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Karla Jay's memoir of an age whose tumultuous social and political movements fundamentally reshaped American culture takes readers from her early days in the 1968 Columbia University student riots to her post-college involvement in New York radical women's groups and the New York Gay Liberation Front. In Southern California in the early 70s, she continued in the battle for gay civil rights and helped to organize the takeover of "The Ladies' Home Journal" and "ogle-in" - where women staked out Wall Street and ...
Karla Jay's memoir of an age whose tumultuous social and political movements fundamentally reshaped American culture takes readers from her early days in the 1968 Columbia University student riots to her post-college involvement in New York radical women's groups and the New York Gay Liberation Front. In Southern California in the early 70s, she continued in the battle for gay civil rights and helped to organize the takeover of "The Ladies' Home Journal" and "ogle-in" - where women staked out Wall Street and whistled at the men.
Men Behaving Very Badly
I used to tell people that my jeans were by Levi, but my childhood was by Dickens. Rhoda, my mother, was what the neighbors euphemistically termed "a difficult woman." Her misery was like Texas oil: You could drill anywhere and find some. She claimed never to have recovered from giving birth to me when she was thirty-five. She suffered from serious depression, duodenal ulcers, and intestinal blockages. During most of my childhood, all I could recall of her was her closed bedroom door. She would emerge from her lair only to go shopping or play cards with her friends, while Nene Brown, our live-in housekeeper, took care of my brother (whom I'll call Paul) and me.
By the time I entered Barnard College in the fall of 1964, Nene was long gone, and so was most of my mother's grip on reality. From time to time my mother overdosed on whatever prescription tranquilizer she was currently taking and then passed out. Paul would pick her up, walk her around until she was conscious, and then unceremoniously dump her in her bed. Most of my mother's lapses into unconsciousness were accidental overdoses, but she did try to commit suicide several times. Her failed attempts were accompanied by pages of badly spelled notes detailing how our insensitivity had killed her. Ingrate that I was, I often secretly wished she'd get one suicide attempt right.
By the time I was a teenager, my mother rarely left her room, even to shop. I dreaded it whenever she did emerge, for she was prone to tantrums and hallucinations. She proclaimed that her aunts were hiding in my closet, that her cousins were urinating on her immaculate couch, that her friends were having sex on her bed. Her imagination was both terrifying and embarrassing. I was constantly uneasy about what she might do in public—what if she announced cousin Sarah's imaginary antics in some restaurant or department store? Wouldn't that liven up the communal dressing room at Loehmann's? During dinner, she would pitch a scene and occasionally a plate. She sometimes went into wild rages and attacked me with her long red nails. Fortunately, she weighed under a hundred pounds and wasn't very strong. I learned how to slap her face just enough to stop her.
My father, brother, and I coped by making jokes about my mother. We would point out to each other, but not to her, that Aunt Pearl was simply too fat to hide behind the refrigerator and cousin Dinah would never dream of having sex in our living room. Abraham, my father, said how grateful he was that my mother's hallucinations involved her own relatives, not his.
My father arranged his life so that he spent little time with my mother. He often worked seven days a week at the Waterfront Lumber Company, of which he was part owner. Marine lumber—"dunnage," it was called—was used for building bins on freighters to hold everything from grain to elephants. My father worked hard, primarily on the docks in Brooklyn. When he came home, he liked to eat dinner promptly and then go to sleep in his favorite easy chair. Every evening between ten and eleven, I would wake him up and tell him to go to bed.
Like my father, I kept out of my mother's way. I stayed out of the house as much as possible. I filled the hours between school and dinner playing field hockey, basketball, or softball. During the evenings I locked myself in my bedroom and studied. I almost never brought friends or schoolmates into the house. My brother sometimes confronted my mother during her rages, but I learned that the easiest path was to agree with whatever she said, however ludicrous it was.
