I wasn't prepared for the changes
in Tonie when she visited Milwaukee that early spring of 1972. Her
appearance, her speech, her actions. She spit in the street, women
just did not do that. Her attitude: humble yet entitled. Her entire
demeanor was different. I was shocked when I first got a look at
her, and almost didn't recognize her as I stood on the landing and
watched her climb the stairs to my flat. A kerchief covered her
straight brown hair, hanging in braids on either side of her face;
ugly low workboots poked out from under her long cotton Indian print
skirt; a yellow cotton Indian top covered a dingy white longjohn
shirt; a string of multi-colored beads hung around her neck; and
she was real skinny.
She had become one of those hippies, the kind we, she and I,
as city dopers, would just as soon ignore. The women had hair under
their arms and wore long skirts, concealing the hairy legs under
them; the guys' hair and beards were unkempt, and they always, both
sexes, seemed just a little dirty and suspiciously laid back. They
had an itinerant feel and you knew they'd hit you up for cigarettes
or money or be spouting some mystical shit. Their energy was different
from ours, call it city cousin/country cousin; you knew you were
related somehow, but the differences outweighed the similarities
and were embarrassing and uncomfortable. And there she was, my best
friend, looking just like one of those people. The trendy mod New
York City career girl had become the country cousin.
When she got in the door she almost crushed me in a hug --
she had some strength for being so thin. Then she looked at me and
said, "Boy, have I missed you!" And hugged me again. Alienation
gave way to a rush of love, and an awareness and gratitude that
despite the changes she was still my best friend. Realizing that,
it didn't matter so much that she looked the way she did, or behaved
a little differently, or talked some esoteric line I couldn't quite
follow. It was just me and her connecting on home ground.
She had left Milwaukee two-and-a-half years before to find
her fortunes in the advertising world, going first to Atlanta, then
a year later to New York City. Id last seen her the previous
September, more than six months ago, in Manhattan. Shortly after
that shed moved to a farm in upstate New York where her cousin
and some other people lived -- a remote place with no plumbing,
electricity or telephone.
I suppose I should have been less shocked by her because of
the letters shed written me. They were spacey and full of
foreign concepts practiced by foreign people -- a guy named Shadow,
who she called her "teacher," and others who she referred
to as "the family." She called herself Spindle. "I
feel Im going through a rebirth -- difficult to comprehend,"
she wrote. "But, for myself, and because I am you and you are me
we have to begin to understand what Im going through."
Oh man, what was this shit, and what the hell was she going through?
The letters put me off. I felt threatened by them. They conveyed
no life I knew. The Vietnam war was still raging, George McGovern
was running as the president for peace, and after a divorce followed
by a passionate love affair with Milwaukees angriest black
activist I was trying to find my place in all the changes swirling
around in the world. I was back in college leading a pot-smoking-listening-to-rock-music-looking-for-a-boyfriend
existence. What Tonie wrote about didnt fit into my little
Sure, I could listen to John Lennon sing in "The Walrus" that
"I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together,"
and nod in agreement, but in reality I couldnt relate, even
though Id had glimpses of the oneness business on acid trips.
But then, when you tripped so many statements were profound stoned
revelations. And inevitably someone would always exclaim, "Hey man,
we're all one, ya know?" But these were just grand philosophical
musings, certainly not practiced in everyday real life. It was too
far out for me to grasp. This guy Shadow sounded like a Svengali.
I feared I was losing Tonie to him and his family of strangers with
their strange ways.
Now she sat on my blue and green couch -- a leftover from
my marriage to the dry cleaning king -- looking the way she looked,
and clutching a large photo album that she had lugged a third of
the way across the country from her New York farm to Milwaukee.
We pored over it, she reverently and lovingly, me, suspicious and
skeptical. She explained each black-and-white shot of the family
of strangers -- an assortment of country cousins -- as we paged
"Thats Lem and Nick by the side of the house chopping
wood. We heat the house with wood and we cook with it some too."
I saw two half-naked ax swinging scrawny guys.
"Here's Midge at the stove, it's part-wood and part-gas.
You cant really tell how big the kitchen is," she described
the next picture. My eyes beheld a thin, severe looking woman stirring
some steamy potion on an odd looking stove.
"The family's so wonderful," Tonie added. "This is
Shadow." Her tone mixed admiration and awe as she turned the
page to reveal another half-naked skinny guy looking strangely into
Next came the family dog. "That's Basil, our sweet puppy --
hes a yellow lab. Hes not even a year old and hes
so together." I saw an oversized animal with tongue and teeth exposed
She turned to the family barn on a page facing the family homestead.
"Arent they far out?" Yeah, I thought, if you like sorry-looking,
gray, decrepit structures.
Lastly she showed me the garden. "We grow a lot of our own
food and its all organic!" Now that looked impressive, even
to a nongardener like me.
