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8. The Horse Farm

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By 1969, I’d been an undergraduate at Clark for six years. The long duration was partly due to a leave of absence I took in 1966, in order to protect myself from the Draft. Word on the street was that it took Selective Service a year to catch up to students who had dropped out of school, so you were safe if you left for less than that.

I’ve often wondered how my life would have been different had I served. Of course, I might have been killed in Vietnam, as 58,000 Americans were. Or I might have returned home minus a leg, or suffering from PTSD. For sure, I wasn’t one of these idiots who spat on the returning veterans, as cousin Alan (who’d seen combat in Vietnam) experienced. When I encountered returning vets in 1968, 1969, I made sure to treat them respectfully. As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed an even greater respect for our military (and for all men and women in uniform). I think I might have been a better human being had I served. But I didn’t, and there’s no use crying over spilled milk.

By the Spring of 1969, it was clear I had to graduate; I’d accumulated the credits. But I had no idea what to do next. Worcester and Clark had been my habitat for six years. Now it was time for—what?

By June, two possibilities emerged. One, my friend from Clark, Michael Rubenstein, had moved the previous year to swinging London, and in his letters said what a wonderful time he was having. He had a large flat, and offered to let me stay with him. I had a professor of philosophy, the late and amazing Gil Markle, who led student tours of Europe during the summer, and he arranged for me fly over with his group for free.

But something happened. I’d made friends with an older woman who lived across the street from Clark. She was about 35, and had two sons, 9 and 11 years old. I’ll call her Sylvia. She liked hippie boys; she slept with a lot of them. (Nowadays we’d call her a cougar.) Sylvia came to my room one night and seduced me—my first time with a woman. I didn’t have to let her, but I was curious. Maybe I’d like it!

As it turned out, I didn’t, at least, not enough to go straight. But I did grow very close to Sylvia and her boys. One warm day—this was at the end of June, 1969—the boys asked me if I’d hitchhike with them to “the horse farm,” a place their divorced dad had once brought them. It was out in the country, up in the Berkshires, and, the boys excitedly said, you could ride horses for free. So early the next morning, the three of us hit the road and stuck out our thumbs.

The horse farm was a commune, one of many springing up that season, as hippies bailed out on the bad vibes of the cities, of hard drugs and ripoffs and violence, and went back to the land. My first vision of the people was of young, sun-bronzed guys with long hair and no shirts. They welcomed the two boys, whom they remembered, and me with great warmth. They possessed a well-structured spiritual philosophy, which they were eager to describe to me.

It was classic Sixties commune ideology: universal love and brotherhood. Mystical union with “creative energy.” Rejection of the outside world. Reincarnation and “earth changes” that would usher in The Aquarian Age. Their leader, a man a year or two younger than me, was Michael; his guru, Elwood Babbitt, was an old man who lived in a little house in the woods, and made a modest living as a school bus driver. Elwood had studied with Edgar Cayce, the famed mystic and clairvoyant. Cayce was associated with the Theosophical Society, founded by Madame Helena Blavatsky, and later led by Annie Besant. By eerie coincidence, in 1967 I’d moved into a flat in Worcester and found, in a cabinet in a back room, some books and pamphlets about Theosophy by Besant. They had interested me very much. I’d even taken to meditating (or trying to). So the circle seemed to be completing itself.

I was fascinated by those sun-tanned guys. Their energy and openness, charm and easy laughter turned me on. Of course, something else about them turned me on, too. I was still deep in the closet, and as I wrote earlier, had had little sex in the 1960s. Now, here were these hot young hippies running around shirtless, wearing cut-off jeans, their bodies lean and wiry from hard work tapping maple trees for syrup and pitching bales of hay. I was sorely tempted to join up with them; when I got back to Worcester, I had a lot to think about.

London? Or the horse farm? It was Bronx Science vs. Music & Art all over again.

Being the good little hippie I was, I had my copy of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of divination. Since I couldn’t make up my mind, I decided to leave the decision “to the gods.” I tossed the coins in the prescribed manner, looked up the corresponding hexagram, and read something like:

It does not prosper to cross the river. Go up on the mountain.

It didn’t take much imagination to know what that meant! The “river” was obviously the Atlantic. The “mountain” was the Berkshires. The I Ching was telling me to go to the horse farm.

It’s amazing, now that I look back on it, how I made such a life-changing decision based on something so random as a divination book. But there was no unchoosing: for me, it would be a brand new venture into an unknown, hopeful future.

Less than a week later, on Independence Day, 1969, I said goodbye to my Worcester friends, packed some stuff and once again hitchhiked westward up into the mountains, to join the commune that would be my home for the next ten years.


7. The end of the Summer of Love

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I discovered something else that Fall semester: bridge. We’d played a little cards back in The Bronx: pinochle, canasta, that kind of stuff. Now I took up bridge, in a game that always seemed to be happening in the Student Union. I became hooked: studied bridge books, read bridge columns in the papers. What attracted me wasn’t just the intellectual challenge, it was the social aspect. I made friends with another Clark Jewish kid who was as obsessed as I was. He had a car. We began entering contract bridge tournaments throughout southern New England and in New York. This went on through the Spring,1964 semester. In May, final exams were scheduled. But eight of us had ended up in an around-the-clock bridge game in the dorm T.V. room (where earlier that semester we’d watched The Beatles on Ed Sullivan). We’d been playing continuously for days, barely sleeping, popping amphetamines to stay awake, when someone said, “Hey, finals start today.” Everybody looked at everybody else. The choice was stark: finals, or bridge?

