Sunday, July 29, 2007

Matt, Michael, Julie,John, Jo Pat, Abby and Paul

Along with Barbara, these were the people who gained membership to the house during Steven's tenure. Two of them, Jo Pat and Paul were asked (forced) to leave, and Steven was (somewhat more violently) ousted as well. So, this was a period of our history filled with a lot of strife. Much of it centered around Steven who, cleverly never picked more than one house mate at a time to conflict with. Laura swore that this was because he was a classic psychopath, but this is getting ahead in the story.

After Barbara was elected to membership, Matt asked to join. Now, as I wrote earlier, he had been hanging around the house anyway. We were all familiar with him, his home made Harley and his gigantic Ford LTD convertible. It was clear that taking him in would lose us the rental income from our garage, where Roy A. from across the street parked his Jaguar. Since Roy's dad, Dr. A. was one of the neighbors who regularly called the police on us during parties, I felt that renting Roy the garage might be useful. But between Kim who always had at least one car and Matt, we were not going to be able to rent any more space. That consideration aside, I was definitely into taking Matt into the house. He was an incredibly energetic guy from a family of energetic people. Matt was someone who was driven to success in whatever field he entered. As a lanky teenager, he took up Karate and had his black belt by the time he was 17. After high school, where he won the city's Industrial Arts Award for two years running, he joined his dad's import/export firm. Business flourished under his drive and dedication. By the time he was 20, he had a Master Cabinet Maker's license and was working for a firm that built sets for trade shows. His plan, when he entered the house was to return to school (Aviation Academy) and get his Air Frame Mechanic's certification while he worked on his pilot's license. At the same time, Matt also had a gentle side. He really liked my kids and was very close with me. He asked for my advice a lot, and always listened to my opinions. As soon as he got into the house, I told him that our kitchen needed some renovation . He built a pot rack over the stove and a counter next to it giving us needed storage and work space. That was the kind of thing that really endeared him to me. He always looked to fix a problem with a hands on approach. Unfortunately, not all problems can be fixed that way, but this head strong, dynamic kid was a welcome addition. He was slated to get Jaime's room as soon as Jaime moved his stuff out. In a last display of power, Jaime told Matt he would be moving "when he felt like it" or words to that effect. Matt told him if he wasn't out in two days, he would move his stuff into the hall. This kid had power. Steven must have seen that immediately. In all the time they lived together, I never saw Steven try to intimidate Matt. He couldn't.

Matt had a few biker friends who came around to the house after he moved in. These were great people who shared a love of choppers, and had that biker mentality of "live and let live". I really felt it was going to be a special time in our history. That's when Steven started showing his darker side. I can remember the day it changed for me. It must have been early in September. I was still having trouble getting my kids in bed early enough so they could get up early for school. It was taking a little prodding and running between the kitchen and the third floor to facilitate their getting dressed and putting their breakfast and lunch together. I suppose it was louder than Steven wanted. He told us he liked to "move gently from the dream state to consciousness" Well, I'm sorry. You live with people. Anyway, he came down to the kitchen for water, and I made the mistake of saying, good morning to him. "I don't see what's good about it, with all this noise" was his less than amicable response. Naturally, I felt guilty for disturbing his precious dream state. That wouldn't have bothered most people, but I was really susceptible to any implied criticism involving my kids. I'll come back to my problems with Steven later. We had a complicated relationship.

After Matt, Barbara sponsored her boyfriend Michael's bid to become a house member. Three or four times after that, people wanted admission for their chosen other . It was always a problem, because you didn't want to reject a member's lover, but if you didn't share that person's enthusiasm for their spouse, well...That surely wasn't the case with Michael. He and I had met a few times before at Creative Quest, but had never really bonded. Then, before he and Barbara started dating, Marilyn (the other therapist from CQ) put together a conference at Ramapo College in New Jersey, entitled "Men and the Male Role". I decided to go and take my kids. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I had, and it was fantastic for my kids. I suppose there were about 300 people at the conference which lasted 5 days. The kids and I shared a dorm room and had meals together. The rest of the time, they banded together with the nine other kids who were there with their parents, including Julie, Michael's daughter. Always a dynamic individual, Julie became "leader of the pack", much to the chagrin of my daughter Patty who was a year older. We would see them all running around the campus only stopping to ask for vending machine money when they needed a candy fix. Meanwhile, Michael and I kept running into each other and shared quite a few pipe ceremonies during the conference. I immediately felt in him a kindred spirit, as he is to this day. So, I couldn't be more delighted that he wanted to become a house member. My girls were slightly less sanguine about admitting Julie who shared time with both her parents, but they managed to form a workable if not entirely strife free relationship.

