“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” – Jimi Hendrix
“When younger, you’re blamed for crimes you didn’t commit—when older, you’re credited with virtues you never possessed—it evens out.” I Stone
“A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane, and smells like Cheetah.” – Ronald Reagan
Why did I want to be a paperback writer? Besides it being a hit Beatles song, writing felt familiar, emancipating, mysterious. The first paperback (stitched sheets of papyrus) was issued ~3000 BCE, called Coming Into Day, aka Egyptian Book of the Dead. Alexander the Great read a paperback’ish copy of The Illiad as he conquered the known world. Eventually, folks found a way to make almost any book cheap, portable, and useful. Onesimus, an enslaved African working for Cotton Mather wrote a pamphlet about successful African smallpox inoculations. The 1765 Stamp Act, which taxed written materials, contributed to colonialists revolting and declaring their independence (as I was doing in 1970—or so I reasoned after climbing out a bedroom window and scampering down the mountain).
I’d certainly read my fill of paperbacks: Mickey Spillane’s cynical, gritty detective novels; Harper Lee’s insightful To Kill a Mockingbird; Friedan’s Feminine Mystique; Lawrences’ Lady Chatterley’s Lover; dozens of my dad’s dimestore westerns; 100s of Pocket/Penguin books; and a burgeoning collection of esoterica. Besides Henry Miller, Ayn Rand, and Norman Mailer, the other writer whose work I studied avidly then was Colin Wilson. Decades later I’d be invited to visit this remarkable, prolific writer at Tetherdown, his home in Cornwall. As I tested and recorded what I DIDN’T want to be, paperback writer never made that list.
The summer I graduated, I hung out at cool, elegant Capitol Hill Library of Congress. The vaulted ceilings were ornately painted. There was a painting called Erotica, which wasn’t very risqué, an array of comics, and underground tunnels. As I wandered the stacks, I asked: what hadn’t people written? What could I write worthy of inclusion here? This library housed ‘we hold these truths to be self evident’ and declarations on the rights of man, but not woman; the Gettysburg Address (which I knew by heart); and indigenous peoples artifacts. The acoustics, however, were awful. Sounds echoed, chewing gum or eating was forbidden, and stack librarians were hard to find. After a few weeks, I moved on.
Joan Didion, in ‘On Keeping a Notebook,’ said that while the act of journaling seemed to be about ‘preserving what’s observed,’ it was really about ‘remembering what it was like to be me.’ It’s a curious and selfish endeavor, still it’s one I’m grateful to have done and continue to do. She was a hot mess, my 18 year old self. That first journal, aka Read Red Book, the one begun in a rooming house in Washington DC, was a mishmash of thoughts & copied sayings like ‘wild is my favorite color’ and ‘so far out I’m in.’ I taped Chinese Fortunes I liked and magazine pics to inside cover sheets, and drew psychedelic wheels and abstract pop art designs throughout.
Nixon was President in 1970—ousted in 1974 when VP Gerald Ford assumed the position. I worked at the crumbling Old Post Office building (built 1899). It was slated for demolition (except for the tower) in 1971, and saved by the banding together of many people. In the late 70s, the building became a mini shopping/ eating pavilion, then the Trump Hotel. Now it’s the Waldorf Astoria South. My father also worked in DC for the US Postal Service as an engineering consultant, hired to update and improve its zip code and mail sorting machinery. He checked on me frequently—criticizing my attire, foolishness… His shadow was ever present Mon-Friday from 8-5pm. There seemed to be no escaping the mountain king.
I flat footed and bussed all over the city that first summer. In 1977, my primary transportation was cars (good luck finding parking), taxis, roller skates, and pavement pounding. I spent a majority of time in Georgetown, DCs oldest neighborhood. Pre 1600, it was a Native American trading post called Tohoga. Members of 40 Algonquin tribes met here, per Thomas Jefferson. What’s now Wisconsin Avenue was once called ‘old Indian Road.’ Under King George II (for whom it’s named), it was a tobacco port and place to trade slaves. After construction of the Chesapeake & Ohio canal, mills, foundries, and lime kilns dotted Georgetown’s waterfront. It wasn’t officially incorporated into DC until 1871, and was considered a poor relation occupied largely by laborers and merchants.
