August 1968

 

I am sitting in a storefront Mennonite church on Seventh Avenue in central Harlem,  playing Blockhead with six-year-old Charles.  The red, blue and yellow wooden blocks feel  misshapen in my hand, as I clumsily try to balance a flat rectangle on the round side of a cyclinder.   I carefully remove my hand and slowly the whole construction slides into a heap of rubble.   

Charles laughs delightedly.  Then he looks over at Bebop, my teenaged co-worker, who is  fumbling with his shirt pocket.  Charles' eyes widen, and he says in a stage whisper, "Ooh, Bebop  got reefers!" Bebop gives him a disgusted look, and motions vigorously for him to shut up.  Miss  Lucy, the day camp director, is in the kitchen at the back of the church, and we don't want her to  notice.     

Bebop, Michael and I have spent our lunch hour smoking pot around the corner at  Michael's mother's apartment on 147th Street.  We are counselors at the Seventh Avenue  Mennonite summer day camp; I'm here for the summer, a precocious sixteen year old freshman at  the Mennonite college in Goshen, Indiana, in New York for an urban sociology seminar which  requires a stint of volunteer work in the "inner city". 

Michael and Bebop have taken me under  their wing, informing me that if I stick with them I'm gonna be so cool I'll be wearing alligator  shoes.  Since they've discovered my predilection for smoking marijuana, we spend a lot of time  smoking together -- in the park, in Michael's family's apartment when his mother's not home,  even on the stoop in front of the church after dark, when the kids are hanging on the street,  listening to the radio:    

"I'm a girl watcher   
I'm a girl watcher   
Watching girls go by   
My, my, my"   

Miss Lucy was formerly a teacher at the Wiltwyck School for Boys, one of whose most  distinguished alumni was Claude Brown, and she has loaned me her copy of Manchild in the  Promised Land to help me learn about Harlem.  I've paged through it, but even though I am a  voracious reader I'm having trouble getting through the required readings for my seminar --  Moynihan's Beyond the Melting Pot and The Power Elite by C.  Wright Mills.  Not to mention  Alan Watts' Beyond Theology, which I've just discovered and am reading for my spiritual  edification.  There is so much to explore and experience in this pulsating city that it's getting  harder and harder to find time for reading.     

It is July of 1968 and I'm spending the summer living with a Mennonite minister and his  wife and three-year-old daughter on the seventh floor of Esplanade Gardens on 146th St. , just  down the street from the church.  Richard, or Dickie, as his parishioners call him, and Ethel make  an odd couple, he with his luxuriant Afro and she in a white lace prayer covering.  Ethel and I are  the only white people in the building.  Ethel is from a conservative rural Mennonite church in  Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Her brother was one of the founders of this little mission church in  Harlem, started in 1950 when the country Mennonites were beginnning to have a "burden for the  city. "     


Harlem is still recovering from the riots of the spring which followed the assassination of  Martin Luther King, Jr. , and when I walk down Seventh Avenue I can still smell the smoke and  ashes as I pass a burned out storefront.  When I come home from a day at work there are flecks of  ashes on the sleeves of my light blue shirt, although Dickie tells me that's just plain old New  York pollution, not fallout from the riots.

Esplanade Gardens is a modern apartment building, one  of three grouped together around a treelined plaza, close to the Harlem River and the 145th St.   bridge to the Bronx.  I have quickly and naively made myself at home, so much so that I often stroll across the  bridge late at night from the number 4 subway train station in the Bronx after my ramblings  around the city.  When I mention this to Michael, he tells me I'm stupid, but Bebop says, "No  man, nobody gonna touch him; they think he is the *po*-lice."

Bebop and Michael take a certain  proprietary pride in me, introducing me around as a sort of exotic specimen.  One night while  Dickie and Ethel are on vacation, they come up to the seventh floor and we smoke and listen to  music until far after midnight.  We are sitting around in an alert sort of stupor; conversation has  lapsed.  Out of the blue, Michael nods and says, "Well. . . . . maybe white folks ain't so bad. . . . . after  all. " My heart leaps; although I didn't realize it, this is what I've been dying to hear.  I've gone  native, and they've made me an honorary Negro.

 But I'm not much of a Mennonite.  I've only attended Dickie's church once.  It's a tiny  congregation, women and children.  Dickie's sermon was a rambling attack on the Reverend Ike,  who has a huge church further up in Harlem.  According to Dickie, his theology can be summed  up as "Don't wait for the pie in the sky; get yours now. " And Dickie is right in the Mennonite  mainstream, attacking that theology for the materialism that it is.  Still, the Mennonite church is a  tiny storefront, while the Reverend Ike preaches to the multitudes. 

