Photo of JHK 1972 by Michael Dobo
A False Start in a Kind of Hell
Boston – 1972
The fall of 1971, I was back in my old college town, Brockport, New York, spinning my wheels after a job directing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a summer theater company in the Finger Lakes. The company had gone out of business the day of our dress rehearsal. I decided that it was to be the end of my theater career.
I moved in for a while – crashed, as we used to say – with my old college room-mate, Billy Grant, who was now in grad school. He had a floor-through second-story apartment over an antique store on Main Street half block from the Erie Canal bridge. We called the place “the bat cave” because the only windows in the place were in the front room. Aside from bartending once in a while for a fraternal lodge down Canal Street, I mostly stayed in the bat cave and banged out short stories on my Smith-Corona portable typewriter at the kitchen table, acutely conscious of being done with college, and a bit desperate to get on with some kind of real career.
While short story writing might seem like another exercise in futility (my parents certainly thought so), I was working within an established tradition, doing what young people with literary ambitions were supposed to do: produce literature. I spent most of September on an epic story titled “The Nova” about the lead singer of a big time rock-and-roll band, set in the then-current moment when all the energies of hippiedom and the anti-war movement were collapsing in the pre-Watergate Nixon ennui. The protagonist, John Warner (he’s warning us, get it?) registers his disaffection with what’s left of the Age-of-Aquarius – but my story ended up being more concerned about his tragic romance with a femme fatale than with the cultural politics of the day. It was ambitious, but didn’t quite come together. Years later, I wrote a full-length rock-and-roll novel, The Life of Byron Jaynes (WW Norton, 1983). “The Nova” was certainly its larva.
I sent “The Nova” to Esquire, which was then one of a half dozen magazines that still paid big money for short stories. I got a hand-written rejection letter a few weeks later from the assistant to fiction editor Rust Hills, one Amanda Urban, who would go on to become the renowned literary agent “Binky” Urban. Her encouraging letter kept me going at the typewriter. Since there was little of the adult world that I even pretended to understand, I turned for subject matter to childhood and began churning out stories about kids in summer camp in the 1960s. This material, too, eventually worked its way into a book, my first published novel, The Wampanaki Tales (Doubleday,1979). I cranked out these first several stories for my audience-of-one, Amanda Urban, and they only prompted notes to the effect that maybe I was working in the wrong direction.
By Thanksgiving, I grew discouraged about my prospects. Meanwhile, my stepfather, who worked as the east coast publicist for a movie company, said he knew a guy in Boston who owned a weekly newspaper “for hippies and people like you” and that I ought to go there and write for them. He said he’d call the guy about me.
It happened, too, that I had another college buddy, a fellow theater major, Marty Hart, who had gone to Boston after graduation. We’d stayed in touch by mail. Marty and I had once gotten falling-down drunk together backstage during the tech rehearsal for The Threepenny Opera. (Tech rehearsals, where they set lighting levels and sound cues, are notoriously boring for the actors, who just have to stand around for the ten hours or so that this takes.) Marty said he was having a grand time in Boston, and suggested that I come check it out. So I bartended as much as possible at the fraternal lodge through the holidays to earn a little grubstake, and a few days after New Years, 1972, I boarded a Greyhound bus for Boston.
Marty and his room-mate Neil picked me up in a car at Boston’s downtown bus station and drove me back to their apartment in Brighton, a row-house neighborhood near Boston University. We drove out Commonwealth Avenue and, after all those months in a tiny Main Street town, Boston, in the winter twilight, looked vast and overwhelming out the car window, even to someone who had grown up in Manhattan. Their apartment was a pretty nice two-bedroom and I had the living room sofa. I fell asleep that night thinking that my adult life was finally beginning.
The next day, I reported to the office of Boston After Dark, the “hippie” weekly my stepfather wanted me to hook up with. It was on the second floor of a shabby building on Boylston Street just off Mass Avenue, but the place was bustling with activity and serious-looking young adults who all looked like they had gone to better colleges than I had – and surely did. The girls looked smart and sexy. It was intimidating. For some crazy reason — I suppose to set myself apart from the culture currents of the day — I had put on a three-piece pin-striped suit, the only such grown-up costume I owned, really. Perhaps for that reason I got in to see the publisher right away. He was a very short, energetic go-getter about thirty (really old!) named Steven Mindich who said, yes, he knew my stepfather, and maybe there was something I could do at the paper. Gosh, I thought, that was easy.