Bridge won. Nobody took any finals. I flunked all five of my courses. I didn’t care; school had become irrelevant. So Clark threw me out. They said I could get re-admitted if I took two summer courses and got at least B-minuses in both. (I took Spanish and, for some odd reason, mathematical set theory, got two A-minuses, and was readmitted.) I don’t recall how my parents reacted when I gave them the news about flunking out. I’ll say this for them: for all their faults as parents, they were pretty laissez-faire with me. Uncle Teddy and Aunt Ruth had sent cousin Alan to a private military academy when he had some problems. My parents might have done the same; instead, they just acquiesced to the situation. They paid for me to stay for the summer in a boarding house across Main Street from Clark, a sprawling, decrepit old Victorian mansion, called The Elms, that looked like Norman Bates’ house in Psycho, and was run by an old German lady, Mrs. Elms, who scared the shit out of me. That summer of ’64, I spent in a blur of music, marijuana and wine. I met a guy, a traveling salesman who also was staying at The Elms, and had a torrid affair with him, the first time I’d ever been in a bed with another man, as opposed to in the bushes and alleys.

But if it sounds like I was having sex left and right, that would be misleading. The truth is, during my college years, I had very little sex. Everybody around me was getting laid all the time, or so it seemed, and rock and roll was almost exclusively about boy-girl romance. But I was more or less celibate—not by choice, but necessity: “gay liberation” wasn’t yet a “thing” in 1965, and I didn’t know where or how to find male companions. Still, I didn’t care. My emotional, creative and intellectual energies were completely absorbed in being a hippie and enjoying and fostering the lifestyle we were inventing.

It’s routine these days to poke fun at Sixties hippies: granny dresses and bellbottoms, tie-died shirts, flower children, and idealistic notions of making love, not war. But the truth, for those of us who lived the life, was that we took it very seriously. I mean in the sense that we were the vanguard of a new age, one that would replace the drab, stifling Eisenhower years and usher in a new era of peace, tranquility, human kindness, love, creativity, freedom and wisdom. It was a revolution, and we exulted in our roles as social revolutionaries and custodians of the future.

Any kind of social movement requires support from without; you have to have the sense that something greater than just you and your little pack of friends is moving you along. And in America, in the mid-60s—indeed, throughout the western world, from Paris and London to Rome and Berlin—there was evidence that whatever we were part of was indeed historic. Rock and roll, which had always been a huge part of the Baby Boomers’ lives, now became the soundtrack and lingua franca of our existence. Every new group, every new song, opened new worlds of thought, imagination, possibility. Messages were encoded in lyrics, and in our electronic age of radio and LPs, those messages crossed the oceans and national borders effortlessly. We were aware– passionately aware–of being part of a movement that was worldwide. All the best people—in our judgment—belonged to it: the most progressive politicians, the most famous actors and rock stars, the most celebrated literary and visual artists—the tastemakers and intelligentsia. It was very liberating, for a Jewish boy from The Bronx whose scope had been so provincial, to feel part of something so vast and important.

Drugs, of course, helped fuel the movement. Drugs were illegal, which made their consumption furtively exhilarating. The possibility of getting arrested added to that risk, to that edge—the same way that anonymous sex added to its pleasures. You could go anywhere and find brothers and sisters who were part of the cult. It was a badge of belonging—and the more I think about it, the more I think that what we wanted was that sense of belonging. You could find your tribe, the people who welcomed you anytime you showed up, “where everyone knew your name,” as they later said on Cheers. For someone who’d felt as disconnected, as rejected and weird as I, it was remarkably comforting, a miracle of sorts: I love these people and they love me.

Drugs weren’t only illegal, they were mind-altering, psychedelic, to use a word that shortly became popular. I must have heard of LSD in 1965. A spate of books and articles, especially in the underground press (local head shops sold the Berkeley Barb), caught our attention: acid was like marijuana but oh, so much more potent. The hype was irresistible: you would see through the veil of materiality to perceive Truth, or God. I was already interested in mysticism and Buddhism. My cohort in Worcester—my new townie friends—also wanted to try the new drug, but we didn’t have the slightest idea where to get it. As the New Yorker of the group, I volunteered to see what I could do.

I took the Trailways bus to the Port Authority Terminal on 42nd Street in Manhattan and booked a cheap hotel room in Times Square; I didn’t want my parents to know I was in town. I knew where to go: Greenwich Village. I’d collected a few hundred dollars in cash from my Worcester pals. I walked the streets, searching for a longhair—a comrade who looked trustworthy. A guy with hair down below his shoulders sauntered by. I struck up a conversation: Can you score me acid? Yeah, man. I gave him the money. That’s the way it was back then: trust cemented our tribe.

The guy told me to wait in front of a brownstone. I sat on the steps and waited. And waited. And waited. Afternoon turned to evening, to night. The hours went by. I never had the slightest doubt he would return. And he did, with a plastic baggie containing 16 little, football-shaped, shiny orange pills. They bore the name Sandoz: this was laboratory-pure LSD, from the company that invented it.

