Share:Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrPrint this page

You can read the previous entries of Sunsh Stein’s memoir in the following issues:

Memoirs:  Issue 26

Memoirs:  Issue 25

Memoirs:  Issue 24

Memoirs: Issue 23

Memoirs: Issue 22

Memoirs: Issue 21

Memoirs: Issue 20

It was the early 1970s and magic permeated the air on the 165 lush acres of upstate New York called Chillum Farm. The world belonged to us — a scruffy, skinny bunch of passionate hippies — and unconditional love and marijuana made anything possible. We planned to change the world by example, living simply with no electricity, plumbing or telephone, working the land and growing much of our own food, and sharing everything. Our lives ran happily on circuits-overload as we worked and partied till we dropped. Celebrating the demise of the nuclear family we created a dysfunctional one of our own. And like the typical American family we lived with hopes, dreams, tractors, sex, chain saws, gardens, animals, births, food, nudity, singing, and ultimately, relationships that went awry.

The onset of a hard frost and the death of the garden made me realize that my summer of love was over. But the change in temperature made us cozier as we followed Spindle’s pregnancy in Our Bodies, Ourselves, and got ready for winter.

I kinda didn’t want to leave home, what with autumn vistas more spectacular than any I’d ever seen. Shades of deep purple invaded a landscape of red and yellow maples, burnished bronze oaks, and quivery silver poplars. A fair amount of work remained to get ready for winter — more wood to cut and stack in the basement, covering the windows with plastic, and harvesting the root crops. But there were plenty of people around, and for me preparing for winter also meant getting rid of Milwaukee. It was time to return and close up shop. The spiritual and emotional letting go wouldn’t be complete until I dealt with it on the physical plane. And on a practical level I wanted my own winter clothes to see me through what I’d been warned was a routinely way-below-zero, lots-of- snow winter.

I hadn’t been back to Milwaukee since my arrival at Chillum Farm in late spring and it was now mid-October. I had no intention of renewing residency there, but when I left in May I didn’t know that I was leaving forever. Loose ends of my former life dangled; they needed to be sewn up. I’d also learned that my father was having surgery, and I thought maybe I’d go on to Florida from Milwaukee to see my parents. By showing them what I considered to be the much improved new me and talking up the farm and family, I could assure them that the commune was the right move. I was so high on my life that I hoped to talk them out of the negative head they had developed, sight unseen, about the place. At the same time, I’d see their brand-new retirement house and help out for a bit. My mom didn’t drive and with Dad in the hospital she’d have her problems getting around.

So when a friend came from Buffalo for a weekend visit to the commune I knew the timing was right. I’d take the ride back with him on Sunday, stay overnight and meet the Buffalo contingent of the extended Chillum family, then take the bus to Milwaukee. That would give me about two weeks there before I had to be in Daytona Beach. Plenty of time to see friends and family, fuck a few old lovers, and take care of business.

Still, after almost five months of being at the farm — my real home and my real family — I was loathe to leave what had become a secure little nest. I was nervous, but I was also excited about striking out on my own after being part of a group, stepping into my old world with my new self, and preaching my new-found gospel to the unenlightened I’d left behind.

The Greyhound schedule changed my Buffalo plans to dinner only and I overnighted on the bus instead, arriving in downtown Milwaukee right before the start of Monday’s business day. It was immediate culture shock. Except for Gouverneur, the town of 5,000 that we lived eight miles from, I’d barely been in an urban environment since May. I felt like an immigrant who had just gotten off the boat and landed in a foreign country. I meandered slowly toward my brother Arnie’s office, taking a few tokes on a dubie as I walked, the nervous excitement cranking up. The buildings and streets I’d grown up with seemed both familiar and strange — creating more of a deja vu experience than a homecoming. I gawked, stopping mid-sidewalk to stare at things, and then at people. I wondered if I’d see anyone I knew. Some people stared back — I didn’t look like typical downtown Milwaukee business fare. In fact, I had on an almost identical outfit to the one Spindle wore when she had come back to Milwaukee that previous spring on her own preaching mission — long Indian print skirt with the same low-cut workboots, a cotton Indian shirt over a long sleeved T-shirt, and a bandana over my now shaggy, growing out hair. A backpack accessorized the outfit.

