Josna Rege

158. The Pagli and the Tramp

In 1960s, 1970s, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on August 24, 2012 at 10:51 pm

In general, contemporary society seems to have little tolerance for even the smallest deviation from behavioral norms. One has only to change one’s dress or grooming to be shunned, raise one’s voice to be ejected from a theater or a store, talk back to the wrong person to find oneself under arrest, or engage in what is deemed a “public display” to be locked away, out of sight. Both being a little too friendly or a little too brusque can get one into trouble, as can talking too much or too little, and even wearing too much or too little. It is as if “normal” is so fragile that a single, unarmed member of society could risk shattering it without even opening his or her mouth. It’s not as if they were opening fire. And it is because the field of acceptable behavior is so narrow that I treasure the memories of places and situations in my life when it was opened up a little more.

Two in particular come to mind: one in India when I was nearly ten, the other in the United States when I was just twenty. The first was in West Bengal in the early 1960s, in the little market on the Indian Institute of Technology’s Hijli campus. All it consisted of was an open rectangle with little shops on three sides, where one could buy anything from marbles and wooden tops to vegetables and fresh-killed goats. (One traumatic day my mother sent me to the market to buy two kg. of mutton and the shopkeeper turned around and cut the goat’s throat before I even had time to turn away.) It was in the central area of the square that the pagli was to be found, the madwoman with matted hair who tore her ragged clothes off again and again in blind anguish and showed her nakedness in the open market. I never learned the details of her story, but  it was said that tragedy had struck her one too many times, taking away her husband and son in quick succession, and eventually taking her mind as well. I was only a child, of course, and in any case wasn’t privy to the realities of her everyday life, but she was a regular presence at the market and I never saw anyone taunting her or even staring at her, let alone calling the police.  Nobody tut-tutted and said that something had to be done about it, nobody covered their children’s eyes, nobody locked her out of sight. She was simply the pagli, and people accepted her as she was and let her be. We children felt only pity and averted our eyes so as not to subject her to stares, though we couldn’t help stealing glances at her from time to time.

My second experience of social tolerance came in my senior year of college, while I was living in the Harvard Co-op House, by far the happiest living situation of my undergraduate life. Thirty-five students in two gracious old houses, comfortably dilapidated, blessedly uninstitutional, all cooking and eating together, sharing chores, generally looking out for one another. Thirty-five undergraduates and one irascible, misogynistic, unkempt, and decidedly high-smelling old hobo, Damon.

As legend had it, Damon had been invited in out of the cold one snowy Thanskgiving night, and simply never left. He had moved into a room that happened to be empty at the time and it was somehow kept out of the housing mix for students from then on. (The movie With Honors (1994)—in which a homeless man, played by Joe Pesci, changes the life of a Harvard student—was loosely based on him.) Damon became a permanent fixture at the co-op house, and was given the respect of his age and station, participating in the chores if, when, and how he chose to do so. He was of the last generation of the old-time hobos, and had worked all over the country from lumberjack camps to  prison kitchens. When the urge took him, he graced us with his heavenly dinner rolls, or helped to cultivate sweet, meaty tomatoes in the coop garden. He got a particular kick out of making fun of the students, passing loud personal comments, often salacious, especially in the direction of passing women, comments that couldn’t help but be overheard by their targets. (He also made sharply insightful observations from time to time, since he had all the time in the world to watch the behavior of the young people around him.) I remember the pleasure he derived from watching Andrew and Peter, zealous composting enthusiasts, barelegged and knee-deep in the compost pile as if they were pressing grapes. He was quite happy to let them get on with it and to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

Most of the time, the denizens of the co-op house took pride in Damon. After all, how many other college dorms could boast of counting a hobo in their company? Every now and again, though, an outraged student, usually one who had been a target of Damon’s taunts, would threaten to report him to the authorities, complaining that their parents weren’t paying good money to send them to college only to live with a bum. But they never followed through, because they dared not face the general opprobrium of their housemates.

If it had not been for Damon, few Harvard students were likely to have had the opportunity to live with a completely unreconstructed homeless man, grimy old overcoat and all. He was not seen as an object of pity or charity; rather, we were at his mercy. If we wanted to sit in the living room or watch television, we simply had to put up with Damon’s musky bulk and cynical running commentary. Exasperating and distasteful as many might no doubt found him at times, he became a part of our lives, and was accepted as such.

Damon lived on at the co-op house until death took him away. I will always regret that I was unable to attend his memorial, where a host of past and present Co-opers gathered together to mourn and remember him.

