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.


Christmas at Aunt Ruth’s

When Uncle Corky finally married, the adults in the family agreed, apparently without exception, that Ruth would calm down his wild ways and that this was a very good thing. We kids weren’t so sure.

Corky was the one who showed up, one dead-broke Christmas, with a 12 foot Christmas tree draped across his motorcycle, like some modern knight errant with a very fuzzy lance. Corky was the one who got too (ahem) happy while he helped us decorate the tree, waited until the last minute to put the angel on the top, then lost his balance and fell into the tree. Corky was the one who brought gallons of ice-cream the night he babysat us, and we all sat up late eating ice-cream and begging for rides on his bike. Corky wouldn’t do it, because our mother had put the fear of God into him, but it didn’t really matter. We adored him anyway.

He met Ruth at the hospital, when he was recovering from what turned out to be his last bike accident. Ruth was older than Corky, a stern-faced woman from Southern California whose past was a mystery to us. Ruth’s pale indoor skin was set off by dyed black hair which she generally wore tied up in a bun at the back of her head. She wore dresses made of shiny, slippery flower prints, with lots of buttons up the fronts and white collars and little puffy sleeves, and her fingernails were bright pink, perfect ovals. She wore big, ostentatious pieces of jewelry which (according to my mother) her first husband had given her piece by piece whenever he had an affair. Corky, a house painter, was beneath Ruth’s class, so I decided he was probably the only one who would take her. I could never believe there was any love involved. We were a family of huggers and cuddlers and shouters, but the closest Ruth came to warmth was the occasional proffer of a cheek to kiss. Her cheeks were cool and smelled of powder.

The first time we met her, she came into the house just in front of Uncle Corky. We rushed around her and crawled up Uncle Corky, shouting for his attention.

“His name,” Aunt Ruth said, dripping ice, “is Floyd.”

He was never Uncle Corky again. The motorcycle disappeared. So did the ice-cream and the funky Christmas trees. So did Uncle Corky, to be replaced by a sad, sober, quiet little man called Floyd who didn’t have anything to do with Corky at all.

The family was grateful that she had stepped in to halt Corky’s downward spiral. It bought her way into the family and led to my parents laying down the law: we were to be polite to Aunt Ruth. We were to be polite to Uncle Floyd and not pester him anymore. We were to be polite to everybody. Nobody seemed to care that Corky had been disappeared.

Ruth and Floyd bought a house in the Central Valley town where my dad and Floyd had grown up, and where my grandparents still lived. Dad had moved away years before, first to Mexico where he met and married my mother, then to Berkeley, where he went to school and we imbued radical politics and a multi-culturalism that appalled my grandmother. The old lady thought it bad enough that her two oldest sons had escaped the Depression by finding work south of the Border; worse that both had married Mexican women; catastrophic that my mother had produced three half-Mexican kids. Aunt Virginia, married to Dad’s older brother John, was a pretty, attenuated thing with long, nervous hands and a narrow face, and said that she wasn’t really Mexican, she was French. Grandma thought that was classy. My mother’s family was Lebanese, but Grandma wasn’t impressed. The Lebanese probably poisoned people, the way the Italians did.

Grandma had a splendid array of racial preconceptions, many of them unique to her: the Portuguese drank; blacks shot people; Mexicans cut each other with knives; Asians ate cats; Germans were power-mad even in the PTA; Catholics were going to slit our throats in the middle of the night; Jews owned the Delta-Mendota Canal; the Irish liked only whiskey and poisoned the vats of beer… In her defense, I can say that she carved out exceptions for individuals she knew and liked. A young Portuguese couple moved into the house next door, and within a month the wife was my grandmother’s “little Porgatee and the cutest thing you ever saw.” The man who ran the local Chinese restaurant (where she ate regardless of cats on the menu) was “my little Chink.” We cringed, and were grateful that it wasn’t worse. And my little sister’s best friend Carla was, God help us, “my little Darkie.” At least my mother was never Grandma’s little A-rab. Aunt Ruth shared many of my grandmother’s prejudices, but mostly her hatred of black people. It was a problem for us.

We spent most Christmas holidays at my grandparent’s house. The Central Valley chilled down in the winters so it was hard to play outside but we tried anyway, bored by long solemn afternoons spent staring at my grandparent’s collection of rocks or paging through Grandma’s stacks of Readers Digest Condensed Books. Ruth and Floyd came over in the afternoons, a signal for us to put on our jackets and head outside to pelt each other with fallen olives from my grandfather’s tree and try to figure out where Corky had gone.

For the first few years of their marriage I kept expecting Uncle Corky to show up, peep out of the unsmiling Floyd face, but if it ever happened it wasn’t in front of us. How could a man who had had so much life in him become so stiff? Was it something we had done? This kind of suspicion is never far from a kid’s mind and, thanks to my mother, it was closer to mine than most. Try as I might, I couldn’t remember anything, not the slightest thing, that would have made Corky abandon us. Did he still show up around other people? There was no way to know, although I doubted it. Dad always looked a little sad when he was around his brother.

It became too great a puzzle to live with, so with time the question of what became of Uncle Corky slid into the background, leaving us with Aunt Ruth and her quiet, bitter, Corky-shaped appendage named Floyd.

Ruth and Floyd had no children, for which I suppose we should all be grateful, but they did have a succession of Chihuahuas. I don’t know where they came from; judging from the amount of attention they soaked up, they probably came from an expensive breeder. The first thing that Ruth and Floyd did, on adopting a new one, was over-feed it. Except for house-breaking and teaching it to stay off the furniture (which was covered in plastic) they gave it no discipline at all. Visits to their house always entailed loud noise from the animated bolster that was the current dog, and great pain around the ankles. We weren’t allowed to kick. As each of these miniature monsters died, Ruth and Floyd wept, went into mourning, and had the remains buried in a local pet cemetery, with appropriate headstone.

