After your swift initial sortie in this enterprise of interconnecting tales I’m a bit embarrassed about my delayed response. But without further excuses or caveats here’s my first foray (do you like all the militaryish words – I felt it was in keeping with your story).
You asked me about how, in the fall of 1969, I ended up at the Square School more correctly, The Trinity Square Free School.
(*coming soon poster from Sq. School Class of 1970)
It somehow proved a more difficult question to answer than I thought it would be. I’ve been mulling it over pretty seriously since I saw you last so here goes: Let me describe 3 or 4 threads, which in themselves would not have, but together led to that.. I thought I’d start with my short High School career, but then I got your description of military life – and it got me going in a direction I’d never planned on.
Here are the first couple of intertwined threads.
Perhaps you remember my parents’ house and the suburb where I grew up. You were there a few times if I remember correctly. It was an area with a large and growing Jewish population. By the time I was a teenager the majority of the kids I went to school with were Jewish. I don’t think it was true when I was younger, or later for that matter, but in any case I had lots of Christian friends (we didn’t have any Buddhist, Muslim or Parsi kids in the neighborhood as far as I know).
Cutting to the chase, I was perhaps 8 or 9 years old. It was spring; I hadn’t thought of it until now but it was probably close to Easter. We were walking home one day after school when suddenly these companions of my childhood started to get real mean. They began pushing me around, telling me I was a dirty Jew. My only other clear memory of that afternoon was running home chased by this group of erstwhile friends who were yelling: “you killed Christ”.
The cause of the sudden change in their behaviour, as well as the meaning of their chants, were both incomprehensible to me. By the next day this strange perturbation had passed and our normal friendly relationships reestablished.
Or that’s what I had written, then I received some editing help and observations from my friend H. She wrote that she found this paragraph jarring because I didn’t talk about my reaction – did I hide the hurt, what did that cost, did I forgive them, etc. At first I was going to simply write back and say that I had intended it to be a short, abrupt and unsatisfying paragraph. However, as I mulled over her comment I realized that there was perhaps a little more that I could add without stepping too far from something that felt like description to something more interpretive. Then I realized I could have it both ways, hence the earlier paragraph remains but I will include this digression. Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too or at least get pretty close to that situation.
So here’s the thing, it does seem to me very characteristic of my youth that there were (and occasionally still are) many such lacunae, many stories without punchlines, many situations where I with no reflection and little awareness did, or suffered, hurtful things and then simply stumbled on unaware of any consequence. Did I pretend that it hadn’t happened? Not exactly, it was just kind of one of those many surreal things that I didn’t understand. Some of those things were beautiful and felt good, this was ugly and felt bad, but then like those wonderful moments of joy and harmony it was gone and like a joke whose punchline you can’t quite remember, or a dream that you kind of vaguely recall in a dim, distant way, I couldn’t grasp it and had no where to file it away. Did it cost me? It certainly shaped me or at least was one more experience that tipped the scales in a certain fashion, that predisposed certain tendencies and inhibited others. Was that a cost, one of many accumulating small burdens that would eventually take shape in the growth of my personal style of paranoia? The residue from this experience would certainly nurture a powerful feeling that some things must be kept hidden and also a (some would say exaggerated) insistence on trumpeting, at least certain of those differences. The same system of climates predisposed a deep mistrust of appearances, a sense of hidden motives, and the certainty of betrayal. The world was opaque – absurd, and people were, as I would eventually read in Sartre, magicians capable of changing instantly and incomprehensibly from friend to foe, from lover to enemy, from anarchist to fascist, and so on .
Was the result an overall a loss of innocence or a gain? …fucked if I know. If I had to bet I’d say both. I realize that perhaps such indecision reeks of evasion or at best a lack of insight but it is true. I mean that my indecision, along with the ambiguity and opacity of the situation all seem to compose the dominant registers, to be parts of the take home lesson. Sadly I experience(d) all this, along with many other experiences, basically as an incomprehensible fact. I can tell you that I never confronted my little friends about and I don’t think I forgave them, in fact as far as I can recall I never understood it as something I could blame or forgive them for, it was just a sudden storm that came with no explanation and vanished the same way. That’s in fact what seems significant to me, that total lack of reflection – I’d like to blame it on my youth or my memory but I recognize too clearly the same signs even when I was much older.
Any way a long time would pass before I began to wonder about this strange upheaval and even more before I was struck by the significance of the time of year when these odd occurrences took place. I remember my dad telling me about how, back in the Eastern Europe of his youth (Poland in his case), every Easter heralded the start of pogroms, as the priests would rouse their congregations with tales of how the Jews had killed gentle Jesus.
I’m sure you remember my dad; he was after all a memorable character. He was, as you know, also a holocaust survivor of a very peculiar type. He was a rare creature quick to regale almost anyone with wonderful, funny, frightening tales of horrific tragedy as well as stories of the staggering triumphs of the human spirit in the most awful of situations. Such openness and humour is not a common trait among those who’ve lived through such hellish experiences – though my father was far from alone in this regard. Just ask Viktor Frankl who observed others with similar responses to their enslavement and torture in concentration camps. He should know he was an inmate himself.
