bowne's time, the arty students went to the small cafeteria, the student government people to their offices in B Building, and the Phoenix people to the basement of C.

His thick lips red from the cold, Bowne would enter C Building, descend to the Phoenix office, and plump his meager ass into the imitation-leather chair in the corner. The chair, stolen from a fraternity, was the only comfortable seat in the room, but there was little competition for it. The editor, Peter Wolff, preferred to perch on a stool and lord it over his protégés. Other Phoenix people--there were always a few toward the end of the afternoon, and on Friday, deadline day, the few became a mob--would be busy at typewriters under the casements, or checking copy on the big table in the center of the room, or just studying. Bowne would sit apart, reading, meditating, talking to friends. He was literary editor, but except for the weekly subway excursions to the printer in Williamsburg (mostly to proofread his own copy) he did not indulge in journalistic routine. He was not even a student. Having completed his credits six months earlier, in June, 1961, he refused to take the concentration exam because he had spent his fresh-man year as a chemistry major and senior year immersed in electives, and didn't feel ready. So he spent two semesters reading English lit, tutoring, auditing a few courses, and working for Phoenix.

Phoenix was not an ordinary college newspaper. Wolff gave space enough to sports and campus politics, which were lively that year, and made a good number of left-liberal forays into the great world outside, but his heart and considerable energies were elsewhere. He wanted the paper to be a forum for students the way scholarly journals were a forum for professors. He was arrogant and sometimes crude, impossible to like wholeheartedly, but he turned Phoenix into a precocious weekly event, marred by undergraduate pomposity but imaginative and remarkably ambitious.

At the heart of Phoenix was a tiny clique: Wolff; Michael Levin, basketball player and jazz expert, late-coming cynosure on the intellectual scene; Annette Riviello, Wolff's good-looking girl friend, a sophomore, ravenous for ideas; Richard Milner, more toward the fringe, a guitar-playing junior anthropology major, not so well versed in the literary-existentialist categories, but a glib troubadour of the group's foibles and ambitions; and favored girls with names like Sara Leffert, Linda Halberstein, June Tauber, Michele Schiffman, and the activist, Lucy Komisar.

These were formidable people--brilliant, incestuous, and sometimes nasty. Steeped in irony, they undercut sincere moral and metaphysical concerns with a hip frivolousness; intensely competitive, they spoke for peace but were forever perpetrating psychological violence. They mythologized each other as they waited to escape into the real world. Doomed to the subway after late dates in Manhattan, dependent on parents even for a place to sleep, their constant speculation was: "Who's going to make it first?"

For they were not dropout material, though they had their misgivings. The enlightened pragmatism of John J. McDermott had few more ardent enthusiasts than third-generation Americans Wolff, Levin, and Riviello. With marks that were good rather than excellent, the Phoenix crowd represented the most serious kind of student, regarding college neither as means to a useful niche (the purview of the responsibles in B Building) nor establishment trap (the consensus of the small caf disenchanted). They took ideas to heart, as impatient with bohemian rant as with academicism, and aimed warily toward the main-stream. Their future was not especially solid, but it was bound to be interesting. If they were strong enough and lucky enough to strike the proper compromises, it might be more.

III

Bowne's relation to the group was polar. He was a familiar lodestone, involved with them all, yet distant, a referent rather than a destination. But he was part of the group, and shared its mainstream concerns. He wrote for Phoenix about movies and civil liberties as well as more arcane subjects. A fan no longer, he could still talk baseball with Wolff and Levin, though he rooted for the Dodgers, not the Yankees. He planned a career in journalism. He did not want to become an "ineffectual intellectual."

Nor was he socially impotent. When he chose, he could argue or shout with any of them. In fact, the group's iconoclasm partook of his style--or rather, his introverted style--as he paced and talked and waved his long arms. Bowne was the first student of the interpersonal dialectic (or "dynogenic social psychology"), a largely imaginary discipline, or game, in which two asynchronous human subjects were meshed and the resulting spatter of gear-teeth carefully graphed. He could mimic students, teachers, anyone. His favorite burlesque, though, was himself, and his baroque monologues, interspersed with French and Latin phrases and punctuated by an imbecilic uvular rumble that became a trademark, often belittled the egoistic ambience of the Phoenix office. He liked to recite long passages from The Iceman Cometh, Lucky's speech from Waiting for Godot, and the opening of Notes From the Underground: "I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease and do not know for certain what ails me . . ."

