Adapted from the memoir
HOME FREE: Adventures of a Child of the Sixties
By Rifka Kreiter
to be published May 16, 2017
Eighty-Seventh Street between Central Park West and Columbus was a quiet, tree-lined street when I lived there from 1965 to 1969, the longest I’d ever stayed in one place until that time. My apartment was on the top floor of a typical New York brownstone.
You had to walk up four steep flights to arrive, panting, at my door. You stepped into the small kitchen, with its eight square feet of blue and white Dutch-patterned linoleum cheerfully lit by the skylight above. There was a small stove, a half-size fridge under the counter and a pegboard I mounted on the wall with hooks to hang my pots and pans. The round card table where I ate was on the other side of the wall in the main room, which was about 12’x 16’. The studio was dominated by the handsome, glass-doored bookcases I scavenged from WHN when their offices were redecorated. My trundle bed served as a couch in the daytime, with its turquoise plaid bolsters and matching slipcovers. The two-toned wood coffee table was another prize from WHN. The cheap but adequate hi fi I bought for my Bronx apartment stood next to a rolling cart which held a portable TV. The small desk faced the back window, overlooking the gardens of the brownstones on 88th Street.
City College of New York was tuition free when I attended, as it had been since 1847. Generations of immigrants and their children had attended there and gone on to accomplished careers in every field, and they included many Nobel Laureates. You could get a great education there, especially if you handpicked your professors as I did, by inquiring about prospective teachers among students and faculty before registration.
Unlike most of my friends, I actually enjoyed college. I was clearly going because I wanted to, not for a career goal or parental expectations, though I had imbibed my family’s love of learning and high culture since childhood. I wanted to take advantage of the excellent liberal arts education offered there and I resolved never to get a grade lower than a “B.”
I dove into my studies in Humanities and the Social Sciences. Had it not been that some of my financial aid was contingent upon my majoring in psychology, I would have majored in philosophy, a field which I discovered with joy in City’s excellent department. I found deep satisfaction in addressing what were, to me, life’s most pressing questions: What is real? How do we know what we know? What is the true nature of a human being? What is the purpose of life?
Reading the Existentialists, I came to believe that, since it is impossible to verify whether or not God exists, it is as much a leap of faith to be an atheist as a believer. It was Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus which seemed to lend, at last, some coherence to my understanding of life. I was captivated by the idea that (a) humans (always referred to as “man,” of course) are in the essentially absurd position of seeking meaning in a universe that is inherently without meaning, and (b) we can always opt for suicide, and therefore, (c) if one chooses to stay alive, she must—if she wishes to live with integrity—take full responsibility for her own life, whatever form that takes.
I adopted this as my credo. I would stop thinking of myself as a victim of my unhappy childhood. I consciously chose life over suicide and would take responsibility for my actions on that basis. This stance gave impetus to my work with my therapist, Dr. Heimarck. Of course, adopting a credo and experiencing its truth are two different things.
Jim Friedman was my new boyfriend. He was forty-one, a misunderstood artist and beatnik, complete with a soft body, a goatee and a never-cleaned apartment in Greenwich Village. He responded with compassion to the victimized child in me. (For years to come I would hear, from virtually every man who was attracted to me, “You have such sad eyes.”) He called me Puss. The glamour I felt at having a boyfriend in The Village was enhanced because Jim was a gifted musician and songwriter whose work had been recorded by Judy Collins, Harry Belafonte and Theodore Bikel. If you asked him nicely, Jim would agree to play you “a medley of my hit.” (This would be “Hey Nelly, Nelly” or “The Hills of Shiloh,” songs he’d written with Shel Silverstein, recorded by Judy.) Not that his royalties supported him. He kept Velveeta on his toast by writing advertising jingles and transcribing sheet music. He was bitter about this, feeling that he was owed a lot more success than he’d found in the fucking music business.