Occasionally I drag myself out of bed to go over and sit in the Friends Meeting on the  Columbia campus, on Morningside Heights.  But for the most part I just sleep in on Sundays.   Dickie and Ethel are remarkably tolerant of my incipient bohemianism; it strikes me sometimes  that they must certainly be aware of my unorthodox habits and vices, but they never reproach me  with them.

In the summer of 1968, Zen seems so much more compelling to me than Mennonitism.  I arrived in New York that summer in a vanload of idealistic Goshen College students, a  van that was doing its best to emulate the electric koolaid Merry Pranksters' bus.  That spring, as a  first semester freshman, I had fallen in with this rowdy crowd and gone off to Wisconsin to  campaign for Eugene McCarthy in the primary, and then celebrated the downfall of LBJ when he  announced he would not seek a second term.  Several times I had driven with them up to Chicago  to visit an exiled countercultural hero, who had been expelled from the Mennonite college with  three cronies for publishing an underground paper irreverently titled "Mennopause".  He  introduced me to the Joffrey Ballet and Howling Wolf.      

When we arrived in New York we stayed at the old New York Theological Seminary on  East 49th Street.   The first night I sat up on the roof, smoked a joint, and grooved in the electric  hum of all the skyscrapers "shouldering each other high" all around.   The seminar began with a  week of class, with lectures on such exotic topics (for us) as homosexuality (the Mattachine  Society), inner city slums, and the power elite.  One urban Mennonite who introduced us to the  Mennonite church scene warned that we would hear the word "motherfucker" a lot, but that we  shouldn't let it faze us.  It was a common expletive, he noted, as common as "darn".   "Motherfucker" -- he repeated it with a certain enthusiastic savor.     

During the first week we explored the city.  I went to Columbia University like a pilgrim  and toured the sacred sites of that spring's strike: Low Library, Fayerweather, Hamilton Hall, and  the Alma Mater statue ("Raped by the University").  The Cloisters , the Village, Coney Island.  I  discovered the burgeoning colony of "I-W boys" down on East 13th St. between Avenues A and  B.  The I-W boys were Mennonite kids who had gotten conscientious objector status (I-O) in the  draft and who were required to work in hospitals or other service jobs.  Unlike other Mennonite  boys who volunteered to work overseas or in domestic Voluntary Service assignments, these guys  were given a salary.  Not only that, but by virtue of their assignments in the hospitals (the NYU  Medical Center, among others), they had access to a variety of exotic drugs which they would  appropriate and bring home to experiment with. 

One I-W boy who befriended me had a passion  for something called Wyamine, a sort of amphetamine which he would inject with a syringe into a  grapefruit.  Then we would eat the grapefruit sections and within a half hour an uncontrollable joy  would surge through our nervous systems.  Our feet got restless, and we would go out to walk all  night, "trucking" all night through the East and West Village, rapping inspiredly, until in the early  morning hours the drug would wear off, and we would return home to massage the knots in our  legs, listening to the Band, dropping off to sleep finally at sunrise.     

* * * * * * * * * * * * *  

We are walking, for no apparent reason that I can remember, strolling in Van Cortlandt  Park in the Bronx.  Kari and her Black Panther boyfriend, Bubbie, Carol and I.  We lie on our  backs under the summer Bronx moon.  Kari and Bubbie are romantically involved.  At age 16 I am  more inspired by drugs than by the tender passions.  I had that spring done several perfunctory  dates with a nice Mennonite girl named Alice, but as it happened I had dropped my first acid even  before my first kiss.    What she liked about me, Alice had said, was that I was comfortable with silence.  She felt  no compunction to make conversation, to entertain me.  Her other memorable observation was  that LSD had loosened me up, rendered me much less rigid and strait-laced.  This was a  compliment.   

At any rate, Carol is saying much the same thing that night.  We lie in the desultory Bronx  evening chatting idly.  At length she reaches out her hand to touch mine.  "You make me feel so  calm," she says.  We walk back to the subway with the proverbial hand in hand.  Carol is an older  woman, a senior at the college, and her advances make me uneasy.  My previous dates with Alice  had involved practically no handholding, and the foreplay, if you could call it foreplay, that had  preceded our first and only kiss had been remarkably sedate.   