For the American dream held no fascination for Bowne--he was in search of profundities, of truth with a capital T, committed beneath the antinomian mockery to a process of selfless rational examination that seemed at once foolish and admirable. He was an introvert, an idealist, not really mainstream at all. He seemed aloof and formal to people he didn't know and was usually silent in class. He was a model of kindness, hurting no one deliberately, and probity, trusted to keep his gossip factual. He was incapable of dashing off a half-assed paper on four No-Doz. A figure of the abyss, not the frontier, his rapport with the existential truisms was obviously more than theoretical, and it gave him mythic stature. He emerged an awesome, if somewhat ridiculous, ascetic, as mysterious as his brown-shingled house near Flushing Bay, as foreign as his ancestry.

"Nouveau pauvre," Bowne called himself. His mother and father, first cousins, went back to Puritan Massachusetts. Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather were in the family. Bowne was more unworldly than ascetic--you were sure he ate, but it was hard to imagine him eating--yet the image of Puritan continence told. Most important, he abjured competition--for power, for bylines, for marks. Sexually he seemed unambitious, always third man. He formed platonic friendships with innumerable girls, all of whom agreed he had "nice features." In one monologue he situated himself in a twist joint with an anonymous blonde, then refused when she suggested a dance: "What do you mean, dance? Don't you know I'm a tragic figure, caught up in the maelstrom of twentieth-century existential experience?" "Oh," she would reply, "really?"

It was his sense of humor that made him believable, and likable. It extended to everything he did. He could enjoy Monopoly or softball, but never without equivocation--he had to play the tycoon or the flawless fielder, posing with outstretched glove for a photo of the spectacular catch he hadn't made. He burlesqued his most serious role, the Underground Man, with special energy. His detailed, thoroughly unjournalistic study of the Notes for the paper--the book was required reading that year--was accompanied by a blurry photograph of Bowne, standing outside a shack that was actually one of the GI annexes. He borrowed an image from Beckett: If you wanted to know how he was feeling, you would say: "How's the jar today, Bowne?" and if Bowne weren't too bad he would answer: "I let in a little air." He was a caricature of alienation.

Yet, while he joked, Bowne was fighting a battle, and the reality of alienation was crucial to it. Having lost his 2-S draft exemption when he chose not to graduate, he requested the Selective Service System's questionnaire for conscientious objectors. This seemed almost presumptuous to some. It was easy to avoid the draft without codifying your beliefs. Yet it obviously required courage. Bowne's case was impossible, predicated not on a conventional Supreme Being but on his reverence for conditional Truth and on his ability to "liberate the mind from the body" in an attempt to "neutralize the primary dreads." Laboriously, he formulated his own religion, a positive act that proceeded primarily from negative assumptions. He prepared a 6,000-word philosophical treatise and included all his published college writings (none about war) in his dossier. The precedents were unfavorable--this was before the Seeger decision--yet his case was sustained. The challenge from the draft board was so slight that he wondered if his position had even been understood.

That was the way things went for Bowne. Like the CO affair, other attempts at definition went slightly awry. He helped organize a freedom ride in Maryland. No violence, he warned his group, no provocation--then stumbled onto the toes of a drunken heckler, who said: "Man, you got guts." He began a romance with an Italian girl from Astoria, then broke it up: she joined the Peace Corps. He ran out of gas when he took his driving test for the third time, and passed anyway.

Similar images haunted them all, images of qualified success, hence qualified failure. They were graduating, it was time to effect the synthesis, to make it. Yet when the real alternatives became clear, there was no choice but to remain in school. It was not a happy prospect. The spirit that lusts for "fulfillment" and "identity" is rarely placated by a Ph.D. Only Wolff was energetic enough to wangle financial assistance; he studied English at Minnesota--the Mississippi! American space!--and lived in a dormitory. Levin also studied English, at Connecticut; on Saturday night, he reported, his dormmates would masturbate against Japanese ping-pong paddles. Bowne, at Illinois, chose journalism over English; he was determined to make himself felt outside the university. Before the semester was over, each had dropped out.

Wolff stayed in Minneapolis, but Bowne and Levin returned to New York. Bowne drifted for a while, completed the perfect paper on Graham Greene, and dreamed of returning to school. In need of money and effective activity, he succumbed to the classic fate of the disoriented college graduate--he became a social worker, and lived at home. His office was Veterans' Welfare. Levin tried to make up his incompletes in an apartment near the Five Spot and found himself engaged to Wolff's old girl friend, Annette. Wolff returned briefly from Minnesota and transacted a triumphant dialectic. One day Annette told Michael she was through with him because he didn't under-stand sickness. Only she, Peter, and Bowne under-stood sickness. A few weeks later Levin went to visit his brother in Los Angeles. He never returned.