I got to Gimbel’s department store where downtown Milwaukee is divided by the Milwaukee River. I dawdled crossing the bridge spanning the river. Staring down into its oily brownness, I found myself scanning both directions for signs of a boat. Suddenly I was a little girl having lunch with my mom and brother at Heineman’s restaurant just down the river walkway from where I now stood. We always got a window table so we could see the river, and Arnie and I would fervently pray that we’d hear the warning bells signaling the approach of a boat. Then we’d get to see the yellow and black gates go down, stopping traffic on Wisconsin Avenue. The bridge would break apart in the middle and start creaking as each side slowly rose up into the air. We’d bounce around in our seats as the boat chugged through the opening, although the moving bridge fascinated us just as much. We’d keep watching until both sides lowered back down and met in the middle, the gates went up, the bells stopped clanging, and the cars started rolling again over the now flat road surface. That bridge going up excited us no end as did the bowlful of wrapped sugar cubes on the restaurant table. Mom always let us take one, which our greedy little fingers excitedly unwrapped, shoved in our mouths, and tried reaching for a second. Mom prayed for the boat and allowed the sugar because both kept Arnie and me from punching each other during lunch.

With that vision in mind and no boat coming, I walked across the bridge and headed east on Wisconsin Avenue toward Arnie’s office building. I took the elevator — my first in almost five months — to his floor, and announced to the well-dressed, well-coiffed, carefully made up receptionist, that I was there to see him.

She looked me over with great distaste, then asked with big-time attitude, “And who may I tell him is here?”

“His sister,” I replied, smiling sweetly.

She looked skeptical but picked up a phone and buzzed him.

The poor guy had no idea I was coming to town that day, or that I would show up at his office looking the way I did. But he handled it well. I’d written him a while back that I was thinking about visiting, I just didn’t say when, because I didn’t know. Now here we both were.

“Hello there,” he said, giving me one of his half-hearted, don’t-get-too-close-to-me hugs. Then he led me to his office.

“Well, you look, uh, good. Did you just get in?”

“Yeah, I took a bus from Buffalo last night.”

“Oh. You staying long?” A key question since I’d be staying with him. After all, he was living in my apartment with all my things.

“A week or two, then I think I’ll go to Florida to see Mom and Dad.”

“That’s good. I guess I’ll get down there later in the winter.”

We made small talk a little longer then he gave me the keys to his car, told me where it was parked and I left, waving to the receptionist on my way out.

Driving to my apartment grounded me — I had to re-orient myself and get my bearings. And Arnie had a muscle car, a big engine, four-on-the-floor red Camaro, a lot of power that required concentration after driving an often malfunctioning, lumbering old pickup. I navigated my way out of downtown, around the tannery, over the river again (it winds), past the dc king’s commercial laundry plant to my street. I parked in front of the funky little house, went around back to the door of the upstairs flat, took a breath, and let myself in. Hi house, I said softly. It was like being in my place, but also like being in a stranger’s house, even though it looked mostly the same as I’d left it. I’d only lived there a year, and aside from having the gold shag carpet, from the first marriage apartment, relaid for the third time, I’d never quite gotten around to fixing the place up. The marriage furniture still didn’t fit the space and Arnie hadn’t added much. I guess he didn’t want to make it into his space until he felt sure I wasn’t coming back, and he was waiting to see what I’d leave behind.

