Thursday, March 24, 2016

Memory bites

So this whole blog is one long memory. And being such, it is filled with inaccuracy. Just sayin'. Nothing purposeful, but the old gray matter ain't what it used to be.

Anyway, back at the Arlington Street Church. I never did join the theater troop. I believe they were on their way out of town, to do a road tour. They planned to attend other sanctuaries, rallies, protests and similar gatherings across the country. Or so I think. The memory. I know this. I continued to live in the house on Grove St. sleeping on the couch, with my sometimes boyfriend Kenny, who was real cute and also a real folk singer.

This was after Rick the Actor, so it had to be after the Theater group in the basement. Or so logic would dictate. With Kenny, I would go to all night hootenannies at a little coffee house on Charles St. (I think. Maybe it was on Revere? Note to self, find the menu I saved for the sake of my old age memoirs and see if the address is there. Not that anyone will care, it's just that I care).

Better than the menu, I found an article with a drawing from 1967 of the club, definitely on Charles St. Already in 67, they were lamenting the end of folk music.
Sword in the Stone, circa 1967, by S. Grosso

I think there was a curfew in Boston and no one was to be out after a certain hour. Keep your rabble indoors! Otherwise they might get roused up and, I don't know, throw some tea into the harbor.

Everyone was very stoned in those days, so anything could have happened in the wee hours.

Maybe there was no curfew and the guy who ran the coffeehouse, who was tall with short cropped hair and I think used to be a drill sergeant in the Army, he was the most unfolk like folk proprietor I ever met, maybe he just liked to make you stay and listen to all the performers, even the really bad ones, so he locked the door, kinda like my high school did the night of our prom, when we had to stay up all night and watch Sound of Music.

Kenny sang "My name is Jimmy Brown, I am the newsboy of this town." He was my true love until he discovered beer and started hanging around with the other guys out back of the Coffee house.

Then came May 20,  the Arlington Street Church sanctuary and the New England Resistance office on Stanhope Street next door to the Boston Police sub station, with the marijuana plant in the window. There I discovered Jim Havelin about the same time I finally got my turn to claim the closet as my own private room.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Income Inequality

I am a 19 year old. I am supposed to be poor. I am supposed to live in a one bedroom apartment with two other girls and our sometimes boyfriends. I am meant to work in the sub basement of Filene's as Christmas help, because college and adventure and I can always go home to mom if things get really really bad.
There are lots of us; we are legion, the urban poor youth. It is our rite of passage. We enjoy scrounging our furniture off the streets of the better parts of Beacon Hill on trash days.We relish our trips to the Army-Navy store for peacoats and combat boots that our parents and uncles wore, maybe even into actual combat. Maybe our peers returned from Vietnam wore these khaki mittens. Or maybe it is all surplus as the sign says. It is warm and comfortable and cheap.

We like eating "egg hole" sandwiches and Campbell's tomato soup with Kraft cheddar melted into it. We like getting the end-of-shift produce from the back of the Farmer's Market once a week for salads and omelet stuffing. We like Ripple and Annie Green Springs wine.

There are others whose poverty is not voluntary. These are the ones we call beggers. Whose poverty is poverty, homelessness, job loss, despair and what was not yet called PTSD. One is the man with no legs who scoots around on a little cart, the old woman whose heavy woolen coat drags through the slush on the sidewalk behind her as she walks heavily from door to door. A few tattered souls at the Park St. Station where the redline disgorges passengers each morning and scoops them up again at dusk. They have no homes, the have no names. They hold their cups or sometimes hats out for pedestrians to donate to their cause. In the winter there is stiff competition from the Salvation Army and others with donation boxes and signs that are made by machine, not scribbled in crayon.

Then there is this guy:

He stands outside the entrance to Filene's basement, the one on the corner of Washington St. across from Jordan Marsh. They are the two main department stores in Boston. I see him every evening as I climb the stairs from the second basement to the street. He leans on one crutch, clutched with one gnarled hand, mittenless, so every knuckle shows knobby white. the other arm outstretched supported by a heavy metal brace of some kind. In his outstretched hand he holds a metal cup.

