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I just needed $88 more dollars to get to Detroit
I finally got permission from my dad to travel to “Commie Camp” in Detroit the summer of 1975. I was 17 and you would’ve thought I’d been invited to Europe for the summer. As far as I could tell, the Motor City was entirely filled with charisma, a 100% working class town with factories and organizing opportunities on every corner, like pastry shops in Vienna. I could not wait.
I had no money for my destination, no ticket to ride. I was going to have to babysit and hamburger-fry my way to the revolution launch pad.
My father didn’t say anything directly about my plans‚ it was more like: “You earn it, you plan it, go ahead.” But his newest girlfriend, Debbie, didn’t hold back, and I heard her dramatizing it on the phone to one of her buddies.
“She wants to go to DETROIT for the summer—
“Ha! Yeah, I know, why not throw in Newark and Carbondale and make it like a cruise! I told Bill, I told him, you’re her father, you—
“No, no, I don't think she has any idea, she’s never really been out of California— she says to me, (she imitated me with a prissy little schoolgirl voice), ‘I’m sure there are nice places in Detroit just like anywhere else!’— Yes, I know, we’re all waiting for the film to be developed!”
More laughing. I didn’t think Debbie had ever been to Detroit either, so what did she know? I’d develop the pictures all right, and I wouldn't show them to her. She spent more on her manicures than a farmworker saw in a month.
Summer Commie Camp was not going to be on Detroit’s main drag of Woodward Avenue. It was a real camp, a place out in the forest that was leased to Girl Scouts and Rotarians. I suppose the owner didn’t have a problem with Reds either, at least for a week.
Or maybe the camp managers didn’t even know. One year The Red Tide organized a high school anti-apartheid conference where I made up phony brochures to reassure the students’ parents, that said that the whole event was sponsored by the YWCA. “The Task for Party-Building in South Africa,” became “How to Organize a Fundraising Party for South African Children.” It was the only way we could get those permission slips!
I had a couple months to make the money for my Greyhound bus ticket. I had applied for a scholarship to the camp itself, my bunk and meals. I asked Mary and Duncan, my sympathetic older comrades to plea on my behalf.
Mary called me back me something with I didn't expect. “Some of the members of the I.S. executive committee think your family is loaded.”
“I know, I know— they think everyone in California is a millionaire unless they're industrialized.”1
“Well, did you set them straight?” I was so embarrassed. I thought the executive committee met in solemn robes to discuss the future of Leninist cadre-building, not Sue Bright’s dad’s paycheck from the UCLA Linguistics department.
“Of course I did, I told them that the average feeder driver at UPS makes more than your dad does teaching, and don’t you worry, they’re going to do it. I told them they were full of shit. But it’s just like rubbing salt on a wound to tell the Executive Committee your dad is a professor... that’s what they were supposed to be if they hadn’t dropped out and became Teamsters."
“Those guys went to college?” I turned the phone in my hands and looked at the receiver like it was alive.
“You don't know that? That’s their secret shame, they’re all Cal and Columbia dropouts.” She told me that Ken Paff was a whisker away from his PhD in Physics.
“Is it really a secret?” When I saw Ken in public, he wore a blue satin Teamsters' jacket with the American flag embroidered on the chest above “Local 407.” He listened to George Jones because “that’s what workers do.” Every time he saw me or one of the other kids from The Red Tide, he’d make a face, like someone put a hippie hair in his Danish. I loved the Teamsters union rank and file, but Ken acted like no one counted who wasn't over 50 and driving over the road— most people I knew in the union were young and loading trucks, like at United Parcel Service. We weren’t listening to George Jones, we were listening to Parliament Funkadelic.
“Everyone knows,” Mary said, “It’s the story of half this organization— don't let them fool you. They don't want any of you kids to go to college, ‘cause they would have to see you graduate when they didn’t.”
I’d never heard her talk like that. “Mary, didn’t you drop out of school, too?”
“Yes, I hated it, but it had nothing to do with communism— I just got pregnant and I wanted to live on an organic farm and bake bread with my baby on my back.“ Mary cracked up at herself. “It’s no secret and no shame; I have no regrets. If I ever go to school, I’ll do it for me, next time.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about. Ken and the rest of the I.S. leadership acted like going to college was like turning your back on the class struggle; it was like saying you were going to a party while people were starving. I agreed a thousand percent. I was not going to waste the revolution's time by sitting in a classroom with a bunch of dilettantes who thought they were going to get a degree and “be somebody.” Whenever someone said that shit to me, I'd come back, “Instead of ‘being somebody,’ why don't you DO SOMETHING for a change.”
