It was still Wednesday December 12, a mild winter day in Ann Arbor with the sun shining and the temperature above freezing. I walked along the sidewalk on the north side of Wells street headed west, looking out onto Burns Park and my old elementary school to my left across the street. School was in session for the rest of this week before the two-week winter holiday, and kids were out at recess running and playing with their youthful energy and a hint of that manic intensity that went with being temporarily unleashed from the classroom.
While I was phasing in and out of consciousness in bed this morning, before officially waking up and starting my first day back in the States, I had heard the vocalizing of a large scrum of kids about fifty yards from my window. I knew they must still be playing their large unsupervised soccer game before school. Probably my fondest memory of my school days in fifth and sixth grade at Burns Park Elementary School were those big, pretty much every morning and lunchtime, loosely organized games. They were “anarchic” in the best, informal governance, sense of that word. Run by the assembled group of kids, with no adults in sight, and only a few simple rules. Sixth graders on one team versus fourth and fifth graders on the other. All soccer balls in play at the same time. No official score kept. Between morning and lunchtime games, it was a good forty to sixty minutes of aerobic exercise each school day, and I remember us playing pretty much in any weather conditions.
It hadn’t struck me this morning when I heard them playing, but the spark of the kids at recess now made me take notice of my relative ennui. I was low energy because I had psychic bruises and deeper wounds to mend. Seeing the movie Godspell in Oxford with Kate Clay and her mates lampooning the hippie ethos I had held in such high esteem. Butch calling out the privilege that I and most of our fellow backpackers might have otherwise denied that we had. Hugo looking into the depth of my soul and forcing me to do the same. Fellow backpackers Miranda and Ragna reaching out to me for love that I was unwilling or clueless to respond to. And for that matter, Steve propositioning me to have sex with him, his way of reaching out for love, me still feeling that I had not had a good enough reason to say no other than my own fucking timidity. I was determined not to live by my parents’ society’s rules, so why abide by the one against guys getting naked and playing with each other in a circumstance when that seemed the thing to do. And as always, so many other moments when that timidity stood in the way of me being the person I imagined I could be.
I had been through so much on my eleven week European odyssey that I still needed to process with my family and friends, and gain their acknowledgement of my efforts. It was sobering that what had driven me to continue my travels, at those numerous low points when I longed to go home, was how I thought I’d be viewed by those same family and friends. My self esteem could not handle coming home feeling a failure at accomplishing my so ambitious task. Would I just continue to move forward in my life driven by such fears of failure rather than the more positive joy of life’s continuing adventures?
All the neighborhood streets I crossed had their rows of maple trees and memories from my youth. Lincoln, with Mary Jane’s big old house a block and a half north and the White Panther Party’s headquarters across the street. Olivia, with best junior high friend Stan’s house a block south at the end next to high school girlfriend Judy’s house. Thinking of Stan brought Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends album into my mind’s Greek Chorus, and Stan’s favorite song “Fakin It”…
I’m such a dubious soul,
And a walk in the garden
Wears me down.
Tangled in the fallen vines,
Pickin’ up the punch lines,
I’ve just been fakin’ it,
Not really makin’ it.
Such a soul I had been, my mom and dad’s dubious Clubius.
And also Judy’s favorite song, Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin Rosie”, played next on my internal jukebox. Whenever the song had come on the radio when we were together she and I would sing the chorus to each other with gusto looking deep into each other’s eyes…
Oh, I love my Rosie child
She got the way to make me happy
You and me, we go in style
Cracklin’ Rose, you’re a store bought woman
You make me sing like a guitar hummin’
So hang on to me, girl
Our song keeps runnin’ on
It was always an intimate moment, her hand maybe on my shoulder for emphasis. Candidly, it was in a way the closest we ever came to having sex with each other.
