Saturday, April 17, 2010


I am a communist. Well, not really. I am more of a socialist, but that is an attention-getting statement to put up front. Yet for a brief while it was literally true: a long time ago I attended meetings of the communist party in the United States.

Which one, you ask. What faction? Because there were so many. (Check your card, Melissa!) While I may well have thickened my FBI file, I did not receive a card--nor did I know or care what faction it was. Because, as you may guess, I was not there primarily on account of politics. I was in my twenties; I was feeling revolutionary; but, as the first clause suggests, it was an adorable guy who lured me into the red room.

We met through some labyrinthine arty channels whose specifics I now forget: screenwriting class? punk rock? some freelance-underling gig? At any rate, he wrote a zine espousing the party's views as well as his musical tastes (and if you weren't writing a zine in the early eighties, what the hell were you doing?) and I wanted to help. After all, I liked the Clash too. I also would have poured his Cheerios in the morning plus milked the cow for them, but I never got the chance. Instead, I tailed him around to meetings and wielded the stapler when the time came. It seemed to me that all they did was argue about arguing in those meetings, anyway. A child could have seen that these people were never going to get to the point of actually doing anything.

I will never forget the moment Mr. Cute Commie looked up at me from his careful rulering on a cartooned zine page, narrowed his eyes, and with a tight smile hissed, "I look forward to the day when heads roll down Park Avenue."

Now, I was all for metaphoric heads rolling down figurative corridors of American financial inequity. But this guy was looking forward to real severed spines and blood-spewing carotid arteries. His look chilled me through and through. All of a sudden he was not so adorable anymore.

I ran.

But I have stayed a happy joiner of many of the rare socialist endeavors that have presented themselves to me. They represent, in my view, the flowering of the highest potential of the human spirit. Just plain good, in other words. The eloquent version, of course, belongs to Martin Luther King, Jr.:

The good and just society is neither
the thesis of capitalism nor the
antithesis of communism, but a
socially conscious democracy which reconciles
the truths of individualism
and collectivism.

A good place to see this in action, at the plodding fundament, is at the food co-op. I am addicted to this type of collectivism in action. My first was in college. On the first floor of a drafty farmhouse there was a basket of brown eggs and about eight barrels of foodstuffs you scooped yourself (because no one was going to get that messy on your behalf: peanut butter, honey, liquid soap). That was it. Back home in Akron on holidays, I searched until I found a food co-op there, and I dismayed my mother greatly by bringing home brown rice and raw wheat germ, worse because she imagined it was also dirty. To her relief, the co-op closed, because Akron is just not a cooperative place, being a town that would sell its soul to the devil in return for a chain store of any sort (or so says Chrissie Hynde). But then I moved to Brooklyn, and I found the beating heart of edible socialism in the Park Slope Food Coop, one of the largest and lushest in America; you could practically hear my smug laughter all the way down Union Street as I hugged to my chest an affordable bag of otherwise unaffordable blood oranges, French cheeses, and fragrant soaps. I could get them because no one other than the producer was making a profit, and we all had to work in the store, no exceptions. ("No exceptions" is the soul of collectivism.) Moving away from this store is what really broke my heart; leaving the crowd and pace of the city, not so much. So when I found a tiny food co-op up here, I felt right at home: it was a little dirty, a little expensive, and a little little, but the sight of people like me lugging sacks of grain around and bagging dried fruit cheered my heart.

Up here in the sticks, we even managed to find a cooperative swim-and-tennis club: membership was cheap, because everyone worked. It felt like heaven--familiar and right.

What is wrong with me that I feel this way? So un-American.

[Please, please note that I agree not with the perversions of communist-based systems that have anything to do with top-down control or violence of any kind--as with Christianity, more damage than kindness has been done in the name of this ideal--but with the theoretical possibility of leveling the field, and living for and with each other.]

This past Christmas, for the first time in our new life, we did not go to Akron or Utah to be with family. I was a bit scared: I myself become a child at the holidays, wanting them filled with people and cheer. The prospect of spending the twenty-fifth alone, the two of us, was frankly terrifying. So I canvassed all my friends, just short of grabbing them by the collar and pleading for an invitation. I finally found someone; yes, we could come over for Christmas dinner. Relief. That's settled.

Then, two days before Christmas, an e-mail arrived: Actually, no, sorry, you can't come for Christmas dinner; I neglected to ask my husband, and he doesn't want you. (Well, not said exactly like that, but it was the meaning.)

Two days before Christmas. My son, asking what we were going to do. "Something fun, honey, I promise. I'm just not sure what."