Avoidance and appeasement appeared to be my best options. No one seemed to notice what was going on in my home, and I never asked for help. I didn't think anyone would understand my situation. But one day, after one of my mother's suicide attempts, our family physician advised me to leave home, as quickly as possible. "You can't save her," he said. "Get out! It's your only chance." Then he paused and added, "Don't look back."
"If you're so smart," I shot back, "why can't you help her?" He didn't reply.
But the doctor was right. In one of her mystifying rages, my mother turned out all of my dresser drawers onto my bedroom rug because I had worn sandals to the beach. Then she was appalled by the ensuing mess. "Clean it up, damn it!" she yelled. "Look at the mess you've made!" There was no point in trying to figure out her fury. I scooped up the clothes from the floor, tossed them into two shopping bags, and tiptoed out the front door. I never slept in that apartment again.
For a few days after I left, I stayed with a friend's family. Then I spotted an ad posted by another Barnard student who wanted to share an apartment about ten blocks south of the school. The area below West 110th Street was even less savory than Morningside Heights, Columbia and Barnard's shabby neighborhood, but it was a lot cheaper for the same reason. Sally's railroad apartment turned out to have two and a half rooms. The "half room" was a Pullman kitchen, a mere indentation in the hall, with an old stove and refrigerator and a couple of metal cabinets painted aqua. For some reason Sally, a stringy and taciturn history major, slept in the living room. For a mere $75 per month, the entire bedroom would be mine. Although my allowance came to less than half of the total, I calculated that I could make up the remainder through baby-sitting and other jobs. I decided to move in.
My father, angry at my leaving, threatened to cut off my allowance. After all, I was a definite asset at home. Paul was completing his undergraduate degree and was rarely around. My moving out left the burden of taking care of my mother on my father. If he chose to stay, eventually he'd have to go it alone with her. He was less than thrilled. "I'm too poor to get a divorce and send two kids through college," he sighed in resignation.
In the end he knew I'd have to leave sooner or later and that sooner was really better for me. When he came to terms with my departure, he gave me some unpainted furniture. I was all set for living on my own.
In an era when most Barnard students devoted themselves full-time to their studies, I had to divide my time among attending classes, studying, and earning enough to make ends meet. As a result, my economic needs took up the time I might have spent socializing or networking. I baby-sat a lot, and I quickly learned that the best homes were the ones with the fullest refrigerators. I also rented myself out for psychology experiments. My favorite temporary jobs were for market research companies that paid $10 an hour for my opinion. I pretended to have used almost every product, so I got called in frequently. This tactic backfired when I was asked for my views on restrooms in gas stations. I had never been in one. With a mother like mine, we hadn't traveled very far.
Although I had little time for parties, I determinedly landed myself a handsome boyfriend at my very first Barnard dance. Trent was a dashing, corn-silk blond Columbia freshman from rural Alabama. He reminded me of the few Southerners I had met, all lesbian camp counselors on whom I had had intense childhood crushes, so I fell immediately for Trent's drawl, which evoked cicadas and tough women with duck's ass haircuts.
Trent had never met a Jew. "Where are your horns?" he asked me on our first date.
"Oh," I replied glibly, "we get them fried down at birth!"
I refused to be deterred by our differences. I felt a boyfriend was a necessity. During my freshman orientation at Barnard, I heard a story about two young women who had been caught making love in their dorm room. A male student, perched atop a building on the Columbia side of Broadway, spied on them through his binoculars. The two girls were allegedly expelled, whereas the Peeping Tom was not. I never attempted to confirm this cautionary tale, but given the prevailing fear and disgust around the very idea of lesbians at an all-women's college, the chain of events seemed likely enough.
The rumor frightened me enough so that throughout college I steadfastly passed as a heterosexual. I told not a single friend or acquaintance about my earlier sexual experimentation with girls and women in high school and at summer camp. "Feminine" and trim, though muscular, I blended in perfectly with the Barnard crowd. I set, teased, and sprayed my brown hair into a shoulder-length flip as stiff and controlled as I was. I never left home without wearing makeup.
