We used to have a guru living here, he was the one who got us all together, but he left last summer. Chanting and soul searching got on everyone’s nerves and we all cringed when he suggested encounter sessions to bring us more together. A firm believer in out in the open nose picking and genital grabbing, he used to walk around the house naked with his finger in his nose saying everyone is beautiful. The only reaction he received was a lot of giggles. Now the most spiritual occurrences are the occasional incense burning and talk about what nuns used to do back in grade school.
Two years ago the guru rented a house and needed members to complete his gestalt living. He hung signs up on University bulletin boards and in Organic Oakland Co-op. Many responded to this new and exciting idea. Word had it that the guru had just returned from a mind-expanding trip in California and had studied at Esalen. The guru interviewed people, sorting out the violent and untogether weeds and holding on to what he considered were cosmic, together people.
After the collective was complete we all settled into a natural rhythm of everyday living in an old mansion with nine bedrooms, poor wiring and leaking pipes. It is located on a once slick street in Pittsburgh. The landlady is a 60 year old advocate of READER’S DIGEST who owns practically every rented house in Pittsburgh. She was upset about the idea of boys and girls together and what the neighbors would think when they saw both coming and going. We told her it was The Way to live nowadays and we’d take care of her house and pay the rent on schedule. She liked us – the boys were fine men and the girls looked wholesome. We converted one of the bedrooms into a workroom for leather, photography and sewing and another into a meditation room that none uses now except the dogs. It took a month to get rid of the garbage previous fraternity tenants had left behind, paint some of the rooms and rip out old linoleum. All of the natural oak cabinets, hallways and banisters had been painted over with obnoxious yellow paint and a ceiling in the hallway was falling out. A washer, dryer and dishwasher were communally purchased to keep the dirty dishes from piling up and to avoid the Laundromat scene. All agreed to pay equal rent, equal food costs and do an equal share of the work. Summer came and the guru realized that we all weren’t as full of karma as he. He left and Suzanne and Charlie joined us. So far we have lived a year without the guru and have avoided cosmic problems.
Most here are students. Jai, from Korea, studies all the time and complains there is too much noise to concentrate on ecological biology. His PhD exams are next month. Anna Lena builds miniature cardboard theaters, tiny furniture and designs costumes day and night. She can’t work when things get too quiet. Hasan, when he stops talking and opens a math or anthropology book, stops reading immediately if he hears a voice on any of the three floors. He must be wherever any action might happen. Cindy, our woman from the North, sits in her pink and green room listening to tapes of emotionally disturbed children. We call her “Ms..” Jerry from the East swears each morning that he has to drop out of school…but he just has to have that B.S. degree. So, he hops on his motorcycle, watches ten rats push stimulus bars for an hour, comes home and plays chess with himself for the rest of the day. Periodically he mentions that he has a helluva lot of schoolwork to do. Chris from Pittsburgh is the best procrastinator in the house.
Three work for a living. Suzanne teaches black kids on the Hill how to dance and move to music. She comes home and sleeps or pounds out her frustrations on conga drums. Charlie, once called an anal retentive engineer, works for VISTA and owns both a BMW motorcycle with sidecar and an old Drake’s Bread truck. He is an architect with a lot of ideas and a lot of drawings. Barbara who came up from West Virginia spends her days in a State Mental Hospital. She comes home still crazy.
A few don’t work. Bill from Shamokin Dam is waiting for the big check he won from an insurance company after a lady ran broadside into his motorcycle. John, from North Carolina and West Virginia, plays mountain songs on his harmonicas, drinks beer and fiddles with his Volkswagon bus, a bus that always is missing fourth gear.
At about six every day people are hungry. Until then everybody sits in their rooms relaxing, listening to music, studying and holding their growling stomach, waiting for someone to give in and start supper. If you get really hungry and can’t wait, Jai’s automatic rice maker is always full. The girls don’t like to eat it because it is white, not brown rice. The guys think it’s tasteless and it reminds everyone of the guru days. Since Anna Lena is a strict vegetarian, she usually gets her own food together. But if she doesn’t and someone else makes supper and doesn’t make a salad or puts a bone in the broth, she’ll slam one of the three refrigerators and pull out a stalk of celery, cauliflower head or a piece of cheese. Hasan’s favorite food is two slices of bread around six square inches of mayonnaise. We buy a gallon jar every two weeks to keep up his habit. Cindy hides the granola, nuts and peanut butter behind cabinets and under the sink so there will always be something organic for her to eat. All of her caches mysteriously disappear. Chris prefers to eat only what she cooks. Bill always wants steak. Jerry, when he takes a chess break to look for food and doesn’t find any, never understands where it all goes to. Suzanne hates to cook and Charlie is usually busy doing something. No one ever sees John eat but he sits all day surrounded with empty cans and half-full tea cups.