Milner was in Los Angeles, too, studying at UCLA, and once in a while they would phone Bowne: "Go west, young man"; "It's always sunny out here"; "Everybody's making it"; "It's healthy, Bowne, no more sickness"; "Renew yourself, this is virgin land." Bowne wanted to resist, but his life was bad. He was enmeshed in the old interpersonals. He hated the long journey back to Queens and squabbled unreasonably with his family in the decaying house. Selective Service had reopened his case. And he was approaching the limits of social work. The inability of the system to deal with the brain-impaired Negro whose check is always too low, the Russian intellectual whose sense of balance has been destroyed in an experiment, and the disabled veteran who is not allowed a bottle of solace must, within a short period, drive the young caseworker to bureaucracy, or madness, or unemployment. Bowne was deeper underground than ever, and he wanted out. He hated New York, hated the cold and the grimy buildings and the sickness and his own desperation. One slushy night in February, 1964, Bowne stood outside the West Side Airlines Terminal with a big suitcase. A grizzled drunk approached and asked where he was going. Los Angeles, Bowne replied. The drunk was pleased.

"That's where I'm from," he said. He mused for a second. "You know, it's a great life out there."

IV

At about five o'clock next morning, Los Angeles time, Richard Milner rose from his foldaway bed, dressed, walked outside past the swimming pool, mounted his Vespa, and rode full throttle down the San Diego Freeway to Los Angeles International Airport. It was a heroic gesture--heroic because freeways are not designed for motor scooters, gesture because motor scooters are not designed to carry suitcases. But someone, Milner felt, had to witness the next phase of the pilgrim's progress. Some bard had to record his invocation. And the words came:

"Ah, the rosy-fingered dawn--new horizons, new vistas, new destinies!"

Bowne was full of hope--he had no alternative--and for the next weeks those words became his key-note. He would intone them from the sidewalk at Hollywood and Vine or from the heights of Griffith Park: "New horizons, new vistas, new destinies!" It was not simply a joke. Bowne felt invigorated, free from the wreckage of New York, although his New York friends had not quite made it yet. Milner and his wife managed a building in return for closet-style quarters and had no room for him. Levin, who was still trying to write the perfect paper on William Styron, abandoned it for a while and gave Bowne a mattress and the floor of his room. He slept there soundly long after Levin left each day for his new job with the County Probation Department.

Bowne dawdled for a week as the sun warmed his bones, then began the search for work. But the studios were not looking for writers. The ads were unpromising. Levin suggested part-time employment at a late-night hot dog emporium, and led Bowne to a recent girl friend, Michele II. Bowne was very taken with her. After she drove Bowne home in her Renault, they would talk until dawn outside Levin's window. Ah, Levin would say to himself, with a slight twinge, the old interpersonals. The new world is the same as the old. Levin was not surprised--and neither was Bowne, who had left New York knowing the day would probably come--when Bowne decided to apply for work at the Los Angeles Bureau of Public Assistance.

But it was not so simple. The Bureau of Public Assistance checks every applicant carefully, and for workers there is a paramount requirement: they must own cars, for in the virgin land poverty is diffuse. Cars are expensive in L.A., and Bowne had little money. He borrowed the $195 down payment from his brother Archie, an Air Force captain, and persuaded a cousin of Levin to co-sign the finance agreement. That made him owner of a blue-and-white 1957 Ford. Its price: $500.

He was happy. BPA was reassuringly contemporary, training its workers for a month before putting them in the field, and apparently aware that sociology had advanced since William Graham Sumner. His apartment was not luxurious, but the two rooms were airy, and they were his; his car was also not so hot, but it rendered him mobile for the first time in his life. He had his old friends and made new ones. Michele II returned to Levin, but there were women. There was also Carol, from Pittsburgh, who was something more. He even saved a little money. When Levin switched over to BPA, Bowne helped him buy his car. He found himself loving Los Angeles, loving its climate, its easy movement and mores, its newness. The old philosophical concerns were, if anything, deepened, but he was no longer desperate. He basked in normal pleasures--plentiful, wholesome food, speed on the freeways, the beach. A childhood interest in automobiles was reawakened. He felt free. He had found the promised land, after all.

But slowly the land reneged. Welfare work in West Los Angeles began to assume telltale similarities to welfare work in New York. In fact, it was worse, requiring massive documentation, and Bowne found himself working overtime night after night. His poverty monologues were full of new material. Selective Service was closing in, the FBI interviewing everyone he'd ever known. He feuded with Levin. The supply of girls dwindled, halted. He ran into Michele Teague, nee Schiffman--Levin's Michele I from Queens--who was in L.A. and working for BPA. One day she gave him a collection of his Phoenix articles--she had been saving them, she said, for when he became famous.