As a kid it seemed to me that my friends whose parents were also holocaust survivors lived in houses with plastic covered furniture, funny smells and whispers—places where, despite whatever external reality, always felt to me like dark and musty places where people didn’t walk or jump but skulked on tiptoe. Not our home: Julian, Lizzy and I along with our mother (our cats, dogs, turtles, snake, guinea pigs, or whatever human and animal guests) were exposed to a seemingly endless telling of stories about concentration camps that were horror filled but punctuated with humour, and insight, and humanity. The moral of the story was never revenge or hate, but rather the need to move forward, to learn these lessons, and to always fight against injustice, cruelty and bigotry – wherever they were and whomever they were aimed at.
I mention this because by the time I was 11 or 12 it was clear that I had serious authority issues. My dad always said that my problems with authority were because of this sense of injustice about the holocaust. I didn’t accept his theory. In fact I hated it. It drove me nuts. It was almost as bad as when people dismissed what was most important to me by saying it was a phase I was going through. It seemed to take my deepest thoughts and feelings, my most meaningful actions, and reduce them to insignificance. Just thinking of it still makes me furious. It took me most of a lifetime to figure out he was right. Well, at least partly right.
Whatever their causes those issues with authority formed one thread that led to my time at Square School and to meeting you at Theatre Passe Muraille. Of course it wasn’t just my personal issues, it was their coincidence with important socio-cultural tendencies – it was the 60s after all. As a 12-year-old kid going into Jr. High School I wanted nothing more than I wanted revolution. We lived in a world of injustice, and hypocrisy and I, along with so many others yearned for a change that would smash that all down and for something new. It was more emotional and visceral than intellectual but it was real, as real —maybe more so – than the other things that drove me: the impossibly powerful yearnings for sex, for companionship, and the need to fit in.
Apparently I wasn’t a weird kid. I had friends; I did OK at school and all that. Of course felt like an outsider but what kid doesn’t. But I was developing some unusual and perhaps obsessive interests. I had already been dabbling in yoga and various kinds of meditation for a few years. Imagine: the first time I tried to find a yoga teacher there were only one or two teachers listed in the Toronto Yellow Pages. Nobody I knew had ever heard of it or had the slightest idea what I was going on about. My extracurricular experiments included practicing hypnosis on my schoolmates, studying all kinds of magic: from sleight of hand to the spooky variety, performing strange rituals…Soon they would include drugs and other mischief. I was developing a fascination with the theatre in all its forms, but mostly that subversive, surreal, political current that was taking shape. I was already deeply immersed in the writings of Artaud, and Abbie Hoffman and Aleister Crowley – a heady brew for a kid barely entering his teens.
That summer they had told me not to come back to the summer camp where Julian, Lizzy and I had all gone for a number of years. I’m sure it was my authority issues surfacing once again but I really don’t remember the specifics at all.
I remember lying in bed, hiding under the covers, listening to a transistor radio. I was waiting to hear The Small Faces sing about Itchykoo Park. “Tell you what I’ll do (what will you do?). I’d like to go there now with you. You can miss out school. Why go to learn the words of fools? What will we do there? We’ll get high. What will we touch there? We’ll touch the sky. But why the tears then? I’ll tell you why. It’s all too beautiful…”
I got the message. And I wasn’t alone, far from it.
One of the things missing in all this description is the context. It’s hard even for those of us who were there to remember how real all that was. Atomic doom haunted every moment of our lives. They sent us home from school with pamphlets encouraging our parents to be responsible citizens and build bomb shelters.(*scan of pamphlet). Revolution wasn’t just possible – it was necessary if we were to survive. The possibility of change was everywhere: Beatniks and Freedom Riders were giving way to Hippies, Yippies, Diggers and the SDS. It was still a time when Blacks (“Negros” was the polite term at the time) were not only second-class citizens; many thought that was the way God wanted things to remain. Simply having hair past your collar would get you mocked, and could get you beat up—as I, along with so many others, was to discover.
All over the world, young people (sometimes very young people) were rising up—Brothers and sisters it’s time to kick out the Jams! Revolution was in the air and it was really happening. The choice was clear: the death machine that was bringing us the Vietnam War, throwing us in jail for smoking weed, or something else something new. Like the man said: Turn on, tune in, drop out. The riots in Watts came and went; the Summer of Love was also the summer of the Detroit riot. A couple of years passed filled with upheaval and music, and also The Chicago Democratic Convention—that the subsequent US government inquiry would decry as a “Police Riot”. The whole world is watching!
It was easy to believe that Revolution was just around the corner. Hell, governments all over the world were bracing for it. Remember that in May 1968 it was just around the corner, in France, the government would actually flee the country in the face of a coalition of students and unions.
No wonder the heat were infiltrating every anti-war and human rights organization.
Governments and supporters of the status quo were scared shitless, and for good reason. Woodstock lay in the future and while still later would come Altamont and Kent State—we weren’t quite there yet. On the other hand we weren’t scared of the upheaval; we knew a new world was about to be born.
Talk about culture wars (for more on the climate of the times, see my anecdote “Deliverance: a meandering tale” I’ll post it in the blog soon).
