My Odyssey Through the Underground Press
excerpt: pp. 440-448
On the Cover of the Rolling StoneMel got his picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone on the issue dated December 23, 1971. Under the headline "The Lyman Family's Holy Siege of America," for twenty pages of the magazine David Felton juxtaposed the community's glowing reports and hyperbolic claims about its greatness with interviews of people who had been burned or disappointed by Mel over the years, or who had memories of a time when Mel was just another explorer on the path, before he claimed his divinity so flamboyantly. Highlights of his article included:
All in all, it was a detailed, well-researched, beautifully written, and less than flattering portrait of the life of the community. It was a big disappointment to the Hill, and this was only half the story. A second installment was due two weeks later. A chill went through the community; what stories would David Felton reveal next time? The second installment again took twenty magazine pages to tell. This time, Felton was much more personal and also more explicitly critical of the community in the stories he told:
- an interview with writer Kay Boyle, mother of Faith Gude and Ian Franckenstein, who was persuaded on two occasions to attempt living at Fort Hill, but found herself locked inextricably in a battle of wills with Mel and David Gude;
- a detailed story from several non-Hill veterans of the founding of Avatar and the faction fighting that plagued it from the beginning;
- some stories of the Hill's often violent confrontations with media people who had tried to report on the community, or with whom the community had tried to build alliances;
- the story, witnessed by Felton himself when on Fort Hill, of the persecution of a "dummie" on the work crew who was trying to decide whether or not to leave the community; and
- stories of several other people's departures under pressure from the Hill, and of the mysterious "vault" that had been rumored (correctly) to exist in the basement under one of the houses, where people due for a punishment were occasionally held in solitary confinement while they reformed themselves.
The overall impression given by the article is of a somewhat mad, incestuous conspiracy, a little dangerous to outsiders and inexplicable even to its own participants. Rather surreal, you could say. It even contained a full-page paid advertisement for the new record and book, headlined "Mel Lyman Is the Soul of America."
- his visit to the community's compound on Martha's Vineyard;
- his attempt to make sense of something he had witnessed on Fort Hill in Boston, the sudden decision to disassemble the addition to the houses in which Mel's "Magic Theater" was to have been housed;
- his version of Mark Frechette's brief career in films and how it intertwined with Mel's decision to colonize Hollywood;
- his story from Kay Boyle of how the community had attempted forcefully to take over her house in San Francisco, and how she had outsmarted them;
- his attempt to ferret out the truth about the community's relations with Reprise Records and Ballantine Books, and with KPFK;
- his visits with George Peper to Mel's father and his former schoolteacher, in northern California, and the fight George had picked with him about questions Felton had asked them;
- his very own visit from the "karma squad" at the Rolling Stone offices, where they threatened to pull out of the interview project if the reporter didn't become more real and personal; and, finally,
- his early morning visit, dinnertime at the big house in Hollywood, in which he had his long-awaited private audience with Mel, finding him both surprisingly accessible and predictably mysterious and off-putting, and in which he heard about Mel's exchange of letters with the imprisoned Charles Manson.
Reading the articles from within the suppressed confusion of my life in the New York community was, for me, definitely surrealistic. I wanted to feel loyalty to the community and therefore outrage at what Felton had done, but in truth I felt a lot of respect for his investigative reporting and the skillful, seamless way in which he had woven together the complex story. (Rolling Stone later reissued its coverage of the Mel Lyman, Victor Baranco, and Charles Manson "families" in book form, under the name Mindfuckers [Straight Arrow Books, San Francisco, CA, 1972, Library of Congress number 72-79032].) I was as mystified as Felton was about the demolition of the Magic Theater and the sudden shift it seemed to represent in the community's priorities, which had not been explained to us at all. And I was kept busy, to say the least, and always on the edge of burnout by the heavy demands on our time and energy. I kept my feelings to myself and continued trying to do what was expected of me.