Matt introduced us to John. He too was a Brooklyn biker. We all liked him. He had a wide open good natured smile, and a boyish innocence about him. He also had a little Italian girl friend with a strong Brooklyn accent who followed him around adoringly. Actually, John wasn't all too happy with Jo Pat's adulation, but I think we felt that he needed someone his own age in the house to relate to. Anyhow, we took in Jo Pat also. She got Alan's vacated room after Steven made it too uncomfortable for Alan to stay. I always felt bad because Alan was such a long time friend of mine and one of the few remaining founding members. But Alan wasn't one to form close bonds with people, preferring his privacy.It made it easy for Steven to isolate him and cut him out. Jo Pat followed in Alan's footsteps in that she isolated herself by falling far behind in her debt to the house. Smelling blood, Steven led the charge in putting her out. She never made it to six months.
So now, we had two Harleys in the garage. Inspired to join the new craze, Steven found a guy selling a British made Triumph motorcycle and somehow, on his car service driver's salary, managed to pay for it. I remember great rides on the back of all those bikes.

Putting an ad in the Voice unearthed Paul, a personal chef and caterer. He and Steven seemed to bond. I wasn't that sure about him, but I couldn't put my finger on anything specific. After he gained admittance, we learned that Paul had a thriving side business in dealing cocaine. This was not a drug I had any knowledge of. I had tried it, but didn't like it at all. I'll take coffee any day over coke. Paul's clientele, unlike those who bought pot called the house at all hours of the day and night and tended to be heavily aggressive personalities. After that, I saw cocaine become a big part of Bay Ridge's party scene and witnessed the ruination of many lives due to it. It seemed odd that we who grew pot in our backyard and smoked and did acid would find fault with another popular drug, but coke had an entirely different culture which this old hippie found to be destructive and mean spirited.We met over Paul and convinced Steven that his habits were a menace to our lifestyle. I think Steven would have liked Paul to stay because he saw in him a way of possibly making money, and a source for the drug Steven was becoming fond of.

Closing out that period of our history, my girls moved a few blocks away to their mom's place. After 5 years of being with them, I finally had become comfortable with the job of parenting. My daughters Margaret and Patty were in Fort Hamilton High School in Bay Ridge and Jen was in junior high. It left a big hole in my life when they moved, even though they were nearby and I saw them a lot. I felt empathy for what their mom must have experienced. Now, I had lost my girlfriend (Donna had moved to California) and my kids. That closed a chapter of my history, but there was still more to come for Big Gray.

Abby moved in right after the girls left. She was an artist and a school teacher. (She taught Art at Lincoln High School in Bensonhurst ) Abby was a great addition to the house. She had a warm personality, and bonded well with all of us. She also had a large group of friends who became fixtures at our parties and dinners. She built a jewelry studio in the basement too. Our basement which was empty and unused (except for Jaime's jar processing wall) had become a busy place housing Barbara's pottery studio, our washing machine which John had resurrected by putting in new hoses, a nursery for starting plants in the garden, a workbench for Matt's wood working projects, and Abby's studio. We even had another whole room with a sink which Kim and I eventually turned into a dark room.

Abby would be our 28th member counting the kids and girlfriends of Alan and Jaime who I haven't mentioned yet. It was the eighth year of our experiment in communal living. Following Steven's removal (for high crimes and misdemeanors), we would take a look at ourselves and make a decision to slow down, make some rules and tone down our "outlaw presence" in the neighborhood. These were all decisions which helped insure our survival, but looking back, I can say, we lost a lot of the edge that made living at Big Gray so joyful and exciting. I guess for me, I was growing older along with the house, and moving (kicking and screaming) towards maturity.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Working at Home

In my "perfect communal living " fantasy, we would all stay home and work our little farm which produced a bumper crop of scientifically- grown sinsemilla, with which we would finance our entire enterprise. And, while we did manage to grow some nice sized back yard plants for baking Alice B. Toklas chocolate chip cookies, we never were able to create any type of business which utilized all our talents. Not that we didn't try. Our first attempt involved Donna, Steven and I. We called the business the Bay Ridge Human Resources Center, "a public service extension of Big Gray, with offices and rooms for individual and group communication. An extensive library and information service are at our client's disposal "(What? Come over to the house, hang out and read our books? People did that already. For free.) "Our personnel are trained professionals in such diverse fields as humanistic therapy (buzz word) counseling, body therapy, (Steven referred to one of his two clients as "the Hump")health education, planning, marketing, writing, editing and graphic arts." There was a lot more. Needless to say, we didn't get any business other than the two hapless victims Steven tortured.

