My Odyssey Through the Underground Press
excerpt: pp. 427-429
Find a Niche and Fill ItAbout the time this new magazine was published, a mysterious impulse overtook me, as suggested by Mel's essay. Mine wasn't an impulse to produce a great creative work, exactly, but it was a bold step out for me at the time. Something possessed me to give notice at my job at the architecture firm and become a freelance handyman and carpenter. I was impressed by stories of the long-time Fort Hill men occasionally hiring themselves out around town, and I felt, because of my job, I now had enough skill and personal contacts around town to successfully fill my time with freelance work. In this way, I could both bring home more money for the Hill and possibly create employment for other men from the Hill. All this easily came to pass. I put up a few signs around Cambridge announcing "The American Dream," as the little enterprise became known, and before long I was employing myself and several of the other low-status men from the Hill work crew most days of the week. I had my first-ever conversation about astrology with Joey Goldfarb, who assured me that the Mars-square-Saturn aspect in my chart was perfect for what I was doing, an aspect that would keep a person like me from ever acting boldly unless the action were perfect for the moment in which it occurred. My new venture seemed a long way from making music or films, but it did seem to give me a purpose and a role that I could play that fit in with what was going on around me.
Haltingly at first, and then with more confidence, I found myself behaving more like a standard-issue male human, with all the accompanying mannerisms and expectations. Finally, the blue collar role seemed to fit. I found myself remembering and identifying with my father, who worked unhappily as a machinist and equipment designer all his life, never feeling he was getting ahead fast enough and always wishing he could in some way be a writer and raconteur instead, and who finally died of injuries incurred in a work accident. I seemed to be re-creating his experience, the last thing he or I ever expected me to do. Some group of us guys - as many as were needed for the day's assignment - would go off in the morning with a car full of tools and materials, and would do whatever sort of work the day demanded of us - painting, carpentry, plumbing, digging and trenching, plastering, demolition, apartment fix-up, you name it. The pleasures of the day were simple: a coffee and doughnut break from time to time, the chance to get to know a new neighborhood, sometimes a conversation with people living in the places we were working. We took pleasure from proving to ourselves that we could credibly accomplish some task we weren't sure we knew how to do. Sometimes tempers would flare, and it would suddenly seem like Fort Hill again, with clashing egos and power struggles. I tried to keep the operation upbeat and simple, but of course sometimes I made planning errors or got us into projects over our heads, and this would elicit challenges from the others. But all of us were focused on bringing home as much money as we could with as little hassle as possible.
I changed homes a few times during that fall and winter period. Carol and I, and then Eric, were living in Mark Frechette's old apartment on Highland Avenue part of the time. We made a weird, bold decision to remove several of the partitions between rooms of the apartment to make a bigger, more flexible space, without asking or telling the landlord, who lived downstairs. We used the resulting pile of scrap wood as firewood to burn in a wood stove we installed, also without his permission. (My mind reels now at the arrogance of this maneuver.) I remember all of us being under stress at the time, such that I found myself hitting and yelling at Carol a few times, another step into the world of male-patterned behavior that I hadn't experienced before. When our landlord figured out the damage we had done to his building, he evicted us, and the three of us moved back onto Fort Avenue, this time into a small rented apartment in Number 23. Carol and I had the only bedroom; Eric's space was a portion of the kitchen/living room. In these cozy quarters, I remember listening for the first dozens of times to the Beatles' "Abbey Road" album, whose enigmatic lyrics somehow came to symbolize for me the whole time period.
Then, for reasons I can't recall, our little household group broke up. Carol moved into Faith's house, Number Two, mirroring Candy's "social climbing" of a year and half earlier; Eric moved into Number 27, which was still undergoing remodeling; and I moved into Number 29, which was only now starting the remodeling process. At last, we were living in buildings owned by the community, a small step toward assimilation. I lived for a period in the top-floor apartment, which had been gutted and now had exposed framing and brick exterior walls, with my bed in the middle. I also lived in the basement apartment and a couple of other places in the building, as the several apartments were disassembled and a single kitchen and living room and numerous bedrooms were carved out of the space. Gradually, a loose family unit came together in the house, which served as an anchor for me during an upsetting time.
I had another encounter with the karma squad during the winter. I was still running a work crew five days a week and working on the Hill houses with everyone else most evenings and weekend days, trying to be a good member of the team. My crew was dependent on an old station wagon I drove, and one Sunday I felt a need to work on the car to keep it running, rather than on my appointed project of the day, which happened to be completing a portion of a decorative picket fence around the Terrace houses, obviously not an essential task. One of the men found me and insisted I work on the fence instead of the car, which I did, resentfully. Later that day, I wrote a note questioning the rigidity of the priorities and left it on the table in one of the Avenue houses, seeking support or feedback from whoever read it.
The next day, several of us went off to work in my station wagon; predictably, the car broke down during the day, and we had to call the Hill to be rescued in order to get home from where we were working. Ian came to collect us in the Jeep pickup and was inexplicably sullen as we rode home. When we arrived on the Hill, he directed us into House Number Five, which was at that time still in a stage of being remodeled for Mel's visionary use, and whose large living room was serving as a community meeting space. Practically everyone on the Hill was there waiting for us, and Richie was at the front of the room ready to pounce on me. I couldn't figure out what was happening until Richie read to the group the note I had written the day before. My former tutoring student from East Lansing had read the note and for reasons I never have figured out turned it over to Richie during the day. He decided to make it an example of something or other, insubordination, I guess. Now that he had me on display, he wanted me to confront the person who had insisted I work on the fence, but I wasn't even willing to name who it was. To me, his behavior wasn't the problem; the problem was that the work priorities were so inflexible that we were disallowed any initiative even to choose to take care of problems for which we had assumed responsibility, such as my car. It was obvious to me that I was correct, given that the car had in fact broken down that day, but I couldn't frame this thought clearly enough to protest at the time, and I was confused and terrified being put on display that way. I simply froze and could not give Richie and the others what they wanted, any more than I could successfully defend myself. The meeting finally broke up with nothing resolved, but my status in the community was diminished again.