He could be anywhere from his mid forties to mid-seventies. Dirty gray hair covers his face, long strands whipped by the wind, matted beard and mustache obscuring chin and mouth.

The hairy man with the crutch is there all winter. He thrusts out his stiff arm; shoppers drop in coins or sometimes dollar bills; or just pass him by; he never speaks.

Today is Christmas Eve. Filene's basement turns into bedlam. Gail and I give up folding and refolding and just stand behind our counters. People pay us for merchandise or they don't. Security guards dressed as Santas smoke behind pillars and drink from flasks they keep in pockets tucked under their giant beards. Or we imagine they do. We make up stories about them, that they live in a sub-sub basement, in warrens beneath the subway, that they sneak in at night and change all the displays and cavort naked in the aisles. Why not? Regular customers do the same thing.

Finally it is time to go home. Gail goes out one door; I go out the other, up two flights of stairs, out of he artificial dark of the second mark-down basement into the natural dark of winter. Snow blowing, fuzzy streetlights, chestnut vendors on the corner by the Park Street Station. And there he is. With his one outstretched arm, his stiff legs, teetering back and forth, his beard and hair staff with snow and dirt, his mouth contorted. He teeters and rocks and clutches his cup, calling in a voice that seems to big for his weak frame, a lone coin rattling in his cup, shoppers becoming shadows in the dim snowy light, drool flying from his reddened lips, he shouts his demands to the deaf ears of Christmas Eves down through the ages: "Give me your money! Give me all your money!"

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Car Crash Snowy Evening

CAR CRASH SNOWY EVENING                                 

“Dotty, we're going to crash.” Jane says in the same flat tones she would use ordering a Bailey’s sundae. Jane is driving her father’s Mercedes away from Winchester through swirling snow that has been getting heavier all evening. Her voice is steady and calm. I look up to the see fast approaching too bright eyes advancing out of the snow. There is no time to swerve out of the way.

It is not quite Christmas. Jane and I have been eating chocolates out of the box lying across her canopy bed in Winchester. Most of them have their bottoms poked in and the best ones, the cherry cordials and the fruit flavored ones, are already gone. Jane left mostly the nut chews for me, which I don’t like, but eat anyway. It’s all that’s offered, and the New Media Center party doesn’t start until 8.

Hard to believe that it is just one year since my rescue by the Bread and Roses Sisterhood from a life as a secretary living in a dreary apartment on Huntington Avenue with a single window that looked out on an airshaft; and since I got the job at the Old Mole in Cambridge where I had started this journey just three years before that, along with a new home with colleagues who were also friends.

(How I got to that point from my early hippydom and radical politics of the New England Resistance is long story of bad decisions and crumbling relationships; necessitating  intervention by Tom Hale and some of his many lady friends, the one who owned the temp agency, the one who was a shrink.)

But now the New Media Center has taken over the Old Mole offices, when, after a prolonged season of bad news in the Middle East and on college campuses around the country (think Kent State) and, adding insult to injury for me, no men anywhere in sight who weren’t taken or gay or scared out of their wits by women’s liberation. My salvation had become my undoing. Plus I was tired of frozen fingers and numb toes at midnight bus stops. Without a movement job, I was reduced to working at Gnomen Copy, churning out undergraduate papers for earnest students, seeking careers in law or medicine or finance.

I was thinking about moving west. This party tonight I think of as more of a wake for Cambridge dreams than a holiday celebration.

As I stare down the gleaming yellow eyes of the car coming ever faster out of the snow, I brace my hands against the dashboard, my inner self having made a decision and assuring my physical self, “You are not going to die; you’re not going to die.”

All this took just seconds, milliseconds, or Jane would have been able to turn the wheel. There was no time for anything but “We’re going to crash” and “You’re not going to die ” I’m not sure why, but that made me feel much better about the whole car coming straight at us, inevitable head-on collision thing. I would not die and there would be a future.

The car is German made, sturdy, and although the windshield was not shatterproof, it did pop out on impact, saving my face from disfiguring scars as my forehead came into contact with it. But I don’t remember that part. The collision happened; I didn’t die.