I took the pills back to Worcester, distributed them to my friends, and took my own hit. Sat back and…and…soared. How do you describe it? I was looking down long, shimmering hallways at the outside world through holes in my head…through my eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth. A crumpled newspaper on the floor was as luminous as View of Toledo. This was what I’d been looking for all my life. It was why I was a hippie. I had discovered mind. It was the first of hundreds of trips I took; I have no way of knowing how many. As Bob Dylan is reputed to have said, If you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t there.

I soon took to dealing. It was never my intention to make money; I felt it was my “civic duty” as a hippie revolutionary to make drugs widely available and cheap. At one point, I was selling marijuana for $10 an ounce, which was pretty much my cost. One night there was a knock on the door of my apartment. It was a man I didn’t know. He said, “There are people in this town who are upset you’re selling so cheap.” The ordinary going price was $30 an ounce. Then the man left. Somebody told me he was the mafia. I never heard from him again. Was it a threat?

To jump this narrative forward a few years: one day in early 1968 I heard that the Worcester Police were asking questions about me from people they stopped on the street. I was in their sights: the vice squad, which had jurisdiction over drug crimes, had my name. I was naïve, filled with notions of love. All you need is love: love would provide, would conquer all—would even change a cop’s negative mindset. I phoned the police department and asked for a meeting with the head of the vice squad. Sgt. Leahy was a nice-looking, middle-aged Irishman with a buzz cut and piercing, intelligent blue eyes. I told him my story: The drugs I was dealing were benign, indeed beneficial. They were helping to make our world a better place; couldn’t he see that? I would be happy, I told him, to turn him on. Two weeks later, my roommates and I were home one night, smoking. Suddenly there was a violent banging on the door. “Police! Open up!” Six of us were busted. They hauled us downtown in “paddy wagons.” I was fingerprinted and booked and thrown into jail. I called my parents. Once again, their laissez-faire attitude came to the fore. They bailed me out. My father issued what was for him a stern warning: “We’ll give you enough rope to pull yourself out, or hang yourself.” Although the cops found only two ounces of pot and a few “Black Bennies”—Benzedrine–it had been the biggest drug bust in the history of Worcester, New England’s second-largest city. In the end, it cost my parents a lot of money, but I avoided a jail sentence.

I didn’t stop doing drugs (although I did stop dealing), But I moved far from campus, to a flat in East Worcester, a working class neighborhood where I knew no one. I got myself a bicycle to ride back and forth to school, and lived in constant fear of being re-arrested. A new word had entered my lexicon: paranoid. The Buffalo Springfield song, For What It’s Worth, expressed it well:

Paranoia strikes deep

Into your life it will creep

It starts when you’re always afraid

Step out of line, the man come and take you away

“The man” already had taken me away once. Next time, he would take me away again, and that time, there’d be no bail, but jail. Fear began replacing love as the motive force for me, and for so many hippies, in that transitional year of 1968. The Summer of Love, of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, seemed long gone. Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King had been murdered; riots, not love-ins, took place in the cities. In San Francisco, where hard drugs were invading Haight-Ashbury, they’d already celebrated “the death of hippie.” It took us a little longer, on the East Coast, to learn that The Sixties—our Sixties—were over. But we—and I—adapted.


6. My College Years. I Discover Drugs

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Clark University was an urban campus, in the middle of the dreary, industrial city of Worcester, with its polluting paper mills and machine plants. Even my new Worcester friends—“townies”– called Worcester “the armpit of Massachusetts.”

I began as an art major, although I ended up with my B.A. in philosophy. I lived in the men’s dormitory, where my roommate—we’d been paired by last name—was Dana Hiscock, scion of an old New England family. I liked Dana, who was tall and blond, well enough, but you couldn’t have found two young men more different. We never really connected.

My best friend that freshman year lived in the next room. George Justus, like Dana, was a New Englander from a distinguished old family, but he had a quirky weirdness I liked, and my New York Jewish eccentricity attracted him. About a month after the Fall semester began, George came running up to me in the dorm hallway, clearly excited about something. “Heimy (his nickname for me), you have to hear this!” He showed me a record album from a new group, The Beatles, I’d never heard of. We went to his room and he played it for me. I liked the music, of course, and I loved the album cover—cute guys–but what I’ve never forgotten, because it was such an amazing, prescient thing for George to say, was, “This group is going to change the world.”

How did he know?

A month later, in the late morning of Nov. 22, 1963—a Friday—we were in the dorm, doing whatever, when someone shouted, “Kennedy’s been shot!”

We all ran down to a friend’s room, where we listened to the radio report the news out of Dallas. In total, shocked silence, we heard the announcer say, at around 1 p.m., “President Kennedy has died.”

I’d met Kennedy once. Well, not exactly “met.” During the 1960 campaign, when he was the Democratic candidate, Kennedy was scheduled to appear at a campaign event—the Journal-American newspaper said so the day before–at the Concourse Plaza Hotel, where the Yankees lived. I was already a JFK fan. He was so handsome, so glamorous and young, and, like my parents, a Democrat! I bought myself a giant piece of cardboard, wrote “All the Way With JFK” or something like that, stapled it to a broomstick, and went down to the Concourse Plaza. There were wooden sawhorses on either side of the hotel’s side entrance, on 162nd Street. A small crowd, no more than ten people, had gathered. A car pulled up; the Secret Service men hopped out. Then a lean, attractive figure emerged from a back seat. He was tall and handsome, bronzed from the sun, with a shock of reddish-auburn hair that gleamed in the late summer sunshine.

