It was Wednesday morning December 12, 1973, and I drifted in and out of consciousness. Last night had been my first night home after returning from eleven weeks backpacking through Europe. In one of my drifts in, I looked for my backpack and there it was, loaded up and ready to go like it had been every day for the past eleven weeks, right there by where I was sleeping. In this case with my bell-bottom jeans and Heineken t-shirt draped on top of it. In another drift in, I just stared at the white ceiling and experienced a sense of being in the moment, but nowhere in particular and outside any when of time. In yet another I recalled that I had woken up in England yesterday, though the only evidence that suggested that fact was the full backpack, indicating I had likely been at least somewhere other than here.
I never forget an interior space that I’ve spent any significant time in. I knew this was my bedroom, or at least had been my bedroom, though now it had all the touches of a space that my mom had decked out in her aesthetic and for her needs as an office. She had alerted me last night that she had commandeered my room while I was “overseas” as a much needed office, and though I had now returned she was not inclined to completely surrender it again to be fully mine and not a shared space with her. After all, I was planning to head back to school at “Western”, that is Western Michigan University a hundred miles west in Kalamazoo, this coming fall. Still I was planning to be living here in this house on Martin Place for the next eight and a half months.
Sure it was a quandary, what to do about our conflicting claims on this space, but I had come home from my odyssey determined to be of assistance to my little family in any way I possibly could. It was a key facet of my new more cando “Coopster” persona, as I was dubbed by a fellow backpacker in Rome, that I was returning from Europe trying to inhabit. I was resolute to work with my mom to come up with our own creative solution, like the one she and my dad concocted to fill this house with furniture, though they lacked the funds to afford it.
My mom’s papers were neatly organized on the desk and the tops of the two dressers. Presumably my clothes, that I had not taken with me to Europe and were not hanging in my half of the closet, were in one of those dressers. She had a couple woven cloth tapestries hung on the walls. They were both very elegant, tasteful and well displayed, as was always the case with her stellar sense of design. But they were not me at all, or reflect my own sensibilities, which were more brash and counterculture right now. Still there were the same white plastered walls behind them, and the brickred carpeting below, the latter with the same few small stains and blemishes here and there. Each had a remembered cause, like when I dripped hot black wax from a candle and kind of botched the cleanup, having to cut away a bit of the carpet fibers to remove the hardened wax.
The wood and wicker table, which my mom had bought for a few bucks at yet another garage sale, was now at the foot of my metal bunk bed, rather than under the window, and was serving as my mom’s desk. I remembered when she brought the table home some eight years ago in the trunk of our station wagon and then had it on a spread of old newspapers in the driveway. She had stripped off the original paint with Strypeeze and sanded the top by hand. She had thought originally to stain the tabletop with linseed oil, but once the old paint had been removed, she could see gouges in the wood that she wasn’t happy with. So going to “plan B”, she filled in the gouges with wood putty and painted the whole thing, tabletop and wicker legs, with green milk paint. The milk paint created a flat but smooth finish with a beautiful soft “patina”, that was her word she loved to use when talking about the surface created by varnish, paint, and the refinishing of furniture.
Likewise the chair at the desk, a refinished solid oak Boston chair, “a steal” at five dollars from the University of Michigan’s old furniture storage warehouse yearly sale. Also stripped with Strypeeze in the driveway. In this case, “a good piece of wood”, unlike the table, that she could refinish with her beloved linseed oil.
Thus my mom, the artist and artisan refinisher and refurbisher, with assistance from my dad’s fairly able and clever carpentry, had furnished our three bedroom house – tables, chairs, rockers, night stands, dressers, love seats, hutch and china cabinet – for a tenth of the cost of comparable furnishings if bought new or used from a store. Beyond parenting my brother and I, it was one of the few things my mom and dad could collaborate on without clashing with each other. It had been their creative alternative to having enough money to buy proper furniture and furnish a proper house for a couple to look their part of the Ann Arbor academic intelligentsia. All our furniture were pieces of art in their way, practical sculptures of sorts, and held their own in juxtaposition to my mom’s paintings and other works of more two-dimensional art, that adorned the walls above and around them.
Completing this room’s current furnishings were two dressers, one a rebuilt and refinished oak piece, and the other one of the few pieces of furniture my mom and dad had bought in actual good shape and for more than ten dollars. It was a modern Herman Miller manufactured George Nelson design with a black metal frame, white formica top, and three bright yellow laminate drawers. It had been the one piece of proper furniture in our prior house on Prescott street, in our small living room bereft of other stuff, because the budget of an underemployed grad student, my dad at the time, could afford nothing more.
