Mindfuckers pp 189-229
Rolling Stone pp 50-60 [#98]
Our ol' Pa is so funny.
He likes candy a lot.
He is so fun to play with.
We make funny newspapers.
We are making newspapers to look at them.
We are a funny family.
We are a big funny family.
The hill is good and bad.
The hill top is very funny.
Shortly before the summer of 1971, disturbing reports began trickling in about the Lyman Family's attempts to infiltrate the underground media. Nearly all of them involved violence of one sort or another. After young Paul Mills wrote a relatively mild article about Mel Lyman in the April 16th issue of Fusion Magazine, a window in his car was smashed and Jim Kweskin allegedly phoned Paul's mother and posed as an old friend to find out his address. That same day Fusion editor Robert Somma was essentially kidnapped; Lyman people refused to leave his office unless he would accompany them to Fort Hill, which he did. He was unharmed.
"I will forewarn you," Somma said later, "they really don't joke around. They're as malicious and malevolent as any group I've met." He said three other writers had quit the story out of fear before Mills finally completed it.
There was the rumor that Raeanne Rubenstein, current editor of Crawdaddy, had been slapped around by Fort Hill recruit Paul Williams when she wouldn't give more space to an essay he'd written about Mel. She refused to discuss the matter on the phone, but Paul later admitted it. "It was stupid," he said, "I don't know why I did it, exactly, but I had been living with the New York community and was very impressed, you know, at the way they stand up for what they have to have."
Similar, if less harsh, accounts of intimidation were coming in from The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Free Press. And several people reported that frightening incident at KPFK, the first encounter with the Lyman Family where police had to be called. In this case too, those involved refused to talk on the phone. "It's not going to be discussed by me or any member of this staff," barked Elsa Knight Thompson, acting station manager. "I don't have to explain why. And if you don't like it, call back after the 10th of this month and talk to the new manager."
When the incident was mentioned to Jim Kweskin, he suddenly turned cold and suspicious.
"What do you know about it?" he asked.
"Just... rumors, really."
"Tell me about them. Tell me about the rumors."
"Well, mainly that you retaliated after one of your people, Owen deLong, was fired as program director. That's about it."
Kweskin's voice was deliberate and somewhat righteous. "What you heard is true. But it didn't happen because Owen deLong was fired. It happened because Richard Herbruck - who is a very important person in the community, the Producer, produces all sorts of things - produced a bunch of radio shows that were completely destroyed by the engineers at KPFK. The volume kept changing all the time; at one point the sound went off completely during one of Richard Herbruck's introductions.
"And we sent our own engineer down to help them and they locked our engineer out. We sent people down to help, and all we met was hate. And resistance. And pride. And ego. Until finally we got so angry that we had to do something to make those people feel how angry we were. Something had to be done to make the people at KPFK feel, feel that something, feel as bad as we did, feel what a destructive job they were doing."
But wasn't it this sort of incident that was giving the Lyman Family the reputation of Manson's?
Kweskin dismissed the idea scornfully. "The Manson Family preached peace and love and went around killing people. We don't preach peace and love.
"And," he added, smiling, "we haven't killed anybody - yet."
* * *
I climbed the crumbling stone steps to 27 Fort Avenue, Roxbury, the front office and nerve center of Fort Hill. A square-jawed young man named Jeff and a dark-haired storybook princess named Anna answered the door hugging and giggling, took me inside to the office and immediately asked me my sign and, when I confessed ignorance, my date of birth. It was the first of perhaps 40 times I was to be asked that sort of question. Fort Hill considers astrology to be a second language, a tongue in which I was about to receive a kind of crash course.
Everything has a sign, to them, not just people but animals, plants, events, cities, countries - everything with a date or location. "Mel knew the signs of everybody in the National League," recalled a downhill scoffer. "You know, he'd say, 'Baltimore's got a great Aquarian pitcher... too many Capricorns in the outfield.'" Generally they use the language not so much for forecasting as Monday-morning quarterbacking. Which tends to reinforce their belief that the universe, at least Mel Lyman's universe, is "unfolding as it should."
What's particularly disturbing to a non-believer is the way, once you tell them your sign, they raise their eyebrows, chuckle affirmatively and say nothing, as if with one utterance you had lost the chance to marry their daughters.
Anna had some book open and was researching my birthdate. Finally she looked up and said brightly to the others in the room, "He's a Gemini-Sagi."
"Wow," they responded. "a Gemini-Sagi." I expected applause but the matter was immediately dropped.
There was a monster switchboard-intercom system on the main desk, and Anna hit one of the buttons. "Send Paul over," she instructed. Paul Williams would take me to the studio where the men were working, she said.
In the meantime I did a quick check of the office. They had the usual office stuff - files, supplies, mimeo and photo duplicating equipment. A stack of Avatars lay on one table, next to a copy of the ROLLING STONE issue on Charles Manson marked "office copy - please save."
As one might expect. the office was blessed from one wall by a framed photograph of Mel Lyman, as was nearly every room in all the houses. On a shelf above the intercom was a small reference library, and I started jotting down the titles: Illustrated Yoga, Webster's Dictionary, Linda Goodman's Sun Signs, Astrology for the Millions....
"What are you writing that stuff down for?" interrupted a chubby, unpleasant-looking girl named Dvora, who had just entered. "Do you think that's where your story is? It's not." The room grew chilly.
I continued: Information Please Almanac, I Ching - Office copy.
"Look, he just keeps on writing," she said to the others, then turned to me. "Can I see your notes?"
I said no and her eyes narrowed. "What's your sign?" she asked hostilely.
"Oh," she snickered.
(Later the Lyman people were good enough to do my chart and have it interpreted by one of their astrological experts, a soft-spoken woman named Adele.
("Gemini is the conscious mind and Sagittarius is the super-conscious mind, so that your chart is full of purpose," Adele reassured me. "And your purpose is to communicate, to communicate to the world. You have Uranus in the tenth house, the house of outstanding goals, and Uranus is the planet of communication - so that goes with Gemini. Every time I look at your chart I feel a writer."
("Really?" I asked. "You mean if you didn't know anything about me, you'd know I was a writer, just from my chart?"
("Yeah, everything in your chart is about communicating. And because your sun is in the house of Aquarius, it's revolutionary, which means using your abilities for the masses of people. Like being a writer for Rolling Stone."
(Needless to say, I found the explanation fascinating. And so did my twin sister, Mary, who was born 13 minutes before me and, according to Adele, has a nearly identical chart. A former nurse, Mary now lives at home in West Los Angeles with her husband, a systems analyst, and three children.)
Two other books, I later discovered, were especially important on the Hill and had been read by everyone: The Godfather, because, as one girl put it, "We're just like the Mafia up here." And Instant Replay, because Mel digs football, really digs it, particularly televised professional football. During the season all four communities devote their weekends to it (and now Monday nights, thanks to the ABC network), usually watching two games at once on side-by-side color TVs. It all has to do with a team of people working as one unit at the direction of one man or something.
Just then the office phone rang and Jeff, the giggling, square-jawed fellow, answered. As he listened his face turned mean and bitter, his brow lowered, his square jaw jutted forth. It was more news about that damned housing project the city wants to build next to Fort Hill. Finally he started shouting. "As far as I'm concerned they're all a bunch of racists and faggots! The only thing I'd do is... is straight assassination. I mean, how are people gonna change except through violence?"
Jeff's tirade persisted as Paul Williams appeared at the doorway, introduced himself and escorted me from the office, up Fort Avenue Terrace, the long gravel alley on which five of the Hill's eight structures stand. It was about three in the afternoon and the men had another hour to work before lunch.
As Paul explained it, the men generally started work at nine in the morning, broke for breakfast at 11, broke again for lunch at four and finished work and cleaned up just before dinner at nine in the evening. It was a schedule Mel had worked out for maximum health, appetite control and work output. Times and amounts of coffee intake were similarly dictated.
