In the previous installment my best friend Spindle came from the hippie commune where she lived in northern New York to visit me in Milwaukee, where I lived and attended school. She convinced me to spend my summer vacation at this farm she’d moved to the previous fall where she lived with her cousin and several others, and that had no plumbing or electricity. There she had taken up with Shadow, a man whom she considered her spiritual teacher, but in the spring he left her for another woman at the farm. This chapter begins with Spindle and some of her hippie family meeting me at the Greyhound bus to take me to their farm.
Spindle, Lem and I crowded into a red Volkswagon bug with Midge, a small dark-haired woman with a grin that took over her face, and Nick, a weekend refugee from Syracuse. I noticed a half-eaten bag of Wise potato chips scrunched between the little dashboard and the windshield. What's wrong with this picture? This was bus terminal food not healthy organic, although I guessed it qualified as vegetarian.
Lem further compounded my puzzled state. "Got any store-boughts?" he called back to me from the driver's seat.
"Cigarettes. Got any cigarettes?" he said.
“Oh. Yeah sure.” I pulled out my pack and handed it over. So, there are a few chinks in the holier-than-thou puritanism I thought, and felt a titch of the anxiety ease as we headed out of town toward Chillum Farm.
They all chattered away, every one of them smoking my cigarettes, as they alternately asked me about my trip and traded local trivia. Someone lit a joint and handed it around, and when we finished that they smoked more of my cigarettes. We passed a lot of fields: plowed fields, flat fields, hilly fields, rocky fields, fields of growing grain, fields of barely-out-of-the-ground corn, and fields of wavy grass. There was a lot of land here, and not much else.
Tired, stoned, and disoriented, I turned to Spindle sitting next to me in the corner window seat. Was this woman, happily gawking at some field, the same long-legged, mini-skirted chick who left Milwaukee to crash into major advertising in big-time Manhattan? She was so cool then -- with her rabbit fur jacket and sleek hair, engaged to an advertising hotshot -- when I came to visit after my breakup with the black activist last year. Now look at her, funky-looking and staring raptly out the Volkswagen window at her own little roadside attractions.
We drove for however long it took to smoke a couple cigarettes and a joint, and then the road ended. We'd reached the intersection of Cream of The Valley Road. On the other side lay a rutted gravel path framed by a mailbox and a Dead End sign. That was the road to home.
Before I could grasp that we were almost there, the car lurched across the road and pulled up in what appeared to be a small junkyard. Seemingly random, but separate piles of wood and auto parts, with garbage strewn between, cluttered the little area. A seriously old tractor stood off to one side, parked in front of a beat-up wooden shack with a peaked roof and a door hanging open. An old hound dog with ears just about dragging the ground strained at the chain attached to his collar and began to yap at us. Lem stuck his head out the window and hollered, “Hey Pittman!” at a grizzled old man of imposing size, wielding an equally imposing wrench, and bearing down on the car. I shrank back but the others laughed.
After waving the wrench threateningly, the old guy leaned over to look through the open VW window. "She in there?” he asked. “Lemme see!" The words came from a mouth tightly clenching a pipe whose stem was wrapped with what looked like string covered with tape. She, I immediately discovered, was me. He'd been primed for my arrival and I was being both shown off and checked out. He was John E. Pitts, the old man at the end of the road.
As quickly as we veered into Pitts's dooryard -- he lived in the peaked-roof shack -- everyone hollered goodbye, Lem backed the little car out and turned up the narrow gravel road, a ride of inclines and sharp curves. I looked at my watch, it was after nine and as the final destination closed in my anxiety cranked up again. A barn loomed up in the gloom of dusk and a dog began to bark.
"What's that?" I asked. I was afraid of dogs.
"Sweet da Pups," Midge answered.
"It's Basil," Spindle announced like a proud parent. "He won't hurt you."
Yeah, right, I thought. However cutesy a name they called him, I knew he was just waiting to jump me when I got out of the car. And as I tried, with bulky backpack and sleeping bag, to navigate around him and get to the house, he was all over me, barking loudly. "Get down, Basil!" Lem cheerily admonished. The dog paid no heed. "Basil. Go on now," said Midge. I, meanwhile, expected to feel his big teeth pierce my flesh momentarily with a nice welcome-to-our-house bite. Sparing me, he stuck close until I walked through the door and shut him out.
I followed the others through a darkened living room to the glow of the kitchen where an olive-skinned woman hugged me and said, "Welcome. I’m Joy." She had dark shoulder-length kinky hair, a serene aura, and wore a variation of the long skirt/Indian shirt outfit Spindle and Midge both wore. Then Spindle introduced me to Shadow. Like Lem, he had a scroungy beard and mustache, but he was short and slight, with medium length brown hair that sort of stuck out, and penetrating dark blue eyes. Not particularly imposing for a Svengali, or that good-looking to get so bent out of shape over, at least not to my weary eyes in this dim light. With the introductions over, Spindle took a kerosene lamp and led me upstairs to the big room she shared with Lem and Midge where we dumped my stuff.