Yet here was Mary, acting like it was no big deal one way or the other.
She had one more question for me. “Sue, I didn’t know what to say about this, but can your mom help you out? I don’t even know if you talk to her.”
“My mom?” I reacted like a mom was something you might or might not have, like an extra limb. “Look, I’m babysitting and housecleaning my ass off for the bus ticket, and I can work at camp too— isn't there something I can do for my room and board?”
Mary called me back the next day, and told me that Tom, the International Socialists head pressman, was going to be running the kitchen, and that I would do supper duty with him each night. Excellent. He even sent me a postcard, and told me he’d learned to cook in the Navy Brig, and now he was going to share all his special recipes with me.
The Greyhound ticket from LA to Detroit, round-trip, was $172. The problem was that I was making $1 an hour babysitting, and $2.00 for housecleaning. I had a couple weeks left, and aside from bus fare, I still needed cash for everything else before I left— burritos, books, ice cream.
Joelle, my girlfriend who got me my first cleaning jobs, advised me: “Raise your prices.”
“Oh yeah, right.”
“Whaddya mean, I did.” She slammed her cigar box shut and started tamping down a hand-rolled cigarette. “These assholes can afford it,” she said, licking, “Stop cleaning their dope for free. Stop taking record albums instead of money. Start charging them for blow jobs.”
“Jesus Christ, Jo, I’m not going to charge money for sex!”
“Je-SUS, Sue,” she mimicked me with an American drawl, “What WILL you charge money for? Qu’est-ce que tu fais maintenant?”
This was why we couldn't keep cleaning together— she knew how to clean but she knew how to get on my nerves these days. I knew she didn’t want me to leave, either.
I went to my neighbors the Denys’ that night to take care of their eight-year-old twins. I wasn't having sex with Mr. Deny or Mrs. Deny— hah! They were a middle-class Ebony-magazine-type family, probably the only people I worked for in the canyon that didn't have giant spider plants in a macramé baskets, or a shoe box full of Colombian. I couldn't imagine asking them for more money, they were so nice. I imagined they moved to this neighborhood so their kids could go to Westside schools without being bused for two hours.
When my lover Robbie came over to pick me up from their house one night, Mr. Deny took one look at Robbie at the door— with his twelve-inch Afro and black leather coat, vs. Mr. Dennis in his suit and tie— and made a terrible face. Both of them did, actually. They each had a “What the fuck are you doing here?” look about them.
“SHUT UP!” I mouthed to Robbie behind Mr. Deny’s back, and Mrs. Deny came to the door too, with some homemade macaroons. “Do you want some for you and your friend, honey?” she said, just like a mommy in a TV show.
“Thank you Mrs. Deny,” Reggie and I said in a one-two chorus. I was glad Robbie’s mom was sort of like her, too.
No, the Deny family was not going to be part of my price-raising.
The next day after school, it was time to clean Bill Montijo’s apartment. He was a self-professed filmmaker whom I had never seen leave his apartment except to go to Odie’s Stop ‘N’ Go for more beer. But he was very well-read and had gossip about every single person in Beverly Glen, from the kids working on the Partridge Family cast to George Harrison’s secret masseuse.
Bill was always bitching about money, so I wouldn't sound out of place talking about my own problems. Maybe he would have a scheme, not for getting money, but rather for how to get out of needing it— he was good at that.
I had never seen Bill make a normal financial transaction in the five months I’d been cleaning for him. He paid me in windowpane acid, or hash, or peyote buttons, which I could always pass along to someone else.
Jo had cleaned for him first, but she dumped him because of his “no cash” policy, and “Besides, he’s fucking nasty,” she said. “Bastard. He is responsible for Peanut’s death and everyone in this canyon knows it except her fucked-up parents.”
Was Peanut the kid who fell off the cliffs of Schweitzer Canyon last year and everyone said it wasn’t an accident? Even my dad, who knew nothing of neighborhood gossip, had read in the paper that a fourteen-year-old girl had fallen right off the ridge, and her dog had woken up everyone on the west ridge, howling, in the middle of the night. Her parents weren’t around, they were in Vegas or something. The ridge she rode up that night was, as we spoke, being carved up and leveled for a monster development project, with a whopping five different floor plans buyers could choose from. But when Peanut was there, it was like the rest of the canyon, coyotes and sage and desert poppies.
