Monday, September 24, 2018

The Co-op

Disclaimer: This blog collection of first-person memoir hovers at the intersection of creative non-fiction and autobiographical fiction, made vague and even boring in fictionalized truth, lost in memory and translations,  in the name of honoring the distance of everyone’s innocence & guilt. I will probably be the only main character every mentioned by name for said reason. Please contact teacherontheradio -at- gmail -dot- com with questions, comments, or concerns.

1: The Co-op

A recent college dropout, I needed a job. My early jobs were not that different than the work that any late teen and early 20s human would take on – except in my case the counterculture version of that, for the service and retail context.

What was minimum wage back then? Four dollars? What was our rent? 250 dollars per month, split two ways between two rebels, dabbling in the anarchist and communist idealism that the post-industrial middle class once specialized in, back in one of those 20th century urban enclaves where a fertile cultural Left still flourished, before the days, like today, when the so-called “radical left” is just a pejorative insult flung at middle-class liberals by the vulgar far-right microphone mouths of cable television.

I really needed a job. Not just to pay the bills, but to work, to be an employee, to wrestle with my identity. Not a vocation or calling, per se. I was running away from the college path, the chosen career, finding my identity in a job meant not relying on my family; job really did mean just paying the bills at this point and being myself. It meant getting-by for someone who had been raised in a context much better than getting-by. An intellectual and educated dropout, I would never be just working class, but for the first and almost only time in my life, for a season it turned out, I wanted to see what life was like without the inherited supplements to my lifestyle that my upper middle-class heritage afforded. I wanted and needed a job. And for specific reasons, I wanted this job. The cooperative grocery was going to be an upgrade at this juncture in my 20 years on earth.

Back in the spring of 1988, what kind of a job did a 20-year-old college dropout really want and need? What were our other expenses? Food and drink and all the various pleasures for the mind required by a 20-year-old appetite. My college dropout status arrived in late 1987, not for lack of intelligence or ambition, no, but from an overactive hunger for adventure and and authenticity and spontaneous unshaven undiscipline. Four dollars per hour, for about 30 hours per week, that left empty notebooks of hours to fill with the poetry and prose of a wild-eyed rebel on release from suburbia.

Slowly slumming around the late 1980s, my wage-earning work life to that point had wandered from paper route to record store to restaurant. The trendy vegetarian health food joint the summer before (that was 1987) had been a baptism into a six-day week. I never asked why my hours there did not make me full-time or eligible for benefits. I just showed-up, clocked-in, chopped vegetables, and prepped salads. The first day, I sliced my hand open, taking a blade sharper than one I had ever used, right through an avocado pit. Yes, there was blood, and yes, they took me to the hospital. And yes, there is a scar.

Then, I became a salad chef. It was more than intense, but I kind of loved it. I loved my co-workers. I loved the bearded biker brothers on the hot side. I also wore my hair long, but we all tied it up and kept it out of the food. This place was far too upscale for hippie-biker hair in the food.  I loved the gospel-singing dishwasher who would regale us with songs like I Am A Soldier In The Army of The Lord.

I loved the contrast between the kitchen staff and the serving staff – it was two different classes across a short counterculture-culture-chasm. The cooks were what I thought all health food staff were supposed to be, rugged hippies. The serving staff were our cleaned-up and clean-shaven suburban counterparts of the New Age diet.

I am pretty sure New Age was the term by then, Harmonic Convergence and all that. Food was healing, and it did not matter that the kitchen staff also smoked cigarettes on our breaks. We did not want to be too healthy or too pure. Suburban health food restaurant felt like just the right stepping-stone to urban natural foods cooperative grocery store. I was accumulating hippie cred as quickly as I could. 

Now getting this next job at the co-op was hardly a guarantee. I had to apply for the job against other applicants. There would be an interview, and I waited to find out if I had been hired. Not even getting accepted to college or getting the jobs I had before this one seemed as steep a hill to climb.