Bowne's Ford began to show up in his monologues, too, the butt of bitter jokes. Moldy in the paint and loose in the steering column, its body battered and its radio unreliable, it was nevertheless a good ma-chine and had given him little trouble. But its undistinguished presence grated. He planned a trip to San Francisco with Carol, but couldn't go because the car wasn't fit. Milner, who still rode the scooter, and Levin, whose Pontiac gave him constant trouble, told him he was scapegoating. But Bowne, who had coveted a Thunderbird when he first arrived in L.A., started to frequent the lots in search of an inexpensive sports car.

One Saturday he went with a friend to inspect a $1,200 Austin-Healy at a tiny lot on La Brea. Then he disappeared. His friend found him in the back, scrutinizing a car that was half-obscured by a fence and a pile of old tires. It was a black convertible, very dirty, rusty in spots, its front seat dominated by a huge air-conditioner. The styling was sleek, with fins that somehow did not have that baroque, pre-historic look. "Do you know what that is?" Bowne asked. The friend admitted ignorance. Bowne eyed him half-scornfully.

"That," he pronounced, "is a Dual Ghia."

Then he told the tale of the Dual Ghia, the classic automobile, cream of two continents. It had American comfort--a slightly modified Dodge chassis; American power--a 260-hp Dodge engine; and European sensibility--a hand-tooled body designed by Carrozzeria Ghia, Carrozzeria Ghia of Turin, the finest coachmaker in Europe. Artisans there cried when their work was criticized. Fewer than 200 were made, between 1956 and 1959; they sold for about $8,000. Every one was sold to someone who cared about his automobile--Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Curtis. There it was in front of them: the finest product of the international automotive intelligence, the supreme achievement of the second industrial revolution. It was the Platonic form of all automobiles. It was $3,000, rock bottom, as is.

It was preposterous. Bowne actually wanted to buy that car.

That heavy-assed beast. That status symbol for Hollywood hot dogs. That entree to the Rat Pack. That battered, spendthrift, flamboyant monster.

Bowne did not see it that way. He had encountered the Dual Ghia before, but only in Motor Trend and Playboy. He never expected to see one on a lot. Once he had, he knew what he wanted, and offered reasons with his usual prolixity. It was a Chrysler product; his family had always driven Chrysler products. It was a car of the Great Society. It combined European intellection with a robust American sense of material well-being. It was a symbol of dynamic humanism.

It was also $3,000, rock bottom, as is. Bowne returned for another look and the dealer, Jack Park-house, came down to $2,800. But Bowne was making $125 a week, with less than $100 in the bank, and the finance companies wouldn't touch the car because it wasn't in the Blue Book. Finally a friend of Park-house agreed to take it at 6 per cent over eighteen months, close to a quarter of Bowne's salary. But there were other difficulties. Parkhouse, who dealt only in sports cars, would give him nothing for the Ford, and collision insurance was impossibly expensive. Bowne began to doubt. Then Carol took up with a corporation attorney. A corporation attorney! The substantiality of the concept made Bowne shudder. He offered Parkhouse $2,400. Deal.

Bowne's spirits lightened abruptly. He was full of fond memories. He remembered his family, crowded into the Chrysler, jeering jubilantly whenever it spied a Buick crapped out by the road. He remembered car identification games over Whitestone Parkway. He remembered his oldest friend, Junie Hansen, childhood trips to the showrooms when the new models came out, Junie's Jaguar XK-120, in which Bowne had learned to drive, and his '55 DeSoto, in which he'd finally passed for his license. But when Junie came to live in L.A., in January, 1965, he was mystified--he didn't remember Bowne as a car buff, and anyway, this car was just a headache. Well styled, yes--but the upholstery was torn, the chrome dull, the paint spotty, and you could hear water sloshing whenever you opened a door. In addition, it had a distressing way of going into neutral on a right turn. Sell, he advised--quickly.

Bowne claimed that was just what he had in mind. The Ghia was a collector's item, hence an investment--just fix it up a little, give it the respect it so manifestly deserved, and it would bring a nice profit. For the next year Bowne fixed it up a little. His weekends were spent searching out new mechanics, for although it was only a '57 Dodge, most garages refused to service it. He drove the Ford while the Ghia spent weeks in the shop. A new convertible top fitted with a hand-carved piece of cedar cost $150. Removal of the air-conditioner was $30. Rechroming, piece by piece, added up to over $100. New carpets, new upholstery, and twelve layers of new paint topped off in Coronado red lacquer cost close to $500. There were big things: battery and radiator and tires and differential and muffler and carburetor; and small things: door latch and window handle and radio and horn rim and rear-view mirror. When the fury abated (it never subsided altogether) Bowne had spent a minimum of $1,300 on repairs. And the Ghia still went into neutral on a right turn.