The studio where the men were working was upstairs in the last building, an old, two-story duplex known as Five and Six. Actually they were working behind the duplex, building a new two-story addition, the top floor of which could be entered from the studio. Where there were now beams and studs there would soon be a roof and walls.
Paul introduced some of the workmen, most of them Fort Hill veterans, including David Gude and Richie Guerin, the Community's brilliant young architect who bore an unnerving resemblance to pictures I'd seen of Mel. I asked Paul why there was so much building and remodeling going on. "I think they're getting ready to rent them or sell them," he said, "some of them, at least, and so they..."
"Paul," Gude cut in sharply, looking up from the board he was sizing, his thin mouth straight and grim. "Don't talk about the future."
"Right, uh..." Paul caught his breath. "... we really don't know what's going to happen."
It suddenly became apparent that Paul Williams was a recruit, a pledge - a "dummie" or "turd," as such people are referred to on the Hill. I had naively assumed that a writer with a book and some reputation would automatically start at a higher level. But no, he was at the bottom bottom, and David and Richie were - well, only one person was at the top, of course - but they certainly had more authority than Paul.
Perhaps it was this kind of humiliation that, several weeks later, became more than Paul Williams could endure.
* * *
Richie the architect:
everything is flexible, you never know about the Need
Every room at Fort Hill has been changed by the gifted handiwork of Richie Guerin, a former architectural student who five years ago dropped out and joined the Community at the age of 19. But the studio atop Five and Six is one of his masterpieces. Remodeled with materials partly bought and partly scrounged from other old buildings, the huge room is a bouquet of blended woods and purposes. Giant outdoor shutters can in seconds change a warm living room with a spectacular view of Boston to a darkened sound stage or theater. Skylights convert to rooftop exits, and baseboards unscrew for instant electrical rewiring.
"Everything is flexible 'cause you never know what you're going to need," Richie explained. "Everything is done by necessity. Necessity always breeds a perfect balance of form and function. If you follow the Need. I mean, this place is a good example. We did just what we had to do, there were really no ideas. And out of the Need came things that were, wow, really far out."
And the Need changes all the time, doesn't it? You never know when the Big Coach may suddenly call a different play. In the short history of Fort Hill, the Need has transformed house Five and Six several times. The building has served as a movie set, a recording studio and a film vault. The basement was used for target practice when the Hill was in its armed guard period. And most recently, I was to learn, the Need changed so swiftly and ruthlessly, the Community was nearly torn apart and destroyed.
Even as Richie spoke, the first floor of Five and Six was being used to store a roomful of professional television and videotape equipment, a vestige of the days in late 1969 and early 1970 when Mel Lyman had designs on the CBS-TV Network.
The story of that Need came from Don West, now editor of Broadcasting Magazine and then assistant to CBS President Dr. Frank Stanton. On Stanton's behalf he first visited Fort Hill in July, 1969, with plans to film the Community for an experimental documentary project.
"For me this was a completely mind-blowing experience," West remembered. "I came right out of the 34th floor of CBS, I was approaching middle age, and I just fell in love with the Hill. And, I thought, they with me.
"I guess they thought I was the route to taking over CBS; they probably found me a very pliable instrument. I suspended most of my critical judgment and just let it happen, if you know what I mean.
"When I went up there the first day I was not allowed to meet Mel Lyman. However, I did meet Mark and Daria Frechette and Jim Kweskin, George Peper, David Gude, his woman Faith, Mel's first wife Sophie and his second wife Jessie. They said they were representing Mel so he wouldn't have to sit around and answer a bunch of silly questions. And it's true, the Hill is Mel Lyman, it's an extension of him."
Jessie Benton, as painted by her father
Thomas Hart Benton, Hill benefactor
For three days West simply waited and tried to blend in with the Fort Hill life. He even pulled guard duty. Finally on the third night, about three in the morning, Mel appeared.
"When I first saw Mel Lyman he looked like he was on the verge of death. He was incredibly emaciated, he could not have weighed more than 100 pounds. I really believed he was about to die, he looked so incredibly sickly. At that time he was virtually living the life of a monk, isolating himself inside his house, producing things, films. There was a red light on the outside of his house, and when it was on, boy, you did not get in."
With Don that early morning was a friend and colleague, Stan White, now an art director in New York. Mel asked both of them to watch his films. "I thought the films were quite good, considering he had no technical background and no decent equipment. I'm not sure Stan White would agree, but they really affected me. There was one where Mel got up one morning before the children and did a film of the children waking up. And it was very moving."
That was the film, edited in his camera, for which Mel later recorded a harmonica soundtrack using only the memory of the film as his guide. The two creations matched perfectly - a miracle often retold by the Lyman family.
Mel also showed them his movie of Jim Kweskin on acid. "I don't understand drugs very much, particularly LSD," said West, "but Kweskin completely changed his personality. In fact, he changed his signs on that trip. I don't know if it was on the cusp or what, but I remember Kweskin gave up one life and took on another. It was a very long trip."
A little too long, perhaps, for Stan White, who apparently wasn't as impressed with the films as West. "In discussing the films afterwards," said Don, "Stan asked Mel a question, a simple, logical question, something like, 'Do you think you could follow a script?'
"Mel said no, absolutely not, and then he flew into a rage. He turned to Stan and shouted, 'When did you die? When did you die inside? You double Cancer you!'
"I couldn't understand what got into him. Apparently Mel did have some very personal problems. I just stood there, I didn't know what to do. And all the other people in the room, all the Fort Hill people, had gone into this almost catatonic thing, you know? Like they were... like they were molded out of wax."
The two left the Hill immediately. White never returned, but West appeared again in October, this time with videotape equipment and a camera crew from Boston's WGBH.
"The working title for the project was The Real World," said Don, "and I had the idea of contrasting two communes - this young people's commune in Boston and an old people's retirement commune in Seal Beach, California. I had hired the Video Freex of New York to film the old people's commune."
After shooting Fort Hill all day, the WGBH crew left and Don West and the Lyman Family sat down to view the tapes.
"Suddenly they confronted me - there were about 30 of them - they said that what we'd shot was bullshit, it was superficial. David Gude said something like, 'You talk about the Real World - this is the real world,' and he pulled out a German Luger and shoved it in my face. 'This is our real world!'
"God, he sure made his point with me. That was the first time I saw a gun on the Hill." Later West discovered that the Fort Hill guard was completely armed.
"They wanted to make every situation a confrontation. As an independent observer I'd have to say their techniques are very severe. If a guy makes a mistake they really give it to him. I remember one guy had said something wrong over the radio..."
"Yeah, they had this walkie-talkie-type radio system in all the houses to alert everyone if there was trouble. And this guy had said something dumb or obscene over it. And they put him through the damnedest grueling I'd ever seen, just kept firing questions at this poor guy for 10 or 15 minutes until he finally broke."
* * *
Harry Bikes recalled a similar confrontation at the height of the Hill-scoffer war of April, 1968: "About this time there was an incident at the Club 47. It was their last night, the club was closing, and the Lyman Family was supposed to perform. Their act had really changed, it was like a church meeting. Kweskin would get up there and lecture, and the audience would yell 'fuck you,' that sort of thing.
"Anyway, that night Eben Given and Brian Keating got in a wild fist fight over something or other, and the whole family went berserk, right on stage. Then everybody went up to the Hill where they were having an enormous reception for Mel. It was his birthday and the ladies had made an incredible cake.
"But after a couple of minutes, the whole thing turned into a kangaroo indictment of Brian Keating. They busted him of every last vestige of self respect; he was just destroyed in front of our very eyes. He was saying, 'I have no answers. I have nothing to say.' And then he just collapsed on the floor. I have never seen a man cry like that.
"Eventually they busted Eben and threw him off the Hill. He was reduced to a spineless fool. The guys were coming out every morning and nailing his door shut. And he'd just go out the window and never say anything about it.
"The whole thing is about spinelessness."
Bikes had a secret. "You know what they call Jim Kweskin on the Hill?" he asked, gloating. "They call him Squishy."