My dad had finally finished his PhD and secured a position as an English professor at “Eastern”, that is Eastern Michigan University in nearby Ypsilanti, with a real but still modest salary. That is when my mom had had her famous “I can’t breathe!” panic attack, which I had witnessed, that became the first act of her familial insurrection. Saying dramatically and in no uncertain terms to my dad that she could no longer go on as a “drudge”, living with no proper clothes or furniture, she convinced him to hatch a plan with her to transform things. They rented out our little two bedroom house on Prescott Street, to a graduate school couple appropriately enough. With that money they rented our current house, with three bedrooms and probably twice the square footage, half of a duplex owned by the elderly couple that lived in the other half. It was in the more upscale Burns Park neighborhood, on the southeast side of town, where many of the University faculty lived. Still without the money to buy normal furniture, they had combined their creative talents to “junk”, that was my mom’s verb for buying old furniture at garage and university sales, and refurbish each piece into a practical work of art. Like a potter would design and create a beautiful, though practical bowl, plate or cup.
Beyond the furniture with all its back stories, the one casement window on the west wall of my room had, in my opinion, the best view in the house. It looked out onto our landlords’ part of the front yard, and beyond that, the corner of Martin Place and Wells, the latter the street that ran along the north side of Burns Park. The western half of the park was also visible from the window, including the colonial style three-story brick school building, that I had attended for my last three years of elementary school nearly a decade ago.
Still in bed, my mind transitioned from past to future, at least to the very full day I had ahead of me. My mom’s best friend and my “Feminist Aunt”, Mary Jane, had arranged with my mom to have a welcome back lunch for me at Bicycle Jim’s restaurant on campus. Then this evening was the big Alice Cooper concert at Crisler Arena, that my own best friends – Jeri, Avi and Clark – had bought me a ticket for, with the added anticipation of getting to smoke lots of marijuana with the three of them prior to and during the concert. Around those two events, both of which I was really looking forward to, I would build the rest of my day. After eleven weeks of the routine of being on the road and exploring each new place, I was going to spend this day being back in my home town.
Having gotten used to taking showers in Europe, or the more frequent “bird bath” with a wet washcloth where the youth hostel showers featured only cold water, it was strange to have to navigate our house’s one bathroom with its tub and no shower. When I returned to my room I pondered what was the most appropriate thing for me to wear to best present myself in my new “Coopster” persona to Mary Jane and my friends. I decided that I would wear the same things as yesterday – my new Heineken t-shirt, still looking pretty stiff and new after the long day worn yesterday, my bell-bottom jeans, and my two-inch heels, though they were a bit worse for wear. It was a sunny and mild December day so I’d wear my same orange down jacket with no need for gloves, scarf, or knit cap.
As I lay in bed and later got dressed I listened to music on the little clock-radio in my former bedroom turned office and guest room. I had been “off the grid” of the ever evolving musical popular culture for the past eleven weeks in Europe, other than occasionally hearing music in a bar or restaurant. Now my first morning back, I was plugging myself back into what Marshall McLuhan called the “electronic sensorium”, or at least according to his acolyte Mary Jane. I was giving my “Greek Chorus” full voice again to comment on and advise my life.
In that vein, Steve Miller had a new album and a hit song “The Joker” that I heard for the first time that morning. The opening lyric, sung by him with a friendly country twang, caught my attention…
Some people call me the space cowboy
Some call me the gangster of love
Some people call me Maurice
‘Cause I speak of the pompitous of love
I had loved his song “Space Cowboy” several years back. It had a driving beat and an in your face lyric that had resonated with where I was at at the time…
I’m a space cowboy
Bet you weren’t ready for that
But now this new song cast him in a more laid back and thoughtful role, looking perhaps more philosophically at his past exploits and personas. The confrontational intensity of the “Space Cowboy” had been replaced by a more self-effacing, reflective, live and let live voice…
I’m a joker
I’m a smoker
I’m a midnight toker
sure don’t want to hurt no one
I really resonated with that, given where I was at in my own development. This emerging “Coopster” persona I was trying on was a joker of sorts, the Tarot Fool, joyfully walking off the metaphorical cliff into whatever the unformed abyss of the future held. And I was so looking forward to being that “midnight toker” with my own stash of weed that I could smoke whenever I needed to recenter myself outside the vicissitudes of time. I loved space and its various configurations as interiors and exteriors, but I struggled with the lockstep of time, always trying to drive me forward at its pace rather than my own.
