I’m publishing a selection of letters written by my mother, a prolific letter writer who lived in the conservative town of Yakima, Washington all her life. In a 1977 letter she castigates Sen. Henry Jackson and Democrats in Congress for their lack of support for President Carter, and schools them on the history of the Panama Canal.
“Neither you nor the great media with its resources has bothered to challenge the propaganda of Ronald Reagan…”
“We strongly support President Carter in scolding the oil companies; it should have been done long ago.”
Back in 1980 gun control was a big issue. Politicians and celebrities were victims as well as less famous citizens. After John Lennon was shot I had to admit to my mother that I had bought a hand gun, the same type that killed John. She was distraught. What could I have been thinking? I was thinking as a radical socialist lesbian feminist I might have to defend myself. I learned how to shoot at local gun clubs. I put the gun in a drawer next to my bed, but began to worry that a visiting child might find it. What if someone accidentally got shot with my gun! I soon put the gun far away out of anyone’s reach. My thinking changed, but the scourge of gun violence did not. Except that Mom is writing here about handguns rather than now-popular semiautomatic weapons.
“We do have wild animals, but they are two-legged.”
I contend that bullets, bombs and mines are more to be deplored than garbage and stones (thrown by dissenters).
Paul Harvey pissed us off for half a century. During my childhood the right-wing commentator was on the radio twice a day on weekdays and at noon on Saturdays railing against welfare cheats and championing American individualism. A close friend of Sen Joe McCarthy, the Rev Billy Graham and J. Edgar Hoover, he supported Cold War campaigns against communists and opposed social programs as socialist. Advertisers loved Harvey as he could make any ad sound like news. Salon Magazine called him the “finest huckster ever to roam the airwaves.”
Millions of Americans who, like us, got their news and information from the radio, were subjected to his diatribes. Beginning in 1952, Harvey kept talking right up till his death at 90 in 2009. He always left us fuming.
My mother got so mad at his attack on war protesters that she engaged her superpower—she wrote a letter.
“What kind of people are we that we allow an immoral, useless war to continue when a child of six can point out that the emperor has no clothes?”
Sadly, the box of letters, saved in my brother’s barn, contained none of my mother’s letters from the turbulent 1960s. Most are from the 1970s. Flo writes here about being moved to tears in a state of depression and despair. She felt the burden of American foreign policy personally and would often call me, weeping for its victims. She anguished about her children and a whole generation of young people losing faith in democracy.
The feminist revolution in Yakima, Washington was not televised but I can testify that we were just as angry and militant as the sisters in New York who got all the press.
In the summer of 1970 I got a job as a reporter at the Yakima Herald-Republic, returning to my hometown to raise money to finance my senior year at college. I’d joined the feminist movement and I’d brought along my mom, Flo. She was already feminist material, a prolific writer of letters to the editor–an activist at heart. A look at my first paycheck radicalized her further. She’d been making a quarter of that all her life as the kind of secretary who actually runs the business while being paid as a typist.
At that time, newspaper reporter was a non-traditional job for women. It was ok for women to write for the women’s section and the food section and to work as secretaries, but reporter was a man’s job. The reporters at the YH-R had been organized into the Newspaper Guild and this was my first union job. I was elated, although I knew the Guild to be a weak union. I felt strongly that the secretaries and office workers ought to have a union too so I started talking up the idea of organizing. That got shut down fast! The office workers made it clear that they felt joining a union would be treasonous. They identified with the owners of the paper, at that time the descendants of its founding family. So, at the outset, this radical feminist succeeded in making enemies of the women workers. But they had been predisposed to dislike me from the beginning, especially one territorial secretary who saw me as a threat and whose put-downs had me hiding in the bathroom crying—the only time in my working career.
In the newsroom, the editor predictably assigned me to the women’s page, where readers turned to discover which of Yakima’s maidens were getting married that week. My job was to type up the wedding descriptions, which involved all of the fussy details like the cut of the bride’s dress and color of the bridesmaids’ frocks. In journalism school and as a student newspaper editor, I’d learned well the craft of editing. In my world, these unimportant details didn’t belong in any story. My wedding paragraphs got shorter and shorter until–busted! Brides’ mothers had begun calling my editor demanding to know why all the important details were missing. It turned out some people thought, and I venture to guess still think, that the color of the bride’s mother’s dress is big news. So my editor returned to writing up weddings and I went on to the news desk.
I did want to write about women, just not weddings. The features editor threw a few human-interest stories my way: a legally blind woman who’d become a pilot, a man who tatted, a dog that could ride on the back of a bike. I pitched a story to the news editor about where women in the Yakima Valley worked. Agriculture, mostly fruit orchards, was still the economic base of the region. My own grandmother had worked the line at a fruit processor and I’d picked apples in high school. I was truly interested in the demographics, but also wanted to investigate where we were not allowed to work. The editor thought it was a pretty good idea, but later reproached me, saying he had not known I was a feminist. How could I possibly write about this subject objectively, he wanted to know? Word sure got around fast.