Key Bridge was completed in 1923, linking N Virginia suburbs to DC. When Congress declared Georgetown a historic district in the early 1950s, urban dwellers began flocking to this strategically positioned swath of the city. Over multiple decades, the Kennedy’s owned townhouses on N, Q and P streets. There were frequent sightings of Shirley Temple and Henry Kissinger, who owned houses there in 1970s. South Mountain’s writer Maddie Dahlgren (see Wizard of Zittlestown blog) had a house on Massachusetts Ave in the mid 1800s.
One weekend I discovered a marvelous, musty smelling antiquarian/new age book shop right off M Street. I fibbed to get the 10% college student discount. Afterwards, with a hobo bag bulging with books, I’d gravitate to my favorite cheap hangout The Third Edition. It became the model for the bar/restaurant in the 1980 hit St. Elmo’s Fire. I’d order a basket of fries and a soft drink with a wedge of lemon or lime to make it look like a cuba libra. Then I’d pull out my new used books and flip through pages that chronicled everything from Renaissance art and faery rings to reincarnation rituals.
Actual Georgetown and George Washington Uni students would ask what classes I was taking that required the reading of esoteric books. I’d say it was for an Anthropology or Philosophy class in Logic, then change the subject before they asked who taught the class. I hooked up with a Georgetown sophomore who was intrigued by the seed of an idea I had after reading a mystery by H. F. Heard A Taste for Honey. The story is set in the English countryside and features an implied, retired Sherlock Holmes and a conundrum regarding why someone would train bees to kill. Why would someone kill for the sake of killing? (The story was adapted into a botched 1967 movie The Deadly Bees). The sketch I told the honey-haired lad in 1970 became the foundation for my supernatural mystery Grave Goddess (chapters posted in this blog).
Alas or alors helas (as one ex might say), I retrieve one memoire and it rolls, expands into a big, round lint collection of past experiences. It grabs tastes, sounds, scents. Sometimes, it animates into a Golem or Tulpa and accosts me. It says ‘that’s not what happened. That’s not what I saw or the bird on the ledge.’ I confess, my memories aren’t indelibly inked, not even the ones written down. It took decades before I learned to soar, acquire a bird’s eye view of the world. In 1970, it shouldn’t have surprised me a novel about bees and sociopaths, written during WWII, would ask why anyone would harm or kill someone for no reason.
The picture I paint of two simmering summers in Washington DC wasn’t all sunshine and shenanigans. A dark undercurrent ran through this city, carrying murky streams of competing powers, rivers of greed, and waves of corruption. There were nearly 300 murders committed in DC in 1969 and 220+ in 1970. By 1977, the number doubled. Over 720 rapes were reported in 70 and 400+ in 77. Aggravated and violent assaults numbered 16,846 in 70 and 12,000+ in 77. These are official figures; unofficially the numbers are much higher; too often, DC crimes stories were relegated to back pages. The city was deeply segregated; 80% of its police force were white although nearly 70% of its population was black. President Johnson’s 1968 Civil Rights Act was not being honored. Riots in 1968 resulted in dozens of deaths, with 1,900+ injured and over 7,500 arrested.
