A Short History of the Latter Part of the 20th Century
While the rest of the student body at Patton High went nuts over football, my friends and I concerned ourselves with more pressing matters, like nuclear disarmament, social injustice and whatnot.
I’m not exactly what you might call handsome, but I look a lot like Bob Dylan. That is I’m short, my hair’s kind of unruly and my nose is kind of crooked. Okay, I’ve never actually seen Bob Dylan, but he seems like he would be kind of short.
So the thing is I was never going to get the girls who went for all-American athletic types so I aimed for those with more substance to them, not just a sexy smile, a nice set and great legs, but a sexy smile, a nice set and great legs, plus a brain. Okay, if I had to sacrifice something I’d forget about the nice set. I was never really one for big bozangas (sorry about the sexism, but remember this is 1965, what’d we know?).
Spring of our Junior Year my buddy Irv Shatski suggested we demonstrate our deep felt concerns about racial equality by participating in an upcoming march in Jackson, Mississippi to protest yet another outrageous racially charged incident (I don’t recall exactly what it was, after all, it was close to fifty years ago).
We tried to get Irv’s girl Nora, and Abby, who I was making out with from time to time, to come along with us, but their folks would have no part of it. So it ended up being Irv, myself, and two Negro kids, Ronnie Fields and William Harper (yeah, I know, Negro doesn’t cut it anymore, but despite the publication in 1961 of Black Like Me, black, didn’t come into vogue at Patton until a year or so later, sometime around 1966, and at the time, Negro was still largely considered a step up from colored.).
Ronnie and Will were the only two Negro boys in the whole school who weren’t on the football team (I suppose I could have said, male Negroes, but to me that sounds even worse.).
We had two others who were, Roosevelt Taylor, a handsome fullback with a penchant for white girls that almost got him killed, andFranklin“Bubba” Williams, a three hundred pound tackle. We also had a Negro girl. She wore glasses and was in my chemistry class but other than that I don’t remember much about her.
We took turns driving Irv’s Ford Fairlane down to the land of cotton, took turns that is, until we hit North Carolina, when prudence dictated that Ronnie and William stay put in the back seat.
We knew there was real danger involved. People had been beaten, jailed and a couple of times, shot. But we felt strongly about the cause, and the feelings of high school students concerning the things that matter to them, run deep. For proof, look no further than the horrific fights following the football games against Patton’s rival, Lindberg Technical.
The trip South was uneventful except for a busted radiator hose. We pulled off the highway inNorth Carolinato a Sunoco where this burly, cigar-chomping character, right out of Life Magazine’s photo essay on the Jim Crow South, came ambling up to the Ford, smelling of Vitalis and just a hint of hard liquor.
He asks how’s it going, doesn’t give a second glance to Ronnie and Will in the back seat, or theNew Yorktags, replaces the hose (and, we realize later, according to the invoice, doesn’t even charge us for the labor).
Too nervous to sleep, we drive straight through the night, pausing at a Stuckey’s here and there for pit stops, No-Doze washed down with black coffee, and those little Stuckey’s pecan pies that come two to a package.
The paranoia at the scene in Jacksonwas so thick you could club it to death with a baseball bat. There was the usual drone of speeches, along with Joan Baez strumming her stirring “We Shall Overcome” number (“stirring,” in the same sense that Peter Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” number later stirs the crowd at the peace demos, and Richard Kiley’s rendition of “The Impossible Dream” stirs Broadway audiences around the same time, in “Man of La Mancha”).
I couldn’t say if King was there or not. He probably was.
The fact is I wasn’t paying strict attention on account of we’re at the back of the crowd and can’t hear all that well, partly due to the murderous screams and threats emanating from a mix of overweight and beanpole skinny red-faced bystanders, restrained behind the sawhorses by the cordon of overweight and beanpole skinny red-faced cops separating the solid citizens from the Commie instigators.
Murderous threats aside, the march took place more or less without incident, but those threats bounced around in my head until we crossed safely intoDelaware. I’m kind of vague on whereMarylandstood but I’m pretty sureDelawarewas on the side of Lincoln and Grant.
Its summer and I’m supposed to start college in the Fall. MeanwhileNamis heating up pretty good and in June it occurs to me to ditch higher education and join the U.S. Fighting Machine, after all, why should I leave it up to my classmates and others like them to protect the cherished freedoms that I too enjoy?
