Portrait of a revolutionary manque

February 1, 2010 at 3:54 AM 1 comment

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I was twenty-four when I took the elevator up to the eighth floor at 17 West 17th Street to begin my career as a writer for Liberation News Service. The building was near Union Square and the latino y criollas restaurants where I used to drink cafe con leche after a day of writing about bribery scandals in countries where I had never set foot. I lived with roommates at an apartment north of Columbia University, but I considered Liberation News Service my home.

The LNS loft had everything I desired: Torn green vinyl furniture; a kitchen with the slogan “running dogs of imperialism” taped to the stove backboard, and posters of Zora Neale Hurston and Nelson Mandela. I was on the outs with my family, so the journalism “collective” of nine “comrades” became my family. Any presumed kinship ties were too great for a left-wing organization in the twilight of its life to bear, but how was I to know that?

During my two years at LNS, I saw myself as the Eliza Doolittle¬†of the Left and LNS as my Henry Higgins. I had spent eighteen years on a chicken farm in rural New Jersey, four at the state university, one on Wall Street as a Dictaphone typist and nearly two in the U.S. Virgin Islands — and, I felt, I sorely needed re-education. My comrades seemed so worldly. Some had been members of the Students for a Democratic Society; some had gotten arrested at anti-war protests; some had even gotten smacked on the keister with a billy club. I wanted to be like them.

From Enver Hoxha to John Milton

The most fascinating comrade was Karin,* an immigrant from North Carolina, as she put it. Karin was missing a front tooth and the self-assurance it takes to make eye contact. She read everything from The Last of the Just to Enver Hoxha‘s Two Friendly Peoples, one of several screeds about communism in Albania. To this day, I can still see Karin loping around the loft, a corn pipe stuck in the gap between her teeth, singing, “It’s a Bitch, Girl.” Our love of novels and our affinity for Judaism should have made us allies. Instead Freud’s “narcissism of minor differences” threw us into separate camps. Karin found reason to rag on me about my over-involvement with LNS. She said I should be “in the trenches” helping to build the “movement.” She also criticized my writing style — especially the verbs I used — as masculine. Yet to this day, whenever I come across something hard, like Milton’s Tetrachordon, I read it in Karin’s voice. Something in her tone always sat an idea down in a chair and asked that it speak plain English.

Comrade Mimi had moved to Park Slope in Brooklyn from Santa Cruz specifically to work at LNS. Like Karin, Mimi was whippet-thin and smoked. One time she blew a cloud of smoke out of her mouth and inhaled it back up her nose. She narrowed her gaze to evince an air of sophistication that looked sehr Dietrich and silly at the same time. Little wonder that this twentysomething Californian-by-way-of-Canada could list her occupation on a job application as “revolutionary.”

In an unguarded moment, Mimi told me about a racial incident in Santa Cruz that revealed the frailty behind big-canvas thinking. Her story stood apart from the droning cant I endured about white skin privilege and homophobia that ultimately trapped LNS in a cul-de-sac of sectarian politics. Mimi’s confession told me that some approximation of truth lives below the plane of political posturing and begs to be heard.

Comrade Wendy had been my LNS liaison in the days when I wrote my trouble-in-paradise stories from the Virgin Islands. I had lobbied her to let me join LNS, even though I had no Movement street cred. Wendy helped bring me up to speed with stories of racial and sexual oppression that she had learned as the daughter of a Boeing employee and a graduate of Bryn Mawr College.

Uh-huh, that’s my sarcasm hurtling along the slippery route of memory. While most of my comrades sought to educate me about the real lives of poor people, Wendy stands out in my memory as a pauper wannabe. After I wrote a version of this story ten years ago for an LNS reunion journal, Wendy let me know through an intermediary that I had gotten her all wrong — and she was angry. She had grown up in a lower middle class neighborhood that got bad services, with Italians and Japanese who worked in places like the phone company. Moreover, she went to one of the poorest high schools in Seattle.