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  1. Hi Jojo! I love your piece about Damon! It brought me back to 3 Sac days.


    your old roommate,

    Jill Tallmer

    • Jill! How are you and where are you?! I do hope you are well. And how did you come upon my story? I hope I did justice to Damon and to the spirit of the Co-op House. I will drop you a line via email so that you have mine. Affectionately, J

  2. Ed Barna here–
    Thought I’d send you something I wrote not long ago for a friend. Pass it along as you see fit.

    The Harvard Co-operative House

    “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
    Go to school.
    Get a little knowledge.
    Live dangerously.”
    –the introduction to a 1966 film “Lord Love A Duck”

    After a year in freshman dormitories, most students at Harvard were assigned to one of the “Houses,” multi-story structures between Massachusetts Avenue and the Charles River, each of which had its own dining hall, library/study area, and other facilities. Sophomores could express their preferences—Adams House was regarded as an artistic center, Kirkland House had a reputation as the “jock house,” and so on—but administrators made the decisions. You could choose your roommates, but not your housemates.
    I was one of four would-be writers, two of whom had gotten into trouble freshman year for selling marijuana, who got dumped into Kirkland House—which somehow couldn’t find room for us, But there was a kind of catchall called Dudley House, which had a building where commuting students living in the community could come, and which included two large three-story wooden residences a half mile north of Harvard Square where the 40 or so residents could save money by taking responsibility for their own meals and housekeeping. Kirkland House suggested that our foursome look into living there, and three of us became Harvard Co-operative House members.
    For a half century, the Co-op has maintained an ethos of ornery independence, which in more recent years has shown itself in its dietary choices (raising some of its own food) and a general preference for a more natural way of life, as well as strong social consciousness. I lived there during its transition to that period—a time when, in the late 1960s, a group that had somewhat resembled a fraternity became far more diverse and the things that happened became wildly unpredictable. It’s been said that smart kids get in less trouble, but when they do, it can be spectacular. Living at the Co-op House was like that.
    My roommate and, being newcomers, didn’t have top choices for rooms. We had a large room at 1705 Mass Ave. with a fairly large closet—about seven by four feet, with a coat space beyond. I turned the closet into a single room by putting up a double bunk bed with only its top bed, under which I put a small desk and an upholstered chair I had bought as a freshman. (The bunk bed system soon spread around the House.) On the other side of the room was a seven-foot-high, 18-inches wide modular bookcase I built in the Co-op basement with lumber I hauled from a local store. Among other things, it held an LP turntable, an amplifier, and a seven-inch reel-to-reel tape recorder; my “stereo system” was a pair of headphones that played the full range of audible sound.
    The shower was communal, on the other side of the second floor. I first met my future wife when she was on a date with my roommate and he brought her over to show her the Co-op House. My memory of the encounter was, “I sure wish I could go out with a girl as cute as that.” Her memory, as told to a friend, was “His roommate comes in wearing nothing but a towel, sits down on the sofa, and proceeds to have a half-hour philosophical discussion.”
    The house at 3 Sacramento, to which I relocated for my senior year, had the dining room, the associated refrigerators (which could hold things students purchased for themselves for lunch, my usual being fish sticks and lima beans), an “open food table” with a few basics on it and a coffee machine. Various students cooked breakfast, which was one of the ways of fulfilling your weekly work responsibility. Usually we paid one of the Lesley College girls from the dormitory on the other side of Sacramento Street to prepare supper. Our president Jamie Maslach wrote over the entrance to the dining hall, “Don’t spit in the soup, we’ve all got to eat.” The last I knew, from my Class of 1970’s 35th reunion, those words were still there.
    One of the worst jobs, which rarely got done well, was to clean up the TV room in the basement of 3 Sac. We gathered there to razz news commentators’ rubbish about the progress of the Vietnam War and to watch major sporting events. A few people lingered longer, to watch and to drink: the place always smelled like stale beer. Occasionally those using marijuana or other substances would go there after the networks had stopped broadcasting (cable TV was still a theoretical concept) to watch the “snow show,” the patterns in the static that was lighting up the screen.
    The “library” was a corner of the basement whose shelves held books that people had brought in and left for anyone to read and/or take. It was an interesting place to sit and sample the world’s thoughts. In particular I remember a CIA manual on Iran—the agency’s work at that time included a lot of basic research on foreign conditions, not all of it secret, and some of it quite good—and the account made clear how desperately poor and often diseased most of the inhabitants were.
    Another job most people shrank from was “Dinner Two,” cleaning up afterward, which included scrubbing the pots and pans. Senior year, I volunteered for this and began the practice of bringing stereo speakers to the kitchen, connected by wires to the amplifier in my room on the second floor, and turning cleanup into a concert. Maslach, besides being an athlete and party impresario any fraternity would have welcomed (the annual celebration of Polish Constitution Day was glorious, and the annual no-tableware Tom Jones Dinner with its inevitably food fight afterward was male undergraduate immaturity on an epic scale)), was a good musician who let me tape his extensive collection of folk music. Those sounds often filled the kitchen during cleanup.
