Monday, May 31, 2021

The Seed and I a Murfin Memoir —Exit and After

A Seed cover designed by Peter Solt.

As I noted, there was rising tension between me and key Seed staff members over rhetoric like spelling Amerikkka that I felt was alienating to working class readers.  I was suspected of being if not sufficiently revolutionary then insufficiently insurrectionist.  I doubted that we could win a new society from the barrel of a wildly out-matched gun.  I was seen as a Wobbly romantic out of touch with the new movement. Maybe I was.  And I maybe I was not loyal in the brouhaha between the Seed and Alice’s Revisited downstairs.  

So it was sort of a gesture of reconciliation when the collective finally agreed on an idea for a fiction supplement that I had been pitching for some time.

At a Wobbly picnic in Oz Park during my Seed staff tenure.

I had recently left Colombia College where I had studied creative writing and the Story Workshop method with John Schultz and Betty Schiflett.  In addition to mentoring aspiring writers, Schultz had also published one of the best books on the 1968 Democratic Convention turmoil, No One Was Killed and a follow-up on the Trial of the Chicago 8/7.  I was enamored by the short story form and in my fantasies could imagine turning up in the New Yorker or turning out collections as rich as J. D. Salinger.  Of course I was deluded, but happily so.

Even after dropping out of Columbia, I still met regulars, teachers and students alike, from the Story Workshop classes for drinks in an almost always deserted and dark saloon called the Red Barron just down the street from the Oxford Pub.  My pal Larry Heinemann who would go on to win a National Book Award for his great Vietnam War novel Paco’s Story was one of the regulars at those alcohol fueled bull sessions.

Larry Heinemann and I began Story Workshop at Columbia college together.  He went on to win the National Book Award for his Vietnam novel Paco's Story.  Me?  no such luck.

For the Seed supplement I envisioned a collection of short-short stories, just a few hundred words each, submitted by readers.  I rather hoped that some of the Columbia writers would offer pieces, but they did not.  I suspect they were holding their stuff for more prestigious outlets that might actually pay.  I, of course, had a couple of pieces of my own ready to go.

It was no small gesture from the staff.  A four page insert supplement to the 36 page paper would be expensive and there was no reason to believe that a sudden literary foray would appeal to our readers who by in large found their cultural interests filled quite nicely by music and filmFeedback from street sellers when they heard about the plans was not enthusiastic.

We solicited submissions for a couple of issues.  The response was underwhelming.  But I selected enough stories to fill the section with room for graphics.  When I brought them to a regular staff meeting, I was stunned by the response.

Some of the pieces were attacked as racist or sexist or simply irrelevant to “the struggle.”  Some staff members viewed art as necessarily didactic and had little or no consideration for individual free expression that was not in service to the cause.  At least one or two stories were rejected outright.

My own two pieces also came under critical scrutiny.  One piece was about a stoned out hippie on a late night deserted L platform who was stabbed by a Black street kid.  I thought the story was about the delusions some counter-cultural folks had for the deep racial resentments and divisions in society—we were not immune.  Others felt it promoted racist stereotypes.

The second story The Dear Old Yellow Porsche described a heroin overdose and/or suicide at the Lakefront of comfortable young couple

                                    The Seed Fiction supplement cover, my swan song.

After much wrangling it was finally decided to go ahead and publish the supplement if only because we had been promoting it for weeks.  But a disclaimer disassociating the staff collective from the contents and denouncing some of the content had to be run.

The supplement came out.  The vendors were right.  It did not sell like hot cakes.  My attempt at becoming a literary figure on the Chicago scene failed.

I was disillusioned.  My resignation from the staff was taken without much regret.  Everyone moved on.

The Seed remained under pressure from ad revenue loss, completion from the Reader, and dwindling street sellers.  Within a couple of years they could not afford the rent on the Wrightwood offices which made it even more difficult to get copies in the hands of vendors.  Dick O’Brien a/k/a Dick Yippie did what he could to keep the paper afloat sporadically bringing out copies he laid out on his kitchen table.  It faded away in a city that had moved on.