Supper time we get together for one communal meal of the day. A little after six Chris, Cindy or Barbara give in and begin to prepare the food. Chris and Cindy will join services but no one wants to cook with Barbara. She dirties every pot and pan, measures each grain of salt, spills grease under the stove burners and tosses garbage on the floor. No one confronts her because she may cry. Hasan talks about all of the exotic dishes he will prepare. Bill cooks an occasional steak. The men, even though they don’t say it, think kitchen stuff is for women. Anyway, dinners are good. Lots of chicken, fish and hamburger. Fresh fruits and vegetables and raw milk are purchased in economic co-operation with six other Pittsburgh communes. Charlie buys ten loaves of Drake’s bread for a dollar at an East Liberty bakery. There is usually some homemade whole wheat bread, baked by one of the women. Everyone’s last hold on eating only organic is herb tea. The tea is followed by coffee, cigarettes and dope, then a quick exit to avoid the dishes.
Everyone is into dope, except Anna Lena. We have succeeded in changing Jai’s mind from con to pro. Still everyone wants to cut down on marijuana intake except Bill and Charlie. They have a philosophy and practice of keeping everyone in the house stoned all of the time. There’s always a rolling paper shortage and we’ve been talking about organizing a match factory. Yes, everyone has their ideas for becoming rich.
Hasan has a new money making scheme every day. We all agree that he is more American than the Americans. Last year he chartered a flight to Palestine and sold tickets to people here in the city. A few months ago he made a wide, peace sign studded, leather belt which he sold for $50.00. Jai is always thinking about money too. He can’t decide if he’ll make more money in research or business. When someone asks if he’ll help with the dishes he says, “How much you pay?” Jerry thinks a degree in psychology will make him rich. Barbara never has enough money but will spend $10 to get her hair conditioned and $3 to have a shoemaker remove salt stains from her boots. Anna Lena wants to be a famous, happy, single European stage designer. She doesn’t worry about money unless there isn’t enough in the food jar to buy vegetables. Bill wants nothing but the best and will spend $100 in two days then be poor for the rest of the month. Suzanne dreams of a job that’ll make her real rich without getting out of bed in the morning. Charlie is counting upon getting discovered and becoming rich. Chris and Cindy want to graduate, find jobs and become independent self-sufficient women. John has a master’s degree in astrophysics but prefers to sit around. As a group we’ve discussed making our house an international interpreting office. Twenty-one different languages are spoken here. The art and craft scene has also been explored.
Finances are maintained by Hasan. He collects $70 from everyone each month to pay rent, gas, electric and phone bills. $30 is paid monthly for food. A jar, hidden under some books in Hasan’s room, holds the money and grocery receipts for the month. Hasan keeps immaculate records. He has a special red leather notebook and a customized black ink pen. He chronicles each financial transaction in an unblemished fancy script. He named our commune Engorogoro Crater after a park in Africa where all animals – lions and giraffes – live in harmony. No one uses or mentions the name, though.
We’ve got animals. Nellie the talking ten year old combination poodle, snauser, terrier. Lady is a sometimes overweight neutered Belgian Shepard that swallows big bones whole. Five cats: Ebon, who has lost her sense of balance; Tooty, Suzanne’s cat, who also sleeps all the time; Cocoa Kwala Bear, a Siamese who just reached puberty and sprays the walls; Barbara’s cat, Sorche, who follows her around saying :bar-bra-bar-bra”; Simba, son of Sorche, claims every heater as his own. Animals are the source of many problems. People forget to buy them food and they get restless. Two dead birds are found on the back porch. Shit piles up under the tables, in the corners and under Hasan’s bed (everybody’s favorite spot). Litters overflow and the house stinks. Dogs bark at gas men and any blacks who come into the house. No one admits that their pets would do such a thing. Hairs and fleas infest rugs. Everyone gets pissed off because things are dirty but no one likes to clean. Dirt remains.