"I'm so glad you're here," she said, hugging me tightly, then she pulled me back downstairs. There was no time for us to talk or for me to acclimate even a tiny bit; the natives were restless. Everyone wanted to eat.
The others sat waiting for us around a big rectangular table at one end of the kitchen. We took the two vacant chairs and then the pre-dinner ritual began. Spindle had described this every-evening event to me when she was in Milwaukee, and though I had nodded and said uh huh, I was totally unprepared for the reality that I was suddenly thrust into. Nonparticipation was not an option.
Shadow on one side and Nick on the other reached for my hands. I felt like I was back in kindergarten. The group became a big chain of connected hands. Next they all closed their eyes. Then silence. Then nothing. I mean, nothing happened. No one spoke, no one moved. It was just quiet. For a long while. I seemed to be the only one whose chair creaked. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing so I opened my eyes to check out the scene. The others had taken on a meditative/concentrative appearance. Looking around made me feel like I was trespassing on some private space, and not wanting to get caught I quickly closed my eyes again. But I didn't feel at all meditative and didn’t know what I was supposed to concentrate on.
More time passed. Still silence. I was dying to open my eyes again and look at my watch -- even though I had nowhere to go -- because knowing the time was an essential part of my life. I thought better of it though. It didn’t seem to fit the mood and I felt like I'd be breaking some rule or something.
Then I heard a slight sound coming from somebody -- a monosyllabic sort of gurgle. It got stronger and less gurgly, and was joined by someone else. Then another voice chimed in, and another, until they were all doing it, repeating it over and over and over. It drummed everything else from my mind. They were chanting the word Om. Semi-detached observer that I was, I felt that perhaps I should join in. I didn't want to appear so uptight that I couldn't utter a sound. (I was sure they’d know.) It actually got sort of musical and part of me was taken with it, while another part of me thought, oh man, what is this shit and when's it going to be over, I'm hungry. But I sort of hummed a bit and actually said the word Om ever so quietly once or twice. They, on the other hand, got loud with it; it peaked, then got softer. Then fewer people chanted and I thought it was over. But no such luck. Someone resurrected it, got it going, and it peaked again. Finally it died the way it began; one by one people stopped chanting until thankfully, no one felt moved by whatever spirit inhabited the place to start up again.
As soon as I felt sure that it was really over I opened my eyes and looked around. Once again I was the only one there. The others, with eyes closed and peaceful expressions, were off somewhere, the deep end perhaps. I sighed inwardly, closed my eyes again, and let my mind wander in this new silence for what I hoped was the right amount of time. When I reopened them I was no longer alone and everyone was staring at everyone else. They locked eyes with someone and stared -- eyeballing each other to death as it were -- lingering, clinging, until one of them broke the stare and moved on to do eyeball battle with someone else. This was serious business. No talking, just staring. I squirmed in my hard wooden chair. I didn't know these people and this big stare down made me terrifically uncomfortable. I mean, what were they looking at, or for? After a terrible eternity the solemnity gave way to smiles and someone said, "Let's eat!" They'd praised the lord now it was time to pass the pasta.
Midge and Joy, sitting at one end of the table, served. Midge put helpings of baked pasta in wooden bowls, handed them to Joy, who added salad, then sent them around the table. The bowls got handed around until the first one reached the person on the other side of Midge who kept filling and passing until everyone had, then she served herself. A cut up loaf of Italian bread, obviously white and store bought, circulated. The group ate dinner with chopsticks -- wooden bowls and chopsticks, the china and silverware of the commune.
Not adept or even familiar with manipulating chopsticks, I said apologetically to Shadow, sitting on my left, “I’ve never used these things before.” “It’s easy,” he said, and quickly demonstrated. “You’ll do fine.” Mimicking him I took the sticks and awkwardly began picking up bits of food and conveying them to my mouth. I didn’t have the technique of shoveling large clumps of food from bowl to mouth that the others had, but I managed to land most of it in the right place. Despite macrobiotic admonitions to chew one's food slowly and copiously, they ate pretty fast around there. Dinner was a free-for-all with everyone grabbing and eating as though they'd never seen food before and weren't likely to again any time soon.
The mood was upbeat and hectic with lots of chitchat, a contrast to the meditation period that preceded dinner. "We need milk," Joy announced.
"I'll go to Mr. LaVack's in the morning," volunteered Midge.
"Mr. LaVack, Midgie?" Shadow's voice mocked. The others laughed. I learned that LaVack was the farmer down Cream of The Valley Road who sold milk for fifty cents a gallon, and that everyone but Midge called him Bob.
“What’s up for tomorrow?” asked Nick.
"One word: Planting," replied Shadow.
"Lots of seeds to put in the ground, and transplanting," Joy added.
“Yeah, there’s a fuckload to do,” said Lem.
