Sunday, August 19, 2007

Joyce and Maureen

With the benefit of hindsight, I am able to see the era after Steven as a turning point for Big Gray. Before and during Steven's tenure, I remember us acting much more by acclimation rather than by deliberation.The Native American metaphor, provided a kind of back story for us, and it produced a house where action often came before discussion. I suppose it would be valid to call it anarchy. I had a prejudice about establishing rules, as did many of the earlier members. We did have basic expectations that we would act towards each other in good faith, however. I mentioned before the way we took Kim into the house. We decided 5 minutes after he left the room that he was in.. We used to clean the house the same way. You might see Richie and Sylvia standing on the roof over the first floor shaking out rugs, and you would start cleaning yourself. Or the time right after Steven came, when we spent the day refurbishing the Library and painting (On Magic Mushrooms). Of course, a person could easily feel overlooked with that kind of "gang mentality" but I liked it better than setting up rules and having to say at meetings," The Library wasn't cleaned last week". During the early days, we were hated by the neighbors and that snake George (from the church) who would prowl around the house and take grape leaves without asking. All that adversary brought us together. I guess what happened after those initial 6 or 7 years is that we all needed a break from the chaos around our little group, and in a way, we became ordinary. Oh, the parties would still be good, and we would still have the opportunities to meet some great people along the way. And the internal disputes would continue,not as intensely for sure,. We would still have our share of eccentrics, but we would never again feel the same kind of exhilaration as when it was "us against the world".

The next person we took into Big Gray caused many meetings and discussions before we decided on her.She was a new direction for all of us. Every person we took into the house prior to Joyce had a certain kind of connection to the so-called" hippie or alternative" culture. Even Andrea who was pretty "straight" was extremely interested in alternative communities. In a way, Joyce symbolized the era that was to follow. Ironically, she wound up with Kim who was the most visible of our hippies. But when I interviewed her, I perceived this rather frail, cool woman who was here to study, (like many before and after her) who hated her present Manhattan "closet" and needed to find a cheap place to live. I never felt a real need(from her) to want to live with us because she thought it was anything more than a practical idea. I couldn't get off that till Barbara made the point that we needed her rent, we had been interviewing for a month and, she emphasized, we needed to clean up our act. I didn't want to clean up our act. I liked that we grew pot in the backyard. However, Barbara had a point too. It was right for us to take in someone who would be steady, straight and more "main stream". In the end, Barbara's thinking prevailed, and we voted Joyce a member. Maureen too came at that point. She too needed a place more than she needed to live in a commune. John wanted her because she was his age, but in the end, Maureen would join forces with Joyce and become a "voting block" to be dealt with over the years. There were many times I felt frustrated by their combined wills as when they voted against accepting a good friend of mine into the house. But, I can also recall many meetings where it was Joyce's cool way of looking at a problem that produced a solution. They both stayed to the end of our time as a house, so in many ways, the last fourteen years of our history can rightly be known as the Joyce and Maureen era. They were both part of the next group that would leave their mark on Big Gray- the group led by the Ohio Kid, Dan K.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Boyfriends and Girlfriends

With the exception of Laura, whose boyfriends rarely if ever visited the house, most of our significant others were often present and , all too often, proposed as prospective members. This was always a dilemma for me, because I discovered over the years, that a boyfriend or girlfriend often brought out negative traits which were less visible when that person was single. Now, of course this wasn't always true. In fact, several liaisons proved to be very good for the house. The problem was it was almost impossible to vote against a boyfriend or girlfriend entering the house. In fact, I can't remember a single incidence of one being rejected. For better or worse, we were all subjected to each other's taste in partners. It started with our core group. Jaime, after a few weeks in the house, started talking about this woman he had met in an ashram somewhere. Although they had never made love, they had a deep spiritual connection and he had invited her to stay with him over the summer. When Barbara G. arrived, we all liked her. She was British and very beautiful. I spent a good deal of time with her and really enjoyed talking to her. Apparently, Jaime and she never consummated their relationship. She wound up with a friend of Jaime and later returned to England. While she was home, she sent me a letter confessing that she had really been attracted to me, but didn't want to say anything for fear of spoiling Jaime and my friendship.After Barbara B was in the house, she (Barbara G) returned to the States and asked Alan and I to sponsor her for membership. Kim was on one of his sabbaticals and Alan and I were the only ones she knew. Steven killed the deal. Barbara B was tolerable to him (even though she was middle-class) because she was American, but Barbara G., being British, was totally unacceptable. So we had to tell her she couldn't join. She took it really badly, and I felt terrible.

Both Kim and I hooked up with other house mates while they were in the house. I was with Sheila and later Donna, and Kim with Susan and later, Joyce. I thought that together, Donna and I were a good mix for the house. We tried to be good house members and rarely ganged up on anyone. Both of Kim's girl friends didn't change appreciably from being with him, at least as far as their participation in the house was concerned. Then again, Kim wasn't a dynamo as far as house politics were concerned.