But the summer comes and goes and what with breaking up with Abby and then getting back together again and hanging out in the Village with her and Irv and Nora at The Fat Black Pussycat and the Purple Onion and Gerde’s Folk City, I never actually get around to enlisting.
Personal computers aren’t around in 1966, so the first weeks of college are mostly about waiting in line. Waiting in line to register, waiting in line to buy books, waiting in line to drop courses and sign up for others, waiting in line to return the books for the dropped courses and purchase books for the others, waiting in line at the cafeteria for lunch and waiting in line at the G and E Quality Beverage to purchase beer with my newly purchased fake ID.
On one of my trips to the bookstore in the basement of the Student Union I spot this chick. In the interests of historical accuracy, this is 1966 and chicks is still considered by both males and females as okay. Again, who knew?
She’s standing with four or five others behind the Students for a Democratic Society table in the lobby, handing out literature and venturing her opinions on the war with members of the student body.
The discussion between the boys and girls on either side of the table is what you might call heartfelt, and on more than one occasion leads to more intimate, physical contact between the two groups.
Most, but not all of those on the other side of the table could have been poster boys and girls, but mostly boys, for all that was good and wholesome in the land of the free at that time, big athletic blondes, smelling of English Leather and Canoe and Brut, neatly dressed in pressed madras shirts, khakis and boat shoes with no socks.
On the other side of the table, the fashion statement ran toward raggedy Levi jackets over raggedy t-shirts and raggedy jeans, some smelling of Patchouli, some just smelling.
But Liz stands out like the kid on the picture you get when you donate the daily price of a cup of coffee to Feed the Children, the same huge eyes, model thin figure and sad pouted lips, only all grown up (understand that back in 1966 everybody was still objectifying each other).
I squeeze my way to the front of the table, through my similarly clad, madras favoring brethren and get lost in those Feed the Children eyes. Doing my part to keep the conversation moving along, I ask why it is she thinks helping the Vietnamese in their fight for freedom is such a bad idea.
“Excuse me,” I say, tugging on her sleeve to draw her attention away from the Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike she’s screaming at, “Why it is you think helping the Vietnamese in their fight for freedom is such a bad idea?”
I don’t hear her answer. It’s too noisy on account of all the carrying on all around me, plus I’m not listening.
She has this peculiar way of moving her lips when she speaks that’s Hard to describe. Lips neither too full nor too skimpy. Perfect lips. Lips that form words as though maybe she should have had a lisp but she doesn’t. Well, maybe she does. A slight one.
Converted to the other side of the table by her compelling arguments and Ivory Snow complexion, over the next several weeks I haunt Goodwill for a suitably worn Levi jacket and go downtown for a Che t-shirt, and to hold my own in conversations with Liz and my other newfound comrades, I also read up on the war and its historical antecedents, and through my readings recognize the skirmish for what it is, essentially a last-ditch effort by a colonial power to retain its sphere of influence in an increasingly rebellious world.
Meanwhile closer to home, Liz is sleeping with a teaching assistant, a lanky goateed balding fellow, Bill somebody or other. It’s been a long time and I forget some of the details. He’s not a dyed in the wool member of our group, but only sort of hangs around the periphery.
But being as how this is the Sixties, just because a person is in a serious relationship with someone, it doesn’t mean that if a person is stoned and drunk enough, and maybe another person is also stoned and drunk enough, things can’t happen, say for instance at a party at a run-down house referred to as the Old Factory in a blue collar neighborhood in the Bronx.
The crowd is an eclectic and loosely knit group of new left radicals, far left liberals, at least one old-time Bolshevik, a handful of Maoists from the Progressive Labor Party, and no doubt, a smattering of narcs and secret police keeping an eye on things for Uncle Sam.
Leroy, an older black guy of around forty, is passing around Viet Cong Flags that he printed himself on the press in his basement apartment in Bed Sty. Leroy also prints a variety of other items, leaflets condemning the war, posters and so on.
Bobby Freed hands me a jay the size of a White Owl. He’s a grad student fromPrincetonpursuing a Doctorate in Physics and he’s presumed dead now so I can use his real name. During his last known gig he was the Physics Proctor at the Universidad de Santiago deChile, where he was one of many who “disappeared” during the CIA-backed overthrow of the democratically elected Salvador Allende.
I idolized Bobby, sharp, articulate and very, very funny, one of the full-time rent-paying residents of the Old Factory along with four or five, sometimes six or seven others.