As part of my heterosexual cover, I sometimes let Trent sleep over at my apartment, though we never had sexual intercourse. He lived in the dorms, and we couldn't very well stay there. Male undergrads had to keep "a book in the door" when a woman was present. Though most guys stocked up on something slim, such as The Communist Manifesto or even a matchbook, there was still little privacy with roommates always wandering in and out.
Apart from dating Trent, I had no social life. Sally and I had little in common. Occasionally, we'd share meals. Our standard fare was spaghetti with Spatini—a powdered tomato sauce we mixed with water. It was pretty awful but at nine cents a serving quite a bargain. On rare occasions Sally's boyfriend, Henry, bought some dough from a pizzeria and made pizza or calzone. He was the only one of us who knew how to bake.
But even if Sally and I had been inclined to be friends, most of her time was taken up with Henry, who became an unofficial third roommate. Except for his culinary skills, he wasn't an asset. He worked full-time as an apprentice painter but chipped in very little for household expenses. And whatever he was spending his money on, it wasn't deodorant. He smelled so rank that I knew without looking when he entered the front door. "Real men don't wear deodorant," he bragged. Real men, however, apparently hit their girlfriends. Henry and Sally's frequent disputes often ended with him slamming her into a wall or a car. Sometimes he would shove her face into his armpit for extra punishment. He had an unlicensed lethal weapon there. I couldn't figure out why she continued to date him.
Once I did try to intervene in a fight. "Get the fuck offa her, you asshole!" I yelled. Matching the vernacular of an opponent was one of the cardinal rules of Brooklyn street fighting. I hoped it would work on guys like Henry from the Bronx.
"Shut the fuck up or I'll hit you, too!"
"Go ahead and try." Wisely for both of us, he ignored my dare.
By our junior year Sally had started taking drugs. At first she and Henry smoked pot together. Soon they tried anything else that might get them stoned. Counterculture magazines were full of suggestions for homegrown "highs," including sucking the air out of Ready Whip cans (don't shake first!), eating morning-glory seeds, and smoking cigarettes through holes in bell peppers that had been baked in the oven. Most of these methods didn't work.
One legal drug Sally didn't indulge in was the birth control pill. Henry and Sally were Catholic and opposed using any form of contraception. After she discovered that she was pregnant, Sally had few choices. Abortions were legal in New York State only if two doctors certified that a woman was too mentally unstable to bear a child. Alternative home remedies usually involved trying to abort the fetus by using a coat hanger, which might puncture the uterus. Some women took drops of pennyroyal oil until they aborted—or died a hideous death—whichever came first. Only one drop too many of pennyroyal separated the two outcomes. Sally opted for jumping off the bed onto the floor a lot. She took very hot baths, trying to induce a miscarriage. Finally, she went the most expensive route—a weekend trip to Puerto Rico for an abortion.
After Henry and Sally returned from Puerto Rico, they broke up.
"You killed my son." Henry was actually tearful.
"Your son! How the fuck do you know it was a boy anyway, you conceited asshole?" she screamed. "What about my college degree?" Back then, most colleges expelled unmarried, pregnant coeds.
"Fuck you and your education!" were his parting words.
Sally began to spend most of her time in bed. She skipped classes. She said nothing to me about what had happened in Puerto Rico. Having an abortion was so shameful that it was easier to die from one than to speak of it. I didn't know what to say to her. For an entire month Kotex filled our garbage can. Since everyone we knew had switched to Tampax (after we showed one another how to insert it), it was easy to read the meaning of the endless boxes of sanitary pads.
Our apartment was awash in Sally's blood. The brownish ooze soaked through her mattress onto the dingy yellow living room rug, stained the wooden kitchen floor, and spattered onto the black-and-white tiles on the bathroom floor. Pale and wan, she spent more and more time in bed, her face turned to the wall in inconsolable agony. She never went to see a physician.