Cracklin’ Rosie, make me a smile
Girl if it lasts for an hour, that’s all right
We got all night
To set the world right
Find us a dream that don’t ask no questions, yeah
Yes. How would I do my part to set the world right? I thought it had been somewhere following the hippie credo of “peace, love and joy”, but maybe it was somewhere else. And how would I find a love in my own life where I wasn’t paralyzed to timidity by worrying about all those questions? Wasn’t Grace Slick of my Greek Chorus through the radio from time to time still admonishing me…
Don’t you want somebody to love
Don’t you need somebody to love
You better find somebody to love
Then Wells gradually sloped up to where it met Forest, with Towsley Play School, which I attended at age three and four, two and a half blocks north. Joining the Forest and Wells intersection kind of cantilever was a third street, Prospect, which had been part of my paper route in eighth and ninth grade. Without really consciously thinking about it, I proceeded northwest down Prospect, my mind in a thought trance, guided by a sort of “vegematic pilot”. Each house that I had delivered the Ann Arbor News to called out to me nostalgically, reminding me of how much I hated having to knock on those doors and collect money from my customers. And how bad my bookkeeping system was for keeping track of who had paid and who had not.
The long block of Prospect curled slightly between maples to the left as it gently descended and then ended at East University and a little neighborhood grocery store. Two short blocks north on East U, through more old paper route territory to Oakland, where I turned left, emerging briefly from my walking trance to realize my destination was the Blue Front. It was the mythic newsstand, novelty and convenience store that had been one of my main goto places over my last seven years in Ann Arbor. The metaphorical candy store that attracted the kid with a dollar or two in his pocket who had a hunger for something intriguing, or something delicious, or both. It had a large array of actual candy bars, plus various ice cream bars, comic books, pulp sci-fi novels, and even some cheap toys like kites, balsa gliders and rubber band wind up planes, and those plastic rockets propelled by pumped up pressurized water. For more “adult” cravings, it had an array of newspapers and magazines, including Playboy and Penthouse and a bunch of less respectable but deliciously tawdry skin magazines.
Oakland curled to the right, and then a left and short block down Arbor took me to its iconic big blue door right there where the little one block street ended at Packard. When I was younger I had spent hours perusing the comics and pulp sci-fi books trying to decide what to invest my precious monetary resources in. DC, Marvel, and even Classics Comics with comic book adaptations of real literary works of the adventure genre, like Moby Dick, Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde, and The Count of Monte Cristo.
I had also snuck looks at the adult skin magazines which were conveniently in the same aisle as the more appropriate for my age pulp sci-fi. The pictures were of women’s bare breasts and rear ends, with the tawdrier publications showing some total frontal female and even male nudity with the unsuspecting nudists’ genitals inexpertly airbrushed out or obscured with a censors black rectangle, which teased you to imagine what those taboo parts really looked like. The last couple times I had been here I had actually been of legal age to oggle the voluptuous nude models, noting excitedly that in 1973, in sync with my own achievement of the age of majority – for alcohol, voting, the draft, and “smut” (now called porn) – we were finally starting to see some vaginas and pubic hair in those magazines.
So here I was now in the Blue Front, drawn here without a conscious urge. I had just started walking, through a trance of memories and ended up where I ended up. Like it had been suddenly obvious this morning talking to my mom that I needed to move my bedroom to the basement, it hit me now that I was going to buy a Playboy or a Penthouse, whichever one had the sexiest pictures. Each was just a dollar, and I had four dollar bills and some change in my pocket, the remnants from the several hundred dollars cash and traveler’s checks I had taken with me to Europe. It would be an investment that would go a great way towards helping me indulge my still solitary sex life, for weeks to come even. Though private and never discussed with others, even my closest friends, it was a key aspect of my life and who I was. Just give me some reasonably explicit pictures and my imagination could easily fill in the rest.