The publisher took me through the rabbit warren of offices to see the editor, Teddy Gross, a self-possessed, slyly humorous recent Brandeis graduate who was always assailed by distractions. Teddy didn’t know what to do with me, so he took me down the hall and fobbed me off on Ben Gerson, the music editor. Music was absolutely at the center of hippie culture. It’s impossible to overstate its importance. (Literature was a way-distant second, perhaps even third, after movies.) Ben therefore occupied an important position at the paper. Boston, being larded with universities, was a huge market for selling records and live music acts. Ben got to pass judgment on all that, and what he didn’t have time for (there was so much!) he passed on to a stable of freelancers, which I would now audition to join. He pressed a promo copy of a new record album into my vest and told me to come back the next day with a five-hundred word review of it, for which they would pay five dollars. The album was Yoko Ono’s first “solo” release, titled Fly.
God, that was a horrible record, all dissonance and arty pretension, but a nice opportunity to write humorous critical abuse of just the kind I wanted to specialize in. I wish I had a copy of my review at hand – it is buried for now in some archive box in unit 611 of the Plaza 15 Self Storage facility in Wilton, NY – but I remember wrapping it all up by describing the work as “insectile, in the spirit of its title.” I slaved over the damn thing deep into the night and delivered it promptly at ten in the morning. Ben was not in, but the receptionist said he’d get it. When I stupidly inquired about being paid those five bucks, she sort of cocked her head ten degrees sideways, as a golden retriever might in a moment of befuddlement, and informed me that they always paid after publication, which would be the following Tuesday. I was a little disappointed, since my meager grubstake was running down. But I realized that this was just one of the rules of a game I’d better start learning to play.
That day, though, with my first professional job of work in the hopper, and my prospects brightened, I ventured off sight-seeing. I’d never seen Harvard University before, so that was my destination. I marched up Mass Avenue in bright winter light, across the Charles River, past the Greco-Roman temples (and quonset huts) of MIT, up through the slummy zone around Central Square, all the way to the red-brick and gold-domed nirvana of Harvard Square. The place was crawling with beautiful, smart-looking young women. The men (my rivals!) came in a range of stock central casting types: prepster-hippie, copy-shop clerk hippie, lowlife druggie hippie, Manson manqué, leftie intellectual hippie, biker-hippie, soul brotha. The “Revolution” seemed well advanced in Cambridge. In fact, it had pretty much taken over the place. Hardly anyone in the streets was not a hippie of some kind, except perhaps me in my three-piece pinstriped suit. I walked through the various quads of Harvard Yard, imagining my Ivy-League-education-that-never-was, regretting my lazy high school ways, thinking how different it would have been if I had just cracked a book.
I found a Chinese restaurant off the Square that put out a big combo lunch for $2.95: sweet-and-sour pork, fried rice, egg roll. The busy place was full of young people who, I liked to imagine, would soon be reading my stuff. Waiting for my combo plate, I savored the thought of how they would react to the funny cracks in my forthcoming Yoko Ono album review. I imagined someone laughing so hard that they would blow Chinese tea out their nose. Eventually, I treated myself to a subway ride on the “T” back across river. Ben the record editor was at the Boston After Dark (BAD) office by then. He said the Yoko Ono review was “pretty good” and he slapped another album into my midsection, Paul McCartney’s debut album with his new band, Wings. I was becoming BAD’s resident post-Beatle expert. And in two days I had racked up $10 in professional journalism accounts receivable.
I had my first big adventure a few nights later. Marty’s room-mate, Neil, had tickets for some rock-and-roll show and asked me to do him a favor and work his shift at the commercial bakery where he was a part-timer a few nights a week. He’d set it all up with them and they said it was all right. The shift ran from four in the afternoon to midnight. The factory was a 1920s-vintage urban dark satanic mill of baked goods on a crooked back street. They put me on the packing crew. Bakery products came out of various ovens hidden behind a maze of conveyer belts and we packed them in white cardboard bakery boxes. The first item that night was “big blues,” blueberry muffins, six to a box. About one in every fifty came down the conveyer misshapen or crushed, and you were supposed to chuck them in a garbage bin. It was getting on past five o’clock by then, and I was hungry, so I took a lot of bites out of the cast-offs. Then they put us on hermit bars. Ordinarily, this wasn’t my thing, but I ate some of those, too. Then we did chocolate donuts, and apple turnovers. Same deal.