When I pitched a story about the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage, they bit. Maybe I could find some real suffragists who’d been part of the struggle to win the vote! Washington women got the vote in 1910, the fifth state to give women the vote, ten years before the 19th amendment became law, so I figured there must have been a suffrage movement. My mother, who’d grown up in Yakima, wasn’t born until 1913. She didn’t know any suffragists, but I got a few leads and started searching nursing homes. I did find women to interview, but they had been mostly too busy raising kids and running farms to pay attention to politics, they said. This I dutifully reported in a feature article. If there had been militant suffragists in the early 1900s in Yakima, I failed to find them.
Yakima is a conservative place, infamous as the hometown of liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. When FDR appointed Douglas to the Court, the Yakima paper disowned him. “Not From Here” said the headline. Douglas had been born in Minnesota and raised in Yakima. Ironically, Douglas was nominated to the Court as a representative of the West. But he couldn’t wait to get away from Yakima to seek his fortune. He wrote a book titled Go East Young Man.
Though I was undeniably a Yakima native, like Douglas I couldn’t wait to get away from my hometown. But the prospect of living with my parents, working as a reporter and making trouble just for the summer seemed like fun. A small group of us formed Yakima’s first National Organization for Women chapter, meeting at the home of a woman even older than my mom to document the inequality we experienced. We listed low pay, poor access to jobs and humiliating dress requirements, like having to wear hot pants to work as a waitress. There were restaurants and bars reserved for men only; and all those cultural expectations that we would serve our husbands, bear children and become homemakers. Also, everything we read placed the women’s movement in New York City. We chafed at that version and wanted to show that sisterhood was powerful in little towns in the West too.
In the back seat of a VW bug on the way to the first meeting, the young woman sharing the seat with me whispered that her female lover had left her. Distraught, closeted, and with no community, she was looking for a friend to talk to. She saw in me something I had yet to see: I was a sister dyke. Later, I regretted that my own life experience was too sparse to understand or even to sympathize. I had yet to love and lose. I had yet to come out, even to myself.
While not well schooled in romance, by this time I was an experienced organizer, having planned and executed anti-war and women’s liberation protests at college. I’d learned how to run a campaign, how to get media attention. I’d written and performed in guerrilla theater plays and given speeches, painted protest signs and silk-screened armbands. I’d participated in consciousness-raising and I was ready to act to change my world.
We aimed our first action at a restaurant where businessmen lunched that barred women. We had read about McSorley’s bar in Manhattan, which had denied women entry for 116 years until it was forced to admit us that very summer. A journalist, Lucy Komisar, the first to test the judge’s order, was dowsed in beer by jeering men. Our plan was to just walk in, sit down and demand service. We doubted beer dousing would follow, but who really knew what the reaction would be.
Resisting authority always made me nervous but also thrilled me. Just that spring we students had staged a giant strike and shut down Washington State University over racism. Flo had joined me at student demonstrations against the Vietnam War. My mother had saved me from threatened expulsion for moving off campus by making my case in a letter to the university president. Women’s protests had led to the college aborting in loco parentis rules requiring us to wear dresses and to observe curfew. Old sexist ways were crumbling in our wake, making us feel the power of sisterhood. We were on a roll.
We had cased the restaurant and, as planned, six of us marched in and took a table right under the sign that read “MEN ONLY.” Flustered waiters ran to the manager for advice and we were asked to leave. Would they call the police to arrest us, we wondered. We weren’t doing anything illegal were we? They refused to serve us but we did take up a table during the lunch hour. As it turned out, men didn’t give up their privileges easily, but no dousing followed our restaurant protest and after some resistance we helped the restaurant to see the light. We won! I don’t remember the names, or how many visits it took, but I do remember the determination, the camaraderie and the elation we felt when the restaurant gave up its policy and served us all lunch.
That summer our other protests involved wearing pants to work (handy tip: start with culottes) and pasting stickers that said “This Insults Women” on public signs and ads we deemed sexist (the ubiquity of these messages is hard for us to remember and for the young to imagine now).
Our NOW group chose as its summer coup de gras a rally to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women’s right to vote on August 26, 1970. One day, at my desk at the newspaper, I got a call from the New York Times. They were doing a story about how feminist groups across the country were celebrating Women’s Equality Day. Elated, I eagerly catalogued our victories and detailed our plans for the rally.
In preparation for our celebration, the artist in our group made signs that we posted about town, others secured a sound system and a soapbox. We planned to rally in Franklin Park, near the city center. We arrived dressed in 1920s garb, imagining throngs of women all excited to speak out about their oppression publicly, but the hoped-for crowd didn’t materialize as it had on the college campus. We gave a few short speeches, and then made the microphone available for other women to speak. No one stepped onto the soapbox except young boys experimenting with guttural sounds. Among the lessons we learned: maintain control of your mic and know your audience.
