On the way home from school, Jerry stops in at a store and looks at a Playboy magazine. He worries that a girl will never love him, and that he will die before he gets to touch a girl’s breast. Jerry is too intimidated to buy the magazine, however, and leaves the store empty-handed.
Jerry’s classic teenage fears—and burgeoning teenage lust—demonstrate that he is just like any other boy at the end of the day; all he wants is to feel loved, accepted, and desired.
Out at the bus stop, Jerry reflects on the three days of brutal football tryouts he has endured, and stares at some hippies who have gathered in the Common across the street. Once a strange sight to behold, they are now “part of the scenery,” and Jerry is so absorbed in looking at them that he doesn’t notice when one of them crosses the street to come talk to him. The hippie calls Jerry out for staring at their group. Jerry denies staring, but the hippie presses him further, urging Jerry not to ogle their group as if they are “sub-humans.”
The book is set in the mid-1970s, a time when hippies and countercultural youth had become “part of the scenery” but still outliers within society. As Jerry ogles the group, he doesn’t even realize he is doing so; he may not even be aware of his fascination with them, but after this interaction, he certainly will be.
Jerry attempts to extricate himself from the conversation, but the hippie keeps on nagging Jerry. He tells Jerry that it is Jerry who is the “sub-human” for following the same routine; Jerry, he says, is a “square boy,” who is already middle-aged at just fourteen. The bus arrives, and Jerry hurries to get on. The hippie calls out to Jerry: “You’re missing a lot of things in the world, better not miss that bus.”
This confrontation sees a free-thinking, free-loving hippie denigrate Jerry for his “square” lifestyle and allegiance to routine. Jerry is a fourteen-year-old student, so of course he has a routine; but nevertheless, the hippie’s words cut Jerry deep, and they will reverberate throughout the larger plot of the novel.
As Jerry boards the bus, his heart hammers in his chest. The hippie’s words echo in his ears. He tells himself to ignore them, but cannot. He looks up at some advertising placards above the bus windows, and sees some graffiti scrawled there. Why, one person has written. Why not, someone else has scribbled. Jerry closes his eyes, exhausted, not wanting to think about the obvious symbolism.
Jerry thinks of the hippie’s words as he heads home. When he tries to ignore them, he finds himself perturbed by the graffiti on the bus, which takes the same searching, indicting tone as the hippie’s assessment of Jerry’s life. The “why not?” scrawled on the bus ad also foreshadows Jerry’s preoccupation with yet another searching psychological question.