Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Street Years: Part One

Before college, I was a working class vet with no money. After college, I was a working class vet with no money and a degree in social theory. In terms of my overall employability, not much had changed.

As my time at UMass-Amherst drew to a close, I prepared for my move to Boston by unloading whatever I could. I tried selling the diamond ring I'd bought when I almost got married in the Air Force, but no one wanted it. My stereo and the record collection I'd built over the military and college years went instead. I also sold my books.

I scraped together three or four hundred dollars. In Amherst, many of the frats had summer sublet signs in their windows. I started calling around in Boston and soon found a room in a Brookline frat house near BU. Two hundred fifty dollars paid my rent through the summer. I had a roommate. He was an asshole.

I'd hoped, on the strength of having started critical times and my experience at the Student Communications Office, to land a job as a typesetter. That plan didn't work out. During one interview at a mom and pop print shop in Brookline, I proudly showed off what I had done. The owner held the copy of critical times aloft with thumb and forefinger as if I'd just wiped my ass with it and noted that the text wasn't properly aligned across the columns. My pride and joy was "a rag," and wasn't impressing anyone. Worse, it seemed to scare them off.

The one offer I did get, I rejected. A small shop that did specialty printing for the stock market needed a night typesetter. This presented a dilemma. The stock market, as far as I was concerned, was a dark satanic force that dripped with the blood of children. College had ruined me. And yet, I needed work. I hedged that the night hours would be too inconvenient. They countered with a compromise. I said I wasn't really a typist, and they said "no problem, it's really only formatting anyway." I said the pay was too low, and they boosted it up a bit. Finally, I just said no. I wasn't going to "sell out" less than two weeks out of college.

The agency that tried to place me called to follow-up. "Does this have something to do with your major in college," they asked. I said yeah. They stopped calling.

Instead, I worked as a temp at University Hospital, stocking shelves and carts in the warehouse. It was a lot like my pre-college job at Action Crash Parts in Cambridge, except the pay was a little better and the warehouse was cleaner. The difference was that hospitals are all about status, and it was clear that mine was somewhere near rock bottom.

As a cart-pushing, shelf-stocking, order-filling menial laborer, I was beneath the notice of other hospital employees. The only people who talked to me were other cart pushers and janitorial staff. A few of these tried to enlist me in a plan to steal syringes and needles for street sales. This, when I wouldn't do it, placed me on the outs with some of these as well.

I mentioned this to a co-worker — a guy my age from Southy — and he started railing against the "niggers." It was my first brush with the famed Boston racism. I told him that kind of talk made me want to puke. Later, as we smoked some of his pot in a nearby park over lunch, he said all his friends talked like that, and that he didn't mean it. He thanked me for saying something. He wasn't a bad guy. He just wanted to fit in, like everybody else.

I'd listen to the Iran-contra hearings while I pushed pallets around with a hand truck and stacked up bedpans. I stocked carts with bandages and antiseptics and IV tubes and whatever else was on the list and then pushed them around the hospital, utterly invisible in my low-status anonymity. Every hour or two I'd take the elevator to smoke outside. I'd picked that up again at the frat house.

I was living in a rogue house. This is what happens when frats are unable to meet whatever official credentialing is required. I didn't really understand it or much care. All I knew was that while these guys lived in a house that was identified by three greek letters, it wasn't really even a frat.

As the summer boarder, I was an outsider to the life of the house, and didn't really want to know them any more than they wanted to know me. All of my worst preconceptions were confirmed. No one washed dishes. Ever. There was mold in the sink and in the fridge and the kitchen was more or less unusable. If I had to spend time in the house other than to sleep, it was usually on the porch, away from the rotten garbage smell that permeated the first floor.

The guys spent a lot of time watching sports and porn and all seemed to have money. Some more than others. There was one kid who drove a late model jeep and had a cel phone the size of a shoe that decided he was going to be a fish hobbyist as well. He set up a saltwater tank in his bedroom. The baby lobster kept eating his expensive tropical fish, and each time it happened he would come tearing down the stairs in a rage. I thought this was the funniest thing I'd ever seen.

Having money, however, didn't stop them from stealing. During my time there the ring that I couldn't sell in college disappeared from my room, and my bike, the only real thing of value I owned, disappeared from the front foyer. No one, of course, knew a thing.

While I was still in college, I'd found a Cambridge-based tabloid called Street Magazine at Food for Thought, Amherst's radical bookstore. The paper had a sort of a grass-roots hip up-from-the-streets feel to it, and had progressive politics without feeling sectarian or cultish. It was exactly what I wanted to be doing.

I called the publisher, a little guy with tiny oval glasses named Al Nidle, and arranged a meeting. As it turned out, his editor and art director, Tom Bell and Seth Feinberg, has just quit and he was looking for someone new. Unbelievably, I was enough of an idiot to not see that as a problem.

I had company. Seth's friend, Jon Fountain, wanted the art director job. Jon was a recent BU grad who lived in a Cambridge basement near Julia Child's house, caring for the owner's retarded son. Jon's charge, who was a full grown man, had a penchant for shouting "put the Vaseline on your penis" in public, and running off with no clothes until Jon could wrestle him back inside.

Jon's situation made mine look almost desirable. We both met with Al, and started making plans for where we were going to take Street. Al's closest friends were an addled genius dishwasher named David and a hugely fat warlock named Daemon. Al would be the publisher. I would be the editor, and Jon would do layout and art. Seth and Tom tried to warn us, but we did it anyway.

Toward the end of the summer of 1987, we all moved into the first floor of a house in Alston-Brighton to work full-time for free at the newspaper. The hospital temp job ended, and I got a new assignment as a nighttime proofreader at Stone & Webster.

Carolyn returned from Europe. The trip had been harrowing. Toward the end she was reduced to waiting for tourists to leave outdoor cafes so she could swoop on the leftovers. She stayed with me a few days at the frat house before I moved into the Street squat with Al, Jon, and David. We were soon joined by Jon's mother Collette, who was bi-polar with a good bit of psychosis around the edges. Carolyn quickly found a group home job and a shared apartment in Jamaica Plain. It was a new beginning for both of us.

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

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