But back to the tactical. During my eleven weeks in Europe I had kept my money, ID and other valuables in a money belt tucked into my pants, for maximum security, particularly for my passport, traveler’s checks and irreplaceable rail pass. But now that I was home I had only to carry paper money and my driver’s license, so I dug through my drawers and found my old wallet, which I loaded up with my few remaining dollars and slid into my back pocket. I also put in it my ticket to the Alice Cooper concert tonight that my brother had given to me yesterday evening. Downstairs my array of coins from the various European countries were still spread on the table. I picked the favorites of my new collection and filled my front pockets for show and tell at lunch.
A quick breakfast was Kellogg’s Concentrate with two-percent milk, which for years had been my mom’s goto, always on a diet as she was. I had gotten addicted to the stuff myself, these past few years when I was living at home, and it seemed nostalgic to start my day with it again. It was a unique cereal with tiny wheat germ infused flakes, that looked more like fish food than human cereal. It also could not be prepared like a normal cold cereal where you simply pour the dry stuff in a bowl and then cover it with milk. If you did that with Concentrate it would turn into a glop of mush. Instead you had to pour the milk in first, just the right amount, then sprinkle the tiny flakes in a fairly thick layer on top of the milk and eat quickly, while the itty bitty flakes maintained some sort of crunchy integrity before transitioning to the mush state. When done correctly, it was delicious.
I heard the car pull up in the driveway and I saw through the window it was my mom returning from grocery shopping. I headed outside to help her bring in groceries. She looked at me and smiled, and it was nice to see her face looking relatively happy and relaxed, rather than so stressed and careworn, as she had often been over the past decade, both prior to and after her divorce from my dad.
“Hey Coolie”, that was one of the several variations on my name that she would call me, particularly when she was in a good mood, “It’s great to have you home, sweetie.” She said it slow and seriously, not just thrown off brightly. And then with continuing concern, “You slept a long time, I bet you’re jetlagged. I remember how long it took me to recover from those transatlantic flights!” Then after studying my face for another moment, “Don’t worry about your room and my office, I’m sure we can work something out.”
“Yeah, we will.” I nodded vigorously, while trying to think of how best to convey that I was not going to let this be a problem between me and her at all. “I’m already thinking about a solution that will work for both of us.”
“Really!” she noted, expressing some pleasant surprise, and then adding, “Well… you were always the ‘idea guy’!”
And when she said that, it was like her mind reached out and stimulated just that right part of mine so that the obvious solution came to me. I would move down to the basement.
It was the perfect solution. She needed an office to help her keep her life organized, to pay bills and manage our household. She also needed to keep stuff related to the new projects she was getting into, like local politics and now this job with the Institute of Survey Research. I needed my own space too, and even more so than I had had before up in that bedroom that shared a wall with hers. I had been transformed by my trip, I knew that intuitively though I could not provide any specifics of what that meant at this point. To go back up into that room, particularly now that it had become a guest room slash office, would feel like going back to where I was before. I would be right back in my mom’s world, her issues, her energy, be her “Clubius” again, rather than this newly emerging “Coopster” that I was intent on becoming, if not already there.
So more on that. My parents had retold the story to me over the years of the three nicknames they had given me as a little kid – “Zuper”, “Clubius” and “Cooper”. My official birth certificate given name was Jonathan, a sophisticated sounding three-syllable appellation, but not the kind of name others might want to call a diminutive toddler. The kicker was, though my parents named me Jonathan, my mom did not want people to call me John or Johnny. Her brother’s name was John, and she and her brother had had a difficult relationship since they were little kids. So much so that she didn’t even like the name John, and was loathe to have anyone call me either John or Johnny. So why name me “Jonathan” if she didn’t want people to shorten it to John or Johnny? Were the two of them trying to be provocative and cajole the world to see me as a full blown human consciousness and not some mere “child”?
Beyond my given name, I did know that both my mom and dad loved giving their kids, and later all the kittens birthed by our female cat, nicknames. “Zuper” I was told, was a play on the word “super” and the first letter of our family last name of Zale. I accepted that and did not pursue the implications further, being a bit intimidated by my parents, and any grownups for that matter. But at some level I got the subtext that they thought highly of me, and I had developed comparable expectations.
But then there was “Clubius”, which was explained to me as being based on “dubious”, what they saw as my personality trait of being philosophical, above the fray, always questioning and undecided about things. They imagined me the reincarnation of some made up noble Roman philosopher, so “dubious” was rejiggered to the classical Roman sounding “Clubius”.