By and by, they put four of us into a refrigerated room to pack fancy birthday cake-type items. Some of these things were broken or messed up, too, of course, and I crammed big chunks of them in my mouth. Chocolate, vanilla, all with that tasteless frosting made mostly of hydrogenated corn oil. None of the other guys on the crew seemed as avid for free eats as I was. I soon found out why. Halfway through the shift, we got a formal “dinner break.” It was only thirty minutes, so you were supposed to stay in the building and go up to the “break room” on the top floor. My fellow workers had all brought their own sandwiches. It hadn’t occurred to me to do so. But it turned out that there was a long table up there full of the company’s products – big blues, hermits, chocolate donuts – all the crap I’d been eating all night long. You could just help yourself, and they provided free coffee. I just had the coffee.
The rest of our night was devoted to packing bread and rolls. The factory smelled absolutely wonderful. Even though their products were on a par with Wonder Bread, I ate some of the hot bread, too, as it rolled down the conveyor belt, and it wasn’t too bad fresh out of the oven. By the end of the shift, I was stuffed and had earned perhaps twenty dollars. But I was glad that it was Neil’s job and not mine.
I did some more record reviews the following week, and spent an awful lot of time just walking all around Boston and Cambridge in winter weather, exploring the terrain. I didn’t have much in the way of good winter outerwear, either. Just an old green US Army surplus field coat and a scarf, and an even thinner US Marine formal dress coat with brass buttons, which lent me a sort of Sergeant Pepper look. I had no gloves and was reluctant to spend my food money on them. I didn’t see much of Marty and Neil, but when I did now they dropped unsubtle hints about wanting their living room back and I knew I had to find a more permanent living situation – though how I might accomplish this with the roughly $90 of my remaining grubstake, I had no idea.
The following Tuesday I picked up my ten-dollar check at the BAD office. I also walked out with a 2000-word assignment to review a new pop book calledThe Sensuous Woman by an anonymous author seductively called “J.” The assignment was overtly a gag. The book was self-help snake oil promising to teach every woman how to free her body, train her senses, and tap her own hidden erotic resources – and it promised a lot of malicious fun for me in reviewing it. In case it seems odd that a hippie newspaper would find humor in something like this, I have to point out that as late as 1972 feminist politics had not quite penetrated hippie culture, even in the leftist stronghold of Boston / Cambridge. It would within that year. Among other things, Gloria Steinem’s MS Magazine would hit the new-stands that July. But this was still January. Many of you who lived through it might have forgotten that in those early years of hippiedom, say 1965 to 1972, the so-called counter-culture was pretty male-dominated, and sometimes plain misogynistic. Sex was literally in the air, and was at least as compelling as politics. The birth control pill was a novelty, the side effects were barely known, and there were no sex diseases on the scene that couldn’t be cured with a course of penicillin. Breasts were on display absolutely everywhere in see-through cotton peasant blouses or joggling loosely in T-shirts. Young males and females were so caught up in their exhilarating post-adolescent experimentation that “buyer’s remorse” had not yet set in. Looking back on it, I suppose that an act like me ridiculing The Sensuous Woman in one of the hippiedom’s own newspapers, was exactly the kind of thing that set off this buyer’s remorse – a feeling among women that they were being ripped off, disrespected, treated as objects, et cetera. Anyway, I hadn’t asked for the assignment. They just ran it past me and I was eager for any opportunity to rise in the “alternative press” so I went for it.
I left the office that afternoon in a transport of ever-brightening career prospects with an assignment that would pay me a whopping $60. I decided to celebrate. I took myself out to real sit-down restaurant in Back Bay and ordered – I remember this clearly – scrod with Mornay sauce (scrod being a baby codfish). I had been freezing out on the street in my flimsy US Marine dress coat, and it was warm and lovely in the restaurant, and I had a glass of wine or two, and I will never forget how delicious that flaky white fish drowned in cheese sauce tasted. The whole meal probably cost $15. When I was finished, I didn’t want to go back to Marty and Neil’s apartment. I felt flush and decided to hit the bars. So, for the next several hours, I worked my way west through the Back Bay bars to Kenmore Square where, miraculously, I got lucky.
I chatted up a striking redhead – let’s call her Katy (not her real name) – and I ended up going back to her apartment. Things like that happened in those days. She was six feet tall (she was not a cross-dresser, just a really tall girl) had a musical voice, a beautiful sharply Celtic face, red hair, freckles, and a sweet sympathetic demeanor. She worked as a schoolteacher in one of the old factory towns south of the city. She’d been raised in a little hamlet over in Vermont in a family with many brothers and had what sounded like an idyllic childhood. She’d been briefly married and divorced right after college, with no children. We gabbed until the one a.m. closing, and then rode out of Boston across the river to Somerville in her snazzy French Citroen sedan, with the unique air-cushioned ride and plush velveteen upholstery. At her place, we did what young people did so easily back in those days. In the morning, Katy went off to school and I went back to Marty and Neil’s apartment in Brighton to read The Sensuous Woman. That night, Katy stopped over in the Citroen and fetched me on her way home. Before the weekend arrived, I’d packed up my suitcase, guitar, and Smith-Corona portable typewriter, and moved in with Katy.