I noted that it was that same old guy as the last time I was here before my trip, sitting on his stool behind the cash register, with his line of sight down the aisle where the skin magazines were. I entered that aisle but walked past the adult shelf to where the pulp sci-fi books were at the end. I looked back at that guy behind the register, who now had the New York Times opened up in front of him obscuring his view of me. “It’s okay”, I told myself several times, “I’m old enough to buy these things”.
I pulled down and quickly scanned a copy of Playboy first. There were a half dozen nude shots of the Playmate showing a bit of pubic hair but her photos featured her big naked breasts and cute rear end. There was another picture spread of a naked man and woman seemingly having sex, though no penises, balls, vaginas or pubic hair shown.
Next the Penthouse, which similarly had the featured centerfold photos plus a second photo spread with a man and woman as if having sex. But the featured centerfold picture had the woman sitting on her butt with her knees up giving you a full view of her pubic hair covered vulva and slit of a vagina. Several other pictures in the spread showed her genitals from other angles. Tingling below told me that this was going to be the one. The other spread, with photos of a couple in sexual poses, showed more as well, though no penis and just the briefest glimpse of a bit of one of the guy’s balls behind one of her thighs. But what was particularly erotic about it was it looked like the partners were actually enjoying having sex, not just posing and aping for the camera. Add to the photos, Penthouse had its “Forum” section, with racy, sexually explicit “letters”, from supposed readers – like “Michael C” in Chicago or “Jessica W” in Houston. I quickly scanned one of the letters describing a wild threeway sex session, and it caused my parts to tingle as well. This was definitely going to be the one, my first purchased “adult” magazine.
I steeled my nerves and took a deep breath and carried the magazine up to the cash register, putting it on the counter with a dollar. The old guy put down his newspaper, quickly noted what I was buying, took the quickest look at my face, then looked down again and took the dollar bill.
“You look eighteen, presumably you are”, he said mostly deadpan with just a hint of tentativeness, fingering the dollar bill.
“Yes”, I said, nodding animatedly, “I turned eighteen last April”, trying to be as honestly enthusiastic about reporting that key threshold as possible. And now relaxing with confidence and thrill that the transaction was actually going to happen and I was going to secure my first very useful “adult” purchase, I dropped my severe guard and went into more “Coopster” mode and noted brightly, “This is actually the first one I’ve actually purchased!”
“Well all right,” he responded to my enthusiasm with a little less deadpan himself, sliding the magazine into a brown paper bag that seemed designed to just conceal a magazine of this exact size, “Enjoy!”
I was not bold and “Coopstered” up enough to say “indeed”. As I exited the store I realized that my original plan had been to end my walk at the restaurant, but no way now that I had made my big purchase. I figured that there was still time for me to get home, stash my new “reading material”, and then hoof it to Bicycle Jim’s.
I retraced my route but now at a quickened pace. When I got to Martin Place I saw the car still in the driveway which meant that, unless my mom had walked to the restaurant, she was probably still home. Would I even encounter her at the front door and she ask me what I’d bought? Not wanting to even contemplate that exchange, I shoved the magazine in the back of my pants under my down jacket and entered the house. My mom was coming down the stairs in one of her signature turtlenecks and wearing fresh makeup.
“Cooley, I did not expect you back here?” she noted, turning her intuitive gaze on me.
Meeting her gaze, my mind did not falter as I had feared it might. I shook my head, grimaced theatrically, and said, “I stupidly went out without my gloves and cap. I was planning to walk from the restaurant to Jerry and Avi’s house for the show tonight and might get cold waiting in line.” Yeah, I thought to myself, mom’s love it when you’re not cold.
“Good thought”, she said, then suggested I ride with her to the restaurant. I was about to agree and follow her outside, but luckily remembered the magazine stuck in the back of my pants.