* * *
"Anyway," continued Don West, "after David and the others confronted me, I told them, 'All right, I'll do my own taping.' And I handed a camera to George Peper.
"George is the scion of a wealthy Connecticut family who lived under really pampered conditions. He was a New England tennis champion and everything. But when Mel found him he was at the bottom of the barrel, he was into a lot of drugs, you know? But George, who had never handled a camera in his life, really did a beautiful job."
So beautiful that Don invited George to accompany him around the country and help shoot other segments of The Real World, including a mental institution in Delaware. "It was a heavy decision for him," said Don. "He had been on the Hill for four years and he didn't want to go. He was actually afraid of the outside world. But he did a fantastic job."
George traveled with Don West until mid-January, 1970. During that time the news broke across the country that Charles Manson had been arrested for the murder of Sharon Tate.
"George became tremendously excited when the news came out," remembered West. "At his insistence, we stopped at a roadside phone booth and he called Mel. I never found out the substance of that conversation, except something to the effect that they considered Manson to be the anti-Christ, representing evil, and Mel to be Christ, representing good.
"I remember George was terribly anxious to get into the Manson trial; he kept asking CBS if we could get him a press pass so he could get in. I'm quite sure if you got Mel Lyman and Charles Manson debating in front of a camera, the film that came out of that camera would be something else."
A few weeks later the short, grand partnership of West and Peper ended abruptly - after CBS looked at the tapes they'd shot. "The upshot of the show was they found it far too radical," said Don. "I think they felt I should leave CBS, and I did leave.
"But to my dismay, the Hill and I also split. What happened was, I had given them a complete television system to use, a half-inch system with a camera, plus an Angienux lens and a Sonheisen microphone - about $1800 worth of equipment. The Hill had borrowed that equipment from me, but when I went to retrieve it, they refused to give it up."
West sounded apologetic. "I guess I still am in a hangup about the rights to property. On my last visit to the Hill, to get the equipment, they told me, 'You're not the same guy who came up here before.' And that was true in a sense. I'd been burned a lot. The Video Freex refused to shoot the old people's commune. I had tried to effect a change in the CBS system; had I been successful, it would have been a different network. I jeopardized my career and my family. I put every dime I had into that farce. And now the Hill was keeping my equipment and having nothing to do with me.
"When I say we split, I mean I've never seen them again."
"Do you think they were friendly only when you were useful to them?"
"It would be hard for me to resist that conclusion," West admitted sadly. "The fact is, they still call me now and then when they need something. In March of this year George Peper called me from New York City, said he was looking for a publisher for Mel's new book.
"After I hung up I thought to myself, 'God, they never stop. They never stop asking for things.'"
* * *
"Pass the butter?" asked Richie, tearing apart a slice of white bread and nodding thanks. It was just after 4 PM and the dozen studio workers were seated at a round table just off the main dining area of the Fort Hill mess hall. Two plain-faced women had just cooked and served up a starchy meal of macaroni and cheese, bread and punch, and now they sat on stools a few feet away, giggling to each other. Apparently they had already eaten.
Hungry and good-spirited, the men gossiped behind the backs of absent girls and novitiate "turds."
"How's David Plaine doin'?" asked David Gude of square-jawed Jeff.
"Aw, he just needs a friend," said Jeff.
"He doesn't need a friend, he needs a trainer," sneered Kurt Frank as the others laughed.
"Today he said to me-" and here Jeff's voice took on a stupored, dumb-beast quality- "'Think I'm gonna leave the Hill'"
Richie's mouth dropped open. "You must be kiddin'," he said.
"So this morning he didn't show up for work," said Jeff. "He was supposed to paint. And I went to his room, and he had his bags packed."
"You must be kiddin'!" laughed Richie, a bite of bread dropping on his lap.
"I said, 'What do you think you're doing?' He says, 'Think I'm gonna leave the Hill.' I said, 'Well, David, what's it gonna be? You wanna go painting or you wanna go to the vault?'"
David Gude listened and smiled, revealing a huge black gap in his front teeth, as Jeff continued in a stupored voice.
"'Well, I sure don't wanna go to the vault.' I said, 'So what are you going to do?' He thinks real hard for a minute and says, 'Think I'll run away.'"
Everyone had stopped eating now, shifted, and focused his attention on the smiling jaw.
"So Bruce Virgo and Bruce Scorpio grabbed him by the shoulder, lifted him up and said, 'All right, let's go to the vault.' And he just exploded, started screaming and waving his arms and legs. He'd been asleep before, you know? But now he was suddenly real.
"They took him outside and threw him to the ground. I was so mad I jumped on his chest, and I was just about to smash him in the face, you know?" Jeff clenched his fist and drew it back over his shoulder.
"Yeah? Yeah?" said Richie.
Jeff dropped his arm. "And then I thought about that thing David Gude said about Primitive Love, you know? And I just got up and said to him, 'You decide.'"
Gude seemed disappointed. "That don't matter," he protested, "you could've hit him in the face anyway. That's Primitive Love. You know, pow!" and he thrust out his own clenched fist, stopping an inch from Jeff's bull's-eye jaw.
"That's right, pow!" shouted Kurt, laughing, almost smashing Gude from across the table.
"Shit yeah, pow!" laughed Richie, nearly decking Kurt.
"Pow!" said Jeff.
"Pow!" said Kurt.
"Pow!" said Richie.
"Pow!" said David.
"Pow! Pow!" They were all up out of their seats now, leaning across the table, laughing wildly, filling the air with fists and bobbing faces. Their good humor had a simple, campfire quality to it, the inbred wit of real family closeness. One could forget momentarily that it was inspired by actual violence... and something about a vault?
After a few seconds the men settled down, however, leaving Jeff to finish his story.
"So David Plaine went back to his room. And a few minutes later he came out and said he wanted to go painting."
There was even a moral. "He was just waiting," explained Jeff, "for someone to talk him out of it."
Kurt looked up from his lunch and nodded. "Yep, he just needed a friend."
* * *The wise man builds his house upon a rockAnd the hands of three tiny Lyman children, two boys and a girl, came tumbling down upon the third floor of 27 Fort Avenue, where, for my benefit, an impromptu concert of sweet angel voices was in progress. And the hands came up when the floods came up.
The wise man builds his house upon a rock
The wise man builds his house upon a rock
And the rains come tumb-bel-ling down.The rains came down and the floods came upAnd the whoosh lifted the children into the air, their hands shooting away from their tiny protruding bellies, their angel melody dissolved by the flood of shrieks and shrill giggles. Anna, the long-gowned storybook princess, had led them in the song while giving me a tour of the Fort Hill Community.
The rains came down and the floods came up
The rains came down and the floods came up
But the house on the rock stayed firm.
The foolish man builds his house upon the sand
The foolish man builds his house upon the sand
The foolish man builds his house upon the sand
And the rains came tumb-bel-ling down.
The rains came down and the floods came up
The rains came down and the floods came up
The rains came down and the floods came up
And the house on the sand went - whoosh!
Like 29 and 31 Fort Avenue next door, 27 Fort Avenue is an aging, three-story apartment building used mainly as a dormitory by the Community. The three buildings are around the corner from Fort Avenue Terrace and generally are in worse repair than the homes on that block. In fact 29 was nearly in a skeletal condition, all pipes and wires - another remodeling project of Richie's.
"The men do all the work themselves," said Anna as we walked outside. "Rather than just paint things over, they scrape down to bare wood and start at the bottom - like life, you know?"
We cut across the weedy little park that skirts the base of the Fort Hill tower, as Anna, her gown blowing in the late afternoon breeze, told me everything she knew about the historic structure: that it was the highest point in Boston, maybe, and was full of pigeon shit.
From the park we could easily see all the Community houses, Anna pointing them out. Next to Five and Six was Four-and-a-Half, which belonged to Mel when he still lived on the Hill. You can tell by the eight-foot-high stone wall that surrounds the entire front yard.
"Like, there's an awful lot of history in that wall," said Anna. "Like Mel had a dream, and afterwards he told Richie, he said, 'Now Richie, like, I want you to build a wall.'