I thrust my poster up. John F. Kennedy, straightening his tie in that odd little tic he had, began his short walk to the door. As he passed, he looked at the sign, then down at me, smiled, nodded, and moved on. Next to Mickey Mantle, he was the most exciting person I’d ever encountered.

Now here we were, in the dorm at Clark three years later, and the President of the United States has been murdered. Our little group, dispirited and confused, dissipated. I wandered to my room—Dana Hiscock wasn’t there—lay down on my bed, and wept. There was something about JFK’s assassination: it wasn’t just Kennedy, the man, who had been killed, something about America was killed too. The America we’d grown up in was an America of peace and progress. We’d won World War II. America bestrode the world like a colossus. We were the light of the world, the wealthiest nation in history, the country that had given other countries our Constitution, the greatest democracy, not a banana republic. I wasn’t some kind of yahoo nationalist; I wouldn’t have called myself a patriot. But something catastrophic had obviously happened, and so I wept, because I knew things were about to get a lot more complicated.

We all lived in front of the T.V. the next few days. The murder of Oswald by Jack Ruby, live on the Sunday. The funeral procession, live on the Monday, with a black veiled Jackie gripping the hands of her children. Young John-John with that salute. It was all too much.

But life went on! The shock never really went away—I feel it to this day. But it dulled. I remembered the LIFE magazine article on marijuana, and wanted to try this strange drug which, it was said, caused people to go insane. Maybe a little insanity was what I needed.

But where to find marijuana? It was illegal. I’d never known anyone who’d smoked it…well, maybe I had, without knowing. If I’d grown up in Harlem, or Spanish Harlem or Greenwich Village, I might have known somebody. But I’d grown up in the goody-goody Bronx, and now I was at Clark, which was populated by goody-goody Jews just like me.

But there was a guy, an older student, I’d noticed earlier: tall and skinny, with horn-rimmed eyeglasses, a mess of longish, curly hair, bucked teeth, and always wearing a brown corduroy jacket with elbow patches that made him look like he’d just come from a coffee shop poetry reading. I’d see him in the Student Union, alone, nursing a cup of coffee and reading Rimbaud or Proust—which meant he was a Beatnik. I introduced myself, said I was looking for some, ahem ahem, marijuana. Could he help? Of course. He obtained for me a joint. That night I decided to smoke it.

I was scared, to be honest. The LIFE article had suggested people went bonkers on marijuana: jumped out of windows, stood in traffic, went screaming naked through the streets. But I was overwhelmed by curiosity. There was something in the air, that Fall of 1963. Something was cooking in America; restless young people were stirring, change was afoot. The Beatles had something to do with it, and this marijuana was an important part of whatever “it” was.

In the end, I didn’t tear my clothes off and run naked down Main Street. I think I just wandered around for a few hours until the effect wore off. But I’d learned something very interesting: I liked this marijuana. No, I didn’t just like it, I loved it! It had unleashed something inside I’d never felt before—an orgasm of the mind, an intellectual ferment and intensified interest in the world, a fantastically elevated sense of well-being and calmness, a heightening of color and of sound, an awareness of my own, oh so interesting mental processes. I wanted more…and I wanted to find out about the marijuana lifestyle that I suspected existed, unseen, all around me.

That lifestyle, it turned out, wasn’t on campus in 1963, not yet; it was off-campus, in the backstreets and tenement apartments of gritty Worcester, where I found my new “townie” friends, most of them the children of working class Poles. There was a new crowd arising in Worcester, and in Boston and New York, and out in San Francisco. Someone soon dubbed them “hippies.” I was to become the consummate Sixties hippie: bellbottoms, jeweled rings, hair down below my shoulders, a pierced ear, and a life, as they say, of sex, drugs and rock and roll.


Memoir Part 5: I leave NYC to go to college. The Sixties

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After P.S. 35 I went on to Junior High School 22. I remember almost nothing of those years: a black box. I fretted about pimples, about the size of my thighs—I was starting to want to look good. But I recall the other boys. They were 14, 15 years old—at the height of testosterone-fueled puberty. The dress style for boys was very tight pants. Of course, you could see everything “down there,” and most of the time it seemed like everybody had an erection.

Then it was time for high school. In those days you could go to your “automatic” public high school, the one in your neighborhood, which for me was William Howard Taft. You could also take competitive entry examinations for one or more of New York’s three “special” high schools. I took exams for two, The Bronx High School of Science, which specialized in science and math, and the High School of Music and Art. I applied to both (to M&A as an art major), and got into both, one of only two New Yorkers to do so that year.

I didn’t know which to choose. Bronx Science was a couple subway stops up the old Jerome Avenue elevated line from 760. Music & Art was down the D-line, on the City College campus, on 135th Street in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. My parents told me the choice was mine. I visited both. At Bronx Science, the boys had black tortoise-shell eyeglasses, wore white dress shirts with pencil-protectors in their pockets and baggy, belted pants hitched up to their chests. And they all carried briefcases. Today, we’d call them nerds. At M&A the boys wore faded jeans and untucked blue work shirts, and carried what were then called “Harvard bags” over their shoulders—the epitome of Greenwich Village bohemian chic. If they had eyeglasses, they were intellectual-looking wire rims. The Bronx Science boys attracted me not a bit; the M&A boys were cool. Decision made!

