Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Road to Street

By the mid-eighties, my transformation into a full-blown student radical was complete. In my junior year, I parleyed my new typesetting skills into starting a monthly leftist newspaper called critical times. Despite our objections to capitalism, an Urban Planning grad student who worked at Amherst's radical bookstore sold enough ads to pay the printer. About a half dozen of us from the Radical Student Union wrote and collectively edited the articles. Each issue, I'd write a little introductory statement that commented on the issues of the day. After six years of Reagan, we were all half-crazed.

I remember standing on the second floor balcony of the Student Union Building, just outside of the RSU, watching the stack of our first issue that sat on the floor below. Occasionally, someone would wander over and pick one up. Each time, I considered it a blow for freedom.

It was almost noon, on January 28, 1986. A crowd gathered in front of the television that was always on in the lobby. The space shuttle Challenger had blown out into a fat plume of white smoke and shrapnel etched across a brilliant blue sky. The image played again and again.

In my crowd, however, the Challenger disaster paled when compared to the multiple crises for which we all felt personally responsible. The contra war and the counter-insurgency in El Salvador led the list. Most of my friends had been to Central America on various language school junkets, and their sense of outrage at what they'd seen was deep and raw.

I was far too poor for lefty tourism. Tuition was paid by student loans and Pell Grants and whatever other assistance I could scrape together, and I lived on the 15-20 hours a week I worked at the communications office typesetting materials for student organizations. Summers, I worked writing summaries of evaluations for the student published course guide. This was a great job in that it paid full-time and didn't require me to actually show up. So long as the work got done, that was all that mattered. I was a fast writer.

To say I lived frugally was an understatement. I ate sparingly, rode a bike or walked for transportation, lived collectively, and spent most of my money on books. I'd go on long rides through the rolling hills of Belchertown almost daily. There was a series of girlfriends, but, needless to say, none of these expected me to have money. They were another window into the world of the middle-class. I learned to fit in.

Kathleen, in my sophomore year, took me to her parent's house in Newton for Christmas. They lived in a modern A-frame with a 30 foot living room ceiling. It was my first introduction to a world of relative affluence. Her father, a blustery but witty academic, was unlike anyone I had ever met. Her brother went to art school, and was every inch the type. I felt shy and inferior and said little.

Later on, there were others. I dated several girls from Smith who were attracted to the working-class bad boy from UMass. One took me to their dining hall, and I was astonished by the white linen and crystal and their quaint ritual of tapping a fork to the rim of a wine glass when announcements were made.

I somehow managed to maintain around a 3.0 or so while engaged in a whirlwind of student activism. The highpoint was the takeover of the Whitmore Administration Building. The student government types were protesting a proposed tuition hike, and the student radicals wanted divestment from South Africa. We formed a coalition, stormed the Presidents office, and refused to leave.

They left us there. For nearly a week. Chancellor Joe Duffy — a self-proclaimed Marxist with a perma-grin affixed to his face — even brought us hamburgers from McDonalds. We scoffed at this blatant attempt at cooptation as we greedily gobbled them down.

Within a day, due largely to the media attention we received, the South Africa issue became the driving force behind the protest. It was during this occupation — as I ran around with a bullhorn by day and xeroxed thousands of leaflets by night on the University's copy machines — that learned I was a leader. As mainstream liberals and student radicals sat in an enormous circle in the lobby at night and worked out strategy by consensus, I was often able to bring the sides together. I found people listened to me, and nodded agreement when I spoke. This was a new experience.

The Whitmore occupation ended in a compromise that allowed us to claim victory. As we marched out together, I was a different person from the kid who had entered several days before. I was an organizer, and knew what I wanted to do with my life.

The rest of my time at UMass sped by. In my junior year, I moved from the house on Main street to another group house in a more rural part of Amherst. Our collective had allowed a lip stick lesbian couple to move in, and their mainstream tastes in radio and television were more than I could handle. My new housemates were two deadheads and a biology grad student with a biking obsession. They were, in comparison to the leftists on Main Street, close to normal.

There were several more arrests over South Africa, nuclear disarmament, and Central America, but by the time the big CIA-off Campus campaign came around in 1986-87, with Abbie Hoffman and Amy Carter drawing the world's media to UMass, I'd pulled back from the RSU to focus on just doing the newspaper. For the past several years, I'd neglected my coursework in favor of full-time student radicalism, and for my last year I thought I'd actually try and learn something.

This was a little like leaving a cult. My circle of RSU friends, even though I still led the critical times collective, felt betrayed by my withdrawal. It was a frenzied year of activism, with high-profile arrests and a media trial in Northampton, and they couldn't understand why I sat it out. I was still figuring out who I was, and in pulling back, I think, sought a bit more balance and maybe a little more authenticity.

It was during this time that I met Carolyn, who in time would become my wife. We had known each other to say hello for several years. She was involved in Peacemakers, an anti-nuclear group who's main program seemed to consist of driving to Groton, CT, to get arrested at each new Trident submarine launch, and moved in different but overlapping circles from my own. We were both in a class on the Spanish Civil War that was taught at Smith and Hampshire, and she had a car. She drove, and we began talking.

In the fall of my senior year, I moved again from the rural group house to an even more normal student apartment near campus and across the street from several sororities. By the time Carolyn graduated in December of '86, we were spending a lot of time together. I had one semester left, and with Carolyn out of school, my own attendance became extremely spotty.

When I was less than a month from graduation, it dawned that flunking one course might mean not getting my degree. I crammed for three weeks, passed everything, and graduated. For years after, I would have a recurring dream about flunking out of college because I was unable to find my classes.

South African poet and revolutionary Dennis Brutus spoke at the commencement. We leafleted attendees with pro-divestment fliers designed to look like programs. I sat in the bleachers for the ceremony.

I lived in a cheap room at a Boston University frat house that summer while Carolyn toured Europe on no money with a friend. Everything I owned fit easily into her car. We drove to Boston during a thunderstorm, and spent a few days together at her Dad's house in Westford before we said goodbye until the end of August. By the time she returned, I had found my way to Street Magazine, and a new chapter was beginning.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two

1 comment:

Kathleen O. said...

I like your description of my dad. It was Wellesley, not Newton. Wellesley is much snootier. ;-)