Meanwhile, back at the party, the front door slams open and Brodsky makes his entrance carrying a full case of Stolichnaya. A bearded gargantuan hulk who speaks five or six languages, Brodsky wears his pea coat and combat boots regardless of the season, proudly carries a membership card from the International Workers of the World, and lives with his elderly Jewish grandmother in a walk-up tenement on theLower East Side.
At the head of the line dancing in unison to Gladys Knight, are Mark Steinberg and Debbie Jones, an interracial couple, living in a fourth floor tenement off ofLennox AvenueinHarlem, at Mark’s insistence more than Debbie’s.
Sam Brown is a dumpy fellow who favors tan corduroy sport jackets complete with elbow patches. A member of the less inflammatory, more reasonable, liberal faction of the group, Sam has Liz cornered in the kitchen, sharing his insight into some arcane area of a White Paper on the economics of the war. Sam had an acute ability to clearly see both sides of every issue. Every issue. You name it. Both sides.
I’ve had several hits of hash and maybe four or five shots of Stolis and from the looks of her so has Liz. “Sorry to interrupt Sam old buddy old pal,” I say, “but Liz told me that since Bill’s away on some conference in Utah or someplace, this would be the perfect opportunity for her and I to jump on the pile of coats upstairs in the bedroom and fuck each other’s brains out.”
Sam gives out with a theatrical chuckle, as though I’m making this up, which of course I am and Liz giggles (a genuine giggle) and follows me upstairs to the coat room.
Terry Gold is another real name I can use, because roughly around the same time the CIA was undermining democracy inChile, Terry accidentally blew himself up in a townhouse inGreenwich Village.
Terry was a handsome James Dean look alike, every bit as intense, and prone to losing it behind the table during the interactions with the student body at large. At one point during a discussion with a muscle-bound member of the student body twice his size in a tight “Love it or leave it!” t-shirt, Terry emphasizes his point by flying across theSDStable and lunging at the motherfucker. Shortly thereafter other members of the student body overturn the table and leaflets are flying everywhere.
I see Brodsky holding up two hapless collegiate sorts by the scruff of their necks and banging them into each other. Well okay, I just made that up because it sounds good. Actually, the last I see of Brodsky, the metal frames on his glasses are bent crooked across his nose and he’s wiping the sweat off his forehead with what looked like the remnant of a madras shirt.
Leroy has blood all over himself, none of it apparently his, Bobby’s throwing lefts and rights, and I’m right beside him, taking more than I’m giving out, finally on the ground getting the living shit kicked out of me, Mark keeps appearing and disappearing into the melee and at least one of the girls is screaming.
Sam and his more reasonable liberal contingent are nowhere around.
Finally, order is restored to the tune of the shrill whistles of Campus Security. Leroy and Brodsky are charged for trespassing and a host of other misdemeanors, labeled non-student agitators and fined twenty-five dollars each, a fine Leroy pays with a rubber check, supporting it with one of the many realistic-looking IDs he carries, fresh off his printing press. Brodsky refuses to pay, choosing instead to spend the night in a cell. Mark, Ted, Liz and I are placed on disciplinary probation, and for some reason Bobby gets lost in the shuffle.
Gradually over time the group splits up into factions and one faction decides to quit staging protests against the Administration over the right of students to print the word cocksucker in the school newspaper, and moves on to bigger and better things (or counterproductive acts of destruction, depending on your point of view). That group includes Bobby, for a short time at least, Mark but not Debbie, Ted and I and some Maoists from the campus Progressive Labor Party, a no-nonsense blonde we’ll call Betty, a sultry brunette (is there any other kind?) we’ll refer to as Veronica and her old man who’s dead now, but since I don’t remember his real name we’ll have to settle for Archie.
They never did get all of us. Just like in the Twenties and Thirties with the gangsters, the guardians of freedom made a big deal out of a few arrests, but they never caught Betty or Veronica, or one of the real brains of the outfit, a short balding fellow with a pockmarked face we’ll call Bert, just to not name a few. The fact is most of us got away clean.
But it wasn’t working.
Many of the bombings never even made any headlines, at least two that I was involved in. I say involved in, but in one of those all I did was scout out the place ahead of time, I didn’t actually participate in the action itself.
Along with the two incidents that I happen to know about firsthand, Scanlon Magazine documented another ten or fifteen a month that went unreported by the straight press. Scanlon’s claimed the reason for the lack of coverage was that the powers that be wanted to keep things under wraps in case this sort of thing caught on and they had a full-scale revolution on their hands.
