Essay

Under the Barricades: A Story of the Sixties

By Penny Skillman

“Remember the void, Chuck. Remember the void.” Dramatically, the woman held his face in her hands, staring deeply into the void of Chuck’s eyes. “C’mon Chuck, let’s go.” We dragged him away from the woman who said she had found him wandering the Venice beach and took him home “for his own good.” It had taken us two days to locate him.

“It’s sort of like this. While all those street wars go on, it’s the misfits, the weirdos, the blind, the physically and mentally gouged who wind up under the barricades when the protestors throw up those defenses in haste. And nobody even notices they’re missing. The bodies are found later, crushed, after the battles are over. They were the people who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time holding the wrong genes, you might say, caught in the crossfire, born out of step with the world’s petty little wars. What Diane Arbus, the photographer, called the ‘true aristocrats’ of our society. While the factions are building their barricades they don’t pay attention to anything except who is going to win or lose the battle, nothing else. The others, they’re unable to even understand what’s going on, for one reason or another. And if you looked at the most complete chart of history, you’d still never know they had ever existed.”

“You mean like Chuck?”

Months after he had lived with us on the Venice beach, then a houseguest whose sponsor could not quite be pinpointed, a San Francisco “friend,” I ran into Chuck at the Rincon Annex post office in San Francisco where I was working as a mail clerk. When I spotted him there quietly sorting letters I was “rounding up” mail from the filing cubby holes, the “cases,” into which each person alphabetically sorted their letters. (Oh, it was quite rodeo. All those letters from one California area would be put by the person who rounded up into one tray. One took them methodically, reaching around in front of each distribution clerk as one would move along down the long aisle of stools in front of the cases, slapping the letter critters into their chute-trays.) Chuck was wearing a pair of those same white ducks which had seemed so stylishly self-conscious, appearing sterilely vampish in the beach milieu of Venice, as though he were imitating a movie star but didn’t know where the set was. Now I saw this was simply what he always wore. He looked good, relaxed now, as he hadn’t been when he’d stayed with us in Venice. I had heard from a friend that he was working for the post office and sharing a place with three roommates, and liked his job, the first he’d ever held. It was good money for that time, and, being civil service, it was secure. It wasn’t complicated. That was one thing I liked about it. You could sort letters and never have to think at all about what you were doing. At the same time that was the maddening thing about it, the mindless aspect seemed at times unendurable. But you could get on quite well if you simply did your work and obeyed orders, a groove I never seemed capable of falling into. I was always one of those sent home for wearing sandals instead of the regulation brogans, the one who couldn’t take a foreman’s tongue-lashing over being a minute late coming back from the twelve-minute break. I would explain that it took four minutes to get down to the “swing room,” four more minutes to wait on line and get coffee from the machine, and four more minutes for it to cool, so where was the time to drink it, and then get back upstairs? This logic seemed to make no sense to the foreman. I was often threatened with being “written up,” the post office’s equivalent to the official reprimand, a record of which would go into one’s “folder,” a dossier which every federal civil servant in the employ of the post office had.

Chuck looked healthier than I’d ever seen him. It was good to see him so metamorphosed. His frailness and pale complexion now, in a time of better mental health, rendered him attractive, whereas before these attributes had simply accentuated the impression of his inability to cope with the world. He’d been working for six months by then, he said. We chatted as long as the work situation would allow, and then he gave me his address and invited me to visit him. I thought of that water color he’d given me of the delicate bird on the gray construction paper, its stilt-like legs supporting a full-bodied red egg of a torso. He had drawn it in ink and painted it in with Chinese red and lime-green water colors. When I lived in Venice, and now as well, it hung on the wall next to my bedroom mirror. It had unconsciously become part of my physical background, in the way an identifying extension of one’s inner décor does. Whenever by chance I’d focus on it I’d muse over whether it was meant to be an ostrich, a heron, or some other kind of wilder waterfowl with which I wasn’t familiar.

