Faded Brown Roses

 

I grew up in Berkeley, California, at a time when the city was the epicenter of the movement to change the world, or at least Western Civilization, or at least the apathetic culture of the United States, or at least the conservative Berkeley City Council. The Berkeley of my youth was the domain of beatniks and poets and coffee-drinking students who argued about politics and Existentialism late into the night. We were not what we seemed; we were the shock troops of the revolution; we would march into battle with our poems on our lips and revolution in our hearts; we were the future and we knew what we were and would be. We sat upstairs at the Mediterraneum and smoked long French cigarettes and drank Italian sodas and when we used the john, we left existential graffiti in the stalls. We wore a lot of black.

Spending my high school years soaked in smoke and Sartre and coffee made me far too serious and gave me a bone-deep belief in the importance of logic and poetry, a combination that sounded sensible at the time. With all of this in my budding intellectual arsenal, in the mid-60s I enrolled as a Philosophy major at what was then called San Francisco State College.

S.F. State in the 60s was a fascinating and exciting and  dangerous place to be. A number of Humanities professors had turned down offers to teach at Harvard or Yale, persuaded to stay by the school’s emphasis on creativity and the city’s relaxed atmosphere: this was, after all, San Francisco in the 60s and all things were possible. The school administration insisted on a certain amount of line-toeing, increasingly so as 1966 rolled along and the atmosphere on campus became thick with anti-war protests, demands for a department of Black Studies, and the general hell-raising that idealistic kids are prone to.

But this was San Francisco, the city at the cutting edge of everything, the city of fog and change. And so the administration allowed student fees to fund a student-run, on-campus “underground” newspaper called Open Process. Starting in my sophomore year, I was its poetry editor.

We knew that we published at the whim of the administration and we knew the limits they imposed. We wouldn’t have agreed at the time, but limits are good, they give you something to push against. They certainly gave the contributors to Open Process something to push against, and prominent among the pushers was Jefferson Fuck Poland. Jeff was the bane of this poetry editor’s existence.

At a time when the student body was divided between Hippies, Serious Revolutionaries, and those just looking for a college education, Jeff comprised a fourth group all by himself: Jeff was an evangelical fornicator. He said that he was the founder of the Sexual Freedom League, and that his middle name had been legally changed to “Fuck.” This last was doubtful, at least the “legally” part, but the first was true. Jeff was a tubby little guy, with an earnest round face and the kind of expression you find on puppy dogs hoping for a bone, and that year he was hiding out from squabbles within the SFL on the UC Berkeley campus. He propositioned every woman and most of the men at Open Process, pretty much everybody in the English Department, and anyone he met on the streetcar. If you proposition, say, five people a day, every day, then your odds are good of getting laid at least once a month and I think Jeff did. Sex was the center of his life and of his poetry, much of which sounded like crippled translations from the Kama Sutra or The Perfumed Garden, except they were more personal, less flowery, and not as well spelled. Most of the poems had to do with Jeff’s, um, interest in himself, which didn’t speak well for his efforts to find someone else interested in him.

He kept bringing this stuff into the Open Process office and I kept rejecting it, because even with the best will in the world I couldn’t find any socially redeeming message in it. Besides, we were Serious about Politics and Society and the Counterculture and we were going to Change the World. Jeff was only serious about sex.

And so the fall semester of 1967 progressed, with the traditional turning of the seasons, mid-terms, vile food at the Student Union, and student protests which, a couple of times, led the college president (known as Herr Uberfuhrer Doktor Hayakawa) to close down the campus and bring in the Riot Squad. By the time the holidays arrived most of us were pretty worn out and looking forward to a break in the festivities. The campus closed for winter break and I went out of town, having already set up the January poetry page – it just needed to be delivered to the printer, along with the rest of the issue. This would happen during the holiday break.

Jeff, who wasn’t going out of town, had other plans. We never found out how Jeff managed to switch his poetry page for my own and, in the long run, it didn’t much matter. The January Open Process was waiting for us when we walked back into the newspaper office after the break. It featured, top center of the poetry page, a fish-eye photo of Jeff in the altogether, legs spread, seated on a big peacock-style wicker chair and looking like a plump, pink puppy with a wig in its lap. Surrounding this photo and taking up the rest of the page was an unrhythmic, stumbling tirade broken up to look like poetry and detailing a number of sexual acts, some self-inflicted and most anatomically challenging. It was awful and stupid and definitely not calculated to raise anybody’s social consciousness.

The printer always delivered a few copies of each issue to the administration along with the delivery to the OP office, so we all saw it at the same time. Within an hour, the campus cops had shut down the newspaper office and confiscated as many copies of the issue as they could, and our right to publish was suspended. This was a violation of our First Amendment right of free speech and a ploy by the rightist dogs to suppress the people, so up went the picket signs, out came the bullhorns, the mimeographs spilled out posters, and we celebrated the start of the New Year by closing down the campus. Jeff could not have been happier if he had actually gotten laid.