"If you look closely, you can see how the stones on the bottom are rough and uneven but the stones on top, after the men got into it, are smooth and even - like life, you know?"
Next to Four-and-a-Half is a vacant lot... in which a story is buried somewhere. Anna said she didn't know the story, but earlier photographs of Fort Hill show a large, dark home similar to the others standing on that spot. Actually I heard several stories but for a long time could confirm none of them.
One story was that the home, known as Four, was uninhabitable and had to be torn down. That was the one told most by people on the Hill. Another, told by a few Hill people, was that the home was uninhabitable but was completely repaired by Richie & Associates. When they tried to buy it from the owner, however, she asked an outrageously high price, so they made it uninhabitable again, removed all the plumbing and wiring and everything, and bought it for a lower price.
Months later I heard a more complete account from a long-time Hill resident who had recently defected. According to him, all three stories include elements of the truth, particularly the last.
"The house incident climaxed a series of smaller incidents between the Hill and the neighborhood that came to a head in the summer of 1969," he recalled. "What happened was, all the neighborhood kids liked to ride their bikes on the hill. All the Hill kids did too, for that matter, all the kids, white and black.
"But that summer one of the neighborhood kids apparently knocked over one of the Lyman kids with his bike - I'm not sure of the specifics - and Mel immediately ordered the guards not to allow any more bike riding on the hill."
Lyman had no right to enforce such an order, of course; the hill area itself is a public park. And the neighborhood parents, infuriated, marched en masse to the Community for an angry Sunday afternoon confrontation. Somehow the meeting ended peacefully, but feelings were tense and bitter, and soon the guards started carrying guns.
About the same time, said the defector, relations also broke down between the Community and the owner of House Four, an eccentric old landlady named Lena. For various reasons, including nonpayment of rent, she wanted the Lyman people out; and when they balked, she decided to sell the place for $3000. She even found a buyer, a group of local black musicians called Black Music Inc.
Well, the Fort Hill Community freaked. "It wasn't the black thing necessarily," claimed the defector, "although Richie was on his trip and everything; it was just the reality of a group of strange people moving right into the middle of our Community - the foreignness of it all." A foreignness similar, no doubt, to a group of white hippies moving into a black ghetto.
"Finally it was decided by us that they simply could not live there. Of course, we had no legal way to stop them, so we literally made the house condemnable - by destroying it."
The Hill people rationalized that since Four was condemnable when they moved into it in 1966, they had a perfect right to leave it that way when they moved out. To avoid detection, they decided to work at night and wreck the inside of the house only. Extra guards were posted to keep the area free of inquisitive intruders, particularly Lena the landlady.
"I remember the first night very well," the defector said. "It was a windy, rainy October night; I was posting guard. They started on the roof, dismantling the chimney. Then they cut through some rafters below.
"Suddenly I looked up and saw the silhouette of her coming across the hill - Lena - this muttering old hag with a stick in her hand."
An alert was sounded and the Fort Hill wreckers immediately fell silent, pulled the plugs on their power tools and shut off the lights. David Gude rushed up to Lena and started berating her furiously, even pushing her about, until she reluctantly turned and trudged off to her home a few blocks away. The wreckers continued.
"Finally the whole first floor caved in," recalled the defector. "It was no longer safe; they had sabotaged the main beams. Within a couple of nights the structure was fairly fucked.
"Naturally the neighborhood became enraged. There was a meeting between Black Music Inc. and Fort Hill, sort of as a prevention of war. A bunch of our guys went down there, and I remember at one point we said, 'OK, if you want a war, we'll give it to you!' And as I say, we were ready, we had guns and everything."
Apparently the meeting worked. There was no war, not even any legal action. Eventually Fort Hill bought the gutted house and razed it completely the following spring, starting on Easter Sunday.
Wouldn't it have been more profitable, I asked the defector, had Fort Hill bought the house before it was gutted?
"I know," he said, "but the point is, you see, we live for the moment."
Anna pointed out the rest of the houses. Next to the vacant lot is the children's house, actually two houses, Two and Three, connected by a wood-paneled hallway Richie built. And finally there's One, the mess Hall. The children's house, said Anna, serves as both nursery and school. With minimal supervision, the children live by themselves, after being taken from their mothers about the age of two.
"It's not as bad as it might sound," she explained. "I mean, we're all one big family here, the Lyman Family, you know? And like, the father is Melvin."
Anna offered to take me over to the children's house and introduce me to Lou, the kids' new teacher. On our way I asked her about the vault.
Her delicate face suddenly hardened; she appeared frightened and began stammering. "The vault? ... what? ... I mean, where did you? ... who mentioned the vault?"
"Some of the men were talking about David Plaine at lunch, and they mentioned the vault."
She shook her head. "I don't really know... it's this room with brick walls all around and no windows and a door you can lock, you know? And sometimes people who are, you know, having problems....
"But we hardly ever use it. You have to be very careful how you use it. But there's no light inside, you know? And you can really learn about yourself."
Anna hurried up the front steps and into the children's house. It was after five and the sun was lowering behind the Fort Hill Tower, causing the shadow of the thick, weathered erection to extend and penetrate the dark shrubbery behind the homes.
* * *
"We believe that woman serves God through man," said Lou, an attractive former nun now in her first stage of pregnancy. "I was sort of into women's lib before I came up here, you know, 'cause so many men are such piss-ants, such faggots. But when I came up here and started serving them breakfast, I really began looking up to them."
She shoved a spoonful of strained vegetables into the squirming infant on her lap.
"The men here on the Hill are real men; the men out there are faggots, with their long hair and everything. If they weren't, they wouldn't let their women get away with the things they do."
Lou learned about the true role of women from something Mel wrote in the Avatar. "If a woman is really a woman, and not just an old girl," wrote Mel, "then everything she does is for her man and her only satisfaction is in making her man a greater man. She is his quiet conscience, she is his home, she is his inspiration and she is his living proof that his life, his labors, are worthwhile.
"A woman who seeks to satisfy herself is the loneliest being in God's creation. A woman who seeks to surpass her man is only leaving herself behind. A man can only look ahead, he must have somewhere to look from. A woman can only look at her man . . . I have stated the Law purely and simply. Don't break it."
Not that anyone does. Most of the Hill women, if they're not holding down outside "female" jobs as waitresses or secretaries, spend their time cooking, sewing, cleaning house, tending the children and serving the men. They seem to do so with great relish, developing an almost worshipful attitude toward the men.
"I mean, couldn't you feel it in those men at lunch?" asked Lou, "how strong they were? How simple? Life here is so simple. Of course, the more simple life is, the harder it is. Let me tell you, there's a lot of hate and frustration up here. And pain.
"When I first came up here I was a bitch." Lou sneered at herself. "A bitch, hah, that's putting it mildly. I was a viper. I hated Mel Lyman, I hated everyone here. I resisted like hell. And the thing that shocked me was how much they still cared about me. I mean, with me my hatred was personal, 'cause I hated on such a low level. But they taught me how to hate on a higher level."
Why did she first hate Mel? I asked.
"Because he was stronger than me. I guess I wanted to be God too. But finally I had to break down; he was so much stronger than me, I finally had to accept it."
"Do you believe he's God?"
"Yeah, in the sense that Jesus Christ came down on earth. But he's dead, so Mel's the son of God now." As she said these last words, Lou raised her eyes in adoration toward a photograph of Mel on the opposite wall, the one on the cover of the Christ issue.
"When I first met Mel," she continued, "it was really weird 'cause he was the most down-to-earth, easygoing guy I'd ever met. Until he looked at you, and then, oh God, his force just filled the room.
"Now I love him intensely, I'm his forever. I want to conquer the world for Mel. I get so mad at that world out there I want to kill, I want to shove Mel in their hearts. He's the only one who knows how to deal with feeling, the feelings you have at the time, whether they're love, or hate, or fear."