I went to work on third shift at a Schwinn Bicycle plant hoping to help organize it as part of a Chicago IWW branch Metal and Machinery Workers organizing drive.  Nothing came of that before I was finally sentenced to prison for Draft Resistance in 1973.  When I got out I went to work a Dietzgen Corp, an old engineering equipment and supply company with buildings at Fullerton and Sheffield, I continued to be active in the IWW and worked on the Industrial Worker eventually becoming editor.

The opening of the new IWW hall on Webster in 1973,

The IWW lost the Lincoln Avenue Hall and moved to storefront digs on Webster near Armitage which could no longer host the big community events and benefits.  After that the union moved to even more cramped space in a second floor office in Links Hall north on Sheffield.

I ended up disgraced, drunk, and frequently homeless in the late ‘70’s before I reconnected with a former Seed seller Kathy Brady-Larsen who was a widow with young daughters.  I moved into her Logan Square neighborhood flat and we got married.  After our daughter Maureen was born we moved to the boonies of McHenry County in 1983. 

But all of that are stories for another time.

New Murfin Verse for Memorial Day—Stack Arms

Note—I have been too engaged wrapping up my Chicago Seed memoir series to even re-edit and recycle any of my Memorial Day posts.  There will always be next year to review the history and ponder the sacrifices.  But after I posted the vintage Memorial Day card above as my Facebook cover for the weekend I was struck by brief inspiration.

Stack Arms

Memorial Day 2021


Once wars ended with neat stacked arms—

            muskets with gleaming bayonets

            leaning in tidy cones like

            old-time sheaves of wheat

            for weaponless soldiers to pass by

            on their way to other lives.


Officers’ swords were surrendered,

            broken over a knee,

            taken as souvenirs

            or gallantly returned

            on condition that they

            never draw blood again.


But how, oh how, can we stack—     

            cruise missiles, smart bombs, drones,

            land mines, gasses, biological agents,

            not to mention all of the

            great fleets, bombers, fighters,

            choppers, tanks,

            and those barely acknowledged nukes.


Do we fail to stack them aside

            simply because it would be untidy?


—Patrick Murfin


Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Seed and I a Murfin Memoir —Seedling Life

The Seed never tired of sticking it to Mayor Daley as in this 1970 Thanksgiving cover.

Although 1972 was an election year the Seed payed relatively little heed to electoral politics.  Staff collective members of flower power, Yippie, Marxist, anarchist, or Women’s Liberationist bent all disdained electoral politics as means of revolutionary change.  The still ongoing War in Vietnam had been prosecuted by Democrats and Republicans alike and the anti-war faction of Democrats did not seem strong enough to change that.  Persecution and repression of the left, especially of the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement continued.  On the local level, we were united by our hatred for Mayor Richard Daley, his Democratic Machine, and the Chicago Police.

Back in 1971 as a member of the Industrial Worker staff I had helped create a four-page special insert denouncing Nixon’s wage freeze and Win (Whip Inflation Now) program as an assault on working people in general and the labor movement in particular.  The Seed also used the supplement.  It was made easier because the two papers shared a printer, Fred Eychaner’s Newsweb.  Later we shared another insert featuring the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW).

The Seed did take notice of protests and the national party conventions in 1972,  We paid particular attention to the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) actions led by Ron Kovic because of our close cooperation with the local chapter.

The Seed did take note of the protests at both partiesNational Conventions which were both held at the Miami Beach Convention Center under ultra-tight security—the Democrats in July and the Republicans in August mostly from Liberation News Service coverage.  George McGovern’s rocky launch including his vice presidential fiasco was mocked and Tricky Dick was always a ripe target.  The break-in at the DNC Watergate headquarters was noted as more evidence of Nixonian skullduggery and pervasive spying but was not taken as a big deal until much later.  We did not much cover the post-convention campaigns then took shuddering note of the implications of Nixon’s historic Electoral College landslide.

Daley was always a target but without serious opposition beyond Bill Singers goo-goo Lake Front liberals who were often our enemies on urban renewal and gentrification issues our coverage was concentrated trials and investigations.

