Trippin’ Through the ’70s – Chapter seven
Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on August 4, 2008
One thing the 1970s is known for is the beginnings of large-scale environmental awareness and activism. Sean, through his readings, was aware that the planet was in danger, from pollution of air and water, from overpopulation, from fallout from nuclear testing, from ozone depletion, and from the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, possibly leading to a hothouse effect. The envelope of air around Earth is very thin in proportion to the size of the world, but few people seemed aware of it. He’d read Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring, Gordon Ratray Taylor’s The Biological Time Bomb, Dr. Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, and excerpts from the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth. Sean decided, first off, that he wasn’t going to father any children. Perhaps he would adopt. A moot point unless he found a woman to share his life with. In the meantime, he decided the least he could do was have as small an impact on the earth’s ecosystem as possible. He decided to get a bicycle.
Bike (bique) is French slang for penis. He wasn’t aware of that when he first bought the new ten-speed. He rode it home from the store, much to the consternation of his body, which totally freaked out. He had to snatch a nap on the City High School lawn. It had been a long time since he’d ridden one.
His last bicycle had disappeared when he was thirteen. Sean heard that a few of his rowdiest classmates had been stealing bikes in the neighborhood. Sean decided to confront them. “Hey, Marconi. I hear you know a thing or two about stolen bicycles?” “Yo, Emmet. So, you lost a bicycle. We’ll look for it.” Marconi tried to look serious for a moment, but smiled at his two buddies on either side of him. Sean didn’t have any proof, and he had already learned from his dad, by way of negative example, not to assume guilt. “You sure you don’t know anything about it? A Bendix two-speed?” “Look, Emmet, I’ll keep my eyes open for it, OK?” “Sure. OK. Let me know if you see anything.” This was before Sean’s confrontation with his dad, and it was a good thing too, because, not only was Gino Marconi much larger than Sean, but his friends were tough. Sean would have had the shit kicked out of him. I was stupid enough to leave it leaning against the store; I guess I deserved to have it stolen. His father had gotten the Bendix Aviation bicycles for him and his brother through an employee discount. Sean didn’t dare ask for another. Eight years later he was lying on the grass, wondering if he’d have to walk home again.
His brother John, a year younger, had been the first to learn how to ride. He was also the first to date. He was already married, and had fathered a child. John drove a car. Sean had failed to learn how to drive one, and couldn’t afford one anyway. You might say Sean was kind of deficient in many skills, especially social skills: no home life, no wife, no lover. He worked in a Physics research lab, buried underground, sitting in a chair behind the x-ray equipment he operated. He spent most of his evenings taking classes at the university he worked for. He was not athletic, had never participated in sports, and hadn’t ridden a bicycle in too many years; his muscles were rebellious. Before long, however, that bicycle became his constant companion. Shortly before he bought it, he had quit his full-time job to attend school outside the city, at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. His boss had agreed to let him work part-time after school and Saturdays. The first day he rode it to classes was a killer – ten miles in rush hour traffic across Baltimore City. After that, he rode the twenty mile round trip every day, and enjoyed it. He was getting stronger. He felt more alert, more alive. He pedaled to the theater, to movies, or to local demonstrations. He didn’t have much of a love life, but he sure had transportation.
He could go anywhere on a bike, and he wondered just how far he could go. To California? Canada? He might need to do that yet. Could I afford to go? I want to travel, to see the country, other states, other cities; to swim in clean rivers, and walk through mountains, canyons, and forests – that would be my version of happiness.
