Ellen Geist: Poor Us

We were very poor. By choice, you might say. Some of us were from Scarsdale, Shaker Heights, and Georgetown, but we never talked about that. I wasn’t from any of those places. My father always said we were “lower middle class,” growing up, but we were more in the middle than he cared to admit. Some very few of us were not poor by choice; they were true workers. We had met them at Lander Toys, at General Hospital, and at Rose Appliance. We called Rose Appliance “Rosebriar.” This was a reference to the many workers from Kentucky we called briars, a short form for briar-hoppers. “How can you tell you are at a briar’s house? By the number of cars on cinderblocks in the front yard.”

We prided ourselves on learning briar jokes, just as we prided ourselves on adopting every nuance of the workers’ lifestyle/values/habits of mind. I myself adopted a Southern accent, which I can slip into to this day. We decided to like country-western music. We were going to organize a Marxist style revolution in America and we were going to the workers, like “peasants marching off to war,”—a quote we liked from Mao Tse Tung…We liked Clint Eastwood movies. We no longer liked Shakespeare, Beethoven, Romantic Poetry, although my husband had a penchant for abstract impressionist painting. I had sold all my works of world literature during my last years of college, when I became involved with the most extremist group I could find, the one that was serious about organizing a Marxist style revolution in America. I was not truly a political activist in my first few years of college, but I took a class to find out what Marxism was about. My parents had been communists, but I had not been allowed to take the few pamphlets they had from the old days to my elementary school when we were discussing communism vs. capitalism. This was a year or two shy of the fifties, mind you, and my father had been fired from his job teaching at MIT for being a communist.

It turned out that many of our parents had been communists. We were not Russian-style communists. We denounced the Communist Party USA as a Soviet Puppet. We were America’s Maoists and we were purists—we wanted real communism, as Karl Marx had actually envisioned it, the communism I fell in love with in college, tracing down from Hegel, the true spirit of history, where everything is equal and one is a worker in the morning and a poet in the afternoon. When I took that Marxism class in college, it made absolute sense to me and I set about trying to find a group that was serious about it. The group that seemed most serious about it, however, were Stalinists and wanted me to quit my advanced poetry seminar. I didn’t quit the seminar, but I did stop writing poetry. Everyone else from the seminar went to the Iowa Writers Workshop, where, remarkably, most of them became rather well-known figures in the poetry scene, while I went on to graduate work at Deico Reneer making wheel cylinders for cars. It was very challenging to learn to keep up with the assembly line and at first I was covered in oil, but eventually I learned. I hated Stalin, but gradually I made the adjustment. I don’t know how or why I did this; there are probably many deep psychological and even sociological and philosophical reasons. but gradually I made the adjustment. My entire collection of literature became whittled down to two works of fiction. One was Barricades in Berlin. You probably have never heard of this book. It’s about May Day in Germany before the war. I no longer know if it’s any good, but I suspect it is not any good. The other was The Mother by Maxim Gorky, which is indeed a good book.

Later on I was assigned to sell our newspaper at poetry readings. We were trying to broaden our strategy from just organizing the working class to including the “petit-bourgeoisie.” I would sit in the back of the room watching others read poetry and tears would roll down my face. That was the beginning of the end for me. I thought if I could ever have the strength to quit, I could begin writing again, and I thought if I could just be allowed to write I would be happy. If I could just be the one reading in a reading, such as this one. I had no idea how miserable one can be as a writer, too.

Our wanting to be just like the workers included getting jobs in factories. So for a while, we weren’t poor at all. In the UAW factories, we were making eight dollars an hour, an incredible wage in 1976, and more for overtime, and with that we could buy houses, and cars, and we had ready-credit and health insurance. We were very settled. I was twenty-four years old, married, with a downsized Chevy, a house, and a baby. I remember one of the women who worked on the assembly line with me, saying, “even if you lose it someday, remember once you had it all.” I had no idea I would lose it all someday, or when that day would come. I was living another life, and I loved its simplicity; we were revolutionaries but we were living the good American dream, in the days when “30 and Out” was a reality, and workers were retiring at 48 years old.

I spent a lot of time getting that job at Deico Reneer. I would get up every morning and be one of the first to “sign in” at their employment office. There were six of us and we had a pecking order, no one could sign in before the other in the order. We heard stories about someone sending flowers to the receptionist. We heard of someone getting hired at Plymouth. Then came the magic day—I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced such elation again, when I was hired, when communists all over town—at six or seven of us—were hired. Ninety days was your trial period and then you couldn’t be fired for anything except lying on your job application or stopping production   For 90 days I had the luxury of pretending to be just an ordinary worker, not a communist. I got married in that 90 days, and invited all the workers to my wedding. They must have thought it weird because I was married by a rabbi—it was an outdoor ceremony by the river at something called the Frankfort club, a dark woodpaneled hall that appalled all my relatives, as did the pork-tainted hot dog and baked bean buffet we served.