I’ve always preferred to imagine what my life is like rather than deal with how it actually is. But blowing things up never really did catch on and the way my life actually was began to intrude on my reveries about how I would have liked to imagine it was. The real-life emotional cost of being underground, constantly moving from safe house to safe house, unable to contact family and friends, and all the tension and the paranoia eventually took its toll. So, like Betty and Veronica and the rest, eventually I left it all behind.
At some point I ditch my copy of An Anarchist’s Cookbook and throw on an apron to go pearl diving at a cafe in theWestVillage. Breaking for a smoke I spot this girl at one of the tables near the window (here in 1975, “chick” is now passé, but “girl” is not yet out in most circles), long black hair, hooded eyelids straight out of Da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, a dark Mediterranean complexion, and a small build.
The short version is we fell in love, Margaret and I. The real thing. Not just two people objectifying one another. Genuine honest to goodness love. We really cared about each other. Okay, maybe some objectifying. But that very well might be a part of what real love is all about. Or maybe we just have to objectify hard enough to cross over from ordinary objectifying into something deeper.
Anyhow you can argue all you want about the politics of our relationship and probably make a pretty good case for how I exploited her for my own selfish purposes or she exploited me. But the day-to-day of it was we enjoyed each other’s company. A lot.
There was no my bread and her bread. For years and years there was no bread, period, but what bread there was, was ours. The dishes weren’t her job. Fixing the toilet wasn’t mine. She was better with a plunger than I was, I was better with…well, okay, nothing comes to mind right off, but I did my share.
She moved in with me in the dump I was living in inAlphabetCity, fourth-floor walk-up, tub in the kitchen etcetera, etcetera. No cockroaches though. I’m not sure why. The neighbors had them.
At first her parents weren’t wild about the idea and we weren’t too wild about her parents. I should say, I wasn’t too wild. They were local, out inLong Island. She went home during the day on weekends and I could tell the situation preyed on her more than she let on.
But eventually her sister drops out of Berkeleyand moves in with a black guy and all of a sudden I’m, pardon the expression, the white sheep (as opposed to the black one, who replaces me at the top of their shitlist). I’m now included on the invite to all kinds of family functions, her mom’s birthday, her baby sister’s dance recital, you name it and everything is hunky-dory which in a way is a load off, especially for Margaret. The downside of course, is that I have to actually show up at these things and make chit-chat.
Her old man was some sort of scientist, I wasn’t really paying attention. He favored those knitted Rooster ties, a plaid sport jacket and suede desert boots. Mainly, he puffed thoughtfully on his pipe. Other than that nervous tic he had where his face contorted every so often for a second or two, especially when the talk turned slightly political, he generally seemed pleasant enough. Totaled the Lexus when he died of a stroke about six months after Margaret and I got together and was out of the picture by the time of the truce between her mother and us – I mean me.
The old lady generally took it upon herself to keep the conversation going. One of those closet drinkers was my guess, who seemed to be stepping out of the closet more and more (She finally died of liver cancer just recently. It took her awhile.).
I’ve told Margaret bits and pieces about my past adventures. Not too much. She’s sharp enough not to ask. I suppose it comes down to trust. But with other people involved there’s no percentage in giving her too many details. You just never know. I have told her enough that if she wanted to make a phone call she could. But I doubt she ever will. You love someone, you have to figure they won’t turn on you. If you’re wrong well, you’re wrong.
It’s like when Jean Paul Belmondo gets betrayed by his girlfriend in “Breathless,” he just shrugs his shoulders and says something like, “Robbers rob, squealers squeal.”
Comes a time when you’ve got to decide to have kids or get off the pot. Actually it’s more like have kids AND get off the pot. Kids change the whole fucking equation. It’s the Eighties and at this point, clearly the revolution’s been lost. So what’s next?
She’s got herMSWand counsels at a drug clinic. I’ve finally got my degree after about twelve years of dropping in and out, and start teaching English at an alternative school run by the Quakers, who, beneath their veneer of tolerance I find to be just as petty and dictatorial as the Catholics who terrorized me in grade school. Despite the Quakers and their continued not-so-subtle attempts to supplant critical thinking with their demagoguery, the teaching gig is okay, but there’s no money in it.
So when Margaret finally becomes with child, it’s time for me to make some cash so we can get the hell away from the minorities I felt so deeply about at one time, and raise the kid in a decent (read, lily-white) neighborhood where he can ride his bike and play soccer with other kids of his social standing.