Other memories in my bouncing ball of lint unfold like time lapse photographs. For example, on August 26, 1970, a Wednesday (and a siblings birthday), I marched with over a thousand people down Connecticut Avenue. It was my second big protest event, and the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage. My first protest, in July, had involved lots of wiggling and giggling, and the burning of bras. The 8/26 protest was different. Some were opposing being in Viet Nam (VN); others waved peace posters or signs noting their frustration, like “Don’t iron while the strike is hot.” (To this day, I don’t own an iron.). Many had taken a day off from work after Betty Friedan suggested it back in March at a NYC NOW meeting. I neither carried a sign nor was sure why I was demonstrating. Was it to protest abortion rights, demand withdrawal from VN, equal pay/equal work, right to serve on a jury, get a credit card without husband co-signing, or all those reasons?
There were hecklers and moms dressed in pink holding ‘man is master’ signs. I was pushed, prodded, and exposed toes were stepped on. Multiple petitions were shoved in my free hands; a lady barked ‘sign here.’ When I refused or tried to read the document, several big, beefy women with angry faces threatened me. Somehow I managed to fall back into the crowd. Those women reminded me of people I’d encountered at the metaphysical book shop. They didn’t believe in causes or ancients gods whose tokens they wore. After the speeches, many of which I couldn’t hear clearly, I headed back to my rented room. I stopped somewhere along the way and bought a soft pretzel, (not enough money for anything more substantial). Payday was Friday and tolerable buffet breakfasts were included in room & board.
Four longs blocks from my room, I decided to take the proverbial shortcut down a dimly lit alley. From the shadows, a smelly, drunk derelict jumped out at me. He grabbed for the large purse slung over my shoulder, and pushed me against a wall. I scraped an elbow. I’ll never unsmell the reek of him, the filthy hand that tried to silence my hoarse cries of alarm. I knee’d him in the groin and ran, purse flapping off my hip. He chased me down another alley, littered with debris. Fortunately, it wasn’t a dead end.
I emerged onto an empty street littered with closed and padlocked shops. My sandal had broken and I bent to retrieve it. The man emerged with something in his hand, a rusty, paint stained metal bucket, which he threw at me. Its contents smelled foul and I jumped sideways to avoid the worst of it and stepped in something sticky. I turned and ran, one sandal on, one off. At the end of the block, I read the street sign, recognized where I was, and made a right.
It was pitch dark when I got to my building, heaving, sweaty, intact, more or less. The man hadn’t followed me. My roommate had a small bottle of mercurochrome, which she applied to my elbow and the pad of my foot after I’d showered. I didn’t file a police report. I’d only lost a sandal… Weighing the fright factor, I estimated I’d shaved 2-3 years off my life span. I wanted to phone home, or at least send a postcard about my near mishap: Dear Mom & Dad, momentarily forgot what you told me about going where I shouldn’t. Though I was never on the track (or any other team) at school, I sprinted for my life and reached the finish line in one piece. The big, bad city didn’t get me. No more alleys for me. Was the August birthday cake Devil’s Food? Yours truly… I didn’t phone home, instead, I went on a date that weekend with an over 21 guy I’d met near the Dupont Circle fountain.
The area had a bohemian vibe for a short time in the 70s. There were also lots of stately row houses, including homes once owned by Presidents Coolidge, Roosevelt, and Taft. Nearby were tunnels that at one time led to a Prohibition era speakeasy. During the gilded age, the nouveau riche lived here. On 19th Street NW sat a house once occupied by L. Ron Hubbard, dubbed the first church of Scientology.
Finally, I thought, I’ve met a classy man. He smoked Lucky Strikes and wore a signet ring with the letter R. Damn was I wrong. We went to a Chinese Restaurant on M Street, Number One Son; he ordered for me. I let it pass and ate Chow Mein with a fortune cookie. There were long, pregnant silences I tried to fill with banter about my job at US Post Office HQ, the huge postal strike, and recent law passed to make USPS an independent corporate entity. Not a sound out of him, unless you counted the tea slurping and endless chewing of spicy, red sauced beef with two egg rolls. He didn’t share. I attempted to sum up what I’d learned reading Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, how we’re badgered by triviality, except for the rebel, who sees through smokescreens and chaos, and flexes muscles most never use—imagination, critical thinking… Again, no response from the brown haired, brown eyed man.