    One year, Maslach had the room over the front door of 3 Sac. A small wooden porch covered the entrance, and it was possible to go out the window and sit on the roof. Sometimes he would sit there with his banjo after dinner and play and sing Phil Ochs’ “The Crucifixion.” People who lived there, people in the neighborhood, people who were just walking by would stop and listen, riveted. The “Selfish Sixties”? The “Me Decade?” Right-wing demonization. Don’t believe it.
    For many people, “Animal House” serves as a reference point for the Sixties. Though the movie’s sense of rebelliousness and anti-authoritarianism rings true, that story falls far short of showing the wild diversity of the Co-op House, which was sometimes wise, sometimes wacky, and sometimes just plain whacked. Some members were enthusiastic beer drinkers (I remember one of them “dancing” in a circle with a broom until he got so dizzy he couldn’t walk); some were psychedelics, including the guys dealing dope out of a top floor room at 3 Sacramento Street; there were committed New Agers; the leftist group Students for a Democratic Society had its mimeograph machine in the basement, and later the Socialist Workers Party had gatherings at which they discussed the Worker-Student Alliance; there was a man in his 40s who had come from England to study computers; there was a science genius, who couldn’t fulfill his dream of becoming a physicist because it took a year for the information in a course to synthesize in his mind, so he didn’t get high enough grades (he went into computers and started a component manufacturing company that was so good its competitor bought him out, making him a multi-millionaire); there was a farm kid from upper New York State who never lost his country ways and after graduation returned to his home territory to become a farrier; there was a leader in the New England bluegrass community; and there were a few of young writers, myself one of them (one of the others became a leading classicist, a nationally recognized authority on ancient Greek; another founded and as of 2013 still edits a nationally known poetry magazine). One member, a well-built lad from Kansas who went on to become an attorney in his home state, came to meals but didn’t have a room: a French cougar who lived not far away had successfully proposed paying his college costs in return for his keeping her company at night. There were so many paths through the Sixties jungle: one of the wackiest hippies was a talented bassoonist who joined the Army to have a career playing in the Army Band. Another House member signed up because he was fascinated by animal energetics (he was one of several members who did the Boston Marathon); after grad school, he held a research position at the Army’s experimental lab in Natick, Massachusetts.
    At one point, a group of House members decided they would like to go to the Bahamas, to the island of Eleuthera, to watch a solar eclipse. At that date, Eleuthera was off-limits to tourists—but they got there anyway by asserting they were members of the Harvard Gastropological Society, who wanted to travel there to do research on the island’s molluscular life. Generally speaking, there is no better bullshit than Harvard bullshit.
    Creative activities: at one point the science genius devised a kind of hydrogen distilling apparatus, which combined diluted sulfuric acid (H2SO4) and aluminum (readily found along the streets in the screen frames and lawn chairs people put out on their curbs for trash collection). From the reactor jug, the gas went through tubing and a gallon jug of water to a tube from which it could be collected. We would inflate trash bags with it, tie them off, then release them into the Cambridge night with a piece of burning toilet paper or a sparkler (my idea) taped to the bottom. People would see a UFO-like light moving through the sky, which would suddenly (as the flame melted the bag and ignited the hydrogen) explode into a fireball. I have read of people getting into legal trouble for creating such things, but we escaped notice from the local authorities.
    The aforesaid science genius also created a color organ for jug band concerts. Current and past Co-op members had formed a very talented jug unit, which at one point put out an LP record. To accompany their music there was a set of lights with different color gelatins across the front, wired to a keyboard so someone could produce different colors or combinations of colors.
    Originally named “The Wildcat Jug Band,” the unit changed its name after the incident that made Ted Kennedy infamous, and for a time became “The Mary Jo Kopechne Memorial Stompers.”
    I can’t imagine a fraternity where the house band’s top songs were “Amazing Grace” and the old folk standard “Stealin’.” (“I’m stealin’, stealin’/ Pretty mama don’t you tell on me/ I’m stealin’ back to my same old used to be.”) “Don’t Give Me No Goose For Christmas, Grandma,” with the House’s most successful woman-hunter and later a beloved high school classics teacher doing a solo with a duck call, was hysterically funny. The album cover showed the band’s female lead singer sitting on the iconic statue of John Harvard outside administrative University Hall with her hand in just the right place on his lap.
    Yes, I inhaled—but for me, marijuana was a psychological experiment, something I did maybe a couple times a month then digested the results. Jumping ahead, in the year after I graduated, my first book was about marijuana’s effects and what its use meant. A publishing editor looked at it and said it did a better job of talking about the big questions than his generation had done, but they weren’t publishing anything like that. By then, 1972, the moment had passed. My conclusion about the drug was that it was like squeezing a sponge: it made things happen in the mind sooner than they would have, but which time and maturity would eventually have brought to occur. And there were negatives: I correctly deduced, as it turned out, that the stuff had a negative effect on the immune system (as in a couple of colds directly after sessions).
