Friday, June 29, 2007

Changes on the Second Floor

With 5 bedrooms on the second floor, this part of the house felt the weight of change more than any other. It was kind of cool, since every new member undertook the task of painting and redecorating their rooms with gusto. Richard and Sylvia's room, which they kept minimally decorated except for a gigantic Swedish Ivy which they placed in the turret was taken over by Jaime when Sylvia finally moved. He had a lot more stuff and was a lot less compulsive about orderliness than either of them. Laura moved into Jaime's vacated room and Donna moved into the corner bedroom next to the shared bathroom (where Dorie had lived for 2 weeks)I recall she kept an interesting looking tie-dyed scarf on one of her windows as a curtain which set us apart from our neighbors. (Like we needed that) Sheila's old room which was in back of the house and happened to be the warmest due to the Southern exposure, was home to Kate, then Steven, before he moved permanently to the attic, and then to Yarrow, a girl who we accepted into the house briefly to serve as a babysitter for the kids. I don't recall much about Laura's room except the smell of tobacco (She smoked Camel cigarettes) and a picture of herself in Katmandu. As to my room, I needed space, so I moved the dresser (where I found the silver dollars) into the hallway where it stayed for 21 years , and put a futon on my floor and a low trunk against another wall to serve as an altar for my Native American sand painting and various other religious icons.( When we broke up the house, I took the dresser and altar and still have both in my apartment along with other Big Gray relics). I also had candles everywhere, a small bookcase and a hanging red oil lamp (which Kim had hand blown). Laura called the room my "hippie seduction pad" which wasn't too far fetched during the Aids- free 70's.

After Donna and I became lovers, we decided to take advantage of the "Couple Compromise"and move in together. That would also ease the burden of paying for two rent shares. After talking to Laura who was happy to move into Donna's room (It had a non-working but beautiful fire place) I moved out of my room , Laura moved out of her room and into Donna's, and Donna and I moved into Laura's old room (This was the room in the middle of the connected rooms that was made into two bedrooms by sealing the sliding door between the two "halves" of the front bedroom . That left my room vacant. We advertised again for a new roommate and found Andrea, a secretary for the then small, Natural Resources Defense Fund. Andrea looked very straight, but was really into our life style. (For years after she left, we continued to get mail from the various newsletters she subscribed to from spiritual and New Age communities). She moved into my old room and lived at the house for a short time. Her "claim to fame" at least as far as Big Gray is concerned, is that she became Steven's lover. Also, while walking home from the subway one day, she met a young 21 year old guy from the neighborhood whose name was Matt. He was a cabinet maker by trade, but his passion was the chopped-up Harley Davidson motor cycle which he had constructed and given a ride to Andrea on. Matt became part of our circle of friends and gave us all many thrilling rides on his Harley(including my eldest daughter who burnt her leg on the tail pipe of the bike). When, after her tumultuous and loud affair with Steven , Andrea left, we filled her spot by again recruiting locally. A potter from a local craft store became our next member. Her name was Barbara and she would go on to become a key player in our history.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Book Keepers

Somewhere along the way, we decided at one of our long drawn-out meetings to assign house jobs at Big Gray.This was a controversial decision owing to our anarchistic nature. As with most things concerning the house, we went through many changes until ( around our 6th or 7th year) we settled on a system that worked best for us. Before that though (for survival), we always had someone who acted as the house Book Keeper. As it turned out, this would become the most important and the most powerful position in the house. Sylvia was our first. It was her job to collect money, figure out what everyone owed (the telephone bill was always the worst part of it), and write out checks from our Big Gray Community check book. It was a thankless task. Cornering everybody and begging them to figure out which long distance calls they made, then getting them to cough up money was a pain in the ass which Sylvia soon grew weary of. I think I did it next, then later on with Donna (I had the job two or three times over the period of 21 years). In those first three years, we were in trouble with the oil company, then with Brooklyn Union (the gas company) and always with the landlord. It wasn't entirely our fault, exactly. With the oil company, the problem was the storage tank in our front lawn was broken so the damn thing had to be always full in order to work.Right from the start then, we had a huge bill to fill it. Then during our first winter, after the furnace belched up huge clouds of soot and grime through all the radiators in the house (for the second time) , the landlord replaced it with a gas furnace. (At the same time, he put aluminum siding on our first floor which ruined the look of the house, but saved us from freezing our collective asses off.) Anyhow, the gas company put us on an "estimated usage"pay plan, which meant we paid the same amount every month. That was fine until the end of our first year with them when they hit us with the overage charge which, of course, we couldn't afford to pay. Things were looking bad then, because to pay everyone else, we kept putting off paying the rent and Monsignor S. was getting more and more impatient (or so George told us; I was chicken to call him, myself). Finally, I negotiated a deal with some vice president of the gas company whose name we got from somebody. He agreed to let us pay our current bill and a part of what we owed till the whole thing was paid off, but we were still a couple of months behind with our rent.