Choking on fumes, greasy air, and soot, however, he fought his way through herds of buses, semi’s, beetles, caddies, mustangs, and ‘vettes. He crested a small hill one morning and saw clear road in front of him. An electric current surged through him as his thighs orbited the pedals of his Schwinn Suburban. Warp factor seven, Scotty. Cool morning air caressed his sweaty forehead and ripped tears from his eyes. On his left he noticed the metallic beasts slowing. He thought he must be overtaking them. I’m good at this, he crowed to himself. Then, there was a gap in front of the beast next to him. A white whale was pointed right at him! Trapped within, the look of panic on the face of the whale’s prisoner mirrored his own slack-jawed expression. He felt air beneath him. He knew he was airborne, but his eyes didn’t focus on anything as he spun high through the air. The car had made contact with his foot first, and he had kicked up and forward down the hill. He had time to think, as people oddly do in times like that, I’m gonna die. All these cars; I’m going to get crushed. I guess I won’t make it to classes today. What? where? who? slipped through his barely conscious mind when he came to rest. There were no answers available. Up. I need to get up. As he started to lift his head, he couldn’t imagine where he was. In a sudden panic, he realized he didn’t know who he was. He felt like he was dreaming. A name, I must have a name. I’d better just lie still, maybe I’ll wake up. But, there were vague noises, and voices, somewhere.
“What about him?” penetrated his haze. He strained to listen.
“Oh, don’t worry about him. He’s dead.”
Me! They’re talking about me! Of course – the car – an accident. Am I hurt? He forced his eyes to open. He saw a typical blue-grey Baltimore sky above him.
“Don’t you worry about it none, Miz Penny. I saw the whole thing. It wasn’t your fault. I’ll testify to it.” He turned his head slightly; saw a group of black and white men clustered around a well-dressed white woman about 10 feet away on the sidewalk. The men, wearing coveralls and carrying lunch pails, weren’t looking his way. Time seemed frozen. No one moved. Even traffic, backed up behind the red light about a block away, had stopped.
He had been bicycling for over a year already, every day, so he rolled onto his feet, catlike. He felt like a ghost rising from a forgotten grave. He tried walking, but one leg was weak; it seemed to not want to hold him. He limped towards the crowd, who turned as one man to look at him. The woman noticed. She ran out to him.
“Are you alright?”
A quick “No!” was all he could manage. Waves of pain were spreading up his leg with every step.
“Here, you come sit in my car.” He sat on the spotless white upholstery and she left him there. The pain in his foot was throbbing now. He eased his leg onto the seat, and lay down. He was staring at the plush interior of the snow-white Continental when a fireman appeared in the doorway. “Are you hurt?” No, I always sleep in Continentals, Sean thought, angry that none of the firemen had come over before. “Do you need anything?”
“My foot hurts, a lot. I don’t think I can walk on it. It’s already swollen.”
“Hang on, I’ll get you something,” and he disappeared, back across the street into the firehouse. He came back with a plastic bag that he pulled onto Sean’s leg.
“What’s that?” Sean asked.
“It’s a temporary cast. Here, I’ll fill it up.” Fwoosh, and the bag stiffened. “Is that any better?”
“A little – yes – thank you.”
“You should go have this x-rayed. Where do you want to go?”
“Could you possibly take me to the closest place, please? Soon?”
Hours later his roommates came and helped him limp, bruised and sprained, out of the hospital. The neglect and lack of concern in there had vindicated his contempt for establishment medical practice. “Don’t you have insurance? Can you pay for this visit? Sign here, and here, and here.” And then, hurry up and wait. Lie there alone until they’re ready. Listen to the children crying, one of them with a head wound, another with a broken arm. Smell the antiseptic. Watch people ignore everyone. On the way home, Sean had his roommates stop at the Free Clinic to get some crutches. It seemed he had only sprained the upper part of his foot, and gotten some nasty-looking bruises. When the bill came from the hospital, he was amazed to learn that they were charging him for crutches! But ‘Miz Penny’ paid the bill, and sent him a check for a new bike.
Of course, it wasn’t all the hospital’s fault. There were very few doctors in the poor neighborhoods for people to go to, so people used the emergency rooms as their family doctor.
That was why the People’s Free Medical Clinic has been founded. That was the reason why such a diverse group of people, including Black Panthers, women’s libbers, and war protesters had worked to start such a place. The Clinic stood for socialized medicine. But, there was also draft resistance advice, birth control counseling, and the obligatory V.D. screening and sex education. There was a commitment to humane health care, community control of the Clinic, and the redefinition of the doctor-patient relationship.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m checking your lungs.”