Once a cleaning schedule was made: “NOTICE I’d rather live in a barnyard than a pig’s sty.” Occasionally we all get together on Sunday’s to clean up. We don’t like lists because they aren’t fun and we think it’ll get done without a list. Still things get pitifully dirty. Hallways are littered with full wastebaskets, living room studded with cigarette butts, ping-pong room strewn with papers and rotten vegetables. The Kitchen is a mess. Bathrooms are kept clean by the women. They spend the most time and use the most toilet paper. Each of the three bathrooms has a variety of reading material stacked up next to the toilet. PLAYBOYS with folded corners are on all floors. MS. is in the second and third floor bathrooms. All floors have a going pornographic novel which rotates floors weekly. TIME magazine, Eric Fromm’s THE ART OF LOVING and THE BOOK OF TAO sporadically appear. Often hot water will stop in the middle of a shower. The sink on the second floor is plugged up. There’s an overflow on the third floor.
The cellar always floods when it rains or too many people take a shower. It coughs up turds, toilet paper and tampons. The kitchen retches from the rising odor. After the liquid sinks and only slime remains – no one wants to go down and clean it up, Hasan finally called a plumber. They dig up our back yard. It looks like a good place to film a war movie now.
Suzanne and Charlie have lived together for three years. Bill and Chris share a room. John has recently moved in with Cindy adding only a desk and a box of greasy tools to her room. Since the guru left there isn’t a whole lot of bed hopping. He used to confront everyone with a body massage, then his penis. We didn’t like that at all. Like I said, he left looking for more together groupies. But most everyone’s been in each other’s bed at least once in the past year. When Jai gets drunk he rubs up against the girls, takes off his glasses and laughs. We all laugh. But one day he jumped into Anna Lena’s bed at 3 A.M. She was furious and tired of people coming to her just because she was Swedish. She did have an affair with Charlie but stopped it to avoid hassles with Suzanne. Hasan is always on the lookout for new chickies to try out his satin sheets. Jerry challenges women to chess matches with the auspice he will screw them if he wins. He never loses and we hear an endless string of tales. Barbara is always waiting for a phone call. Cindy has trouble organizing her love life since John moved in. She gets daily phone calls from lovers in California, Boston, Iowa, New York and locals. Suzanne gets mad at Charlie about once a month and kicks him out of bed. Chris and Bill are always in bed watching TV and making funny noises. The guru had planned many group gropes that never formulated.
Weekends are party time. Bill, unanimously appointed activities chairman, collects a dollar or two from everyone to buy wine and tequila. Ounces of dope are opened. After everyone is high wild dancing begins. Friends join in and play foot stomping mountain music. Hasan gets out his basket of magic tricks and dresses up in Arab headdress, Indian beads and a black graduation gown. Bill combs back his hair, tucks his pants into his boots, puts on an earring and slings sunglasses over his nose. He acts like a hard-assed greaser. Barbara knits frantically. Cindy either falls asleep or dresses up like a Polish motorcycle mama. Suzanne gets on her congas and Charlie plays hi sax. Anna Lena walks around emptying ashtrays and eating oranges. Chris acts obnoxious. On Sunday when everyone gets up at about two o’clock, half rested from the prior two days of madness, beer cans, ashtrays that Anna Lena didn’t get, half eaten food and disarray lie about everywhere. No one wants to clean.
Bill bought a ping-pong table to keep everyone entertained, away from books and together in the ping-pong room. The men have ongoing championships. No one wants to teach the women how to win. Every once in a while a pit-pat sound emerges from the game room rather than the faster pa-pongs. Chess used to be big until Jerry started to beat everyone.
During the weekend all eleven people release the tensions of the past week and try to forget about the weekdays ahead. Nothing but fun and no responsibilities. Once six of us took a camping trip that lasted past the weekend. We got a kick out of dancing naked around the campfire next to our Boy Scout neighbors who were supposedly asleep. Trips have been taken to Montreal, New York and West Virginia farms. Weekends there are pursued with as much fervor and madness as at home. Sometimes weekends planned by Bill don’t work out – The Top of the Triangle was full and then they wouldn’t let us into 2001 because Suzanne had on blue jeans. Never fear, there was an alternative – quarter movies on Liberty Avenue. Yes, there are always movies.
Sometimes it gets to be a drag doing things together all of the time. “Here come the wierdos.” People split to ‘clear their heads’. (Lingo left-over from guru days.)
Truthfully, even though occasional money, ideological and cleaning problems arise, we are happy together. No one likes to be alone but everyone is paranoid. People are always around to ping-pong with, smoke dope, play music, boogie and drug. Everyone wonders how it all has stayed together so long.
LIFE AMONG THE DRUPEES (copyright C.Palamidessi 1972)
Excerpt from larger work