That's how it went till Barbara arrived to save the day. When a member left in those early years especially, it caused an immediate crisis because we had to give them back their share of the deposit and that put us in a hole for the time it took to fill the vacancy. As I mentioned in the last post, I knew Barbara from the craft store which had moved into the neighborhood at the same time we did. She was living with the guy who owned the store and his monster of a dog who would attempt to eat anyone who came into the store. Barbara was the only person who could get near this monster without getting attacked, (if you can call getting jumped and slobbered on by a crazy dog "not getting attacked"). She also was part of a group who met in the city at an organization called the "Creative Quest" where Jaime, Donna and I had done therapy with Marilyn.(Small world, no?) So, when Barbara parted ways with Lou, the store owner and his dog, I was quick to sponsor her for a place at Big Gray. Steven had some reservations about her middle class values, but I think even he was charmed by Barbara's easy going manner, and besides, we needed the money. Thank God we got her. She took over the books and organized them so that we stopped, by and large getting threatening letters. She also started the idea of collecting more money from those of us who could afford it to make up for those who were behind on their obligations. (Why had no one ever thought of that?) Most significantly though, she began calling the Monsignor directly to tell him, for instance that we were sorry we could only send him part of the rent, but we would send another check in two weeks. Not only was he willing to accept the arrangement, he was completely won over by Barbara's manner. It was a great move forward for us, because it pushed George who was a cantankerous little worm, out of the picture and led to a wonderful relationship with the Monsignor. Monsignor S. later told me that he admired our little community because "Jesus lived that way with his Apostles." I doubt if Jesus ever tripped with the Apostles or grew pot in the back yard, but from that time forward, Monsignor S. was a friend.

So the Book Keeper became a very important figure in the house. Eddie, a guy who moved to Big Gray a few years later, further defined the role. By adding additional money to everyone's bill, he kept the people who were behind on payments (we always had them) on their toes. So, for example, if you owed $75, but Eddie said you owed $125 (no one ever checked), you scrambled to pay rather than fall too far behind. If you went over what you owed, it was fine as long as Eddie knew what the real numbers were. He also started the Big Gray Brown Box, a box we kept in the Office where anyone who bought supplies would simply leave the receipt with their name. He would add all the receipts at the end of the month and divide the cost among us. We had the "milk, butter and eggs" club too, for those of us who ate them, which saved a lot of room in the refrigerator where everyone had their own shelf. All these little nuances could be made without going to the house for a consensus vote which saved enormous haggling time.

There were always people at Big Gray who were contented to go along with the "flow" and not concern themselves with how things ran. Thankfully though,there were also those who took a hand at trying to steer our unwieldy ship.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Steven's Reign of Terror

OK, I'm at that point in the history when change was coming fast and furious. Let's see if I can remember the sequence of events.

With all the changes in personnel and the inclusion of my kids, Big Gray was in danger of losing its identity and becoming something else. In spite of the problems of the first couple of years, I still loved the house and wanted it to keep its "revolutionary edge". I enjoyed our status in the neighborhood and the alternative life style we had created. The war between Richard and Jaime notwithstanding, I recognized the need for the kind of individuals that they represented. Without strong personalities to stir the pot (no pun intended), Big Gray could sink into mediocrity. I didn't want that to happen. So, when Jaime announced he was ready to move on, I became determined to find a replacement who would have the leadership qualities he exhibited, but would also display a gentler side. As Jaime moved closer to his goal of becoming a "futurist", he took on an aura of respectability which some of us saw as a sellout . For example, he objected to the kids answering the house phone or anyone of us answering with the usual, "Big Gray, what do you say?"

