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From My Father, Myself; A Memoir
By Richard Humphries
The roadside orange juice stands began to appear as soon as we crossed into Florida. I had never seen such spots before and glided the Oldsmobile Delta 88 to the third or fourth one we came upon. This wasn’t the usual A. & P. Supermarket’s frozen yellow sludge. This juice was like none I had ever tasted and was incredibly slaking to my sixteen year old gulps. The Drunk Couple lay snoring in each other’s arms as my Timex read six-thirty in the morning. So far my entire hitchhiking trip, solo, from Pontiac had surprised me at every turn. The friendliest was the salesman going from Detroit to Knoxville. He was a father of three boys
and insisted on buying me two meals before dropping me off and handing me five bucks and good luck, kid. The scariest was flying down the hills of Kentucky, hanging on and sitting shotgun in a ’57 Chevrolet Belair, slightly under the influence of moonshine. It was the first time I had ever been in a car doing a hundred miles per hour. The Drunk Couple were good enough sports. The deal was, I would drive as they sat in the back seat, taking long pulls from pints in paper bags. They played grab-ass and murmured sex stuff while I drove for the fifth time on my fresh State of Michigan Operator’s License. When the cop in Georgia pulled me over, I explained I was getting used to the car, thus the erratic lane changes.
“How long you been driving, son?’ the Trooper asked. “About two months,” I replied and he stifled a laugh and explained he meant driving today? He was all right, told me to take it carefully and took off in his cruiser. In 1968 such things happened. The Drunk Couple were fat and kept that way by insisting I stop at the next Sambo’s I saw. The coffee shops in this chain were easily identified by their colorful logo; a Black Sambo, in britches, running from a tiger ‘round and ‘round a Palm tree. The Drunk Couple loved Sambo’s famous pancakes. They would treat to stacks of flapjacks with all kinds of syrups. I encouraged this as I viewed the caloric wonders as good booze sponges and, Jesus, did they put the Wild Turkey away. The whisky came from a case of pints in the trunk, each
a full one hundred and one proof alcohol. Good God, they could drink. We parted, at long last, when I took a wrong exit that night, ending up at the end of a road, on a beach, facing the ocean not thirty yards distant. The Drunk Couple got a bit belligerent and I said my goodbyes. We had made it to the outskirts of Miami. Michigan was getting too small for me, yet I possessed a certain degree of caution, as large as my adventures were. The Republicans were holding their National Convention in Miami Beach, a somewhat legitimate excuse with Mom whose approval was fundamental to all major undertakings. I faked up some ‘press credentials’ as a photojournalist by way of a letter from my pal on the school newsletter staff. This document, combined
with my fascination for a new-to-me Canon 35 millimeter camera represented enough proof of my qualifications to my mother; a woman not adverse to catching a break from her sixteen year old son’s shenanigans. Miami. Sun. Beaches. Girls. And the Republican National Convention. It was that or the Democrats and the Democrats were holding their Convention in Chicago. Any guy on vacation from Detroit who chooses Chicago over Florida should have his head examined. So I closed the deal with Mom and pointed my thumb South. Miami Beach, man. A room in an Art Deco hotel in South Beach—it appeared merely decrepitly old in 1968—set me back twelve bucks for the two-night minimum. Things would improve, I was always sure back then.
Her name was Christy. I am certain of it as her name added an unnecessary layer of religious guilt to our activities. Christy was three years older than I, a light year when you are sixteen. She was an older woman and a virgin. She would remind me of her maiden state three or four times a day as we madly made out in the stairwell of the Fontainebleau Hotel. She would gasp about her condition between kisses as our legs became entwined. Then she would bolt off, like Sambo escaping the tiger’s clutches. Deep down, part of me didn’t mind having a limit to our activity. My mother had raised her boys to try to be good.
Besides, Christy’s enthusiastic Young Republicanism seemed so innocent. From her American flag cardboard hats to the red and white bows on her blue patent leathers, she was a believer. I had met her five roommates, fellow Nixon volunteers and equally politics-crazy, on this second day of the Convention. It was my fourth day in Miami and the sun and the warm ocean water had given my teenager skin a healthy glow. Wandering the halls of the hotel, Nixon Headquarters, I had come upon this covey the previous day and found I was the only male of my generation present. I was made to feel welcome.
“Welcome, Mister Nixon,” the Woman-InCharge of the volunteers—and eventually responsible
for providing me a free double bed—said. “You’ll get a kick out of this.” I was about to again allow the woman’s little joke. Pitiful, but I wanted to stay around for more sessions with Christy. “This young man’s name is Richard Wallace Humphrey,” she would giggle with girlish wonder. “Isn’t that a hoot?” Our routine would be met with a good-natured shake of the head on the hearer’s part. The punch line lay in the fact that Richard was shared with Nixon’s name, Wallace was a Southern Governor running on his own and Humphries could be slurred to represent the supposed Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey. My hormones persuaded me to go along with the mispronunciation.
