Palo Alto Review
"So, when's Pizza Night?"
Milo was only half joking. The old crowd hasn't devoured Wednesday night dollar-a-pie specials in East Cambridge's Portuguese neighborhood since I left Boston in 1986. The memory in my visiting son's voice was clear, the persistent past pushing into our present.
I first moved to Massachusetts in 1975. At 26 -- two years younger than Milo is now -- I hoped to find people like me who were trying to create a lasting alternative community. I wasn't having much luck. Nine months later, I was still looking for housemates who'd welcome Milo and my older son, Avram, every summer, and whenever else I could bring them from their mother's place in New York.
"Well, no, we've just got girls here."
"Sorry, the part-time thing would be too confusing for our own children."
"We're not really into kids."
So much for countercultural openness.
On the verge of abandoning Boston for a group I'd run across in Philadelphia, I tried one more housemate-wanted ad; they wanted someone who shared their "libertarian socialist politics." The unexpected reply when I asked about the kids -- "I don't know, we haven't thought about it; I don't see why not" -- got the boys and me across the Charles River to Somerville. While three of the communards described their activist and community-garden connections to other communal households, Mike took the boys on a tour of the rambling green house. He made sure they didn't get too near the edge of the sunny flat roof where the intoxicating ripeness of his peppers and tomatoes transformed the hot urban landscape. I moved in a few weeks later.
The growing network solidified. We soon joined thousands of other mostly twentysomethings in the Clamshell Alliance and Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook, trying for four or five years to stop construction of the Seabrook, New Hampshire nuclear plant. We fell in with other social change movements as well, demonstrating at least to our own satisfaction that the Sixties had not yet ended. In 1981, five years after I met them, Mike and Carol and Lem bought an organic farm that became a regular gathering place; Avram and Milo remember swinging on ropes in the red barn, eating tomatoes and cukes straight from the garden, even learning one day to drive the old tractor, with no injury whatsoever to body or machine.
Relationships deepened in our political work and beyond. Confident we could escape convention and formality, embracing both spontaneity and organization, individuality and commitment, we welcomed fluid movement among our several communal households. We dropped in on one another unannounced, hung out with and without clearly defined reason, met to study and rabble-rouse, cook and eat. Mike and I took a succession of road trips, the caffeine haze carrying us through male-bonding overnights. John and I talked each other through the exciting heartache that avoiding coupledom made inescapable; most of us had overlapping sexual and emotional involvements, with lovers and ex-lovers remaining in the larger group. More than buddies, we were friends with purpose, men and women alike, connected by tears as well as tear gas. We were comrades.
I left Boston more than once -- at first, to follow my ex-wife's moves with our sons; later, when Seabrook opposition faded, to finish graduate school. I always came back -- every summer with Avram and Milo when they were young, for all of 1981, and then again for another year, degree in hand but jobless, in 1985.
During one of my earliest returns I found a new custom: plain cheese and red sauce, thin crust, nothing fancy, once a week at seven for whoever could get there. The point wasn't cheap pizza, though the big restaurant's pungent smells always drew us in quickly. More important, the communal meal, tolerant restaurateurs, and movable tables helped maintain ties among more than a dozen busy increasingly-scattered friends. Every Wednesday, mouths watering for food and connection, we discovered what was happening, who was on the verge, where things were heading.
During their regular summer-long visits, Avram and Milo downed slices along with the rest of our hungry ad hoc family. Products of a too-young marriage, for a long time they were the only kids at our packed tables, savoring their shares of the melted cheese, listening to the excitement, recounting for the mostly patient grown-ups -- whom they'd known for as long as they could remember -- their tales of school and day camp and their friends back home.
"Can I have one more?"
"Sure, Milo. Enjoy."
Afterwards, we'd catch a movie with a friend or three, or wander through crowded Harvard Square to see the jugglers, or wait on long happy lines at the legendary Steve's for the best ice cream in the world. Pizza Night nourished them as they moved into and through their pre-teen years.
The comrades also moved forward, but not always together. Inevitably, after a few years the group rarely needed the big round table any more. Shifting priorities and emotions sometimes turned Wednesday night into a confusing combination of respite and chore. Jake grumbled that the pizza's ho-hum quality didn't justify the new two-dollar price. Finally, the routine ended, just as I left one last time to begin a Midwest university career.