    In the beginning, using it was a very social thing. People smoked then tried to get inside each other’s minds. When that stopped, I lost interest in using marijuana—though another reason for stopping was that I had started meditating. One of the wisest things I ever read about psychedelics came from a former associate of ex-Harvard LSD pioneer Timothy Leary, who had gone to India to learn about religions of consciousness then had returned as Baba Ram Dass: “When you get the message, hang up.”
    Still, I would have to agree with the line in the Dave Van Ronk song that calls a pot “the thinking man’s cigarette.” Far from leaving me zonked out as alcohol would have done, it made me more alert to things that wouldn’t have affected me as strongly. Its advantage was, in a word, inducing vulnerability, in world full of stresses and consequent defensiveness. To use the terminology of one of our academic heroes (there were such things at Harvard) Victor Turner, in The Ritual Process, marijuana brought “communitas” in a society dominated by “structure.”
    It was after smoking marijuana, listening to Dave Van Ronk’s “Motherless Children” in the future classics teacher’s room, that I had a realization that transformed the way I listened to music and opened me to genres I had disregarded before: if a background rhythm repeats, you shouldn’t factor it out, you should keep hearing it over and over, so that instead of disappearing, it keeps gaining power. Some may not believe that anyone’s mind could have reached a point of being so alienated from rhythm, but that’s what growing up soaked in classical music had done. Now I could really hear rock, soul, and eventually African performances that hitherto I had disregarded.
    There was general agreement that the quintessential marijuana experience was hearing music in a different way. I remember there were two passages that particularly affected me after smoking pot at the Co-op House: the opening of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony; and a section in one of Mozart’s later symphonies where the changes of key make it sound like a record player slowing down. When Leonard Bernstein later came to Harvard to deliver a series of lectures, those were two of the passages he chose to discuss in detail.
    It isn’t necessary to smoke marijuana to feel its effects. One time the guys who were dealing at 3 Sacramento Street got in a new batch, and ended up with a big pile of sticks. Someone had the idea of bringing them to the kitchen and making a big pot (cooking pot) of tea, which was then put out in the dining room for anyone to drink.
    I was having trouble sleeping that night, and came downstairs, and was told about the tea. Figuring “What the hell, maybe this will help me get to sleep,” I drank some. Instead it woke me bolt upright. Then, at one of the tables, I found the first issue of Zap Comix (“Fair Warning: For Adult Intellectuals Only”).
    Created by R. Crumb, who went on to found the Cheap Suit Serenaders, these satirical works have become valuable collectibles, especially that first issue. I was roaring with laughter reading it. Ever see the guy whose big foot is stuck out in mid-stride as the image of “Keep on truckin’”? That issue of Zap Comics introduced Mr. Natural. “Keep On Truckin’” was one of the bawdy folk songs the Co-op House jug band did.
    There was a neighborhood dealer everyone called Fat George who kept me and my roommate supplied. Some of his associates were pretty tough lower class characters, though I never had any trouble getting along with them.
    One time when I was living at 3 Sac, I met one of these guys that I knew, outside the house, and we got into a conversation. He decided to show me the new knife he had acquired.
    Up on the third floor, a very muscular Co-op member who was well-known in the New England mountaineering community as a great ice climber saw what was happening, decided “This guy is threatening Barna with a knife!”, and came barreling down the fire escape brandishing his ice axe. The situation required some fast talking on my part, but a confrontation was averted.
    Fat George wasn’t such a bad guy. One time he went with me and some of my friends to a Ravi Shankar concert at Symphony Hall in Boston, and on the subway and bus coming back kept saying “Ravishing Ravi Shankar!” Apparently he had been a bodyguard for George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi Party, then had taken LSD and became a hippie (and an evangelist for LSD) as a result.
    Harvard was all-male in that era, but not the Co-op House. Short-term and long-term partners, some from Lesley and some from Radcliffe and some from Sixties vagabond journeying, became part of House life. My wife-to-be stayed in one of the rooms over the summer, and became for a while the elected treasurer—the first female House officer.
    Nor were there supposed to be animals. There were a couple of dogs while I was there, including a big yellow beagle-type so smart that when he got lost in Boston during a members’ subway trip, he found his own way back. He was strongly suspected of having figured out how to use the subway himself.
    And there was a genius cat. My intended had gone on a beach trip with some of her friends, they had been rained out, and when they saw a “Free Kittens” sign, they stopped—just to look, not to get one. She saw Bernie (Eduard Bernstein—named by a political science major for the German democratic Socialist who founded evolutionary socialism), she realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime cat, and she claimed him.
    In the summer, we found someone with a kitten of similar age and arranged playgroup sessions for our surrogate child, knowing that cats raised alone go crazy. One time at her apartment, I realized he needed to play (I had grown up with quite a few cats) so I crumpled up a piece of paper and tossed it for him to chase. He turned to look at me, meowed in thanks, then took off after the imitation mouse.