Earlier, he told me was a sales rep for an office supply company, a step up from a Fuller Brush or snake oil sales man. He was vague about everything except his love of souped up cars and good fortune in having a high draft card number. The fortune I got from the cookie in the Chinese eatery was a keeper. It wasn’t you’ll be hungry again in an hour or don’t trust the man sitting opposite you, but it should have alerted me. It was the precursor of those my life in six words stories. It said: read fine print closely. If only I’d heeded its sublime wisdom.
Without going into gory details, the rest of the evening was a series of other six word stories, including a joy ride best summarized as bad brakes discovered at high speed; a groping near the Rock Creek Park Zoo $3 chow mein doesn’t buy me; and a hasty exit and sweaty sprint through a dark park Fought him. Ran, never looked back. After which I concluded date not great-man was ape.
I had an epiphany decades later when I mused a certain map of Washington DC resembled lines on the palm of my hand. There were so many intersections that crisscrossed DC and my life line. In palmistry, intersections in life lines represent events. Particular hash lines represent major occasions like marriages, divorces, deaths of loved ones. I blame palmistry and those lines for my many tangled relationships. The medicine men that once occupied DC displayed an eye in the palm of their hand. My figurative eye has often winked at me over the decades. And though DC wasn’t crowded with skyscrapers like NYC, it felt like big bro or an invisible creature was watching, waiting to pounce like the brown eyed man had.
DC was full of noises, honking horns, construction sounds, folks talking, yelling. Smells got real as the city simmered. Cigar and cigarette smoke mingled with clammy odors from the polluted Potomac, after shaves, unwashed bodies. Empty garbage pails reeked of what had been rotting in them yesterday. Cooking aromas were more pleasant: garlic, tandoori spices, lemon grass, seafood stews and baking bread. Walking DC streets was similar to traversing an obstacle course: cracks in sidewalks, cellar doors and manholes left open, falling flowerpots, scaffolding, people pushing past you… Something smoldered here, sucking on the energy of unwary passersby—something with tentacles or claws, demanding a ferryman’s fee?
Adolescent Jo was a Dorothy Parker fan. In fact, swaths of the 70s feel like pages from a Portable Parker paperback (give a man enough rope and he’ll skip; all I need is enough space to lay my hat…and a few friends). As a woman poet, writer, and wit, she was someone to envy. She called wit clever truth; wise-cracking was calisthenics with words. I hate writing; I love having written, she quipped.
When told she was a writer with a drinking problem, she countered ‘no, I’m a drinker with a writing problem.’ Dorothy ‘liked martinis, 2 at the most; after 3 I’m under the table, after 4, I’m under the host. My attempts to be witty in this capital city amounted to adding adjectives/adverbs to briefs and memos I transcribed 8-5; imitative, immature poems and prose; and stuff I read and copied, wishing I’d written. After getting a ticket for jaywalking, I wrote the tense encounter down in my Read Red book and added a comment ‘look both ways before you cross me or my mind.’ I gave the officer a false name and address; you didn’t have to show proof of identity in the 70s. I suspect Dorothy would have approved.
Both simmering 70s summers functioned as superficial initiations into societies I audited—refused to join. Where were my people? What purpose did all the hazing serve? Short on hutzpah, I tucked tail in early September 1970 and fled back to Western Maryland, feeling ‘wounded but not slain’ by a conceited, uncaring city, as Dryden once said. ‘I will lay me down and bleed awhile, then rise up again.’ To spite the mountain king, who insisted a ‘good marriage would secure my future,’ I immediately married a dull man my parents disliked. By November of 1970, I filed for divorce, a two year process in those days. In 1972, during a fierce snowstorm, I gave birth to a beautiful girl.