It was a two-bedroom apartment in a six-unit beige stucco courtyard building on a high ridge overlooking the strange outlands north of the Mystic River. But it was warm and I felt welcome, and Katy was lovely to be around, and really for the first time in my life I was living with a woman, my goodness! Actually, two women, because Katy had a room-mate – let’s call her Debbie (not her real name, either). She was a schoolteacher, too, in a different district than Katy. She was plump, excitable, and the kind of personality that 70s psychology guru Eric Berne described as seeming to always have a “kick me” sign pinned on their back. Even if you tried to be nice to her, she would manage to provoke what they used to call “negative strokes.” I just tried to stay out of her way.
The new arrangement lent a wonderful stability to my life. After The Sensuous Woman review came out, BAD editor Teddy Gross called me into his office for a chat. There was an interesting ad in a regional law enforcement magazine he’d come across. Someone calling himself “James Bond” was offering his services to the towns of New England as a “Rent-a-Narc” – narcs being undercover detectives dedicated to busting up drug rings, which at that time mostly meant hippie pot-smokers and dealers. There was a great horror of drugs and hippies in small town America and the many Nixon admirers who became small town mayors and police chiefs were bent on stamping them out. Teddy asked me to look up this “James Bond” character and write a story about him – my first “feature” assignment, which would net me a hundred dollars when it was published.
“James Bond” was not an easy guy to find. It turned out that the address in the ad was a phony. The phone number in the ad belonged to an associate of an associate of a friend of a friend of Mr. Bond. Somehow, I tracked him down through this phone tree and got him on the horn. He gave me his real address and I had to hitch-hike beyond the end of the trolley line to a garden apartment complex out in Waltham. It turned out he was actually avid for the publicity. I would discover that a lot the colorful whack-jobs I wrote about loved getting attention. You hardly had to persuade them to cooperate in a story about them. They longed to be in that spotlight. If a newspaper was interested in them, it meant they had “star quality!” They’d go through a transformation in minutes right before your eyes – like werewolves under a full moon – from anonymous shlubs to celebrities. It was one of the few things that made my job easier, and I would learn to exploit this quirk of human nature in my stories. Year later, Janet Malcolm of The New Yorker Magazine would confess in one famous article that much of journalism was a “con job.” She was right. I was certainly intent on making sport of my subjects.
“James Bond,” whose real name I would learn, but have since forgotten, was a very crazy person. He had, indeed, put that ad in the law enforcement magazine. He had a scrapbook of clippings about his triumphs over hippies and drugs in several small towns. He was full of wild stories about his adventures rooting out vice, his life-and-death struggles with wannabe Charles Mansons, and the general depravity of America’s youth. He had actually gone down to the probate court and changed his name legally to James Bond. He had a remarkable collection of firearms in the apartment, including a number of machine guns which were, of course, completely illegal. He took them all out and showed them off, waving them madly around the room, even pointing them at me (ha ha). As the hours went by I was able to detect a definite theme of lunacy in his shtick. It made for a very amusing story, which I turned in a few days later.
Thus, I quickly I found my groove: I became BAD’s sole specialist in colorful whackos. It was no doubt already apparent to Teddy Gross and the other editors that I regarded radical politics as a source of comedy, and that my knowledge of rock-and-roll was superficial compared to the other freelancers who lived and breathed it. So, I started covering a beat that nobody else on the paper was interested in: the lowlife underworld of Boston and Cambridge.
My larger goal was to get a salaried position on the BAD staff. The trouble with freelancing was that sometimes they held your story for a week on account of not having enough ads to justify the column inches your story took up – so they would sit on it, and I would lose one week’s pay, and I would never find out if that week’s story made it in until the bundles of papers were dropped off at the Harvard Square news-stand on publication night. About one third of the time, my article for that week was held back – enough to cause a lot of real hardship in the everyday existence of somebody living from hand to mouth,
During the months that followed, I built up quite a collection of stories about whackos of one kind or another. After the “Rent-a-Narc” story came out, Teddy sent me off to write about an up-and-coming transvestite nightclub performer who was seven feet tall in heels and did a popular show at a dive in the Combat Zone – Boston’s old gone-to-seed theater district – that consisted entirely of him heaping verbal abuse on his audience. “I can read you faggots like the Encyclopedia Britannica!” he bragged between victims. Then he’d crack on somebody’s hair, or their outfit, or their overbite, and he punctuated each riff with, “…Oh, Mary!” The audience ate it up. I interviewed him backstage about comic technique, about which he had very detailed views and theories.