Despite this, I took a personal interest in the details of Democratic politics as a spectator sport.  In March or so during the primaries and before I joined the staff, I spent a long night toking and drinking with my old high school buddy  and Seedling Mike Gold spinning out scenarios about who might emerge as the nominee at the convention.  After eliminating other contenders for their flaws and gaps in support from key players I concluded long-shot Senator McGovern would get a useless nod by a process of exhaustive elimination.  If I had penned those thoughts in some more acceptable publication, I might have earned a reputation as a pundit.  But I did not and they remained in that smoky room.

That November I could not resist the lure of the polls drilled into me since my Cheyenne childhood and voted for the hapless McGovern.  But I kept damn quiet about it among both my IWW Fellow Workers and the Seed staff.

An issue of Rising Up Angry, a Seed contemporary with a different cultural and tribal focus.

The Seed was both an ally and sometimes rival of Rising Up Angry (RUA), the monthly newspaper founded by Michael James as the organ of the organization of the same name back in 1969.  James was already a veteran of the Southern Civil Rights Movement and the community organizing faction of SDS.  I first met him while lending IWW Chicago Branch support to Uptown housing protests of the JOIN (Jobs Or Income Now) Community Union out of which Angry emerged.  The organization and the paper was aimed at the alienated working class youth, primarily Appalachian White, who were sometime described as Hillbilly greasers as part of Black Panther Fred Hampton’s original Rainbow Coalition.  They were trying with mixed success to extend that base to White ethnic youth in neighborhoods who had often attacked Martin Luther King’s open housing marches, UFW Grape and Lettuce boycott pickets, and long-haired hippies.

The Seed lent RUA its light table and production facilities in its early years and then shared Newsweb’s printing. Our paper supported many of their initiatives including the Fritzy Englestein Free Clinic that was the subject of one of my first stories.  Seed vendors often also carried Angry.  But there was still some cultural tension between some staffers and street tough members of RUA.

The paper ran through 1975.  Mike James went on to co-found and lead the Heartland Café in Roger’s Park, a vegetarian restaurant, gallery, event venue, hang-out, and community center that was in institution until it closed in 2018.  He and Katy Hogan broadcasted Live from the Heartland radio talk show every Saturday from the restaurant.  That show continues even after the Café was razed.  James also became a progressive Democratic activist and eventually 49th Ward Committeeman.  He was a strong backer of Lori Lightfoot in the last mayoral election.  A man of many interests he assemble photographs spanning decades in his Pictures from the Long Haul, No.’s 1 & 2 and frequently sells prints on weekends from his front porch Prairie Dancer Front Porch Gallery.   Mike joined former Seed staffers at our 2017 50th Anniversary Reunion.

Alice's Revisited was downstairs from the Seed office.  We mingled easily with their staff collective.  Note the coming attractions advertised with hand made posters in the window.

The Seed and our downstairs neighbor Alice’s Revisited had a shared, almost symbiotic relationship.  Both were collectively managed and recognized as IWW co-op job shops.  Alice’s was naturally a Seed hang-out and the staffs of both mingled socially and sometimes shared digs.  Some Seedlings picked up hours at the restaurant.  It was old-school hippie cool with a laid-back atmosphere and a vegie menu.  In the evenings it doubled as a music venue not only featuring local rock groups like Wilderness Road and the Rawl Hardman Group, but legendary bluesmen Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf.  Both of those while still stars in Europe had been bypassed by changing tastes in Black Music and had to work day jobs between gigs at dwindling South Side blues bars.  They played to packed houses at Alice’s which helped bring them to new white audiences.  The brightly lit, non-alcoholic venue and it long-haired audiences must have seemed strange to them at first.

Alice’s also featured movie nights screening films from 16mm prints.  I saw classic silents like Buster Keaton’s The General, political documentaries, French New Wave films, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Rolling Stone flic Sympathy for the Devil.  All sorts of smaller community events and benefits were held there, balancing the larger facilities at the IWW Hall on Lincoln.

But something strange happened.  Some one or some folks from Alice’s did something that some Seed staffers considered uncomradely or counter-revolutionary.  I have no memory of the alleged offence and I bet that after all this time no one else does either, but it blew up into a crisis seemingly overnight.  The issue was aired in the paper and some Seed staffer organized a noisy and rowdy protest of 50 or more outside the restaurant trying to shut it down.

