Roosevelt University in the Auditorium Building where the Free University met that summer and where Staughton Lynd had an assignment for me.
Note: This is the second installment in my series of memory posts about the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 and my small role in the street action surrounding it. In this episode, I accept and assignment, reconnoiter unsuccessfully, and take leave of my Summer factory job to go join the Revolution.
The party at Eileen Claire’s was not the only time I got into the city that summer. I was weekly visitor. I had signed up for a class at something called the Free University at Roosevelt College. Every Wednesday I made the long trip via the Skokie Swift and the El to take a class with Staughton Lynd.
Lynd was a pretty big deal in those days in left wing and academic circles—a prolific writer who had lost his job a Yale for his activism and outspoken opposition to the war, leader of delegation to Hanoi, advisor to SDS and pal of Tom Hayden. He had relocated to Chicago to give community organizing a go.
To tell the truth, I remember more about those long train rides, reading Ramparts, Evergreen, The Progressive and other lefty magazines than I do about the classes. That is until the one where Lynd suggested that we try to document the demonstrations planned for the upcoming Democratic National Convention as “participant observers.” That got my attention. One after another student’s volunteered for this or that demonstration, march or program—mostly serious and sober actions by recognized liberal and radical groups or Clean for Gene McCarthy supporters. But no one picked the obvious one.
“Doesn’t anyone want to do the Yippies?” Lynd asked. Immediately my hand shot up. I’m not sure why. I didn’t know much about them except that the press was outraged, City Hall was in a near panic at being invaded by hoards of drug crazed hippies who were probably planning to put LSD in the water supply, and it sounded like fun. Looking back it is possible that my classmates may have known something I didn’t.
A week or so later on a hot night, I made my way to the one place in Chicago where I knew any Yippies could likely be found—the offices of the underground newspaper the Seed then on LaSalle Street just south of North Avenue within blocks of ground zero for the staging area for the Yippies in Lincoln Park.
The door was wide open to a dimly lit, cluttered and chaotic office a few steps below street level. Two dudes with suitably long and unkempt hair were sweating over a table. “Hi!” I said, “I’m looking for Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin.” I was greeted with incredulous stares and deep suspicion.
Let’s review how I looked that summer—the frayed white short sleeve salesman-cast-off shirt, the store brand jeans with the cuffs turned up, the heavy Wellington work boots, the natty red kerchief knotted at the throat, scoungy orange goatee, thick horn rim glasses, topped by a battered white Stetson. I looked like I may have just graduated from the J. Edgar Hoover Academy for Stool Pigeons and Spies.
“They’re not here,” one of the guys said without volunteering any information on their whereabouts or how I could contact them. I could have been staring at both of them that very minute and I wouldn’t have known it.
A brief but cool conversation followed. I was beginning to detect full blown drug induced paranoia from them. But they did give me some handbills and other information about the publicly announced plans for Convention week, all of which relied on free camping at the Park.
Armed with this intelligence, I retreated to Skokie to contemplate my next move.
The Friday before the Convention was my last day at the air conditioner plant in Skokie. Joe, the Iranian foreman knew that I was not due back at college for two weeks and was put out that I was leaving early. I had spent the summer covering for vacationing workers in different parts of the plant. I had rotated through sub-assembly, polishing and buffing, coil making, and the final assembly line. Despite a few mishaps, I had apparently done well enough to be asked to come back to work over my six week semester break.
My co-workers viewed my plans to leave work to participate in what was being advertised in the hysterical press as a planned riot with some amusement. Ralph, the chief inspector, a middle aged man with a grey brush cut and the only Hitler mustache I ever saw on a live human being, had opinions on the limits of free speech. He considered himself the plant intellectual. Because we both read books at lunch time, he had taken a reluctant shine to me, even though I may have been the cause of more air conditioners being rejected than any other worker.
On the whole I got a warm send off from most of the guys. Buckwheat—I’m not making that nickname up folks—the skinny black dude with the pomaded hair, pegged pants and Cab Calloway moustache who ruled the tool room. Mingo the grinning little Mexican dude and gang banger proud as punch of his club sweater who was always asking me to line him up with hippy chicks. Roy the young hillbilly who introduced me to the joys of listening to country hits of WJJD as we sweated in sub-assembly. The assorted Pollacks and D.P.s on the assembly line. They were all so cheerful that I suspected there was a pool on the date and time of my demise.