But it was weird to feel so alone, while surrounded by my supposed friends. At one time, about 15 of us were living between the loft and the brownstone house. Many were men I had known and worked with for several years, my peers. Some were people I had learned to admire and was pleased to be with up close. Others represented continual difficulty for me. Sofie had moved to New York and in her characteristic way, part Third World bumpkin and part jaded sophisticate, had become queen of the place. I had long been fascinated by her and welcomed the chance to connect with her, but even after we found ways to talk with each other she was suspicious of me and frequently accused me of being "asleep" to the important things. Brian Keating was there with us, now completely out of his role as a writer and newspaper editor and instead directing, or you might say dictating, some of our work energies in a high-tech painting enterprise, for which he bought us airless spray equipment. On the other hand, I enjoyed the company of several of my male co-workers and several of the women who had transferred down from Boston, with whom I felt more equal. At a certain point, Les Sweetnam, the companion with whom I had moved to New York, staged a carefully planned runaway from the community, aided by one of his construction clients, a family of well-known rock and roll musicians who simply didn't understand why he was sacrificing himself as he was. The priorities were, as always, mysterious to me.
As usual, there wasn't enough of anything to go around. We had one van to use for all of us, including all the larger-scale pick-up and delivery needs of the construction and handyman business about half of us were running. Most of the time, we would travel to our jobs on subways and buses, carrying all our tools and materials with us. We would go off in the morning with just carfare and minimum food money in our pockets, often carrying a lunch of peanut butter sandwiches with us.
The financial needs of the community had grown so great there was simply no room in the budget for personal expenses or luxuries (unless they were somehow part of some scheme mandated from above), and everything we did was milked for cash at the earliest possible moment. There were even times when customers would front us advance money to buy materials for specific projects, and that money would make a mortgage payment or be sent back to Boston to be used for some overriding need of the community, such as a land payment in Kansas or a down payment on some piece of equipment Mel wanted to buy, and then we would have to arrange other work to make some new money to replace the advance so we could get back on schedule with the original job - all this without telling our customer what was happening, making excuses as necessary.
As in all the other Fort Hill homes around the country, periodically Mel and his entourage would come through and everything would be turned upside down for a time. Work schedules would instantly be revised or reduced so we could be on call to do special projects around the house; there might be screenings of Mel's latest bits of film work or a chance to listen to some of his music. The living room of the lower flat of the house had been outfitted as a small theater for this purpose. I used to call the preparations in advance of such visits "painting the roses red," in reference to the ridiculous behavior of the characters in Alice in Wonderland, but no one else seemed to get the joke, or to see the ludicrousness of these last-minute attempts to make things into something they were not. The crew traveling with Mel would use their visit to check out how things were among the locals and make adjustments as needed. Thus, the visits took on a fearsome aspect alongside their inevitable celebratory quality. On one such occasion, I inadvertently blew it one more time, and everything came crashing down again for me.
Late one night during a visit from Mel and the traveling crew, I was invited to join in a round of Mel's favorite card game, a variation of pinochle he had invented that he called - what else? - "Melvin." Group members had been playing The Game of Melvin at Fort Hill and around the country wherever he was for a number of months, and it was considered an elegantly simple way to practice the principles of cooperation and attentiveness, or something like that. We in New York had had very little chance to learn the subtleties of the game, and I felt honored to be sitting around the kitchen table in the 15th Street house with just Mel and two others. Things went along well enough for a while, although Mel did seem to be winning most of the hands somehow. Then I found myself with a hand that begged to be played as a winner; it seemed that not doing so would have been an error. So I did just that and won the hand, at which signal Mel threw down his cards and stormed out of the room, back to his private quarters downstairs. I didn't know what had happened, but suddenly I was being confronted by all, the men who were present who had higher status than me; they were telling me I still hadn't learned anything from Mel and living in the community, that I was still trying to compete and win, letting my ego get in the way. I guess the message was that one was supposed to recognize that one could compete if one wanted to, and then back off and let someone else win instead, especially if there happened to be a World Savior present. I never have figured it out, and in an environment of almost continual competitiveness it didn't make any sense to me. In any case, I was being given a choice: I could accept demotion to the lowest position available in New York - living in the basement of the house, working all the time, no pleasures, et cetera, until I had redeemed myself, or I could leave the community immediately. As I considered the choices, I felt a physical rush up my spine, something I hadn't felt in years, and said I was ready to leave.
Hit the Road Again, JackWithin an hour or so, well after midnight, I was out of there, walking to midtown Manhattan to hitchhike out of town. I decided on the spur of the moment to head for East Lansing, where I expected I still had some friends, where I hadn't been for four years, and where I believed, incorrectly, I still had a box of treasured goods in storage in someone's basement. I was, needless to say, quite disoriented and despondent.