I couldn’t wait to see how my phone interview with the New York Times had come out. I rushed to the library to check out the paper and found the story–not in the women’s section. Our rally may not have been televised, but our little group of Yakima activists made the Times!
Every woman has a retribution fantasy, what she would do to her harasser or rapist. She probably won’t tell you what it is but she has one, maybe many.
My group of tradeswomen activists not only imagined retribution, we planned and executed it. Perhaps corrective justice is a better choice of words.
We were an organized group of women who were trying our damndest to break barriers to nontraditional blue collar work. Men wanted to keep those high-paid jobs for themselves. So when one of us finally landed a job, we were subject to harassment with the aim of getting us to quit. At that time in the late seventiessexual harassment was not yet illegal and the term was not yet in popular use. We tradeswomen used the term gender harassment.
We were working at integrating the construction trades, bus driving, firefighting, policing, printing, dock work—all the jobs women had been kept out of. One job classification we focused on was ferryboat deckhand. Women had won a discrimination lawsuit, a judge had signed a consent decree, and a handful of women had broken into the trade. As with construction, you had to jump both the barriers of bosses and the union.
One of our biggest challenges was isolation on the job. Once you got hired, you were usually the only female there. We tried to combat isolation by recruiting more women and by organizing support groups wherever we were.
Annie McCombs was our gal on the ferries, having made it through the union process. A militant lesbian feminist with a take no prisoners attitude, Annie was committed to increasing the number of women on the waterfront, to truly integrating the trade. After five years as a ferryboat deckhand she had gained a reputation as someone who did not tolerate abuse.
Fear of violence was based on reality. A common myth among fishers and sailors was that a woman on your boat was bad luck. We had met a woman who had been thrown off a boat into the water by coworkers who intended to kill her for supposedly bringing bad luck.
Annie worked occasionally with another young woman, Patricia. She was American Indian, a lesbian and only 18 with little work experience. One day Patricia approached Annie and told her about a guy on the job who harassed her mercilessly. The harassment had turned violent when they worked together on the night shift. He had locked them in to a bathroom they were assigned to clean and shoved her up against the wall. Only the night watchman knocking on the door saved her from being raped. He assaulted her again the next night but she fought back and was able to break free.
Annie helped Patricia meet with her boss and the union rep, going through all the required motions. They got nowhere. The next step would be litigation, but we activists did not recommend women file individual lawsuits. That got you blacklisted and unemployed.
We resorted to direct action. Annie called a meeting and 30 women showed up. She told us about the situation and we began to strategize. How could we get this guy to back off and stop harassing our sister? We had heard about a group of women stripping a rapist naked and tying him to a pole in the middle of town. That was a great fantasy, but none of us was willing to take the chance of being arrested for assault. Whatever we did would have to be hands off. We also wanted our action to be collective, something we could all participate in. We needed to make sure this guy knew that what he was doing was wrong and that it had to stop. It would be great if the woman he had targeted could confront him directly, if we could help her feel safe enough to do that.
Jan, a tradeswoman sister, spoke up. We needed to confront this guy on our own terms in a place of our choosing, not at work. She suggested that one of us should get him on a date. This seemed crazy to me. I was never any good at picking up men, but other women in the group assured me it wasn’t that hard. Hadn’t we been trained all our lives to do this? Jan volunteered to be the bait and we worked out an elaborate plan for her to pick him up.
We would lure him to a secluded location in Golden Gate Park, surround him and let his victim confront him. I, for one, did not see how this was possible. How would we get him to the park?
Jan planned to invite him to a party at the deYoung Museum and make some excuse to get him to the nearby rose garden. The rose garden is surrounded by tall hedges, perfect for hiding behind. And it’s relatively dark. Our action would take place at dusk.
Word of the action got around and our planning meetings expanded to 50. Everybody wanted to be involved with this action. What militant feminist wouldn’t?
We considered the possibility that the harasser might have a gun. Annie knew that some deckhands carried handguns in their seabags. Many of us practiced karate and self-defense and we engaged martial arts experts to take command in case our perp responded violently. A woman was assigned to each limb and his head in case he reached for a gun or bolted. But unless he attacked, we were not to touch him.
Women volunteered for specific tasks: lookouts, runners, watchers from park benches. We would not leave Jan alone with the man and risk his assaulting another woman.
In the meantime, Annie had drawn up a map of the park with our location and planned out the timing. We were to hide in the bushes near the trail and pop out as he and Jan came by.
I was dubious. Could we really pull this off? There were so many variables. What if he didn’t go with Jan? What if he saw us in the bushes? What if the timing were hours off?