After that, I wrote a piece about a loan sharking operation that was run out of a drive-in eatery called Buzzy’s Roast Reef off the Storrow Drive exit ramp near the Mass General Hospital. The Mafia was big in Boston. But like everybody else I encountered as a reporter, they were publicity hounds. They thought it was cool that somebody wanted to write about them. So they let me hang out inside the shop for a week and interview customers – half of whom were not in there for roast beef subs but to borrow sums of money at exorbitant interest rates.
After that, I wrote a piece about an elderly couple who had been picketing the State Capitol on Beacon Hill for about twenty years, trudging back and forth every day, rain or shine, with crazy-looking sandwich boards hanging off their shoulders, detailing their gripe against the Commonwealth, which had condemned their house for a freeway so long ago. This had become a career for them, had even made them beloved characters among the lawmakers, though it won them nothing in additional compensation. I was interested in them from the professional angle – how does one actually perform the job of protesting day in and day out? Do you make provision for foul weather gear? Do you bring lunch or have a favorite local eatery? How does one know it’s “quittin’ time?”
(This story got even more bizarre when yet another whacko saw me talking to the old couple on the street, scribbling in my reporter’s notebook. He accosted me, asked if I was a reporter – yes, indeed I was, I said rather proudly – and then, saying he had gun, dragged me down to City Hall to witness him shooting Mayor Kevin White, which he wanted me to “write up” for the paper – I’m telling you, these crazy people were just wild for publicity. So, he forced-marched me down to Government Center with something that felt like a gun-barrel stuck against my right kidney – for all I know it was a Zagnut bar, but I didn’t dare try to find out. Along the way, he reeled out his story of grievance, which seemed to have something to do with Vietnam and the government generally, but was mostly incoherent schizoid blather. Anyway, I managed to give him the slip in the gigantic lobby of the then-new City Hall. I rushed into one of the several agency offices right off the lobby, told the people inside that there was a maniac with a gun on the loose in the building and to lock their door. Luckily the cops jumped him upstairs before he got to Mayor White’s office. This really happened!)
Not long after that, I wrote a piece about a Somerville wino who claimed to have killed several people for the Boston mafia. His “hits” jibed with newspaper reports about bodies found here and there around the city that year. He considered himself a walking dead man who had nothing to lose – but apparently the one thing he lived for was to see his story in the paper. Another egomaniac. He told me all the grisly details.
Next, I covered a John Birch Society convention – the organization’s founder, candy magnate Robert Welch (Junior Mints, Sugar Daddy) lived in the nearby suburb of Arlington, Mass. It was an entire carnival of whackos, a perfect field day for me, including many southern right wing evangelical Christian type nuts who had traveled all the way to Boston from such capitals of idiocy as Bob Jones University. As it happens, a lot of the ideological madness I encountered that weekend nearly forty years ago has persisted down through the years and now forms much of the basis of current Republican Party thought – the Bilderberg conspiracy… the illuminati… the Protocols of the Elders of Zion… the vast steam-table of paranoid theories.
After a few months of consorting with crazy people, I developed a definite sense of being a whacko magnet. I developed a strange confidence that I could leave the apartment in the morning and, within a few hours, meet up with an insane person doing something that I could get a story out of. In a way, I suppose, I was just a young man looking for trouble. Luckily, I found just a little bit less than I was looking for, but perhaps that is a tribute to my basically very prudent nature. I didn’t get hurt, at least.
The one downer in all this was it didn’t improve my position at the paper. I kept asking Teddy Gross to put me on the staff, so I could get a regular paycheck, and he kept putting me off and stringing me out. But I was determined to reach that goal so I just sucked up my disappointment and kept the hustle going. Thus, some of the stories I pursued came out of my more pathetic attempts at side work, to offset the poor and irregular pay from the paper. For about a month that spring of 1972, I took a job with a company that sold term papers to college students. Boston, of course, is America’s biggest college town. The market for ersatz scholarship was boundless. There were two such companies in town competing for ninety percent of the business: Bullshit Unlimited and Term-papers Unlimited. I worked for the latter one, which occupied the floor above a Hayes-Bickford Cafeteria on Huntington Avenue, a few blocks from Northeastern University.