I knew better than to assume she was part of the tribe for whom I’d been searching. I’d read books by child rearing experts, and Freud, Jung, and Klein, and disagreed with Spock and behavioral experts Skinner and Watson. Kahlil Gilbran made more sense. He said ‘your children aren’t yours. They are sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.’ I had babysat siblings and 100s of kids. They were a complex, evolving stew of selfhood and sinew, heredity, environment, and a magic third ingredient, individual personality. Children were crazy koans and riddles. My child rearing model was the opposite of my parents. I breastfed, exposed her to the scary world, and wove flowers in her long locks. It didn’t take long to realize that for a working mother, child rearing was an extreme, full contact sport, which took an entire village to manage. As Ray Romano joked, ‘it’s a bit like living in a frat house, little sleep, stuff gets broken and lost, and there’s lots of throwing up.’
After two marriages, college courses, jobs ranging from programming clerk and import/export associate to nursing home admitting secretary and barmaid, I migrated again, in 1977, from stifling suburbs to the city that simmered. I met a worldly, mature Frenchman while moonlighting as hostess/cocktail waiter at a posh eatery/nightclub named after another Beatles song. It employed an eclectic mix of people, temperaments, top shelf booze, and designer drugs. I was a Lady Madonna reject with a young child—surviving on shoestring wages. My daughter spent her summers at my parent’s, with her pony, handmade doll furniture, and the full attention of my family. I unofficially moved in with the Frenchman who would become my third husband.
He and his sophisticated friends with green cards taught me more about America than I learned in 12 years of schooling. My palate got a crash courses in international cuisine, and he tried to persuade me less was always more. He educated me about jazz and country music roots, while chiding me that I had terrible tastes in most things. I had front row views of DCs famous kitchens, and front row seats at theatres and eateries. I was his Eliza Doolittle and biggest disappointment. He’d neglected to tell me he was a recovering alcoholic, prone to relapses, had anger issues and… I remained a defiant Black Magic woman with a devil may care attitude about fashion, fidelity, correct French pronunciations, and maintaining facades.
‘This too shall pass—though it might hurt like a heart shaped kidney stone’ became my new motto—it did pass—it did hurt. It took decades before I regained the sense of wonder and fear (in equal measures) I experienced the summer of 1970 wandering through DCs streets and museums—or reading Colin Wilson or Henry Miller at a coveted café window spot—the feeling life is a treasure, a glorious work of art, a row of drinkable moments to be sipped and savored, fondled, squeezed, and suffered.
When I exited Washington DC in 1970, a wave of existential nausea engulfed me. The 60s were over and with it summers of love, lunacy, and sex in the grass, which was a gas but full of chiggers. When I left DC the second time, in 1984, after divorcing a third husband, the city didn’t feel like a devouring creature. It felt more like a mentor that had done what it could with me. There was one more defiant act to accomplish before making peace with my father, the mountain king. There was one more thing to do before grudgingly bending the knee to society, completing two degrees, being able to write full time (no paperbacks issued yet), and finding the path traveled by a few black magic forbearers. Would it entail moving to England, Israel, or to Florida’s last resort? What would it cost? That’s another story for another time. Check back later this month for new Grave Goddess and Act of Ambition chapters, a salute to July, and perhaps a flippant try at answering: Do Vampires Poop?