She said Mel was a great leader, like Abraham Lincoln. "We believe very much in Abraham Lincoln and other great leaders of the past - even Hitler. Anyone who causes change in society is an agent of God." I asked Lou how she thought Hitler had changed society. She looked puzzled, finally exasperated. "I don't know. I don't know," she said, a bit irritated. "My problem was I thought too much. I betrayed my heart. That's what you are, you know, when you think instead of feel - a traitor."
By this time Lou had finished feeding the baby that was on her lap. She wiped its mouth, kissed it, then turned to me and said sweetly, "That's all Mel wants, you know. He just wants to put a great big heart in that world out there, and get us away from the mind."
Lou is the woman hired a year ago to teach all the Fort Hill children.
It was time, I figured, to go see about my sleeping accommodations for the night. Jim Kweskin had suggested I stay at Fort Hill for several days if I ever wanted to get the "real story," and he hinted, if I ever wanted to see the real Mel.
I told Lou I'd see her later, that I had much to learn, and she leaned forward and confided cheerfully, "I'll warn you. They're not gonna leave you untouched."
* * *
Indoors, in every Lyman home in every Lyman community, the Family moves on stocking feet, first depositing its shoes in an entrance hall, or in the case of the Fort Hill mess hall, an enclosed front porch. Keeps things cleaner, was the only reason I was ever given.
It was just after nine and the mess hall porch had been filling up steadily with boots, shoes, slippers and sandals, male and female, until there were maybe 40 or 50 pairs, nearly covering it wall to wall. Some of them had been worn in work around the Hill that day, but most had been worn on private jobs throughout the city.
The banquet table - three regulation-sized ping pony tables covered with white linen - was almost surrounded by cordial, chattering young people, their plates steaming with some kind of casserole and vegetables served buffet style. I took a modest portion, partly because again it looked quite starchy and partly because Harry Bikes had told me of a dinner he'd attended where a Lyman veteran approached him menacingly and said, "You took two pieces of chicken!"
Apparently one could sit anywhere, and I chose a spot next to Kurt Franck and across from Richie Guerin. On the wall behind Richie hung another photo of Melvin, and it was amazing how much Richie looked like his master. Many of the young men resemble Mel's picture but not as much as Richie, who could easily double for him if he were maybe eight or ten years older.
Most of the men and women at Fort Hill are in their 20s and extremely handsome, their faces fresh and glowing, their eyes - well, they're not weird or anything, it's just that you always notice their eyes. Maybe because they always notice you.
The men wear their hair shorter than many of their contemporaries, not cop short, but about the length of maybe a Hollywood bank teller's. Most of their ears are visible. The women nearly always wear dresses; I can't recall any exceptions.
Anna, one of the Hill's prettiest, sat down next to a bashful, red-haired fellow named Paul, and they immediately became the butt of the evening's joke. Jeff started it. "What's goin' on down there?" he inquired in a teasing, Protestant Bible-school manner. "You guys having a little personal relationship?"
The two giggled and blushed. Everyone joined in, laughing, the men fabricating implications in their ripest falsettos. It was a joke. Get it? Because Paul and Anna couldn't possibly be having a personal relationship; if they were, the matter would have been treated much differently. Such couplings are harshly discouraged on the Hill.
"Every once in a while, you know, you can tell when somebody's got a little trip going," Richie said later, "and two people go off and have their little room somewhere. And they eat alone and try to pull one of those separatist kind of numbers, and have this little family scene away from the Family. It's like ridiculous. And sometimes that has to be dealt with.
"There's no secrets here, absolutely not. Everybody knows everybody clean through - clean through. I mean like, nobody can get away with anything, you know, and that's what makes it so real."
In the meantime a few last Fort Hill diners had straggled in and somehow found a place at the table. Richie surveyed the room, then asked, "Where's David Plaine?"
There was silence. "Maybe he knows turds aren't welcome here," someone said contemptuously, and the conversation resumed. Kurt, a former math whiz at M.l.T., asked me what my sign was and I asked him why astrology was so important on the Hill. He shrugged and said, "It's just a real quick way to talk about people."
With nearly 50 people participating in the banquet, scraping their plates, chewing, chatting with those next to them, the din was considerable, yet cheerful and certainly not unusual or unpleasant. But suddenly Dvora, the unpleasant looking girl I'd met earlier in the front office, threw down her fork and shouted, "What is this, a cocktail party?"
As if they had been rehearsed, the entire group of people shut up at once. You could still hear the scraping and chewing, but nobody said a word, or even managed a sheepish grin. After a few minutes I asked Kurt why no one was talking.
"Last night the trivia got pretty heavy," he whispered, "so we decided not to talk at dinner unless there was something important to say." I wondered what he meant by heavy trivia.
More minutes passed, and finally the scraping and chewing stopped too, leaving an occasional chair squeak as people shifted into good staring positions. Then there was a new sound. Not everyone caught it at first - footsteps approaching from outside, boots trudging up the front steps, the front door opening and closing, bootsteps changing into sock steps, slowly stalking down the rug-covered hallway floor toward the dining room.
It was David Plaine. Someone started singing and the others followed: "For he's a jolly good fellow, for he's a jolly good fellow..."
A sensitive-looking young man with glasses and a painful face, David Plaine meekly stood at the dining room entrance and took his medicine. He was crying.
"...which nobody can deny." Richie made a loud fart noise with his mouth, and the crowd broke up laughing and jeering. Lou jammed a kitchen towel in David's face and said, mocking him, "Here, dry your tears, baby." Angrily he snapped his head back, which produced a chorus of boos.
When no one asked him to sit down at the table, he walked out to the kitchen where Lou began lecturing him in whispers. She must have hit a nerve because a short while later he turned around, ran down the hall and out the door, Lou calling after him, "Go ahead, that's right! Leave! Run away!"
At the table, Richie motioned to two of the larger men, and the three immediately bolted up and ran after him.
* * *
"They hate to see people leave the Hill, 'cause in a way they're very parasitic," said Norman Truss, a former member of the Lyman Family who split from the Hill two years ago upon the recommendation of his psychiatrist. "You know, if you watch children, how they have to have all their things organized and in little piles? That's the way the Hill is; they want you on their pile.
"Did you meet Kurt? Kurt Franck? He's such a smart person, really a nice guy. He tried to leave one night and they ripped the wires out of his car."
Then there's the one about Marlena, said Truss, the girl who finally had to buy her way off the Hill.
"She was Richie's girl. God, Richie - he's really sick. He's sort of the head of their Gestapo. He's got a Luger and he used to teach target practice in the basement of the studio. They've all got guns up there - to protect them from what they call the 'nigs.'
"Anyway, Marlena lived on the Hill with Richie for a year and a half - until she had this sort of nervous breakdown. At that point her relations with the Hill were really falling apart.
"Now, I told you those people were parasites, and one of the best ways to get in their good graces is to give them money. So she offered Richie $1000 that she'd been secretly saving in a bank account."
Despite the offer, said Norman, Marlena's relations continued to deteriorate, and somehow shortly after that - Norman doesn't have those details - she was able to sneak off the Hill without anyone stopping her.
"However, a few days later, Kweskin calls her on the phone and says, 'What about the money?' And she says, 'Look, there's no written note, and since when does the Hill start keeping its promises?' Man, ten minutes later, Richie's on the phone: 'Marlene, you promised Melvin that money. And if you don't pay it, you'll be sorry.'
"Finally they settled on $700, and she sent him a check immediately, she was so scared. And they left her alone. Later she found out why Richie was so desperate - he'd already purchased a color TV for Melvin, that motherfucker.
"See, most of them on the Hill, they're just using Mel to get off on. They say Mel is God, but I don't think they really feel it." Truss admitted his bias. "I mean, how could you think he was God? Not until I saw him walk across water would I believe that."
The wealthy son of a Boston underwear wholesaler, Norman is a slightly bloated fellow who spends much of his time collecting rare species for a terrarium that now nearly fills one of his family's four garages.