    After a while, he realized he would get more chases if he brought the wad of paper back to us after pouncing on it. To jump ahead, after he came to the Co-op House, people would say, “You’ve got to see Barna’s cat! It fetches just like a dog!” He fetched to the day he died.
    The Radcliffe dorm’s maids found him that fall, so he had to go somewhere, and “somewhere” was 3 Sacramento Street—at first. There was another tomcat there, a huge gray who had been the reigning cat outside Cambridge’s Legal Seafood restaurant, but who had gotten sick and was brought by to the Co-op House by one of the members. No one was taking responsibility for Plato, as he had been named, so my partner and I took him to the Merwin Free Animal Clinic, where he got antibiotics that cured him.
    He promptly drove Bernie out of the house, so he wouldn’t have a rival for Panther, the resident female. (They were truly a couple, literally sleeping together; he was even good with the kittens.) So Bernie went off along Massachusetts Avenue—the busiest street in Cambridge—and found territories (until he was tossed out by officials) at a tropical fish store, then the kitchen at the Holiday Inn, then the Harvard Law School dining hall. He had a little collar capsule with my phone number, and when I got The Call about his unwanted presence, I would say “Just keep putting him out. He’s a smart cat and he’ll learn.”
    My last year in Cambridge, I moved to a second-floor room at 7 Prentiss Street, a little north of 1705 Mass. Ave., and Bernie finally found a territory where he wasn’t a problem. He became the Harvard Law School library cat, staying at the entrance kiosk watching the people and being petted and fed and fed and petted. Then at night he would come back five blocks to be with me. He would hide under a bush, and when I arrived there (I spent most days writing in the basement of my intended’s dorm, one of the Radcliffe Co-operative Houses) I would call “Bernie-cat! Bernie-cat!” He would come bounding up, and I would carry him upstairs to our room.
    One winter he got lost in a snowstorm, and I got a call from some architecture students saying he had taken shelter at their apartment not far from the Law School. When I got there, he was curled up napping on a student’s lap. Clearly they like him, and one of them asked me how they could be sure he was really my cat.
    I called out, “Bernie-cat! Bernie-cat!” He lifted up his head and saw me, meowed loudly, jumped off the student’s lap and bounded across the room and leaped into mine, purring loudly. “Well, I guess we know he’s your cat all right.”
    Bernie needed to go to the free animal clinic a couple of times, too. The second time, he walked in to the examination table by himself—he knew he needed help and the doctor could give it to him, even if that meant getting a shot.
    He took an interest in a female cat who lived in a house next to 7 Prentiss Street, on the next street up toward Porter Square. One time he saw there was a window open on the third floor, so he climbed a tree, jumped onto the house’s fire escape, and went in through the window to find her.
    Just before we left Cambridge to go to Robert Frost Farm, I met the female cat’s owner. It was a spayed female, who refused to have anything to do with any other cat except Bernie. What they like to do was sit side-by-side on the front porch, sometimes for hours.
    To close the story, Bernie died of feline leukemia when he was four, and is buried at an undisclosed location on the Robert Frost Farm, surrounded on four sides by the most beautiful stones I could find at the farm’s four directions.
    For a time there was a black cat at 1705 Mass Ave, which would choose all sorts of inconvenient places to use for toileting. There was a pile on the steps to the second floor that the responsible maintenance person didn’t deal with. Finally, in frustration, I spray-painted it yellow and put a warning sign taped to a toothpick on top. At last it disappeared.
    Another time, said cat deposited one of his loads in a fireplace in the room next to mine, where the science genius was living. Infuriated, he grabbed the cat, opened the door of the room, and flung it out—right onto one of Fat George’s lowlife friends, who happened to be tripping on LSD at the time.
    From this guy’s point-of-view, the student had deliberately sent a mass of claws flying through the air at his face, and he was ready to break into the room and wreak vengeance. Luckily I was there, and managed to talk him out of it. This was one of many times when I would say afterward–like other veterans of our high school debating team-”Thank goodness for my debate training!” The guy’s version of this was, “You have only one girlfriend? If I could talk like you, I’d have broads up my ass!” I guess a young writer has to take his compliments where he finds them.
    Another Co-op member had a pair of iguanas, which he kept in the basement of 1705 Mass. Ave. Someone from England who was hitchhiking around the country crashed at the Co-op; he was told he could sleep in the basement of 1705 if he didn’t mind living with the lizards. One time he left a lamp on when he exited the room, one of the iguanas clambered over the wall of cardboard boxes that was the barrier improvised for them (to get closer to the warmth), it knocked over the lamp, the incandescent bulb set fire to the sleeping bag, the house filled with smoke, a fire alarm went off, and soon the Cambridge Fire Department arrived. I don’t know how the Co-op officers explained this affair to the Master of Dudley House.
    The itinerant guest left, but not in name. My roommate signed him up for a batch of magazine subscriptions. First came the magazines, then the bills, then the polite letters, then the threatening letters. Finally Dudley House paid what was owed. The lizards left, too.
    The guy who owned them was a leading campus radical, who not only was brilliant but also could get by on four hours of sleep a night, so he could work effectively on both courses and campaigns. He was also an avid bridge player. He and two fellow players needed a fourth, and I had taught myself how to play in high school, so part of my time at the C-op was spent joining them in after-dinner bridge games. As Groucho Marx said, “Let joy be unconfined.”