Ex-Vice President Nixon seemed all right, to tell the truth. The visit was a combined Goodwill, Press and Comeback Tour. The newspaper guys went along with the bit and my mother was amazed to read the UPI item about a high school reporter of the name Richard Wallace Humphrey in the Detroit Free Press at work the next day. Impressed by her son’s adventures, she sportingly accepted my expensive late-night collect call to tell her of my meeting both Nixon and John Wayne in the same day. She was not so impressed with this report. But Nixon was friendly, asked me where I was from and thanked me for my non-existent Young Republican support. Christy glowed at me from across the room.
I almost felt like a fake but reminded myself I was there not only as a horny teenager but also as a Journalist. Christy wasn’t the only Republican full of surprises. Nixon pulled it off, somehow getting the nomination on the first ballot. He owned the Convention until surprising everyone with his Vice Presidential choice the next day. The Young Republicans surprised me with a paid bus ticket home. All this after they comped my nonshared Fontainebleau Hotel room. And Christy would shyly visit my flocked-wallpaper lair where we improvised intimate excursions that circumnavigated her sexual obstacles. ‘NIXON’S THE ONE!’ her red-white-and-blue sash proclaimed, hanging from the bathroom door.
I did my part to help to earn my keep. When I was out and about taking photos, I’d often run an errand for the ladies; pick up Convention tickets at another hotel, get some more pizzas. The huge Fontainebleau Hotel squatted facing the long white stretch of sand and aqua waters in Miami Beach. It was packed with happy Republicans smelling of tobacco smoke and perfume and drinks and aftershave. The pool was a blast and I found the cabana guys would simply ignore my non-tipping presence if Christy came with. I recall her wearing a very nonvirginal red, white and blue bikini. I was really enjoying myself. . . . I was beginning to feel miserable.
My new job, at age 30, was an executive position at New York’s oldest art gallery. But something about my boss, ‘The ‘Doctor’, troubled me. A very rich man, he had recruited me based on my reputation in San Francisco as an accomplished art gallery director. But, three months after moving to Manhattan from Mill Valley, I felt I might have been hired to amuse my employer; like a trained monkey. And I couldn’t pin him down on the money promises. I’d get a run-around. How do you think he got so rich? I’d remind myself. I’d traipse along on our weekly visit to La Goulue, anxious to broach the subject of money. A Croque Monsieur for me and a Caesar salad, no dressing or anchovies, for The Doctor.
It became a familiar dance. I’d try to pin him down. He’d remind me to think BIG. Think of sales, not salary. What did I think of the current project? And I’d respond with some positive sounding bullshit about the Current Project. The Current Project consisted of my being present during his sittings for a Park Avenue portrait painter. “How’s it looking?” he asked me from his seat on the studio’s riser as The Artist worked at his easel. I’d be standing in the rear of the room and cringed every time he asked. “Gosh,” I’d say in wonder, “I’ve never seen such use of burnt sienna.”
New to New York, I could still be fame-struck at times. “Hello, Mister President,” I said to the man getting out of the limo. Nixon turned and looked at me. “I met you in Miami in 1968.” His daughter, Julie, lived with her husband David Eisenhower in a co-op building directly across the street from the gallery. We were all in the same block as the Frick, between Fifth and Madison Avenues. I rented a parking space in the building’s garage. Politically, I had nothing in common with the disgraced former President of The United States. But I just had to say ‘Hello.’ Out of politeness or fascination. He silently smiled and nodded past the security man next to him, moving to shake my hand.
“Richard Wallace Humphries,” I said idiotically as we briefly shook hands. “Wonderful to see you, Sir.” Mother would have approved of my manners.
It was again time for our weekly La Goulue pilgrimage and surely The Doctor had straightened out my employment contract by now. I hadn’t paid my Amex account on time and was wondering if the plastic card would withstand the lunch tab. The Doctor never reached for the bill and Accounting took their time with the reimbursements. Was I was low-key enough in my dark blue, double-breasted designer suit? Was I dressing too well for these outings? Maybe a more financially stressed look?
No. You have to Dress For Success. ‘He Who Dies With The Most Toys Wins’, we liked to think in 1982. I met The Doctor at the elevator and we went down two stories to the gallery’s main floor. “Mister Humphries?” A very clean-cut guy asked as we walked by the reception desk. “President Nixon would like to have a word with you.” The man flipped out his badge. Secret Service is such a nineteenth century sounding agency. I don’t remember crossing the street, but I do remember the agents asking The Doctor to stand back, please, Sir? And I remember Richard Milhous Nixon pointing the index finger of his right hand at me.
“You were there as a Young Republican, weren’t you?” he said between the two of us, sure of himself. “I remember you.” The ex-President smiled and strolled away, leaving my boss and me to walk the five blocks to the restaurant in silence. My new status in The Doctor’s eyes inspired him to finally confirm my pay package over lunch. . . . The first stop on my Bahamas honeymoon the next year was Miami for one night. We stayed at the Fontainebleau. They have a Marilyn Monroe suite and a JFK suite, but not a room named after Nixon. Not one.
Cover design: www.ryanhumphries.com Cover image: Library of Congress; Prints Coll., Washington, D.C