Saturday, August 15, 2009

Chapter 22: At United Parcel Service and Queens College, 1969 (i)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (125)

By early August 1969, I was desperate to leave my parents’ apartment for my own space again. I found myself a part-time evening job unloading trucks at United Parcel Service in Maspeth, Queens for $52 per week, sold my saxophone for $100 to a follower of Meher Baba to raise my security deposit and broker’s fee, and rented a furnished room in a Jackson Heights rooming house, near 37th Ave. and 74th St. Most of August was spent completing the last two courses I needed to graduate, hanging out at Queens College for a few hours in the afternoon, and unloading trucks at UPS at night.

During my last weeks of attending classes at Queens College, I met a woman student who dealt grass on campus and ended up smoking pot with her in her parents’ Mitchell Gardens apartment in Flushing one afternoon, when her parents were away on vacation. She was a hippie and bohemian and spirited, but she wasn’t at all interested in radical political organizing. Another woman student I met at Queens College around this time, named Martha, was interested in New Left politics. After she handed me a flyer one afternoon on campus, I ended up asking her for a weekend date. She was a divorced ex-hippie who had lived in San Francisco when married for a few years. Martha also was the daughter of an Old Left musician and his wife, and she now lived with her parents in a large high-rise apartment in Flushing’s Carlyle Towers.

Martha’s intellectualism and leftism interested me, and we had a good time taking a subway to Coney Island, hanging out on the beach, swimming together and riding the roller-coaster. For a few weeks it looked like we might become lovers. Our friendship ended, however, when Martha saw me handing out a leaflet on campus for a political group, the Mother Jones Caucus, that she felt was competing with the political sect that she was in at this time.

The Mother Jones Caucus was a small New Left political group that was started at Queens College in early September 1969 by a married bohemian couple named Chele and Gunner. Chele and Gunner lived together in a rent-controlled, run-down apartment on Great Jones St. on the Lower East Side. Gunner was a good-natured, unemployed carpenter who was also taking some courses at Queens College in Fall 1969. Chele was a strong, warm, vibrant, idealistic, liberated woman activist with long light-brown hair, who had grown up in California. She was also enrolled at Queens College in Fall 1969.

Chele, Gunner and I became fond of each other quickly because of our philosophical similarities. We were able to organize both a Queens College rally that built for a march in support of anti-war GIs at Fort Dix in New Jersey and a campus rally that protested a police attack on the Black Panther Party office in Corona-East Elmhurst, Queens (which had left one Black Panther Party activist wounded).

But by early November 1969, Chele, Gunner and I all began to feel that New Left organizing at a commuter school like Queens College was unable to produce many more New Left Movement recruits. Queens College students (unlike students who lived in college dormitories or their own off-campus apartments) were tied too closely to their parents, in whose apartments and homes they still lived, to be personally emancipated enough to join the Movement en masse. So the Mother Jones Caucus at Queens College became inactive after a few months. I still felt close to Chele and Gunner, though. They were the type of Movement people who would invite you to dinner at their apartment on a Saturday night, if you worked with them politically.

Aside from doing political organizing work by day at Queens College in Fall 1969 (after finishing my summer courses and receiving a Richmond College BA in the mail), I continued to work part-time unloading trucks at UPS. It was hard physical labor; and there was never a shortage of trucks to remove heavy boxes from and then place the boxes down on the rapidly moving conveyor belt. About 50% of the UPS unloaders, packers and sorters were African-Americans and a substantial number of all the workers were returning Viet Nam War veterans. While we toiled in factory-like conditions, a sound system throughout the UPS distribution center broadcast either rock music or the New York Mets baseball game (The Mets were in the 1969 pennant race and would go on to win the World Series, and there was intense UPS worker interest in their fate). “Honky Tonk Women,” sung by the Rolling Stones, was the hit song being played on the radio most at this time.

Nobody at UPS enjoyed their work during the night shift. But it became clear to me after the first week at United Parcel Service that neither the 1960s Black Liberation Movement nor the white New Left Movement had made much impact yet on the consciousness of UPS workers. There was no sense among the UPS workers that a Revolution in the U.S. was either approaching or practical; and the idea that socialism was preferable to capitalism was not being advocated by anybody else in the distribution center. Whenever I worked inside the UPS trucks, the world of Movement people--who talked as if a Black Panther Party-led Revolution was about to begin shortly in the U.S.--seemed to be a fantasy world. I had to keep reminding myself not to assume that all working-class people in the U.S. were as uninterested in Black Liberation politics in 1969 as my UPS co-workers.

Working at UPS each night from August 1969 to early December 1969 was quite exhausting at first and reinforced my gut hatred for the classist capitalist system, but it also enabled me to have my days free to organize at Queens College and elsewhere. After finishing college, I was at a loss at what exactly to do with my life. Since I would soon lose my student deferment, it seemed impossible and purposeless to make any long-range plans, until I figured out a way to beat the draft.

I considered going into the U.S. Army to organize, if drafted, because a GI resistance movement was developing. But I concluded that it was still more practical and important for me to resist being drafted.

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