I had arrived at the busy season. It was the beginning of June and in this northern clime, with frost and the fear of it decimating a tender young crop hopefully behind, it was time to get everything planted. This would be interesting. I hadn't had my hands in the dirt since I had been forced to weed my mother's flowerbed when I was a kid.
And so dinner went, with everyone packing in the food as they talked. Shyness mixed with cynicism kept me largely an observer; mostly I concentrated on getting the food into my mouth. Plus I wasn't sure how much conversation I wanted to make with Shadow as my feelings for him, transferred directly from Spindle, alternated between anger and intimidation. She was still suffering because he had dumped her for Joy while she was visiting Milwaukee and Joy's husband was in Ohio, which didn’t make me view him any too kindly. But he was more pleasant than I expected and he attempted to make me feel at home. Still, I was painfully conscious of my outsider status.
What was I doing here? I looked past Nick to Spindle, now unattached and unhappy, so different than when she broke up with the advertising guy. Then, she and I, available and looking for adventure, had hitchhiked our way through Europe for the summer. How could she have changed so much? That summer was only last summer, when we shared our lives and the seats of strange foreign men's foreign cars. We would alternate sitting next to the driver. She got the achingly handsome Englishman with the slight scar at his lip who took us out of London toward Dover. I got the old Italian in the Mercedes who took us through Mount Blanc from France to Italy, all the while exclaiming "Bella! Bella!" while repeatedly grabbing my tits. We had nine weeks of on-the-road bonding. We smoked hash in Amsterdam, ate pasta twice a day in Italy, admired sailing vessels in Denmark, drew in our breath at the beauty of Paris, and visited every possible museum, ruin, cathedral, and tourist attraction available. Exhausted, we escaped Athens for Mykonos, and camped on a beach for ten eat-drink-swim-soak-up-the-sun days. Back in New York in the fall, Spindle realized that her big city, career girl trajectory had turned into a rat race she didn't want. That’s when she moved to this farm, with these people, who were now licking the food residue from their bowls.
When the group had emptied the pasta baking dish by picking out the last crusted little bits that stuck to its sides and bottom, a few people got up and started clearing the table. Wanting to plug in I jumped up to help. Lem took a pot of hot water off the stove, poured it in the sink, added some cold water from a bucket, and began washing the bowls.
Nick, a handsome man whose thick reddish-blond beard and mustache contrasted sharply with the wispy dark blond hair pulled back into a miniscule ponytail, got up and went into the living room. He returned carrying an acoustic guitar. Shadow came back to the table with a canister that held the pot stash and rolled a joint; he fired it up and one by one everyone returned to the table to smoke it. I was impressed with how full and firm and even it was. I could not roll a decent joint by hand and always used a rolling machine. His was a quality product. Joy, Lem and Midge reached into an aqua-colored tin can of Bugler tobacco and rolled cigarettes. Another joint went around and Nick and Spindle asked for the tobacco. Once again the mood shifted; a stoned mellowness replaced the hecticness of dinner and cleanup.
Nick began to play the guitar, first just strumming some chords, then easing into "Bobby McGee," which he sang in a quiet voice. I was impressed. I was also stoned and knew no one else who played the guitar. After a while Shadow got up and returned to the table with bongo drums, which he nestled between his knees, and started pounding out rhythms. Nick moved on to the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band.” I heard a jingling sound and looked up to see Joy shaking a tambourine. Slowly a whole band developed. Lem and Midge pulled newly-washed pots out of the dish rack along with wooden spoons and began banging away. Spindle, eyes closed, started swaying around the room. Me, I just took it all in. Softly sang along with the songs I knew, hummed a little, and smoked whatever came my way.
The combination of the music, marijuana, and mood was heady. I’d never had an experience like this before. I was used to being stoned in dimly-lit rooms, but they were in city apartments and I’d often be lying on the floor wearing headphones or have my head next to big speakers that blasted electric rock. This was all so mellow.
Then reality intruded, piercing my lovely stoned bubble. I had to pee. The house had no plumbing. I wasn't sure what to do, so I tried ignoring my body’s message. That worked for a while, but then the urge grew too urgent and became the major focus of my stoned body and mind. I stopped Spindle in mid-sway. "Just go outside," she said.
"And then what?" I asked, a definite whine in my voice. It was dark out there; I was in a strange place.
"I'll go too. Come on," and she led me through the dark living room, out the front door, grabbing toilet paper off a shelf as we went.
It wasn't city dark out there, this was real night-time dark; we were far from the world of streetlights and lit up neighborhoods. The kerosene lamps lighting the house cast a barely discernible glow outside that faded as we moved away, leaving the house a dark box against the sky. We’d entered a world of stars and intense stillness, except for nature's night creatures whose own music now bounced into my stoned ears. These were not sounds I could identify and the night was not one I knew or felt at ease with. I stumbled along beside Spindle and squatted down to pee when she did -- at a respectable distance from the house.
“How ya doin’?” she asked. “Okay,” I answered, not really sure how I was, but vaguely thinking I could go home now. We got up, she threw her arm around me and guided me back to the house.