I went into the bathroom and looked lovingly at my little claw-footed tub, suddenly realizing how much I missed it. As I ran a bath I made a quick call to the University; there was someone besides my brother to surprise. Then I dropped my clothes on the floor and slid down into the fragrant bubbles, sighing with pleasure as the hot soapy water caressed and engulfed me. I lounged briefly in this luxury, feeling the Greyhound grime fall away. Wistfully thinking that there was definitely something to be said for running water, I washed my body and my hair then regretfully pulled the plug. As I rose up out of the tub I thought it was a shame that there was no one else needing a bath who could use this barely dirty water. On the farm, the same bathwater was used two, three, or four times, depending on how dirty the previous bathers were. Waste not, want not, being our motto — not to mention that a bath required numerous trips back and forth to the well, and the heating of all that schlepped water.

Rummaging through the clothes I’d left behind, I pulled out a clean pair of jeans and a light wool blue turtleneck, which I topped with my Indian shirt. I put on a pair of my own shoes leaving Spindle’s ill-fitting workboots behind. Then I drove to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, found a parking spot without too much trouble, and crossed the campus to Bolton Hall where I slipped into the large auditorium. My quarry, the bearded, bespectacled, blond professor, paced the front of the hall, winding down his economics lecture. I sat down in the middle of the stairs leading down to the lectern, positioning myself where I couldn’t be missed. The reaction came within minutes.

“That’s about it for . . . oh Jesus mother-loving Christ! I don’t believe it!” Then remembering his class, the professor added an abrupt, “See you Wednesday,” and strode up the steps, right past me, and out of the hall. I was a little taken aback. I thought Gus would be excited to see me, but he seemed pissed instead. Well, we had run the gamut in our relationship during the past year. When being lovers faded our opposing political beliefs clashed more. Without the cushion of sexual energy, each of us became less forgiving of the other’s trespasses. I leaned further into the counterculture and discovered the women’s liberation movement. Gus balked at women’s lib and was a pretty straight guy — an old-line Wasp Republican — though he looked hip and worked hard to plug into what was going on with the students. But he valued my editing and typing skills, and we had, for the most part, continued to work well together on his textbook manuscripts and remain friends. When I decided to stay on the farm I hadn’t thought much about the effect it might have on him. (Or anybody, for that matter.)

Pushed out of the auditorium by a swarm of students, I wove through them to the elevator — an old pro with them again — and rode up to Gus’s fifth floor office.

“Hi Gus,” I said, stepping in, closing the door, and plopping into the chair in front of him.

“Mrs. Stein,” he responded sternly from behind his desk.

“Nice to see you too.”

“Jesus fucking Christ, you go away for the summer and you don’t come back. What the hell is that? Look at you. You’re some goddamn hippie.”

“Your conservative side is showing.“

“Hell yes. I haven’t changed.”

“Come on Gus, aren’t you glad to see me?”

“Yeah, I am, you little shit.”

“Just as affectionate as ever, I see.”

We made plans to have dinner later in the week, and I went down the hall looking for some of the grad students I used to hang out with. Then I hit the political science department to see the professor whose summer program in Mexico I’d passed up to visit Spindle on her hippie farm.

“Hey! Where’ve you been?” he asked when I stuck my head in his doorway. I told him about my life change, and said I was sorry to have missed Mexico.

“You didn’t miss much,” he said.

“How come?”

“I had an appendicitis attack the second week we were there. It ended the trip.”

“Oh man, that’s awful.”

“Yeah, it was. Sounds like you made the right choice.”

I left him and took a walk around the campus looking up a few other people, then I drove down to the lakefront. The Oswegatchie River of St. Lawrence County, New York was the only water I’d seen since I’d left Milwaukee, and though I didn’t miss Milwaukee at all I missed Lake Michigan. I parked at McKinley Marina and walked out on the crumbling concrete of the government pier that jutted into the harbor. I sat down about halfway out, lit a joint, and inhaled deeply. I leaned back and put my face up toward the sun, enjoying its warmth after the frost of the North Country. Then I took in my surroundings, all the docked sailboats I loved looking at, and the tinkling clinking of the masts in the breeze. I spotted Choice, Gus’s beautiful 60-foot, white, wooden sailing ship, anchored in the harbor, and hoped for a sail while I was there.