"A shrink would have a field day with 90 percent of the people on that hill," he continued. "When I lived there they had the upper echelon people and then the people they called the dummies. And the game they played was called 'do as I say, not as I do.' I mean, you couldn't win. The only rules were the ones Mel made up as he went along, and he changed them from day to day. And if you argued, 'But yesterday you said this,' they'd come back with some shit like, 'As long as it flows, man.'"
According to Truss, the Hill's only consistent rule is: Thou Shalt Not Think for Thyself.
"One time Melvin had an operation on his ass. I don't know what the problem was, exactly, but they were all sittin' around talking about it. And some kid says, 'Oh, you mean Melvin has an asshole like everyone else?' And he was ostracized for a week; he was almost beaten up right on the spot."
Norman walked by a recent addition to his terrarium and offered it a piece of lettuce, which it devoured savagely.
"I'll tell you something about Mel Lyman. The things he says are true because he's read a lot, but he's never had an original thought in his life. He's read a little Emerson, a little Alan Watts - besides being totally mad, he's very shrewd. He's a perfect con artist.
"Have you seen his films? His films are deplorable - terrible, amateurish. He's not a creative person. If he were, he wouldn't need 30 people around him kissing his ass all the time."
Norman's voice was getting more agitated, and there was a slight wheeze to it.
"Like Jim Kweskin. Jim Kweskin had the nerve to call me up a while back and ask for money. You know how he speaks in this real sing-song, childish type voice? He said, 'Melvin's found this wonderful house in L.A., and we were wondering if you'd like to donate some money so we could go and buy it for him.'
"I felt like saying to him, 'Tell Melvin to shove his house up his hemorrhoidal ass.'"
* * *
Although she was one of the youngest members of the Hill, and certainly one of the youngest to win Mel's special attention, Paula Press was in many ways typical of the women who joined the Lyman Family - particularly because of her background and her immediate circumstances. She may be more eloquent and beautiful than most of the others, but her reasons for joining, and finally leaving, the Community are representative and say much about Fort Hill.
Today she lives in a modest downstairs apartment in downtown Boston from which she keeps closely in touch with a number of women who have left the Hill.
"All my life I'd been just sort of not able to make friends, always wanting to be popular but never knowing what to do or what to say," she said in a fragile yet controlled voice. "I went to a private girls' school in Cambridge, and my father worked for M.l.T. And then I started reading Avatar, and I went down and started working in the office. This was in '68, and I was 17.
"And that's when I got to know the people. I got pregnant, and I guess that started it. It just heightened my need to be accepted by a group, you know? And eventually I moved up there on the Hill."
Paula remembers vividly her first encounter with Melvin.
"I was walking by the Hill - it was a grey day, very eerie - and Mel was there, standing next to the tower. I just kept walking; I didn't say a word to him, but I knew who it was. And shortly after that I got a message from George Peper that Mel wanted to see me.
"So then it blossomed, and I was accepted immediately. I was his material. He saw something in me, sad eyes or something, which then I believed - I believed it so I sort of made it. I'd walk around with sad eyes, half tearful eyes."
She laughed at herself, but even so, her eyes did seem a bit sad, pure brown circles set deeply in a face fair and model-perfect.
"And suddenly, it was such a snow-balling thing, being accepted for the first time in my life. Not only being accepted but being revered, you know? If you're in with Mel, regardless of what kind of shmuck you are, the rest of the Hill admires you, worships you. Which is more than I ever wanted."
"What was it like, the first time you went to see him?"
"Well, did you see his living room in Jessie's house - Four-and-a-Half? It's very curtained and very dark and velvety. The whole environment enhances his aura. You know, it's like The Wizard of Oz, in the movie, where he comes out - this big head in a ball of fire.
"Mel is really effeminate-looking, thin and misty like a drawing. He's like a bird or a cat, and he always crouches like this." Here Paula jumped up and perched on the edge of her apartment couch, her slim arms dangling around her knees.
"He'd crouch anywhere, on a chair, on my stereo. It was really eerie - his cackling, his singing. He doesn't sing, actually, he moans and he calls it singing. He moans to a guitar or something - ooooooooh, you know? Did you see 2001? The monolith scene where they go oooooooooh - he sings sort of like that. Did he play some of his music for you?"
I said I hadn't met him.
"Oh, well it's..." Something was bothering Paula. She let out a short, puzzled laugh, frowned and shook her head. "That's funny, that little thing, you know?"
"I didn't think it, but you said you never met him, and there was a little thing, a vestige I guess. I got this Hill feeling, like, 'Oh, you never met him, then you're a little bit... inferior.'"
She laughed again. "I don't feel that way, but it's a vestige, like a tailbone."
After she met Mel, said Paula, she asked him to guide her on an acid trip, since he was considered an expert in that sort of thing. "I wanted to take it because I felt so unhappy and bottled up, and I thought, wow, he'd be there so I could really cry and scream and freak out, and afterwards I'd feel better.
"But he gives really strong doses, and I hallucinated and everything. He was growing horns, they were growing all over the room, and he was changing from various kinds of animals. He was watching TV, and when he turned it off - now in retrospect it seems so stupid - he turned it off, and that light that keeps shining on the TV, that little teeny thing? That became like a beacon to me; that was my goal.
"And the combination of the music and his singing and his talking and his telling me that I was the superstar of the Hill, that I had the potential of changing the world, that he could change the world through me... the combination of that and the TV light made him seem like - I hate to say God - just an incredibly wise person."
* * *
Kay Boyle recalled a similar manifestation of Mel's power from the time she was living with her daughter Faith on Fort Hill.
"One night when I was there, my daughter was cooking supper, and I was sitting having a Dubonnet in the sitting room.
"And she said, 'I'll play you something, a tape.'
"And she played me something - a girl having an LSD trip, with David and Mel who were guiding her, whatever it's called.
"It was so shocking, it was so ghastly, it was so awful.
"She was screaming, 'I love you, I love you, this is so marvelous. Oh Mel, you are the most beautiful man.'
"And he was chortling like a - really like a devil.
"And she said, 'Oh, don't go! Don't ever leave me. Oh no!'"
Kay Boyle sighed and clasped her thin hands tightly in her lap.
"And afterwards Faith came out and said, 'How did you like it?'
"And I said I thought it was dreadful, and she said, 'Mama, that was me.'
"I hadn't recognized my own child's voice."
* * *
Swooping from her perch, Paula Press reassembled herself on the living room couch.
"I consider everybody from the Hill sick, sort of," she said. "They're people who cannot function in the world, for one reason or another. I couldn't when I went up there. They've always felt inferior, so they get together and they form their own little world. And they're really out of it, out of life, they're so out of touch with reality, you know?
"I mean, even now, when I reread Mel's writing, there's a kernel that I still believe in. Not what he feels about 'niggers,' as he says, or 'kikes,' but some of the other stuff. It's just the way it's practiced that's so warped.
"They talk about love and they live in such hate. They preach hate. You must have gotten a lot of HP."
"Hill Philosophy. 'You only grow through pain' - that's an HP. 'Misery is the greatest source of knowledge.' 'Loneliness is the only thing that unites the world' - which is sort of true if you think about it. But it's not the only thing, it's just one of many.
"They say that falling in love is the flash, it never lasts. You may grow together, but eventually you'll still be two lonely people, so you take someone else. And that's what the idea for a commune was - a whole group of people united in their loneliness and working for something constructive."
Is there much personal love on the Hill? I asked Paula.
"I think there is, but if it's felt for any amount of time, it gets so suspected and everybody gets so jealous, that it's destroyed. I saw that happen all the time. People beaten up verbally. It was like a play almost - the same words with different actors.
"Many people would gang up on one person, and they'd make you feel like a worm. I even got really nasty when I was there, I never thought I had it in me. These poor shmucks were wandering around like flies in a spider's nest - such innocuous people. And I would get my cheap thrills by making them feel low. I suddenly realized I had this power, and I got out of control with it."
When I asked Paula about the vault, she became very excited, almost exhilarated. "The vault?" she said. "What's the vault? It must be something new! Tell me about it."
"Apparently it's some kind of room with no windows where they lock you up if you've been bad."