I was proud that Jim was so respected on the music scene by rising stars like Steve Stills, who acknowledged Jim that year in large letters on the back of the new Buffalo Springfield album. When Judy Collins composed her first three songs, she called Jim at 2 a.m. to come hear them. We got out of bed and took the subway uptown to Judy’s West 79th Street apartment, where she played her complex songs for us on the grand piano in her homey living room. I thought they were beautiful. I remember she was so excited about her breakthrough. Judy was always so warm—effusive, even—but I was too overawed by her celebrity to have a real relationship with her.
Jim and I were burrowers and spent many hours in his basement pad, making love and playing chess. I loved to listen to the loopy conversations he had with his grey cats in an invented language. He was the first man I went with who I believed was on my side. He supported me in my struggle to climb out of the pits of depression and self-hatred, whether that meant persisting in therapy or following my conscience politically.
1967 was the year I first bought grass for myself. I would light up after a night of studying and lay in bed, stroking my silky black cat, Lady Flea, who sat Buddha-like on my chest, purring through inscrutable green eyes. As shadows from a candle danced across the high ceiling, we’d listen together to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I wandered through the new Beatles album as if it were a place, gliding and soaring, swimming through rich and exotic inner terrain. I loved marijuana.
Kate Coleman, one of Jim’s neighbors on West 4th Street, was a reporter for Newsweek. One day, for a story on the growing use of grass in mainstream America, she invited Jim and me upstairs to be photographed for an article Newsweek was doing about the spread of marijuana throughout society. In exchange for signed releases permitting publication of our photos (as long as we were not recognizable), we partook of some first-class weed, courtesy of the magazine. Thus it came about that my hand appeared on a Newsweek cover, passing a joint to Jim’s hand, my bitten cuticles photographically manicured.
* * * * * *
March 26, 1967, Easter Sunday—a bright mild day with a hint of spring in the air. Jim and I are approaching Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, drawn by the psychedelic Peter Max posters around town and the buzz about the Human Be-In, New York’s answer to the one they had in Golden Gate Park last January.
The sweet smell of pot reaches us long before the scene appears: almost 10,000 people milling peacefully on the grass. There are hippies in flowing outfits, with painted faces, alongside families who must’ve come straight from the Easter Parade. One man dressed in a suit and tie and wearing a feathered Indian headdress stands, playing a flute. On the edge of the crowd a guy dressed all in white is singing folk songs and strumming a guitar, as friendly onlookers listen politely and pass joints. Although we smoked before heading uptown, I take a toke when one comes my way, just to be communal.
“Looks like this Happening is happening, Puss!” says Jim.
“This is great,” I agree.
We amble on through the crowd and soon hear music coming from a sound system all the way across the Meadow. Eventually, we make out the unmistakable Allen Ginsburg, bespectacled and berobed, with long black hair and longer black beard. He is sitting center stage on a makeshift platform, playing the harmonium, among a group of others playing drums and finger cymbals, all singing some repetitive Sanskrit chant.
More chanting a while later: seven or eight people come dancing through the crowd, carrying a huge papier-mâché mock-up of a bright yellow banana above their heads.
“Bana-na, Bana-na …Ba-na-na,” they sing Calypso-style as the crowd laughs. A hot rumor has it you can get high by smoking the scrapings from the inside of a banana peel, after drying them in a slow oven. Jim and I exchange knowing looks: we tried it last week and just got frustrated by all that work for nothing. Still, we laugh along with everyone else.
Just then we hear a lilting call, “Jim!” An ecstatic Kate Coleman throws her arms around us in turn. “Hi, hi,” she effuses, “isn’t this great?” then adds, “I’m tripping! I finally tried acid and it is sooo beautiful.”
It’s the first time I’ve been with someone who is actually tripping—I’ve always been scared of LSD, what it might do to my inner demons if I tried it. But Katie’s smile is contagious and all I can say is, “Far out.”
