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Louisville Runaway, 1975
Jack Bloom was still in the hospital, but he was stable. Seventeen stab wounds to the chest, and he never lost consciousness. His wife told me when she got him out of there, she was getting out of the I.S. for good. I wondered if she’d have any trouble convincing him.
Everyone was supposed to get “back to business.” Every morning, we’d begin with a meeting, and after we stopped donating blood, we weren’t supposed to talk about Jack anymore. Move on, don’t look back. There was a revolution waiting and others suffering with much worse.
I agreed with the last part but not with the silent treatment. I was a malingerer.
The morning meetings began at Larry’s Diner downstairs, with the coffee and donut order. Red, another comrade from East Oakland, would ask me for money for a donut.
“Why are you asking me?”
“You look like a rich white girl.”
“You are high.”
“Always, always, sugar pie—” and then he’d hit up Frank. And then Bushy, and then Steve P. Finally one of them would give in, and I couldn’t figure it out, because Red made more money dealing that all of us put together. He just didn’t believe in paying for himself.
Michael ignored him. Red never asked Michael for a donut. And I don’t think I saw Mikey ever eat anything as strong as coffee or donuts. He would order a glass of hot water with lemon, and a piece of toast. When I asked him about his diet, he just shook his head.
“You’re nineteen, there’s no such thing as ulcers.”
But maybe Michael did have a special ulcerated intestine that only affected young men who looked like they hadn’t had a carefree moment since grade school.
Whatever happened at Larry’s Diner set the tone for the organization’s group criticism to come. It followed you right up the stairs to our big room overlooking the original Ford plant. You could see rainwater filling the inside of the old factory floors.
“How come they don’t open the Ford factory for tours or something?” I once asked. “I mean, it’s historic!”
“People here are trying to get out of factories, Sue, not into them,” Bushy said. He often had a stern word for me.
Sure, everyone in Detroit was dying to get out of the factories and move to California except for demented communists like us who were trying to get in.
You didn’t count for shit in the I.S. until you got an inside union job. But none of our comrades could help me get a job, because they were all known “agitators.” The last thing a company was going to do was hire another one of their little pinko friends.
Without friends, how did you get work? I showed up in job application queues that circled for a mile around the block, and was turned away. I was too young to compete against local folks my parents’ age, desperate for work.
So far, I had a night shift at McDonald’s, and a part-time nonunion factory job making carburetor parts in Royal Oak. It started at 5am. Hot oil and metal filings settled into the pores of my hands like a caricature of The Incredible Hulk.
“How many papers did you sell yesterday?” Mike Parker held up a clipboard inches from my face. Why did he volunteer to supervise us? He was older than my dad. In Los Angeles, no grown-ups came to our Red Tide meetings to manage us.
“Where’s the money?”
“I already turned it in.”
“How many schools did you get to; did you get to the four we outlined?”
“I got to Mumford, Cooley, and Cass before the third bell.”
“You gotta get there before the second bell; where’s your contact list?” Mike’s glasses were falling off his nose. His shirt looked like it hadn’t been changed in a week.
I pulled out a piece of paper with all the kids’ names I’d met who gave me their phone number.
At the top was Alicia— she was cool, she wanted to go to L.A. and become a star. She had almond eyes with lashes as long as Maybelline’s. She asked me if she had the right attitude for making it, and I told her, “Colossal.” She had slender, articulate hands that looked like they should be waving from a float.
Alicia told me me to come back after school and tell her everything, everything she had to know about Hollywood. I promised her I would. I could never bring her back to this office if this is how they were treating everyone now. Our old esprit de corps was shot.
“Who is this?” Runninghorse held up my contact sign-up sheet like it was an incriminating evidence. I stared at his beret button— Free Gary Tyler— instead of his face, so I didn’t have the urge to smack it.
“I told you,” he yelled,” if you can’t get the last name of the contact, don’t bother doing it at all!”
“I’m not going to interrogate some ninth grader for her last name, Frank; this isn’t the Gestapo. We’re supposed to be making friends.”
“Yeah— well, Sue, you spend all day ‘making friends’ while other people are dying, other people who need some discipline among comrades—”
“Shut up, Frank.”
“Little Miss Friendship can just take her petit-bourgeois ass and have a tea party!” Runningmouth cackled like a crow, and brought his face down to mine to let his tongue slide out.
I screamed and dropped my pen, bringing my hand straight up to slap his cheek.
Parker, pretty swift for his age, grabbed me. “Goddammit, if you two can’t behave yourselves, I’ll send you home.” He looked right at me.
My mouth dropped open. Runningmouth grinned. He took out a piece out of me every morning, and they treated him like he shit gold bricks.
Michael came back through the door with a stack of newspapers for the afternoon shift. He looked disappointed. He knew me, he knew I’d never hit anyone in my life. What had happened to me? Frank could turn a daisy into a killing machine; he really could.
