When I was fourteen, my cousin, who had moved in with us after her mother died, went away to college. I used to sneak her purple and yellow striped rugby shirt from London out of her remaining dresser drawer and wear it sometimes. I always carefully washed it and folded it before I slipped it back into the dresser. “Roger Daltrey wore the same shirt,” she had boasted. How could I resist?
One day I wore the shirt to the Museum of Modern Art. A guy with very open and intense brown eyes and a halo of longish, wiry hair stared at me, and smiled. Even at fourteen, I knew what that smile meant. I hadn’t gotten many of them yet, and that particular man’s smile, the frank, unmediated pleasure in it, felt like standing in a lightning storm with a kite.
It was Abbie Hoffman.
A decade later, I was in the audience at Columbia University when a burned out Abbie Hoffman, his face almost unrecognizable from the plastic surgery he’d gotten when he was on the run from a cocaine bust, told us he’d changed his mind.
“Remember how we used to say, ‘Don’t trust anyone over thirty?’” he asked. “Now I say: Don’t trust anyone under thirty.”
I was nearing twenty-five, still young enough to be righteous, and righteously pissed off. Disappointed, too, and that was worse. Women don’t like being disappointed in men, and we definitely don’t want to be disappointed in the author of Steal This Book and Revolution for the Hell of It. We don’t want to hear the bitterness. Not when we’re twenty-five.
Only now I’m feeling the same way. I just had coffee with a friend of mine, a professor of creative writing. We talked about one of our mutual friends, another woman who writes both fiction and non-fiction that draws on her experience as a former heroin addict, and the warmth she’s felt from husband’s Latino family. For twenty years, she’s been doing heavy lifting, in the academic sense, teaching composition to undergraduates at the university where we all have either studied or taught. She was turned down recently for a creative writing job in favor of a trendier writer.
“She earned that job,” I said.
“I know,” my friend said. “I wanted her. But the younger professors….”
She shook her head.
As Naomi Klein recently told Bill Moyers, when people are worried about basic necessities, like health, education, even shelter, it’s difficult to have compassion.
“It’s good for the department,” I’m sure the young professors said as they rejected our friend.
We decry corporations for throwing employees out of work, but I wonder if people who came of age during the Wall Street go-go years have unconsciously replicated that heartless ethos. Have we forgotten how to reward someone’s service, value their kindness to students, their warm relationships with colleagues? It’s been at least twenty years since magazines published stories because of their intrinsic value to society. If there’s a serious point to a story, you usually have to sneak it in, like a parent putting cold medicine into peanut butter for a recalcitrant child.
What, exactly, is our definition of friendship? In a recent column for Real Simple, the magazine that makes people feel good about consumerism, etiquette columnist Michelle Slatalla advised readers about how to handle the situation when a friend is “oversharing” about debts or money troubles.
“Say, ‘I’m sorry you’re going through hard times. If you need advice, I’d be happy to help you find a professional money advisor.'”
All I can say is that I’m happy that Michelle Slatalla is no friend of mine. Someone who is a friend, a female political consultant who’s out of work herself, recently sent money to a friend of hers – a writer in L.A. who needed an infusion of cash to pay her rent.
Doesn’t that sound more like friendship?
In the recent film Cosmopolis, based on a Don DeLillo novel, time is speeded up until it is a glittering machine of death, not unlike the protagonist’s stretch limo. (The young master of the universe is played by Robert Pattinson, an inspired choice.) We live so far beyond the Industrial Revolution’s clock time I wonder if we are, for all intents and purposes no longer human, not unlike the sleek vampire played by Pattinson in the Twilight movies. If we stay busy enough, perhaps we can convince ourselves that nothing has changed.
In poorer countries, where people often lack faith in institutions, they depend on one another. Here in the U.S., our belief in self-reliance may prevent us from establishing that kind of informal economy, so more and more people will have nowhere to turn.
I understand Abbie Hoffman’s bitterness, and his decline. I hate to bring them down, these children of the 80s and 90s, adults now, handsome, intelligent, so sharp and ironic. You were all born waayyyy after the cutoff date for Social Security and Medicare going broke, I want to say. What was that old Hollywood maxim my mother used to rattle off in her show biz fag hag days in the 70s? Something about being nice to people on your way up, because you’ll be seeing them again on your way down?
But I don’t. I don’t. Let Abbie rest, I tell myself. Take a breath. He’s dead. You’re still alive. You’re still here, in this world, the way we live now.