I was still convening weekly community meetings at the Wobbly Hall on Wednesday nights and the issue was taken there for communal adjudication.  I don’t recall the results, but the protest and boycott were called off.  But things were never quite the same afterward. 

Advertising sales at the Seed were dwindling.  Record labels and tour promoters were abandoning local underground papers for the national Rolling Stone which was reaching pretty much the same audience.  Local music venues and promoters as well a local business were shifting their ad dollars to the Reader with its much larger free distribution.  At one point a small Rid Lice Killing Shampoo was the only national ad left in the paper.  To keep the ship afloat benefits were organized at the Wobbly Hall which often hosted similar events for the likes of the UFW Boycotts, VVAW, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union and other groups.  One Seed benefit was headlined by Wilderness Road, a movement band led by former Yippie Warren Lemming that was looking to break out nationally.

Wilderness Road, a politically progressive rock band led by Warren Lemming was a fixture on the scene.

Wilderness Road also had their first album launch concert at the Hall attracting the attention of the mainstream media as well.   Thanks to Mitch Lieber I got my first and only name drop in John and Abra Anderson’s Chicago Sun-Times gossip column as one of the “celebrity” attendees. 

Back at the Seed I found myself somewhat isolated when I began to complain about certain rhetoric, especially spelling America as Amerikkka which I thought made it almost impossible to reach out to working class readers.  Perhaps unconsciously some staffers had fallen into the habit of stereotyping white working class men as Joe from the 1970 Peter Boyle film in which a working class dad goes on a rage-filled hippie killing rampage or as ignorant, racist Archie Bunker types.  If such folks were the enemy, why should anyone bother to reach them?  The revolutionary rhetoric, much of it borrowed from the Black Panthers had so much more appeal.

But my Wobbly heart told me that no revolution could succeed without all of the working class.  I got little or no support for this position and the language continued to be routinely used.

Next—A Final Exit and After.


Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Seed and I a Murfin Memoir —On the Staff Day by Day

The Seed didn't let up on its antiwar and antiauthoritarian politics.

After that first Seed staff meeting, I plunged right in.  For the first of my Labor Pains columns, I decided to head down to the U.S. Steel South Works on Lake Michigan and the mouth of the Little Calumet River.  Even then the once robust industry was under pressure from steel imported from more modern plants built after World War II in Japan and elsewhere.  The massive aging mill was already becoming a symbol of what would be called the Rust Belt.  Dissident United Steel Workers (USW) were organizing to challenge both the company and the union leadership which was making concessions on wages, benefits, and even safety to “save jobs.”

I had to reserve tickets for a tour. It was a long ride south on the CTA to downtown and then on South Shore Electric Line.  I made the tour with a large group that included some high school teachers and not a few Japanese tourists as well as grandparents showing their grandchildren where they had worked.  I tried to record what I saw on a simple Kodak Instamatic pocket camera and took cramped notes in a shirt pocket notebook. In my cowboy hat, long hair, and hippie beads I attracted some attention—and suspicion.  Naturally the great blast furnaces and rolling mills were awesomely impressive—and more than a little frightening.  The resulting feature was different than anything else than the Seed had ever run.  Some staffers predicted no one would read it. 

I began my tour of the U.S. Steel South Works crossing that bridge just as thousands of workers did for decades,

The second piece, a trip to the Fritzy Englestein Free Clinic in Lake View required a much briefer expedition.  Inspired by the Black Panther clinics on the South and West Sides, it was founded by folks from Rising Up Angry the Uptown group for poor white youth as part of Fred Hampton’s original Rainbow coalition.  They were treating both the local hardscrabble poor and street people who had no money or health care.  They operated with a handful of dedicated volunteer doctors and nurses on a shoe-string budget.   Our readers needed service, especially for sexually transmitted diseases, drug overdoses and side effects as well as not infrequent injuries from street assaults

Those set the pattern for my contributions—a Labor Pains column and a major feature each issue plus occasional shorts and reviews.  That made Wobbly Murf one of the leading contributors, at least in column inches.