When we had lain together, stretched out side by side on the couch there that afternoon in Venice, Chuck had talked about himself, about his therapy, about his father’s insistence that he live some other kind of life, without the unrewarding and shaky pretensions of an artist, of his attempts to cope with the world and his inability to focus on the things that seemed matter-of-fact for others. Around the house we had already noticed he didn’t connect too well with the material world. It seemed beyond his capacity to realize that behind each daily cup of coffee was the purchase of a bottle of instant Folger’s, or a bag of grounds from the Safeway across the street; that the consumption of coffee on a daily basis required its replacement; that most of the material world worked that way. It dawned on me that day that Chuck’s father had seen these inabilities as evidence he had sunk to the lowest rung imaginable in those late sixties years –he had become a hippie –maybe even an artist, but in any case a ne’er do well, not the mover and shaker he expected to have molded from his own patrician DNA. His father was a successful businessman. And there was Chuck without the wherewithal to deal with either domination, his, or subjugation of someone else, or even the equal give and take of an adult interaction. There was Chuck wandering like a lost child along the beach, looking for all the world like a human wind sleeve going in the teeth of the tide.

I understood the extent of Chuck’s disconnection better the day he accompanied me on a ride in the old Ford convertible I owned at the time. It was about to cough up oil from its guts for the last time, so I wasn’t putting any upkeep money in it. The raggedy top was permanently down, driftwood that Chuck and I had gathered filled up the back seat, the char running off on the upholstery, and the outside was definitely déclassé. On the return home, when we pulled over to the curb across from the house I blew the horn at what I thought was a friend walking by, then swung the car door open and got out. The cop car pulled up in back, siren talking. I got out and handed one of the policemen my license and he asked me what I did for a living. Chuck had no I.D. it turned out, and the policeman asked him what he did.

“I’m an artist.”

“What do you do for a living?” the cop rephrased, as the other one went to the squad car to run a make on my license.

“I’m an artist.”

This was repeated. Then again. Chuck, I saw, had no idea how to play the game, or probably even why to play it, had no idea how to give answers to an authority figure that would satisfy the need to subjugate and so stave off further harassment. “A horn is not a toy,” the officer said to me, and wrote me up one violation for honking inappropriately. “You didn’t look when you opened that car door either, you could have caused an accident.” At first I tried to point out that it was a very wide street, each lane equal to at least two regular lanes of any other street, and that my opening the door therefore could hardly interfere with someone out in the lane of traffic. But Chuck’s noncooperation seemed to infect me as we went along. Or else there was something about the way the officer kept boring in on Chuck, trying to whip him into submission, that got to me. I became aggressively defensive.

“What should I have done, then? I’m home, so I opened the car door to get out of the car, isn’t that what everybody does? I honked the horn because I thought I saw someone I knew.” I could see we were being harassed simply because of the car and the way we looked, and then because of Chuck’s attitude.

“I guess I should have just jumped over the door, not opened it.”

“You’ve got no I.D.,” the cop shot at Chuck, “you could be up to anything as far as I know.”

“I don’t drive, and I don’t have a bank account, so I don’t need I.D.”

The cop asked Chuck once more what he did for a living. Chuck was consistent. The cop’s hand was beginning to palsy from inner rage, it hovered ominously over the gun at his hip.

Feeling suddenly as if I were sinking in quicksand, I pulled myself back from the pit I felt Chuck was drawing us into. I tried to explain away his behavior. I lied.

“That is what he does, he’s an artist. He doesn’t make a lot of money at it, but that’s what he does for a living.”