She seemed dismayed, twisting her head back and forth, trying to shake out the idea.
"This is beyond anything I've ever heard. I can imagine them killing. They would kill with their hands if they had to. They don't need a gun.
"They get more like the SS every day. I wonder if Mel's patterning himself after that?"
With this thought, Paula began to sort of laugh and jabber at the same time, almost hysterical.
"I'm waiting for the ovens.
"They'll turn the tower into a giant oven.
"Smoke will be steaming out.
"I'm sure they'll do something completely efficient like lampshades also."
* * *
...back here with Norman Truss in front of his giant garage terrarium. Norm, speaking of garages, could you tell the folks about Mel's Volkswagen bus?
"Well, Melvin had this Volkswagen bus that became like a second penis to him. And one day, after it had broken down or something, he sent it to Howard Kilby, this mechanic who had lived on the Hill but at the time was living off the Hill. And when Mel got it back, it still wouldn't start. Howard thought he had fixed it, you know, but anybody can make a mistake, right?
"Now a sane person would call up and say, 'Hey Howard, what's wrong with the bus? Ya didn't fix it.' Something like that. But not right away call up, like Richie did, and say - 'We're gonna kill you.'
"They sent people down to Howard's place in Brookline and started to harass him. And finally Richie went down there and he beat Howard up. He broke open a window of Howard's house - this is while Howard was asleep at night - and like an animal, crawled in, leaped on his bed and started pistol whipping him. He was yelling, 'I'm gonna kill you, you son of a bitch!'
"Then something really weird happened. Right in the middle of beating him up, Richie suddenly stopped and started to cry. He was sobbing and saying, over and over, 'What am I doing? What am I doing?' Then, just as suddenly, he went back to whipping him.
"Howard later went to the police and filed charges, and I understand Richie spent several days in jail. This happened two years ago this summer."
* * *
Today, on the outskirts of Cambridge, Howard Kilby lives on the creaky third floor of an old apartment house. In the hallway outside hang several paintings and collages of astrological significance, plus a drawing by Eben Given of Mel Lyman as San Sebastian, arrows protruding from bleeding wounds.
Inside, Howard, his straight hair tied and hanging to the small of his bare back, sat at the dinner table, mulling his words and staring into space.
"I really don't want to talk about it," he said, releasing a heavy, sad breath. "What good would it do? Why mention it? Mel Lyman was good to me. He was a friend when I needed a friend."
"Is it true, about you and the bus?"
Howard thought it over for a moment, then smiled and nodded.
"Yeah. But Mel wasn't responsible. You know, there's certain things you just don't want to talk about.
"I'll say this: I know I don't have any friends on the Hill now."
* * *
From the other side of Boston, Richie Guerin laughed vigorously, his fresh, freckled, Melvinish face beaming upward like a high school football coach.
"Yeah, I had some personal problems with Howard," he said. "I went to jail for eight days. I don't know, I didn't know how to talk to the guy. I was on my own trip. He pissed me off and I was gonna get him, you know?
"And like in a rage one night I told him I was going to kill him. You know how you say things like, 'Oh, you motherfucker, I'm gonna kill ya,' one of those things. And he thought I was going to kill him, so he called the police, you know, and they arrested me, and I got thrown in jail and had to go to court."
Richie had to break off for a second and enjoy one of those warm little chuckles only reminiscence can produce.
"He was supposed to check out Mel's bus, and he didn't do a proper job. And I told him, I said, 'Wow, if you did a proper job, how come it doesn't work? You know, it's pretty fucking obvious.' And he said, 'Yeah, well, I did check it out.' And, like, he was just calling me a fucking liar, and I got into that 'Oh, that motherfucker called me a liar' - you know, that silly shit."
"They say you beat him up."
"Matter of fact, he beat me up. He was so freaked out that at one point he jumped me and started wailing on me. And I didn't want any part of beating him up, 'cause he's a little dude and he's like a very frail cat. And I didn't want to hurt him, you know? I realized that it wasn't happening on that level, and I passed. I just pushed him away. And, like, I've never really laid a hand on him."
That matter disposed of, Richie sauntered over to the Fort Hill tool shed, one of his most prized areas of authority, situated near the garages behind Fort Avenue Terrace.
"Each man has to have his own set of tools. He keeps them with him, and like these are the only tools that are shared by all the men," he explained as he entered the shed and pointed out several pieces of elaborate power equipment - a joiner, a lathe, a buzz saw. Then, to his embarrassment and growing annoyance, Richie spied a messy pile of wood chips near the saw blade.
"And when something like this is left here, Bruce Scorpio is responsible - because he has chosen to be responsible for these machines. He really loves them. But if he steps out of line one day, if he blows it, well, I hate to see that, because I've cut too many boards by hand to get something that whizzes them off in no time fucked up by carelessness."
Richie grabbed some chips in his hand and shook them like an angry bear.
"It's just a lot of crap on here. It should be clean, in order for the machine to be absolutely like brand new. All this stuff should be swept up, and if it's not, you know, I raise hell: 'Who the hell left the shit in the garage?' Man, it's like: 'Who didn't flush the toilet,' you know?" This time there was a touch of wrath in his laughter.
"It's ridiculous to not do a job thoroughly. It's a . . . lack of a person's . . . being very thorough. And the only way you get him to be thorough, is to keep after him."
"How do you do that?"
"Whatever's necessary, you know? Like all I gotta do is tell him and he's going to feel awful, and he'll come down here right away. But if he said, 'Well fuck you, man, I don't feel like doing it,' I'd sock him in the teeth. And see if that hurts him enough, you know? I'll do anything to make him feel bad, so that, like, he will do the right thing. I care for the guy so I want him to be right on, I don't want him to be fucking up."
"I don't see much evidence of fucking up around here, but . . ."
"Well, it gets more subtle. The higher it goes, the more subtle it becomes, you know, and you're always striving for more perfection and greater order all the time.
"So you're always in danger of fucking up?"
"Oh, absolutely! There's never a chance of having it all together, for sure." Richie gloated with enthusiasm. "Never."
While we were on the subject of self-improvement, I figured Richie would be a good person to ask about the vault. He hesitated at first, but then, once again, he really got into it.
"It's... uh... solitary confinement, you know," he said with a chuckle. "It's usually like, it's a thing you would choose to do - if you're so fucked up. And like you sit there and dig yourself."
"Where is it?"
"In the basement over there," said Richie, pointing to the rear of Five and Six. "It's just a concrete room."
"How long do they stay in it?"
"Well, I mean, how long do you need to get yourself together? Paul - do you know Paul, the redhead? He was in there for a while."
"Are there windows?"
"Unh unh," he said proudly, "you don't know what time of day it is or nothin'!"
"How did he finally get out?"
"He wanted to be out."
"And it changed him?"
"Oh yeah, you could see it, like he's a really together person."
When I asked Richie the nature of Paul's crime, he became defensive again.
"Well, I don't know, it's a very personal thing... the kind of thing people misunderstand the most, you know. The vault is just something to make you feel, to make you respond, some kind of pressure. Everybody needs a pressure, you know, in some form, to keep them alive, to keep them pushing 100 percent all the time. And like it was created out of a Need, you know? - for something like that."
I asked Richie who was in charge of Fort Hill security.
"Whoever feels responsible for it," he said. "I always feel personally responsible for it, you know? I can always feel when the guards aren't doing their job right, and I'll sneak up on them and stick my gun in their heads and scare the shit out of them! And a lot of them wake up.
"A good example of how together they are," he said, "is like when Paul... well, what Paul did to get thrown in the vault was, he stole one of the cars in Los Angeles, to drive East, right? And people were sent from here and New York. And they intercepted him on the highway! It was in Carmel, New York, and they intercepted him on the highway, got the car back and brought him back here.
"And that's how together it is between all the communities. I mean, even the police can't do that."
* * *
Paula Press, her voice trembling and almost tearful, recalled a visit from the Lyman security force when she was living on the Hill with a man named Bob McQuaid.