I guess my point in all this ramble is, as much as anything, to remind myself that I wasn’t unique. I was a product of the times, but they were deeply my times. We want our Revolution—now! (It was an era that called for many exclamation marks!)!
But there I was, angry, horny, and strangely focused—like any healthy adolescent obsessed with sex, and with expanding my world. Another time I’ll tell you (if you’re interested) about my first toke, and my first hit of chemical, of body drugs and head drugs (you’ll probably remember that was a common distinction in our vernacular).
Anyway, it was around that time, I would have been 12 or 13, and I was rapidly coming to understand that the authorities in my life—my parents, my teachers, the principals and vice-principals—none of them had any power over me. They were ruled by fear. And I would be free and fearless. They were paper tigers as the Maoists used to say.
Meanwhile I was almost as pissed off with my fellow students as I was with the teachers, and the rest of the whole fucking system. Most of them seemed unaware that it was all a sham. They didn’t seem to be able to get the fact that freedom lay just on the other side of their fear. Though I’ve got to say that my peers did seem to enjoy my outbursts (things like jumping on a chair in the middle of a class, calling on them to rise up and take over the school and their own education). My problems with the man were just heating up.
I was well on the way to becoming a full-fledged freak. Of course, freak was not a term of derision. It was a name we bore proudly. There were specific kinds of freaks like Jesus Freaks, and Acid Freaks. But many of us, who others called hippies (bums, or hippie-bums, long-haired faggots were also popular terms of derision) referred to each other simply as freaks; as in “when come the revolution the us Freaks will rise up.” Taking a cue from Or as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young I wanted to let my freak flag fly.
Grade 9 was the end of Junior High. I would start High School in a new school, a new building. I knew I would fit in there as badly poorly? As I did in my previous school. My solution was simple. The summer ended. School started. I didn’t go.
Well actually I went off each morning and hung around the edges, smoking and talking with friends. I wasn’t an outcast; I had friends in all the factions, nerds, freaks, jocks, greasers. I was – as many were and are – simultaneously increasingly concerned with the growing hypocrisy and violence around me and thoroughly obsessed with myself. I was the centre of my little self-centered world. I attracted admirers and enemies, but, like many if not most people, thought of myself as, not repulsive, but both physically unattractive and socially an outsider. I was however smart and funny, and though I was just a skinny long-hair I wasn’t afraid of a fight—verbal or physical. Anyway my older brother Julian was there with his friends. He and I were tight – at the time “tight” meant “close” or “friendly” not drunk or intoxicated as it came to mean in later decades. Though he was perhaps not seen by the authorities as being as crazy. In any case, I was not the only freak hanging around the edges, smoking and no doubt looking sullen, a familiar sight at any school—then or now. When the bell rang and classes would begin I’d simply slip away. Sometimes I’d hitch over to John’s (more on him later). Sometimes I’d hitch downtown, maybe to hang out at the Yellow Ford Truck.
On days when my parents were both out I’d simply walk back home. That was great fun because the school would call to inform my parents that I hadn’t been in class for three weeks or whatever it was. I’d answer the phone, posing as my father, an uncle, etc – a surreal conversation would ensue.
One day as the morning school bell summoned everyone to the beginning of another day of pointless boredom and mindless obedience, Julian came up and told me that the game was over. The school had called very early and my mother had been home. I got a bus ticket from him and said he should tell everybody that I was fine and I would be in touch in a few days. I became a 15-year-old drop out and joined the ranks of the army of runaways that saw themselves as part of a new world, the junior members of the counter culture. I wasn’t fleeing a bad home. My parents were kind, loving and very, very patient – even then I understood that. I wasn’t running from abuse. I was running off to join the revolution.
I called my parents after a few days to reassure them that I was OK. It’s amazing the mischief a 15-year-old full of teenage craziness can get up to in a few weeks. And even though I was having fun I responded to my parents’ blandishments and it wasn’t too long before I ended up back at home. I promised to give school another shot. I did try. I was there for just one day before they kicked me out.
It was a setup that time. They had no intention of allowing me to stay. You’ll like this part: after framing me for a minor infraction in order to expel me, they called Julian down to the office. Basically they told him that since he was Jewish (“you people”) he didn’t need to go to school since he was (or would be) wealthy. Honest (at least that’s how I remember it – we’ll have to check with him). The weird part was that this high school population had, over a few years, become predominantly Jewish. I don’t think the principal, the vice-principal, et al were quite reconciled to the ethnic mix.
I was delighted to be officially out of school. But the situation was, shall we say, unstable. I don’t know what the law is today, but back then you’ll recall it was illegal to not be in school if you were under 16. You were skipping out or playing hookey and they had truant officers whose job was to hunt you down and bring you in; repeat offenders ended up in juvie. But somehow I’d slipped through the prison bars and I was suddenly free of all that bullshit.
I had few but intense interests at the time. Sex, drugs and revolution. Revolution! Internal and External. Join the Conspiracy! Feed your head! Change the world and change yourself.
All these years later, I still feel the same way.
Our story continues… stay tuned for Dionysius in ‘70