I asked Bill about Peanut when I got to his house after school, coming straight from the bus stop, and he started crying— I’d never seen that before. “Get me a couple Tuinals, darling, or I’ll never stop,” he said.
“I’m sorry to just be so blunt,” I said, “I didn’t know—”
“No, no, She was the best, the best,” he cried, “I want to talk about her all the time and no one does, goddamn them all!” He sounded like her guardian, not her murderer.
Bill got out some pictures of Peanut and him together, standing in front of the corral, where her pony used to be stabled. Peanut was in cutoffs, in a handkerchief gingham halter top. A little blonde stick figure, with a huge smile and oversize baseball cap. A tomboy. She hugged Bill like he was Santa Claus. He looked about twenty years younger than he did now, but I knew Peanut had died when she was only fourteen, before I moved in with my dad. Fourteen! I was sixteen but fourteen-years-old seemed too young to die and too young to be Bill Montijo’s girlfriend. Maybe it was unfair to just draw a line there, but it made me feel weird. When I was fourteen, I was ironing grilled cheese sandwiches on the ironing board in Edmonton.
Peanut wore dark black eyeliner in all the photos— her trademark. Tiny little legs that disappeared into her turquoise moccasins.
“Bill, don’t cry, it’s okay,” I said, getting him the glass of wine for his pills. “I didn’t mean to make you upset, I just don’t understand what happened to her; everyone seemed to love her so much.”
“They did, she was their fucking ringleader,” he shouted, “she and her pony!”
This is the part I’d heard before, Peanut and her horses. All the kids in the canyon, including the Partridge Family and Brady Bunch crew, would get together at the corral, get stoned, and play stoned versions of “Mother May I” and “Red Light Green Light.” Peanut was the only one who could get the 7th grader who had to play a five-year-old on The Partridge Family, to laugh. She got some girl from “All My Children” to show everyone her third nipple, and then she wouldn’t let anyone make fun of it, because she said it was a “gift from God.” Everyone had to play Ouija with the young actress in the middle because Peanut said her nipple made her psychic and she could see the future.
Apparently when Peanut was around, everything was different. The uglies became a goddesses. She was so charismatic that she didn’t have to make herself a deity; she could afford to be generous and give other people a taste of her power.
“You know what happened to her, they fucking killed her! Mum and Dad!” Bill sobbed, with the same accusing tone others had used talking about him. He starting banging his head on the edge of the coffee table, and it made all his drugs fly into the air.
“Stop it, Bill, stop it!”
If he thought I was going to get on my hands and knees to pick up pieces of Thai stick and cocaine granules, he was out of his mind. I’d fucking vacuum it all up and throw it in the trashcans upstairs.
“I still don’t get it,” I said, “because her parents weren’t even there when she fell, right?”
“Yeah, well, there you go, babe,” Bill said, “They weren’t there, they weren’t ever fucking there, every fucking time, in’nt that the way? “ When Montijo got mad, his English accent got thicker.
Enough already. I knew Peanut’s parents were alcoholics and after she died they sold the pony (“to the glue factory,” Joelle had sobbed). We still played at the old corral, but it wasn’t the same. The Ouija board was launched into a bonfire.
Bill said he had dropped out of the film he was producing and moved into his current basement apartment where he seemed to pay rent in cocaine and charm. The landlady was another former child actress— so pretty, but the kind of woman who needed to hear she was ten times a day or she just fell apart.
Bill’s barbiturates were taking effect. He sprawled on his “divan,” as he called it— an awful orange and brown plaid sofa-bed. It was covered with his tantrum-flinging remains now, but he let his head drop back like he didn’t have a care in the world.
“Don't clean that up, luv, I know it’s all my fault, you don't mean any harm, you’re such a luv, you are the most innocent child in this world, such a beauty, Peanut would have made you into one of her goddesses.”
I knew what was coming, and I’d rather vacuum. It wasn’t like he was a bad lay or something, in fact Bill was probably the most experienced man I’d been with— he was at least thirty-something. But I never would have even done it with him in the first place, if I’d known he was such a crybaby.