I made it to East Lansing by the next afternoon, barely more than driving time, and started walking around town, assuming I would run into someone I knew before long. I did, indeed, find friends almost immediately, and before long I was installed as a stay-as-long-as-you-like guest in the home of two long-time friends. It was April 1972, and I thought it was the beginning of the rest of my life. I still have a letter I wrote to my mother shortly after I arrived in East Lansing, telling her the truth of why I had quickly canceled a plan to have dinner with her and my brother. Apparently I had asked for that meeting in order to press them to "invest" in Fort Hill's anticipated purchase of the house next door to the existing one in New York. In my letter I tell the story of my demotion and justify my sudden move ("This really seems like the right thing for now, even though my heart still belongs to Fort Hill and to Mel if he can ever use it again") and give the details of the investment request, which I say "would be about the kindest thing you could do for me, and for everyone in the New York community." That old fidelity dies hard.
After a few days of getting used to where I was and paying for my friends' hospitality by painting their kitchen for them, I started looking for work. I was quickly hired onto a crew that was framing a bunch of houses in Lansing, and borrowed money to buy a hammer and tape measure, the minimum tools I needed. Then came a phone call from my old friend and nemesis Eric, in New York, who had figured out where I probably was and had found me on the first attempt. He was authorized to invite me back to New York to get myself together and get ready to move to the community's farm in Kansas. Was I interested? It was another of those moments. If I had been just a little bit more established in East Lansing, or if I had achieved just a little more understanding of the psychic dilemma I had been in for years, I might have turned him down. But I did not. I immediately accepted and headed for the highway again. Back in New York, I got help from my family; my brother hired me to do some carpentry work to make traveling money, and my mother gave me an old car she no longer needed, a roadworthy Chevy sedan. I felt grateful for the chance to take "basic training" at the farm, to have an identity again. I spent a week or two getting ready, and then left for Kansas along with crazy Rita, Mel's former lady who had lived in my house on Fort Hill. Considering the unlikely twosome we made, the trip was relatively uneventful, and our reception at the farm was warm.
I remember clearly the all-American hominess of my first few days there, which made me believe, at last, the community had found a place where I could be comfortable and valued. Curiously, I have no memory of Rita after we arrived at the farm. My guess is she must have stayed only long enough to hitch a ride to one of the other "homes"; certainly she was not cut out for living in a place where one had to attend daily to the physical necessities of life.
I felt good being received into the comparatively low-pressure environment of rural Kansas, albeit Fort Hill's version of that. The few people at the farm were all familiar to me, to one degree or another, and the necessities of the moment were relatively achievable: make a home in this new place, employing simple, old-fashioned technologies as much as possible (for example, we removed an electric range from the kitchen and installed a big wood-burning cook stove; the neighbors thought we were crazy), get to know the locals, and, in general, keep things simple. That was the point of "basic training" and it was okay with me. Wayne Hansen was there, once again acting as my guide into a new home, and we had plenty of work to do around the place. There were animals to take care of, old farm equipment to wrangle with, a big vegetable garden that the women tended, and large fields we were considering using to grow cash crops, imitating the locals. On one hand, it seemed more "real" than the concerns that had preoccupied us in Boston and New York; on the other hand, it was all kind of a sandbox situation, with no real necessities driving us to do one thing or another. Comparatively a lot of freedom.
A Simpler LanguageThe farm had been purchased from a long-time local farmer, who owned several places in the immediate area, but who, like everyone else in the region, had come upon hard times and had put his prize place on the market. He still lived and worked in the area with his family, and, in his folksy, uneducated way and with his very limited understanding of what we were up to, gave us plenty of support and help. Through him, we met other neighbors and townspeople. We were accepted readily enough, even though our worldly ways and cross-country traveling and mysterious stories of the larger community that we were a part of must have seemed very weird and puzzling. But we were attempting to blend in as best we could, which involved learning to be interested in the things rural Kansans were interested in, trading favors when possible, and learning to speak a simpler kind of language. We learned to tend (and bully) the farm animals, to drive tractors and flat-bed trucks, to run chainsaws and baling machines, to repair barbed wire fences. We became familiar with the local landscape and some of the local history.
