My Odyssey Through the Underground Press
excerpt: pp. 404-409
Time to Get a LifeWith the fiction of working on the Hill's newspaper set to rest once and for all, it was time for Candy and me to figure out what else to do with our lives. She readily moved into the sisterhood of Fort Hill women, with their flocks of babies to tend and their men to take care of and make fun of. I knew then and know now little of what went on among them, other than that they were ingrown in their little society and traditional in their viewpoint. I found it strange to watch Candy, who had been as rebellious and modern a woman as I had known, relax into traditional roles and dress, but that was the Fort Hill way. The "battle of the sexes" was very much alive at Fort Hill.
The men, too, had a tight little society based on traditional roles and expectations, but I found it far from easy to merge with them. I had never had any notion whatsoever of living out a traditional man's role of any kind, didn't even have concepts like that in my mind, and certainly had no plans of playing a traditional blue-collar man's role, performing physical labor and hanging out with the boys, complaining about the women but otherwise accepting my limited lot in life. To a surprising degree, in the absence of the occasional uplift provided by association with some work of creation inspired or produced by Mel, this was all there was to the day-to-day life of the Fort Hill men. I was also surprised to find how much racism was expressed in the everyday conversation of the men, how little regard they had for the black community that surrounded us, and even for the occasional black seeker who would come visiting or looking to join the community. Sexist language was also the order of the day; the standard phrase indicating a tiny measurement was "cunt-hair," as in "Move it to the left just a cunt-hair." I had never heard or used such talk.
My first real experience with the men's society had come when I was drafted into working on the stone wall around Mel's house while we were waiting for the newspaper wars to resolve themselves somehow. I was pleased enough to be learning a bit about cutting and setting stone. I asked one day, during a fairly demanding work session, why Mel wasn't out there with us, building this wall around his house that he had asked for. The answer, delivered in a tone of condescension, gave me one of the basic Fort Hill truths: Mel didn't work on these demeaning physical tasks because he spent his time and energy keeping us all together by doing his creative work, taking care of our spirits, as it were. Well, that made vague sense to me, but it didn't tell me much about what I could expect for myself. That lesson was to come in other ways.
In the course of working on the wall, I made the acquaintance of Richie Guerin, another of Mel's closest lieutenants. Richie had come to the Hill as a dropout from architecture school, the son of a construction worker from New York, and a bit of a musician, too. He was young and brash, and talented in both design and construction supervision, a valuable asset to Mel as he imagined rebuilding the row of houses on the Hill into a multi-media production facility. The stone wall was just a necessary preliminary project. Richie was also one of the Hill's astrologers; when I learned that the graceful hand-painted charts I had seen in a number of people's private spaces had been created by him, I decided I wanted one for myself and asked for a reading. I found Richie easier to relate to, as a fellow Taurus, than Joey Goldfarb. Finally, we had our evening to discuss my chart.
Too Many Planets in AriesI already knew that my sun-representing my essential self-was located in Taurus, a sign that denotes stability and consistency, determination and earthbound, practical wisdom; and that my moon-representing my personality and my way of presenting myself to others-was in Aries, a sign that suggested inspiration and creativity, individuality and unpredictability. (Remember, Mel's sun was in Aries.) This combination indicated an interesting counterpoint, a dynamic tension between my Taurus "center" and my Aries exterior. In fact, I already had developed a certain fear of what my chart would reveal because one of my first experiences of astrology, something I had in common with most visitors and newcomers to Fort Hill, was from a book called Heaven Knows What by Grant Lewi, one of the most successful popularizers of astrology to Americans over a period of several decades. His book enables readers to do quick, approximate personal horoscopes based on the aspects formed by the various planets in their signs, using simplified charts in the book that eliminate virtually all the calculations required for more precise horoscopes. Heaven Knows What focused significantly on the 144 possible combinations of sun and moon positions, as indicators of the main dynamics of the personality. In my case, Taurus-Aries was described as a sign of great power, likely as not to walk all over other people accidentally unless held in check by a conscious discipline, which Lewi recommended if there was going to be a productive life and the possibility for relationships in which the Taurus-Aries person would not dominate. Coming out of my East Lansing phase, in which I had become a fairly charismatic personality among my circle of friends, some of whom had had difficulty with that characteristic of mine, I was taken aback by this view of my potential and made to feel I had to watch myself carefully. But I was ready to learn more about myself through the lens of astrology, and hoped Richie could guide me toward positive directions of growth.