I always felt stupid that I didn’t notice that in the beginning— how were you supposed to tell? Guys seemed so tough on the outside and then when they came, they would cry and cry.
The first day I showed up to take over Jo’s usual shift, Bill had made me the most incredible Spanish omelet, with potatoes in it, and talked to me about Ingmar Bergman. He said that I must must must go see Persona that very night at the Nuart with him, and I told him that my dad took me to see it last week, which impressed him no end. I really didn’t understand Persona, but after Bill finished explaining it all to me, I may not have been sure if Bergman was a genius, but I was certain he was.
He ate my pussy 'til I screamed, he made me come like it was skipping stones. That didn’t make him cry. I’d never seen anything like it. I wondered if was this fancy with everyone over thirty.
“I am God’s gift to unusual,” he said to me, pinching my cheeks, “and I love you already.”
“I wish high school guys weren’t so uptight, because there are three I know who I wish you could give lessons to,” I told him, in earnest, and he roared.
“You are a delight, bring them on, bring them all on!” he said.
He gave me my first line of cocaine. It did nothing for me, but it was exquisitely served up, in the tip of a miniature silver spoon, like a spoon from Queen Victoria’s dollhouse. I didn’t wash one dish that afternoon, and he told me to come again in a week or even sooner if I wanted.
I came over every two weeks out of sheer concern he was drowning in his own garbage. You never knew if he’d be brilliant, lucid, or unspooling like a frayed cord.
“C’mre luv, let me lick your— cunt.” Montijo motioned me over. I hated it when he was too high to handle the longer-syllable words anymore. He was not a pretty picture on his plaid divan. I knew from experience that he could perform sexually no matter what he had ingested, but there was only so much I could stand, even with my eyes closed.
Joelle had once used an expression in front of me, “Mercy Fuck.” I didn’t ask her what it meant because I knew I was guilty of the favor. But now, looking at Bill Montijo’s in his dirty clothes and no shave, splayed out on his sofa, beckoning to me like Bacchus on a hospital gurney, I thought, well, this is it. Mercy fucking nightmare.
“Bill, I have to talk to you about something, it’s not Peanut, it’s a real emergency,” I said, determined to get my problem aired before he passed out or got so crabby he started breaking his last few wine glasses.
“Yes, luv, my beautiful angel, tell me anything, but sit on top of me, will you?”
I couldn’t come sitting on top, but I could talk that way— I could talk for hours astride anyone; it made me feel very important. I pulled my cutoffs down.
For some reason his cock was clean— why was everything about him so dirty except for his penis? It was the one thing I never felt like laundering in his apartment.
“Sweet Henry,” he swore, pushing into me. I put some spit on my finger and traced the top of my clit, like he’d shown me— that felt good. I was starting to get the hang of not being so self-conscious.
“You’re fucking killing me, luv,” he moaned. I knew that if I closed my eyes now, and he kept talking to me like that, maybe I could come; if I let myself fall on top of his chest, and pressed my head into the pillow so couldn't see his tobacco-stained teeth and his pinprick black pupils, and just listened to that voice and kept thinking how much he wanted me— all my vicarious empathy would reach a pitch where I was lost in sensation, not running commentary anymore.
My fingers drew a magic diagram on my clit. It was like releasing a valve; everything else got pushed out. “Just like that,” I breathed— “Yes, luv, just like that,” he repeated back. This wasn’t romance, it wasn’t revolution, but it wasn’t playing games, either, was it? This kind of ride doesn’t lie.
I pulled myself off him, the tender un-gluing. I was fond of him— but he had to listen to me for a change.
“I haven’t told you about my Detroit thing.” So much for afterglow.
“You can tell me anything darling, anything,” Bill said, pulling me back into his lap, sans penetration, and pushing up my top.
“My eyes,” he moaned again. “You’re still on the Pill, aren’t you darling, aren’t you?”
I narrowed my eyes. “No, I’m going to have your love child, and sing about it like Diana Ross and have a big hit.”
“That’s what I was hoping, darling, you’re right, you’re always right— I must never, never condescend to you . . . Is there any coke left I haven't spilled on the floor?”
I got off him and found his lucky spoon nestled behind one of the bolsters. He smiled at me; Mr. Lucky Strikes. Yuck. He could be so nice, but his teeth, how did he stand it?
“Tell me about Detroit, luv, when are you going?”