“Sue, I’m going to need you for this detail,” Michael said. “Frank, where do you drive to next?” He gave a long look to Mike P. — Stay. Out. Of. It.
It wasn’t that Frank Runninghorse couldn’t recruit people. He could recruit young men looking for a daddy, a serious daddy. He could con young women into his bed— but only the most vulnerable would stay. Then he’d start beating them.
I wish I could make him pay. He had the whole Executive Committee snowed. They accused everyone of not “trying” with him, and you wondered how many of their wives he’d have to fuck, punch, or insult before they wised up. He was their little bulldog.
I made up my mind at the end of that week.
I decided to move to the I.S. Louisville branch. Parker wouldn’t have a clue; Frank would be thrilled to think I’d left with my tail between my legs. Michael would understand; Barbara and Cal encouraged it. Everyone who was fed up with the leadership in Detroit was quietly making their move. Something stank.
Louisville in 1975 was a five-alarm fire destination for an organizer— it was the years the media called the “busing crisis.” It was hell down in Kentucky; anyone with even the most milquetoast liberal agenda found themselves right up against the KKK. The black community was under siege from whites supremacists and the city fathers were looking the other way. The public schools were collapsing.
But to me, it was “Paris in Springtime” compared to the I.S confinement on Woodward Avenue.
I called up the Louisville branch organizer, Danny, to tell him that I'd like to move there in two weeks. He said he’d loan me one of his shotguns.
"What am I supposed to do with that?"
"Well, if I were you, I'd sleep with it."
The comrades in the South didn’t care what my motives were— they were so demoralized from the racist onslaught down there. Busing had turned Louisville, like South Boston, into a mini-race-war. My friends there couldn't imagine what bureaucratic inferno I was leaving behind. A nice warm gun to cuddle up to at night might just be a tonic.
It was hard to keep moving plans a secret. I knew I couldn’t just leave “of my own accord”— I’d be treated like a traitor.
The worst was coming right up. I had to stage a little farewell plea; I had to get an audience with Glyn Carver. As he reminded everyone in his bulletins, “The National Secretary must approve all re-locations.”
I wasn’t a very good actress— you could see everything on my face. But I was counting on Glyn’s weaknesses, his famous ego, to let me go— because by his definition, I was damaged goods. He’d sexually appraised and rejected me a good year ago.
How did the I.S. ever end up with Glyn?— Our very own British pretender to the throne? He was rumored to have run an OTB office in his past life, along with other positions as a carny, soccer coach, card player, and a whoremonger. Whatever his resumé, he’d created a "Queen of Hearts" atmosphere where everyone was primed for a kangaroo trial or a casting couch.
The previous Sunday night I’d printed ten thousand red, white, and blue flyers on his command, with the headline JUSTICE MEANS ‘JUST US’ — atop a caricature of a white foreman holding an black employee in a headlock. The illustration had become my own private insignia.
It was odd to make an “appointment” with Glyn. On our first, and last occasion to speak in private, he’d been the one to make an appointment, to be wined and dined and fucked. I had still been in L.A., in the middle of my affair with Stan, and had just dropped out of high school.
Glyn had been twenty-eight back then— or was that a rumor too?— and had dropped out of Manchester, England. Who elected him into the top chair at our national headquarters in Detroit? There was never a vote. But here he was, touring all the U.S. branches, and he was dying to see Malibu. Stan got kind of queasy when I told him Glyn had “called” for me, after Temma wasn’t available. But Stan didn’t stop it.
I could tell Glyn considered this assignment, being his date, to be a great honor for me. My curiosity got the better of me. I’d never played geisha before. My lovers were my friends, not men who called long distance with a list of their likes and dislikes.
It’s hard to explain how much I believe in giving everyone a chance. Maybe it’s more nosiness than optimism. But it all went wrong with Glyn. I took him to Topanga Beach at sunset, and he stared at it like a pile of cold sand. I took him to dinner at The Spaghetti Factory (that everyone at my high school thought was fancy) and he pronounced it rotten. I barely had enough money to cover his bar tab.
I hoped that the sex of the evening would save it, but it was not to be. He was barely in my apartment before I accidentally sat on his leather coat and he lost his temper.
"You fucking cunt, you've wrinkled it!" he said.
My eyes watered and he was quiet for a moment.
Then he asked me if I had any “early Rod Stewart.” What a face-saver. It was a good thing I did, because we both had to concentrate on something while we screwed. The needle thankfully didn’t skip. I don't remember his penis inside me at all. “Maggie May” was a tranquilizer. He called a cab at the end of Side B and I was relieved to close the door.
Now, a year later, I had my second appointment with the great man. In Glyn’s office, that same black leather jacket of his was hanging on a wooden hanger, at the back of his door.