Fifty women had assembled some blocks away at a staging area in the Haight Ashbury when a carload of country women from Mendocino showed up. They had heard about the action through the lesbian grapevine. Now numbering more than 50, we all made our way to the rose garden.
We hid behind hedges and trees, waiting silently for maybe 20 minutes. Everybody knew the plan. I couldn’t believe it when I saw Jan and the guy walking down the trail. Jan really did it! Our butch dyke sister had transformed into a fetching het woman. She wore a pink sweater wrapped casually around her shoulders.
Just as they crossed in front of us the spotter blew a whistle, the designated woman stepped out into the trail, and then all the women materialized and circled the guy. Jan melted into the crowd.
My only job was to stand in place with a mean look on my face. I can tell you this is not so easy when one feels exhilaration.
Our chosen spokeswoman stepped forward menacingly. She addressed the harasser. “Don’t talk, just nod if you understand.”
A woman was assigned to remind him to nod. He did not need to be reminded.
“We know you have been harassing women on your job. We know where you live. We know the car you drive. If you continue to harass women we will come and get you,” she said.
I could see his knees shaking. It looked to me like he had peed his pants.
Patricia stepped forward but she was not able to speak. Her partner spoke for her, naming the harassment.
Finally the crowd of angry women parted and let the man out. He was ordered to return to his car and not to look back.
Our action had succeeded. We were jubilant. A cheer went up from the 50 women. Then we quickly decamped to an agreed-upon location for a post-mortem and to celebrate.
As for the harasser, he was not seen around the waterfront for several months. Later, when he took a part-time job with the company, he made sure to keep his head down when passing Annie or Patricia. Soon after that he disappeared altogether.
I worked for Plant Bros. of San Francisco in the early Seventies. After a probation period, they sent me to a jobsite that had just begun, in the shadow of Telegraph Hill, right by the waterfront. They had to completely overhaul an old grain warehouse and convert it into an upscale office building. The location was great – you could walk at lunch-break over to the wharves, or just sit in a vacant lot and look at the Bay. And the building was interesting, especially as we began to mine our way into it. It was a remnant of the industrial past of San Francisco’s waterfront, a brick five-story warehouse with rugged interiors. We had to earthquake-proof it, tear up flooring, destroy the old freight elevator shaft, and then frame up the new sets of offices. The flooring had been laid when mahogany was cheap, so we were cutting through two tongue-and-groove, inch-thick mahogany floor layers. We burned out blade after blade of our skilsaws and spent weeks with crowbars ripping out and dumpstering the wood. Then re-flooring it with heavy plywood.
This first month was not really carpentry, but I liked it. For one thing, I had an apprentice assigned to me – which was my first time having that responsibility. He was a young Chinese guy who I liked immediately. Eugene knew he was a token of integration for the union – there were less than ten Asian carpenters, and the local was under pressure from all minorities to open up. Eugene and I were attuned in the political culture of San Francisco in the early Seventies and we also both knew how to work with alacrity. Things got even more interesting when they hired a Mexican-American woman named Inez Garcia. She was only the second woman in the union’s history. I had worked with the other, at the General Hospital job. They had assigned her to simply push in all the snap-ties on all the forms, thus earning her the name “snap-tie Mary”. There was a quarrel in the union to get her boss to actually let her learn the trade.
Now Inez was in that position, but it was more promising. The foreman was civil to her and we formed-up a little team, with Eugene and I and Inez and an older Italian guy named Ron. I was given the lead responsibility of cutting a big trapezoidal hole through all five floors for the new open stairway in the center of the building. The foreman and I studied the blueprint, devising a way to place that trapezoid correctly in reference to the walls – then I explained it all and assigned us to different duties. It went ahead really well at first. The challenge of the cutting was apparent and the two young recruits felt that I was teaching them things. We had lively lunch breaks, and I started looking forward to coming in to work.
After the layout was agreed on, we built walls along those lines from the floor to ceiling, tightly wedged so that the weight of the floor above would be supported when we cut the shape out of it. We finished it late one day, and the next morning we were going to start the cut on the second floor. I woke up early with a clutch of anxiety. Something was wrong, I was sure of it. I got to work early and studied the blueprint, stared at the lines, the walls…and suddenly knew what it was. We had built one of the walls on the wrong side of our chalk line; it would be the width of the two-by-six too small! Oh shit, this will look bad. Good that I’d caught it before we cut through above, but… here we had this big twelve-foot-high wall we had to tear down. Luck was with me, as the foreman had to be at another job for the first hour. I told the others what we’d done, and they gravely considered it. I told them we had a slim chance to avoid detection if we all four went at this furiously; removing nails, sledge-hammering the walls over, adding some pieces to fill in, plumbing-and-lining it again…and re-nailing. So that’s what we did, everyone working twice as fast as usual… and just had the wall in place and nailed when the foreman came in. I was already upstairs laying out the cuts. He waved happily and we were home free.
