Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories: Chap. 10: The Viet Nam Summer of Love, 1967

Chapter 10: The Viet Nam Summer of Love, 1967 (ii)

Failing to find a summer factory job in Queens, I ended up seeking another NYC Urban Corps work-study job, through Columbia’s Placement Office at Dodge Hall. I returned to the campus for my summer job placement interview dressed in a sport jacket, dress shirt and tie. I wore sunglasses, because I felt strange walking around Columbia again while dressed so straight, and hoped to not bump into anyone around campus who would recognize me.

I noticed that Columbia SDS had set up an anti-war table on Low Plaza, and that a fairly large group of summer school students were gathered around it, debating the war in Viet Nam. Before going up to the Columbia Placement Office, I decided to surreptitiously stop by at the SDS table and listen in on the debate. After listening for a few minutes to the debate, I heard Teddy’s voice, suddenly, exclaim with a laugh: “Bob! What happened to you? Why is your hair so short? Why are you so dressed up?”

“I’m still hunting for a summer job,” I replied.

Teddy then mentioned that Harvey had a good summer job that summer in which he could do whatever he wanted all day, as long as he went to a sympathetic professor’s office at the end of the week and signed his time-sheet accurately. I laughed, but felt some envy that both Teddy and Harvey seemed financially able to afford to spend the summer around Columbia’s campus, without having to go home and live with their parents and work off-campus like I was required to do.

During the academic year, though, Teddy, even as Columbia SDS chairman, had to hold a work-study job all year-long to support himself, unlike Mark or I. Teddy’s work-study job was being a “study-hall monitor” in Carmen Hall a few evenings a week. Being a “study-hall monitor,” in practice, meant that Teddy would sit next to Nancy at a desk, while they both studied in front of whichever Carmen Hall students were using the dorm study hall on that particular night, and would make sure no group of students made too much noise in the study hall room.

After saying goodbye to Teddy, I marched up to Columbia’s Placement Office to secure my Urban Corps summer job. The work-study job I was placed in was in the psychiatric clinic at Queens General Hospital, between Union Turnpike and Grand Central Parkway and 164th St. and Parsons Blvd. The supervisor at the psychiatric clinic was Mr. Crosby, an African-American who seemed to be left-liberal in his political views.

“You’ll be doing some intake work and some writing of social histories. But most of your work will be helping out on the clerical side, answering phones, making appointments and relieving our receptionist,” Crosby said to me on the first day I started work at the clinic. “You may not be experienced enough to satisfy some of the patients or patient families you speak to or to be able to help them with their personal problems. But just do the best you can…And if you need help, don’t ever be afraid to come into my office and ask for assistance.”

I worked at the psychiatric clinic from mid-June to mid-September 1967 at $90/week, Monday through Friday. One night a week, I worked until 8 p.m. As far as jobs went, this Social Worker Assistant job was a much more fulfilling job than my UM&M clerical job had been, and it was more stimulating than my assistant teacher/day care center jobs of the summer of 1966 had been. But compared to being a New Left activist at Columbia, my social worker assistant job seemed less fulfilling. To function adequately as a social worker assistant, I had to block out of my mind the reality of the Viet Nam War.

At the clinic, I was able to converse with two other African-Americans besides Mr. Crosby and the African-American patients (who made up about one-half of all clinic patients). On the evenings I worked late, a good-natured, jovial nurse named Mrs. Powell would come to supervise the clinic and sit at the reception desk with me. In-between answering patient questions on the phone or in-person, she would share with me her latest insights into the scene at Queens General Hospital. She was well-liked by all the patients because she was a hard-worker, kind, had a big-hearted, warm, funny personality, was a great conversationalist and had a wealth of experience in hospital work.

And then there was beautiful Llewellyn, the clinic clerk-typist who registered patients and typed up forms and cards all day and answered phones. She was so good-natured, warm and sweet that I wrote her a song in the middle of the summer called Beautiful Llewellyn. Each day Llewellyn must have smoked a pack of cigarettes. [In the 1960s, cigarette smokers were allowed to smoke at their workplace desks]. And while she smoked, we conversed with each other whenever I was needed to join her in doing some of the clerical work of the clinic. Llewellyn was around 20 and was from South Jamaica. We made each other laugh easily and, by the middle of the summer, I was quite fond of her. I didn’t ask her out, though, because, by Summer 1967, inter-racial love affairs were frowned upon in Black Liberation Movement circles.

“I’m going to miss you, Bob. I’m going to miss you not being here,” Llewellyn said with tears in her eyes in the back of the clinic, right before I kissed her goodbye and hugged her on my last afternoon of work at the clinic. I felt like crying for an instant as I hugged her goodbye. I then quickly walked to the front of the clinic and out of Queens General Hospital for the last time that summer.

Work at the psychiatric clinic gave me other memories: patients who threatened suicide over the phone and who were then given emergency appointments with the shrinks; interviews with parents, whose teenage daughter preferred hanging out with hippies in Greenwich Village in the evening, to sitting with them in front of the TV set in their living room; taking a suicidal, depressed, unhappy wife to Creedmoor’s admissions office on a 30-day voluntary stay; interviewing an African-American bus driver with a perfectly healthy and emotionally sane teenage son, who was being seen at the clinic only because a racist white teacher in junior high school had labeled the son “disturbed” for not being interested in mathematics; patients who had spent years isolated in various mental hospitals around the U.S.A. and were coming to the clinic because they couldn’t get hired for jobs, once their mental hospitalization history was mentioned to prospective employers.

While working at the psychiatric clinic, I read Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and Eros and Civilization. As a result of this reading and my summer work experience, I concluded that psychiatric treatment under corporate capitalism was useless. Nearly all the clinic patients were unhappy because they were either unfree, lonely, sexually repressed or the victims of class exploitation or racial oppression. Their emotional misery would not end until society became less repressive, more leisure-oriented and more democratic, until they were able to find and give love, and until they could act in a sexually free way, without guilt.