After that, Donna and I worked together for a time soliciting advertisements from therapists, nutritionists and other touchy- feely characters for a New Age paper distributed in health food stores. (I forget the name) She also was an editor and wrote a few articles.

Barbara and her boy friend Michael who moved into the house at some point, were the most successful at working at home, (no surprise). When the craft store where she worked converted her studio to selling space, Barbara decided to build a studio in our basement. So, not only did she clean and paint the basement, she and Michael painted the stairway going downstairs, and while they were at it, painted the dining room and the bathroom under the stairs. All the work was done with taste and a perfectionist's eye (Barbara's). She even had a kiln put in with a separate electrical connection.She worked tirelessly throwing pots and teaching classes. Michael who was one of the therapists from Creative Quest moved his practice to Bay Ridge and saw clients in the office. I loved it, because it meant more people at home more of the time.

Joyce came into the house a year or two later and taught ballet classes in the front room.

While I was working at Circle's, I started doing workshops and seeing a few clients, myself. I had been training at the Gestalt Institute in New York. My practice never amounted to much though. I couldn't convince myself that I was any less fucked up than the people who were coming to me.

So in the end, Jackson who wrote his book at Big Gray and Barbara were the only two house members who worked exclusively at home. The rest of us all had other income sources. I guess, for an urban commune, we did all right. The fact that so many of us were at home so much of the time, assured that the house would always be welcoming. By and large, it was.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Laura, Haikila and Jackson

There are some people who deserve special mention. These three individuals are among those who I felt the need to write about separately. Not only were they distinguished members of Big Gray, they also have something else in common. Sadly, all three have passed. To those of us who knew them, they will be greatly missed.

Laura came right before the kids moved in and was part of that big change over after Richie, Sylvia, Jackson and Sheila moved.I liked her right away. She was a great conversationalist and had an interesting history.She had done the "hippie world wanderer thing" traveling to India and Nepal. Moreover, she was an avid reader and had a ton of favorite books she carried with her from house to house. On her first night at Big Gray, we went to the movies together to see Saturday Night Fever which as some of you may know, was actually shot in Bay Ridge. Another thing about Laura which really endeared her to me was her closeness to her family. She had two brothers and a sister who was the same age as my oldest daughter. Laura's dad was a tall, warm Italian and her mom an equally engaging Jewish woman. They all had a palpable love for one another which was truly charming. While at Big Gray, Laura studied to be a Physician's Assistant. Her weekends were usually spent with her boyfriend, first one, then another who she eventually married. She loved to dance, but missed most of our parties to be with them.You would think that with that kind of schedule, I would not be overjoyed to have her as a room mate. The opposite was true. In spite of the fact that her time was really taken up by her other pursuits, I always felt Laura was an integral part of the house. For one thing, she was genuinely close to all three of my kids bonding with them easily, more like a sister than another grownup. She shared books with them, told them her secrets and hung out with them. She and I took her sister and Margaret, my oldest daughter, to their first concert, James Taylor and his family at the South Street Seaport. She also loved all our cats, the squirrels in the back yard (who she chatted with) and even the occasional mouse who found its way into the house. (She would try futilely to protect them from the cats) Laura moved from Big Gray to marry her husband, Ed. They moved into an artist's loft on the Brooklyn waterfront. We went to their wedding . She had two beautiful kids who she cherished. After I left Big Gray, we saw Laura and her family at a few of my Christmas parties in Queens. I went to her 50th birthday party, and her son's bar mitzvah. About a year later, I visited her at the loft they still called home. She told me there that the cancer she thought she had beaten had returned. I offered to help by coming to cook for her and her family. She was touched by my offer, but really it was the least I could do. When I next heard from her husband Ed, she was in the hospital. She died surrounded by her family. We went to her funeral and witnessed an outpouring of love from her parents, brothers, sister cousins, aunts and,of course her devoted husband and children. She will always be missed.