Even when the bleeding stopped weeks later, Sally's energy didn't return, and she continued to lie in bed. Then she discovered Benzedrine, an over-the-counter cold remedy. She'd dissect several bottles at a time and eat the small white cotton balls that contained the Benzedrine. One day the cotton got stuck in her throat. After coughing for hours, she switched to buying amphetamines from local drug dealers.
The speed had some salutary side effects. Sally couldn't concentrate enough to study, but she couldn't sit still either, so she'd wash the kitchen and the bathroom down four or five times a week. Perhaps she was trying to erase her shame, her sense of guilt. Soon the apartment went from blood spattered to unbearably sanitized. I started to worry she would flunk out of school. I knew a guy who had taken so many "uppers" that he wound up writing his entire final exam on one line.
Sally decided to move back home. Latchmi, an exchange student from India, took her place. She brought with her two cats, Kali and Gandhi, and her boyfriend, Dennis. I had very little experience with pets, but I took to Latchmi's cats with great delight and reveled in their sleek, clean ways and playful personalities. I didn't have much more in common with Latchmi and Dennis than I'd had with Sally and Henry, but we studied compatibly and tried to learn about each other's culture.
I spent much of my free time with Trent. I was now a senior, and our relationship was in its fourth year. Yet I started to feel lonely. Efforts to seduce Trent had failed. In high school I had had a girlfriend, someone who shared my interest in horses and sex. I wanted a female lover again, but I didn't know how to find one. I was terrified of getting caught, but my need for sensual contact with another woman overcame some of my caution. I looked around discreetly in physical education classes and in the "HQ" section of the library where a few analyses of homosexual pathology were located. I didn't spot anyone there who appeared to be a lesbian. Some of the professors looked gay, but they probably thought I was too young for them, if they thought of me at all. I didn't know then that Kate Millett and Catharine R. Stimpson—both in the English Department—were bisexual or lesbian. I thought I was the only one at Barnard, maybe in the entire world.
I considered joining the first homophile group in the country, which had formed in 1967 across the street at Columbia. The group was founded by "Stephen Donaldson," whose real name was Robert Martin: I discovered later that many gay activists adopted aliases to hide their real identities. Supposedly, some women belonged to the group, but to me it had the off-putting air of a men's club. I could see why I was the only woman present at the one meeting I attended.
Finally, I met Kip, a Hunter student who lived in my building. She had a boyfriend—but, then again, I had one, too. She was willing to sleep with me so long as we never discussed it. She forbade me to use the word "lesbian" or even "bisexual" to describe our relationship. Perhaps she felt that if we didn't say it, it wasn't so. She told me we were merely "practicing" for our current boyfriends and future husbands. Since she was already having intercourse with her boyfriend, her argument didn't make a lot of sense to me, but pointing out the discrepancies in her logic wasn't in my best interest. We "practiced" a lot, and she sure was inventive about it. Her favorite time of the year was summer, when she wanted me to use cucumbers, zucchini, and corn on the cob as organic dildos. Better her than me. Even though I wished she would prefer my tongue or fingers to the seasonal vegetation, I didn't protest. I loved her female body, her soft face that lacked stubble, her high, round breasts. Unfortunately, after a few months she had an attack of "lesbian panic" and swore sudden fidelity to her boyfriend. I was left again with Trent.
While I was trying to figure out my sexual identity and get through college, the world around me seemed to be erupting in political turmoil. President Lyndon B. Johnson's call for a "Great Society" seemed ludicrous in the face of the social and political unrest of the mid-1960s. The war in Vietnam was escalating, while at home race riots were erupting in various cities, including New York, Newark, and Los Angeles.
For me, the most moving event was Malcolm X's speech at Barnard on February 18, 1965. His fiery rhetoric and charismatic style convinced me that there was going to be a revolution, something more violent than sit-ins at lunch counters in the South and marches on Washington. Listening to him, I realized for the first time just how much I had benefited from having been born with white skin and how much Black people might justifiably hate me for that. At the same time, by speaking at Barnard, this Black Muslim separatist was reaching out to a young white middle-class student body. Three days later, on February 21, the day before my eighteenth birthday, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights. I was stunned by the propinquity of the events: I had never been in the same room with anyone who was later murdered. By my senior year civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated as well.