Those cuts were not simple either. Once we had lines snapped and were dead certain of them, we had to Skil saw through the double layers of mahogany. Then we confronted the huge joists, rough 4 x 12 timbers, some of them doubled-up. The foreman got us a chainsaw, and after carefully extending the lines down over the angles of the joists, I started lopping them off, confident from my memory of doing the same thing on the roof at the Unitarian Church. This all went very well, and we progressed upward the remaining four landings, making the same cut each time. Inez and I became good friends, Eugene was becoming the job wit, and I was beginning to enjoy my own leadership. It was interesting to see the way what they wanted to have happen socially was allowing me to be more who I was. Not a leader with commanding certainty, but someone who would let others see my process, my confusions. I could ask for help, and even make things fun.
The new elevator was going to be hydraulic, and it needed a hole as deep as the building was tall – for the piston to recede down into it when the elevator was on the ground floor. So there was a big drilling rig at the building’s edge, boring a four-foot-wide hole…sixty feet deep. At thirty feet they hit some rubble. Pieces of the old waterfront fill. Then there was stone. The auger couldn’t penetrate it and they brought in a specialist.
Mario was a Latino guy who was like a deep-sea diver. He was to be lowered down the hole with a jackhammer so he could break up the layer of stone. We saw him getting ready early the first morning and Inez asked him what the hell he was going to do? It looked strange, the special winch they had for lowering him down, the cradle of canvas straps, the jackhammer hose, his oxygen mask. He explained the whole thing as if it were routine, then says he never feels claustrophobic because he smokes a joint first. I had trouble understanding that part. If I smoked a joint first, the last place in creation I’d want to be, would be thirty feet down a shaft too narrow to move around in. But he assured us it was the only way he could stay calm and focus on the simple task of it. I said, what if you space out and don’t realize you’re not getting enough air? He said he had a regular code of tugs on the rope and that they would frequently tug at him for response. Jesus. We watched him go down…and then felt the vibrations of the hammer. He worked about a half hour and then they pulled him up, covered with dust. He laughed at us, drank some water, and went back down again. We talked about it all day, how…bizarre it was. Mario was either a great hero …or a chump who would be dead tomorrow.
He didn’t die, but he did share his joint with Inez, Gene & me the next morning. Two tokes was enough to make me want to go off wandering along the waterfront to study wave patterns and old fishermen. Gene and Inez were used to smoking more, and able to buoy me up those first few hours. The work we were doing was hilarious for a while. Gene started giggling at the stack of fresh plywood. He said there were flies on it, it was ridiculous somehow. I got a can of spray paint and wrote “ FLY WOOD” on it huge. We were hysterical. “Inez! Go get us a sheet of flywood!” She exploded when she saw it. What fun! But, but, … I was the lead man, I had to fight through this, I had to keep working and, like Mario, find somehow the even keel of bemusement yet purpose. It wasn’t easy and I decided next day to pass on the offered joint. In fact it was fifteen years before I ever tried that again, and then almost fell off a roof. Not all of us are as talented as Mario. At the end of the week we had decided that in truth he was a hero of the first order. He had broken through several feet of hard rock and the auger went back at it. Mario shook hands with a grin, and rode off into the fog.
Our foreman was transferred, and a new guy brought in. At first we liked him all right. He seemed comfortable with the two young minority apprentices, and came over to yak with us often. But after a week, he started being too comfortable…with Inez. He kept her after work one day with a contrived duty, and a few days later switched her to a solo task, which broke up our team. She was given the job of boring all the holes in the brick wall on every floor, that would allow the earthquake bolts to be set in from floor structure to exterior brick. There were hundreds of these to do, and one had to get down on knees or recline positions to hold the impact drill with any authority. It was…the worst job. Each of us had done it for a few hours on other days, and at first we thought, well, someone has to do it, apprentices often get this kind of grunge work. But then it went on the next day, and the next. Inez came up to me after work and said we had to talk. We went for coffee and she told me that Jim had propositioned her a couple of days back…and she had turned him down. He was pissed and told her he would make life miserable for her unless she ‘dated’ him.
So that explained the sentence of hard labor. Inez was furious, but she felt she had no grounds for saying she shouldn’t have to do the job. Inez was really a rugged, working-class woman. The last thing she wanted was to be perceived as whining about physical labor. In fact, she was as strong as me, a formidable person – who also was not a bit afraid of Jim physically. In fact, she was bigger than him. That made it even more disgusting. He was unable to force her or convince her or attract her. The raw power of the paycheck was what he had. When she had complained that he was treating her unfairly with the hole-drilling, he’d simply said, “Okay; then date me or you’re fired!”