There is a snapshot from that time, one of many. In it the Ghia overlooks the Valley from Griffith Park, the sun glinting off its sweeping diagonals as Bowne, merely upright, stands beside. The car was his daemon. He studied Ghia lore and tried to trace the history of his own machine, numbered 119 inside the left front door. His conclusion, based mostly on body shop apocrypha, was that it had previously belonged to Vic Damone, who damaged it somewhat by driving it into the sea. (No. 119 was first purchased by the owner of Motors, Inc., in El Reno, Oklahoma. It is not impossible that it then passed on to Damone, for despite wealth-spreading efforts by the original distributor in Detroit, Dual Motors, Dual Ghias gravitate to California. The present U.S. franchise holder, Burt Sugarman, is located in Beverly Hills and does two-thirds of his business in Southern California.) Despite appearances, Brown did not identify with the car nuts and other subspecies that dig Ghias; rather, he saw himself as a kind of knight, protecting a noble conception from the incursions of grubby material-ism. His talk was full of phrases like "sculptured dynamism" and "classic rakishness."

His friends were saddened, amused, bored. The Ghia seemed a signal that Bowne had given up. In June, he left the car at a garage in San Fernando Valley while he took a New York vacation. The trip was disastrous. A rendezvous with Carol, who had returned East and was on her way to Europe, fell completely flat. He rented a white Plymouth Fury III convertible, and in one evening was stopped for two moving violations and got caught in the rain with the top down. As soon as he got back to L.A., Bowne called Levin for a lift to the Valley; the car was not ready, but he had to have a look. Levin winced--Bowne had always been a fool in love.

Perhaps Levin was right. Yet Bowne's love sustained him. He had emerged from the depths once again. Three weeks after buying the car, he had driven with Milner to Santa Ana, deep in Orange County, for the long-awaited draft hearing. With the summum of automotive design outside the window, he debated categorical imperative and universal dread for two hours, then whipped north on the freeway. In June, after the Seeger decision, he got his 1-0 classification, and his social work was deemed essential civilian employment.

It was a wise decision, for Bowne had done the near-impossible and maintained some sort of human equilibrium while remaining a caseworker. When he drove to see a client in the Ghia, he felt his compassion had substance; the difficulties of the job were challenges, not frustrations. He was appointed to a BPA team that serviced Watts after the riots, and when Los Angeles social workers struck, Bowne was a leader.

And the girls returned. Perhaps it was just the cycle--Bowne did not go after the kind of chick who's impressed by vintage showpieces--but he was no longer alone. He grew almost sleek on home-cooked food. With a girl in the car he drove with a special, self-deprecating élan. "Class," he would say, slipping the Power-Flite into low and whining toward a red light. "The supreme achievement of the second industrial revolution." And the Cadillac in the next lane would sneak an uneasy glance.

VI

Levin has shucked his Pontiac and drives a middle-aged Rambler as he ekes his way toward a doctorate at UCLA. Junie speaks of his old Jaguar as a youthful extravagance and drives a Volkswagen. Milner, studying at Berkeley, where he has discovered Sexual Freedom, drove Bowne's Ford for a while; he now has a Chevy. Wolff talks occasionally of migrating to California, and he can't even drive. And Bowne has finally quit BPA and is attending graduate school in journalism. He needs money, but so far he hasn't sold the Ghia. His friends all wish he would, for his own sake. What has stretched into years of buffoonery might finally come to an end.

It is strange that they don't understand, for John J. McDermott taught all about it in college--the frontier as extension of self, empiricism as the fruition of existentialism, technology as the image of man, the dignity of material things. Bowne never believed it all, but he lives it. Like his forefathers, he has learned that ideas are not enough. The Puritans manifested their faith by toil in God's green world; the Ghia, all chrome and red lacquer, is an image of Bowne's hope, his affirmation of the international automotive intelligence, his extension of himself across the continent.

Or perhaps they do understand, but are unwilling themselves to pay the occasionally foolish price of becoming an American.

Cheetah, 1968

Postscript Notes:

The following was published in a sidebar box when this piece was republished in the Queens College Alumni Magazine [date?]:

Although he is himself Dartmouth '62, Robert Christgau grew up in Flushing and says that half his friends in high school went to Queens College. The Supreme Achievement of the Second Industrial Revolution, first published in Cheetah in 1968, grew out of those friendships and all the talk he heard about the College. Mr. Christgau now writes a column called Rock & Roll & for the Village Voice and plans to move to Los Angeles in September--like some of the alumni in the story.