The Secret Destiny of America, Hall, Manly P, 1944
The Outsider, Colin Wilson, 1956; the works of Henry Miller
Ritual America: Secret Brotherhoods and Their Influence on American Society, Heimbichner and Parfrey, Feral House, 2012
The Simple Art of Murder, (from the Art of the Mystery Story), Ramond Chandler, 1944
United Symbolism of America: Deciphering Hidden Meanings in America’s Familiar Art, Architecture, and Logos, R Hieronimus and L Cortner, 2008
Lost Symbols, the Secrets of Washington DC, David Ovason, 2009
RE Mary Pinchot Meyer:
A Very Private Woman (1998) by Nina Burleigh, journalist (glosses over her life, concludes Crump did it)
The Georgetown Ladies Social Club, by C. David Heymann
Mary’s Mosaic, Peter Janney, 2016 (Burden of Guilt) Leo Damore, not finished, rolled into Mosaic
JFK and Mary Meyer: A Love Story, Kornbluth, journalist, imagined diary
Executive Action (1973) movie; An American Affair, 2009 movie, Prime Video
So writing something down CAN and does change a moment; it’s like taking a photo, the shutter falls like a guillotine. But like pruning a plant, it’s still a creative art. Reading this is such a rush, recording the sights and sounds on an early education on what a city has to offer. Here’s my favourite so far…
‘I immediately married a dull man my parents disliked. By November of 1970, I filed for divorce, a two year process in those days. In 1972, during a fierce snowstorm, I gave birth to a beautiful girl…’
Aside from the wry feel and underlying good humour of this, it conveys rather than captures; we don’t want to bottle and sell our memories, we want to convert them in a way that’s understood, and that’s what this whole piece does. And great to hear about the serious side of Wilson, the risible Lifeforce aside…anyone who wrote on Ouspensky and Reich was dining off menu in a good way, and guides like that are to be treasured for keeping the journey interesting. Will be back for next months education if I can stop watching Hocus Pocus…
Yes, you understood so perfectly. Thank you. Writing something down as witness, trying not to sound like someone apologizing, confessing or excusing is exactly like feeling the whisper of the guillotines blade. You are so smart! Must be part of why you’re an amazing authority with prodigious, critical skills. Yep, Wilson, Reich, Ouspensky, Robbins, Pirsig, Sontag, Angelou, Lessing, Mailer, Mitford…all were mentors. Grateful for your comments!
RE Hocus Pocus, the stuff life’s made from, there are dozens of amazing lines, and I also have 2 sisters… “it’s the chocolate covered finger of a man named Clark…You bucktoothed mop riding firefly from hell…man, how come it’s always the ugly chicks that stay out late…” it will be hard to top the original
These memoirs of yours are very readable and supremely interesting Jo. Dorothy Parker’s wit is never very far away in your writing. I agree that life is “a row of drinkable moments to be sipped and savored, fondled, squeezed, and suffered”.
In another slice of our symmetries, DC is the sole US city that I’ve visited. 2003: the security guys at the airport took a hugely suspicious dislike as I had passport stamps from Bahrain, Morocco, Qatar and Tunisia.
Did you get to visit C Wilson? He was my main man in my late 20s and early 30s. After Miller and Mailer woke me up, Colin made it clear that focus would illuminate whatever paths I chose. I finally read Rand about two years ago.
I’m glad you kicked the alleyway accoster in the tenderest spot.
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If you or your family ever make a return visit to America, please consider staying her, big old house on the lake with 4 empty bedrooms ensuite, and a library I think you’d like. Yes, Tetherdown was amazing and Colin and Joy were amazing hosts. The front door was blocked by piles of books! He drank me under the table before dinner, during, and after dinner. Luckily, I’d hired a car/driver as I don’t fare well driving on other side of road. I’d first met Colin at a Fortfest in College Park Md–best talk I’ve ever heard and he didn’t use a single note card. Got to spend time with him again at several Ripper Conferences. What an extraordinary genius of a man he was. I brought him a sweatshirt from the US that made him laugh. It said ‘I stand up to incredible intellectual scrutiny,’ and indeed he did. Yep, still carry a bunch of ‘can’t unring that bell’ memories. Cheers!
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More than once my wife and I have been in deep shit and, when all looked lost, suddenly a solution turned up through our dogged perseverance. ‘This is a St.Neots moment’ I would tell her!
Being drunk under the table by Colin is priceless Jo. I’m envious.
Thanks for the invite. It’s noted. I’ve friends in Massachussetts, New Jersey and South Carolina so an East Coast tour is a must, one day, when the coffers are fuller and time is more abundant.
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