Those were four years of interest and delight. I loved art: painting in oils and acrylics, drawing, woodcuts, sculpture, graphic design, art history. I loved studying paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, NYMOMA, the numerous small galleries along Third Avenue. The El Greco room at the Met sent me into ecstasy; I would stand in front of View of Toledo and Portrait of Cardinal Guevera and just stare in admiration. And taking the subway to high school—very adult! I’d get on at 161st Street, a big, crowded station, and try get off at 135th Street, a small local stop—well, that was the plan. The train at 7:30 in the morning was jammed. I could never find a seat, but would be wedged in between bodies so tightly that I could stand without holding onto anything. When it got to 135th Street, nobody departed; they were all headed further downtown, or to 125th Street, a transfer station. The crowd had carried me over to the side of the train opposite the door. I could never make it through the jammed bodies to exit. I’d say “Getting out” but it didn’t do any good; eventually I stopped trying. For four years, I had to go down to 125th Street, cross the platform, and take the D-train back uptown to 135th Street.

High school was a big change, because the vast majority of my friends didn’t go to M&A; our friendships thus melted away. I saw very little of Jonathan after that. I made a few friends in M&A, but not many, and I barely recall anything I did in high school, beyond a 50-mile march I organized, in 1961, when Robert Kennedy urged Americans to get out and exercise. (This also was the time Uncle Lennie made me start going to the YMCA to lift weights.) About sixty of us marched from The Bronx to White Plains and back; a local radio station reported our progress. It was my first exercise in leadership, and I liked it. I never dated a girl, which lots of the boys my age were starting to do. I remember running into Jonathan—he was going to a private high school in Manhattan. He told me, with great excitement, how he’d just finger-fucked a girl, and even offered me a sniff. It was his first sexual experience and he was very proud. Of course, I couldn’t tell him about my Puerto Rican boys.

Suddenly, in June of 1963, high school was over; it was time for college. I worked for the summer at a hospital in The Bronx, doing urine, feces and blood tests, a job arranged by Uncle Lennie, who was chief-of-staff. Did I ever have a conversation with my parents about college? Of course not. Notwithstanding Jack, who hadn’t gone to college, it was taken for granted I would. New York City high school students were allowed to apply to only three schools for free; if you wanted more, you had to pay $50 each, and Jack and Gertrude weren’t made out of money. I applied to the City College of New York, Harvard, and Clark University, a liberal arts school in the central Massachusetts city of Worcester. Harvard hadn’t been my idea. Cousin Maxine had married a Harvard man, Don (whom I idolized) and he wanted me to go there. I was interviewed at the Harvard Club, down on West 44th Street (I wore my bar mitzvah suit), and I probably talked too much about The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s book, which had a huge impact on me. But I didn’t get in: the letter of rejection said that ordinarily my grades and extra-curricular activities (which included the track team) would have admitted me, but in this Baby Boom year, Harvard was flooded with qualified applicants, so…

But City College admitted me and so did Clark, a school I’d selected out of Lovejoy’s College Guide for the sole reason that it was said to be located “in the heart of the Central Massachusetts snow belt,” and I loved, loved, loved big snowstorms. My parents said I could go to either City College, which meant living at home, or Clark, which meant leaving home. I was tired of living with my parents, wanted out, wanted the adventure and freedom of being on my own. So Clark it was.

Jack drove me up to Worcester in early September, 1963, on a hot, sunny morning. We passed a multi-car wreck on the Hutchinson River Parkway—were, in fact, the first to stop and investigate. There were dead people, bleeding people. The driver I checked on was trapped behind his steering wheel, groaning. He asked for a blanket even though it was about 85 degrees. By then, we heard sirens, so Jack told me to get back in the car and we continued on to Worcester. But I thought: is this an omen?

I don’t know whether or not it was. But entering college in the Fall of 1963 was the beginning of one of the most exciting, crazy periods of my life, and one of the most turbulent in our country’s history. John F. Kennedy was President. Dr. King had just given his “I Have a Dream” speech. LIFE magazine ran a cover story on the drug, marijuana, that was so popular among jazz musicians and Beatniks. A new rock group, The Beatles, was making waves. The Baby Boomers were about to grow their hair long and become “hippies.” Although the decade already was in its third year, 1963 really marked the start of The Sixties.


Memoir Part 4: My Family

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I need to begin with my parents. Jack Heimoff and Gertrude Merson were both born in 1915, Jack in Manhattan, Gertrude, as I’ve mentioned, in Oklahoma, only seven years after it became a state. I grew up in close contact with Jack’s side of the family; my Heimoff cousins were like my siblings. Gertrude’s people, in the southwest, were distant, in an era when air flight was difficult and expensive, and so I never grew close to them.

Jack was Rose and Max’s youngest child. Lennie, his older brother, was their middle child; Ruth, born in Russia before Max and Rose emigrated, was the eldest. Ruth’s husband was my Uncle Teddy, a giant of a man, a legend in our family to this day—as my recounting of his bar mitzvah fisticuffs suggests.