I learned from Richie that in addition to my moon I also had my three inner planets - Mercury, representing communication skills and mental ability; Venus, representing sensitivity and appreciation of beauty and harmony, basically feminine values as those are traditionally understood; and Mars, representing assertiveness and physical energy, basically masculine values in the traditional understanding - all in Aries. Altogether, I had four of ten planets in Aries, all but overwhelming my sun in Taurus. (In most popular versions of astrology, the sun and moon are considered "planets," but the earth isn't counted because that's where we're looking out from.) Richie didn't point out to me that my four planets in Aries equaled the number of planets Mel had in that sign, or that among members of the Fort Hill community only Owen de Long also had four planets there, including his sun and moon. He didn't emphasize my inherent birthright in the realm of creativity and self-direction. I learned instead that I had lots of personal potential but a difficult path to follow, with lots of aspects indicating limitations and challenges, and that my own impulses could not be trusted much because of the way my energies were balanced one against the other. I had a nice tight square, an aspect representing difficulties and limitations, between the moon and Mars, both strong in Aries, and Saturn in Cancer, the planet representing discipline and an ordered life, located in one of the signs where it expresses most poorly. This aspect suggested a continuing struggle between creativity and spontaneity on the one hand and worldly responsibility on the other, an aspect suggestive of a personality that needs guidance from others.
Somehow Richie looked at the array of my planet placements and aspects and synthesized it into a single injunction: writing was clearly not the occupation for me; practical, physical work would serve me much better. I don't know how he found this in my chart. Certainly it wasn't simply that my sun was located in Taurus, frequently considered a sign of builders and bankers, but also of artists and sensualists. Historically, Taurus has produced huge numbers of prominent writers, philosophers, artists, and composers - including Shakespeare, Brahms, Kant, Marx, Freud, Tchaikovsky, and Dali - as well as numerous political leaders and prominent entertainers. I think he may have been extrapolating from his own chart and his own experience, as a person with both sun and moon in Taurus and Mercury in Aries, living in the shadow of the dominant personality of Mel Lyman.
Or he may have been interpreting my chart more closely, using a method of interpreting the meanings of particular planets in a chart based on the individual degrees of the zodiac where they are located. This method, the "Sabian symbols," was a popular interpretive tool at Fort Hill. The symbols had been developed over several decades by Marc Edmund Jones, one of the most significant modern astrologers, who distilled the meanings of the 360 rough images delivered to him by a psychic medium into a cogent method of applying these images in individual chart interpretation. Jones didn't publish his version of the symbols until 1953, long after the symbols were adapted and popularized by his protégé, Dane Rudhyar, in The Astrology of Personality, which was published in 1936 and revised and reissued in 1963, and became one of the seminal texts in the reinterpretation of the ancient science of astrology to incorporate contemporary values and psychological understanding. Rudhyar called the resulting method "humanistic astrology, " and it became the dominant trend in the field during the 1960s.
Rudhyar's book was undergoing a vogue on Fort Hill about the time I arrived and got my reading from Richie. There was one little glitch in using Rudhyar's book in interpreting charts, however. The recommended method for interpreting degree symbols, as given by both Jones and Rudhyar in their respective versions of the Sabian symbols, was to round each degree of the zodiac upward to the next whole number for purposes of interpretation. Thus, Mel's sun position of three degrees, four minutes into the sign Aries would be rounded up and interpreted as "fourth degree of Aries"-"two lovers strolling through a secluded walk," in Jones' version, a symbol of personal expression without the burden of responsibility. But on Fort Hill, it was a given that Mel was God, or at least a fully realized man, most likely an avatar for our age. And, lo and behold, there it is, in the third degree of Aries: "a cameo profile of a man in the outline of his country," as Jones put it, and Rudhyar's description is even more precise: "the individual self as an avatar of greater collective reality." Mel's moon position, on the other hand, made sense if rounded upward. Six degrees, 39 minutes into Capricorn became "seventh degree. Capricorn, a hierophant, or prophet, "leads a ritual of power," explained by Rudhyar as "gathering together of the power of a group to one purpose and into an individual will. 'Avatar'-ship." There was that word again. In Fort Hill logic, then, Jones and Rudhyar must be wrong; the correct way to interpret the symbols must be to round the numbers both upward and downward, as dollars and cents are rounded both upward and downward to estimate whole dollars. This forced misinterpretation of the Sabian symbols, extrapolated from a misinterpretation of Mel's sun degree as that of the avatar, became the basis for all the interpretations of charts of people on Fort Hill. Of course it was a long time later before I saw through the scam.