And then Jane is urging, “Get out of the car! Get out of the car!” making shooing motions with her hands. I push open my door,  my glasses shattered on the floor at my feet; I am aware of this, I even try to pick them up, but I realize that Jane cannot open her own door and needs me to get out first so she can follow, so I obediently step out.

The next thing I remember I am waking up in a stranger’s back seat, my feet up. The stranger is saying, “She’s awake.” Jan, seated in the front, has found her inner calm once more. “Oh good, you’re not dead. The Grandmother was worried.”

At that I know Jane is not injured. When she is feeling playful, she calls herself the Grandmother and I am the Granddaughter. The stranger is an off-duty police officer who witnessed the collision. Later there will be a trial for drunk driving by the man who hit us, a public official it turns out, known as the “present registrar of deeds.” He will get off, an injustice Jane will attempt to right by nasty letters and late night heavy-breathing phone calls.  For now, there is the obligatory trip to the hospital, stitches for the cuts in my head around my eye. The glasses are done for, but the eyes were saved by the popping out windshield of German technology.

“Are you sure you don’t want us to have someone stop by your mother’s house,” asks the nice police officer who has waited for us to be tended to in the emergency room. “Oh, no, don’t do that.” My mother would be horrified, just to know I was in a car in a snowstorm, even if there were no boys involved. “I’ll call her tomorrow,“ I promise. I am relieved when he drives us back to Winchester with strict instructions for Jane to wake me every two hours throughout the night, in case of concussion, which she does with a certain glee. Her parents will not be home until much later and what does not have to be explained until the future does not concern Jane in the present.

As for me, even with my head still fuzzy and my stitches already starting to itch, knowing I will be picking glass out of my face for months, and unable to see more than my hand in front of my face, I have made my decision; as soon as it is reasonably possible to do so, I am heading for San Francisco.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

My Beautiful Man

“Da da da da duh; da da da da da da da duh”

“If I have to listen to that music one more minute, I’m going to go stark raving mad,” I say to Jane, who is hanging around my information booth on the third floor of the Harvard Coop. It is the spring of 1967 and the movie A Man and a Woman is the hit of the season. The sound track continuously wafts up from Records on the floor below.
Luckily the phone rings and it is my beautiful man, calling to order books for his poetry class. “Saved by the bell,” I mouth to Jane, and she moves back to her customer service desk where a couple of professorial types have been impatiently waiting.

My beautiful man, as I have taken to calling this disembodied voice on the phone teaches a poetry class to Harvard undergraduates, and he is continually searching out obscure eighteenth century volumes. Many are them are out of print, so we need to talk a lot.

What is beautiful about him is his voice. It is a voice of no accent, but of many tones, with notes of taffy being gently pulled or butter as it is churned from white to gold. His voice pours into my ears and the sound of A Man and a Woman is erased.

All that spring he calls, but he never comes in. The maddening music plays downstairs, the hairy eyebrowed professors come and go; students rush about noisily looking for this or that textbook, counting crumpled dollar bills in front of the bored cashier. The boss, a thin man of about fifty, with a military hair cut and an unfortunate resemblance to my high school vice principal Mr. Lister, pops in and out of his back office, just to make sure the employees aren’t goofing off.

If I am on the phone talking to my beautiful man, whose name I have learned after several months, is Bill, he seems to know and starts walking in my direction. “I have to go,” I say, hanging up. How does he know that wasn’t just another customer on the line, I think; is he listening in on an extension? I never find out.

I couldn’t tell you today what I talked about with the beautiful man on the phone; he could have been reciting Keats or reading recipes from the Joy of Cooking.  All that mattered was the voice.  The voice on the phone, Jane’s penchant for gigantic sundaes and the astronomy class I audited at Harvard during lunchtime were all that kept me from diving down the up escalator to throttle whoever kept playing that maddening music.