When we return to Esplanade Gardens a group of the college seminar participants are  conducting what passes among white Mennonite college students in the year of grace 1968 for a  party.  Beer and the Doors on the radio.  Dickie, Ethel and Anita are gone for a week's vacation  and Dickie has reportedly told Larry that he could "go ahead and have a love-in, man".  So Krista  and Dave are staying over in the master bedroom, which strikes even my prematurely hardened  sensibilities as a trifle irreverent.   

I have decided to turn Carol on.  I haven't had sufficient time to diagnose whatever it was  that made her so generally uptight, but I am in that evangelical mode made popular by the good  Dr.  Timothy Leary and I feel pretty certain that a little marijuana is just about what the doctor  ordered and good for whatever is ailing Carol.  Acid is definitely out of the question for the  moment, but I feel that a little dope might alleviate the symptoms.   

I roll a fat joint and pass it to Carol across the kitchen table.  Unaccountably, the rest of the  gang is content to stick to their beer.  I had heard Timothy Leary say, in a sort of medicine show  cum lecture in Chicago titled "The Life of the Buddha" that alcohol dulls one's psychic lenses  whereas psychedelics buff them right up, and I had in my short ecstatic career thus far always had  a distinct predilection for the latter.   

My first drink, like my first kiss and my first LSD trip, occurred in the fateful spring of  1968.  I had gone up to Chicago with some of Goshen College's radical chic to visit a man who  had been expelled the previous year for helping to edit and distribute the underground campus  newspaper "Mennopause. " It was the obligatory "fuck" in the text that had gotten him, along with  three co-conspirators, tossed out, but the bad pun hadn't helped.  Not only was James a rebel, it  turned out, but he was gay, an enormous novelty for a Mennonite college.  I knew vaguely what  homosexuality was about, having read Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn in my junior year of  high school, but had never had any firsthand contact with the phenomenon.   

James was a great talker, funny, and, I thought, brilliant.  He and his lover were fixing up  an apartment on the near North Side .  To fulfill his draft requirement as a conscientious  objector, he was working in the kitchen of a downtown hospital.  He took us to see Howling Wolf  that weekend.  Howling Wolf was an enormous barrel-like man who must have weighed 400  pounds; my most vivid memory is of him rolling on his back on the stage, gesticulating obscenely  with the microphone, a drunken royal sachem.    Before we went to the show, James fixed me a drink.  It was a mixed drink of some sort.   As we went down the stairs I tripped slightly, recovered, then felt an instant sense of well-being.  I  don't know why I didn't take to alcohol more immediately, right then and there. 

 

Carol inhales, then coughs out all the smoke.  One of the stumbling blocks to turning on  Mennonites is that they have not learned to inhale tobacco in the first place, much less to hold  their breath, to hold the smoke in to full effect.  I encourage her, stick the joint back in her lips, say  "Deep breaths, now!" This time she holds it in about ten seconds.    Eventually I decide she is high.  She doesn't have the giggly euphoric buzz that one wishes  to see in an initiate, but Cream is on the radio, and she is nodding her head thoughtfully and  looking as though she's got it.

I go to my bedroom to roll another joint.  When I return she is  standing out on the balcony, looking at the light-show of downtown Manhattan spread out below  the seventh floor.  Krista is standing beside her, looking concerned.  "She says she's depressed,"  says Krista.  Carol abruptly sits down, buries her head in her hands and says "Oh shit."  

 * * * * * * * * *  

The soccer ball rises straight up, up and into the bright July sun,hesitates, then begins its  slow descent down into the ragged circle of a dozen teenaged boys in the park beside the Harlem  River.  Across the park the three towers of Esplanade Gardens huddle together, dwarfing the  four-story walkups that line Lenox Avenue.  Here and there burned out buildings dot the block,  remnants of the riots this spring, and the stench of the smoke lingers, breathing out the gaping  windows at passersby.   

The ball rolls toward me and I pass it across the circle.  The guy beside me, half in and half  out of the circle, mutters something and holds out a joint to me.  There is something odd about  him that I can't put my finger on, aside from the fact that he's wearing a long-sleeved shirt in this  heat, and a round brimmed derby hat.  He scratches himself, gestures with the joint, and says, in a  slow drawl, "I'm. . . bussin'. . . out. . . man. " I accept the joint and take a hit, gulping down the smoke  and holding my breath. 

"I'm. . . bussin'. . . out. . . goin'. . . to. . . Bear. . . Mountain. . . . "   A jet from LaGuardia flashes overhead and suddenly pauses in midair; the roar  of its engines pulses infinitely slowly and in a flash I realize how stoned I am.  It occurs to me that  I am holding all this potent smoke in my lungs and that perhaps I should exhale.  Just as I do so,  the boy beside me slowly slumps into a heap on the grass.  I watch him stupidly, vaguely aware of  my panic yet not feeling the slightest touch of urgency.