The more Wendy pled her case, the more I saw that life had not helped her put those “bad services” in perspective. Compared to Frank McCourt‘s Limerick, for example, or Kamala Markandaya‘s rural India, Seattle’s lower middle class neighborhood was Shangri-La. Frankly, lower middle class complaints about garbage pick-ups and mediocre education are babyish next to stories of mass murder in Nazi-occupied Poland or Rwanda, and I can’t help but write them off as the piping of innocents. I apologized to Wendy as I would to a child for any pain I may have caused her. But bad services in Seattle? Puh-leaze.

A hatchet job on Comrade George’s hair

The LNS men were generally less critical of me but problematic in their own right. Comrade Bruce questioned me about the term “Holocaust survivors.” Bruce said that a Jew who survived the War in the pleasant forests of eastern Poland didn’t qualify as a survivor. He also said he would support a Jewish state in, say, Ukraine, but not in Arab Palestine. Not a man of the world that Bruce.

During the Iranian hostage season, Comrade George would wander the LNS loft shouting, “Allahu Akbar!” His Islamic effusions were more an expression of his “solidarity” with the Iranian revolution and hatred of Amerika, not a compassionate embrace of the Koran. George soon left LNS for the Trotskyite¬†Socialist Workers Party where he frequently takes to the hustings as the party’s candidate for president of the United States.

And yet Bruce and George were often fun to be with. Bruce used to walk around in a state of chronic sleepiness and joked that this was his preferred mode of existence. And one Thursday night when the comrades printed the Liberation News Service packet, I was elected to cut George’s hair. It happened to be as thick as Trotsky’s, and my inexpert technique resulted in, well, a hatchet job. I fall on de floor and I laughing.

We were all happy for a minute

To prove that I understood the struggles of black people, I began interviewing a Movement activist in Tupelo, Mississippi. By the third interview, he confessed that he masturbated to the sound of my voice. I told an African-American woman named Frieda — mother Jamaican, father Jewish — about him and she advised me to halt further contact with him. In the short term, Frieda’s advice was sound. But what she ultimately wanted was for me to cover up the sexual and ethnic snarls that pill every piece of ideological cloth. I didn’t want to. Those conversations with the Tupelo activist were part of my lived experience. The stories I wrote about the Sandinistas and Peruvian peasants were just rehashed news stories from the Times mashed through my personal left-wing food processor. I wanted to write about the snarls. It was time to move on.

Political disillusion aside, I loved Liberation News Service in a way that I never loved any other work until Bookpod. I loved producing the weekly news packet — interviewing, researching, writing, eating pizza on Thursday nights and listening to Karin sing “It’s a Bitch, Girl.” Even though I ended up feeling out of place on that shining political path, I was happy at LNS for a minute: Happy listening to Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” falling in and out of love with Comrade George and answering the questions that young people are ornery enough to ask.

Last year I wanted to make a short film for a digital filmmaking class. I remembered that Mimi had become a criminal defense attorney who exonerated several wrongfully convicted prison inmates (she really was a revolutionary). She spent hours on me, suggesting possible subjects for the film and finally arranging for me to meet a woman who did twenty-eight years in prison largely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I got in touch with another comrade named Becky who had written the musical scores for a couple of feature films. Becky too spent hours on me in a quest to find the right “Jesus music” for my film, even though, as she said, “I’m allergic to that institutionalized religious crap!”

So funny, I thought, how Mimi and Becky had changed for the better. Decades past the acrimony of our political squabbles, they became my friends. It dawned on me that I changed for the better too because I could look at Mimi and Becky and admire them for all their un-jaded goodness. I may be an incorrigible bourgeois, but thanks to them, I keep learning how to live and let live. My better nature is grateful to them — and to the rest of my LNS comrades — for helping me get to wherever I’m going.

* All names in this blog post are pseudonyms.


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Entry filed under: Bookpod, New York City, Politics, Working. Tags: , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Pesha  |  February 1, 2010 at 8:36 AM

    I loved this look back at your youthful idealism.


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