At night, I would wander Harvard Square and down to the River with the marijuana smoking young men who may or may not have been students. David Lettvin, whose mother was Maggie of Maggie and the Beautiful Machine, an exercise show on WGBH; J.R. Getsinger, whose father worked with Timothy Leary on early LSD experiments or so he said; Vernon, with the bent in half wife; not a single boyfriend in the bunch. 

Or I would go to a class in Creative Writing with a teacher named Ken at the Cambridge Adult School who would openly sneer at my writing as adolescent drivel. “Thank you Ms. LeMieux, for sharing that adolescent drivel with the class.” It made me want to scream, but I kept at it, revising and redoing  late at night hunched over the portable typewriter I’d dragged with me from the dorm when I made the big move that spring from Christian College girl to Cambridge hippy chick.

Or I would attend classes in film-making at the Boston Cinemateque, where I saw my first “art film” with Helaine Haaland, the night I got caught sneaking back into the dorm at Gordon College, only months before, and where you could take out 8 millimeter cameras and make any kind of film you wanted, if you paid for the film. 

I still have a film made at a be-in in the Cambridge Common, me in a striped sailor’s shirt I associated with what beatniks wore, sitting on the grass, making a peace sign with two fingers, long hair, eternally young. One of the Harvard Square boys, no doubt, on the other end of that camera. And once I made a film with my friend Naomi from Brockton, after a night spent in her Volkswagon beetle near the shore on Cape Cod. The film was of a lonely boy, just wandering the dawn streets of a still deserted beach town, hands in the pocket of his pea coat, Beatle haircut, impossibly young. We saw the boy when we climbed, tousled out of the car, unkinked our legs an turned on the camera. We asked him to wander for us and he complied, it was what he was doing anyway. We rolled the film. The boy has now wandered off into memory, along with the film.

One day as the music plays, I hear someone coming up the escalator. At the top he stops and looks around, a large man around thirty with shaggy not entirely clean brown hair, a square face, pale complexion. He wears an army surplus jacket. “Jane, it’s him” I whisper. Jane looks up from where she has been leaning on counter and is not impressed, he eyes slanted, her lips pressed tightly together. “A peon,” she  turns away.

Then he opens his mouth and says my name. It is of course him. It is he. He is him. “I thought I’d come see where my books live,” he says, smiling through crooked teeth.

“This is Jane,” I say, indicating. 

“Hello,” she says in her icy voice, already back at her desk in Customer Service.   Jane’s high standards and pronouncements of “peonism” notwithstanding,  little pit-a-pats are alive in my chest; he looks just like his voice, and that makes him just about perfect.

He doesn’t stay long. Jane wanders back once he has gone and says, “Not much to look at is he?”

“Jane, he’s beautiful!” 

“Kind of unwashed looking,” she answers, mouth turning down. “Let’s go get a Bailey’s sundae.”
He continues to call that summer, then one day asks if I would like to babysit for him and his wife. Oh, his wife.  “Oh his wife” says Jane when I tell her. “Will you do it?”

“Sure, why not. I’m curious about the wife,” I reply.

So it comes to pass that I go to the home of the beautiful man and I meet the wife. I meet the kids, and I meet the dirty dishes in the sink, the overgrown weeds in the lawn and the springs in the sofa. 

I do not go back, and the rest of the summer, I just sigh and cover my ears until the music changes to the next popular sound track. When the “Beautiful man” calls, I treat him just like any other customer. He never comes back into the store.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Brian and Billy - My High School Dilemma

The summer before my senior year of high school I went back and forth between Brian, the bad boy from two towns over, and Billy, the good boy from Church. I met Brian through his cousin Elaine, who taught me to shoplift the bright colored enamel daisy rings that were so popular that year, from Russem’s department store in Lawrence. You stood with a group of girls admiring the ring display and trying on one or another, until your hand found its way into the pocket of your jeans and came out ringless. No one ever got caught.

The main problem with Brian was one of logistics. Since he did not have access to a car, his mother, dubbed “dragon lady” by Elaine, had to drive him to meet me on Tuesday nights when all the kids from three towns gathered in downtown Lawrence, to look each other over, eat pizza at Sal’s or try on costume jewelry at Russems. 

