Note: This is a slightly longer version of the memoir that was recently published in two parts in The Third City, a blog published by some depraved writers, which has actual readers, which is more than can be said for this pop stand. There are more installments forthcoming. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
It was the summer of 1968. I was back at the folks’ house in Skokie—for the last time—after my first year at Shimer College and working on the assembly line at air conditioning plant. It was a time between times, a time of waiting for that thing that would change—I was sure of it—everything. That “thing” was the Democratic National Convention in August and the massive street protests that we all knew were coming.
One warm evening I took the Skokie Swift and the El down into the City for a party. It was my first Chicago party. People my own age with an apartment of their own in the gritty, mysterious city! Claire was quite beautiful and brilliant. She played cello and read French. We had gone to different Niles Township Highs Schools. We met in LYNT (Liberal Youth of Niles Township) and worked together on a program about the draft—Uptight About the Draft? inscribed on the flyer in San Francisco psychedelic lettering. She pushed the rest of us to be more militant.
Now she had the second floor of a two flat on Bissell Street, not far from the Fullerton El. The building backed up against the tracks. Trains roared by at eye level to the back porch. Ramshackle furniture was scattered around. Posters—Janis Joplin’s peek-a-boo breast and demonstration calls—were tacked to the grimy walls. There was a hole in the wall in the bathroom and the toilet rocked when you sat on it. Beautiful. Bohemian. Dangerous.
The apartment was jammed when I got there. Claire waved at me from across a room, smoking intently and engaged in an animated conversation with a knot of earnest young men. She pointed to a keg in galvanized tub in the kitchen. I think that was as close to communication with me as she got all evening.
I couldn’t blame her. Compared to the sophisticates here, I was sure that I must be something of an embarrassing relic from the past, someone casually invited pro-forma without any expectation that he would actually show up.
My appearance was a combination of naiveté, nerdiness, and an ardent yearning for bohemia. Black Wellington boots. Western cut jeans from Monkey Wards where I still shopped for huskies A frayed white short sleeve dress shirt—my uncle had given me a drawer full of them—past prime salesman crispness, pocket stuffed with pens and an address book stuffed with scrap notes of lofty ideas. A red bandana knotted to the side of the throat. The first bloom of an orange goatee, sideburns down to the jaw line. Hair full behind the ears and just a tad over the collar hoping for Byronic heroism. Thick horn rim glasses fit for a middle aged accountant from Queens. All topped off by a dingy white Open Road Stetson, front brim snapped down, sides curled. A symphony in incongruity.
The crowd skewed slightly older than I—college juniors and seniors, a smattering of graduate students, even a sprinkling of hip young junior professors, the kind who mixed high minded idealism with sleeping with adoring students. Some had dropped out and were now organizing the masses. The men could be recognized by their uniform—blue chambray work shirts, sleeves rolled up just below the elbow, jeans, and engineer boots, sometimes a Greek fisherman’s or newsboy cap. The girls wore peasant blouses or loose t-shirts, full skirts with bare legs or jeans, hair long or loosely tied behind the ears, scrubbed faces defiant of make-up.
This was not a crowd of hippies or flower children. Even amid the flowing alcohol and passed joints there was an air of seriousness, of conspiracy, of danger. Clair’s friends were self described militants, SDS, and Communists. Some of them, I would latter come to recognize as movement heavies. Claire herself, in just a couple of years, would ascend to leadership in a Maoist sect which would briefly hold the official American China franchise, and help litter radical America with vinyl covered Quotations from Chairman Mao, blue People’s Army caps with red stars, and garish red and gold Mao buttons.
That night was the first time I heard the word revolution bandied about as if it were the most natural thing in the world, not something to do with Redcoats and embattled farmers in tri-corn hats, not something that erupted in exotic foreign places like St. Petersburg, but something that we were going to do right here, right now, next week at the latest.