The company was run by a bunch of skeezy hippie opportunists. But they had a nice system going. You could buy a term-paper from the company’s back inventory of already-written papers, or you order one written to your exact specifications. Assignments were posted on a “manifest board” on index cards in the outer office, where freelancers would pick them up and complete the papers off-site. Then there was “the Tank.” The tank was a big room on the premises where all the special-order term-papers that the freelancers didn’t want got written by a team of about eight nimble wordsmiths who could tackle any subject, no matter how recondite. I was hired to work in the Tank.
It was a horrible job. It was as if your whole life had been reduced to one never-ending finals week in a college-from-hell. Meanwhile, the management of Term-papers Unlimited had opened satellite offices in a half-dozen big university towns, and the assignments were flowing back to us at headquarters in Boston, where we wrote the custom-order jobs. The work just poured in from the Midwestern land-grant diploma mills. We were paid a sliding scale for our work ranging from $2.50 a page for freshman and sophomore papers, to $3.00 for upper classperson level work, to $3.50 for masters theses, to $4.50 for doctoral dissertations – yes, some guys in tank were writing phony dissertations. (One guy wrote papers for students at the Navy War College! No wonder we weren’t doing so well in Vietnam.) The company kept a hefty premium above our rate for themselves, of course.
The Tank was a disgusting pigsty of craziness and desperation. Coffee cups and Chinese take-out boxes piled up for days on end. The trash cans and ashtrays overflowed (everybody smoked). The floor was sticky from spilled coffee and coca cola. The company was not big on janitorial services. My fellow writers were obviously clever guys, but they were not especially congenial. We weren’t hanging out bullshitting like characters on a TV sit-com. We were churning out the goods at a pay-per-page rate. There was a pretty bad recession on, and jobs were hard to get, and Boston churned out armies of post-grads every year who were under-employed. A lot of the guys in the Tank had advanced degrees but seemed somewhat brain-damaged from the ordeal of higher education. (I was a certified graduate of the laughing academy myself.) Anyway, the company mandated that Tank writers turn out a minimum of fifty pages a week. It was wretched.
We had a guy on staff at our disposal whose sole job was to steal books from the university libraries around town. These were the days before embedded security chips. You’d tell him the subjects you were covering and he’d bring back whatever he could scrounge up for you. It was understood by all of us in the Tank that our assignments were basically frauds, that we were skillfully faking it. The idea was to put as little time as possible into what passed for “research” and to pad your prose as much as possible. We didn’t give shit how the customer made out grade-wise and the company didn’t guarantee a passing grade. There was next-to-zero chance we’d ever actually see a customer – we could tell from the order sheets whether they lived in the Boston area or elsewhere. (One of the papers I wrote was about race relations at the University of Kentucky. The customer sent along three copies of the college newspaper, which allowed me to get the names of the “activists” on campus and a crude notion of the situation – but really I just made it all up.)
I came to regard all this activity as the production of mere meaningless drivel. It wasn’t even educational for us writers, since we mostly faked the research. A guy named Dale, was the supposed “quality control” gate-keeper for the crap that we churned out, but it was also generally understood by us that he only rejected papers that had coffee rings or ketchup stains on them. As long as the pages were clean, they got through. We got paid in cash every Friday and they didn’t withhold any taxes, either. I actually made way more money at Term-papers Unlimited than I made at the Boston After Dark newspaper, but the work was soul-killing. I was smoking too much and drinking too much coffee. Finally, I just walked away from it like a whipped dog and wrote a pretty funny story for BAD about it. As Beckett always said: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”
Not long after that, the Massachusetts State Legislature put the term-paper boys out of business. Two Harvard undergrads in the same course handed in identical papers, which were traced back to Term-papers Unlimited. Harvard brought the issue to the attention of state lawmakers. They held hearings. The sharpies who ran Term-papers Unlimited claimed in testimony that they merely “sold research material that came in a form that resembled a term paper.” The legislature quickly passed a law prohibiting the traffic in this material and the company went out of business.
As the weather warmed up, I next got another job as a hand on a charter fishing vessel, a boat about thirty feet long that took out parties of dads-with-their-sons to catch codfish with hand-lines just outside Boston Harbor. My first day on the job happened to be Cap’n Jack’s maiden voyage on the boat in question. He’d only recently acquired it and was just embarking on his new career as a charter fishing captain after some years in law enforcement. It also happened that Hurricane Agnes was blowing up the Atlantic Coast at the time. There was no discussion about this until we were out beyond the Harbor Islands and the seas started to look pretty choppy.