Suspend All The RulesOther incidents happened during those days on the Hill that I also just couldn't accept or rationalize. The abuse of relationships shocked me repeatedly. Couples would be thrown together or ripped apart at the whim of someone with higher standing in the community. Any withdrawal from the main group for the purpose of exploring the possibilities of a relationship was considered a violation, and if this happened to occur in combination with what was perceived as disrespect there would be hell to pay. Children were treated the same way, and were often separated from their parents or disciplined for what seemed specious reasons. I attempted a couple of times to intervene in such situations, and suddenly found all the anger and frustration focused on me. Once, in a moment when Brian Keating's former wife, Pat, was being told to leave the Hill but to leave her two young children behind because they belonged to Mel even if she didn't, I spoke up in her behalf, defending to Jim Kweskin her right to keep her family together. Jim was furious with me, and stood by while one of the other men, who saw himself as the head of our household in Number 29 and who was a great deal larger and stronger than me, punched me hard in the face, giving me a black eye that required medical attention. Pat left the Hill, with her children.
Another time, I happened to speak up in defense of Rita W., the space case who had borne one of Mel's babies (who was being raised by Faith), and who periodically would wander back to the Hill from her sojourns in the larger world. This time, she was showing up homeless and pregnant, and I felt an impulse to offer her space in Number 29. I barely knew her, but I believed she obviously was part of our family, like it or not. No one took my suggestion seriously, and Rita was told repeatedly to leave, that there was no room for her in the condition she was in. After a couple of weeks of this, Jessie finally pronounced that "we have to take care of our own," and Rita was given a space in (of course) Number 29. No one but I saw the irony in this turnabout, but now crazy Rita, and later her new baby, were part of our household.
Jon M. was the central figure in two dramas that horrified me, mainly because he was perceived as being in the right in both incidents. In one case, he reacted to what he saw as disrespectful and separating behavior on the part of one of the women, and he responded by barging in to her room and raping her, and then boasting about it. Another time, he got angry at similarly "disrespectful" and inappropriate behavior on the part of two of the children, two boys about four or five years old, and he beat them up, one of them quite seriously. In both cases, he was not criticized for what he had done; instead, he was praised for following his impulses so uncritically. I found this incredible, and impossible to condone. (I did entertain a fantasy for a time of treating another of the women, with whom I was having a running argument, the same way, but I couldn't bring myself to use force deliberately in that way.)
Equally incredible was the way in which two babies who were born to a particular couple during that period were received. They were the half-sisters of one the boys Jon had beaten, born a year or two apart from each other. Both were born with birth defects, I don't know exactly what, but they involved certain internal organs functioning irregularly and promised that the babies would need extraordinary care for a long time, perhaps permanently. The first baby was tolerated on the Hill, but when the second one was born it emerged as a necessity that both girls be given up for adoption because they were "monsters" and there was not room for them on the Hill. The babies went; the parents stayed.
I was experiencing life as more and more irrational. I was living in an authoritarian hierarchy in which the rules and priorities and power relationships were constantly shifting, and I repeatedly found my values challenged and undermined. All around me, my peers seemed to think everything was just fine, and all we had to do was keep working for Mel. In fact, that's practically all we were allowed to do, so we did. In such an environment, it goes without saying, the work was all that counted. It didn't matter if we had the right tools; it certainly didn't matter if the work was beyond our skills, or was physically risky, or exposed us to chemical fumes or other hazards. Getting it done, somehow, and winning the attendant approval was the most important thing. We were still finding some of our building materials in abandoned houses around the area, and this opened the way to an amoral view of property ownership in which anything was okay that you could get away with.
One time, I took one of the Hill's vehicles on a lumber run, and the lumber yard personnel almost forgot to charge me for my truck load of goods. I paid, but when I told Richie about this he said I should have run for it. I couldn't quite integrate this attitude, but I did try to do so another time. Several of the other guys and I had borrowed Jim Kweskin's van to go on a "scrounging" run, looking for building materials. We came across a new building site where some large space heaters caught our eyes. The Hill had a major construction project under way at the time, rebuilding the back end of Houses Number Five and Six as part of Mel's grand scheme to create a "Magic Theater" in which to display his various works and put people through transformative changes. At this stage of the work, the crew was laboring inside a two-story plastic enclosure that was very cold and unpleasant to work in. We decided to lift the heaters and some other materials from the site. As we were loading up the truck, being as invisible as we knew how to be, police came along and busted us. Of course, the stolen goods and Jim's truck were confiscated, and we were held in jail until the Hill's lawyer could arrange bail for us. Eventually, after some skillful plea bargaining, charges were dropped against three of us, and the two who had prior records were given light sentences, probably probation. Jim and the other authorities of the Hill lectured us on our transgression, not for attempting to steal things for the Hill but for doing it clumsily and getting caught. Part of our "punishment" was digging a big hole in the driveway near the workshop buildings, in which to bury other stolen materials that were lying around, in the event the police would want to search the place. So much for morality.
13. on Robert Levey's "Fort Hill" article pp. 429-430 TOP 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Home