Friday, March 27, 2015

how to become a child communist

The East Side Library, a creaky old store front, was on the corner Farwell and North, about a mile south of our flat on Bartlett Avenue.   I was nine years old in 1960, one of those anonymous, introverted after school regulars who have haunted the late afternoon stacks for generations.  If I took four buses- the #15 south to North Avenue, then the #21 west to Holton Street, then the #14 north to Center (or ran this six block leg), and finally the #22 back east to Oakland- and if I didn’t dawdle too long at the Library, I could make the whole circuit on one bus transfer.  Eventually, I would get a coveted weekly student pass that simplified the trip.

My Milwaukee Public Library card was my most treasured possession.  But I was regarded with some suspicion by the librarians because I had no interest in age-appropriate literature. 

There was no rule against a ten year old checking out adult reading matter, unless the book had been coded with the unsubtle red slash across the end paper, signifying sexual content.  These didn’t interest me.  I remember once seeing the word “homosexual” on the spine of a small book in the psychology section; it caught my eye,  but I was vague about what it meant and not curious enough to find out.

What mainly cast a spell on me were books about other countries.  Africa, Asia, Europe- my hunger to know these places was deep and indiscriminate.  But around this time the Soviet Union in particular clamped a hold on my imagination.  The paranoid, post-sputnik era prompted lots of books on the subject, often with garish covers and terrifying illustrations. 
Communism was evil.  How could it not be?  We’d been drilled to line up against the wall in the stifling basement hallway of Bartlett Avenue School, shielding our heads with our ten year old crossed arms lest Nikita Khruschev launch nukes at Milwaukee.

But I was intrigued by the idea of the USSR, this exotic, parallel universe.  I wondered whether Soviet students worried about war, and whether they had more effective protection than covering their heads with their hands.  My fascination had the flavor of a science fiction addiction, and I checked out every book I could find on the subject.  They often proved incomprehensible when I got them home, but I was not deterred.  I’ve never been afraid of complicated reading.

Once, a sneering librarian asked what I did with all these books about Russia.  My face went flush with hate and embarrassment.  But another time my favorite librarian, who reminded me of Miss Jane Hathaway, smiled as I hefted The Story of Soviet Man onto the counter.  “You must really be interested in what’s going on over there,” she said.  This simple, obvious remark made me love her. 

I wondered whether she might have been a communist.

During the summer of 1961, right after the end of fourth grade, someone from the school board called my mother.  They were setting up a new program for “Superior Ability” students and had identified me as a potential charter member.  Would she bring me to Wells Street School on a Saturday morning for a series of tests?  The class would have an experimental curriculum, draw students from five area schools, and we’d remain together as a cohesive group until eighth grade, each year hosted by a different school. 

There was much discussion about logistics- it would mean bus riding rather than walking to school- and my parents were ambivalent.  Would the class make me feel as if I’m “a little king?”  In our family, bragging and pride were two sides of the same unbecoming coin.  The notion of enrolling me in a program that boasted some kind of superiority in its very name was concerning.  (Later, there were times they did regret the SA class, and it became a sort of whipping boy.  Indeed, it was the inspiration for my seemingly out-of-nowhere political activism and dada pranks.)

But I passed the tests and started fifth grade at Hartford Avenue School the following September with 30 other clever kids.   What apparently got me in was my answer to an open-ended essay question designed to assess my skill with words.  Prompted to draft a page about anything, I composed a lengthy short story, brimming with pathos, about an East German girl who was separated from her family by the recently erected Berlin Wall.

My exposure to the non-white kids, precocious nerds, and children of academics in that four year program was an experience that re-shaped my worldview for a lifetime.  You might say it made me a Marxist.   

Funny that it was all down to a pretentious little story about the evils of communism.

October, 1964.  Eighth grade, Hartford Avenue School.  A freakishly tropical fall day.  I’m painfully bored, waiting for lunch hour to end on the shimmering asphalt playground.  As usual, I’m hiding, acting weird, avoiding sports, in my own head, leaning against the chain link fence, cloud watching.    Along Maryland Avenue, within earshot, a group of workmen are taking a break and listening to the World Series on the radio.  An announcer cuts in with a news bulletin to say that in the Soviet Union,  Khrushchev has been deposed, and that two new leaders- Brezhnev and Kosygin- will take his place.

I find this news extraordinarily fascinating.