* * * * * *
The war continued inexorably. At the end of 1965, there were 184,000 American troops in Vietnam; by the end of ‘66, 385,000. Virtually all the guys my age had to face the decision: what to do about the draft. You could still get an exemption for being a teacher and many went into education for that reason rather than any desire to teach. Others left the country, most often moving to Canada. One of my high school classmates moved to Sweden. These choices were fraught with pain and rage.
For what was this hell of a war being waged? I became convinced it was for the benefit of what Eisenhower had termed the military-industrial complex, interested only in the rich mineral reserves in Southeast Asia and the victory of capitalism. As I saw it, these sinister powers, in cahoots with the mainstream media, fueled their weapons of empire using the bodies of my brothers, the vital young men I saw all around me, as fodder. It was insupportable. The nightly news reports were like bombs in the pit of my stomach, spurring me to action
In the fall of ’66, I joined City’s small chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. We were a core group of fifteen or twenty, though 120 would turn out for demonstrations. I liked SDS because it upheld the importance of grass-roots democracy, which I had glimpsed in action in Mississippi. The members were thoughtful and articulate and, like me, they were angry.
In December we learned that the U. S. Army Materiel Command was coming to campus to recruit graduating seniors. This was the military agency responsible for procurement of napalm which we knew was despoiling the Indochinese countryside and burning the flesh off any man, woman or child in its path. In 1967 alone, the U.S. defoliated 1.7 million acres in South Vietnam.
A coalition of campus antiwar groups staged a sit-in not only to stop them from recruiting but to publicize more widely the use and effects of napalm. Our position was that the USAMC was an illegal organization, as its procurement of chemical weapons violated the Geneva Conventions.
That Friday, seventy-five students piled into the office of the director of the campus Job Placement Center, where the interviews were to be held. We sat down on all the chairs, floors and desks available, throwing the staff and Army recruiters into confusion. They asked us to leave. We stated that we would leave only after the two recruiters left the campus.
After a while, the Dean of Student Life arrived. When his attempts to persuade us to leave failed, he warned that “undoubtedly there will be some disciplinary actions. I will write down the names of those I recognize.” The rest of us debated amongst ourselves about giving him our names. Finally, doing what I thought was the honorable thing, I was one of twenty-six who did. At five o’clock, the recruiters left the campus, escorted by a group of chanting students (“one, two, three, four, we don’t want your dirty war”) and to cheers from the rest of us.
A few days later, the thirty-four students whose names were recorded were notified of charges against them. A hearing before a student-faculty disciplinary committee would be held the following week. To plan strategy and tactics, SDS met several times at the home of two of our members, Larry and Miriam, who lived in a railroad flat in a tenement down on Houston Street. We had long, heated discussions about how to use the situation to organize fellow-students against the war. We wanted to throw a monkey wrench into the workings of the systems that supported it, in this case our college administration which, in our view, was collaborating in the war by allowing the USAMC to recruit on campus. The hearing would be closed to the public to divide us from supporters and prevent disturbing demonstrations. However, we would each be allowed to bring one person in as an “advisor.”
As the date of the hearings approached, the SDS people agreed on a strategy of going in as each other’s “advisors.” We knew that the committee hearing the charges would try to keep the focus on the issue of campus discipline; we decided not to answer their questions directly but instead, to turn the focus of the proceedings back to the war wherever possible. Meanwhile, SDS people leafleted the campus and stood on the steps of Cohen Library, taking turns with a bullhorn, exhorting crowds of passing students to support our actions.
On the night of the hearing, we milled around the corridor outside Shepard’s Great Hall in muted fear and excitement. We were called before the committee in groups of eleven or so students, each with his or her advisor. When it was my group’s turn, I remember looking around as we filed into the front row of auditorium seats. The Great Hall was a room of enormous proportions, pseudo-gothic in design, with dark wood paneled walls and a huge cathedral-like ceiling. The committee of nine was seated on the platform before us in ornately carved, high backed chairs behind a trestle table.