“Why don’t you start the car”, I said, “While I run up and use the bathroom.” She agreed and headed out the front door. I went upstairs and spent a quick minute in my former room trying to figure where best to stash the magazine, not sure where she was most likely not to stumble upon it. I saw my backpack, as yet still not unpacked, and stuffed it in there, confident that she would not venture there. As I lifted my shirt and pulled the magazine from the back of my pants it felt a little discomforting to feel I had engaged in this deceit of smuggling it up to my room. I mean it really was none of her business, my sex life of sorts, as hers was none of mine. It was just I had come home from Europe with an agenda to be more honest and engaged. I flushed the toilet to complete the deceit.
When we got to the restaurant, Mary Jane was already there at a table with her son Keith, who was basically my age but in his last year of high school at the new Community High. I chuckled to myself that they looked the hippie family. She had on a long flowery cotton dress you might have seen Janis Joplin wearing, a green hand knit sweater, purple leggings and sneakers. On her head on top of a big mane of brown curly hair was a black beret, jauntily tipped to the side. Keith had on bell-bottom jeans with words and designs scrawled on them with maybe paint or magic marker, a black sweatshirt with “Human Rights Party” on the front in fading red block letters, a beat up old jean jacket over it and work shoes covered with flecks of paint. Mary Jane saw me and her eyes twinkled with excitement and she started to laugh.
“Cooper, Cooper, Cooper, the world traveler has returned!” she said loudly, several people at other tables turning their heads to look, “And your mommy looks so happy!” I laughed, out loud this time, at how she sometimes referred to my mom, who looked anything but the “mommy” stereotype in her black slacks, blue turtleneck sweater, short coiffed hair, and meticulous lipstick and eye makeup.
“It’s great to be back Mary Jane, and to see you and Keith!” and then specifically to him, “So no school today?” Since Mary Jane had been so involved in getting the alternative Community aka “Commie” High launched, I presumed Keith was finishing his high school stint there.
He pursed his lips and nodded at me, playing it cool in contrast to the effusiveness of his mom. “Let’s just say I’m taking a late lunch!”, and now he grinned and his eyes twinkled like his mom’s. He had walked over from the old building the school was housed in, less than a mile from the restaurant.
I took the seat at the table across from Mary Jane. My mom sat next to me across from Keith.
“Hi Keith,” my mom addressing him as she did everybody, in her well modulated voice – serious, concerned, but friendly, even endearing. “So how is the new high school compared to last year at Huron High?” That was the other regular local high school across town from Pioneer where I had gone. She was highly intuitive and loved to ask provocative questions in a respectful way, and then listen carefully to the response. She was as gregarious as I was shy, but she did not engage in idle chit chat, seeking instead engagement with others around real thoughts and feelings, and certainly happy to share her own in the process.
We had been friends with Mary Jane and her family for years, she and my mom more like sisters, or co-conspirators really, than just friends.
Keith was not shy to engage with my mom, one person to another, not like a youth speaking to an adult. “I like it a lot. It’s still school but much better. Like my teachers were okay that I took a couple hours off to come here!”
She listened and looked him in the eye for a moment, pondering the implications of what he was saying. She then turned her gaze to Mary Jane and did her big smile, “Shoultz, we did good!”, referring to the fact that the two of them had been part of a group of local activist women who had lobbied the school board and superintendent extensively to get the alternative school started. Started in time for Keith and his younger brother and sister to benefit, along with my brother. Though my mom acknowledged the work of others, she was always happy to toot her own horn as well.
My mom and Mary Jane had this whole underlying layer going on between them when they were together. A sort of sparring and friendly rivalry in the subtext of Mary Jane referring to her as “your mommy” and my mom to her as “Shoultz”. Though they both were politically progressive and feminists, Mary Jane was a full blown radical in so many ways masquerading as a cookie baking middle class mom. My mom understood every inch of her comrade’s radical ideas, but was much more mainstream in her philosophy, libertarian even, though that word had not come into common parlance yet.
The young woman that came to our table to take our order studied the four of us for a moment before speaking. She had on her “uniform” of black t-shirt and jeans, but with very short, fire red hair and a white headband. She saw Keith’s sweatshirt and raised and gently shook her fist.