Stories about Teddy abound. When the other dads drove Chevys or Fords, Teddy cruised around in a Lincoln Continental. Where others had to find parking spots on the crowded Grand Concourse, Teddy double-parked. He never got a ticket and we never knew why; an aura of mystery and power surrounded him. I never could figure out exactly what he did for a job. Larger-than-life, he would pick me up and throw me in the air, like a ball, and catch me on the way down. He only missed once; fortunately, I suffered no permanent damage.

Uncle Lennie was our family doctor, the success story, rising from the Depression to wealth and achievement. He worked on Gen. MacArthur’s anti-venereal disease program in the Pacific during the war, and returned home one of the most sought-after V.D. specialists in New York. He was president of the Bronx County Medical Society. To me, he was everything I’d ever wanted my own father to be. By the mid-1950s, Lennie could afford to move out of The Bronx. He bought a big, white, classical home in Teaneck, New Jersey, with a swimming pool and air-conditioning. We’d drive to Teaneck on hot summer days, so I could swim with my cousins. I hated the drive back to The Bronx, to our dreary little tenement, to the heat and humidity.

Unlike Lennie and Ruth (and my mother), my father never went to college. He could have, but chose, for some reason I never understood, not to. He never succeeded economically. Indeed, Jack’s financial struggles and drab career (he was a purchasing agent, with no pension) haunted my childhood, and grieve me to this day. He was a deeply unhappy man, aware of his inadequacies and ashamed of them. All the others of his generation, my uncles and aunts, were professionals who “made it” to the suburbs, to large homes with gardens and trees. Jack and Gertrude never got out of The Bronx, except for a brief stint in another apartment in Howard Beach, Queens (“Archie Bunker” land), to which they moved, in the late 1970s, because The Bronx had become dangerous. They finally retired to a condo on the poorer outskirts of Fort Lauderdale.

Lennie and his wife, my Aunt Esther (“Ettie”), had three girls, Maxine, Ellen and Rona, in birth order. I was very close with them. Today, Ellen, who lives in Malibu, and I remain close, but even closer, both geographically and socially, to me is Maxine, who lives just across San Francisco Bay from my home in Oakland. She is the one who convinced me to move to California, in 1978, at a time when my life was turbulent; that move changed everything, and I’ll get to it in due course. My three cousins on Teddy and Ruth’s side were Felice, Richard and Alan, again in birth order. Felice died years ago, the first of our generation to go, but then, she was older than the rest of us. Alan and I are close; Richard and I, less so. But those childhood bonds are strong, not easily rent.

Alan and Richard—“Ritchie”—were older and bigger than me, and a lot more worldly. When they lived in 760, we’d play under the stairwell in the dark rear of the building, where they taught me my first lessons in sexuality. We must have been five, six years old. It was all very illicit and secretive, and therefore exciting. This went on for years. I’m not saying they “made me queer.” Indeed, whatever happened was with my willing and eager participation. I would have been queer anyway. As for why I went gay and they didn’t–who can say?

At any rate, by the time I was eleven or twelve—before I reached puberty—I was on the hunt. For what? Boys. I knew in my heart and mind that I couldn’t be the only male in The Bronx who felt like this. Common sense suggested it had to be widespread. But how to spot a like-minded kid? Was there a secret sign? A wink? A head nod? For a while, I tried opening my mouth into an “O” and wagging my tongue from side to side whenever I encountered a cute guy. It never worked. Hundreds of kids in The Bronx must have wondered who this open-mouthed weirdo was.

I knew I was attracted to boys. Knew, also, that it was verboten, wrong, something to keep a deep, dark secret. This was my introduction to shame—emotional baggage I’ve carried all my life and tried, not always successfully, to overcome. An incident involving Barry, Elsie and Dave’s son, showed me the necessity of secrecy. As I wrote, he was six years older than me, a tall, lean, good-looking kid with sharp cheekbones. Barry and his gang of friends allowed me to hang out with them in front of 760, where they’d lean against cars, or throw a Spaldeen around, talking about sports and girls. I’ll never forget the time Barry told them a story.

He was in high school, failing a class. He went to see the teacher. “Is there anything I can do—anything—for you not to flunk me?” Barry asked. Why, yes, as it turned out, there was. The teacher, a middle-aged man, told Barry he’d give him a passing grade if Barry let him suck his cock.

“Oh, wow,” his friends gasped. They reacted with shock, horror, revulsion. “That’s disgusting!” “Somebody should lock that old faggot up!” I may have been a dumb little nine-year old but I wasn’t stupid. “That’s what I am,” I thought. “A faggot.” I might have substituted “leper” or “Communist” or “murderer.” I instantly understood that I must never, ever, under any circumstances breathe a word of this to anyone. It had to be my secret; to reveal it was to risk being rejected, hated, beaten up. That was the moment I stepped into the closet, slammed the door and locked it shut from the inside. There I remained for the next twenty-five years.

One Autumn day in 1959, at thirteen, the magic moment came: Puberty! Jonathan had reached it first and told me about it. One afternoon, alone at home, I tried humping a pillow. Bingo! Oh glorious feeling, oh exalted physicality, oh most amazing pleasure, oh my God, this life-affirming thing a boy could do! I had discovered Mr. Happy.