 

Michael comes over, looks down, and smirks.  "He fucked up, boy. " Bebop joins him,  grinning; "He bussin' out, man. " I look down at the boy on the grass and ask, "What's wrong with  him?"   "Smack," replies Michael as he reaches down and starts pulling the boy to his feet.   Michael has the guy on his feet again; he's smiling broadly, stupidly, saying "Bussin'. . . . . out. " The  other kids are back at their game.    Michael and I have talked about heroin before; for all my precocious sophistication the  thought of using a needle still terrifies me.  Michael and Bebop are emphatic that they will never  use it.  Ethel, who is a nurse at a local clinic, speaks angrily about the tide of heroin that has come  flooding into the neighborhood this summer.  Dicky thinks it's a government plot to pacify the ghetto after the riots this spring.  And they both think it's coming back from Vietnam.   

Vietnam.  I had spent a weekend in Saigon last fall, traveling with my father to visit  Mennonite churches in Asia and Africa.  Our flight from Hong Kong had come intoTan Son Nhut  at a steep dive from a high altitude, to evade rocket or mortar fire from around the airport.  It was  October of 1967, and on the day we arrived a mob of students attacked a large billboard  downtown announcing election results, which they claimed were fraudulent.  The sky by day was  full of jet fighters in formation, bombers, troop-carrying Chinook helicopters and reconnaissance  choppers.  At night parachuted flares lit the sky, and the sound of artillery barrages and bombing  boomed in the surrounding night.

 The American Mennonite relief workers were discussing the difficulties of maintaining a  separate identity from the American military presence.  It was increasingly impossible to create a  distance from the war machine.  In the strategic hamlets operation, the evacuation and destruction  of certain villages would be planned.  The army would then depend partly on the church relief  agencies to take care of the refugees.  The Mennonite volunteers debated whether their presence  and cooperation helped to make possible the destruction in the first place.   

In fact, a week previous to our visit, the four top staff members of International Voluntary  Service, including two Mennonites, had resigned and sent an open letter to President Johnson.   They denounced the war as "an overwhelming atrocity", saying "Some of us feel that we can no  longer justify our staying, for often we are misinterpreted as representatives of American policy. "   On Sunday morning, we attended the Episcopal English-language church in Saigon.  At the  time, the small group of Vietnamese Mennonites had not yet organized as a church.  The American  Ambassador, Ellsworth Bunker, sat in the front pew, as the preacher, Sam Hope, criticized the  American policy in a judicious way.   

We drove north to Bien Hoa, about 15 miles north of the capital.  It was the site of an  immense American base, with army vehicles parked row on row as far as we could see.  Along the  road, there were an inordinate number of car washes.  Our Mennonite hosts informed us primly  that these doubled as brothels.    In Saigon, Jon, an American from Goshen College who was a volunteer with Mennonite  Central Committee gave me a ride to Cholon, the Chinatown, on his scooter.  We parked, and  strolled down the street. 

At the entrance to a bar, a beautiful young Vietnamese girl in the  traditional ao dai, a green tunic and long slit skirt with black pants, approached me.  I was 15 at  the time; she couldn't have been any older.  She smiled and put her hand on my chest.  I was  confused and embarrassed.  She said something in Vietnamese.  "What's going on?" I asked Jon.   He laughed.  "She just wants you to buy her a drink. " It suddenly dawned on me that she was a  prostitute, and that she probably thought I was a young American soldier.  I felt sick.  I reddened  and turned to Jon.  "Get me out of here. " He laughed again.   

Vietnam.  In midtown New York there are antiwar demonstrations all summer.  Hubert  Humphrey comes to town for a speech and is greeted with chants of "Dump the Hump!" The  crowd always looks like a ragtag peasant army; the Youth Against War and Fascism habitually  brandish multicolored banners on long poles.  After the rally, as the police chase us down Park  Avenue on horseback, we passed the 67th Street armory.  Its turrets, crenellations and arrow  slits amplifiy the semblance of a peasant rebellion.   

 As the summer wears on, leaflets are handed around at demonstrations headlined "Come  to Chicago!" After the seminar, at the end of August, I catch a bus to Pittsburgh.  My father has  business there, and he picks me up at the Greyhound Station.  We stay for the night in Ohio with a  Mennonite family.  On their television are the infamous scenes of Grant Park, Michigan Avenue,  the police riot, and the chants of "The whole world is watching!"  

-- Amos Stoltzfus