Haikila came to the house just after Barbara. She was a feminist poet, a bisexual and an altogether beautiful person. Her election to membership was another of those instantaneous no-brainers. We all loved her and she loved us. She also loved my kids and really took the time (like Laura) to bond with them. We made plans to do workshops in communal living together. Haikila was going to be an ideal house mate with her combination of personal warmth and activism. She lived at the house a few months when, on a Sunday afternoon, she and four friends were driving upstate to attend a workshop. Haikila was driving. Somehow, she lost control and the car went into a spin, turning over before coming to a halt. Miraculously, all four of the passengers escaped unhurt. Haikila was taken to a hospital where she remained in a coma for 31 days before dying. She had only recently moved to New York from California , so she had family there and friends here. Her body was sent to California for burial leaving those of us in New York feeling bereft. We decided to hold a wake for her at Big Gray. It was one of our finest moments. Her father flew here to take part and we readied the Library for the event which drew some 50 mourners. We all shared our feelings about her and read aloud from a heart felt letter from a relative who couldn't attend. I read a portion of the Sioux Native American ceremony for "Sending of the Soul" and we allowed anyone who wished to visit her room, which was lit by candles, to spend some time there, and take away any memento of her belongings they wished to keep. It was a sad day, but I felt proud of our role in making it a memorable one.

Jackson was one of those New York characters who always manages to survive on the fringe of the rest of society. Nowadays, it probably wouldn't be possible given the gentification of New York's old middle class neighborhoods. As I mentioned in another post, he was a writer. He worked mostly for magazines in the 50's. I don't think he ever published anything great. His "masterpiece" which he was very proud of was an out-of-print book which I didn't read. Laura, who was the big reader in the house tried it and told me privately, that it was terrible. But, that isn't what defined Jackson. When he first moved in, he took the small bedroom on the third floor we used for a guest room, and later as a bedroom for Margaret. When he moved back to Big Gray after a hiatus, he had damaged his leg so that the trips up to the third floor became painful.
So, he took up residence in the room inside the front door- our office. He became the official guardian of that door. We all used the side door for coming and going. We actually left it open. Visitors, however, rang the door bell and gained entrance through that double front door. Jackson was the gatekeeper. He accepted packages, let in meter readers and kept out unsavory individuals. It was his way of paying for rent and expenses, because he had virtually no money between books. While he lived there in '77, he wrote one of his New York set detective stories, "Crazy Woman Blues", which he eventually sold to E.P. Dutton . After the book was published, he had some money which he lavished on the house. His book has a dedication, "For Big Gray". I have a signed copy. He pretended to be dismissive of kids, but actually he liked all of them, especially my daughter, Margaret, who he thought would one day make a fine writer. (Margaret does write well, but thankfully, she isn't a writer) The kids used to write plays, and put them on in in the yard inviting a few neighbors' children and Jackson (who always bought a ticket). He had great stories. He was one of the few people I'd ever met older than me, who smoked pot and did psychedelics. I remember him at one of our Halloween parties, dressed in a bed sheet/toga with his sax (which he also played a little) limping around the house and tripping on acid. What a character! Some time after he left, he moved to Arizona to be near Susan and her family. Sylvia kept in touch with him. It was from her that I learned of his death.

They were three house mates who everyone was fond of. They helped define us and added greatly to our diversity. May their spirits always find a happy home in the lodges of the Elders.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

House Meetings

At Big Gray, communication was crucial. No one wanted to feel like they were left out of decisions, so it was important that everyone have their say about anything that went on. That meant we had to get together and discuss issues. The dreaded House Meeting was our venue for these discussions. We went through a few different methods for calling and conducting meetings, but I won't bore you with the details. The way we finally decided to do it,anyone who wanted a meeting would post a request on the kitchen chalk board (one of two boards in the house-the other, on the second floor,was chiefly for political cartoons) Then, we would get everyone to sign up for the meeting (it was really pointless to have meetings if we couldn't all attend) and post an agenda. Anyone could add to the agenda. On the night of the meeting the chairperson (we rotated the job) would read the agenda and decide how to mediate the discussion. Obviously, some of us were better at this than others. Mediation, however didn't mean parliamentary type discussion of issues.The last point on the agenda was reserved for the Book Keeper who would inform us of our fiscal status. That was it in a nutshell. I mentioned we often held a Drum Ceremony after early meetings . Now you may think that we were the epitome of New Age "togetherness" from that description. You would however, be wrong. House meetings were sometimes hellish affairs with raised voices, hysterical crying and wounded egos. As the peace chief, I did try to temper these bouts by meeting behind the scenes with some of our more "outspoken" members before meetings. Having a lot of group therapy experience sometimes helped, but often didn't. Things we fought over? "You didn't do your chores last week". "You owe $200 to the house". "You left the dishes on the table after you ate." "You are tying up the house phone with your phone calls". Simple stuff. The kinds of problems that most families face. Our meetings were useful because they got everyone involved, but they certainly didn't solve the problems. In 21 years and 55 people, we only voted four members out, but we had a lot more fights. Every generation remembers one or two people who seemed to be always behind in their money or their chores, someone who lacked a sense of consideration for others. I saw it all. I loved Big Gray. I loved that we met but hated many of our meetings, and I loved most of the people who lived there. However, there were clearly some who ought never have applied; some who were far too self involved to live with other people. I developed a theory about it. If you had problems within your own family and never successfully dealt with them, then the experience of living at Big Gray would bring those problems up again and again and again. House meetings were where all that karma came to a head.

