Confessions of a Square and a Zombie

For much of my life, I have been a square though I am sure that many people, including myself, have been fooled by the company I kept and by the gestures I made. They might have been taken to be those of a hipster, a bohemian, a radical. All I really wanted was for people to like me, for me to like myself, to have a steady job, a comfortable home, a happy marriage, children and grandchildren. Almost every step I took made it impossible for me to have those things and certainly not all of them at once.

When I look at myself now I see someone I never expected to be: a single, retired teacher with a pension from the state, and pharmaceuticals prescribed by a doctor. I never imagined how I have turned out. Not that I’m complaining. Still, I feel oddly detached from the person I once was. When I look back at him I hardly know who he is, or what makes him so. He is a stranger to me.

The period of time that I return to in my head more than any other is the late 1960s and the early 1970s when I rioted in the streets, dropped acid, had multiple sex partners and listened to deafening rock bands, along with thousands of others in my generation who seemed to be possessed, out-of-their-minds, and in another, parallel universe to the one inhabited by the generals in the Pentagon and the president and his cabinet in the White House.

I am embarrassed by many of my antics and my gestures. Most of all, I am embarrassed to say that I tried to save my marriage to a woman who had joined the Weather Underground and who lived in a collective that made bombs and planted them in government buildings. I understand the appeal of violence; I had been violent all through my teen years both in the streets and on the sports fields where I played football and lacrosse and liked to bang into the opposition.

In a crowded hallway a stranger once accidental bumped into me. Without thinking I said, “Do that again and I’ll kill you.” I was in high school and I was already out of control. I brought that experience with me into the 1960s and then the 1970s. The anger came from deep inside; the hurt I didn’t know about for a long time.

I never owned a gun, never thought about assassinating anyone and I didn’t approve of the Weather Underground’s bombings, though I didn’t want them to be arrested and go to jail. I wasn’t going to call the FBI and say where they were hiding. Something about not becoming a snitch.

Three Weather Underground members had accidentally blown themselves up in March 1970 while they were making a bomb; if it happened once it seemed to me that it was possible it might happen again. I didn’t want it to happen to me. I tried to stay away from bombs.

I didn’t help anyone make a bomb, though I once watched a member of the underground make a bomb in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York where he lived with six other comrades. One of them was my wife, Eleanor, whom I had married in 1964 and who had briefly attended Columbia Law School after we both graduated from the University of Manchester in England.

Soon after we returned to New York in 1967, Eleanor joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), went to meetings and conferences, shook her fist in the face of college presidents and spoke with a British accent she had picked up in Manchester. Mimicking the British was beyond me, whether it was the working class or the aristocratic version of English, though I was definitely an Anglophile and more than anything else wanted to go back to England and get away from crazy America.

One day, Eleanor just walked away from our apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, leaving her clothes, her shoes, and her jewelry. I didn’t really expect to see her again. I didn’t know where she was going — except underground — and I hoped that she would come to her senses and return to our apartment, though by then I had lost my own senses. In 1969 I had gone on a rampage in the streets along with one hundred of so demonstrators, all of us armed with rocks, sticks, lead pipes, garbage can lids and the like. I was arrested and jailed. For the 12 hours or so I was beaten by New York City policemen, many of them from the twentieth-precinct where the head of the “Red Squad” picked me out of a crowd and told the cops to beat the shit out of me. I thought I was cool. I thought I was a revolutionary.

By then, I had a girlfriend about ten years younger than I who was a college student and a radical. She took care of me while I recovered from the beating I received. I thought she was beautiful. I thought that I loved her. We laughed a lot and went to meetings and walked the streets of New York, which can be a very romantic thing to do on a fall evening or a spring morning. Then, a few months after my beating I received a message from my mother-in-law saying that my wife wanted to meet me at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village. She wanted me to know that she was alive, that she had helped the survivors of the (accidental) blast escape from the ruins and get to a safe house. She called herself Rita, “lovely Rita, meter maid,” she was living in Brooklyn, where she born and raised. Rita and the other members of her collective were planning to put a bomb in the headquarters of the New York City Police Department.

I felt like a zombie, like I was one of the walking dead, but I did not walk away from my wife and the underground, and when she said “Why don’t I become your mistress” I didn’t think very long before I knew that I liked the idea. I didn’t think at all. I wanted my wife to be my mistress and I wanted to live with my girlfriend as though we were husband and wife, or at least engaged to be married. I know none of this is logical. I know I wasn’t acting rationally, but I felt that I was on a wild ride and that I had to follow it until I fell off or until it kicked me off.

A kind of sex addict who was also addicted to continual excitement, I liked living a double life. I liked the apartment I kept with my girlfriend and my job as a college teacher. And I liked visiting my wife/mistress in Brooklyn, and meeting the four or five people who called themselves “the Central Committee” of the Weather Underground. What seemed really odd to me at the time was their ability to make bombs, plant bombs, write “communiqués” — and send them to newspapers that often published them — all the while that they lived like ordinary New Yorkers who shopped, cooked, cleaned and went to the movies.

I lived my double life for about three years. Then my life caught up with me. The girlfriend left me and so did my wife. But perhaps I left them. Yes, that’s more like it. I also lost my academic job. In fact I had made sure that I would lose it by trying to sabotage the college where I taught, by any means necessary, except violence. I was the perpetrator who thought he was the victim.

Not long after I lost my job, I left New York with a young redhead who owned a car and a dog. I drove with her to San Francisco and then hitchhiked to Sonoma County where my parents, who were then in their 60s, were farming, and growing and smoking marijuana. It took me about a year to decompress. I did a lot of sitting and staring at the tops of the redwood trees that lined the creek. I learned that redwoods can be very healing. I went to work in apple orchards and on chicken farms, for men in their 70s who had settled in Sonoma in their 40s. I gathered all kinds of father figures around me and I worked side-by-side with my own father in his orchard.

I went to the campus and met the students who were experimenting with sex and drugs and revolution and it seemed like déjà vu. I had been there and I had done that. It was a comfortable place to be and very uncomfortable, too. I packed a suitcase and went on the road. I went all the way to Chiapas at the southern end of Mexico, and then after a while I got homesick for America: American music, American food and the American language, though I knew that Mexico was just as much American as the USA. I went home. At 32, I moved into my parents house and felt like a kid again, only a kid in an adult body who had lived through something I learned to call the “cultural revolution,” and who had survived it. Recently, I stopped communicating with my ex-wife. The separation was long overdue. I see my much beloved ex-girl friend a few times a year. I like her husband, and their children and grandchildren. In the summer we hike and swim and watch movies and barbecue and eat together. It’s a bit like a commune. Only it’s not like a commune at all.

(Jonah Raskin is the author of Out of the WhaleMy Search for B. Traven and Marijuanaland.)

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