Our advisors sat in the row behind us, where we could confer by turning around in our seats. I had asked a guy named Ian to be my advisor. He was a little older, with level-headed positions in tune with my own. I was keyed up but determined not to let my fear outwit me. As the questioning began, the panel focused on students one by one, asking questions such as, “Did you participate in the obstruction of business in the College’s Job Placement center on the day of December 8, 1966?” The six students before me were quite lame in their responses, answering the questions straight, in timid voices. Why weren’t they doing what we had agreed upon? Because of fear, obviously. Would I be able to do better? My pulse pounded in my ears as the attention of the panel moved down the line towards me.
I answered the first few questions in a shaky but suitably truculent voice. Yes, I was there on that date. I turned to Ian twice to get his opinion about how to word my responses. But once I was into the process, my anger outweighed my fear and I felt able to hold my own. The energy in the room, which had been heavy with disappointment, picked up, and I could feel the interest and support of the other students as their heads and hope turned towards me.
My opening came when Professor Mack, chairman of the committee, angrily reworded a question I had sidestepped several times.
“On that day, were you or were you not asked to leave the premises of the Job Placement Center by a responsible member of the faculty?”
I pounced. “No, I was not. A responsible member of the faculty would have been doing what I was doing—opposing the recruitment of students for an immoral and illegal war.”
My comrades clapped, whistled and stomped the floor in jubilant approval. As the panel moved on to Larry, Miriam and the other more experienced activists, matters improved. They had a hard time getting a straight answer out of anybody. For the moment, the committee was stymied. I felt great, elated by my part in our small victory. Jim and I celebrated that night by going out to dinner (quite a departure from our impecunious norm).
In the end, however, thirty-four of us were suspended from classes for eight days. Fortunately, many of my professors sympathized with our action and found ways to help me keep up my course work. I was able to complete the semester without my grades dropping.
I continued to see Dr. Heimarck twice a week throughout college. A lot of anxiety was coming up in my relationship with Jim. I had begun to feel stifled, impatient with his stubborn stance as an angry victim. This was the very sense of myself I was working so hard to overcome. In response to my complaints and efforts to enlighten him, Jim’s sexual desire for me cooled. This was extremely painful; I had a fundamental need to be wanted by men as a prerequisite to any sense of self-worth. I clutched and cried and Jim couldn’t help but be turned off. That old familiar knot.
Towards the end of my junior year, we broke up. But it didn’t take long for us to renew our friendship with many late night calls, sharing confidences and cat stories. We remained friends until Jim died in 2000.
I fulfilled my last science requirement at City with a popular course nicknamed, “Physics for Poets.” In a steeply-tiered lecture theater in Shepard Hall, Professor Harry Soodak made the history and ideas of physics come alive. Grateful as I was to such a good teacher, I was delighted when Soodak joined the contingent of several hundred CCNY students and faculty who marched downtown en masse to support the student uprising at Columbia University. There, at a rally at the Sundial where hundreds of students and supporters filled the quad, I saw my old high school chum Lewis Cole (later called by Esquire the “mastermind of the Columbia Revolt”), giving a speech from a balcony high above the crowd. It was the first time I recall hearing the term, “up against the wall, motherfucker” used in a political context.
In the spring of 1969, my last semester at City, the college was closed down by student strikes for open enrollment: black and Hispanic students had organized to claim the right of any New York City high school graduate, regardless of grades, to be admitted to City. I was not active in the strike though I supported it in principle. I attended some classes at the homes of my professors; others were simply cancelled and Pass/Fail grades issued.
I did not attain my aim to never get a grade below B, earning a C in Archery and also in a three-credit music appreciation course I opted to take because I had hoped to learn how to better listen to classical music. Nevertheless, I graduated magna cum laude. To my surprise, I was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society, an organization which I cherish and continue to support because it promotes the timeless benefits of a liberal arts education as a platform to a life well-lived.