Much of the area had been slated to be flooded by an Army Corps of Engineers dam, and several nearby villages had been vacated and demolished, but the dam had been defective and was never filled completely, so some of the land was spared. Still, the local economy was severely damaged, both by the dislocation and by the general downturn in farm income. The county road that bisected our place came across a new bridge the Corps of Engineers had built over a small creek near our house, marking what would have been the edge of the lake if the dam had been filled. Many farms had been abandoned or had changed hands recently; some people were amassing more property and others were making do with less. It was a strange and surprising time for a flock of newcomers to arrive in the area.
I especially appreciated the chance to learn more about speaking American and acting like a down-home kind of guy. The years in Boston and New York had gone a long way toward cultivating an anti-intellectual attitude in me, but had not been very successful in replacing my former appreciation for the intellect and for precise language with something else more functional. Learning to imitate and converse with our neighbors in Kansas gave me an opportunity to do that and, surprising as it may seem, this served me well at the time and ever since. I found out that most ideas can be broken down into simple, everyday thoughts and expressed as such, and that most relationships of ideas or mechanical processes, no matter how complex, can be translated into everyday images and familiar ideas. This makes them much easier to communicate, especially if there is humor in the mix. (Later I also learned that even deep and subtle feelings can be named simply and discussed matter-of-factly, but that lesson didn't come easily or quickly for me, even at the farm.)
I appreciated working with Wayne and the others on the huge variety of maintenance and fix-up tasks we confronted, and also enjoyed a period of several months working for one of the local carpenter-builders, as his helper and sidekick. And I enjoyed the couple of women at the farm, who tended the garden and the children, and were enthusiastically learning the old skills and cultivating relations with the neighbors. But before long, the idyllic nature of this respite was put under pressure reminiscent of the burdens that all the urban communities were constantly under. Periodically we would receive a new "Melzak" tape or other communication to keep us feeling connected to the larger community we were a part of, and that was nice for us. But sometimes there would also come a directive to do something or other, that would seem to come out of the blue and just make our lives harder. Mel needs his own bedroom and bathroom at the farm; find a way to build what's needed and make space for him. Figure out some way to provide more bunk space for people to come visit. Build an outhouse and use it, instead of the indoor plumbing. Take out the telephone, learn to live more like they did in the old days. Fix one of our women up with a local bachelor farmer; maybe he'll do us more favors that way.
These kinds of directives had been hard enough to take in the city. In the country, where practicality is king, they seemed completely irrational and out of context. The result was similar to what it was in the city when people overloaded; periodically someone would up and leave, usually during or just after one of the occasional visits we received from Mel and his traveling entourage. The couple who had been the first to move out from Boston to help populate the place shortly after it was purchased took hard the first visit from Mel and company that occurred after my arrival. Instead of welcoming the visitors and their many suggestions for how life could be improved, Neil and Judy just drew inward, resenting what they perceived as criticism. I remember George Peper complaining that Neil was lurking around like a surly farmhand instead of acting like the gracious host he was expected to be. On that visit, Sofie was being deposited at the farm to become mistress of the place, and it was a good thing, because a few days after the traveling crew left Neil and Judy were gone, too, taking Judy's young son and everything they could pack in their car. Wayne also walked away from the farm, either during that visit or the next one. Somehow the comments and suggestions from the traveling crew made him feel inadequate to the task and in some way disloyal to Mel; I felt loyal to Wayne and offered to accompany him in an expression of solidarity, but he wouldn't have me. He soon returned to the community via Hollywood.
Wayne's "replacement" as man-in-charge at the farm was a young, overconfident newcomer to the community from Boston known as Mike Aries. Mike Aries was one of those people Mel and friends loved because they wouldn't stop at anything, certainly would never let abstract thoughts or moral compunctions keep them from acting. Before long, Mike and Sofie were having an affair; I was enlisted to perform a "marriage" ceremony for them. Mike did his best to direct activities at the farm, to be the "man" around the place, but he was little more than a boy and was overly impressed by property and power. We instinctively disliked each other, and even competed for the name we shared. I lost, of course. Sofie asked me what other name I would like to use; I combined "Mike" with my middle name, Jay, and came up with "Jake," which became my name for the duration of my time at the farm.