We only had three pairs of dads-and-sons on board. A big part of my job was making food in the galley, the chief menu item being hot dogs that I cooked on an electric rotisserie machine. Our paying customers had all indulged in a hot-dog orgy on the rather plodding voyage out beyond the harbor, so when we hit the choppy seas, several dads and sons began spewing chunks all over the deck. Which I had to clean up. Meanwhile, Cap’n Jack had decided that it wouldn’t be a good idea to proceed further out to sea, so he dropped anchor in a spot that may or may not have been good for fishing – but what did the customers know? Some of them recovered enough equilibrium to give fishing a try, which led to my next task: cutting up and portioning out bait: squid.
An hour later, we were rocking and rolling so badly that Cap’n Jack called a premature end to the day’s voyage. Oddly, it was a clear June day with blue skies – the storm was far out at sea – but whenever a hurricane rolls up the Atlantic coast it sends out thunderous shock waves and the ferocious chop was a manifestation of that. In any case, bug rollers were now breaking over the decks, threatening to wash away our hapless customers, who were all hustled inside the pilot-house for safekeeping. I remained out on the rear deck, told to get the hand-lines back in order and stowed. Somehow, in the confusion, Cap’n Jack ran over his anchor line and the props got snarled. A call was put into the harbor patrol and pretty soon a rescue boat was towing us back to safety inside the Harbor Islands. When we finally docked, I tendered my resignation as sole crew member and went home to Somerville on the “T” covered with squid juice and vomit. I imagine that Cap’n Jack got a hefty bill from the Harbor Patrol for towing services.
Much as it sounds like rollicking good fun, these adventures took a toll on me. Plus, I was hugely frustrated in my not-so-grandiose ambition to become a working journalist with a regular paycheck. Teddy Gross was still stringing me along as a mere freelancer, with all the anxiety that entailed. I tried to get an entry job on the venerable Boston Globe, of course, and even had some nice clips to show by then, but I never even won an interview. BAD had a competitor of sorts over in Cambridge, The Phoenix. a superficially similar-looking weekly paper with a very hard Left political stance. They were exactly the kind of dour, pious Marxists I rubbed the wrong way, and when I ventured to offer my services as a reporter, they regarded my clips of the Boston lowlife underworld with bug-eyed incomprehension – like, how was I promoting The Revolution writing about these assorted creeps and clowns? Anyway, BAD’s publisher, Steve Mindich, bought them out that summer, if only to acquire their name. Boston After Dark sounded like a porn sheet and The Phoenix had the ring of a real paper – a mythical raptor rising from the ash-heap of American culture! Coincidentally, the newly-fired staff of The Phoenix moved to a whole different office down the street in Cambridge “in protest” and started to put out their own paper as a sort of collective – meaning, probably, that nobody got paid. They called it, without irony, The Real Paper so as to put across the idea that the merged BAD-Phoenix was a fake. The Real Paper would straggle on for a few years as a kind of neighborhood service rag, but it abandoned the Revolution and refocused the editorial content on Yuppie consumer matters.
In the course of all this, my relations with my girlfriend, Katy, foundered on my feelings of being an economic failure. None of it was her fault. I moved out of her place in Somerville in July and found a studio apartment in a clean, red-brick, pre-war, five-story building three blocks from Harvard Yard, for about a hundred dollars a month, and lucked into a job waiting tables at a popular new venue nearby, the Orson Welles Cinema, Film School, and Restaurant. (It was named after the famous actor, but he had nothing to do with it.)
The Orson was an ambitious venture. The Foodie revolution was just getting underway and the restaurant was in the vanguard of it – the owners early adapter hippies who had moved to exciting culinary horizons beyond granola. It was a nice place to work and it had a sort of post-hippie glamour. A lot of the young people on the floor and kitchen staffs had advanced degrees from the best schools in the USA and couldn’t find anything else in the bad economy. One dishwasher had a PhD from the Harvard Divinity School. I made at least as much money waiting tables at the Orson as I had at Term-Papers Unlimited, without any of the aggravation. Plus they fed us grandly every night before the place opened for business.
I felt that my life in the terrifying adult world was finally starting to come together. I was able to pay my own rent, and my work hours allowed me to spend most of the day hustling up stories for the newly re-christened Boston Phoenix. A few weeks into this new routine I once again asked Teddy Gross for a regular staff job at the paper. To my surprise, he suggested meeting me, and since he lived over in Cambridge near the Orson, we decided to do it over a beer one night when I’d finished up working the dinner shift.