Desperation now. To the point of asking distant acquaintances. I practically had to do it with eyes closed, it felt that embarrassing. If it was just me, I'd take a klonopin, get into bed, and wake sometime on the twenty-sixth. But it was not just me. And that is the point of this story.

One of those acquaintances told me, at last, about the community dinner in Woodstock. It's for everyone, she explained. Come, work, eat.

It was what I had been looking for. An opportunity to show my child that it's just not us here. It's not always about our wants, needs, desires. Sometimes those have to be pushed back into the wings while others stand out front getting their share of spotlight. (I hope I am not making myself sound unselfish; that would be a lie. And I am not good, though I want to be.) Giving unsavory lessons: one of the yucky jobs of parenting.

We walked into the large hall of the community center. It was bubbling with noise, activity, and yes, good cheer. Every type of person was there: the wealthy, the poor, the strange. People on public assistance, people whose taxes (one could only hope) were helping to fund that assistance. All going down the food line together. And we spooned equal amounts of food onto each of their plates.

My son was proud to help, I could see. And when our turn came, we ate too. We sat in chairs recently vacated by people who had filled their pockets before leaving with bread and apples, because they would need them for the coming week. We left without filling our pockets. But we left full. Have you ever felt this way? I hope so. Maybe you are a communist too.


Steve said...

I had nearly forgotten that period of my life. There has been a lot of stuff stacked on top of it since; very similar to the way things that I just can't throw away get stored in the back of the shed until I need to find something else.

Exercising the freedom of adulthood I traveled west from rural Pennsylvania soon after high school. It turned out that the first "place of my own" was in Berkley in the early '70's. Among the new experiences for a naive kid was a food co-op.

Thanks, Melissa, for reminding me of that memory. It is great that you have found that kind of community nearby, and are able to share it with your son.

John Leffler said...

An interesting tale with a heartwarming ending.

It brought up a memory from the early 1980s. A coworker friend mentioned to me an architect we knew was attending communist part meetings, mainly because of a guy she was pursuing. Same guy? - Or did the Party have a cadre of charming young men doing recruitment?

My friend was also attending the meetings for a while, but for ideological reasons. I think.

Kevin G. said...

The most important lessons are rarely taught in schools. For an all too brief window, what parents do (and sometimes don’t do), will be the most influential “book” that our children will ever see. Thank you for sharing that memorable page from both of your lives with us.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Hopefully, this will not remain only in the past, for me or my child. (Note that I did not bring up the nationalized health care issue . . .)

It's always stunned me how people can wield the word "socialist" in the same way they would "devil." Heck, look what we have from our few forays into socialism: well, take the Blue Ridge Parkway, for instance. We've been to a good many parks that were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps--and I've told my son how they got there, and why. Out of darkness, light.

We need more, ever more, of this sort of thing in our lives. Co-ops, community gardens, and the best aspects of the New Deal. Bring it on, Obama!

Reid said...

"Then, two days before Christmas, an e-mail arrived: Actually, no, sorry, you can't come for Christmas dinner; I neglected to ask my husband, and he doesn't want you. (Well, not said exactly like that, but it was the meaning.)"

Hi Melissa,

I've been reading your blog for some time. I am sometimes tempted to comment on what you have
written, but words don't come easily to me, so I don't.

I often see myself as the person you are writing about. Sometimes, your writing makes me feel attacked (I am a Carnivore, and the fact that I use an electric fence are two examples). You are very passionate and use the power of words expertly. I keep coming back because I enjoy what you write, I find it engaging and it touches me deeply.

I am compelled to respond here because in this case you are writing about me. It is true, I did not want to share this Christmas Dinner with you. This Christmas, for me, was a time for intimacy, and Family. I was not open to having any dinner guests that were not family. It is unfortunate that things happened the way they did. I am sorry if you were hurt by this.

I am not sure how this anecdote serves the story. I am sure that the truth, would have a different effect than "the meaning". To say "he doesn't want you" just isn't fair to me.

I look forward to more frozen pizza dinners and seeing you in my rear view mirror...


Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Reid, I'm terrifically sorry. That is really all I can say: sometimes I fall down, hard, as a human being, and this is one of those times.

Yet this is truly the first time I ever had you in mind as I wrote--though it is definitely true that my passions run fast and furious.

My point in including the story is that it ended up being a gift. We were given the tiny push we needed to do something we should have done long ago: serve the community, join the community, receive from the community.

There are sometimes things that happen between friends that go too far, that are inexplicable in their wrongdoing. If this isn't one of those times for you, then you are probably too generous.

I apologize deeply.