Having participated in the Civil Rights Movement, leftist students, like those in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), began by early 1968 to demand a wholly new society, one founded on the premise of universal peace and equality between Blacks and whites. In many ways Columbia University was a microcosm of the debates surrounding these issues. Undergraduates, especially those who belonged to SDS, were outraged by Columbia's affiliation with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a group that evaluated weapons and did other sorts of research for the Defense Department. Attacking IDA was a way for students to protest what they perceived as an unjust war in Vietnam. Students and community activists were further outraged when Columbia announced in 1968 it had struck a deal with the City of New York to build a gym on more than two acres of Morningside Park for the modest rental price of $3,000 per year for ninety-nine years. Columbia viewed the park, which cascaded steeply like a dry waterfall from the eastern fringe of the university down toward Harlem, as an "underutilized" space. Translation: White people didn't play there. After community protest, the university agreed to allot about 15 percent of separate but unequal space to the community, and according to the book Up Against the Ivy Wall, by Jerry Avorn, which came out in the wake of the subsequent student uprisings, the architectural plans called for "a back entrance on the Harlem side for the community and a main entrance facing Columbia for the University"—rather like "white" and "colored" water fountains in the South.
Despite student and community protests, Columbia persisted in breaking ground for the gym. But the students weren't about to concede defeat. On April 23, 1968, more than one hundred students, led by Mark Rudd, the charismatic head of SDS, seized Hamilton Hall to protest university policies. The revolution was on.
Word of the uprising spread quickly across Broadway to the Barnard campus. Despite general opposition to the gym and the war, few of us at Barnard, including me, knew what to think of the controversy. Barnard girls were kept in such a separate world from Columbia that for us the two campuses might as well have been miles apart. Barnard had its own faculty, library, school newspaper, tennis courts, swimming pool, and gym. Why should the issue of Columbia's gym concern us? No matter that archery and golf were practiced on the roof of the library—no one as yet had been hit with an arrow or a flying golf ball. Were the Columbia gym ever built, Barnard girls wouldn't be allowed in anyway—the Harlem community would be welcomed there long before we were.
But trouble was not something I was looking for at the moment. I had been accepted into a doctoral program in comparative literature at New York University. All I had to do was pass my oral and written comprehensives in French, which was my major, and my undergraduate days at the overrated Ivy League would be behind me.
So I was hoping that the takeover would remain an isolated incident. But soon the students seized additional buildings, including Low Library, which housed the office of the university president, Grayson Kirk. Once inside his office, the students rifled Kirk's files, smoked his cigars, and used his private bathroom.
What finally made me decide to side with the radicals were the counterdemonstrations, organized and led by white jocks. Like many of the other students, I disliked the jocks. They got an inordinate share of the scholarships and other perks, even though they hadn't won more than a handful of games in four years. Whenever those meatheads thought they had a good idea, I just knew the opposing faction had to be right. When some of them threw eggs at Black students on Hamilton's balconies and called them "niggers," I was disgusted.
In addition, the proadministration students sometimes tried to blockade an entrance with their bodies to prevent sympathizers from bringing food in. When the jocks got frustrated at the administration's inability to end the uprising, they threatened to send their future sons to college elsewhere (oh please, oh please) or tried to capture buildings that were already in the control of protesting students. It was a miracle that no one got shoved off a ledge onto the sidewalk or impaled on one of the Columbia's shiny new wrought-iron fences.
Despite the extreme tactics of both sides, a truce was declared the first weekend after the takeover. I headed to the campus to see what was going on. My first stop was Ferris Booth Hall, the student center on the southeast corner of the campus. It had become an uprising clearinghouse of sorts. Some students there cataloged donated food, while others, their fingers stained blue, ran off the latest manifestos and demands on a battered mimeograph, a machine that eventually became the true press of the revolutionary movement in this country. I walked up to a scraggly guy who had an air of being in charge.