It was nicer before I “came out” as a communist in the factory, because I could sit on the assembly line and talk with the women and not have to be hated by all the white men. There was Odessa, who oiled the wheel cylinders at the front of the line and was named her exotic name because her father had been there during the war, and Alma Jean, and Woody, who had never married, a huge woman with a gruff loud voice and there was Denise who had two children and a long life with a married man; she regularly went on sick leave for six months with a note from Dr. Whitehouse; everyone went to Dr. Whitehouse and went on sick leave, and no one could do a blessed thing about it, we were UAW, and you couldn’t be fired after ninety days except for lying on your application and stopping production There was Tina who taught me a great trick I use to this day, which is stepping on the flush handle of the toilet so as not to get germs on your hands.

But my favorite was Grace. I sat next to Grace and we talked all day. When I came out after my ninety days as a communist, Grace was one of the few who would still talk to me. She talked to me about her daughter, who had died of leukemia when she was four. She talked to me about her dreams of writing plays and poetry. I had given up writing poetry to be a worker like Grace.

I was fired eventually for stopping production. We marched through the factory shouting “Mao Tse Tung did not fail, Revolution will prevail” and throwing Mao buttons on the tracks.   Mao Tse Tung had died and we stood with the gang of four. After that march, the workers thronged outside the factory as we left and one pulled a knife on me while I was arguing with him. We were always getting into arguments with workers who wanted to kill us. In southern Indiana there is not that much respect for the law and many workers own guns and are quite willing to use them, although most of the fights were verbal and/or with fists. I never saw myself as brave and didn’t like to get into fights and I don’t know how I did this, how I woke up at 5 in the morning and put on a down overcoat and snow pants and stood in the freezing cold trying to sell communist newspapers at factory gates to workers who wanted to kill me.   I believed in what I was doing. I sublimated the personal to the political.

I tried to win over the white workers who hated me. I remember vividly one day in the factory when I was talking to Harley, the job-setter. Being a job-setter was a relatively privileged position where you got to roam around the assembly line and relieve people when they went to the bathroom.

One day I tried to win over Harley, saying: “There’s a small class of people who own and control everything.”

“Yes,” he said, “I know, and I know who it is—it’s the Jews!” My mouth fell open, but I didn’t say a word.

The KKK had an awfully big presence in that neck of the woods. There were many charter members in the factory where I worked. Once there was a Klan rally in Loganville that drew 200 people. We had decided to go to the rally in order to win over the wavering elements—the disaffected youth, the duped white workers—who were falling for the rhetoric of the KKK.

However there were far fewer “advanced” among the crowd than we had imagined; more than two hundred quite enthusiastic participants already filled the park. I happened to arrive on the opposite side from where the rest of my small band of comrades had gathered along with a number of anti-Klan activists and other competing groups in a rare moment when uniting seemed more important than our fervent denunciations of each other.

I arrived with someone from our group, a tall black man named Greg and another new-generation hippie-type with a ponytail, whose name I don’t recall. He was not exactly part of our group but a fellow traveler. The three of us had to walk through the crowd to the other side of the park to join our contingent standing together by a cluster of trees.

As we set out, the guy with the ponytail decided to hold up his red flag. We were very into red flags in those days—a symbol of being a true revolutionary, not a soviet-style bureaucrat. We passed them out to people in housing projects surrounding the site of the then future KKK rally, people who had no real idea what they meant but stuck them on their doorposts for a while anyway as a sign of general disgust for the “whole system,” and their not-by-choice impoverished plight. This was something we considered a great victory until someone else scared them into taking them down.

Now we walked through the KKK rally—Greg towering next to me, and the hippie with a ponytail holding his red flag high–and all around us murmurs went through the crowd. I heard “nigger-lover” and low voices uttering threats of violence, but we walked through the middle of that crowd and no one touched us. I believe they were so shocked that anyone would walk like that through the crowd that their astonishment acted as a shield.

At the end of that rally they burned a huge cross. I’ve never seen anything more terrible and frightening in my life as the sight of that burning cross, and the KKK in their robes dancing around it.

But I’m getting away from the thread of my story, which is supposed to be about being poor. This is a very long intro into a very short story, about being poor. So for a while we were rich, or as rich as I could have imagined, but then I got fired for marching through the plant chanting about Mao, and then many of us got fired for other things, and soon there were class divisions among ourselves, between the ones who weren’t fired yet and the ones who were poor. I was among the poor and we helped each other out, we borrowed each other’s food stamps. My husband got us on the WIC program for the baby. By that time I’d had my second child, and once a week we had a delivery: a large wedge of yellow /orange cheese, a bag of pinto beans, milk, eggs, and baby formula. I learned to cook exclusively with pinto beans.

We were so poor that I taught my son Jesse, who was five at the time, every time he got to someone’s house who was richer than ourselves (which included almost everyone we knew); I taught him to say in a sweet, plaintive, but not too whiny voice, “Gee, I’m hungry.” so he would be offered something to eat. We were so poor that when a friend brought over a pumpkin for Halloween, on one of our rare fun occasions in a life filled with selling newspapers at five in morning in the freezing cold and going out to Bedford GMAD and getting beat-up by rednecks, that I scraped out the pumpkin seeds and roasted them in a tin pan in the oven and set them on the counter, and Jesse, who was only about two or three then, would jump up on the counter all by himself in the morning before I was awake and eat the pumpkin seeds. Then later when we were richer and Jesse didn’t have to say “I’m hungry” anymore at people’s houses, it was difficult to rid him of the habit.