    I was responsible for one of the Co-op House-Dudley House fiascos. There was a time in spring when Cambridge residents were told they could put out furniture and other large items for removal, and all sorts of useful and interesting things would appear. I organized a hunting expedition, and by the time we were done, the living room at 1705 Mass Ave was packed with the results. Among other items, there were four toilet seats that I planned to use as frames for pictures of the House officers.
    The next day, the Master of Dudley House decided to come on an inspection tour. Most of the stuff promptly went back on the street, though not the mattresses that had been hauled onto the roof for the convenience of those who decided to do some sky-watching. I remember seeing a lunar eclipse there. On subsequent occasions, said Master woul refer to me as “My Enemy.”
    There was another problematic occurrence in which I had a part. The teenage kids in the neighborhood didn’t have anything like a teen center and were just hanging out getting in trouble. So several of us tried turning part of the basement at 1705 Mass Ave into a place where they could take refuge, through a back cellar door. It all went wrong when some of the kids used the opportunity for vandalism and theft, teaching us do-gooders a lesson in the hazards of social work
    The worst such episode came one summer when a friend of some of the Co-opers, who was temporarily staying in one of the rooms, got busted by the local police for fencing stolen property. He never stole anything from the Co-op House, though. Without him, I could never have afforded my first electric typewriter, a Smith-Corona that kept going for more than a decade. Again, Mother Harvard came to the rescue.
    A couple of house members started going to restaurants and leaving before they had paid their bills. The law caught up with them, and again, Harvard helped avoid major publicity by taking care of the bills. Looking back, it’s a wonder why the administration didn’t close the place down, at least in the summer—which later did become the policy. Junior faculty members lived in both houses, but realized that their welcome there depended on taking a relaxed attitude to the goings-on.
    I avoided one inspection problem the summer that my wife-to-be and my sophomore-junior-year roommate’s intended took up residence at 3 Sacramento Street. They were so appalled by the male inattention to hygiene in the kitchen that they set up their own facilities on the east side of the second floor, which had a sink and a refrigerator on a second-floor landing, until it quit.
    The date of the summer inspection had been announced, and we rushed to clean up. In the midst of this, it occurred to me that the dead refrigerator, belonging to no one in particular, might have escaped notice.
    On the shelves, abandoned containers were boiling out blue fuzz. At the bottom, maggots had drowned and rotted in some kind of yellow slime. I did my duty, and the ex-refrigerator passed inspection.
    A song about the latter part of the Sixties talked about “people in motion,” and indeed there were many young people who traveled around “to look for America,” as another song put it. Those were the glory days of hitchhiking, which could be one of the great democratic experiences, either thumb-tripping or picking people up. Word spread that the Co-op House was a good crash pad, and the people who showed up added their own educational dimension—and some comic moments.
    One of the latter occurred when “Peter from Berkeley” drove in with a trunkload of marijuana he had harvested from roadsides in Iowa. It couldn’t be smoked while green, so he got the idea of putting it in a large cloth bag and processing it in one of the large dryers at the local laundromat. When the stuff came out, tumbling and static electricity had turned it into balls that were almost as hard as baseballs, though not as heavy.
    Before coming to Cambridge, I had been warned to watch out for “pseudos,” people hanging out in the college city who were not really Harvard people. Near the end of freshman year, I met Joe Novak, photographer and writer and schizophrenic, who became a mentor.
    He was good enough as a photographer to earn his living working at Harvard Square’s top photography store, and later wrote articles for nationally circulated photo magazines and was hired by Polaroid’s Cambridge division to do special projects. We wandered the streets of Boston together, day and night; went to “Be-ins” on Boston Common; took the subway to Revere Beach and Logan Airport–always looking for good pictures. We developed the negatives and made prints at the Dudley House darkroom, where he taught me the craft. I competed for a photographer’s position at the student newspaper, and did well enough to be sent on assignments and to run a half dozen pictures. I was cut after I was sent to a student dance where they turned the lights out; the terrible picture I took reflected the fact that I was too poor to afford a flash.
    After freshman year, before coming to the Co-op House, I spent a summer sharing an apartment at 35 Brookline Street in Central Square. The place helped me to appreciate staying at the C-op House in the summer: my share of this third floor walk-up was a small room next to the apartment door, whose only window opened onto an abandoned dumbwaiter shaft. The opening did bring in a modicum of fresh air from the top, but also the smell of the crap people on several floors had for several years kept pitching onto the bottom. One of my main memories of the summer is the roaring of a very old fan I brought down from Vermont, which dried enough sweat to let me sleep. The apartment, like many Boston-area structures, had a brick exterior; in the summer, the bricks soaked up the day’s heat, and all of Beantown’s denizens became Boston baked beans.
    Wandering through the neighborhoods of Central Square with my camera when not washing dishes for Harvard, I realized there were a lot of poor kids who had probably never had a decent photograph taken of them. They got prints; only once did a mother question whether I was some kind of pervert, and I managed to explain the situation to her. At one point, I invited some of the kids to come to the apartment, where they left their autographs on a door. I remember one wrote, “I love you you nut.”