"Can I help?" I asked.
"Yeah, man," he said, pointing to one of the cartons overflowing with canned meat and loaves of bread. "Take some tuna sandwiches over to Fayerweather Hall, and if you can't get in, toss them in through the windows. Then come back and join the other girls making sandwiches." He gestured behind him to a row of Barnard students who were slathering some white bread with peanut butter and jelly with assembly-line speed.
Some of the main entrances were open, so I was able to deliver the provisions. I took a quick look at the incredible mess the students had made. The floors looked as if a dormitory had exploded, leaving blankets, clothes, discarded food, and other detritus everywhere. Cigarette butts, roach ends, empty cans, and stained cups were piled into, over, and around a garbage can.
"What's it like to stay here?" I asked a guy to whom I handed a sandwich.
"Come back tonight and find out," he replied in an insinuating tone.
"Are you inviting me to the revolution or a frat party?" I shot back on my way out. I wondered whether I'd be safer at the latter. Though I still vividly recalled a Barnard friend who had returned from a frat party to the dorms one night with no bra and three stockings, and then passed out on the bathroom floor, it didn't seem to me that the student uprising promised women anything more inviting.
That interchange in Fayerweather Hall about summed up the roles that the "Barnard girls," as we were called, were supposed to play in the student revolution. Wherever I went that weekend, the scene was the same: Men were involved in important discussions; women were relegated to supporting roles—raising money for the cause, donating our own food for the "true revolutionaries" (or preparing theirs), and cleaning up the mess they had made of the buildings. Did I look like Dial-a-Maid? And then when we were done with all that work, we were supposed to provide emotional succor in the form of sex for the boys in the trenches.
This seemed to be typical of many actions of the Left in the 1960s. According to Jacqui Ceballos, an early member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the women's rights organization founded by Betty Friedan in 1966, "Women at a 1965 SDS conference [were] put down with she just needs a good screw; the following year SDS women [were] pelted with tomatoes when they demand[ed] a plank on women's liberation." As Stokely Carmichael, the former leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a black civil rights group that focused on community organizing, once put it, "The position of women in SNCC is prone!" He meant "supine," but though his linguistic ignorance accidentally put women on top, his point was clear: The coming revolution was meant to free Black men and white men, but not women. Things had clearly not changed much since the Civil War. Then many suffragists put aside their struggle for the vote to fight for abolition. After the war Black and white men got the vote, but no woman did. I began to see that men would always put our needs last.
I wanted to fight for change, but not with these men. I was becoming a feminist, even if I wasn't ready to call myself one yet. Disgusted with the political narrowness of the Columbia men, I headed home. It was one of those rare occasions when the elevator in my building was working, so I charged in. Inside the car, dressed in a frayed housecoat of indeterminate color, was the Manishewitz lady. This tiny and very elderly survivor of the Holocaust, whose real name no one knew, lived on the seventh floor. Whenever she got hungry, she would ride up and down in the elevator chanting, "Manishewitz" over and over like a mantra. It was her plea for someone to go to the Spanish grocery store on the corner and buy her some kosher food.
I went back out and bought her one small can of soup—no one I knew had actually been repaid by Mrs. Manishewitz—and returned to the building. She was no longer in the elevator. I rode up to the seventh floor to find her.
When I got there, I realized that I didn't know which apartment she lived in. Spotting a Jewish name on the door opposite the elevator, I rang the bell. The apartment turned out to belong to Daniel, a graduate student in chemistry at Columbia. He directed me to the next apartment and told me to come right back to tell him what was happening at Columbia.
Mrs. Manishewitz opened her door a crack and snatched the can out of my hand. Then without even saying, "Thank you," she slammed the door in my face. I returned to Daniel's apartment.
"You think you've got problems?" he volunteered. "When the elevator isn't working, she just bangs on my wall with a pot, yelling, `Manishewitz, Manishewitz,' until I either buy her some or lose my mind. One day I'm gonna lace it for her."
