I can’t believe it has been almost 50 years, a gritty half-century. Did I ever tell you how I spent the summer of 1968?
There was no sense in hanging around the yeshiva in Chicago. There was every reason to be back in Chicago in time for the infamous Democratic National Convention. It wasn’t hard to be convinced to spend that July at my parents’ home in San Francisco. I mean, it was 1968.
I was a good boy, a mindful, un-rebellious 18-year-old living under the roof of a momma and poppa who commanded obedience, respect, and clean living. What’s a yeshiva bochur to do with the San Francisco Summer of Love but live it vicariously, on the periphery.
So I dawdled a while in Haight-Ashbury. Walking home from schule one Shabbos, I was waylaid by electronic pandemonium pulsating from Golden Gate Park, only to find Janis Joplin full-throttle officiating at an impromptu wake for a wiped-out biker named Chocolate George.
I frittered away hours listening to and telling rambling wonder-tales of chassidic masters and sufi mystics at Shlomo Carlebach’s House of Love and Prayer. They even anointed me “Assistant Resident Messianic Prophet In Training,”because I was the only one who had actually sat at the table of a real, chassidic rebbe. I’ll leave it to you to figure out the acronym: Assistant Resident Messianic Prophet In Training.
One day my mother got the overly honorable idea that I should find a job. I applied for a position sharpening pencils for the renowned attorney Melvin Belli, to no avail. A bud of my dad said I’d have a better chance if I’d join a union. So, off I trundled to Local 9 of the International Brotherhood of Bellmen, Porters and Janitors. I plunked down my $6, and to my vague dismay, I was instantly pressed into janitorial service at the Ramona, a raunchy hotel in the sleazy Tenderloin red light district.
If yeshiva were an education, the Ramona was a Rhodes Scholarship. I was an over-protected only child who learned more of life’s realities in a month of sorting soiled towels and linens than I had from 63 tractates of Talmud. Pimps and winos and junkies and prostitutes and down-and-outers. And then there were clean-cut poor folk, who would come and go by church bus, having scrimped for a taste of San Francisco’s splendor, only to find that they had been buffaloed by economics into three nights at the squalid Ramona.
Braverman, the proprietor, soon discovered that Wilson was an alias for Wiludzanski, a lantsman from Bialystok, and that my stocking cap masked the yarmulke that I was too self-conscious to wear in the urban wilds. So Braverman, representing management, would visit Wiludzanski, representing labor, each afternoon in the Ramona’s fetid basement. As I sorted clammy sheets and towels, we would discuss the Talmud and Ben-Gurion and the roots of Twentieth Century biblical criticism.
Lunch hour brought its own vivid palette of experiences. Stretched out on the grass at Union Square, incessant cable car clang, the babble of soapbox preachers I learned every Hare Krishna mantra by osmosis.
Once, though, my adolescent libido and curiosity led me into a topless bar on Turk Street, a dive that no one seemed to inhabit at lunchtime save an anemic bartender and a solitary dancer jiggling impassively to “What’d I Say.”
At record’s end, she sat down next to me, extending her hand benignly as one would to a business associate. She was neither provocative nor tawdry, just a heavy-hearted, weary woman. She would cross the Bay Bridge from Oakland each morning, she told me, to do the only thing that she knew to eke out a living for the three year-old daughter whose picture she eagerly produced from her pocketbook.
She excused herself to resume her sad-eyed routine. I told her that she really didn’t have to dance on my account, but she told me that she was obliged to follow “the rules.” Rules for the Sabbath. Rules for keeping kosher. Rules even for this, I remember thinking as it dawned on my naive psyche that we are surrounded each day by rules and obscenities far more malignant than naked breasts.
I can’t say that I returned to yeshiva conscious of my rite of passage, the worldly-wisdom I attained by a summer spent as janitor at the Ramona. Perhaps it takes the attainment of one’s philosophical years to realize that our world, our lives, are a cacophonous coexistence of the tawdry and the sublime, of pathos and squalor. It is a lesson that we have usually learned more poignantly from the musings of owners of seedy hotels and war-weary topless dancers named Brenda than from seminary classrooms and insipidly holy tomes.
Funny. The only thing I remember was a call from a union enforcer with a voice like Edward G. Robinson, who wanted to know why I hadn’t yet paid the next installment of my dues to Local 9.
As the decades passed, Haight-Ashbury died. Janis died. The House of Love and Prayer died. Braverman died. The Ramona died. My union card lapsed. Of Brenda and her now 53-year-old child, God only knows.
But sometimes I still have this incredible fantasy that if the enforcer were to call today demanding the next increment of my dues to Local 9, I might find it irresistible to fork them over. And, between self-recrimination over failures trying to “find myself,” and fighting back the tears over what has and could have been, I might even reconnect with the deliciously gritty reality from which we who are trapped in the middle class come all too easily detached.
WILUDI (Marc H. Wilson) is a retired rabbi who writes from Greenville, SC. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org