"The Karma Squad is, if they decide someone is misbehaving or something, and sometimes they'd give you warnings and sometimes they wouldn't, like Bob and I got Karma Squaded. We were cleaning up the apartment late one night, and they came and beat him up. And Bob has a five-year-old son, Kuel, who was there. I kept him in the other room.
"It was David Gude and Richie and maybe Jim Kweskin or George Peper. It was in the kitchen. At first they tried yelling - see, the Karma Squad, there's two ways. Either they come and they really just beat you up and kick you off, or they come and they try to make you feel.
"Feel!" Paula said the word hatefully, as if it actually had a bitter taste.
"They come and, you know, you get defensive. Because often they're unfair and unjust, so you try to defend yourself, and they say, 'You're just being defensive!'
"So you have to pretend somewhat, make tears come out, and pretend that you're really feeling. And if they don't think you're feeling enough, they'll start to knock you around a little bit, and push you and maybe, you know, punch you, and say, 'Now are you feeling enough? If you can't feel anything emotionally, maybe this, maybe this will teach you a lesson!'
"At first they talked to him, and he just turned to stone. They started yelling at him, trying to make him break down and cry and stuff. And I was in a fit, crying and everything. They kept using me by saying, 'See what you've done to her? See what you've done to her?' And it was they who were doing it to me.
"They punched him until he stopped trying to, until he just, you know, stopped trying to fight back at all. He was like huddled on the floor. He never really tried to fight back.
"So Bob left the Hill and Kuel stayed with me. And Kuel was - his mother had died - Kuel was very dependent on me. I always loved him and he was just beginning to sort of trust me. And then a week later they called Bob back, and said, 'As long as Kuel's on this Hill, there's a part of Bob McQuaid on this Hill. So Kuel has to go.'
"Bob came back and took Kuel, which is probably the best thing because they're all they have, the two of them. But at the time, I mean it was wrenching enough for Bob to leave. I mean that really hurt me - a kid, a five-year-old kid, you know?"
* * *
It was to be my last supper with the Community at Fort Hill, and several hinted that it was extremely important for me to attend. They weren't specific, but as we assembled on this recent midsummer Sunday evening, certainly the air was heavy with events about to break.
For instance I knew that Mel Lyman, who had been living and working on the West Coast for several months, landed at Martha's Vineyard that afternoon. Would he possibly be making an appearance?
And Faith Franckenstein, Kay Boyle's regal, platinum-haired daughter who more or less governed Fort Hill in Mel's absence, was herself leaving the next day to start a community in San Francisco. She sat at the head of the table and occasionally shuffled official looking sheets of paper. What might she have to announce?
And what did David Gude mean when he silenced Paul Williams about the future?
The dinner itself was much like the first one I attended, orchestrated by silences and waxen stares. But after dessert Faith walked to the other end of the banquet table and stood behind a massive silk-lined wood pulpit on which she rested her paperwork. She said she would start by reading a few "bulletins," the old ones first.
The bulletins, it turned out, were historic sets of rules periodically written and issued by Mel Lyman during the life of Fort Hill. Most of them were remarkably specific, regulating habits of diet, physical fitness, sex, sleep, even cleanliness: "To bathe less than once or more than twice a week is sick," went one of the decrees. Many of the listeners had heard them before, it appeared, and seemed to enjoy them as much for their nostalgic as their instructional quality.
Then Faith paused for a moment, looked directly at the Family and slowly picked up a different sort of bulletin, fresh and handwritten. When she was sure of everyone's attention, she began to read:
"This bulletin is to announce that there will be no more bulletins from me. People are so eager to follow a set of rules, it's a security. From now on you must make up your own from your own experience, and if you come across some that you feel would benefit others, then you should type them up and send them around. This is a democracy. I am not the ruler, I am the spirit of democracy."
The group appeared stunned. Almost catatonic.
"All my old rules are only valid if you have found them to be true," Faith read. "Majority rules from now on... Rules must be formed from experience and adapted to changing situations, law must be born organically and formed by the needs of the moment. Common sense is the highest virtue I know of, conscience is the highest ruler....
"I will only step in and make demands if everyone else fails to do their best. We are an experiment in the loftiest form of government humanity has ever evolved, a system of living together where each man has room to develop to his fullest potential, is totally responsible for all his actions, and totally responsible to everyone else's....
"It can only work if everyone follows the voice of conscience from within and the voice of necessity from without, and that's a very thin line to tread. And that is the only God I know of. Mel."
Without another word Faith picked up her papers and returned to her original seat at the table. Already Lou was crying. Faith motioned toward me, saying to the others. "Perhaps you'd all like to tell David what it's going to mean not having Melvin around anymore."
Not having Melvin around anymore. Around where? Fort Hill? Or is Mel abdicating on a higher level? Or is he... suddenly I wondered about Mel's health in this his 33rd year.
The answers that came from the table didn't seem to help much. They were spontaneous, sincere, often impassioned; it's just that they didn't seem to relate to each other in any way I could understand.
"To go on painting," said one man.
"It means people getting along with people," said a woman.
"To me the most important thing is caring," said Anna. "To me there's nothing else. I want to serve Melvin, but the only thing I can do is to learn, and that means caring. 'Cause people cared for me."
Of course, you have to remember some of these answers were separated by long silences, maybe a minute, two minutes.
Dvora had her dark vision. "To me Fort Hill is just a ruin, but the ruin is still greater than anything I know."
"Why do you think it's a ruin," interrupted Ed, a ferocious-looking man who at that time was Faith's husband.
"Because it's in pieces."
"I mean Melvin's gone," said another fellow, "so we just have to carry on," an idea that for some reason threw Faith into a rage.
"What ruined this place," she yelled in a menacing manner, "is people like you, people who dig it for what it is! Melvin has never been able to raise it above the level of the people here. Don't say words unless you know what they mean." The poor man said no more that night.
"I feel I've learned to use tools and build," said a man named Bruce, "but I haven't learned a fucking thing."
"Shut up, Bruce," was the response of a woman several seats down. "You're just saying the same thing and you don't mean it." Bruce, crushed, did shut up. Until Ed started yelling at him.
"Is that all there is to it?" asked Ed. "That girl just told you you were full of shit, and you let her get away with it."
"I just said what I felt," protested Bruce, a little confused.
But Ed continued. "She just put her foot in your damn mouth, and you just let her kick you!" Then Ed whipped around to the rest of the stunned table and shouted, "What's everybody afraid of, man?" One guy started to answer, but Ed cut in: "I'm not talkin' to you, give somebody else a chance. What about the rest of you? What are you afraid to say?"
A new, timid girl named Annie finally answered. "I'm afraid to say I don't know. I really want to learn about Mel, and I don't know where to begin."
For some reason, that answer did it. Faith was now soothing and sweet, almost cooing, as she addressed the flock. "Actually, that's where all your responsibility lies. If you do care, you have to share it with people like Annie. That's how simple things have to be now. There is no higher purpose. There is no Mel Lyman." At this remark, Lou, who had been weeping into a kleenex since the bulletin reading, suddenly burst into loud sobs that tended to break up her speech pattern. "The trouble is," she cried, "we all say we... know then we... then we... don't do anything about it so... we better find some other answers... answers and... find 'em... fast 'cause we don't... have any time."
It went on for another 15 minutes, but that was the gist of it. Whatever it meant, something monumental appeared to be going on. Mel had issued his last bulletin and was about to make a move.
Afterward I told Faith it seemed like an historic occasion and asked if there was a copy of the bulletin I could have.
"It's all right with me," she said, "but I better get permission. I'm not even supposed to have this one."
* * *
The next day I mentioned Mel's last bulletin to Norman Truss and he broke out laughing.
"You know how many times he's sent that bulletin? About 40 times. He's always leaving the Hill for the last time, but he needs them as much as they need him.
"He's so insecure he has to prove himself every five minutes. God doesn't, but Mel does."
When Faith handed me a copy of the bulletin that afternoon, I noticed to my surprise that it was dated April 28, 1969.
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