On Saturdays we went to matinees and necked in the balcony, until it was time for the “dragon lady” to pick him up at the appointed hour.  She did not approve of either Elaine or me.

Billy, on the other hand, had his own car and no curfew. He didn’t need one, because he was a church going boy like most of the kids we hung around with.  Even Elaine was a regular at the Catholic Church around the corner from my grandmother’s house on Albemarle Street. The Catholic Church I learned was more forgiving than the protestant one. 

“I go to confession every week,” said Elaine. “You should try it. All your sins are washed away.”

St. George’s Ebenezer Primitive Methodist Church may not have had confession, but it did have a blind guitar playing minister, which leant it a sort of cool. Billy also played guitar and lots of the kids from church went to hootenannies and listened to folk music records. Billy especially loved Tom Rush and took me to Cambridge to hear him at my first coffee house, Club 47, on Palmer Street, in back of the Harvard Cooperative Society or “Coop” as everyone called it, where I would have my first real job in textbooks when I finally I leave the Church and the Christian College I followed Billy to on Boston’s North Shore the next year. 

But for now, I am torn between inaccessible Brian and right-there with a car Billy. Billy wins out. I am still friends with Elaine however, and make regular excursions on Tuesday night shoplifting expeditions. That is until the night I, gloating, show Billy that week’s loot in the church parking lot. 

He snatches the ring off my finger and throws it out the window.

“What did you do that for?” I ask, truly surprised.

“We’re Christians; we don’t steal things!”

“Elaine is a Christian, too,” I protest.

“Elaine is a Catholic, and a thief.” 

“It’s just a little ring,” I pout.

“Look, do you want a ring? Here take this one.”

He pulls his own class ring off his finder and hands it too me. Of course it is too big, but I know I can put twine around it to make it fit. “Does this mean we are going steady?”

So all that year Billy and I go steady, Brian and Elaine left behind. I attend church regularly, I don’t shoplift anymore. When I go downtown to Russem’s Department Store, it is to convince Billy to buy paisley shirts and tight pants made out some kind of rough cloth that I have learned from the Sunday supplement, is what the cool kids wear. On one of our trips to Boston, I see a girl with straw colored hair playing Frisbee on the Boston University campus. I don’t know what we are doing there, maybe a Tom Rush or Joni Mitchell concert? but the girl stuck in my head, and I still think of her as if she were calling to me that day and it just took a while to answer her.

Because the backdrop to everything that year was the War in Vietnam (kids I knew were graduating and going into the army, or their draft number would soon come up), I was terrified for Billy. I also had discovered the anti-war movement through the music we listened to, Bob Dylan of course, but also Pete Seeger and Phil Oaks. The summer between high school graduation and college, I found an address in Cambridge where they counseled kids facing the draft and I sent away for the Conscientious Objector’s Handbook. I knew I was a pacifist. It did seem like the Christian way to be, after all. I gave the book to Billy who promised to read it, but I hadn’t counted on his patriot parents, his dad a World War II vet.  His home had always been open to me, lots of family dinners with his little brother and sister. Everyone assumed we’d get married after college, have kids, be a part of their extended family.

But that all changed when they found the book. Suddenly I was no longer welcome; Billy returned the book, “I guess they’re not ready for this,” he said apologetically. 

We never talked about it again, but we did start to drift apart. By the end of the first trimester of College, we had broken up completely. By the end of the year, I was through with college and the Church. The Frisbee playing girl beckoned to me, along with the draft counseling storefront on Massachusetts Avenue. (or Mass. Ave. ; Cambridge loves its shorthand).

Once I had taken up residence on Kinnaird Street, with Wendy and Steve, I stopped in at that storefont eager to volunteer.  A young man looks up from he seems to be packing up a box of books as I enter. Is his hair black, does he wear glasses and a white shirt? Or are these false memories of what I think he should look like, earnest, true believer, peaceful. 

What I do remember is this: The empty booksheles and bare desktop. He was indeed leaving, getting ready to bolt the doors, not for the night, but forever. He was going somewhere, back to Kansas? Back to school? To Canada? To jail? He said, “I was just closing down, but if you want, you can take over. It’s all yours. Do you want me to leave some of the books?”  I look down to see piles of the Conscientious Objectors Handbook strewn on the floor, filling the boxes.  