Also I learned the real terms of my status as a member of the staff collective.  For every issue we were paid I believe $50 dolled straight out of the office cash box from sales revenue. There was no tax or Social Security withholding and no benefits of any kind.  It was certainly not based on hours or really a salary, it was more of stipend.  We also were given 100 copies to sell on the street, which if we sold completely would earn us a cool $35 and could buy more for the standard vendor price. 

You could live cheap in those days, especially if you doubled or tripled up in a rundown apartment, lived in a commune, or couch surfed and hit the crash pads.  But no matter how you sliced it, it was not enough to live on.  Staffers supplemented in various ways—some did advertising work, others did some freelance writing.  Some sold dope.  Others had a variety of what we now call side hustles.  Some got benefits like food stamps, General Assistance, or Unemployment.  A few may even have still gotten an allowance or rent paid by parents. 

I was never clear on what the business arrangements for the Seed were or even who the official owners were.  Clearly somebody did, but I was clueless.  As far as the IWW was concerned it was a worker-owned co-op but that may not have been legally the case at all.

Besides working on the Seed I was still extremely busy, if unpaid, at the IWW Hall up Lincoln where I was still Chicago Branch Secretary and a leading member with Carlos Cortez and Fred Thompson of the Industrial Worker collective.  And I continued to help around the General Administration as needed.  I spent three to four hours a day there—up to twelve during IW lay-out and paste-up and for mailings.

Tribune Tower, right, where I sold the Seed and the  Wrigley Building across Michigan Ave.

I generally only got out selling my copies one time, the first day the Seed hit the streets.  My chosen spot was right in front of Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue.  Believe it or not, big city dailies then had big newsrooms filed with reporters, editors, photographers and such.  If I timed it right I would be right there when they came rolling out the big revolving doors at shift end.  The younger reporters who often sported safari jackets in the warm weather and trench coats like Joel McCrea in Foreign Correspondent and who had modishly long hair over their ears and trim moustaches snapped up copies as did young women in neat, appropriate business wear and heels, and the rumpled old time reporters in cheap off-the-rack suits, stained ties, and balding heads.  On a good day I could sell thirty copies, sometimes even 50 with a great cover in a couple of hours.

Then I would take my earnings and go down to the Billy Goat Tavern on Lower Wacker under the Wriggly Building for a cheeseburger, beer on tap and maybe  a shot or two of bourbon. In the late afternoon/early evening most of those crowding the bar were ink stained pressmen.  But sometime Mike Royko took his favored stool at the end of the bar and held court before moving on to other saloons.  I tried to soak up the old-time newspaper aura of the place.

Of course I was broke most of the time, but eked by.  Down at Johnny Weise’s tavern friends would often stand me to drinks all evening.  I hit the Other Cheek Commune’s free feed once a week and IWW Fellow Workers invited me for dinner.  I could get five hamburgers in a bag from the Salt and Pepper Grill to wash down with those four Blatz quarts for a dollar of from Consumer’s tap.  Jeff and Betty who ran a small café at the corner of Wrightwood and Sheffield took a shine for some reason to scruffy Seedlings and sometimes served up a plate of free ravioli.  I didn’t own a car and got most places on foot or on the CTA.  Somehow I eked an existence, although it was the only time in my life when I was truly skinny.

The staff shared several other duties.  One of them was staffing the front desk.  That could be hectic when a new issue was coming out and you had to handle sales to street vendors.  You counted out copies and collected cash, most of it in singles and change to put in the cash box.  Toward the end of issue’s time, there was a lighter rush buying returns.  In between those at the desk reviewed Liberation News Service packets and underground press exchanges for possible items and worked on their own stories or copy edited others.

We also handled phone calls.  We were warned that the phone was surely tapped by the Chicago Red Squad, FBI, or both and to be careful what we said.  We would field random calls, many from suburban kids looking for Chicago action. There were always calls about dope and where to get it which had to be handled gingerly.  There were advertising inquiries—very important to get those to the right people.  But there were also prank calls and fairly frequently harassment and threats.  Of course there were always calls for staff members, many of who had no home phones to be transferred if they were in the office or carefully noted.

Mike Royko holding court at the Billy Goat with owner Sam Sianis behind the bar.