As affectionate pet names for a little kid in the privacy of your own home, yeah okay, but neither of these names were an acceptable moniker to share with others. But their third nickname for me, “Cooper”, was a sort of amalgam of the other two, “Zuper”, but with the first letter of “Clubius”, and more suitable for use by others. In the larger world, it was generally a last name, but was plausible as a first name as well. I was apparently late to start speaking, so at age three when I did start answering for myself what my name was when asked by others, I would answer “Cooper”, not “Jonathan”. But to my mom and dad, in their separate hearts and their collective imagination, I was still “Clubius”, the shy, noble but dubious Roman philosopher reincarnate.
So now that I had survived two and a half months of traveling on my own in Europe, I was psychically done with being any remnant of my mom’s “little Clubius”. I loved my mom, and had grown, at times begrudgingly, to also respect her deeply as a fellow human being. I had come back from Europe with the goal of being of assistance to her and not giving her anymore grief. But I was going to do so on my own terms as the “Coopster”, rather than a grown up version of her “Clubius”. And I would best do so, and continue with my transformation, from the basement, out of earshot from her bedroom and a good twenty seconds of descending stairs to get from her room to mine. Also in a venue where I might be able to get away with taking a puff or two of weed, once I had the wherewithal to secure some.
All of that thought process went through my mind in an instant, below the level of the words I used to try to unravel it for you above, triggered by her saying I was the “idea guy”. All Coopstered up I said to her, “I’ve decided I’m going to move down to the basement.”
She shook her head and shuddered. “My god Coop, that’s no proper place for a bedroom. It’s cold and a bare concrete slab floor. I’m sure there’s bugs down there too”, and she grimaced theatrically as she said it. “Okay for Midnight”, that was our old male cat who spent most of his time skulking down there when not out prowling the neighborhood, “But not a human being.”
For an idea that had just then struck me, I was instantly determined, very un-Clubius. I employed the technique on her that she had always used on me when she wanted to shut down discussion, and was confident and determined that she had the answer. I said to her, “We’ll talk about it later!”
She nodded, silenced, pondering. Gently hoisted on her own petard.
I told her I would be headed out soon for a walk and that I would meet her and Mary Jane at Bicycle Jim’s at Noon. She accepted that plan and asked if it was okay if she did some work at the table in “your room”. Tempted to correct her that it was now “her office”, I thought better of it, and instead told her that was fine, I was going to use the phone in the kitchen to check in with my friends before I headed out. She nodded and we put the groceries away, and then she headed upstairs.
I called Jerry’s house and his mom, Marcy, answered. She was the youngest and hippest of my friend’s parents, at least five or six years younger than my mother, having even shared a joint once with Jerry and I over at their house. She got really animated when she heard it was me.
“Oh my god Cooper, you’re back!”, she said in her singsong voice, “How was your trip?”
This was obviously the first of many times I was going to be asked that question, and I was going to have to come up with a nice compact 30 second to a minute answer (the term “elevator speech” had not yet been coined). Not having that compact answer yet, I said, “It was quite an experience, Marcy”, having smoked a joint together we were obviously on a first name basis, “Sometime soon when I’m over we’ll have to sit down and I’ll debrief you!”
“Okay, you better. I’m holding you to that. I don’t want to hear it secondhand from Jerry or Paul!” We had a kind of a thing for each other. I seemed to be connected to her family in several ways, having relationships with three of her offspring actually. Her oldest, Jerry, was essentially my best friend. His one year younger brother Paul, who I had actually met before I met Jerry, was a fellow comrade of mine in our Junior Light Opera youth theater group, Paul mainly a costume designer and occasional actor. Then a year younger than Paul was their sister Janice. I used to hang out with her and her best friend Melinda in the halls of Pioneer High when all three of us were skipping class. Given my thing for female best friends, I was attracted to both Janice and Melinda, and they enjoyed my low key, low maintenance thing for them.
Anticipating my question, Marcy answered it before I could even ask. “Jerry’s hitchhiking home from East Lansing for the big concert tonight, but I don’t know anymore than that”. Then with all the music in her voice, “Alice Cooper. Snakes and guillotines. Oh my god!” She always tried her best to be hip on popular culture.
“Indeed”, I confirmed with my favorite new word brought back from England, “Talk to you soon Marcy! I may be over there later once we figure out where we are getting together before the concert.”
“Got it. I’ll tell him when he gets here. I know he’ll be so excited to see you!” emphasizing the “so” with her melodious vocal style, as if she would be excited to see me too.
When I hung up the phone I felt good, like I was reconnecting with that circle of people that cared about me as much as I was realizing I cared about them.