“But I’m only 18,” I say. “There must be rent. Who pays the rent?” I whine.  He shrugs and continues packing.

As for Billy, he married the girl down the hall from me in the freshman dorm, the one who pierced my ears with a sewing needle and an ice cube, and became a minister, thus avoiding the War without cutting himself off from his parents. I never saw him again. Brian, however, did turn up not very long after that, and things were quite different this time around.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Memoir Writing Class

Digression into the present -

So now I am attending a memoir writing class.  When I enter the classroom on the second floor of the Fine Arts building at the College of Marin, I see a lot of white and gray mostly female heads with peekaboo scalps. You can tell the men from the women because their heads are mostly bald. Also there aren’t nearly so many of them. 
“It's me and a bunch of old ladies,” I tell Sandra over lunch later that week. Sandra is a writer too, a poet I’ve known for forty years when we first took a class in Berkeley. Later we resumed our get-togethers sporadically. Now she has a book of poems coming out and she complains to me about the slowness of the publication process.  Me, I’m stuck in a memoir writing class with other “Emeritus” (read over 55) students and we don’t even get college credits for it.   

“I assume they’re mostly retired,” I say to Sandra, unless some of them are self-employed like I am. She asks about the teacher. “She gives us writing assignments; we’re supposed to bring in thirty copies so all the other students can have one. Then she calls on a few people to read theirs out loud.”

Why do we have to make thirty copies, I wonder, when we could just email our stories to thirty students?  Wouldn't that be easier and better for not destroying trees, wasting paper, and the time it takes to physically make thirty copies, jamming copier and all?

The teacher has a philosophy that reminds me of kindergarten. No hitting, play nicely. Stop rolling your eyes. Share.

So we are instructed to only give constructive criticism, there are three approved methods of feedback:

1.    What did you especially like about the story (the ones that are read aloud by the author, which average about one and a half pages each.  Easier to copy I suppose and definitely to listen to, besides more people get to share)
2.    What would you like to have learned more about?
3.    What was unclear to you?

The first story is about a woman's trip to Florence and what she ate. Also that she walked around alone at night and did not get molested.  

Anyway, she survived, had a great time and even touched the foot of David, the statue, not some young guy in the plaza, which seriously might have made for a more interesting story.

Slowly the students start to speak up. Some liked the way they could see the diners in the posh restaurant, smell the spicy Italian food going by as the waiters made their way among the cramped tables, hear the cutlery against the fine china. Even feel the foot of the statue David.

The teacher Sandra and I had back in the day also did not want to hurt the students’ feelings, but that was because many of them were from the Inner City, all were young, and most of the poetry, if not good, was dark. I don’t think even then we had to make thirty copies. It would be too depressing. Anyway, no one had been to Florence, just to Oakland.

I remember another class I took when I first moved to Cambridge in the sixties, at the Cambridge Adult School.

The teacher’s name was Ken and he was not into constructive criticism. He was into sneering and if you wrote a piece of adolescent drivel, he said so. “Well, so you think you're a writer Miss LeMieux?  Why then do you turn in a piece of adolescent drivel like this?”

Try again.

I'm not going to say this made me a better writer.  It mostly made me hate Ken and his perfectionism and obvious lack of literary taste.

But I did go back to my portable typewriter on my “desk” made out of a door and some old concrete blocks beside my mattress on the floor. I typed out draft after draft as I struggled to rise above myself.

I was determined to reach the heights of adult drivel, at the very least.

Now I am attaining old age drivel with thirty other would be memoir writers. I know memoirs are all the rage, but mostly they are being written by young people, with colorful recent pasts filled with drugs or other addictions of various sorts. Many of them write about abusive parents or binge marriages   And they are mostly famous already for daring TV series or walking a tightrope across Niagara Falls.

Me I'm just an ordinary person, still trying to eke out a living in my sixties and I’ve never been to Florence.