My Kind of Town
I collided with Robert Kennedy, in the Fall of 1967, at the Dulles Airport in D.C., the day after we besieged the Pentagon and went eye ball to bayonet with the 82nd Airborne. In a cocky mood I boasted of our brave achievements and plans for Chicago.
Kennedy was not impressed. He had a better way to end the war. His confidence, oozing power and contemptuous good looks were compellingly impressive. I held my ground but felt a bit more self-confident when back at the wild Pentagon the Airborne and the Federal Marshalls were taking us to the limit. But Kennedy did not make it to Chicago. By the hocus pocus of American black magic Kennedy was turned into a corpse. From somewhere in the bowels of our hidden hatreds, Bobby's young life was claimed.
I came to Chicago for a variety of purposes. To protest the war, of course, after all, that conflagration was a malignant product of the Democrat's very special gung-ho and do-gooders brand of anti-Communism. They alone believed they could save a country from Communism, and at the same time promote democracy and social reform by means of napalm, tiger cages and bombing said country back into the stone ages. No wonder they also had great faith in the orderly efficacy of Mayor Daley's police force.
We were heading for Chicago in a retired police car. It was a painted over jalopy that some sucker in Chicago had ordered from a shadowy dealership in New Jersey and we signed on as drivers when we read the free ride classified ad and Jerry Rubin decided it was the cheapest and most sensible way for us Yippies to surrender ourselves to Richard Daley's battering embrace. But Jerry started freaking out before we crossed our first state line because Abbie Hoffman was already in the sweltering city of impending destruction and most certainly hogging the headlines with his winning personality and hilarious chutzpah.
The Yippie's Chicago Festival of Life blood had been sucked dry by an assortment of rock promoters, managers, rival revolutionaries and Counter- Intelligence G-Men who screamed from the roof tops that Chicago was a deadly trap. To make sure this claim would become prophecy, all the frightened rock stars, who once made easy promises, now canceled their planned appearance, taking with them the spirit of innocence and harmless entertainment.
Now, our cotton candy cover was blown. We were stripped down to our politics. We came to Chicago only to prove it was still possible to make that journey. We had nothing to offer but our bodies. Our only compensation was publicity.
I found myself, Jew from Brooklyn that I am, somewhere in the rural Midwestern American heartland, accompanied by Jerry, folk singer Phil Ochs who would pay for the pig that would become our candidate for president, a Rasta Jamaican, and three other oddities, looking to purchase an immense pig from farmer Zeke or Zak. You can have your pick, they're all ugly, said the confused and sensible peasant who surely never thought that in his whole manure tossing life he would be selling a pig to city boys with long hair and beards and beads.
Whatever his confusions, the farmer wasn't going to pass up a sale and the sight of freaky looking Jews and a Jamaican,
stumbling their way through garbage and shit, trying to find the ugliest pig in the barnyard must have been ten times funnier than that darn TV program He-Haw on its best night.
I wonder what the farmer thought when the FBI came around asking him about our purchase. Had he illegally sold livestock to the Russians? And when he saw the pig, the Jews and the Rasta on the 6 o'clock News at the Picasso statue in the Civic Center of downtown Chicago, singing the National Anthem and being arrested and tossed into a Paddy wagon, the pig and the city boys together, what then went on in Zeke's mind? Farmers are fair game for spacemen to kidnap and experiment on, but what had he ever done to deserve being dragged into a war between Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman and the FBI. Next time Yippies came to his farm he wouldn't even sell them tomatoes.
When the shoving began, it seemed like only a couple of thousand volunteers had arrived. Yippies were joined by hundreds of experienced SDS street fighters, who, after hemming and hawing their way through endless flip flops had decided that they could no more pass up a spectacular brawl than Tim Leary could ignore a tab of LSD. And then, perhaps another five thousand Chicago locals were joining our festivities, at various stages, and hoping to prove that Richard Daley hadn't completely replaced the U.S. Constitution with Al Capone's Treatise On Good Government.
My moment of pain came early. I was cracked on my skull. The blow came from behind. I never got to see the pig's eye.
The blood that was mixing with my blond hair and spilling down my face, was sort of cooling. I felt ok. Why did they insist I go to the hospital? Why did Abbie's face turn white? Why was he crying?
My wound persuaded beat poet minstrel and peacenik messiah Allen Ginsberg to show my battered blond head to his visiting literary delegation but William Borroughs, Terry Southern and Jean Genet were only moderately impressed. My scar was acceptable as an opening gambit but six stitch gashes alone would not unjam a writers block.
The police moved under the cover of tear gas and darkness. Our gathering flock took on a primitive edge. Fires burned and drums resounded. Amidst frightening shadows, and painted faces we looked like ancient tribesmen at the gates of hell.
The tear gas was stronger than usual and on one of those nights, there were three or four reenactments of the poisonous scenario during convention week, it kept spewing out from a US Army supplied CN tear gas dispenser mounted on a a city garbage truck. It appeared in the August night, as a hydra headed dragon spitting poison and taking no prisoners. The police chanted kill, kill, kill, as they descended upon the rabble.
Clergymen tried dragging a large wooden cross toward the dragon and were clubbed to the ground. The police broke formation and came charging and pulverizing.
Allen Ginsberg, who once howled the beat's constitution of purpose, and who, years later, inspired the Vietnam Day Committee to practice non-violence in their dispute with the Oakland Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club, sat in a circle of Om chanters. Allen and the Omers gave the impression of withstanding tear gas and night sticks by the power of meditative concentration. Focus on your breathing and the universe of pain will vanish, non-attachment will reverse chaos, but Allen's benevolent circle fell, as the Christian ministers had, before the rampaging mob of official atheism
We retreated to the streets where the cops would be more judicious in their gassing. We went to the streets of myriad glass windows, paper filled trash cans, stray trajectiles, and various and sundry manifestations of bourgeois property.
The reek of gas was omnipresent. Chicago was enshrouded in gasping fog. From Old Town to the Gold Coast to Michigan Ave, the Loop and the Hilton Hotel, the sick cloud would spread.
Judy and I honeymooned in Mayor Daley's tear gas. We held hands while running through a poisonous fog. She lit fires and I threw rocks, and when we grew tired of combat she and I returned to the spy's house and seized his bedroom. And we were always followed by a relentless crew of plain clothed police men who were our 24 hour a day guaranteed audience. And we young lovers wondered if they placed a bug under our bed. But the company didn't matter, our shyness gave way to the lust we brought from the streets. Rioting brought us closer together. Running from an insane constabulary, through cracked faces and choking lungs, we made unstated commitments and found easy intimacy in a raging mob.
---- Judy and I worked our way back to Berkeley in a broken down pick up truck, sharing its irregularities and slowness with the two Bay Area anarchists who had invited us along for the ride. When the wreck broke down in Denver, a working class looking stranger took note of our unfortunate situation. "Seems to me," he said, "you look like fugitives from Chicago. I saw it all on television, it was disgraceful they way they beat you up, I don't know what to think of the war, but what happened to you made me ashamed."
He took us home, and he and his wife were our hosts for two days and they fed us, and housed us and we weren't poisoned or suffocated in our sleep. Our vehicle was repaired and we bid them a thankful adieu.
This article first appeared in the Saturday Afternoon Journal, Flashback No 13