During my mostly-annual visits over the next dozen years, the community became harder to find. "What's John up to these days?" Mike asked, knowing I'd see everyone in my five- or six-day serial reunion. "How's Mike?" someone else wondered. "And say hi to Carol, if you see her."
Relationships evolved. Some ties deepened, but others grew stale from disuse, even broke apart in hostility or misunderstanding. Lovers opposed to coupling off found reasons to marry, but no longer found mates within the dissolving group; after awhile, Mike and Carol divorced. There were swarms of children now, but only rarely did they play together. Best friends no longer spoke. There were new friends, new projects, new joys.
Only I -- the perennial guest -- stayed in touch with them all, from a distance. I worked at it, and looked forward to my visits. But eventually even I admitted the truth: underneath the surface warmth, old ties had frozen. I had missed the ups and too many downs -- Marlene's transition from crafts novice to artist, Mike's political and personal redirections, Jake's trip abroad to bring back an adopted son. I was absent when John married someone I didn't know, absent again a few years later when she grew ill, then died, leaving him with two young children. I wasn't the friend I wanted to be.
Four years ago, I finally returned for good, this time with my wife -- Elizabeth and I had met just before I left Boston in 1986, and we'd often talked of returning -- and with Emily, our Midwest-born daughter, a stranger to the comrades. Even Elizabeth barely knew them.
After the initial catching-up -- "So, have you seen Marlene yet?" -- I settled in to my own new preoccupations. Gradually, as I now knew to expect, interaction dwindled to sporadic political events and occasional lunches.
After a year, Elizabeth and I had a party; comrades filled the house, but some I rarely see today even though they live just a few neighborhoods away.
But still the past resonates. A couple of years ago we buried an old cat at Carol's new house in the woods, passing on our drive the place she used to live with Mike and their son and a changing mix of would-be farmers; I showed Emily the barn where Milo and Avram played hide-and-seek. Last year the comrades returned to Carol's en masse, drawn by her invitation to an old-time barn-raising. Every few months, Diana brings her daughter to play with ours; we talk about the kids' schools, our writing, our spouses' jobs. Mike calls on a rare evening off, knowing I'll fit a movie or a quick burrito into my mid-week schedule.
I suppose this is what passes for normal among aging friends who no longer share daily life.
When our friend Barry's mother died two years ago, John and I drove to western Massachusetts, where Barry and his family have lived for many years. More than any other comrade's parents, Barry's had their own connection -- for a few months a quarter-century ago we stayed at their summer place along the Hudson, imagining the communal future we never fully achieved. On the drive out I wondered silently if funerals would now draw us together more often than anything else.
On the way back, I confessed to John my disconnection. Almost two years after my return, I still missed the people I loved, whose filled-up lives left little room for returnees. In East Cambridge one evening a few weeks earlier, Emily and I had passed the old pizza place, transformed now to suit the gentrifying neighborhood's changing tastes. "This is where we used to eat with John and Carol and lots of other people, when your brothers were your age." She perked up, but missed the point.
John, though, understood. His response was characteristically pragmatic: "How about a Pizza Night?"
Ever since, on the last Friday of every month Elizabeth, Emily, and I devour pizza and ice cream with John and his second wife, whom I knew only slightly back in Clamshell. Their children are older than Emily -- when I introduced Elizabeth to John fourteen years ago, he was giving his daughter her first bath -- but they're not yet too old to enjoy the monthly ritual. We alternate homes and bring in the pies, moving beyond a past we don't all share into a future we enter together.
Mike's started to join us whenever he can leave work early, and some others, hearing what we're up to, seem wistful. Every so often, the conversation skipping from Seabrook nostalgia to news and politics to movies and jobs and plans for tomorrow, I notice the three children soaking it all in. Avram's joined us on one of his visits; so has Mike and Carol's son. I'm still waiting for Milo to hit town some last-of-the-month Friday. I think he'd enjoy the moment, and the memory.
We make advance arrangements now -- we don't just drop by across the river. But it's good to be among comrades, still.
some political, most not
Page updated September 30, 2007