For the moment, I learned my chart according to an incorrect method of interpretation, and lived with a sense of my sun degree, for example, as a "symbolical battle between swords and torches," an image of the "struggle between might and enlightenment,," quoting Rudhyar's version of 17 degrees of Taurus, when it really is Taurus 18, whose symbol implies continual spiritual renewal, a woman "airing a linen bag through a sunny window." In a time when I was trying to take such symbols and subtle messages deeply into myself, this misinformation encouraged me to feel afraid of my potential and to seek guidance from others rather than from my inner self. This happened to mesh well with my state of mind at the time-hesitant and confused after my long experiment with drugs and political activism, anxious for new role models and priorities to present themselves-and with the community's need for willing, compliant servants. Richie's declaration that physical work and not writing was the path for me fit this need, too, and came to me with the force of law, albeit mysterious and incomprehensible law. I assumed it meant my future would be filled with more work on the Fort Hill houses, and I prepared for that. I also started becoming accustomed to being "Michael Taurus," the name that would tee used almost every time I was mentioned for the next several years. So much for the balancing influence of my Aries planets.
A Place of Our OwnA little bit of East Lansing business remained to be taken care of, and that first spring on Fort Hill I handled it. Having given up my student deferment and lost my bid for conscientious objector status, I had to do something to guarantee that I would not be drafted into the army. I had received a notice to turn myself in for a physical. At Fort Hill I had heard several stories of people who had given themselves physical injuries or had managed to fake mental incapacity in order to be disqualified at their draft physicals.
This tactic sounded like a good deal, and the Boston Army Base sounded like a good place to use it, unlike the draft centers in Detroit and New York, where I could otherwise have chosen to turn myself in for a physical, but where it was reportedly difficult to get away with any kind of goofy tactics (Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" notwithstanding). On the appointed day I woke up and took a small dose of LSD to make sure I would be a little disoriented and uninhibited. I wore no underwear under my clothes, so they would either have to make me go through the physical exam line naked or with long pants on; they chose the latter option. For the written exam, I declared I had five years of college, and proceeded to answer nearly every question wrong; I scored 3 out of 100. I volunteered that I was both gay and a communist, and was unresponsive to the psychological interviewer. He made it clear I was not the kind of person they were looking for. The result was a 1-Y classification, ineligible for the draft for reasons of physical disability, except in times of declared national emergency, which Vietnam wasn't. I did not get the 4-F I was hoping for, but it was good enough.
Candy and I were feeling the need to create a Fort Hill house of our own, and were itching to get out of the apartment we were sharing with Rachel Brause, two blocks from the Hill, where the urgent growth of the Hill seemed far away and somehow became abstracted by talk. We wished for a place close to the main rows of Hill houses; what we found was a ground-floor apartment at 49 Beech Glen Street, facing the opposite side of the hilltop from Fort Avenue. The apartment was really just a two-minute walk up a path to the Fort Avenue Terrace houses, but it felt like another world. Our challenge was to make it feel like a Hill house. We settled on a few housemates, other newcomers to the Hill like ourselves, and painted the rooms in bright colors. I don't know what we were using for money.
I imitated Eben Given by building an oversize table for the kitchen using salvaged material. I asked David Gude if I could borrow a rasp to smooth the edge of the table, a task that would take about an hour, and was hurt by his reply that he didn't like to lend tools "off the Hill. " I was also hurt by George Peper's failure to respond to my request for a print of a picture of Mel to use in our house. Every house on the Hill and all of the satellite apartments I had seen had prominently displayed on their walls large black and white photographs of Mel, usually full-frontal portraits of him staring directly into the camera or looking spiritual and exemplary; many were from a particular series shot by George and used frequently in the Avatars. I wanted a picture for our new house, too, but I had a different idea. In George's darkroom one time I saw a contact sheet with a shot of Mel standing in a circle with several of the other men, obviously planning a work project. I liked its democratic feel and asked George if he would make a print of that for our house. He simply said, "Hm, strange choice," and never made the print or mentioned it again.
One night, inspired somehow to try to put my current thoughts and feelings in writing, I stayed up late working at the big table, writing a group letter to all my friends from college and elsewhere, trying to convey the intensity of what I felt we had discovered at Fort Hill. I headlined it with a line from Paul Simon's song "America" off the new Simon and Garfunkel album, "Bookends": "Michigan seems like a dream to me now." The truth is, most everything seemed like a dream, and I could not easily tell what was real and what wasn't, but in the letter (of which I do not have a copy) I remember being explicitly insulting and abusive of some of the people to whom I was writing, whom I perceived as not having something as important or powerful going on in their lives as I now had. I wanted to impress them with the significance of what I was doing, and to inspire them to move closer to it, but I think all I did was turn them off and make them think I was crazy. Char Jolles, my journalist friend and colleague from college, wrote back a succinct post card: "Oh, come off it. Love, Char."