I was telling folks that summer that I was a socialist. But then I would expound on my firm belief that what American needed was a Fabian Movement of intellectuals that could make socialism respectable to the middle classes. Mention of this theory in these circles drew only eye rolling, dismissive snorts and long, jargon filled lectures on abandoning bourgeois sentimentality, casting my lot with the proletariat, and recognizing the central role of the vanguard party in creating a real revolution. Evidently they were less impressed by George Bernard Shaw than by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
When they learned that I actually, if only temporarily, worked in a real factory, something that very few, if any, of them had ever actually done, I was sort of patted on the head with an expectation that I would learn about exploitation. A couple of them asked if I would take red bannered newspapers to work with me and pass them out to my comrades. I didn’t think that anything with a huge hammer and cycle on it was apt appeal to the hillbillies, Poles, Mexicans and Blacks who sweltered with me on the air conditioning assembly line.
Under the circumstances, I soon drew apart. I drank scotch, which I believed was the official beverage of the aspiring young writer, and caught a hit on whatever joints might come my way. And I watched.
I was sitting on a sagging couch, squeezed among strangers acutely into my buzz when a large man with a bushy, bright red beard pulled up a milk crate in front of us and fished a crinkled clipping from his pocket. “Here,” he said thrusting it a girl sitting on an arm of the sofa, “Can any one tell me who this is?”
When it was passed down to me, I saw a clipping on glossy paper, the photo image sharp. Probably from a newsmagazine. In it a portly middle age man in a three piece suit with a receding mop of mildly unruly hair gestured emphatically with one hand and clutching a large mug with the other. The photo was taken from a low angle, looking up at a platform or stage.
We all studied the picture for a moment, trying to focus our un-focused brains. A couple of folks thought it might be Alan Ginsberg. But he had no beard and no one could imagine Ginsberg in a suit. One, sensing an air of menace in the man’s scowling expression, was sure it was a Republican Senator. But in the end, we had to give up.
Red Beard waited a moment. “It’s Norman Mailer! With the famous cup of bourbon the night before the March on the Pentagon!”
Mailer, I was informed, had taken to the stage and launched into a long, incoherent rant. The next day he was busted on the march and spent an un-Thoreau like night in jail. All of this had happened the previous October while I was getting used to being stoned every night at Shimer. It was news to me.
But I did know Mailer. Who didn’t. He was one of a handful of American writers who were more famous than their books at a time when serious writers had some of the same air of celebrity about them as movie stars. In fact these writers seemed to move in the same orbits as movie stars. Hadn’t Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe? And didn’t Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, and George Plimpton breezily pop up on Johnny Carson’s couch? And Mailer was bigger than any of them, the most famous American writer since Hemmingway and just as pugnacious.
So I was impressed that Mailer, drunk or not, had thrown his lot in with war protestors and radicals. I had been vaguely aware that the writer was anti-establishment. His journalism appeared not only in glossy mainstream magazines but in hipster journals. Like a lot of folks my age, I had read Why are We in Vietnam? and was a bit perplexed by the connection of a Texas adolescent’s Alaska hunting trip to the title. I gathered it was an allegory.
But mostly I knew Mailer from my mother’s wide collection of best sellers, mostly in paperback editions. She prided herself on keeping up with good books. And in the days when the best seller lists often were dominated by many of the authors destined for admission to the pantheon great American literature, those old, dog eared Pocket Books and Cardinal Editions provided me with a deeper and better education than I ever received in high school English. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Edna Ferber, Pearl S. Buck (these older writers in cheap book club hard cover editions), Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Robert Penn Warren, Faulkner, James Jones.
My father’s books were another thing entirely. Slender pulp genre shoot ‘em ups, heavy on westerns, hard boiled detectives, and war stories.
But The Naked and the Dead may have been one of the few books both of my folks may have read. It was serious literature and a rip-snorting yarn, even if it did take more than one night to read.
Of course, I read it, too. It was one of the books that changed my impression of war from the brutal glory of the old John Wayne movies I saw on TV, to something more personal and ambivalent. Without The Naked and the Dead, and a handful of other books I might have been swept along by martial enthusiasm for a good ol’ martial crusade in Vietnam. Certainly my earliest impulses had been in that direction. But these dusty old paperbacks readied me to view things differently.
That early Mailer, not the current radical, had primed my pump.