We stayed with my grandparents during the holidays. On Christmas Eve, our parents reissued their warnings about being polite and took us across town to Ruth’s house.

We crept along the path of plastic carpet runner Ruth had laid over the wall-to-wall, making sure that we stayed in the middle. We sat on the edges of Ruth’s plastic-covered furniture. When we used Ruth’s bathroom, we were so intimidated by the pristine guest soaps and immaculate guest towels, we wiped our hands on our clothes. I suspect she liked that. We sat with our hands in our laps or under our thighs, staring at the elephants.

There were hundreds of them, of china or alabaster or onyx or bone, some with plain, shiny finishes and others painted tan, or pink, or with great gaudy peonies along their sides. Some stood alone, others formed groups, yet others stood head to tail or in families, little golden chains hooking adult elephants to three or four baby elephants. They stood stolidly on four flat feet, or cavorted on their fore- or hind legs, or held their trunks up between threatening ivory tusks. One had a tiny spray of blue porcelain water spouting from its upraised trunk, others held china parasols dripping with fringe. Another balanced a circus ball: the ball was striped but the elephant was paisley. One carried an empty howdah crusted with rhinestones. Elephants populated every flat surface in Aunt Ruth’s livingroom, crowded glass shelves she had had Uncle Floyd build into the walls, jostled together on the sills of windows that were never opened. Dire threats were made to keep us
from getting close to any of them and Ruth’s face promised that the threats were not empty. And so we sat, staring at them, while the conversation ebbed and flowed. Children, Ruth said, were to be seen and not heard. I looked at my father in numb appeal. He just shook his head a little and went back to biting his tongue.

After we had been suitably intimidated, we were allowed to go through the kitchen and down the three steps into Uncle Floyd’s den, where he sprawled over a recliner watching sports and cursing, his empty fingers curved as if grasping the beer can they would never hold again. He wanted nothing to do with us. We were not supposed to make noise, and when we did he chucked us into the back yard, a constipated square of lawn clipped to within an inch of its life, bordered by beds of upright flowers. Here we scuffled along the concrete path, bored and arguing with each other, until Ruth came out the back door and scolded us away from the flowers. Her excellent marble cake never, ever made up for those hours of mingled boredom and terror.

As I became a teenager the holiday visits grew deadlier. Dad had taught me to think for myself and speak my mind, which had never endeared me to his family; as I grew out of childhood it became more difficult to keep my opinions to myself and keep the peace. I knew that Ruth knew this, just as I knew that she didn’t like me and knew that she knew that I knew and knew that she liked it that I knew that she knew. She sliced marble cake and poured out watery coffee, and goaded. Dad’s glance warned me to keep quiet, but I saw the blood beating in his temples as he forced himself to let things go. I didn’t understand it: wrongs were meant to be righted, evil was not to be allowed to triumph, mistakes were to be set right … except, apparently, during Christmas.

I think Ruth knew all of that, too, and went out of her way to exploit it. It came to a head on Christmas Eve in 1964, when I was 16. I came out of the bathroom wiping my hands on the back of my skirt, to hear Ruth conclude a story about going to the store to buy milk. Another driver had misbehaved. “He drove,” Ruth said, “like a nigger.”

It was not possible to be around Aunt Ruth without hearing that ugly word: it was her term of condemnation for anything she disliked or distrusted and she used it about clothing, hairstyles, music, food, and more. She knew how much my family hated it and how hard my parents bit back a reply for fear of causing dissension; it pleased her, as you could tell from the way the corners of her lips pulled in a little. That Christmas Eve in 1964 Ruth was especially angry. The previous Christmas she had been pleased by the death of President Kennedy, but Lyndon Johnson was a profound disappointment to her. I think she saw the Civil Rights movement as a personal attack and the Civil Rights Act as a personal betrayal.

“He drove like a nigger,” she said again. My grandmother nodded, my mother sat fuming, my dad’s temples throbbed, I sat on my hands and considered the death of elephants, and nobody said a word until Grandpa, the peace maker, said perhaps it was time for Ruth’s fine marble cake, and then maybe a few carols, and then home. “Santa Claus,” he said, and winked at me. My sister, five that year, bounced and shouted.

So we had some of Ruth’s fine marble cake. We kids ate it in the kitchen at the Formica table, bending over the newspapers Ruth spread out to catch the crumbs. Afterwards we joined the adults in the living room and sang carols. Each one of us in turn picked a song and everyone joined in: Away in a Manger (Grandma); The Little Drummer Boy (Floyd); Jingle Bells (Mom); Adeste Fidelis, which Dad and I sang in Latin while the rest sang it in English. Ruth, as usual, chose White Christmas and sang it with enthusiasm, almost shouting the word “white.” Dad’s temples started to throb again.

I was next. I knew the song I wanted to sing, and I started it with the second verse, the one about walking hand in hand. Ruth didn’t know the song but she liked it: she knew my dad didn’t care for modern carols and this one was so modern she had never heard it before. She picked up on the simple melody and joined in when I skipped the chorus and started a new verse, singing about not being alone. Soon I had the whole room singing with me as I took the song into the first verse, with the lyrics that even Aunt Ruth had to recognize. She made it all the way to the third “shall” before she choked:

We shall overcome
We shall overcome

Ruth’s voice faded. After another line, so did Corky’s.

We shall overcome some day
Deep in my heart, I do believe
That we shall overcome some day.

The grandparents smiled and nodded as the song faded into silence and into that silence Ruth said, with fury, “You sing like niggers.”

My dad gave Ruth a full, happy smile and said “Thank you. Yes.”

We never had to spend another Christmas at Aunt Ruth’s again.