Richie, Jaime, Donna, Steven, Matt, Dan, Sam and William were the principal Fire Chiefs-the trouble makers who pushed others to shape up or who campaigned for changes like, "we should paint the Library", or "build a back porch", or "get a second refrigerator",or "fix the washing machine", or" put in another phone", etc. On most big decisions, we achieved consensus. If we didn't, you either gave up, or did what you thought was right anyway. Hey! It wasn't Congress and we had no Constitution. As I said before, there were the doers and there were those who went along without doing much. No matter how much you tried to probe the motives of prospective members, you could never predict the chemistry of 8 to 10 people living in close proximity.I think it was Dan who objected to my calling Big Gray an "experiment in communal living". But that's exactly what it was, an imperfect, ongoing experiment.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Full Disclosure

In the face of withering criticism from some of my readers, I have decided to go back and edit all of my previous posts, substituting actual names for the made-up ones I had originally thought to provide. If you didn't know any of us, this makes little difference, but if as a former member you want to hear the "real" stories about some of the players who preceded you, then you will be happy to know that I have done so. I still invite those of you with remembrances of your own to contribute.The exercise has also allowed me to clear up some spelling and grammatical errors which I'm sure will be appreciated. So now, don't complain if I tell any secrets you were hoping to hide.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


  1. A little less than a year after we moved into Big Gray, a new restaurant appeared in the neighborhood. Until then, most of the local eateries were either expensive or had cuisine we weren't interested in. This one promised to be different, so we eagerly awaited its opening. When it did, we were all enthusiastic about it. They served pita bread sandwiches (uncommon at the time), pots of herbal tea (I had discovered Red Zinger in Boulder), carrot cake and a delicious chocolate walnut cake. On top of that, the restaurant was operated by three young, attractive people who seemed to have lots of time to hang out with their new customers. In short, it was a perfect place for us. Over the next year we became frequent customers and forged friendships with the new owners. One evening I came in with a few house mates. I had on a new Guatemalan poncho I bought in the East Village . With my beard, the poncho and a beret which I had taken to wearing, I thought I looked quite the New Age revolutionary. As I came to the register to pay, I was greeted by John, one of the three owners. "Che!", he exclaimed, referring to Honesto Che Guavera, Castro's compatriot in the Cuban Revolution. We both laughed over the comparison he had made. Two years later, after the demise of my bookstore, I approached John looking for a "temporary"job. By then, Circles' had grown from a single room to three rooms and a yogurt store serving frozen yogurt and fruit smoothies. The line to get in often stretched around the block (though old customers like us were awarded quick seating). I was hired as the first evening cashier, and picked up shifts on Friday, Sunday and Monday nights. In addition, I worked Tuesday and Saturday days. It was a perfect job for it allowed me to be in the neighborhood and be available to my kids (The babysitter arrangements I had made before that never worked out. The kids always ratted out whoever I left in charge with accounts of how they neglected their duties). Since there were a lot of Joe's working at Circles', I was named Che for the purpose of convenience, which later morphed into Joe Che and the Cheman. The generation of workers who came after me (I worked there for 15 years) didn't know who Che Guavera was, and thought my last name was Che. It only caused trouble for my middle daughter when I got her a job at the restaurant. She objected to being called "one of the Che sisters". All in all, Circles' was a great place to work. It had all the benefits of the bookstore without the hassles of worrying about the business. It allowed me to go back to school full time during the day and earn my Masters. And, most importantly, it provided me with lasting friendships with many of the great people who worked there with me. (Sadly, in the time since I worked there, our Circles' family has lost four members who I counted as friends. Two died of natural causes, and two were victims of the 9-11 tragedy)