I forgot about his teeth and loved him then. He said “WHEN” are you going, not IF, or WHY.
“You have to see a film before you go, you have to, maybe it’s at the library,” Bill said, getting excited as if he was wasn't persona non grata at the UCLA film department. It’s called “Detroit I Do Mind Dying.”
For once, I knew what he was talking about.
“How do you know that?” I said. “Mary and Duncan and everyone, they all say I have to see it too, it’s a documentary— how do you know about anything like that?”
“There are a few Marxist filmmakers that aren’t idiots, luv.” Bill smirked.
I looked at him harder. He was stoned, but he could still say things like this. I never heard anyone say words like “Marxist” unless I was in a eponymous meeting of them. It was like a secret language, a code ring— no one said Marxist unless they were one, but Bill wasn’t anything, I knew that, he just liked movies and young girls and his coffee table holdings.
“Well, anyway,” I explained, “I have to get there, I’m going to Commie Summer Camp, and they’re going to let me work in the kitchen for my board and room, but I have to buy my own bus ticket, which I’m still $88 short on, and I have to eat on the bus too, and I cannot baby-sit the Denys into bankruptcy in the next month.”
Saying it out loud made realize how completely hopeless it was.
“You are such a beautiful angel,” Bill said, and reached deep into another one of his sofa cushion hidey-spots. It was like Mother Goose’s skirt. “I’m going to give you a whole book and film list before you go, and you have to come back and shag me and tell me all about it, my little commie camp cunt.”
I reached out for the paper he’d dug out of the cushions, but it wasn’t a reading list in his hand, it was a fistful of twenties. It looked like plenty more than eighty-eight dollars. He could have more than paid off his cigarette tab down at the Odie’s, that he’d been running for the past ten years.
I couldn't believe it. I burst into tears. “I don’t want you to give me money for fucking you, I never said that!”
I felt like Joelle was right next to me, boring her eyes into me. I might tell her everything, but I wasn't going to tell her this.
Bill dropped the money on the floor and tried to grab me with his skinny arms. He wasn’t weak, but I was already standing, and I could shake him off. Where was the Kleenex? Where were my cutoffs? I ignored whatever he was calling out to me and headed to the bathroom. I was so stupid; I never should have told him.
The bathroom door consisted of a bamboo bead curtain, and half of the beads had fallen off so you could look anyone in the eye while they were taking a dump. I ignored Bill’s gaze when he came over to peer in at me.
“Miss Fucking Bolshevik Cunt, I would never dream of paying you to fuck me— it’s my assumption that you do it out of pure fucking joy— isn’t that right, darling?’
I looked down into my naked lap and sighed.
“Really?” I said, still not looking at him.
“I don't even PAY you to clean this apartment, you are fucking un-payable and a lousy housecleaner and a tight cunt and if you don't pick the money up off the floor I’m going to make you vacuum it up with your pussy lips.”
“I’m so glad you noticed. And hurry up, too, because my boyfriend’s coming over here and I don't want him looking at you and having a heart attack on my divan.”
“Boyfriend” was Bill’s drinking, Truffaut-watching buddy who was some kind of dirty old man by proxy. He wanted to do everything Bill did, but I don't think he’d been laid in a million years.
“He doesn't have my looks, angel; that’s what the young girls demand,” Bill said, cackling and lifting his glass. “Here’s to all the angels, and all the communists!”
“I’ll never forget this, Montijo,” I said, grabbing my granny pack and the money and brushing the cocaine dust off of everything. “When I get back, I’ll wash your walls and beat your rugs, I promise.”
“If you do that, the whole neighborhood will be plastered for a week,” he said, and swiped at my thigh as I leaned against the front door to leave.
“You’ve still got my come dripping down your leg,” he said.
“Shit; I do not!” I yelped, jumping over his broken porch stair into the garden. “You’re such a sick fuck,” I said over my shoulder, like something like he would say. I’d never said it before myself, and I hoped he knew I was joking— because after I went to Detroit, I never saw Bill Montijo again.
“Industrializing” in New Left socialist vernacular, meant when an activist deliberately eschewed college and middle-class career paths in favor of getting a union job in a working class industry where labor activism could, ideally, be stoked and encouraged. In the I.S., for example, many members industrialized in coal, (UMW), steel (USW), auto (UAW), trucking (Teamsters) and telephone (CWA).
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