The lakefront always had a calming effect on me and now I soaked it all up — the sun sparkling on the water, the constant fishy smell seeping into my nose, the murky green color that never seemed to change, the sound of teeny wavelets gently lapping against the pier. I felt a sense of harmony, at one with myself and my environment. Then the growling of my stomach broke in on my Zen-like state, dissipating my stoned oneness with the world. Now what? I was hungry. But bummer, now that I was a vegetarian I couldn’t go to the little food shack across from Bradford Beach for a cheese dog, my lakefront meal of choice. I decided to go back to my place, see what was in the fridge, and take stock of my lives — past, present, and future.

Arnie, a true son of his mother, had a big orange brick of Velveeta cheese lying prominently in the refrigerator, leaving me no choice but to make a grilled cheese sandwich. I popped open a bottle of Dr Pepper as a chaser. After eating, I put on Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s album 4 Way Street, and the crackling energy of the live performance jumped off the turntable spurring me on. I bellowed Graham Nash’s “Chicago,” written as a response to the 1968 Democratic convention: “Though your brother’s bound and gagged, and they’ve chained him to a chair, won’t you please come to Chicago . . .” I began opening drawers, closets, and cabinets, taking stock of what I owned, looking to see what we could use back on the farm. “In a land that’s known as freedom how can such a thing be fair,” Graham and I sang together meaningfully.

Laughter interrupted my duet with Graham when I looked at the white enamel cart loaded with the wedding-present electrical appliances – electric coffeemaker, electric juicer, electric frypan, mixmaster, electric knife – all worthless pieces of shit for me now that I lived in a house with no electricity. And those copper jello molds shaped like fish, you’ve got to be kidding! “We can change the world — Rearrange the world” — that’s just what we’re trying to do, Graham,” I thought, singing along again. No reason to send any of my dishes home since we ate with wooden bowls and chopsticks. Ditto with the silver, although the fancy sterling silver candlesticks would be put to good use. “It’s dying — if you believe in justice. It’s dying — if you believe in freedom.” Man, this song was so right on. It spoke directly to my commune change-the-world missionary zeal.

I tripped over the turquoise telephone sitting on the floor. My mind shifted from political to personal, and I wondered who I wanted to call while I was back in town. There was the gynecologist to get the IUD checked, the wildly different but both charming-and-cheating-on-their-wives Italian brothers, Baker the newsman, Spindle’s sister, my friend who interpreted the I Ching that made my fateful decision to choose the farm over Mexico, the divorce lawyer who would take me out for a fancy lunch, and then there was the black activist, my ex-grand passion — let that mother know I had a whole new life now. And my other brother Shelly and sister-in-law Ruthie — they’d hassle me but I knew I should call, and I wanted to see my nieces. I’d even be a sport and give the dc king a ring, congratulate him on his new kid, and show him that this was what I was really always about. I also had to renew my driver’s license and get an absentee ballot for the upcoming election — word was McGovern would get trounced, but a vote against that scumbag Nixon was a vote for freedom. I’d want to go to the health food store and the hippie bookstore for treats to send home. I suddenly felt overwhelmed, my excitement replaced by anxiety and homesickness. I sunk onto the couch, lit a joint, and wished I were sharing it and this trip with Spindle. Milwaukee without her, especially now that we were on this communal trip together, was not the same.

The next two weeks flew by. I sorted through stuff, amazed and embarrassed at the quantity of possessions I owned. I now scoffed at that kind of capitalist consumption, but I reminded myself that all that crap was part and parcel of my former life. Our commune in the country didn’t need all those things to be a home; the love and intimacy of the family, and our commitment to each other and the life we were creating together, were what counted. What I was leaving behind — the things, the place, and even the people — no longer held any meaning for me. They had served their purpose but had outlived their relevance. I had moved beyond it all.