I advised her to go to the union in the morning before work. Apprentices are supposed to be instructed, for one thing. And then of course there’s the sexual harassment, a legitimate and potentially scandalous thing for the company. I told her who to see, the most reliable of the business agents, and asked if she wanted me to come with her. She said no, she wanted to be able to carry herself as a stand-up member of the local, not dependent on anyone.
Next day she was gone. I called her that night and she said the union rep had taken her side with integrity and had called the company. They agreed to transfer her to another jobsite and make sure she was treated fairly if there was no threat of a lawsuit. Inez had agreed to this, but we both felt depressed. I felt I had to apologize for the whole backward mob of jerks that populate construction work. It was as if she had been a lantern in a cave, revealing our stupid scuttling ways. Ugh. She told me to drop that rhetorical bullshit, that the only thing that depressed her about it was that she would miss all of us. It was just one jerk, really… but one spoiled everything.
Jim was still foreman on that job for another two weeks – while we frosted him. Then, out of the blue, the union announced that contract negotiations had broken down and there would be a city-wide strike. When that all blew over, I found another job. Plant Bros. was tainted for me.
Eric Johnson is a printer who writes stories about his work as a carpenter in San Francisco.
“Gay Man Stabbed in Heart Survives,” read the front-page headline in the BAR, a gay newspaper I picked up while strolling on Castro Street.
Then I looked at the picture. It was my old college roommate Larry Johl. I recognized him immediately from his long very blond hair. As students at Washington State University we had lived together in the Rosa Luxemburg Collective in Pullman, Washington, a little town near the Idaho border. That was in 1973-74 before we had each decamped to the gay mecca of San Francisco. We had been in touch, and I had once been to his apartment on Broderick Street, furnished tastefully in deco style with castoff furniture and cheap (but not cheap-looking) window treatments.
Our get-together in San Francisco in the late ‘70s had revealed that Larry worked at a boring, low-paid office job in some bureaucracy. He described himself as a snow queen, meaning that he preferred to date black men. I later found out that snow queen was the term used to describe black men who prefer white men. The subculture’s term for white men like him was grunge queen, but I think he probably didn’t use it because of its racist overtones. He had a cute, angelic-looking boyfriend whose picture graced his bedroom chest of drawers.
I should note here that Rosa Luxemburg, whose giant portrait graced our dining room wall, was a Polish revolutionary socialist theoretician who was assassinated in 1919. Our hero. Margarethe von Trotta made a film about her https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLo4TuBRN6U.
When I thought back to our collective living arrangement at Rosa’s, in a huge house with 11 others, I remembered Larry had a thing for black men even then. It was Larry who introduced us to the music of the gay icon Sylvester. How did Larry discover him? How did Larry discover gay culture? It seemed like he had emerged a full-blown raging queen from his tiny desolate hometown of Soap Lake, in the eastern Washington desert, the middle of nowhere. He told me that as a kid he’d been a big fan of Elizabeth Taylor and had filled secret scrapbooks with her pictures cut from magazines. Perhaps he’d been a queen from birth, living testimony for the argument for nature over nurture.
Larry didn’t come out to us at Rosa’s but we knew. He personified all the stereotypes—limp wrists, lilting voice, and the neatest room in the house. In the collective, Larry was the roommate most concerned with beauty and fashion. He bought hair products by the case, it seemed. His hair really was strawberry blond. But it did look bleached, so perhaps he bleached in secret and then tried to mask the consequences with product. One time when we were on a road trip, all piled into a VW bus, Larry got out to smoke a joint and lit his hair on fire. Which must prove something about product.
Our Welsh roommate Keith couldn’t believe Larry’s wealth of information about popular culture. “He never reads. How can he know so much?” It was true. We seldom saw Larry studying. How did he pass his exams? He seemed much more interested in music. One semester he spent his student loan money on a stereo. I guess after that he depended on the kindness of strangers, or the kindness of friends.
Larry was central to our countercultural and political activities. He excelled in tasks organizational. His specialty was the media blitz. With our dissident friends, we had formed the League for the Promotion of Militant Atheism in response to a student Christian crusade. The Jesus freaks’ slogan was “One Way” and they’d proselytize holding up an index finger. It was annoying as hell. Our slogan became “No Way,” our sign a zero made with index finger and thumb. During registration week when students poured into the student union and all the organizations set up their wares at the entrance, Larry sat at our table and showed slides of all the churches in town, a tape of Elton John’s Burn Down the Mission playing continually in the background. Then, when we staged a debate about the existence of god, Larry took on media/outreach and managed to fill the auditorium to capacity.
We were desperate to change the direction of national politics, refusing to pay the federal phone tax that funded war and staging die-ins at ROTC functions. The FBI came knocking at the door after Larry sent a threatening letter to president Nixon. I don’t believe he was arrested. He had only put in writing what we were all thinking.