Soon, both Candy and I were feeling restless again and unsure how to move closer to our destinies. We settled on a plan, either individually or together, I don't remember, to ask Mel to guide us on acid trips. Like the astrological reading I had coveted and finally received, this was one of the initiation and transformation rituals of the Hill, which one sought only when one was ready for anything. The pictures of Alison Peper in the controversial "stone wall" issue of Avatar exemplified the wide-open emotional state that was considered the goal. I think Candy was probably ready for anything, as that notion would be understood by the Fort Hill people, and her trip with Mel bonded her closely to him in a childlike way (anticipated by her letter to him in Avatar a few months earlier); she came home feeling closer to Mel and to the Hill than to me. She was feeling independent and I was feeling fearful. We quarreled. Trouble.
A Purpose Finds MeMy trip with Mel a week or so later made it clear I was feeling needy and unsure but probably not ready for anything, though I would have liked to be. As I was ushered into Mel's private space, he showed me his instruments, explained a bit about how he worked with them, and said something about how I would learn to work with tools and learn more about the process of creating-and eventually feel myself compelled to do real creative work-some time in the future. It was one of several cryptic and off-putting statements he made that night. But as I lifted off on his very good acid, lying on his floor looking to experience something familiar from my previous acid trips, assuming that Mel would do something amazing when he was ready, he just sat in his chair and watched me, and I felt small and unimportant. Mel apparently experienced me that way, too, and just waited until I came around enough for him to talk some sense or some wisdom into me. When he did, it was about work. He told me that when he was younger he had had to do a great deal of heavy physical work, even though he didn't have the constitution for it, and that with the kind of body I had (I'm quite small but sturdy; at that time I was also soft, but had the potential for strength) I really had no excuse to not be working and making money. This wasn't quite the elevated message I was waiting for, but it was definitely, and literally in my eyes at the time, a "dancing lesson from God," to borrow Kurt Vonnegut's wonderful phrase. I left Mel's space with a purpose, a bit let down but ready for something, if not for anything.
I stumbled home in the early morning to tell Candy this little bit of news gleaned from what I had hoped would be a major transformative experience but, to my surprise, something else was happening at the house. Our gay friends Will and Larry, from Michigan but now in New York, had shown up for an unannounced visit while I was tripping, and what a weird time it was to try to be nostalgic with them. We just couldn't pull it off. I found myself telling them (I don't know where this came from, because it had not been said to me in words by anyone) that the gay explorations I had shared with them the previous year were just not relevant to me anymore, that that wasn't my life now. Since they had come to express concern for our welfare, probably curious and a bit horrified after the letter I had sent to them and all my other friends, this was not the warmest message for them to hear, and they left rather disillusioned and worried about us. Candy wanted nothing further to do with them, and I couldn't see myself maintaining the friendship given my current beliefs and the all-encompassing nature of Fort Hill life, even though I felt a deep loss. Many years passed before we communicated again.
I was ready to get on with my new life as a worker. Another Fort Hill man and I found jobs in a furniture warehouse a short walk from the Hill, in Jamaica Plain. Was this the future? At the age of 23, I had never held such a job before. People on the Hill were fond of saying you couldn't skip any steps in your personal growth. I guessed I was making up lost time.
Candy was also making up lost time, in her way. She was becoming more and more a part of the inner social scene on the Hill, and finding me more and more irrelevant. Before long, she moved into Number One, Jim Kweskin's house. Soon she was involved with one of the men and took to offering me pointed little lessons about Hill life. I was quite unhappy. I returned to her a shirt I had given her that she had left behind when she moved out, along with a short note critical of her "social climbing"; that comment briefly became the joke of the Hill gossip circuit.
The warehouse job soon got old, and I quit to do some favors for my relatives in New York. Both my mother and an aunt needed help redecorating their houses, and helping them seemed an opportunity to make money " for the Hill " in surroundings a little more familiar and less intimidating. It also gave me a chance to visit my old girlfriend, Carol Schneider, on our home turf and update her on the latest strange developments in my life. She was between terms at Albany State and getting restless again herself. I made several long trips to New York over a period of weeks. I told Carol she had "always" been "my wife" despite our respective adventures apart. That comment came from someplace I couldn't identify, that didn't even feel like me talking. All I know is that as the words came out of my mouth I somehow felt more like a Fort Hill person for saying them.
Then I got a phone call in New York from one of the people living in my apartment on Beech Glen. She told me Mel had announced that the Aquarian Age was about to begin, on the date of a particular astrological configuration that most others didn't interpret that way. It was time to "come home," she said. I went "home" on the appointed day, and watched the sun rise over Fort Hill at the beginning of the Aquarian Age. I think it might have been September 15, 1968, when the sun in Virgo was conjunct Pluto in the early morning. (Pluto in astrology symbolizes cycles of death and rebirth, thus all deep change and unpredictable turns of events; it was one of Mel's favorite planets and concepts, and in that season lots of planets were moving through Virgo and making aspects to Pluto and each other.) Nothing seemed any different, but I was back in Boston, single and unemployed.
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