I shipped home the things that could be used: a few pots, pans, and utensils that would supplement the well stocked Chillum kitchen; jeans, turtlenecks, sweaters, socks and boots; some books, pens, notebooks, and the photos of Spindle’s and my European travels. I sent back a few choice items from the dc king wife wardrobe for our straight neighbor Janice Bush, but most of that stuff I left in the back of the closet out of Arnie’s way. The china, silver, and crystal, those expensive displays of middle-class consumerism, I left in the breakfront figuring if Arnie needed the space, he could take the stuff to Shelly and Ruthie’s. The tchotchkes I had were useless artifacts of another time period and I left them behind.

Often feeling like a displaced person, but one superior to her surroundings — after all, I was enlightened in a way that these hometown folks weren’t — I wrote rambling stoned letters to my sisters and brothers on the farm. In visits and conversations with old friends and acquaintances I spread the word of my righteous new life like a missionary hell bent on converting the natives. I alternately played with people’s heads and earnestly talked up changing the world by example.

The men were fun, and the dc king was easy — turning him down, I mean.

“Hi doll, how are ya?” he asked, as we awkwardly kissed hello.

I led him through the rearrangement of the household goods we’d shared together to our former couch. He looked exactly the same, and if he was shocked by my appearance he didn’t let on.

“So what are you doing on this farm?”

“Working the land and sharing a simple life with others. I’ve found where I belong.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah, we’re living life the way it should be lived. You know, I wasn’t cut out for the suburbs. There’s so much more to life — the world is changing and priorities need to be reordered.”

“How so?”

“Simplify and share. We share everything. Eliminating ‘mine’ makes the world and us less petty and better able to concentrate on more important things than ownership. You should come visit and see. Bring the wife and kid. How are they?”

He told me about his new life with the new wife, their son, and the house in the suburbs.

“I’m happy you got want you wanted,” I said, and meant it. “You couldn’t of had that with me, we belong in different places.” Listening to him talk gave me the creeps, and I thought, there but for the grace of god go I. It made me glad for the zillionth time that I had gotten out of the marriage.

He got up. “I’ve got to get home. My wife doesn’t know I’m here. But maybe later in the week . . . ?” He leaned over to kiss me and stuck his tongue in my mouth. “Not a good idea,” I responded, gently pushing him away. I knew he wasn’t the cheating kind and the come-on made me feel sad and guilty. I hadn’t called to try and seduce him. I just wanted to show him how hip I was now that I had found my true path, and that our divorce was a good thing for both of us. As he headed down the steps I promised to stay in touch, but I knew I wouldn’t.

As for the Italian brothers, they both were fascinated by the freedom of commune life — particularly that the rooms in our house had no doors and that we practiced so-called “free love.” The lack of creature comforts repelled them as did the hair on my legs and underarms.

Victor, the younger brother who thought he was Milwaukee’s answer to Tom Jones, America’s reigning male sex symbol, came strutting into my apartment like he owned the place. Which he did — he was my landlord, among other things.

“Arnie wants to stay ’cause I’m not ever coming back here to live,” I told him.

“I’d rather have you here,” he said, grabbing me. “But he can stay as long as he pays the rent. Now what about all that free love?”

I ducked out from under his grasp and turned to face him on the couch. “We’re not uptight about sex. Everyone’s honest, so there’s no cheating. Besides, with no doors everyone pretty much knows what everyone else is doing.”

“So if someone wants someone else, they just go do it and no one cares?”

“If it’s cool with the other person, yeah. The people involved talk about it, but it’s usually no big deal because we all love each other.”

He laughed. “Sounds good to me.”

“Victor, there’s a lot more to our lives than sex. We’re working toward eliminating a lot of unnecessary things in life. Jealousy and ownership of another person are just a part of it.”