    That was about the same time I read Thomas Wolfe’s “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” about a naïve young writer wandering around the dangerous Red Hook area and in all his innocence somehow never being attacked. I thought at the time, “I wish I had the courage to explore like that.” It was only many years later that I realized I had been taking pictures of kids in the housing projects, the city’s most violence-prone area.
    Later I solved my summer job problem by taking the summer civil service test—similar to the U.S. Postal Service test. If you scored highly enough, you got your choice of jobs. I’d never had trouble scoring highly enough. In 1969, I did catch-up office work at the National Aeronautic and Space Administration’s branch in Cambridge (strategically positioned near MIT), during the time of the first lunar landing. We saw GOOD films of it happening.
    Meanwhile, the streets had become educational. At that time, the word “rapping” had different meanings. In the black community, someone’s rap was their presentation of themselves, which could be prideful, boastful, menacing, a political statement, and more. I have heard African boasting songs and praise songs and wondered if they may have been seeds. A good written example of what I am talking about can be found in the autobiography of H. “Rap” Brown.
    Among the people I knew, “rapping” was particularly intense conversation, a process of mutual discovery in which you would trade insight for insight, revelation for revelation, depth of emotion for depth of emotion. Wanting to go beyond what our society expected, we went beyond customs and expectations, venturing into psychologically risky territory, trying to go as far as possible into each other’s minds.
    The Co-op House had more than its share of such sessions of deep inquiry and passionate ethical reckoning and informative recounting. For instance, a guy who had quit Harvard after freshman year, and had gone to the Rhode Island School of Design instead, came to 1705 Mass Ave and talked about his experiences in the living room there. In one evening he gave me the intellectual framework I needed to make relevant what I was learning in course and in my reading.
    He exemplified the Sixties searchers; the people I respected most A minority of the students, as such exemplars probably always are, they were characterized by their (to put it in one word) probity. For them, and for those times generally, there was no etiquette of letting people believe whatever they believed out of “respect” for their “value systems” and “cultural perspectives.” The leading lights of those late Sixties college classes would challenge anyone to defend their beliefs or contentions and ridicule those who wouldn’t or couldn’t.
    I don’t say this with any sense of generational superiority. Abraham Maslow had it right in his “Toward a Psychology of Being” that when people’s deficiency needs are met, their higher needs emerge, including the ‘peak experiences” that give insight into the nature of existence. Until the Vietnam War squandered the advantages the country had after World War Two, living was a lot simpler. You could work part-time or part of the year and use the other time in creative ways. College debt wasn’t an issue: we paid about $4,000 a year to go to Harvard.
    There were Co-op House moments events that could have taken place anywhere, like the softball games at a nearby playground. I was one of the better hitters (I remember one softball game in later years at a Burlington poets’ summer picnic when I hit a fly ball so high that the girl playing left field couldn’t see it, and ran for the sideline in fear of getting clonked on the head). On one occasion. I had to play one-handed because I had been experimenting with soda bicarbonate-and vinegar fire extinguishers and the plastic sealing the rim flapped over the holes in the glass jar’s metal lid and instead of squirting foam it exploded, cutting my left hand so badly I needed to have it stitched up at the Harvard Infirmary (the scar is still there). Using my right hand, I hit the ball into left field anyway.
    I was reasonably athletic back then. Freshman year, some of the coaches urged me to go out for the football team’s tackle squad. When I joined in a field hockey game on the Radcliffe Quad, the players invited me to join their team. Someone once came around from Amherst who said he was that school’s Frisbee champion; my photographer friend and I set up a series of events and I beat him. When I was having trouble sleeping, I would get up around 4 a.m. and run a mile course I had mapped out though the city streets. One time a group of townies obstructed the sidewalk with obviously hostile intent, but after I broke through them, they decided it wasn’t worth the trouble to try to catch me.
    Probably the most dangerous activity was occupying University Hall, which a group of students did in 1969, my junior year, to protest the Vietnam War. It was known around the Co-op House the previous night that they would be taking that action. Meeting one of the organizers in the kitchen, I said, “What gives you the moral right to drag the whole campus into this? The American people don’t know enough about the war yet. All you’ll do is provoked a huge right-wing counter-reaction.” His reply was, “When the revolution comes, we have a list, and you’re on it.”
    (In a later alumni report, I learned that he had set up an organization that had done wonderful work helping Vietnam to recover.)
    The Harvard administration called in the local police, and cops whose kids had been corrupted by Harvard Square, or who thought local kids were being misled, seized the opportunity to bash heads. When the bloody results became clear the next day, the campus shut down. In the end, states all across the country passed emergency laws that allowed mass incarcerations—which fortunately did not take place.