“Yeah, but why do you do that?”
“I’m timpaning. By tapping on you like this, I produce sound in your lungs. I can tell by the sound where there’s fluid.”
“What does that mean?”
“That would mean that you have an infection of some kind.”
As a patient “advocate”, Sean’s job was to interview patients, find out why they had come in, and if anything else was bothering them. Advocates encouraged patients to ask questions of the docs, and followed their progress through the Clinic. No one was ever lost in a shuffle of bureaucratic paper.
“Mr. Stefans, did you get everything taken care of?”
“Sure. But you know, he gave me these prescriptions, and I don’t know which one to take once a day and which to take three times.”
“Let’s go back and ask him.”
“Oh, no. I don’t want to bother him.”
“No bother. That’s what he’s here for.”
“Hi Lillian. All squared away.?”
“Yes, thank you. Can someone take me to my appointment at the hospital tomorrow?”
“I’ll arrange it with the day staff right now.”
“Can you tell me when my test results will be in?”
“We should have them by this time tomorrow night.”
“Am I covered by Workman’s comp?”
“Let’s find out.”
“Is there anything else?”
“No. Yes, I do have a sorta problem.”
“I don’t know if I should talk about it.”
“Would you like to talk to a counselor? Everything you say is confidential.”
“No one can find out?”
“Absolutely no one, not without your written permission.”
There were interesting counselors at the Clinic. Supervised and trained by psychiatrists, and then by each other, the “People’s Counselors” helped people open up and express their angers, frustrations, and pain. There might be only a simple physical need to be remedied or there might be something more.
“Have you thought about using birth control?”
“I can’t, my parents don’t believe in it.”
“Do you want to get pregnant?”
“No way! Not for a long time, at least until I’m twenty.”
“I’m so mad I could scream!”
“Why don’t you?”
“Scream? It’s OK?”
“Sure, would you rather be mad?”
The basic philosophy of the People’s Counselors was that it was not always the patient who was fucked up, but society itself. Unreal expectations, peer pressure, media-created role models, and laws against “victimless” crimes drove people into self-depreciation. It was radical, it was revolutionary, to just help people without judging them.
The counselors, staff and volunteers at the Free Clinic worked hard, hoping to renew a society of, by, and for the people. They questioned everything. Does the nuclear family form the basis for repressive authority? Are male and female roles only learned, conditioned behavior? Is competitiveness the root of war? Is bisexuality the future of sex?
Could we create a society in which war was impossible? Could a racist, sexist, patriarchal, avaricious, hypocritical society become one loving caring family? Sean juggled all of these questions and more, hoping to understand why the U.S. was at war, why people got into fights, why people killed each other, why there was so much violence in the world.
He was not a counselor, but one night he found myself pushed into it. For some reason, there was no one around to help a woman freaking out from some drug, presumably LSD. She was agitated, depressed, and could hardly speak for crying.
“What’s wrong with me?”
“There’s nothing with you, you’re just having a bad trip, that’s all.”
“That’s all? That’s all? Why do I feel this way? Help me. Help me. Help me.”
Someone put their arm around her, and Sean took her hand.
“It’s OK, really, you’ll just have to wait for the drug to wear off.”
“Sometimes it takes up to fourteen hours.”
“Oh god, no. I can’t. My parents! Why do I hate my parents?” she sobbed suddenly.
I’m blowing this, I’m in over my head, Sean thought. “Look, you probably don’t hate them.”
“Yes I do! I thought I loved them, but now they hate me.”
“Why do I feel this way? Make it stop.”
“We’ll try. OK?”
Eventually, she was alright. People with more experience in those things took over.
Sean went upstairs to the empty childcare room, grabbed a broom and swept it. He got the wet mop and filled a bucket with hot soapy water to wash the old wooden floor. The kids played on that floor. He was mostly trying to stay busy. LSD. He was remembering his own experience.