Tuesday, February 16, 2010
#59 – WEST COAST
The book was a collaboration, but I had this Penthouse piece to myself. Max had called from San Francisco to say that by now we should be able to write separately about the Philippines. I knew he had been uncomfortable with my cynicism about the press and my take-no-prisoners attitude toward just about everyone except a few figures on the far left who did not seem bound by the complex family and extended family connections that put family obligation above everything else. In the Philippines you could have family or extended family obligations even to people who were out to kill you.
In the end, as I hinted in what I wrote, the old-line anti-Marcos people were often indistinguishable from the Marcos allies. Aquino himself had been the only person from an old powerful family that I had trusted. Not long after the supposed revolution one of our main contacts, an idealistic student leader who spent time with Max, had been assassinated, apparently by supporters of one of Aquino’s younger sisters, a nice seeming girl named Tess, who was running against the idealistic young man for a seat in the newly reinstated Philippine congress.
And now Max called to say he was sorry but he could not be in California while I was there. Something to do with meeting friends and the availability of a time share at Lake Tahoe.
And then in San Francisco I was unable to get return calls from any of the old-line people with whom we had been dealing in the exile community. Some were back in the Philippines picking up where they had left off before the start of the Marcos time. But others were still around, including another Aquino sister, a woman prominent in the arts who had first introduced us to exiled feudal leaders, and who was married to an American TV correspondent Max had known for many years. Not even they called back.
But the big exile figures from the left, a charismatic leader sort named Joel Rocamora and the young economist Walden Bellow, were still in Berkley. I took the gleaming BART subway over to Berkeley every day to talk with them, and go through the reams of writing on the subject that they had put together. It was mostly material to make my case for how nothing had changed after the supposed revolution. In the provinces, which comprised 90 percent of the Philippines, the Marcos military commanders were still in place, living off the land, operating on their own with little or no reference to Manila. And they were confronted with the same provincial leaders of the NPA. Anyone doing business in the Philippines paid taxes to both the military and the rebels, but not necessarily to the central government.
So much for people power. I was back in a familiar pattern that started when I won the New England secondary school debating championship. I was putting together arguments to back up a foregone conclusion.
Joel had this soft sinewy girlfriend who came over to his office with coffee and snacks each day and wrapped herself round him. And I was feeling waves of familiar loneliness. I got in touch with some friends from another time, Ed and Connie Pearlstein. I had worked with Ed for a year 20 years ago. He had been a very alive ally at the hyper-genteel American Heritage Books, a place where people flossed after lunch. I had often gone to visit him at the Alfred Hotel on University Place, where he lived with his wife Connie, who had once been a model and had published a fine book about the writer Richard Wright. This was when I had my small ground floor apartment on Waverly just off Sheridan Square.
There were always intriguing people of the left around at Ed and Connie’s. Writers. Puerto Rican revolutionaries. Ed and Connie were against the Vietnam War before anyone else I knew was. And I think we had a special bond because in 1964 I went down to Mississippi under auspices of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and, just as I had hoped, got thrown in jail by a red-neck police captain
I had dinner now several times with Ed and Connie, but I never mentioned that on other nights I was at ACOA meetings. Out at Berkley I never mentioned Ed and Connie, stalwart leftists though they were. And I never talked about the visual world I was living in, any more than I talked about the complete seeming world I had found in ACOA.
Since I already had my conclusions for the article I was writing, and I suspected it would never appear in Penthouse, the work was not taxing. I took time to roam Berkley. Those food stalls and the pretty girls and amusing shops. And I roamed San Francisco – from the pretty hills with cable cars to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore to the Nelson Algren like slums below Market Street. I spent time in the two stately and fairly comprehensive traditional art museums, the de Young and the Legion of Honor – both in park settings where I had that mixture again of actual nature and visual art. I found more Hobbema’s. And I got on to something new, an exhibition of works on paper by Edward Munch who, like so many others I came to like and admire, was new to me. He did not run from hard material. I spent time with his sexy, vampire like “The Kiss,” and the even sexier “Madonna,” and the piercing “Scream” which rippled out, like in once placid water into which a stone has been violently thrown. I was comparing myself to someone following a mainstream religion who could find coreligionists wherever he went.
My first night I went by bus and tram to an ACOA meeting in the basement of a church on a hill. I walked around the area in twilight first. People in toyland buildings with yards and gardens, everything clean, chatting with each other outside their houses. A sort of fairy tale version of life, it seemed. And then the meeting threw me back into versions of life that were not fairy tales.
There was nothing in the meeting anything like the intense, sometimes ironically funny and often angry deep probings I had come to expect in New York, where I could feel like a member of a movement working for justice. ACOA here in this pretty city seemed more like a movement to squelch subversive talk and rehabilitate abusers. The message seemed to be that we are all sinners. A lot of that first meeting was devoted to everyone passing a book around from which each one would read a couple of sentences from a pious rewriting of the already quite pious 12 steps.
Then before an afternoon in Berkeley I went to a lunchtime meeting in downtown San Francisco at which the speaker was glorifying family. He was a happy seeming integrated Mexican-American young man who talked about the regular people he came from. Part of what made them endearing and regular, he said, was that they got drunk every Saturday night.
And the loneliness was ever more intense. I remembered my first time when I was in my twenties spending a few months in San Francisco, working at temporary jobs, constantly calling a woman back in New York with whom I was obsessed, spending long days roaming alone – “Puff the Magic Dragon” blaring out everywhere. Playing Frisbee on Sundays in Golden Gate Park with the literary celebrity Herbert Gold and others in his sphere. Then roaming alone again.
I was suddenly desperate to break out. On the weekend there was nothing to do with the Berkley people, and the San Francisco Philippine people were still not calling, and Ed and Connie were off visiting someone else. It was suddenly as if nothing in this year had happened, and I was where maybe I had always been doomed to be, and aged version of an isolated young man wandering the streets of a strange town.