Jaime had suddenly become very conscious of his image. In retrospect, I totally see the dilemma he was in. He might have solved the problem by putting in a business line to his room, but the house "culture"at the time, frowned on this form of privatization.In any case, he was looking to go west for his fortune.The ad we ran in the Voice went something like this:

Brooklyn communal house seeks strong but gentle leadership type to complete our space. Applicant should have spiritual side and be into our alternative lifestyle.

You know the expression, "Be careful what you ask for"? Well when Steven walked in the door, we were about to find out the truth of that proverb. He was 6' 4" with long red hair and beard and a strong English accent. He claimed to be bisexual, said he had served in the British army for 15 years, had martial arts experience and had trained as a Gestalt therapist. Gestalt therapy was something we all were familiar with. Its founder, Fritz Perls was a student of Freud's who had taken a totally different approach to psychotherapy. Instead of the Freudian method of allowing the patient to tell his story with little or no interference from the therapist, Perls debunked this approach as artificial. Instead, he promulgated using the "ground" between patient and therapist as the primary focus of investigation. Dubbed the "Zen" of psychotherapy, Gestalt was certainly not main stream but differed a lot in its application depending on who was practicing it and from whom it was learned. For instance, Jaime, Donna and I had experience with a gestalt therapist named Marilyn who we did training with at the "Creative Quest" in Manhattan. That association would yield some important relationships to Big Gray. Steven was of a different mold altogether. As an ardent adherent to a purer form of Gestalt, he believed that one could not just practice Gestalt within the confines of the psychotherapy room, but rather, should "live Gestalt" in every encounter one had with the world.That belief would lead to some fiery encounters at home and with visitors to the house. In addition to this rather impressive resume, Steven, an immigrant without a green card, was "employed" by selling marijuana in Central Park when he arrived at our door.

Now, if there was one constant problem at Big Gray, it was the inability we had in meeting our monthly fiscal responsibilities. You would think that for eight people coming up with $600 a month would be a piece of cake, but somehow, we struggled every month to gather the funds for rent, telephone gas , electricity, heating oil and our communal expenses. Between Jackson's earnings that were at best, seasonal, and kim, who in spite of his considerable talents, never seemed to have any money, we were constantly giving our annoyed landlord, or at least his hated representative George, cause for expelling us. Adding Steven to our lot would not improve this situation. Also, there was something about Steven's disdain for what he called the "American bourgeois"culture which rubbed me the wrong way. I guess as "alternative" as I wished to be seen, there was still a big part of me that clung to my middle-class roots and didn't want to totally let go of them. Jaime, who would stay for about two or three months after we finally agreed on accepting Steven, accused me of being homophobic and threatened by Steven's bisexuality when I voiced an objection to him. I let Jaime's criticism push me into voting in favor of accepting Steven, who had swiftly moved to ingratiate "hirself" (His word for the balance of male/female energy he espoused)) with all the other house members. Jaime also convinced Laura, who would later tell me she believed Steven to be a " classic psychopath", to vote for acceptance.

In order to be accepted as a member of Big Gray, one had to have unanimous approval. That way, everyone was responsible for the addition of new house mates. So many times, I or someone else was reminded of this fact when the "honeymoon period" was over and a member's "warts" became evident. It didn't take long for Steven to reveal his harder side. Jaime, the one who talked Laura and me into voting for him, was his first target. I don't remember the cause of the incident, but I vividly remember an explosive confrontation in the hallway and Jaime being cowered by Steven's considerable physical presence. In spite of his facile way of manipulating the truth, Steven was the martial artist he purported to be. More than that, he could create a very menacing presence. I would see more of that when it was directed at me, but in the interest of creating an honest account of Steven, I should also talk about his more admirable qualities. He was a magician. Yes, his ego led him to use his magic in ways that could be extremely manipulative of others, yet there was no doubt about his powers. He was capable of exquisite gentleness. His voice could take on a deep timbre which was comforting and almost hypnotic.He was also very intuitive and could sense the slightest bit of dis-ease in a person. And, he was a master at reading body language. Add to that, his knowledge of things like folk medicine, yoga, and the spiritual traditions of the East and you have some idea of this guru- like creature who held Big Gray in his sway for several years. Many a day would be spent with him in the Library over pots of tea and English joints (these perfect cylinders of tobacco and grass he would roll) while we all would sit with Steven and listen to stories about his travels and his knowledge of all things spiritual and secular.I will leave the "appreciation" of Steven to others. Over the years, I found him to be a great lier and manipulator. In the end, he was removed by force and he fled into oblivion. I will leave you with one image of Steven standing in the Library round room naked, save for a doti, his red hair and beard lit by the morning light, playing his reed flute and looking for all the world, like the god Pan. Oh yes, be careful of what you ask for. Big Gray had its new Fire Chief and his reign would be wonderful and terrible.