We had four couples who joined the house as couples. They were Sylvia and Richie, Eddie and Martha, Pete and Claire and Eric and Cathy. In spite of their problems with each other, Sylvia and Richie were great. They were both house leaders and while they were together, were both dynamic members who added a lot to Big Gray's culture. Eddie and Martha were very different in that Eddie was much more of a doer who readily joined in the group dynamic. Martha was somewhat less of a contributor to house politics, but Kim and I really liked her, and enjoyed laughing with her (especially about house politics). Pete and Claire were virtually inseparable. They were the most committed of the couples who joined the house together, had similar kinds of laid back personalities, shared the same career goals, and are, last I heard, now married and living in Delaware. I remember their perogi meals and Pete's contribution to the design and building of our back porch. Eric and Cathy were, unfortunately a disaster. They were married, more because of Cathy's immigrant status I think, than for mutual affection.This may be a harsh judgment , but Cathy, who spoke only French acted like a total shrew while they were in the house together. I saw it coming. I thought that Cathy was just along for the ride when Eric answered our ad for the house. I tried to draw her out during my interview with them, but she seemed almost disinterested . Eric kept apologizing for her, saying it was due to the language barrier, but I had serious reservations. I exacted a promise from him that he would make Cathy understand that house membership depended on both of them being a part of the house. The problems started almost immediately. Cathy had some problems with Maureen as I recall. Now Maureen, as I will tell later, was not the best at relating, but Cathy seemed really in the wrong. She also refused at first, to attend house meetings. Then,whenever she and Eric had problems, she would shriek and stamp her feet on the floor of their bedroom like some petulant child. We tried mediation, but she stomped out of the house meeting we called to alleviate the situation. It was a shame, because I liked Eric, but he was unable to handle her. We asked them to leave the house. I felt like Eric was deceitful in accepting membership knowing how opposed his wife was to living at Big Gray.

I told you a little about Michael earlier. When Barbara presented him to us as a member , it was an easy sell as far as I was concerned. I don't remember any real objection to him, and theirs was a great relationship. They never (and still don't) overwhelm you as a couple the way others did. I always felt totally comfortable in their presence. And, they were a great team for the house. They did some serious redecorating (Including the pumpkin colored dining room) and were a steadying influence on all of us. Michael was a great friend to me, and a source of sage advice too. When I was making up my list of Fire Chiefs, I omitted Michal because his style was so different than Matt or Steven, but he was a true leader in the house. While he was working as a school teacher (He taught high school at Bertrum Russel in the city) and a therapist, he willingly paid his rent a year in advance so we might have a cushion for paying the bills. Mike and Barbara were married while they were at Big Gray. Joyce and I went to City Hall with them for a quiet, private ceremony. Then, that weekend, we invited some 110 people to a big party at the house. We were able to put 85 folding chairs in the Dance Room with the other guests on the porch or standing in the back. Barbara came down the grand staircase with her entourage, and Michael , his best man, and me (I officiated) followed. Kim played the wedding march on the piano. It was a really nice ceremony and a great party-one of our finest moments. Mike and Barbara now live in Saugerties, New York and are among my closest friends from Big Gray.

Matt also met a girl while he was living at Big Gray, and sponsored her for membership. Gail was an artist whose principal medium was photography. She did some nice work while she was at Big Gray, but the problems between Matt and her proved her undoing. They had several arguments in front of others which were a little disconcerting, and the depressive side of Gail's nature would often become evident. In her defense, Matt had such a forceful personality that she often felt left out of decisions concerning their present and future plans. In fact, the woman who Matt met right after Gail and he broke up with whom he had three children, also complained of Matt's dominance in terms of asserting his will. In spite of his women problems, I will say if I were ever in an emergency situation, be it in a plane, in a foxhole, anywhere, I would want Matt at my side. He just wasn't that good at choosing women who could stand up to his strong will.

Abby's boyfriends did fairly well at the house. The first guy she brought around was English, and a nice guy. I remember he took part in our Kris Kringle tradition, and baked scones for us a few mornings. The man who she eventually married, and who she now lives with in Florida was an old hippie like the rest of us. He taught at Lincoln High School with Abby and had a big personality, which rubbed some the wrong way. But I recognized in Renee a certain kind of personality who while slightly pedantic, made for a very successful teacher, and indeed, Renee eventually became an assistant principal.Maureen (of the Cathy war) had a problem with Renee's snoring which she claimed kept her awake at night, but overall, he was like Abby, a warm and engaging personality.

Dan was an Ohio guy who worked in a law firm in New York translating Chinese when he was elected to membership. I will say more of this strong minded individual when I discuss his leadership role. While at Big Gray, he introduced us to Kristin who applied for membership as well. I wasn't exactly bowled over with the idea of accepting Kristin for membership. I felt the two of them would have a tendency to gang up and force their will on the house, which proved often to be the case, but as I said, it was akin to denying a sibling entrance to a private school after an older brother or sister had gained acceptance. It just wasn't done. So Kristin became a member, and when Dan left the house to go off on his own, she stayed behind. Like Donna , she had a strong personality and often tried to assert her will on others. More work for the peace chief. In spite of butting heads with her a few times, I liked Kristin, her mom, her two sisters, and her boyfriend, Russel who she eventually married.