We settled into a table up in the balcony bar that overlooked the dining room. The walls were all honey-colored varnished wood – environmental! – the lighting low and mellow. He began the conversation by saying he didn’t know if I was “a short giant or a tall dwarf.” It took me a few moments to digest this. I was a little dismayed to realize what a confusing picture I presented. I laid out my case: hard worker, reliable producer, unusual point-of-view, et cetera. I said I wanted to keep writing for the paper but was getting ground down psychologically by the hardships of freelancing. Before we drained our beer glasses, Teddy offered me a deal that included a hundred dollar weekly “retainer,” meaning I’d get paid whether they ran my story of that week or not. It was the best he could do, he said, though it did not include a spot on the “masthead.”
I could live with that, I said. I was relieved and grateful. The deal even implied that I could keep on waiting tables at the Orson, which had quickly become a kind of second home for me, with a new set of co-worker friends, as well as nice source of income. It was a one-beer meeting. Teddy went on his way and I bought myself not a few more drinks at a rowdy bar across the street called The Plough and the Stars run by ersatz Irish revolutionaries and frequented by real writers and newspapermen from the Globe and the Herald. And then I staggered happily back to my apartment feeling like the victor in a long and arduous battle with the fates.
Hardly a week later, Teddy Gross was ousted from his job as editor of the Boston Phoenix in an office coup d’etat. He was replaced by a woman who was the daughter of a New York Times executive. I heard about it when I went into the office to hand in the first story I’d written under my new arrangement. There was no email in those days and information did not travel like chain lightening across the social landscape, so it was quite a shock to hear all this. The new regime, it turned out, was highly politicized along feminist lines. Not to put too fine a point on it, it looked something like The Revenge of the Women. Teddy and some other men on the staff had been shoved out due to issues involving “patriarchal oppression” and now it was the women’s turn to be in charge of things. Among the new policies of the reformers was that they did not feel obliged to honor agreements made under the previous regime – and, anyway, I was told, they had nothing in writing regarding whatever Teddy might have had promised me, no letter or contract. Moreover, the ladies didn’t like the stuff I had been publishing in the paper all year, and weren’t much interested in my continued services. I wobbled out of the office with that week’s story clutched pathetically in my hands and a sense of my world having been smashed like a cheap cardboard globe.
I still had a job waiting tables, but that was all. Life had become suddenly pointless. A powerful anomie settled over me like a toxic cloud. Here I was now in Boston, a strange city I had come to more or less by happenstance, and now, after a terrible struggle, I was out of options, bridges all burned or closed down, stuck and screwed, a has-been at twenty-three. I rather quickly sank helplessly back into the realm of anxiety and depression that had sucked me in two years earlier, back in college when I landed in the Payne Whitney clinic. The gathering darkness was frighteningly familiar. I made a few inquiries among friends at work and located a shrink in a free clinic over in Davis Square, Cambridge. She was a middle-aged lady with a thick Slavic accent and at the first session, she put me on a prescription tranquilizer called Stelazine (trifluoperazine hydrochloride).
It was a really shitty drug that is no longer used to treat garden variety anxiety and depression. It had the peculiar side effect of making a person terribly physically agitated, as though you couldn’t endure being inside your own skin. I had a very bad reaction to it. After a week or so, I could barely do my job. My boss at the Orson noticed. He moved me upstairs to pull beers at the service bar – entailing a severe loss of income. I was baffled as to what was happening to me. The intense restlessness and agitation finally made it impossible to even pull beers upstairs. I quit. I wasn’t sleeping. I feared that I was finally going completely crazy. Eventually, I took myself to the emergency room at Cambridge Hospital. They quickly determined that The shrink lady at the free clinic had failed to prescribe an accompanying drug called Artane ((trihexyphenidyl HCl) that relieves the motor agitation induced by Stelazine. They offered to put me on that. I decided to quit all the fucking drugs and take my chance with reality.
I recovered from this episode, but my career fortunes remained dim and I had lost my second home at the Orson Welles. The management was sympathetic when I tried to explain the medication fiasco, but they had hired a replacement for me and couldn’t put me back on the staff. The emergency room visit had wiped out my meager savings. In desperation, I got a job as a cashier at the Harvard Coop, in effect the university bookstore. I spent the rest of the summer and part of the fall frantically writing more short stories about boys at a summer camp in the 1960s – the project I had started the previous fall. When I had accumulated a book-length manuscript, I realized that there was absolutely nothing to keep me in Boston any longer. I packed my suitcase, my guitar, and my Smith-Corona typewriter and got on a bus back to my college town, Brockport, New York, off in the pleasant rural nowheresville between Rochester and Buffalo. I didn’t know what I would do there, but it was a refuge, familiar and comfortable, among people I knew, where I could lick my wounds and figure out my next move – if there was one.