I think my brother Don would say Larry brought him out of the closet. Don didn’t live with us at Rosa’s but he visited frequently. In those days our sexual identities weren’t so clearly defined. We all experimented with gay as well as straight sex, although in retrospect the women seemed much freer than the men. The women swung like kids on a new play set, while the men tended to gravitate to one corner or the other of the sandbox. Neither Larry nor my brother Don was ever interested in women at the orgies we sponsored. They would carry on afterwards dishing male anatomical details, which I invariably missed.
After I saw his picture on the front page of the BAR, I called Larry. He was out of the hospital. He told me he had been cruising Buena Vista Park at 2 a.m. when he was attacked and stabbed. His attackers then tried to pull off his leather clothes. He was saved by a punk couple who got him to the hospital just in time. He had lost almost all the blood in his body. The gay bashers were never caught.
I asked Larry what he intended to do next. He said he was just going to live life as he had, maybe with more passion and vigor. “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow,” he told me cheerfully. He figured all the time in the future was free. He had been spared death, for the time being.
By that time in the early 80s we knew about AIDS but there was no test available yet and of course there was no treatment. Gay men were just dying. You would see your friend, a young man you sang with or worked out with, looking healthy and vibrant. Then he would get a diagnosis and two weeks later he would be dead.
When I asked my brother Don to tell me his memories of Larry, he remembered that they had seen each other in the late 80s. By that time Larry must have known he was HIV positive. He told Don that when he died he wished to be cremated and he wanted someone to distribute his ashes from a window of the 24 Divisadero, the bus that took Larry from his neighborhood in the Western Addition to the gay bars in the Castro. He said he wanted all the queens to prance behind the bus and stomp him into the pavement with their platform shoes.
I never saw Larry again, and when I tried to call, his number had been disconnected. I couldn’t find mention of him anywhere. I was pretty sure he had died of AIDS. The BAR had been printing obits for gay men since 1972, but it never published his. Did he, like many gay men, go back home to die? That was hard for me to imagine. Did he die alone or did he have a network of friends to care for him? Was he one of the ones who perished within weeks? Don and I felt negligent, that we had not come to his aid when he was dying. I sure hope someone did.
Eventually I found a notice of his death in the Ephrata, Washington paper, a slightly larger small town near Soap Lake. He had died in 1990. He was 39. But there were no details and so I just had to imagine his last years and days. Also in the Ephrata obits I found a Carl A. Johl, born 1914, who died in 2009 at the age of 94. I guess Carl was Larry’s father.
Some of the Rosa Luxemburg Collective roommates reunited again after 35 years. I had to come out to them as a lesbian. Then it fell to me to explain Larry’s fate to this assemblage of straight folks. I fear I failed.
Lesbians and gay men lived in different universes, different cultures, which we were continually inventing back in the 1970s and 80s. As a close student of lesbian feminist culture, I had no trouble discoursing on its development. But I was instantly aware that I didn’t really know the culture Larry lived in. How to explain his cruising escapades and his obvious sluttiness? The story seemed to suggest that he was responsible for his own demise, at least as I imagined my straight comrades might see it. We were a progressive bunch who believed in free love and revolution, rejecting nuclear war and the nuclear family. Still, I sensed disapproval in their shocked emailed responses.
Or was it something like envy? Larry had found himself in San Francisco and he was finally free to live an openly gay life. I think he was happy. Perhaps he and I were two collective members who succeeded in transcending the conventional lifestyle that we countercultural dissidents had all worked so hard to reject.
The 24 Divis is a crosstown route that goes from the rich white neighborhood of Pacific Heights clear down to the poor black neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point. It was the bus that for decades carried me from my neighborhood in Bernal Heights to the Castro to gay bookstores, bars, demonstrations, and film festivals at the Castro Theater. My wife and I often stop for a beer at Harvey’s just to cruise the crowd on the corner through its big windows.
The scene is still vibrant and colorful, but there are times, especially in winter, when walking in the Castro I see the ghosts of the young men who died of AIDS and then I’m overwhelmed with grief, so very aware of all that we have lost.
This story originally aired on the MUNI Diaries podcast, hence the references to the 24 Divisadero bus. I had such a hard time reading that last paragraph without breaking down crying. I share this grief with an entire generation of people who lived through the AIDS years. We have not forgotten.
The Rosa Luxemburg Collective was the culmination of our years’ long experiments in collective living arrangements in Pullman, Washington.
Thirteen of us student activists rented an old fraternity house and split all the costs. As members of a hippie commune, we believed in locally grown, organic food. There were no local farmers’ markets so we started a food co-op and began looking into buying food in bulk from large producers. This opened our eyes to the nature of the food distribution system. It turned out that in the Northwest much of the growing and handling of food was controlled by a Mormon empire and the closest warehouses were across the state line in Idaho.