We were so poor that I remember once having a meeting at Perkins Pancake House, because we often met at Perkins, and I didn’t want to tell even my comrades how poor I was, though I don’t know why–today I’ll let my richer friends take me out to dinner, but then I didn’t want to admit how poor I was. All through the meeting I didn’t order any pancakes, I just ate the syrup out of those tin creamer containers, I ate blueberry and raspberry, and strawberry syrup.

I don’t know if I was poor but happy, but I didn’t even feel that much poorer in some ways than I do now and I had no fear of the future, for me then the future meant world revolution, being part of history, and my personal future wasn’t really a question and there was a great relief in that. Life with a purpose, as we used to say, or for some of us sillier ones, like me, life with a porpoise.

We were so poor that one day when I was pregnant with my second baby–that day was the poorest day ever in my life. We had no bottles to take back to the grocery, nothing at all. We were living in the Coe Garden apartments, a misnomer as there were no gardens, it was a housing project, though I thought it was pretty nice. For $200 a month we had a kind of townhouse—and when my mother came to visit she did dig us a garden in the backyard, though I don’t know if that was really allowed. Anyway, we were living in the Coe and I was pregnant, and we headed down to Beechwood Grove to this place called the free store. But when we arrived, we were too late for the food; we were supposed to have gotten there by 8 am. I remember staring at the cans of food that they wouldn’t give me. I was so hungry, and so weak I felt faint.

We went home and didn’t know what to do, and then someone in the Coe told us to call a Catholic church, that they would give you food. We went over there and a man gave us two full bags of groceries, I remember watching the man at the church fill up the bag with milk, and eggs, and butter, and sausages, When we got home, I made noodles and those sausages in a cream sauce (OK, I’d never do that now, for many reasons) and my husband had stashed a bottle of Suave Bolla, and we drank wine and ate those sausages, and they tasted incredible.

There were few so moments like that in our lives. We worked very hard, day and night; we stayed up all night writing leaflets and printing them on a Gestetner machine. (In the 60’s/70’s before personal computers, this was how we bulk printed in quantity. We used press type with letters of different sizes, we rubbed onto our stencil. We typed from a Selectric typewriter; I still owned a manual, possibly).

I remember once we were driving through the park with a stack of leaflets, and someone swore we were being tailed by undercover cops, and I chewed up and ate about fifty of those leaflets; lord knows how I did it, chewed and swallowed them, so if we got stopped, the cops wouldn’t find them. We worked very hard, we sacrificed the personal to the political, we stayed up all night, we ran around all day, and I was the most dedicated. Even if I couldn’t be the most brave, I could be the most dedicated.

One day I couldn’t take it anymore, so I just ran away. I left a note for my “leadership” and I took my son and a green suitcase and headed home to the Passover Seder. For years and years I’d always missed the Seder, it was too close to May Day. And on the bus to Pittsburgh, I did some alphabet letters with my son. We never had time to do stuff like that. I was too busy.

I was passing out leaflets, selling newspapers, creating public opinion to seize power, Mao’s slogan, one of many I liked back then and still do, such as “The road is tortuous; the future is bright,” and “If the earth blew up, it would be a large event in the solar system, but a small event in the universe.

Only once did my husband and I take a trip like normal people. We went to Natural Bridge in Kentucky. I was pregnant. We went on a long walk, my husband, and I, and Jesse; we walked about five miles through the woods to this natural bridge formation, and we even took pictures, and I remember we stayed in a motel. I thought that was the greatest idea my husband had, not to camp out when you were tired but instead to stay in a cheap motel. Jesse was five, and he had never stayed in a motel before.

We were all lying around watching TV for several hours when Jesse suddenly turned to me and said, “So, whose place is this, anyway?”

I quit our party not so long after that because I was pregnant with my second child. I thought I can’t keep living like this, running around all the time, exhausting myself, getting sick, or my baby will never make it. That wasn’t the only reason I quit. But it was what gave me the courage to make the break. There were many reasons I wanted to quit and I tried to resign several times. I had written extensive resignations and handed them in each time. By then I didn’t want to just quit, run away again, or act like I was going to jump out of a car and have to be pulled back before I was allowed to quit, like one of my (ex) comrades at the time. Or have a breakdown. It wasn’t easy to quit. But me, I wanted to explain my ideas. I was reading Simone de Beauvoir and Doris Lessing, whom I hadn’t read since college, I was reading all kinds of works of literature, and I was also thinking I just wanted to be normal and not part of world history. I thought: if I could just go to Seders, if I could just write, if I could just spend time going over letters with my son, if I could just visit my family, if I could just go on hikes to outdoor places, then I would be happy.

What’s the moral of this story, then? I did quit the party, and I did get to do all those things, and still nothing ever tastes as good as those sausages or outdoor hikes seem as beautiful as Natural Bridge and going after what you want, putting yourself first, hasn’t turned out to be so easy. It’s all relative.

Tags: , , ,