    I had come to Harvard unsure about the Vietnam War. In high school, I had been one of the two Vermont delegates selected at American Legion Boys State to come to Boys Nation in Washington; one day, we were taken to the Pentagon and were briefed on the war by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, after which we were shown a film of the Air Force basically destroying an entire mountain. The official narrative was that Communist North Vietnam had invaded democratic South Vietnam—a version finally and decisively refuted for me by independent filmmaker Emile de Antonio’s 1968 investigative film “In the Year of the Pig.” (Like much else as of 2013, it’s on YouTube, at
    Earlier, in April of 1967, I joined a carload of students going to an antiwar demonstration in New York City. I wanted to find out more to help make up my mind. The route went from Central Park to the United Nations. In the march, I saw thoughtful and conscientious people expressing the anti-war point-of-view; along the sidewalks, held back by police, I saw people screaming obscenities and threats, their faces twisted with homicidal rage. On my return I said, “I may not know everything about the Vietnam War, but I know which side I’m on.”
    By the fall of 1967, busloads went to a demonstration in Washington, D.C. The flood of people broke down a fence and was stopped by a line of soldiers and U.S. marshals outside the Pentagon. My Christmas card that year showed a marshal going berserk and clubbing a demonstrator; I was not in the front line, but my street photography experience made it possible to raise my Pentax over the crowd and shoot at the right moment. I remember that on the way Peter, Paul and Mary were singing:
    “Take your place on the great mandala
    As it moves through your brief moment of time,
    Win or lose now, you must choose now…”
    I had chosen and this time I was outside the Pentagon.
    We went back to our buses as evening fell, and as the 82nd Airborne deployed in a line across the tear-gas-smelling Pentagon grounds. Students who stayed spoke to a rally later in Harvard Yard: when the cameras were gone, the soldiers came through clubbing demonstrators with their rifle butts. Among those bloodied was a clearly pregnant woman. I was not surprised when the Kent State killings happened in 1970. Clearly this government would go to whatever lengths it took to defend the military-industrial complex Eisenhower had warned against.
    Both the 1969 and 1970 school years ended in strikes. The threat of the draft grew more gripping, as student deferments ended. I went from student deferment to scoring above the required mark on the draft test (draft office clerk going over the form filled out by brother Joe registering back in Vermont: “Oh—Barna, from Brandon—you must be the brother of the guy who got the perfect score on the draft test.”) to a psychological deferment (a Rogerian therapist I was seeing had been a Navy psychologist, and knew how to write an effective letter) to drawing a fairly high number in the draft lottery. For a while I was getting materials from the organization of conscientious objectors; I wondered if I would have to got to jail, because I definitely wasn’t going to Vietnam.
    I don’t remember any animosity toward the servicepeople who had to fight or do medical duty there. In fact it wasn’t until much later that I ever heard of things like protesters spitting on returning veterans. In New Hampshire, while war was still going on, a veteran who was going to the college where my wife taught became one of our best friends, and I did a book with him on his war experiences, which he relived at the Frost Farm, coming out the other side of potentially suicidal post-traumatic stress.
    In Cambridge, potential draftees became so ingenious at opposing induction that eventually the authorities said, “Anyone who doesn’t want to go, go over there.”
    Life went on at the Co-op House, ornery and rambunctious as ever, though overcast by events. After I graduated I came back to dinner sometimes, and was there the Thanksgiving that the old guy who had been wandering the streets muttering, whose room had been demolished along with the rest of the place where he had been living, was invited to dinner then allowed to sleep in the basement. Damon Wright Paine, who proved to be an alumnus, stayed for a decade, acting sometimes as a gardener and source of folklore and always as a watchman. Three Harvard presidents tried unsuccessfully to throw him out. There is a tree planted behind 1705 Mass Ave in his honor. A Hollywood screenwriter heard of the story—I sent him my recording of Damon’s memorial service, which was never returned—but Hollywood twisted the story to make it a case of the old man teaching a preppie student about life in “With Honors.”
    In 1980 our son was born and was named Damon, not simply because of old Damon, but in honor of the Co-op House’s act of generosity. Old Damon got to meet the infant young Damon and gave him his blessing, putting his hand on the baby’s head and saying “Have a good life.”
    Alan P. Merriam once wrote, “Culture is dynamic and ever-changing. It is this that accounts for the reaction of the older generation all over the world that ‘The good old days are gone,’ that ‘Things ain’t what they used to be,’ and that ‘The younger generation is going to the dogs.’” I wouldn’t say that of the Sixties, which were more like “the best of times and the worst of times,” with its best seeds coming to fruition many years later. But this much I can truthfully say: the happiest dreams of my life have been about being at the Co-op House.

  3. Hello Ed, and thank you for this. It belongs in the Co-op House’s archives for all future co-opers to enjoy, but I am delighted to have my own copy and to host it here on Tell Me Another. It now officially holds the record for my longest comment! Lovely that Young Damon was able to receive the blessing of Old Damon. And so the torch gets passed to the new generations, as one can amply and moving see at the Co-op House now.
    Warm regards, J

  4. […] The Pagli and the Tramp (Kharagpur, 1960s; Cambridge, 1970s) […]

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