Somehow because of the diversity of the neighborhood and culture, for one of the few times in my life, white male privilege wasn’t actually an advantage. But this factored in to why I wanted to work there, this was where we found college students and college professors, Methodist preachers and public school teachers, farmers and truckers, lesbians and librarians, Black Muslims and Rastafarians, Catholic Workers and Workers of the World. That place showed me diversity liked I’d never seen, even after integrated schools my whole life; I was learning about the urban counterculture I had only heard about. 

A college dropout, I needed a job, not just for money, but for a sense of self, that I could be a worker among workers if that is what I wanted. I left college for urban spelunking in the ruins of mansions, cathedrals, and movie theaters. I left college to recover from a handful of drug experiences that left my doors of perception a little too scrubbed, shocked, seduced, and scared to sit upright at another college desk spouting pseudo-truths. At least not just yet. This would come later. This was my season of learning to party, let me admit that. As long as I was mostly sober when I showed up for work, that was okay right? This was the season I would turn 21, the season I would try too many things.

Mostly I worked out my schedule to work the afternoon until close shift, but I remember beginning with mornings. I remember one morning, I was on produce at the time, they gave me a box of strawberries to sort, because the shipment was already starting to turn past saleable. It was summer, and I had been up all night. Bleary and still a little buzzed, they handed me the strawberries. The red juice was like blood on my fingers, each fruit a sweet sacrament, mushy to the touch. How could we ever sort strawberries! We should relish the wonder of the mushy juicy fruit and eat it like love itself, falling apart in our hands, melting in our mouths. Each strawberry was a vision to me, did everyone else not see it? But I sat or stood or something, and I dutifully sorted strawberries, eating or tossing the ones too ripe to be sold. 

Of course, the 20-year-old poet thinks he has a wild grasp on the truth, which only tells him to look for more truth, which in my case meant exploring books and albums and fanzines, which in my case meant to go on tour with bands and to Rainbow Gatherings and to nuclear test sites where earnest ragtag radicals had plans to shut down the war machine.

This was the city I thought would never be gentrified. This was the city a little too rough and rundown to join the upscale countercultures we were already seeing emerge in Boston and the Bay Area, in Chicago and New York. After a stint serving the poor and underclass in Atlanta, I saw Detroit as the place to practice revolution, to plant seeds of the new society in the shell of the old. Even though this was just a grocery store job, ringing the cash register, unloading the trucks, stocking the shelves, mopping the floor, and taking out the garbage, even though this was just a job among other jobs a college dropout could score, I saw the food co-op movement as a small gentle part of the revolution.

Over in Ann Arbor, the housing co-ops were hubs of hope steeped in the living threads of a radical campus milieu with roots in the legendary 1960s. When living in the 1980s, I thought the 60s were the distant past. But living in the twenty-teens, I understand that the 1990s are as close to us now, as the 60s were to us then; this is a wake-up call that in the 1980s, the 60s weren’t that long ago. Detroit and Ann Arbor were places where the more gritty dreams of revolution never died.

Our health food distributor, a co-op among co-ops, was based in Ann Arbor and run as a union shop, Wobblies at that. The IWW, International Workers of the World were the “one big union” of legend that I had read about in books, seen portrayed so romantically in the movie Reds, starring Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton and featuring Maureen Stapleton as red Emma Goldman. Our little grocery never turned into a Wobbly store, but I dreamed about it. I dreamed while stocking the shelves that we were stoking the fires of social change. I dreamed on my lunch break in the back alley, the same alley where the co-workers would sometimes go to smoke together, not just tobacco.

There was music in the crowded aisles of our tiny store. Who got to pick which cassette or CD went in our jambox was the decision of the day, a sacred decision. I would dance down the aisles when stocking the shelves. My co-workers laughed and called it “Doing the Andy.” That summer, a folk music revival was raging in my heart, and folk music seemed a good compromise with rock and reggae and blues and everything else we blasted in that store. Two folk music records defined that summer and are still on my mind and in my heart today, thirty years later as of this writing. 

Before our little corner store was grocery, the same spot was a neighborhood club, a jazz joint, I am told. A few doors down we would open a music and activist clubhouse three years later, a storefront soup kitchen and punk rock refuge. We were singers and subversives and poets and painters and protesters, all.

1 comment:

Jeannie said...

Great story! Nice picture of the co-op!