* * *

My sexual life sped up. The Bronx teemed with boys and young men, not just Jewish, but Irish, Black and Puerto Rican; and the Ricans were my first “lovers,” to use that term generously. I really liked the Puerto Ricans. So did my mother (although for vastly different reasons), who taught them in her Junior High. She’d say to me, “I wish you were as nice as my Puerto Ricans.” They had a sweetness, a vulnerability that was non-existent among my Jewish friends. This is probably why, to this day, I feel such a close connection here in California to Latinos, and Mexicans in particular (and is another reason why Mexican-bashing Republicans so disgust me).

It was easy to meet Puerto Rican kids. A connection could happen in the bushes of Franz Siegel Park or, more likely, on Sheridan Avenue, above the train yards, where at night the streets were deserted, while the New York Central trains chugged and clanged below. Years later, I learned that what I was doing was called “cruising.” It came instinctively. I’d tell my parents I was going out at night to play with friends—a form of the truth, if you think about it. Gertrude and Jack didn’t care, as long as I was back by, say, ten. I’d go down to Sheridan Avenue and walk the street, watching, cautious, ready. A boy or man would pass. Eye contact. One of us would lead the other to a darkened place. It was dangerous, hell yes. But the danger was part of the excitement, a frisson of sexual thrill. I’ve never understood this connection between risky behavior and sexual heightening. On the downside, I’ve never managed to achieve the trusting oneness of couples who have been together for a long time. When I think about what I’ve never had—and I often do–I feel sad. But you can only play the cards you’re dealt, and make the best of them.


An interview with President Trump

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Steveheimoff.com is honored to publish this exclusive, one-on-one interview with President Trump. I spoke with him yesterday, in the Oval Office, with Gus.

Steve Heimoff: Thank you very much, Mister President.

President Trump: You’re welcome. What’s your dog’s name?

SH: Gus.

PT: I don’t like dogs.

SH: I know. I want to start by asking about your plan to lift the shelter-in-place order on Easter, and re-open the country for business as usual.

PT: Yeah, we have to get this economy going again, and those stocks back up. That’s the most important thing for me to get re-elected.

SH: Is it always about you?

PT: What else is there? You? Lol.

SH: Many public health officials say the most important thing is saving lives.

PT: We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can re-open the economy and still fight the China virus.

SH: You’re the only person who calls it the China virus. The rest of the world calls it coronavirus.

PT: That’s where the virus comes from. China. It’s not from Corona. It’s the kung-flu virus.

SH: If the best way to fight the coronavirus—

PT: China virus.

SH: –is social distancing and staying home, as the scientists say, then we can’t re-open the economy and let people mingle.

PT: That’s fake news. You should stop watching that horrid MSNBC. Besides, most of those so-called scientists are card-carrying members of the Democrat Party. Look at that Fauci. I call him Tiny Tony. A liberal. You can’t trust anything they say.

SH: Do you concede that if you re-open the economy, more people will get sick and die?

PT: I’m not conceding anything. But let’s say for the sake of argument that there are a few more incidents of China virus. So what? It’s just a cold. You get the sniffles, then you get better. And besides, most of the people who are getting infected are Democrats.

SH: Really?

PT: Look at the map! New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans, Jersey. All Democrat hellholes. By contrast, if you look at the places where there is no China virus, like Idaho, they’re Republican areas. So this China virus knows what it’s doing. It’s seeking out Democrats. Even a great American like Dinesh D’Souza says so.

SH: Granted that more Democrats are getting sick than Republicans, aren’t Democrats Americans, too?

PT: Who told you that?

SH: Nobody told me, it’s just common sense.

PT: Yeah, well, that’s not what Tucker Carlson told me.

SH: What did he tell you?

PT: He says Democrats aren’t real Americans.

SH: Then what are they?

PT: Communists.

SH: Aren’t you concerned about New York City? After all, you’re a New Yorker.

PT: Not anymore! I’m a proud Florida-er. I left New York because Bloomberg turned it into a Communist Democrat shithole.

SH: So you wouldn’t be troubled if you re-open the economy and Democrats start getting sick and dying?

PT: It’s called thinning the herd. Democrats, Mexicans, homosexuals, abortion doctors, Muslims, Sleepy Joe Biden, AOC, they’re all the same. We don’t want them in America.

SH: Who do we want, sir?

PT: Real Americans! Christians!

SH: Sir, you’ve never attended church in your life. You once told Page Six in the New York Post you didn’t believe in God, you believed in money.

PT: Lies! Who told you that? Liddle Adam Schiff?

SH: Another question, sir. In the bailout, will Trump companies get any money?

PT: You’re a terrible reporter. A Communist. Why don’t you go back to Russia? It’s people like you who hate America and want to drag us down. I bet you hang out with Obama and his terrorist pals. You better watch out. I have the military and the gun owners on my side.

SH: I thought you were the president of all Americans.

PT: I am! All real Americans! Christian Americans, Republican Americans, normal Americans. Now you’ll have to excuse me. I’m scheduled to be on Fox & Friends. Here’s an official White House pen. No, I won’t shake hands with you. You probably have the China virus. Now get the hell out of here, loser! And tell your friend Hunter Biden we’re coming after him!

SH: Thank you, Mister President.