"Youve got to come," she implored. "I
want you to be there and feel it and meet everyone. They know all
"What do you mean?"
"Well, Ive told them about you and theyve
read your letters."
"Theyve read my letters?"
"Everybody reads everybody elses mail. Its
no big deal."
"Oh? Maybe not to you."
"Dont be so uptight. Come on. Youll love it there.
What are you doing this summer?"
"I dont know." I hedged. I wasnt going
to summer school and my two part-time jobs would be suspended for
the season; if I didnt find something else Id have the
summer off. But I wasn't at all sure that roughing it at this rustic
retreat with these weirdos was how I wanted to pass the time. At
the end of her visit, however, after spending a week together, doing
acid and sharing many of those profound stoned realities, then listening
to Bob Dylans album "Bringing It All Back Home,"
I started calling her Spindle and said maybe Id come.
I didnt hear from her for a while after the visit, then
May brought a letter of distress. Reading between her spaced-out
lines it appeared that Svengali had taken a new lover in Spindles
absence. Coping was difficult she wrote, but "Shadow and I
dont = security. Its heavy but much beauty abounds."
She went on about "more love" even though it appeared she now had
less; she said that spring nurtured her, the garden was her passion,
and I'll flip out when I see it all.
In the meantime my summer options had expanded. Id been
given a grant to go to Mexico with my political science professor
for a six-week project. His "Politics of the Revolution"
class excited my intellect and political fervor. And Id only
been to Mexico once on a border-town day trip from Arizona, which
didnt really count. The trip was enticing. But there was my
best friend on this hippie commune, really wanting/needing me to
come visit no less an exotic enticement. My life was at an
impasse. As a 26-year-old, once-again single, once-again college
undergraduate, I was in the throes of my first adult identity crisis.
I dreadfully needed change. Excitement and adventure wouldnt
What to do? Where to go? I pondered this dilemma over a joint
with some friends at school. "What about consulting the I Ching?"
one of them suggested.
"Hmm, I hadn't thought of that."
"Well, it can't hurt," she said. "Come over tonight and we'll see
what the coins have to say." Sounded good to me, I wasnt
getting anywhere on my own.
That night at my friends apartment we settled in on the
living room floor. A burning candle dripped onto an already wax-covered
Chianti bottle, casting flickering shadows on the Indian tapestry
decorating the wall. She poured cheap red wine into jelly jars.
"Good luck," she said, clinking her glass to mine.
"You really think thisll work?" I asked, taking
a big swallow.
"If you believe," she answered.
I took another slug of wine and threw the coins. She looked at
how they fell, then paged through the book till she found the matching
text. She read it aloud. It told me to go to the commune. It didnt
exactly say, "Get thee to the commune," but the wording
eerily invoked friendship, rural images, growth and greenery, and
sharing with other people. No matter how we bandied it about it
pointed to the hippie farm. School was just about over. I started
looking for a ride to New York.
On June 1, 1972 I boarded a Greyhound bus at New York City's
Port Authority bus terminal, and traveled more than eight hours
across a surprisingly beautiful, but seemingly unending, New York
State. My destination was the small farming and mining town of Gouverneur,
population 5,000. My final landing place would be the farm eight
miles out of Gouverneur where Spindle lived with her hippie family.
The friend whod thrown the I Ching had turned me on to a ride
from Milwaukee to Manhattan and Id crashed there for a few
days with Spindle's former roommates.
The morning I left for the farm I got up and showered. As the
water beat down on me I decided to shave my legs since I didn't
know when I'd have the opportunity again -- to shave, or to shower,
for that matter. I clearly remembered that there was no running
water where I was going, and that no one, of either gender, shaved
anything. Smooth legs were part of my existence, if not theirs,
and I wanted to at least arrive with them. If I had known that the
next time I'd take a razor to my legs would be almost a decade and
a half later I might've not bothered. Clean and relieved of stubble,
I put on jeans, a spotless white Heineken T-shirt, and sneakers.
I stuffed my backpack with my remaining possessions, tied my sleeping
bag to the top, and headed for Port Authority.
As the bus lumbered up mountains and down through valleys,
towns, and farmland spewing exhaust as it went, my idle mind spewed
out the seemingly random events that led to this bus ride. I delighted
in the vagaries of fate that threw Spindle and I together, and kept
us together, long after we had discarded the messengers who introduced
us. How lucky that when she moved to Milwaukee right after high
school graduation the one and only person she knew was the future
rabbi, best friend of my boyfriend, the dry cleaning king. It was
1963. A time when many girls went to college to get their Mrs. degree
or to become school teachers. That fall she and I took classes at
the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but after the first semester,
engaging in extracurricular activity was often our reason for being
there. My memory replayed the 18-year-old me involved with local
civil rights groups and engrossed in heated pseudo-intellectual
political discussions that required endless cigarettes and bottomless
cups of black coffee. I thought of Spindle and me sitting at a table
in the student union playing hearts with the guys, a lure we often
succumbed to more than the call of classes. At the end of three
semesters we could shoot the moon but we couldnt rise above
the required grade point average. We were both flunking out.
