Summer of 2009
Stalker wants the facts, just the facts thank you, and that lets me off the hook for a bit on essay writing. I construct a spreadsheet, detailing my experiences, boiling them down to who, what, where, when. Without the humanity, the context, or the explanation. Though, I am sure, he will select items for me to expand on; he will interview me on the phone for more details, or give me follow-up essay assignments. This is just a starting point, I know.
But I feel resistant. I want to stay in the sweet present, on the phone all hours with him — singing duets, sharing YouTube videos through Facebook, laughing at his impersonations, and hearing his funny stories. Even hearing his painful stories brings the pleasure of growing closer. No, I don’t want to go back into my memory vaults. But to complete the spreadsheet, I must travel back in time. I don’t want to go . . . don’t make me go! I don’t want to be that person again.
Fall of 1970
Dave and I go to the same school again, except now it’s CCNY instead of Science. Mornings, we meet at the No. 12 bus stop on Pelham Parkway and Williamsbridge Rd. in the Bronx, just as we did when a couple. We travel together to Fordham Road, then flash our weekly student bus passes to take the downtown D train. We get off by the 145th Street stop in Manhattan for the CCNY North Campus, or the 125th Street for South Campus, depending on our class locations. The walks are longer and steeper than seem right.
For most of our friends, the road forked three ways after high school: stay in the city, live at home, and go to virtually-free-for-residents City University schools (CUNY); go out of town to one of the New York State University schools (SUNY); or, go to private schools. Thelma was one of the few I knew at an out-of-state private college. Many of Dave and my friends were at “City” (CCNY) in Harlem, with us. Attending school out of town was not an option for me, even though I had a state Regents Scholarship that would have covered the tuition. “I forbid you to go out of town to college,” said my father. “You will stay home and go to school. Bad things happen to girls who leave home. You will live here, with your mother and me, until you are married.”
After 1969, the year 1970 (starting in September, of course — isn’t that the natural year, the school year?) was anti-climatic. In July 1969, Dave and I had sat with my mother by her portable black and white television and watched the first moon landing. In August, Dave and I passed up going to Woodstock — which we thought was just another concert and not worth the effort — but the festival’s impact reached us in the City, just the same. The year had been punctuated with not very peaceful protests against the War in Vietnam, and student rages targeting any school administrations in smelling distance. In May 1970, students like us were being gunned down by our fellow Americans, at Kent State. The country had gone mad. Our generation was protesting the oppression of everything and everyone. Peace, peace, peace we demanded. Leave us alone to smoke our dope and listen to our rock ‘n roll music and exercise our right to make love not war. Give us freedom — freedom to liberate the world from your rules from your money from your oppression from your war from . . .
For our generation, consequences would not happen — we were certain — if we could just free ourselves from The Man. From the Pigs from the school administrators from the men in suits from the Man.
We women were going to liberate ourselves from men and people of color were going to be really free finally and the white men who were running the country and keeping the power all to themselves and making everyone else miserable were not going to do it anymore because we were going to have . . .
No matter how nasty we had to get to secure it. Peace and freedom were our birthright. Free concerts (music should be free! Woodstock was liberated for all!), free dope (leave capitalism out of our drugs, won’t you?), free love. Bring in the communes and the flower children (so peaceful). Take possessiveness out of relationships, and with it evil jealousy and bad vibes; no more owning each other in oppressive relationships. Back to nature, back to the country; leave the evil city (and we invented this city vs. country all by ourselves, you know — no one had ever thought of this before us!), and rise above the competitiveness that makes us pollute our planet and hurt each other. This is what the generation gap was all about. And you were with them or you were with us and there was no gray area because we knew what was right because you can’t trust anyone over 30, you know. You just can’t.
Psychedelic hippie Grateful Dead twirling Joshua light show isn’t that real trippy man? Can you dig it?
We had our own lingo and you knew how cool or lame someone was by his hippie dialect culled from the speech of our Black brothers. (We were a diverse group of Bronxites –White Jewish White Irish White Italians we were.) That’s how you knew if someone was cool — was that a fringed-suede jacket on a long-haired cool cat? Was that a flower-child hippie chick walking down the block? You could spot them, straight or cool, a mile away, even before they opened their mouths and you might hear them say, “Dig it, man. Dig it.”