Still wanting to try to nail down where and when to meet my friends before the concert, I called Avi’s house. His mom answered and I told her who was calling.
“Cooper dear”, she said in her low gravely voice, precise diction, and Middle Eastern accent, “Welcome back!”
“Hi Margaret, thanks!”. We were on a first name basis as well, though we had never smoked a joint together. She and Avi’s dad, Sarkis, were bigtime academics, professors in the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Despite her lofty adult persona, she took an interest in all of Avi’s friends, and we had had several conversations over the past couple years. She was interested in everything, particularly politics, and was always keen to hear from me what my mom was up to in that area. She said she did not have time for politics herself, beyond her university politics, so hearing what my mom was up to was a vicarious thing for her. I don’t think I’d ever said more than a passing “hello” to Avi’s dad, it was always Margaret that answered the phone when I called.
Then after a thoughtful pause and with all her studied diction, “Avi read me all your letters. I am jealous of the scope of your travels, and can’t believe you could live out of a backpack for nearly three months!”
“It was quite an experience. And as to my limited set of clothes in that backpack, I won’t even tell you how little they got washed.” She snorted a chuckle, a nice unguarded moment I thought, recomposed herself and then said, “Well I hope I have the opportunity soon to hear more. You have been in my thoughts!”
Then again before I could enquire, “Avi’s got finals today until about two o’clock. I’ll tell him you called when he gets home.”
I thanked her and we ended the call. Finally I called Clark’s house and he actually answered.
“Mister Coop is it really you or am I having some sort of audio hallucination?”, and he laughed, his laugh more of a mischievous elven giggle really. He always exuded a kind of zen fatalistic positivity, plus being super smart, and possibly the wittiest of the four of us. “You ready for the big show tonight? We gave your ticket to your brother. I’ve got snake repellant if you need it!”
“My brother gave it to me. Thanks, I’m all set! Looking forward to seeing all of you and Alice!” We chatted a bit more and I gave him a brief overview of the places I had been. He was initially curious if I had smoked any hash, the European stuff had quite a reputation in the States. Lowering my voice again in case my mom might hear me upstairs in my former room, I filled him in on several times smoking while hitchhiking. And then I went into a more detailed narrative about that day in Amsterdam, waking up in the Christian Youth Hostel having a hash pipe stuck between my lips. After getting thoroughly stoned with my three backpacker comrades, taking the Heineken brewery tour and then consuming a shitload of beer. Then even more hash before realizing that I had to make my plane reservation at the BOAC office, and how that whole thing with the officious young woman behind the counter that was almost a disaster.
Clark loved every bit of it and said to me with all his patented and endearing sincerity, “We missed you Cooper!” He said it had been a boring fall, him taking not so exciting science classes at UofM, Jerry in school up in East Lansing, and Avi trying to focus on finishing high school. When I asked, he said there was no plan yet for where to meet and how to get to the concert. He said he was willing to drive, but if he did he’d have to go easy on the weed. He said he had a plentiful supply of a supposedly Mexican pedigree that he thought was pretty potent.
“I don’t want you to have to go easy on the weed”, I told him, “I want us all to get appropriately fucked up and celebrate being together again!” Then I came up with an idea (since I was the “idea guy” after all).
“Clark”, I said emphatically, wielding a little of my newfound “Coopster” pluck, “I’ve spent the last eleven weeks walking through at least a dozen European cities, most of them a lot bigger than Ann Arbor. I think we should walk the two miles, or whatever it is, from Avi and Jerry’s house to Crisler. We can get high in Eberwhite woods along the way.” Avi and Jerry’s houses, though around a bend from each other, were just some 200 feet apart and had a line of sight, so we often referred to them as a single place. The entrance to the woods was right at that bend in the street between them.
“Well, we’ll see”, feigning that the thought of walking was just way beyond the pale, “But let’s at least plan to meet there to stage our operation and finalize our plan.” We all played complicated military simulation games much of the time we were together, so we liked to throw around the military game-nerd terminology. We agreed that since the concert started at eight, we should get to Crisler by sixish to get in line. That meant we should plan to meet at Avi and Jerry’s by five, maybe get something to eat at the McDonald’s that was just around another corner from Jerry’s house. Finally Clark said he would call Avi with the plan and I should call Jerry.
I made my follow up call to Marcy with the “plan”, and then headed out to reimmerse myself in the friendly geography of my hometown, looking forward to my scheduled “debriefing” with my Mom, Mary Jane, and whoever else she may have recruited for lunch at Bicycle Jim’s.