As staunch defenders of the counterculture, we vowed to continue publishing during the strike, bringing Truth to the world in general and the student body in particular. In order to do so we needed a place to meet and Jeff came to our rescue. He said he felt responsible for OP’s suppression and the least he could do was offer up his apartment as a kind of office pro tem. With refreshments. Free. We took him up on it. Everybody deserves a chance at redemption; besides, we had no alternative.

Jeff lived in the attic of a four-story converted Victorian on the border between the Haight-Ashbury and the Western Addition, an area populated by the oppressed and down-trodden who, much as we championed their cause, we were not all that eager to meet while alone. We traveled in a bunch to Jeff’s place, got buzzed in, and climbed the four dismal flights of stairs to his apartment. We knocked. Jeff, naked, opened the door and welcomed us to his home, invited us to come in, make ourselves comfortable, and take our clothes off. We did the first, attempted the second, and ignored the third.

We were opposed to petty bourgeoisie standards of living, so we didn’t mind that the living room furniture consisted of a bunch of stained mattresses, or that Jeff put the refreshments (a plate of stale crackers and cracked cheese) on the grimy floor, or even that he passed around a bottle of red wine but no glasses. We were, however, very curious about the wallpaper. At one time it might have been big, blowsy roses on a trellis, but over the years the roses had faded in mysterious ways and some had turned a splotchy kind of brown. Still, who were we to criticize? So we talked about content and layout, and whether we had a mole in the Academic Senate, and who was going to wear the football helmet and cover the riot itself, and in the middle of this a big, fat, brown cockroach made a dash from under one of the mattresses and scampered up a wall. Without missing a beat, Jeff grabbed a bedroom slipper and squashed the roach flat. And left it there. To join its defunct fellows. Which weren’t strangely faded roses, after all.

Have I said that, for all our radical politics and heated rhetoric, we were all good middle-class kids at heart? About four minutes after Jeff squashed the roach, the meeting broke up and nothing Jeff said or did could get us back into his apartment again.

Jeff’s attention wandered off to other things, as did my own, and I lost track of him for a year or so. I volunteered at a listener-supported radio station in Berkeley; some time after the Jeff-induced strike, we learned that the station’s Public Affairs director had said something disparaging about the Sexual Freedom League, Jeff’s organization, and that the SFL intended to stage a demonstration in the station’s lobby. This news so animated the guy who did our Victorian Book Review program that, before the demonstrators even showed up, he grabbed a mike and recorded an impromptu report: “This is David A. speaking to you live from the studios of KPFA in Berkeley, where the Sexual Freedom League has vowed to stage a demonstration to protest what they claim is Elsa Knight Thompson’s demeaning typification of their league as a ‘two-bit distraction from the world of realpolitik.’ They have now entered the lobby. I believe there are three, no five, no eight of them milling about and shouting slogans, and now they are, oh my goodness, they are, heavens, yes, they are disrobing. Indeed, the members of the Sexual Freedom League have discarded their clothing and are now beginning to demonstrate — to demonstrate — my word. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. He did. So did she. Oh, dear. Well. One didn’t know that that particular act could be accomplished while standing, now, did one?”

As it turned out, the SFL showed up, kept their clothes on, and shuffled in a circle in our small lobby, their picket signs poking at the ceiling tiles and their elbows in each other’s sides. Jeff was not among them. It was all very anticlimactic and disappointing.

Jeff dropped off my radar in the decades that followed. I recently Googled his name and found a most enlightening Wikipedia article detailing some of his exploits, although not those from S.F. State, and news about his life after that. Apparently he has spent his life following his penis from one misadventure to the other, skirting closer and closer to the line between personal expression and the unforgivable, until he fell over it. I can’t say that I was surprised. Where does an evangelical fornicator draw the line?

In the years following those heady Open Process days, poetry trumped logic and I took on the world’s most useless major, English Lit. Some of the OP people became journalists but the majority became doctors or lawyers or teachers or slaves in middle-management; some of us stayed radical but a disappointing majority set aside such youthful things and just tried to make a living. Life happens. I suspect that we all changed beyond the point where our younger, idealistic selves would recognize us – except for Jeff, who apparently clung to evangelical fornication through thick and thin.

The last time I went through stuff in the garage, I found a few copies of Open Process in a box. The infamous Jefferson Fuck issue wasn’t among them, which is probably all to the good. These things are better revisited in memory anyway, where the boring details get edited out and all that remains are bright 3-D images of the people that we hoped we were.

 

Author: Marta Randall

I was born in 1948 in Mexico DF, Mexico, but have lived in the United States since infancy. I have taught in several sf writing workshops and served in Science Fiction Writers of America as vice-president 1981-1982 and president 1982-1984. My first story was published in New Worlds 5 (1973).

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