A couple of newcomers joined the community in Kansas. A freelance journalist based in Kansas City, Dick Russell, read about us somewhere and made it his business to connect. He came visiting as frequently as he could, eventually met Mel, and was quickly encouraged to visit the other communities and generally become one of the insiders. Dick also brought along a sometime lover of his, Carol Burger, whom Sofie dubbed Carolee, who took to the place immediately, and soon moved in, with her two school-age sons. She quickly became involved with David Wilson (not the same David Wilson who worked on the earliest Avatar), who I considered a friend from my earliest days around the Avatar office, and who had recently been transferred out from the Boston work crew. When their brief affair was over, David moved into a side room in the barn, leaving Carolee free to receive flirtatious attentions from me, just in time for Christmas. We exchanged romantic gifts (I made her a hand-drawn horoscope, superimposed over a copy of a painting that resembled the local landscape in winter), and a day or two later spent the night together. It was the first time in over three years I had slept with someone, since I had broken up with Carol, and I could hardly believe it was happening.
The very next day, a car arrived on its way from Boston to Hollywood. Two of the men were moving out there and were bringing three of the little girls from Fort Hill to live with us. Sofie had to figure out the new accommodations, and announced to Carolee and me that we were moving in together. What a surprise! A couple of weeks later, we were given the job of caring for the growing number of children at the farm. To do the job, we were moved to a small house a few miles away, another one owned by the same local farmer who had sold us our farm. The arrangement was hell on a new and fragile relationship. Fortunately, it was only temporary, while David and Mike and I struggled to build a new bunkhouse on the hillside above our main farmhouse, that would serve as a children's house when no guests were present.
This disorienting arrangement was how we were living when Mel and his traveling crew came visiting again in January, with snow and ice on the ground. We all collected at the main house to have a welcoming breakfast, but Sofie was nervous that she didn't have enough maple syrup to serve with Mel's pancakes. For his part, David was nervous about seeing Mel and company at all, and volunteered to drive into town to get more syrup. He took the Toyota landcruiser that was our most reliable vehicle. But David was our least reliable driver; he didn't even have a license. He finally returned a couple of hours later, delivered by a neighbor. He had skidded on the icy road and rolled the landcruiser, landing on its roof in a ditch. All for a bottle of maple syrup in a snowstorm. David was okay but the landcruiser was quite severely damaged, and was not insured because we had been so cash-poor trying to keep up with all the other demands on our time and money. Mel's response, delivered at the breakfast table where there was in fact no shortage of syrup or anything else, was to chastise us for not placing priority on finding the money for insurance. It was another moment when I wish I had had the clarity to say the obvious: "If you hadn't placed such unreasonable demands on us, if Sofie wasn't so afraid of not pleasing you, if David wasn't so afraid of facing you, none of this would have happened, and now all you can say is that we should have insured ourselves against the loss." I didn't say a word, but my respect and appreciation for Mel's "gifts" of leadership and guidance fell still further. A few days after Mel's visit ended, while the same snow was still on the ground, we woke up one morning to find that David had run away during the night.
It was the beginning of the end for me. Mike and I labored on to finish the new bunkhouse, working with lumber milled by a neighbor from a beech tree we had felled. We were also finishing a new bathroom for Mel's use, tucked under the eaves of the farmhouse, with a secret storage closet hidden behind the wood-paneled walls. (We had fantasies of developing a "cash crop" out of the volunteer marijuana that grew everywhere in that area, the after-effects of widespread cultivation of hemp during World War II.) Carolee and I gamely tried to act like appropriate caretakers for the flock of children in our care, but we both felt like we were in over our heads and had no time at all to explore our own relationship with each other. Sofie was being her imperious self, which by now I recognized as the personality she assumed when she felt inadequate to the role she had taken on. My best friend through this period was Dick Russell, who was splitting his time between Kansas City and the farm, and who somehow seemed able to reconcile the distance between using his mind as a working tool and otherwise operating by instinct and conviction, as Mel and company always urged us to do. I was envious of his working life as a freelance writer, and depended on him for some perspective on events at the farm.