Monday, June 11, 2007

My Three Daughters

I have three beautiful,creative, generous, smart and caring daughters. I feel really blessed to have them in my life. And yes, there have been times when I grumbled about how self-centered they were or how stubborn or over bearing they seemed in a given moment, but when the chips are down, they have always been there to encourage, support and inspire me. So, how did that happen?

Looking back as a parent, it's impossible for me to see the moments in the early life of my kids where my teaching or method of parenting could possibly have made a positive impression on their lives. Instead, I can recall any number of times I felt frustrated, confused, doubtful and convinced of my failure as a parent. Still, looking at them now as grownups, I must have done something right. (Either that, or their mom is completely responsible for their good character). The time when I felt the most clueless about parenting was the five year period they lived with me at Big Gray. Now, please don't misunderstand. I always loved the three of them intensely, and tried to show them my love on a daily basis unlike my own dad who loved me, I know, but was not demonstrative at all. I'm talking more about the qualities of constancy and good character which the ideal dad should exude. I'm afraid my kids saw all my weaknesses and lapses of character while they were with me at Big Gray. I was really immature and ill prepared to be a husband and father when I married, and had to "learn on the job". I guess we all do, but there were times I just wanted to close the door, put a pillow over my head, go to sleep and wake in another life. My parental difficulties were apparent in every phase of our lives together at Big Gray, whether it was getting them up in time for school, having their clothes, breakfast and lunches ready, seeing that their homework was complete, cooking a good supper or getting them into bed on time. I sucked at all of that. I was also pretty bad at refereeing their fights which came often. I even lost one of them in Central Park for 3 scary hours! Still, here they are, college graduates, amazing aunts and parents, great friends and loving daughters. I guess I could write a whole blog on the three of them. I'm really proud of them and all their accomplishments. Just, as I tell the history of their tenure at Big Gray and you, the reader of this sordid tale considers having me tried for parental abuse, know that the story comes out well. They aren't without their scars from growing up (are any of us?), but by and large, they have reached a level of, well, greatness. Yeah, yeah I'm prejudiced, but believe me, to know them is to love them. Happy Father's Day to me!

Here's their part of the story.

When my wife asked me to take them for the summer, I was relieved they would be with me. Over the year they lived in Berkeley, I only saw them once, and while they lived in Connecticut, we saw each other weekly when they visited the house or when I took the train to Norwalk. Still, I missed them. So, it was great to have them with me at Big Gray, but as August came close and my wife still hadn't found a new place to live (she wasn't getting along with the Connecticut guy), I had to consider putting them in school in Bayridge. I went to the house too, and asked for permission to extend their stay. I received a somewhat reluctant ok, and registered them in the local elementary school. My oldest was ready for the fifth grade. She was a great reader, but had somewhat mediocre math skills. They placed her in the middle or second track. My middle kid was a good math student. She went into third grade. And my youngest was starting the first grade. As September grew near, I met with my wife to discuss their staying with me and starting school in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, I handled the meeting poorly and we got into a horrible brawl. It was really unfortunate, because it changed from what might have been a good remedy for the situation into something my poor wife saw as me stealing the kids and abandoning her. That feeling colored our relationship and changed the separation from being relatively peaceful to bitter. It also was unfair to the kids and to the rest of my Big Gray family who had to listen to our fights as we made the weekly exchange. (I would bring them to her on Friday night and she would return them on Sunday night). Things got so bad between us that the house voted to restrict my wife from coming into the house or visiting. Of course, that seemed terribly unfair to the kids, and my oldest actually addressed a house meeting asking for permission for her mother to visit. When she finally got an apartment near the house, things cooled down a bit, but that five year span was marred with our bad handling of the separation. In spite of that, it gave me an opportunity to learn how to parent, and it changed Big Gray for the better too. Big Gray wasn't new to change, and even bigger changes were about to happen as we attempted to find a replacement for Jaime.