What are we supposed to do? Have our kid get beat up everyday for being the only white kid in his class? We decided it’s not a racial thing, it’s a class thing. There are white neighborhoods where he’d be just as likely get beat up for being different, and probably middle-class black neighborhoods where he wouldn’t have any problems. I’ve given up justifying, or maybe I mean rationalizing the choices I’ve made in life. Or maybe I haven’t. Maybe I am just justifying, maybe not rationalizing.
It gets worse. To make the monthly nut in our new digs I have to bring in some grown-up money. I mention this to one of the parents at the Quaker school and end up with a moderately high-paying gig at her consulting firm.
Since then, in an effort to keep the paychecks coming, I’ve hopped from one firm to another, as contracts and work come and go, penning harmless horseshit for agencies like the EPA and the Department of Education.
Since the Government, here in the land of the free, is mainly concerned with corporate profits, the EPA spends most of its budget protecting polluters and the Department of Education tries to ensure that public schools toe the line and support the lies and half-truths the Government propagates.
But at least I swore I would never go so low as to work for the Defense Department.
Suddenly I’m laid off, right when the kids were finishing high school, and all the available jobs seem to be in defense.
Margaret’s only working part-time, making peanuts with no benefits, and being fifty and laid off with kids still depending on me for medical insurance and food and shelter, I take the first job I can find, which happens to be writing training materials for the United States Army, the very same U.S. Fighting Machine I thought about joining up with thirty years earlier.
You didn’t need a background check and a drug test to sell jock straps at a sporting goods store in those days. You didn’t even need a clearance to write training materials for the armed forces, instructions written in comic book form at a Third Grade reading level. So that’s what I did. I wrote comic books training the U.S. Fighting Machine on such topics as the operation of the M60A1 U.S. Army Main Battle Tank, as well as other weaponry. Weaponry they can then use to put down revolutions. Comic books. At a Third Grade reading level.
My guess is the guards atAuschwitzweren’t all monsters. No doubt a good number of them were family men like myself, just happy to have a decent job, secure and with good benefits to provide for their families.
Our kids are grown now. One’s at Harvard on a fellowship pursuing a graduate degree in some sort of environmental horseshit, and the other’s inParisdoing whatever he’s doing. We don’t stay in touch much.
Margaret and I still look after each other. I worry about her blood pressure. She worries about my drinking. The sex may not be what it once was, but then again, what is? I think I enjoy it more than she does, but I’m still considerate, which I suppose is today’s code word for I do my best to see that she gets off before I do, or, if worse comes to worse, at least after.
I don’t read as much as I used to. Can’t seem to concentrate. Started a biography of Che but I noticed it was giving me bad dreams, so I put it down.
Last summer I took Margaret out to meet Veronica. Remember Veronica? She’s a housewife now. Her kids are grown too but she keeps busy, volunteers at a women’s shelter, a nursing home and she and her latest husband are in a Fifty-five and Over League that bowls twice a week. He was away on a fishing trip at the time, so we didn’t get to meet him.
Veronica says she’s been pretty much out of touch with everybody from back then. Says she prefers it that way. She looks old. I suppose we both look old. I guess we are old.
One guy we were pretty tight with evidently wrote a book. Veronica says she hasn’t read it. Apparently hardly anybody else has either. She says she saw it remaindered at Leon T’s, the local radical bookstore.
Another guy made a documentary. It too tanked. Seems like nobody out there gives a shit anymore. People want to see computerized special effects. They get bored in a hurry just watching other human beings.
Margaret seems restless at Veronica’s. She keeps popping her gum. She does that when she’s nervous, or sometimes when she’s just bored. Most times it doesn’t bother me, but for some reason it’s really getting on my nerves. At any rate, we don’t stay long. After about an hour we leave and go sightseeing, taking in all the usual tourist stuff people take in when they’re visiting this town.
I want to take her by the Dow Chemical building. On the way over I tell her how forty years ago the building had been damaged when a bomb went off (a strategically planted set of bombs actually), killing a security guard who fails to heed the warning.
Margaret doesn’t say anything, but I can tell she’s upset. Myself, I’m sorry it happened. It certainly wasn’t intentional but after all, he was warned. I prefer to think of it as collateral damage. Sounds cold maybe, but it’s like the man said, a revolution, even a half-assed revolution, is not a tea party. Anyhow that’s all history now.
We turn the corner but the building’s gone. In its place are a Sports Authority, a Starbucks and a Target.
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