For a moment, I had the crazy feeling that Chuck and I were game fish swimming eagerly after the dangled hook, and soon the club would hit square. Yet, what was Chuck doing? He was only telling the truth, wasn’t he? He was merely insisting on his right to tell the truth about some entirely non-criminal and insignificant detail of his life. It’s funny how authority figures can back you into a defensive stance over completely meaningless matters, can engender guilt or anxiety over things totally unrelated to morality, or legality. Eventually, I ended up getting a ticket for four violations, none of which I can remember now except the one for irresponsible horn usage. I was shaken and violently angry for hours after the encounter. But I had gotten a glimpse of the strength of Chuck’s nay-saying to the world that day. Whatever the reason, I realized he would be described in psychological jargon as someone who had lost the capacity to defend his psychic self, seriously ego deficient. At the same time, there was something about his steadfast refusal to bend before that petty tyranny that I couldn’t help admiring, that had even pulled me with it. I couldn’t put aside the idea that he’d been right to insist on not giving up his dignity. In the end, all he had done was refuse to lie when the tyrant insisted that he lie. Don’t we give heroes’ medals for that kind of behavior when it occurs in the movies? Or in wars?

For a long time afterwards, I couldn’t shake the Kafkaesque feeling that episode left me with. I knew that given slightly different circumstances Chuck might have been thrown in jail, or badly physically harmed for his resistance, for what was either his inability to cope, or his knowing refusal to “play ball.” In any case, afterwards I felt differently about him, I felt a protective fondness. I had seen that the lack of outward aggression he exhibited usually, was inside equaled by a bulldog adherence to an inner reality to which his creaky ego had forced him to retreat. That it was his psychological life raft, and that he had had the sense to cling to it when challenged. Afterwards I was wary of him too, slightly frightened at the instant-trigger, suicidal volatility in myself he’d exposed. He’d laid bare to me the dangerous nature of that unheedful recklessness I knew authority figures could elicit from me, but which I always imagined I had hammered into a controlled and imperturbable mask in the service of my own survival. A bond had formed between us. I had stepped behind the foundering cardboard human who was Chuck in everyday life, the one who couldn’t wholly manage chores of daily maintenance and the thinking ahead that required, and I had plumbed to where the real person resided. And scarily, once there, on his own terms, he had made me see that I was exactly like him. In some strange moment onstage we had met each other’s bone-beings, for who is not defined singularly and definitively at the point at which they say no to the world? Maybe Chuck’s limits didn’t jibe with reality as the rest of us found it convenient to perceive it, but he didn’t have those layers of external flexibility, and when forced to it he could only play it straightforwardly. Was his difference simply that he was forced to live his life as though it were a serious business, as though it really mattered?

Who was it along the grapevine of our mutual friends who told me Chuck had been laid off by the post office? That his new psychiatrist had contacted the personnel office and informed them that Chuck was under his care, and that in his professional opinion Chuck was unfit to hold down his distribution clerk’s job? Myself, and many of my friends who worked at Rincon Annex, had quit by then because of burnout, irresponsibility, or because we failed to pass the “city scheme” exam, which required memorizing the zip code that corresponded with every single San Francisco block address. Unlike Chuck, most of us didn’t last more than six months.

What was Chuck thinking when he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge? Did he remember the void then, as he fell into it? He, you might say, like that intensely delicate ostrich or heron he had painted for me, had also been thrown away when someone moved, like a scrap of paper unmindfully discarded in the hasty process of consolidating belongings. To this day it can startle me to think of how unspoken of he was afterwards. Of how a person’s identity can be made up in large part by casual comments about them, of how once other people’s thoughts of someone cease to exist, so do they. Who are we then? Collections of individual images evoked by memorabilia? The sum of the thoughts of us in other people’s minds?

There is a difference I think now between the substance of art, and Chuck’s life. His heron heart, long stick legs, and red-winged soul took flight and sailed west from the Bridge when it was understood how it was that his ephemeral body meant to heal itself. That is art breaking free of its shell, while a painting is merely an embryo, emblematic of what is more or less than life.

(Penny Skillman’s latest novella, The Spaniel’s Bark, about living in the Haight-Ashbury in the late sixties, has recently been published as an Amazon Kindle ebook. )

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Categories: Essay

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