“HRP right on! Power to the people!” Then pointing at my Heineken t-shirt, “Good beer!” Finally scanning all four of us with a faux smugness, “What can I get you fine human beings today?” Mary Jane chimed in at this point that we all needed to order finger food for her “plan to work”, whatever that was. I accepted that instruction with barely a second thought. Mary Jane always had some sort of plan. So we all ordered various sandwiches.
My mom was not a big fan of the HRP, the local leftist party that rose out of the university student constituency and challenged both local Democrats and Republicans. After ordering she looked at the young woman and said, “My concern is that I don’t think Zolton Ferency takes women and our equal rights seriously, and he’s just going to split the progressive vote!”, Ferency being a former Democrat turned leader of the HRP now running for Michigan governor on that third party ticket. She continued, “When have you heard his say anything favorably on the ERA?”
To her credit, the young woman was up to the challenge, “Well… ERA has already passed in Michigan!”
“True”, my mom acknowledged, “But it still needs to pass in Ohio, and I for one would like him to be saying something about that.”
“Okay”, she responded, “I can see that”, and she started to head away from our table.
But my mom wasn’t quite done, adding, “So are you a member of the National Organization for Women? The local chapter could use your support!”
My mom pulled a three-fold brochure out of her purse and handed it to the young woman, saying with all sincerity, “Take a look at it. We need more young women like you joining us to fight for women’s equal rights.”
“Okay… I will… thanks!” You could see the young woman get my mom’s assertive yet respectful vibe. She finally headed off to the kitchen with our order and the NOW membership brochure.
Mary Jane looked at me and laughed. “Your momma is the new membership chair of the Ann Arbor chapter of NOW.” Pulling something out of her purse she said, “But we digress! Now to the agenda of this gathering today!”
It was a map of Europe and she unfolded it and spread it out on the table like a tablecloth, putting our napkins, silverware and water glasses on top. Then she pulled a handful of magic makers out of her purse and tumbled them onto the map theatrically.
“Arts and crafts chillen’!”
“This was a great idea Shoultz”, my mom chimed in, grabbing the black marker. Keith took the purple marker.
“Okay monsieur”, Mary Jane addressed me with a French accent, adjusting the beret on her head, her little bit of costuming, “You will tell us zee tale of your odyssey, and my assistants will document it visuellement!”
What followed were three hours of my recitation of my travels, from landing in London with Angie, traveling to Oxford, then Salsbury where Angie gave me the news that she was going home, and on to London where we parted company, every step illustrated by my mom and Keith with little stick figures, buildings and other drawn landmarks. A stick figure Cooper with a tear on the phone by Stonehenge in Salisbury. A stick figure Angie waving goodbye in London. Oktoberfest beer steins in Munich. The police breathalyzer test in Chur and my “Ein Bier!” as a word bubble from our little car.
When the food came our server was obviously in on the whole exercise, having stacked the four sandwiches on one large plate which she put on the Eastern European end of the table where I had not gone. I continued to tell my stories, leaving out the hash smoking parts and the sexual proposition from my travelmate Steve. Keith and my mom collaborated to render a Picasso museum in Barcelona, a bullfight in Torremolinos, and the Sistine Chapel in Rome with stick figure me alone inside staring up.
“Our little Cooper in the belly of the patriarchal beast”, Mary Jane noted, “With Michelangelo’s drawings of nearly naked men touching each other. Ooo la la!”
Based on my awe at the toothlike mountains of Grindelwald in the Swiss Alps, Keith, who loved drawing pictures of ugly mythic creatures, did a whole such beast with mountains for teeth. While based on my anecdote of many of us sliding down the mountain on cafeteria trays to the tavern in the village, my mom drew stick figures on trays sliding down a hill.