He pointed to his stove, where a collection of pots and beakers was assembled.
"What's that—a chemistry experiment?"
"Nah, I make my own acid. It's cheaper that way. Want a hit?"
"No thanks, I've got to study."
"Stay for a while and tell me what's happening."
I perched on the edge of his bed—it was the only place to sit in the small studio apartment, since the chairs were littered with thick chemistry textbooks and drafts of term papers. After we exchanged stories of the revolution, his hand began gently rubbing my back. Okay, so my mother had warned me never to go into a man's apartment.
Spring and the spirit of revolution were in the air, and as usual I was having no luck trying to seduce Trent. Like all essentially "good girls," I considered it a failure to graduate a virgin, so I let Daniel push me onto the bed and "take my virginity," as he said, with a slight thrill in his voice. It turned out that he specialized in virgins, and when I saw his equipment, I could understand why. With a penis like a number two pencil, he'd want women with no previous experience.
"It's not how big it is, it's how you use it," he commented when he saw me eyeing him with disdain.
He used his penis every which way, but it was still tiny. He kept his erection with the assistance of the New York Times, which he propped behind my head and read while he performed. I thought this was a charming novelty on the order of Kip's vegetables. Finally, he got to the bottom of the editorial page and came. I went home to study, thinking, "Is that all there is?" The Times editorial had been more interesting than he was. I decided that sex with Daniel was not worth a second try.
I spent the weekend studying and visiting a few of the occupied buildings at Columbia. By Monday it was clear that the tensions at Columbia had escalated. The trustees had affirmed that President Grayson Kirk had the sole right to punish demonstrators, and they had indicated that the gym construction might be halted, but only temporarily.
As the stalemate continued, many courses began meeting at alternative sites. Since most of my classes were relatively small, it wasn't hard for us to form a circle in Riverside Park or on a professor's living room floor. I wondered whether the uprising would change the way we all thought about education and lead to more cordial relations between students and professors.
All utopian fantasies, however, soon came to an end. The Tactical Police Force (TPF) unit was already massing on the side streets south of Columbia. Members of the TPF were Vietnam-era Robocops. Generally considered the toughest unit of the city's police force, they had been groomed to quell the urban uprisings of the 1960s. On April 30, at 2:30 A.M., a week after the initial takeovers, the TPF moved in to clear students and their supporters out of the buildings. Phones and water were cut off. Using a bullhorn, the police asked faculty and students to clear the entrances to Low Library. Then they charged, clubbing students and faculty members who got in their way and tossing some over the hedges. Resisters were beaten to the ground, as were some of those who simply tried to get out of the way. Students were given the option of leaving other buildings. Those who didn't were dragged, kicked, and clubbed. Even some members of the press, who were wearing passes and were covering the event, were attacked. The university had not placed any physicians on the scene; bleeding and dazed students wandered about or slumped onto the ground. Those who were arrested were herded or dragged into waiting police vans, which had been lined up on College Walk.
I was awakened by a telephone call from a friend in the dorms who had spotted masses of police moving up Broadway. "The shit is hitting the fan," he said matter-of-factly. "You'd better come now if you're coming at all."
I put aside my resentment of the male radicals. This sounded like war, and in a crunch I knew which side I had to take. I pulled on jeans, boots, a sweatshirt, and a jacket and hurried up Broadway. Just as I reached the gates at West 116th Street and Broadway, I heard thunderous shouts as the TPF suddenly attacked the students—both demonstrators and TPF supporters—who were massed on South Field in the center of the campus. Students, blinded by the headlights of the police vans and frantic to dodge flailing nightsticks, stampeded in every direction. A crowd surged toward me. Fearful of being trampled, I turned and ran back out the gates with the crowd. A throng of mounted police awaited us on Broadway, and they, too, charged. I ran in terror down Broadway and didn't stop even when I felt a sharp blow in my right ribs. Luckily, my athletic legs propelled me forward until I was safely at home. Except for my hurt side, I was relatively unscathed. I was certain that anyone who had been near the campus would be branded a "trespasser" or "troublemaker," so I decided not to tell anyone I had been there that night.