Spindle thought marriage was the answer but she had no prospects.
I didn't much think about getting married, but there was the dry
cleaning king, ready, willing, and able. I was young. I thought
I was in love. I got married. Now, in the reflection of the buss
window I pictured Spindle in her black dress, high hair, and skinny
legs trying to catch the bouquet at my big Jewish wedding. I must
have suffered temporary insanity because deep down that was not
how I pictured my life. But I had easily gotten swept up on a tide
of bride's magazines, shopping, and luncheons, along with the idea
of living in my own two bedroom apartment when all my friends lived
either with their parents or in college dorms.
A freeze frame of the first marriage apartment flashed before
me replacing the varied-hued patchwork of farmland that the bus
cruised past: the brand new Mediterranean-style furniture, custom-made
floor to ceiling white drapes, with blue and green embroidery to
match the furnitures upholstery, and wall-to-wall gold shag
carpeting. The conjugal bedroom of my past was filled with wall-to-wall
bed and dressers. Wrought iron trimmed an armoire for him, double
mirrors on a dresser for me, and a bed so big that when we both
laid down and stretched out, our hands barely touched. I embarrassed
myself now, contrasting the contents of my backpack on the bus rack
above me: jeans, shorts, T-shirts, a long Indian skirt, underwear,
sandals, and toiletries, with the bulging closets of my marriage.
They had overflowed with lovingly collected shoes and matching handbags,
and the dresses and suits they so carefully accessorized.
This bus trip was ass-achingly long. I watched some black-and-white
cows roaming in a pasture, feeding as they went, and reached into
a bag of vending machine junk food. My mind wandered from the cows
to the dining room of that first apartment. I saw the table and
matching breakfront loaded with wedding presents of china, French
crystal, and a silver tea service that currently sat unused and
tarnished beyond recognition in my funky flat. Now, on my way to
a house with no electricity, I laughed thinking of the up-to-the-minute
appliances we'd been given: an electric broom, electric knife, electric
frying pan, electric juicer, and electric hot tray.
I looked at my watch for the zillionth time. The farmland, cows,
and cramped stale bus interior were getting on my nerves. Then I
saw a road sign, Gouverneur 12 Miles. That jolted me out
of my Greyhound glazed reverie. Time to abandon thoughts of the
past and give some energy to where I was about to land.
I ran through all the differences between myself and Spindle's
"family." First was appearance: I looked clean-cut with my close-cropped
boyish hair, unstained jeans and sparkling white T-shirt; although
I owned a long skirt I rarely wore it. Next came food: they were
vegetarians adhering to a largely macrobiotic diet; I ate anything
and thought macrobiotics was a subset of economics (a course I flunked).
They had a spiritual trip that intimidated me: while I had perused
the current in books like Autobiography of A Yogi
by Yogananda, and Be Here Now, Baba Ram Dasss mystical
and drug inspired guide to living for the moment, and I cherished
Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, that was the extent of my familiarity
with Eastern religion and mysticism. I knew nothing about their
physical trip of farming and gardening either. Growing any greenery,
organic or otherwise, was a totally alien activity. And lastly,
I thought of our living environments: I lived alone, and liked my
few small amenities, like running water, electricity, the telephone,
and privacy. The prospect of this visit was daunting, but I was
curious and intrigued. And I was almost there.
Rational thought gave way to high anxiety when the rural Route
11 rolled into Main Street Gouverneur. I started to sweat under
the heavy cotton of that clean T-shirt as I realized that soon I'd
be face-to-face with that family of strangers, those people who
walked that walk and talked that talk, had read all my letters,
and were not my best friends. Very shortly they'd be sizing me up
as I would them, except that they outnumbered me five to one.
The bus stopped in front of the red brick St. Lawrence National
Bank. The driver made no announcement but I assumed this was my
stop and got up from my seat. Before I could wrestle my backpack
and sleeping bag out of the overhead rack, the invasion took place.
"Where is she?" called out a tall thin man suddenly filling the
doorway of the bus. A scroungy beard and mustache clung to his long
narrow face, wire-rimmed glasses and a mass of tangled ponytail
completed the picture along with faded jeans and a ripped T-shirt.
"There she is!" a skinny girl crowding in beside him yelled excitedly;
it took me a moment to realize that the girl was Spindle. I didn't
know who the guy was, although I'd no doubt seen his picture in
the revered photo album. Spindle pushed past him, grabbed me, and
we hugged, as together she and the thin man pulled me and my pack
off the bus.
"I'm Lem," the guy said to me once we landed on the sidewalk.
He was married to Spindle's cousin Midge, and they were waiting
to take me to their alien land, the 165 acres they called Chillum
Farm. "How I spent my summer vacation" was about to begin.