It's summer here, humid with thunderstorms. The fan is on, which makes me think of that great John Godfrey line "Like Mick Jagger, I turn on my fans". It was eighteen years ago that I moved to the Lower East Side (East 6th Street between A and B, to be specific). We had a fan in that apartment. It filtered in the musty cat-piss scent of early June’s Tree of Heaven saplings springing up in the back alley. I lived with my friend Dave and thousands of roaches, and O.J. Simpson was on t.v. driving around the Los Angeles freeway in his white Ford Bronco. Every night I got a slice of pizza for $1.25 and went to Kim's video on Avenue A to pick out a Fellini movie. It was a steamy Italian summer. Those were the good old days. Were they? Probably not. Some things were good. The rents were cheap, but of course they seemed really expensive. Pizza seemed cheap and was cheap. Falafel too.
There are these heyday moments in life. In 1986, sophomore year of college in Buffalo, I met a bunch of cool twenty-year-olds. Green, New Left, queer/lesbian/straight, feminist, punk, folk, eco-conscious recycling freaks and food-coop-shoppers. We all moved into a big place on the North Side of town at 67 Englewood Avenue and started a sprawling chaotic cooperative community soon to be called “Love House”. Phil lined the floor of his room with leaves and welcomed in spiders, Tae-Wol lined the attic with red carpet and entertained interesting boys, Mr. Kim cooked ox tail soup in the kitchen, Julie and Aaron tripped on acid and stared at a light bulb through a spaghetti strainer, Lori and Kim raged against the patriarchy, we made tie-dye tee shirts in the basement and sold them to pay the rent. I learned about the finer pleasures of life: cashew butter, darjeeling tea, French press coffee, hashish, vegetarian Indian buffet, and magic mushrooms. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll (the Smiths, the Cocteau Twins, Jonathan Richman, and Bob Dylan) were themes of the place, but all kinds of things happened: we hosted poetry readings and edited a magazine called No Trees (published by the Love House Press Collective). On one occasion an ancient friend of Jack Kerouac's named John Montgomery came through town and we lured him to the attic to recite his verse. Discussions of politics inevitably turned into organizing meetings, which turned into direct actions. We locked horns with the college republicans, kept the CIA from recruiting on campus, took over the president’s office to protest the university’s Star Wars-related research projects, held a three day fast in solidarity with the Sandinistas, bused down to Washington to march on the Pentagon. William Blake, Emma Goldman, and Bob Marley were our heroes. Life was good. And then eventually it all fell apart. We squabbled over the virtues and vices of pornography, tofu, and revolutionary violence. The rent didn’t get paid. We stopped sharing food. Some from the group fled for San Francisco. Others stayed on and went to graduate school. Everyone turned out okay in the end (a bunch of lawyers, one librarian, one poet, one nurse, and a queer city council person).
I never thought it would be possible to again have that feeling of belonging and a shared “ethos” like they say. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, really. In New York City the rents are high, everyone works a lot, and people are focused on “making it” in some field or another. And then once a kid comes along you’re lucky if you have the energy to get down the block to socialize with the Pakistani cashiers at the 99 Cent Store. For Thomas and I, the first two years of kid-raising were bright with the joy of the kid and dark with the emptiness of the world around us. Every instinct we had about becoming a family was impinged upon by pediatricians, friends, neighbors, online mom groups, and even people passing on the street (“put a hat on that baby”). We felt more alone than we ever had, and New York was already a pretty lonely place.
Then the unthinkable happened. Back in September, after Bea got tossed from her preschool Waldorf-modeled Central Park-based outdoor nursery group (dress code violation), my first instinct was to buy her an ice cream and head to the Museum of Natural History to see the dinosaurs. Within a couple hours I realized that we had to continue our relationship with Central Park, with or without the acorn-worshipping Waldorfians. (I had had just about enough of Grandfather Gnome anyway.) So I asked around and lucked into the right places (the New York City Attachment Parenting group, a couple unschooling email lists, and the Queens homeschooling community). On our first day out in the park there were a dozen or more families with toddlers and babies. Within a month there were fifty people on our mailing list. By mid-winter the group had shrunk to thirty, with a core group of about a dozen moms and dads who were very serious about having fun with their kids in all kinds of weather even if it meant spending an hour plus on the subway with a hyper toddler. It’s taken months for me to permit myself to believe that there is room for ethical communal social life in New York City in the 21st Century. For the last seven months our free range forest nursery group has gathered every week (indeed three days a week), and the kids are now comrades who cross the rocky ledges of Central Park like a herd of wild mountain goats. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll have become co-sleeping, breast-feeding, and running with sticks. Shoes are optional, clothing is optional, raw carrots, raw milk, and seaweed are staples. In a great turn of events, every instinct I’ve had about child-raising has been confirmed. It’s okay for me to really want to spend entire days (and nights) with my kid by my side. I don’t have to hide the fact that we’re breastfeeding past the age of three. I can say “I didn’t sleep last night” without hearing the tedious return “You need to sleep-train”. I don’t have to bow to any social pressure to tell my kid to share or to say thank you. No one looks at me in slack-jawed disbelief when I say I’m not sending my kid to school. The conversation is not “how many vaccinations did you do at once?” but “are you going to do any vaccinations?” Weekday meetings now extend to weekend camping trips and cross-borough dinner gatherings and child care swaps and online recipe exchanges and chance meetings at secret Amish raw milk delivery sites. The kids make it clear that they’re quite capable of forging hiking routes, inventing games, sorting out squabbles (usually), and thriving under the old Crowleyan maxim “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” As for the parents, we now have a sanctuary where we can sit in the grass peeling apples with Buck knives removed from the damning mainstream accusation of “extreme” child-raising. Call me extreme, but I’m grateful that my kid has a place in a community where she can become herself in relation to a bunch of other kids, and adults, and red-bellied woodpeckers, who are all also becoming themselves out under the oak trees.