Another visit from Mel and the road crew occurred around the time of spring equinox. The bunkhouse and Mel's new bathroom were finished just in time to be put to use. The bunkhouse was a success, and the bathroom would have been, too, if I hadn't made an error in the plumbing that prevented the drains from working properly. Uh-oh. Again, it was no excuse that I had been working under so much pressure; I should have asked all the local tradespeople what I needed to know to get it done right. As usual, the visit was the occasion to move someone new to the farm. This time it was Jeremy, the Englishman who had been with us in New York, where we staged a wedding for him in order to keep him in the country legally; now he was to have what Mel called his "American period." Jeremy and I, who had been friends for years in both Boston and New York, didn't get along at all this time. He was very committed to being an agent of positive change at the farm, and he and Mike and Sofie were gearing up to take whatever steps were necessary to make that happen.
A History LessonAs soon as the traveling crew left, and Carolee and I reoccupied the bunkhouse with all the kids, Jeremy started questioning whether Carolee's two sons really belonged at the farm. Somehow they didn't fit in with the others; maybe they should go back to the city and live with their father. No one asked me what I thought, and I know Carolee was upset at the question being asked at all, but within a few hours, literally, the boys were gone from the farm, collected by their father's new wife, who drove up to get them as soon as she heard they were no longer welcome with us. I didn't understand this at all, and Carolee could hardly talk about it. Neither of us protested as the boys drove away; when they were gone, Carolee hid out in the bunkhouse. Then, as though nothing had happened, Jeremy made a weird request to me: could I give a little talk on American history after dinner that night to those of us who remained at the farm? It's easy now to see that this was a set-up, but at the time I just tried to do what I was asked.
Almost as soon as I began speaking, Jeremy interrupted me: why don't I say something "real," why was I just talking about all this abstract stuff? "But, Jeremy, you asked me to talk about this." That's not the point; why was I such a wimp (or whatever word was used at the time to convey that idea; "pissant," pronounced "piss-ant," was a popular one)? When was I finally going to get out of my head and start feeling? As always when confronted by this kind of attack, I didn't know what to say or do, and froze. Sofie stepped in, with a large kitchen knife in hand, and suggested that maybe it would be sufficient to elicit some reaction from me. I could hardly believe this was happening. What was she willing to do with that knife? I didn't get to find out because Jeremy came up with a new idea: what was my most precious possession? I answered that probably my copy of the I Ching was it. He told me to go up to the bunkhouse and get it. I did so, assuming we were going to refer to the oracle to help us out of this difficult moment, as all of us had used it many times before.
Jeremy had something else in mind. He started tearing pages out of the book. When I moved to stop him, Mike held my arms down to the table. This was not rational, of course, even in their terms. If they were trying to elicit a reaction, why stop me when I react? It made no sense. But Jeremy proceeded to destroy the book, and then he and Mike invited me down to the basement for some more discussion. Carolee ran into the living room crying, and that was the last time I saw her. In the basement, Jeremy and Mike aggressively started asking me again what it would take for me to get out of my head. They started hitting on me, and asked me what did I like and dislike? For some reason, I could only think of complaining about having to wear eyeglasses all the time, that I found them really frustrating. Jeremy suggested I just get rid of them, and I did. throwing them on the floor and breaking them. But this was not enough to prove my conversion. They hit me some more, giving me a black eye and otherwise hurting me around the face. Then Jeremy made me look into a mirror and ordered me to "Look at what all your thinking has gotten you." My thinking? As though his fist had had nothing to do with it. He and Mike ordered me to go out to the outhouse and spend the night there, contemplating what had just happened.
I sat in the outhouse, conveniently located facing the creek near the small bridge where the county road crossed onto our property. After a short time, a voice in my head, a clear still voice speaking up for the first time in what seemed like ages, started saying, "These people want to kill me. These people want to kill me, and I'd better get out of here." As I listened to this voice, it made more and more sense to me. Here I was, at the edge of the property; all I'd have to do is slip down toward the creekbed, and it would be an easy matter to get away without being seen. But I had just broken my glasses, my wallet with ID and money were up in the bunkhouse, and I was wearing completely inappropriate clothing, including my painful, oversized cowboy boots. But it was now or never. I quietly left the outhouse and walked up the creekbed, looking back only enough to see that I wasn't being followed. I walked the several miles out to the small house owned where Carolee and I had lived briefly. I knew how to get into the basement storage room there, where there was a sleeping bag that belonged to Dick Russell and an old leather jacket that belonged to Dick Libra, the "real" Richard Herbruck. I took them both and continued walking, until I found a barn close to where the county road met the state highway, and spent the night there. I was amazed I had gotten this far without being intercepted. Was making me run away what they had in mind all along? In any case, I was gone now. The morning would be March 24, 1973, Mel Lyman's 35th birthday, and the first day of the rest of my life.