The next morning I heard that more than 700 students had been arrested in the melee and that almost 150 students had been injured. I called my father at the lumberyard to let him know I was okay, just in case he had heard something on the radio. When I told him that the cops had beaten up several of my friends who hadn't broken any laws, he asked, "What were they doing out on the campus at that hour anyway?"
The voice of Middle America had spoken. My father was expressing the sentiments of the typical parent of his generation. I hung up and burst into tears. My father and I, long united against my mother's illness, had reached a parting of the ways. He could envision the uprising only as rowdy students out past their bedtime; I had witnessed innocent men and women being clubbed by officers of the law. Part of my grief had to do with the realization that my father would have been no more sympathetic had I been one of the unlucky ones pummeled by a cop or trampled by a horse. He would still have sided with the law—or those who acted in its name—and thought I had got what I deserved.
My relationship with my father—indeed, my interaction with the world—would never be the same. I knew I could never again sit on the sidelines and hope an injustice would simply go away. The searing headlights of the police vans had burned away the blindness obscuring my political vision. That thump in my ribs had jump-started a heartbeat I didn't know I had. I saw America through different eyes now. A government that sanctioned attacks on privileged Ivy League students in the middle of their own campus certainly couldn't provide "justice for all"—certainly not for Blacks in the ghettos or in the South, not for factory workers or immigrants, and certainly not for the Vietnamese. We were all being assailed by the same fascist mentality that proclaimed, "America—love it or leave it." By the same black-booted cops or soldiers who insisted we follow their orders. By a country that valued property, including Columbia's buildings and American overseas investments, above the lives of the young and the poor. The Constitution itself had been trampled on, and it would take a revolution to right it.
* * *
A year after the uprisings I received devastating news about Trent. After graduation he had joined the air force, as he had always planned. Though we stopped dating, we stayed in touch. He would telephone when he was on leave in the States, and we wrote to each other regularly. Then one day my letter was returned to me, stamped "not deliverable." A male friend who had served in the army told me this meant that Trent was dead.
In 1992 during a visit to Washington, DC, I searched for his name at the Vietnam Memorial. Much to my surprise, there were several people with the same name. I couldn't tell which one might be my Trent. Perhaps he was none of them. My pilgrimage to the wall didn't provide the feeling of closure I'd hoped for. The multiplicity of possible Trents on the monument was unsettling. I felt suddenly awkwardly uncertain as to whether he had indeed been killed. Perhaps he had merely got tired of writing or had met someone else who forbade him to remain pen pals with a former girlfriend.
Though Trent had supported Columbia's administration and the TPF actions, in the end he was, one way or the other, victimized by the very institutions he worshiped. If he was indeed killed, he died in an embarrassing war, one without compelling motive. If he lived, he'd have had to wrestle with the fact that he had probably napalmed Vietnamese women and children, not just Vietcong rebels. He would have returned home to people who viewed air force pilots as "baby killers." In my circle people respected student rebels and draft dodgers more than veterans. Ironically, in doing what he saw as his "duty," he chose the less honorable road.
In the end, even if Trent was alive, he was dead to me—part of the life I had led before the Columbia uprisings. I was now an entirely different person. I had left behind the polished and perfumed body and coiffed hair of a Barnard girl. My former self was gone, unrecognizable even to me.
|Note on the Text||ix|
|1||Men Behaving Very Badly||3|
|6||Houses of Fun, Prison of Pain||87|
|7||Zapping Rat and the Ladies' Home Journal||107|
|8||Guns, Bats, and Whistles||123|
|9||The Lavender Menace||137|
|11||Sunny Days, Hazy Nights||165|
|12||Stepping Out, Sitting In||185|
|13||"Marry Me and Help Us Sue"||195|