My most memorable call was from Mike Royko from his desk at the Chicago Daily News.  He identified himself right away and I was thrilled, I thought maybe I could remind him that we had met however briefly at the Billy Goat and at the writers’ hang-out O’Rourke’s Pub on North Avenue.  But before I could get a word in edgewise he was screaming at me.  The object of his wrath was a short piece we ran about George Washington growing hemp at Mt. Vernon.  He was sure that it was a slur.  When I tried to explain that we had picked up the story form LNS, much like his paper would run something from the Associated Press he just yelled louder. Nor would he hear that there were plenty of historical records to affirm that he grew the crop mostly for his own rope production.  The rant went on for a good ten minutes before he slammed the phone down.

We all pitched in for lay-out and paste up.  If we had featured article, we generally did our own pages.  We would have to be aware what colors were being used.  My skills were more limited than others and my pages tended to be laid out in blocks with fancy stuff at a minimum.  I used clip-art, photos, and once in a while some original art from the staff alternating with blocks of texts.  Sometime light screens were used behind the text but I made sure that the type face was dark enough and easily readable.  Sometime on other pages the text was almost unreadable.  As a word guy, I was determined it would not happen to me.  Headlines were created with Press Type like they were for the Industrial Worker.  But my hands were not steady and sometimes they letters were not perfectly aligned or the whole head was pasted at an off angle.

We pasted our text with rubber spray cement.  Most pages had two unjustified columns, but nothing was ever standard on the Seed and there were all sorts of other arrangements.   Evening things out often required snipping a line or two and relocating them.  I often got those crooked too.  Needless to say, I was not used on our signature high graphic pages.  But did help out with some of the more mundane inner pages.  Lay out often lasted all night, the space around the light table shrouded in cigarette and other smoke, beverage cans and bottles or coffee cups perched here and there with some inevitable spills.  Type would have to be reset and sometimes irreplaceable graphics were lost.  Every lay-out session had its high drama and turn-on-a-dime improvisation.  Once in a while we even had some sort of breaking news which required us to reset a whole page.

After the paper was finally put to bed, the flats and color separations had to be taken to the printer. The Seed lost one or more early printers due to pressure from the authorities.  Now we were taking it across the border to Wisconsin to Newsweb, a small press operated by young Fred Eychaner who was printing small town weeklies, and school papers on an antiquated web press.  But he had taken on both the Seed and the Industrial Worker and other left publications including Rising Up Angry.

On each issue one or two of us would accompany our graphic designer Peter Solt on the trip to the shop.  We usually found Eychaner, long-haired and bearded smeared with ink and crawling over and around his noisy press moistening plates and attending ink fountains.  He and Peter would go over the requirements for the new issue in detail.  They were not simple.   The 36 page paper was divided into four sections printed on both sides.  The eight resulting pages had to share the same colors.  Peter often preferred split colors and fades.  Fred became a master at managing the ink fountains.  The press had to be completely cleaned before the next sections with their own color mixes could be run.  It was a laborious process and the press run, folding, slitting, and bailing took all day.  Peter would help out where he could and sometime those of us less skilled helped muscle web rolls into place.  When it was all done we loaded the old van we came in and paid Fred with a check signed by somebody.

The reclusive Fred Eychaner, hippie printer turned media mogul, LBGTQ icon and Democratic Party deep pocket.

For Eychaner it was the unlikely beginning of what would become a billion dollar media empire.  He was one of the first to realize that computers would revolutionize both newspapers and the printing business.  Soon desk-top publishing linked to smart presses would completely replace the laborious hands-on methods we used at the Seed while greatly reducing costs.  His printing business rapidly expanded as he bought up small companies.  With his printing empire well established in the early ‘80s he branched out founding Chicago TV station WPWR-TV Channel 50 and an early sports channel with Bulls and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.  He eventually sold both for millions of dollars.  He also bought and sold radio stations and founded WCPT AM in 2005 as a liberal talk radio alternative.

But now the reclusive Eychaner is best known for his charity especially to support the LGBTQ community and to fight HIV/AIDES and for the preservation of historic buildings.  He is also a Democratic Party mega-donor mover and shaker in Chicago, Illinois, and nationally.  He was a major donor and fundraiser for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

Tomorrow—Incidents in the life of a Seedling.