Of course, sub-groups sprung up. You could categorize people by music: The Dead people vs. the Airplane people. By clothes: work boots, cowboy boots, moccasins or Fred Brauns? You could stereotype by drugs of choice: downers vs. uppers, vs. psychedelics and subdivisions thereof. Politics — oh, we were all one on the politics: Get us out of Vietnam because we are dying there! Or, at least, give us the vote at 18; we could fight, we could drink at 18. Give us the freakin’ right to vote you out of office!
The draft lottery. What a medieval torture device. The government was like a game show host putting slips of paper into a bin and rolling it around and pulling out birthdays and posting them on the board and are my friends getting called up in the draft now or later? Later, later, please . . . maybe by then the war will be over and they won’t come back from Nam in a body bag. Yes, war was the fuel; the stakes were Life and Death. Not just in Nam, but stateside too. Kent State could have been us.
In the first years of the decade, the cats sitting around the table with me in the South Campus cafeteria might as well had lottery numbers carved into their foreheads like the mark of Cain. Some of them were doomed; Get Out of War cards were evaporating as quickly as you could strike out “student deferral.”
And they wondered why we used drugs.
September 1970, age 17. I could not yet have perspective on our place in history, or on how the times affected my personal life arc. I had no basis for comparison; I had never been a teenager in a different time. I didn’t appreciate that this was a turning point for society, besides for me. The culture, the mores was changing, just as I was struggling with separation from my parents, from my religious practices, my boyfriend, my high school . . . I was unmoored and grasping for anything close by to help me stay afloat.
Dave was still nearby. He welcomed my sitting on his lap at our group’s table in the South Campus cafeteria, in Finley Hall. The next year, I scheduled my classes for the morning — 8:00, 9:00, 10:00, 11:00 — without a moment to waste in the cafeteria. Afterwards, I went straight to midtown to work in a publishing office. I overstuffed my days so I would not have to wonder what to do with myself. But, as a freshman, I had fewer scheduling options.
Scheduling was exacerbated by open admissions. Consistent with the idealist movements pushing to make everything available to everyone (for free), the People forced the City University system to open its doors wider. Enrollment increased by 75 percent, in September 1970. I stood on-line, excited at the classes I saw in the catalog, only to find deadpan professors consulting their index cards and chalking on the blackboards. Course section, after course section, were full and closed. The freshmen gratefully took whatever classes they could, even if it didn’t really fit their overall plan. American History at 9:00 a.m.? What a find! Grab it! Next class Psych 101 at 11:00 a.m.? Okay, I’ll take it! Then Geology at 3:00? Fine! The mouth-watering Creative Writing, Renaissance Literature, Modern Art and ancient Latin will have to wait for another semester, when I had more seniority in registration.
For now, I found my delight in the cavernous, basement bookstore in Finley Hall — an ancient, rickety, mammoth structure (it would be put out of its misery and demolished in the next decade). Tall racks overflowed with more books than I had ever seen in one place. I spotted Carlos Castaneda, Doris Lessing, Philip Roth on the shelves. Could books that I had been reading for pleasure belong to college courses? This was assigned reading?? I must take those courses!
In the long stretches between classes, we hung out in the back of the cafeteria. The back doors, with nothing to slow them down, banged shut several times an hour, making us jump and curse. “One day we’ll reminisce about the good old days,” said Wanda. “We’ll wish we were back here, complaining about the slamming doors.” Someone found chess sets in the student lounge and brought them downstairs to us, and we paired up. Dave and I had played for more than a year, and knew each other’s moves too well. Mixing it up with other players was exciting — I played Ben in the cafeteria, and sometimes at his house. Patrick didn’t like chess, but Will was a solid player. Ava and Wanda watched. (Unlike the other chicks, I was comfortable with the game; my father taught me when I was about five.)
Simon was usually nodding off in the corner and the Barbarian would show up early in the morning with him, then split from campus. I was too naive to understand why.
If not playing chess, I was sitting on Dave’s lap, inhaling the scent of his blue workshirt; it was as good as last year. Sometimes I would go to his house in the afternoon, too, and we would be together, just like last year. But the shadow of Thelma was hanging between us and dulling the air for me, though I don’t know if he sensed it. Perhaps it was just me. I wanted to feel the specialness of being the only one. Finally, I asked him to choose between her and me.
Dave’s reaction surprised me.
. . . to be continued
© Barbara E. Berger, 2011, all rights reserved. “Stalker” is a work of fiction.