Chapter 20: Commune On Staten Island, 1969 (i)
By mid-January 1969, a consensus had developed among Richmond College’s anti-war students that the school was insufficiently experimental. Led by two Lower East Side hippies in their early 20s, Jesse and Debbie, we agreed to establish the Richmond College Social Change Commune in Spring 1969: 16 credits of doing whatever we felt like doing in a large classroom with a couch, and with a budget of $2,000, on a pass-fail basis.
To try to co-opt me into doing less SDS organizing, the Richmond College Administration gave me a job during registration week handing-out registration materials for the new term. I took the two-week job, enjoyed observing the whole student body as it registered—and continued to do SDS organizing.
Nixon was scheduled to be inaugurated in mid-January 1969 and I rode down to D.C. in a car with five other Richmond College SDS people for an anti-war march. A few days later, eight of us spent an afternoon in a Brooklyn apartment smoking grass together and planning guerrilla theater for a freshman orientation program, in order to try to recruit more people into our SDS chapter. A tall, bearded guy named Charlie—who was working with Mark at the SDS Regional Office—attended this Brooklyn meeting and offered us regional office encouragement and advice.
The Richmond College Administration continued to try to co-opt me and they invited me to sit on one of their Spring 1969 orientation panels. After hearing me speak on the panel, a tall, gentle guy with a mustache, named Scott, approached me. He had just transferred to Richmond College from Indiana University in Bloomington because he wished to attend an experimental college. At Indiana University, he had worked with my sister in the small SDS chapter she had eventually organized and he was surprised to find that now he was attending the same school as her brother.
Scott was the son of a Connecticut high school principal in some affluent suburban town. In high school, Scott had been on the basketball team. But at Indiana University, Scott had become a bohemian anti-war radical hippie who was into psychedelic drugs, hashish, marijuana and sometimes speed, and not into athletics anymore. Often Scott would wear a blue bandana around his receding long hair and he owned a Volkswagen car.
By 1969, Scott was nearly always either tripping or high on grass or hash. His good-natured, non-macho, gentle, laid-back personality—plus his generosity with the supply of grass he always possessed—made him popular with many hippie women. Moving with him from Bloomington to share an apartment with Scott on Staten Island were two hippie women drop-outs—each around 6 feet tall—from Indiana University: Wendy and Stephanie. A third hippie woman friend of Scott, named Carol, was of average height and was attending Barnard. Carol lived in an apartment on West End Ave., near 106th St.
Both Wendy and Stephanie wore glasses. Wendy had grown up in Cleveland, was a good, strong athlete and had long, light brown hair. Stephanie was less tomboyish than Wendy and had short, dark hair. Stephanie had grown up in a New Jersey suburban town and had been a Greenwich Village folk music groupie during her high school years. Both Wendy and Stephanie were usually always tripping or high on grass during their spare time. Carol was a red diaper baby who was intellectual and humorous. She had grown up in Mamaroneck, New York in Westchester County and her Old Left father owned a record store. Consequently, Carol’s collection of vinyl record albums was one of the best hippie record album collections around; because she could obtain any album she wanted from her father’s store for free.
Scott had gone to Chicago in August 1968 to protest the war at the Democratic National Convention and had been further radicalized by the police brutality in the streets. Although he was always high, he was more of a head than a doper, and he was both intellectual and politically radical.
“If you have moral values, no matter how many times you trip, you’ll always still feel the need for a Revolution,” Scott asserted once, when we were discussing whether psychedelic drug-use encouraged or discouraged people from being politically revolutionary.
To enable us to spend more time doing SDS organizing together around Richmond College, Scott invited me to move in with him, Stephanie and Wendy in their 3 ½ room apartment on Carrol Place in Staten Island. The apartment was a modernized one. It was located a few blocks from the ferry terminal and had a good view of New York Bay. Since, by early 1969, most of my organizing time was now being spent on Staten Island and not around Columbia, I accepted Scott’s offer.
By February 1969, my mattress was on the floor in the living room of the Carrol Place apartment on Staten Island. The rent for the apartment was $140 per month, so Stephanie, Wendy, Scott and I each, individually, had to only come up with $35 each month, plus one-fourth the cost of gas and electricity. One room was a kitchen, another room a bedroom, a third room a living-room and a half-room was Wendy’s specially-painted, psychedelic “trip-room.”
Life in the Carrol Place apartment with Scott, Stephanie and Wendy was like a 3-month-long pot party. Other hippies from Richmond College and Indiana would often visit us and end up crashing for the night on one of the extra mattresses on the apartment floor. Music was always being played on the stereo and many nights were spent passing the pipe to Stephanie, to Scott, to Wendy or to other hippies, while listening to the Band’s Big Pink album that contained “The Weight” song, to the Blood, Sweat and Tears album that contained the “And When I Die” song, to the Beatles’ White Album and to an album by The Doors. Wendy’s favorite song at this time was “Light My Fire” by The Doors and Stephanie’s favorite song appeared to be the Beatles’ “Bungalow Bill” song.
When Scott and I weren’t out organizing together, we would sometimes drive around Staten Island in his Volkswagen. Some nights we would end up eating with Wendy and Stephanie in some local diner. On a few occasions, Scott and I would distract local grocery shop cashiers by buying a few counter items, while Wendy and Stephanie “liberated” some needed food. (Our breakfast each day usually consisted of just bread and jelly, because we couldn’t afford eggs at this time).
Each day consisted of a whole series of adventures. I started to get close to Stephanie and then I started to get closer to Wendy, as Scott started to spend more time visiting Carol on the Upper West Side. Then Wendy started to get closer to many of the other hippie men and radical men who were hanging around the Social Change Commune. To get money, Wendy worked for awhile as a typist at the now-defunct U.S. radical newsweekly, the Guardian. But she felt the office staff shitworkers there were exploited by the Guardian editors and writers and that the Guardian office, at that time, was run in too hierarchical and too male-chauvinist a way.
Scott and I sometimes leafleted at the ferry terminal early in the morning. And on numerous evenings, we’d ride on the ferry while high and bump into many other stoned hippies from Staten Island, who were also using the ferry as an interesting place to hang out while stoned or while tripping.
Living on Staten Island in February, March and April, I became closer to Neal. Each week there was news of more police killings or judicial frame-ups of activists in the Black Panther Party. I helped set up a Panther support meeting at Wagner College on Staten Island and a second Panther support meeting at Richmond College. I worked with Josie from the SDS Regional Office on this Panther support work on Staten Island, for a week or two. Josie had become intensely involved in the Movement, in a sustained way, and no longer wore short skirts and dresses. She seemed to have broken free of female gender role limitations and now seemed much more tomboyish than she had been at Columbia when she was a Barnard student.
The Commune invited Abbie Hoffman, Paul Krassner, Bob Fass and the Motherfuckers to speak at Richmond College. We also invited Carl and Karen Davidson from National SDS to speak there, as well as some people from Newsreel.
James and the Twenty-Seven Bicycles
8 years ago