What Next?In the morning, I began walking south along the state highway, which would eventually take me to the interstate that ran across the state from Kansas City in the east to the Colorado border in the west. I wasn't at all sure where I was headed or what I wanted. In fact, I wasn't even sure who I wanted to be. I knew "Jake the plumber" was a thing of the past, and there was nothing on me to identify who I was or how I had gotten where I was, with my face all beat up again. I found a broken-down outbuilding on a farm alongside the road and sat down inside it to contemplate my future, if I even wanted a future. Maybe I would just sit there and die. I still wasn't sure that at any moment someone from the farm wouldn't find me and drag me home, but they did not. If I was on my own, did I want to become Michael again, or become someone new? Did I want to reconnect with people from my past, or start over? Did I want to live at all? I tried to sort it out, but couldn't.
Again, the voice inside gave me guidance: of course I wanted to be myself again; losing track of that had been the problem. But how? Somehow, I decided it would be acceptable to start out by dropping in on Dick Russell in Kansas City. I went back to the road and was immediately offered a ride by a kind gentleman, a minister from one of the nearby towns who offered me a few dollars and a small pocket bible that was his treasured possession. I had no use for a bible, but thought his gesture extraordinarily kind. I refused to tell him where I had come from or why I was in the shape I was in, other than to say some friends and I had come to a serious disagreement. Maybe he figured it out; I don't know whether he knew about our farm or not. (Months later, when I was settled in California, I returned his bible to him by mail, with an anonymous thank-you note and no return address.) A second kind driver gave me a few more dollars and took me all the way to the interstate. I was astounded, and very grateful. My feet hurt.
Before I knew it, I was in Kansas City, wandering around trying to get myself oriented, still unsure whether dropping in on Dick was a good idea. I went to a thrift shop to get some reasonable clothes and a small suitcase to travel with. When I finally saw Dick, he was gracious and reasonably understanding. We acted just like normal friends for a couple of days, sharing stories of the people we had in common, helping me figure out what to do next, going to his favorite bars and hangouts. I tried to find temporary work, and when I couldn't I sold a pint of blood to make a few dollars. Dick offered to give me a few dollars also to use on the road, but confessed he was getting worried harboring me as a runaway from the community. He asked me to leave, and gave me two mementos from the community to travel with, which I still have - a copy of Mel's book and one of the smallest of John Kostick's "tetraxi" stars. He took me out to the interstate, and I was on my own again.
It was a Friday afternoon. I easily got rides out of town and halfway across the state, but later that evening I got busted for hitchhiking on the highway near Salina, Kansas. Since I had no identification on me and my story was kind of difficult to comprehend, the arresting police found it necessary to hold me in jail for the weekend, until I could prove to an arraigning judge on Monday that I was who I said I was.
Somehow, it got worked out and I was on the road again on Monday, I think by my giving the phone number of the farm to corroborate my story and promising to send verification of my identity and payment of a fine when I got settled somewhere.
I was imagining traveling south through New Mexico, by way of Denver, and then on to California, but by the time I got to Denver a blizzard had enveloped all of Colorado and New Mexico. I spent the night in an empty semi-trailer with some other hitchhikers and a helpful truck driver, and in the morning started hitching north toward Wyoming and out of the blizzard. In Cheyenne, I met some old hoboes who encouraged me to ride a freight train out of town and told me how, but the train they put me on turned out to be a shuttle that only went back and forth between Cheyenne and a coal mine in the middle of the state. When I figured out what was happening, I shamefacedly presented myself to the engineers, and they agreed to take me back to Cheyenne. I hitchhiked out of Cheyenne, but halfway across Wyoming my highway luck ran out, and I decided to try a freight train again. This time I did it right; before long (and before my fingers froze completely), I was in Provo, Utah, north of Salt Lake City, where the train line took off around the north side of the Great Salt Lake and on westward.