The last of the house couples were Becky and Kent. Becky was a British photography student who came to New York to study and work. We all loved her and had a lot of fun entertaining her friends who traveled to Big Gray for visits. Kent was a young man from San Francisco who she met in New York. He too was a lot of fun and joined the house without making any serious waves. As a couple, they were good with each other and easy with the rest of us. I sometimes felt left out of the couple mix, but theirs was generally a good union.

In the end, it all boils down to my theory of what made a good house mate. If you related well to your family, your chances of making it in the familial atmosphere of Big Gray were greatly enhanced, and, as they say, you treat your spouse like you treated your mom/dad. I saw plenty of that too.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Sociopath or Saint?

This will be the third and last post involving Steven, a pivotal figure in the history of Big Gray. As a result of Steven's tenure as our Fire Chief, we made several changes in the way we did things in the house, in the people we accepted and even in the way we held parties. For better or worse, Big Gray would continue on for another thirteen years after Steven. We would accept twenty-seven more members and end our experiment as we began it, together.

I've been reading a blog entitled"Farmie," (Sorry, I haven't figured out yet how to link) which tells the story of The Farm, a commune in Tennessee founded by Steven and Ina May Gaskin, two sixties activists/revolutionaries. Theirs was a much bigger, rural based commune. They were able to grow their own food, provide midwifery services to unwed mothers and do humanitarian work in third world countries. They followed Buddhist principles and had lots of rules and two dynamic leaders. At Big Gray, we were a lot smaller and had no real purpose other than to grow individually while we nurtured our alternative family. As I've stated before, our relative success or failure depended largely on the individual's response to the concept of family.

With Steven at the reins, we did prosper, albeit amidst a lot of turmoil. He really did believe and follow the concept of living as an anarchistic group without rules of governance, working out our difficulties by confrontation and integration. Many who lived there with him and several who came after him would never be able to survive in that atmosphere. After he left, we changed a great deal, and the people we took in changed too. I will leave it to you readers to decide if Steven was, as stated in the title of this post, saint or sociopath.

I'll recount a few 0f my memories of encounters with Steven and I invite others, as Mike did in an earlier post, to add their stories if there are any from that era who read my blog. I know that Abby and Kim for example, can add stories that would be illuminative.

To Steven's eye, I blocked my energy. In other words, he saw me as repressed. Now, coming as I did from a Catholic school, middle class background, this may have been true. I believe that my years in therapy and my experimentation with hallucinogens changed much of that, but I'm sure that even now, there remains some aspect of my past. This, to Steven was unacceptable. His Gestalt training made it impossible for him to "be at ease in the presence of someone else's disease." Whether this was an excuse for his behavior or a real response always was a question for me. I'll tell you about two incidents.

The first involves my kids again. As I recall, it was a day they were home from school. They were in our back yard , and I was on the back porch. At that time, Steven who later moved to the (cheaper) attic bedroom, had the bedroom directly over the kitchen. Now, it was later in the afternoon, possibly 2:00 PM. Steven had been working some night shifts as a car service driver in the neighborhood (you recall he had no green card). Apparently, the kids and I awakened him. His reaction was immediate and explosive. He came roaring downstairs screaming that we were inconsiderate and rude. I complained that it was afternoon and didn't realize he was still asleep, etc., but he continued to roar around the dining room now. It was very upsetting to me, but more so to my daughters who were frightened by Steven's manner. I will say that he pushed me into a physical confrontation. Before I knew it, we were grappling, and I was throwing largely ineffective punches as I rolled on the floor enveloped in his arms. Afterwards, I realized that I wasn't hurt at all. Now Steven was 6'4". He was certainly capable of doing damage to me if he wished. Instead, he seemed satisfied that he had provoked a reaction in me, and seemed to bear no ill feelings.

On another occasion, years later , we were in the kitchen together. I was angry with him over some issue and again, he seemed to want a reaction. He was drinking a cup of water at the time, and in the course of our argument, threw the water at me. This time, I backed down from a physical confrontation,even though I would have liked to punch him in the face. I turned my back on him, and he punched me once in the small of my back. It hurt for weeks afterward. I thought he might have ruptured a kidney.

I have also experienced tenderness and caring from Steven. When his drug use and debt to the house became too acute, we voted to remove him. Matt and John went up to his attic room and threw all his belongings out the window. He had bought an old truck which was parked in the yard. Without a word, he packed his things in the truck, and left. We never saw or heard from him again. He had been talking about going down to Florida. He was suffering from a chronic gum infection which he treated himself. I don't honestly know whether he's alive or dead. I know he had maintained contact with his family in England. I hope he was able to get back home again.