"So what is today, luv?" He put his feet up on the desk, as if we had cozy chats like this all the time. I don't think that I'd ever been alone with him in his office. No electric mandolin to help us out this time.
"I came to talk to you because things haven't been working out for me here . . . ” I said. “I'm too old for the high-school stuff, I'm eighteen now, and I haven't been able to get a job in auto or Teamsters.”
"Yeah, it hasn’t been your year, has it?"
I had to get to the point quickly, before he became interested in running down my character.
"I'd like to move to Louisville— I talked to the comrades there, you know they're being hammered by the Klan, and they're desperate for new blood."
That was a stupid way to put it. But if Glyn was the butcher I thought he was, he'd appreciate my metaphor.
For a second he scanned me up and down. I thought his paranoia might prevail. He'd yell, "You're wearing a wire, you fucking cunt, aren't you, you've come to do me in!"
But I gave him too much credit; I always did. He kicked back off the desk, and said, "Yeah, you look like shit. You've been useless here. I'll tell Louisville you're coming, see what you can do for them."
This was the point where I was supposed to say, "Thank-you, Mr. Carver," like a dutiful daughter. I hated him. To think we’d both been on the floor slipping in Jack’s blood, and then Glyn sprinting away to the airport to avoid the police.
"You can't leave until you train Marguerite on the press," he said, saving me the impossibility of feigning gratitude. He pointed to some camera-ready copy on the corner of his desk.
"We need 6,000 of these by"— he checked his gold watch—"5:00, so let's get going, eh?"
He got up to open the door, keys in his hand, ready to lock it behind us. I realized he couldn't wait for this to be over. Some other lucky cunt must be waiting outside.
I left the office to go downstairs to the party store for a Baby Ruth, and called Cal and Barbara’s house from the pay phone. I bet they’d be a little sad to see me go.
"He believed me!” I gulped down my candy bar, to be better understood. “I just have to scrub a few more floors with my bare hands and then I can go!"
Cal laughed. I could tell he had a drink his hand. "You did alright; I knew you would. See, this is going to work out." I could hear Barbara yelling in the background that she was going to kiss me all over.
"Yeah, I’ll come home as soon as I finish these flyers. Tell Michael when you see him; it went through."
I had to re-ink the Mighty AB Dick printing press a half a dozen times. It took forever to print 6,000 back-to-back in red ink: "NO CONTRACT, NO WORK.”
I did feel like a traitor now, the ink stains all over my arms, legs, and brow. I was stained all over, the product of my self-taught methods. The first time I had ever turned on the machine, six months ago, Parker had shown me in into the press room, hauled out a mountain of goldenrod 8 ½” x 14,” and said, "Turn straw into gold." That's how he left me.
Cal and Barbara couldn’t say enough about Louisville when I got to their house. They were vicariously living through my impending escape.
"The handsomest men in this whole organization are in Louisville," Sheila said with authority. She was good-looking herself, with her titian hair, so I took her at her word. "If it wasn't for Cal, I'd be on a train myself."
I'd seen the comrades she was talking about at an anti-apartheid conference last March and it was true. All of the Louisville comrades, women and men, were better-looking than average. Maybe they just slept at night.
I’d been entertained in Louisville once. Todd J., Jenny Vail, and Johnny Everett had taken me to Churchill Downs, not when the horses were running, but on a slow day to admire the track.
They took Jen and I to the Winners’ Circle and put a wreath of roses around our necks. We all posed for a picture, the two of them holding me around my waist so that their arms embraced. Todd had been an English teacher before he started driving trucks for Rykoff. John was a photojournalist, an old ballplayer from the minor leagues, and posed me in front of his grandaddy’s 1940s Oldsmobile. I never stopped laughing except to put some barbecue in my mouth. It was a beautiful day.
I told Barbara about that day at the races.
“See, I told you so!” she said, petting me like a mother cat. She was one of the only ones I could talk to about a day off, who wouldn't look at me like, "What do you mean you fiddled while Detroit burned?" She knew I needed a pleasant memory to pack my bags and move somewhere where I didn't know anyone at all. It was dangerous.
Barbara curled up with me, under her quilt, and a week's worth of papers she was determined to catch up on. She admitted to me, that I was not likely to sleep in a bed of roses every night at my new destination. It might be hard.
Louisville was in the national news all the time in 1975. She read a story aloud to me from the Times, saying how nine out of ten white families had pulled their daughters out of high school because they didn't want them going to school with blacks. Unreal.
She looked at me, apologetically. "The only white people in Louisville defending busing are communists.”
Well, great, I'd fit right in then. I wasn't nearly as fetching as the rest of the cast, but I had no fear. I was not afraid of anyplace that I could run away to.
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