It hadn't been my plan, but suddenly it made sense to hitchhike into Salt Lake City, where Sofie had two brothers and a sister, all of them relocated recently from San Francisco. I had met one of the brothers, Patrick, in Boston; now he was living an upstanding life with his Mormon convert wife and managing a hair styling salon. I knew I could find him if I tried, and even though it seemed a bit weird I couldn't think of any better way out of the cold just then.
I did find Patrick at his salon on the south side of town, and he was cordial but uneasy about putting me up in his middle-class family home. After the first night, he took me over to meet his brother James and sister Ruby, both of whom I had heard of but never met, who were living in a house much closer to downtown, where they both worked in a methadone clinic. They made me a bed on the back porch of their house, and I promised to find work as quickly as I could so I could buy my way into a place of my own. I was uncomfortable accepting these favors from the siblings of one of the people who had thrown me out of the farm, and at the same time I welcomed the sense of familiarity, and felt needy of some help if I was to get on my feet again. Within a couple of days I found a job as a laborer and ditchdigger, preparing to pour the foundations of a small apartment complex in the suburbs north of Salt Lake. My employer was a young, rather rude second-generation building contractor with family ties into the Mormon church. We had an uneasy connection, and he thought I was too strange for words, but he admired my work and quickly offered to keep me on as a carpenter if I wanted to stay. I agreed, and planned to use my first paycheck to rent a place of my own.
I wrote to Dick Russell, telling him of the amusing turn of events by which I had been kicked out of the farm by Sofie and was now hanging out with her siblings. I suggested I might want to connect with the community's house in San Francisco when I eventually got to California, and asked if he could help retrieve my wallet and ID to make my journey easier. He wrote back an angry letter, with news of more personnel changes at the farm and a strong rebuke to me:It seems to me you're still using people as crutches to maintain your sense of a "tie to Mel," when what you keep talking about doing is finding out if you can maintain that tie ON YOUR OWN.... Goddamn it, DO what you're saying you want to - get out there in the world and bum around and make some money so you can start feeling useful, but quit expecting someone else to fill the connection you have to find YOURSELF!.... If you really want to be the kind of man you told me you wanted to be, it's up to you to do it! It would seem ill-advised for you to go to the San Francisco Community until you are certain you are ready to contribute more than a physical body. You belong to the world and to yourself now, not to me or to Sofi's [sic] relatives or to San Francisco, and it is up to you to jump over that barrier and work your way back-if you want it badly enough! ... I will see what I can do about your wallet. You should write soon and tell me your plans.Dick's letter was quite a blow to me; I had thought I was behaving the way nearly anyone would when confronted with as much dislocation and separation as I was. Dick's reaction seemed based in his own fear of endorsing and supporting me in behavior the community might dislike. I saw myself humbly seeking out the help I thought I could find among the people I knew in a strange place, and was busily putting myself together as quickly as I could. When my first paycheck was imminent, I found a room in a rooming house near the University of Utah, and proudly brought that news home to James and Ruby. I then learned something very revealing about their characters that made some truths about Fort Hill clear to me as well. It seems that on the day I brought the news home I made a blunder; I sat in on a conversation between Ruby and one of her methadone clients, thinking this was just a friendly visit and that I was welcome. Ruby said nothing to me, but asked James in an aside to announce that this was an intolerable intrusion and I would have to leave. So James took me out on a shopping errand, where I proudly told him that I had already rented a room and would be leaving in a day or two. His reply was as though I had said nothing. "Sofie called us from the farm, you know, and we knew you were coming." (Surely this was a fabrication; I didn't know myself I was coming until the weather and my hitchhiking luck made me change course.) "But Ruby says you're really getting in the way, and you'll have to leave." (But, James, I just told you I was leaving. Why didn't Ruby just ask me to give her and her client some privacy?)
The similarity to the tactics used at Fort Hill was a shock and an eye-opener to me. This was evidently the morality of the street as practiced in San Francisco's cross-cultural immigrant neighborhoods, where Sofie's family had lived for years, and where Mel Lyman too had come of age. I was not only an inept player according to these rules, I was also the kind of person - short, softspoken, educated, distinctly un-macho - who was automatically perceived as an outsider and treated with suspicion. So that's what had been happening at Fort Hill during all that painful time, I concluded. The game was stacked against me.
16. News From Home pp. 454-455... TOP 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Home