Finally Amsterdam got its Heineken brewery, and Van Gogh museum, with my mom’s tiny rendition of his “Wheatfield with a Lark” that my stick figure avatar stared at with a stick figure Gwendolyn next to me. My mom loved the part about me sharing her art lesson about how critical the tiny black paint stroke of the lark was to making the painting work. Mary Jane howled when she heard that little anecdote, noting I was “momma artist’s acolyte”.
It felt good sharing my adventures with the three of them. They were a great audience, hanging on each twist of every story, vicariously throwing in their two cents here and there. Mary Jane’s thoughts on the old men who still longed for Hitler and the Nazis. My mom’s on the artwork I had seen. Keith’s on the never ending adventure of life on the road. All three of them on the challenging logistics of coming into each new place with no reservations and so little budgeted to spend each day.
Lunch and decorating the map had been Mary Jane’s idea. She had a real gift for adding the unorthodox twist that would make an event unique and memorable. I remembered when some fast food deli restaurants had come out with six-foot submarine sandwiches for parties. She had bought one for one of her soirees, but her clever twist was to also buy a six foot section of rain gutter from a hardware store and fill it with half gallon blocks of ice cream covered with all the toppings to create a six-foot sundae as well. Or for a Christmas party once, she had boxes of graham crackers, icing for cement, and various candies for windows, doors and other embellishments, so guests could build gingerbread houses during the party.
A little before four, Mary Jane called our session to adjournment, saying she had scheduled a “Dial a Ride” bus to pick her up at the restaurant around 4pm to take her home. My mom offered to drive her home, but Mary Jane said it was too late to cancel her ride, and she wanted to support this new local experiment in demand transportation that she hoped would someday make cars obsolete. My mom offered me a ride to Avi and Jerry’s house, but I said I wanted to walk. Keith was the one finally accepting a ride from my mom back to Community High for some after class activity he was involved in. We carefully extricated the map from under all the dishes, silverware and glasses, refolded it, and it was presented to me. We all said our thank yous and goodbyes and acknowledged our renewed connections.
I headed west from the restaurant on South University through campus, on my own again like I had been for so much of the last eleven weeks, though no backpack on my back, like I’d had in Europe. It was just before twilight, my favorite time of day. When the sun was low in the sky and not obscured by clouds, it’s yellower late afternoon rays caught the tops of the trees and gave them a golden glow against the darkening sky behind them. As I walked and looked at all those bare maples, glowing in that warm light, I passed a number of students who had small day packs on their backs so they didn’t need to carry their books in their arms. This was a new thing apparently, very pragmatic really, and I laughed to myself that we should have all figured out to do this years ago.
A cold breeze blew some unswept up leaves across the sidewalk in front of me, scraping against the concrete. My Greek Chorus chimed in through my mind’s jukebox with more, seasonally appropriate, Simon and Garfunkel…
Leaves are brown
And the sky
Is a hazy shade of winter
The song lyric triggered a rush of thought, and I was inspired to invoke a little mind game I played with myself from time to time. Back in high school driver’s ed class, I had been so bored that I had made up this exercise where I would fling myself into some moment in my future. I did not have enough control of this time travel process to know when and where I would be transported to, only that it was some time in the future. When I came to in that future version of me, I would experience it as totally fresh and foreign, including scanning my body to gauge how it was different at this new older age.
So I closed my eyes, quivered, and let that fifteen-year-old version of me come into my mind and body. I opened my eyes and looked at everything from the more wide-eyed perspective of that younger version of myself. I noted my body six inches taller now, the much bigger mane of hair on my head, plus walking on shoes with these very strange feeling high heels, that were giving my walking gait a very different sort of strut. I noted the greater sense of autonomy and control I now had of my life. I felt the awe that this future self had traveled mostly on his own for the last eleven weeks thousands of miles from home but was now back. I felt double the excitement of the eighteen-year-old version of myself, that I was about to actually smoke marijuana, something that only a few of my wilder acquaintances on the periphery of my life had been doing when I was fifteen. And I was about to do so with best friends that I did not even know existed back then.