I was the bread maker and wished for whole grain flour made from a kind of wheat they used in Europe. You couldn’t get it then. Bread in the 1970s in the U.S. was mostly of the Wonder variety. Whole grains were just on the verge of popularily. In New York or Chicago you could find a local German bakery, but in our small town if you wanted whole grain bread, you had to bake it yourself.
Bread making requires the baker to be around for two risings, so twice a week on days when I wasn’t in class I’d bake all day. We ordered flour in 25 pound sacks, and stored it in the freezer to discourage bugs, so it was deliciously cold when I would first plunge my hands in. Making bread was my form of meditation. I used the Tassajara Bread Book method, making a spongey mass first so the yeast got a good start before growth-inhibiting oil and salt were added. The first batch of bread would be eaten immediately by lurkers lured to the kitchen by the yeasty smell. I knew to make enough so there would be loaves left for the next couple of days.
The irony was that Pullman is surrounded by wheat fields. One year there was a glut of wheat and the grain silos were completely filled, forcing farmers to leave mountains of the unhulled grain near the train tracks. I imagined jumping into the piles of grain as one would jump into raked leaves, falling in like quicksand. I imagined it stone ground by old-fashioned mills. I imagined it refined and baked into perfect loaves.
The wheat fields surrounding us seemed terribly romantic from afar, driving by them on Highway 2. Winter wheat is planted in the fall and begins to grow before being covered by snow, then peeks up through the melting snow in spring. By the end of the spring semester, tall spikes undulate along the rolling hills. The sight of those softly swaying hills in spring makes you want to run out into nature, strip off your clothes and commune with her. One day my friend Joe and I decided to do just that.
Joe was a fellow student who lived in a collective house farther out in the Palouse country, a century-old uninsulated wood-heated farmhouse, the kind with two storeys and a huge porch. Keeping the interior of that building warm in Palouse winters required the burning of much wood and continual fire stoking. Mostly the human residents were just cold. The fabulousness of spring, when it arrives in this northern climate, cannot be overstated. Spring fever, I believe, is more truly celebrated in places where winter grips with an icy hand.
That April day was a spring cliché. The sun shone warmly and fluffy clouds floated in a clear blue sky. It was the time in spring when various shades of green compete for attention: the delicate yellowish green of early spring leaves just beginning to bud, the dense dark forest green of firs. The wheat fields were a bright emerald green, sort of wizard-of-oz-ish. When I walked out of the farmhouse, I expected to see the yellow brick road shining in front of me.
In the sixties there was a TV ad for something. It involved a couple running toward each other through a wildflower meadow, embracing wildly and–I forget what happens next. I was very taken with the wildflower meadow and tried to reenact this running embrace when I could get a friend to play the other part. Through years of trial and error I found that wildflower meadows, any meadows really, were hard to run through, especially when one is looking up at one’s soon-to-be embracer and not at the ground. Rodent holes, depressions dug by hooves and unseen drainage ditches create truly hazardous conditions. Yet this image persisted in my brain. Meadows equal romance. OK, meadows equal sex. That’s what the TV was saying, right? Today it would be an ad for Cialis.
There was another factor at work here too, besides spring fever and the power of advertising. A subculture that encouraged sex in the outdoors had blossomed in the Palouse and we were part of it–cultural envoys in a way. By god, we took our envoyship seriously, feeling we owed it to the culture to have sex outdoors as much a possible. There was an entire day devoted to the worship of outdoor sex. “Hooray hooray for the eighth of May; it’s outside intercourse day,” had been a fraternity slogan long before I got to WSU. Our idea was to broaden the whole concept. Why focus only on one day a year?
The swaying wheat fields called to us and Joe and I ran through them with abandon, something, it seemed to us, young people were supposed to do. I was a country girl and so knew, as I said, that fields are not always our friends. I knew, too, that terrible chemicals were applied to agricultural lands. DDT, not yet banned, had been sprayed liberally everywhere during my childhood. We were admonished to keep our shoes on in the orchard and not to swim in the canals and creeks where farmers dumped pesticide residues.
All these things I knew but the TV ad image still had a hold on me. Joe and I loped up the hill behind the farmhouse. When we got to the top, we had a speclacular view of the Palouse, Kamiak Butte in the distance. Had we thought to bring a blanket? Possibly, but even with a blanket, the thick stalks of wheat resisted flattening. Up close, the wheat field was far less romantic than it had seemed far away. The cracked earth looked dead, sprouting nothing but wheat. There were no weeds. This worried me. If whatever had been used on this field could kill weeds, what would it do to our butts, or any part of us that touched the earth?
As much as we felt we owed the culture outdoor sex, the outdoors was feeling less and less sexy. We made a flat place to sit down, but then of course, wheat obscured the view. “Let’s get out of here,” one of us said.