“I’m interested in expanding things in my life, not eliminating them. And I don’t want my wife sleeping with anyone else, and I don’t want to know about it if she is,” he said emphatically. “But hey, if it turns you on, go for it. It seemed like you were headed in this direction.”

Primo, the small, wiry, practical, older brother, sat in the same spot a few days later, nodding his head in disapproval. But then he and I had always argued about political and social issues.

“Don’t you have any rules?” he asked

“No, what for?”

“How does the work get done? Who’s the boss?”

“There isn’t one. Everything gets done because we’re all in this together, working toward a common goal that everyone wants to make happen.”

“No one in charge? It can’t work. The same with the sex business; there’s gotta be jealousy. I don’t buy it.”

“We always talk it through.”

“Well I don’t want my wife screwing around with someone else. I’d kill her. There’s nothing to talk through.”

“Oh Primo!” The old male double standard; he and I had been down this road before. I knew I’d get nowhere. “How’s business?” I asked.

Gus took me to dinner at some trendy new place near the university. As an economics professor with an ever-lasting belief in the capitalist system, he criticized our way of life and didn’t see it working.

“You know my bywords, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” he pointed out.

“We work hard!” I protested.

“But you don’t make any money. How can you live?”

“Things just seem to come down the road when we need them.”

“So some fairy godmother’s going to make sure you have gas for the tractor, seeds to plant, money for taxes, and food to eat? Oh please!”

“Well, no. But the spiritual plane of our lives affects the physical, and we seem to get what we need.”

“Let’s see what you have to say next year.”

Despite his skepticism, and aside from the fact that I was no longer constantly available as his slave labor and friend, he was accepting of my move. Although he was a Republican fiscal conservative, he leaned toward the liberal side of social issues, and though doubtful that we’d accomplish any real change in the world, he gave us credit for trying.

I saw my friend who read the I Ching for me. We sat in her apartment drinking wine much as we had on the night I threw the coins. I thanked her for that night.

“If it wasn’t for you I’d still be stuck in Milwaukee.”

“Hey, all I did was read what you threw.”

“No man. It was your idea to throw the coins in the first place. You helped changed my life.”

She modestly accepted my gratitude, and she was the least judgmental of everyone I’d seen. We promised to stay in touch.

I hitchhiked from Arnie’s place to Shelly and Ruthie’s house in the north shore suburb of Fox Point, which horrified my sister-in-law. “Why did you do that? It’s not safe! I offered to pick you up. What’s happened to you?”

Shelly and Ruthie were predictably judgmental, but I knew that the new me would be a major stretch for them. They never understood how I could have divorced the dc king when, in their minds, “I had everything” being married to him. Then too, they were pissed that not only would their kids grow up without grandparents nearby, they’d be missing one of only two aunts as well. And they thought I was under a bad influence — Spindle’s. She was low on their list ever since Ruthie had seen her in the doctor’s office getting birth control pills, because as my mother had put it, “If she’s not married, what does she need the pill for?”

Arnie, although not wanting to jeopardize the cheap and well furnished apartment I had provided him with, still let me know that what I was doing wasn’t right. “You don’t change things by removing yourself from them. You have to work within the system,” he intoned in various ways during the course of my visit. Poor guy. He just didn’t get that the status quo would go nowhere, and I’d spent too many years of my life fighting with him to take on trying to convince him.

I booked a flight to Florida, and with my work done in Milwaukee I headed south to Mom and Dad. On the plane I thought about the two weeks I’d just spent in the land of my youth. I hadn’t quite got past the culture shock of new life to old and feeling alien in familiar surroundings. Everyone there seemed so straight and living lives as though nothing had changed, when in fact, life was so drastically different. Still, I had fun in Milwaukee; I no longer had any responsibility there. I could just drop into people’s lives, pass judgment on them, make my grandiose pronouncements, and then split. Who knew when I’d be back.