Memoir part 3: My early teen years: A bar mitzvah, and questioning authority

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In the 1950s nobody locked their doors. In 760, every kid could go into every apartment—well, nearly every apartment—and find a home away from home. Unlike my mom, most of the housewives didn’t work, so you’d go to your friend Irwin’s apartment, or Donald’s, or Bobby’s, or Kenny’s, or Howie’s, or Ricky’s, and there’d be a mom there. “You want something to eat? A sandwich? Milk? Eat! You shouldn’t be so skinny.” The adults had their little feuds (and occasional affairs), but we kids didn’t know about that. What we knew was that we were special: part of a gigantic herd of Jews that extended beyond 760, across The Bronx and New York and America, through war-ravaged Europe down into Israel. And while we kids weren’t well-versed in the details of World War II and the Holocaust, we understood that the Jewish people had suffered terrible things, and that the only reason we were here was because our parents had survived. Our parents never talked to us about what had happened; they were notoriously reticent about anything having to do with the war. It was almost as if, by not mentioning it, it hadn’t existed.

My parents sent me to Hebrew school starting at the age of seven. I went three times a week, after regular school. Hebrew school was in our synagogue, Congregation Hope of Israel, about three blocks away. I enjoyed Hebrew School, but there was a troubling aspect that influenced my later attitude towards religious dogma. We had a young instructor from the Yeshiva, Rabbi Saperstein. He was teaching one day about the age of the earth, which he said was 5,715 years (in 1955), according to the Jewish calendar.

Of course, little Stevie the troublemaker just had to raise his hand.

“Rabbi, at the Museum of Natural History, they say the dinosaurs lived 100 million years ago. So how can the world be only 5,715 years old?”

Rabbi Saperstein had the answer. He launched into the story of Piltdown Man, one of the most infamous scientific frauds in history. Someone in the early 20th century claimed to have dug up skull fragments in northern New York State and declared that the long-dead creature was the “missing link,” the fabled connection between apes and humans. It turned out not to be true; the bones had been chemically doctored. “So,” Rabbi Saperstein triumphantly announced, “as you can see, all these so-called ‘fossils’ are fake.”

The troublemaker was having none of it. “But Rabbi, just because Piltdown Man was fake doesn’t mean that all the other fossils are fake.” Poor Rabbi Saperstein didn’t know how to deal with an obnoxious, stubborn kid who wasn’t afraid of him. He ordered me to stop asking questions, which is why, to this day, I am intolerant of religious fanatics who reject science.

A story: In 1996, I went to a wedding in Manhattan, and decided to take the subway up to 161st Street to visit the old neighborhood, which I hadn’t seen in 25 years. I’d forgotten all about the synagogue. I was walking towards 760 when I passed it. Wow, still there, I thought. I opened the creaky front door: the same dimly lit vestibule, the same musty old smell. I peered inside: empty, silent. Then, from someplace out of sight, an old man’s voice in a thick Yiddish accent.

“Who is that?”

I quickly thought to myself, “He heard me enter. The neighborhood is Puerto Rican now. He’s frightened.” I yelled, “It’s okay. I was bar mitzvah here. I came to visit.”

From the darkened stairwell slowly emerged a human being, rising like a submarine from the depths: an old head of white hair beneath a skullcap. Wizened face with glasses. A dark suit. A white tallit draped around his shoulders. The apparition gazed at me. “You were bar mitzvah?”

“Yes!”

“Here?”

“Yes!”

The apparition steps towards me, grabs my elbow with claw-like fingers, and tugs. “Come.” I let him guide me down the stairs.

Below, in a large, brightly-lit room, a crowd of perhaps thirty people, men, women, children. A table laden with Jewish food: rugelach, hamentaschen, challah. The people have gathered for Minchah, the afternoon service, but in order for it to be legal according to Torah law, they need a minyan: a quorum of ten adult men. They had only nine. “We prayed,” said the apparition, the rabbi, “and God sent you.”

* * *

I took my bar mitzvah shortly after my 13th birthday, in late June, 1959. Generations of Jewish boys have had similar bar mitzvahs. First there’s the religious ceremony, with the ritual services and prayers and singing of the Haftorah, for which I practiced for months. Then all the guests go someplace for the party. It wouldn’t be a bar mitzvah without a party! In our case, this was in a rented event space under the old Jerome Avenue “el”, next to Yankee Stadium. There was an ice swan (don’t ask me how an ice swan is part of Jewish tradition), tables laden with lox, bread, cold cuts, chopped liver, tuna salad, roast beef, chocolates, cake. Tons of liquor: Jews love to drink. We had a band. People danced, drank, ate, socialized, drank, danced, ate, gossiped, drank, came over to pinch the cheek of the bar mitzvah boy and hand him an envelope containing a U.S. savings bond. When the inside pocket of my suit jacket (fitted by old man Fox) was stuffed with envelopes I went to the bathroom, sat inside a stall on the toilet, and added up my loot. Then it was time for my speech. The band stopped: I went to the microphone and thanked everyone. My cousin Rita, a former Miss Texas, was married to a very good-looking guy named Richard. Richard was drunk. He grabbed the microphone from me and gave his own speech.

“Stevie.” His words were slurred. “You think all these people are here to celebrate your bar mitzvah? Wrong!” Ears prick up among the Jews. Vas ist das? “They’re here to eat your father’s food and drink his booze!”

Mayhem. My father, Uncle Teddy and Uncle Lennie took Richard down. Teddy, all 6’4” of him, clobbered Richard with a right hook; Richard fell backwards like a chopped tree into the arms of my father and Lennie. The three of them carried him out into the lobby and threw the unconscious body onto a couch. The party went on.


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