We are alive. Our fingertips are alive and we love something even if it is only a spirit with cloth wings. We don’t care we love it so much!
It was 1977. A couple of years into running a bicycle shop after college, I discovered that the most intense satisfaction at my job came from the personal conversations I had with customers. I began to wish for a job like doing therapy, where talking to customers was the point instead of something squeezed in around the margins of the real work. Some of the customers I’d come to know best had taken repair classes from me, and one of them had loaned me her copy of The Making of a Psychiatrist when she’d learned of my interest in doing therapy; I think that the way she took me seriously helped me take myself seriously. I’d gotten a lot of help from my own therapists at the various student counseling centers where I’d gone to school: playing the kindly old guru, soothing and guiding the distressed who found their way into my office, seemed like an honorable enough way to make a living. But whenever I imagined myself entering someone else’s private world of pain, I froze. My own wounds seemed like a burden I could scarcely manage; how could I cope with anybody else’s? Sometimes I virtually sleepwalked the whole day, reverberating with past hurts, or hating myself for something I’d done or simply for who I was. In tense or intimate conversation, where I encountered other peoples’ fear, anguish, sorrow, or pain. I felt claustrophobic—I would now call it an undifferentiated kind of desperation. I felt as if wanted to dash to the rescue, and as if I was going to begin weeping myself, and as if I needed to flee the room. It would become difficult to keep up with the conversation because most of my attention went into maintaining my facade of composure.
Boston winters in the bike business were pretty dull. We signed the letters to lay each other off, and we collected unemployment. My girlfriend, who temp’ed 30 hours in a glass and steel office building, seemed resentful when she came home to find me deconstructing soap operas in the middle of the afternoon. At that time, in order to collect your check, it was necessary to bring in a list every two weeks of places where you had applied for work. Unemployment was high, and I had no work experience relevant to anything, so I was in no danger of being hired. I used to pick themes for the workplaces where I’d apply. One week it was Ivy League: Yale Lock, Harvard Books, Columbia Deli. Another time it was colors: Green Construction, Brown Hardware, or Black Rentals. Highlighting absurdities in The System seemed like a just another urban guerrilla art form to us at the time.
Spring and summer, however, were hectic, and we were usually at the shop —Mystic Cycle—until late at night, always at least two of us, trying to catch up on the work. We had a lot of strange characters who were all partners in the early phases of our worker-owned, worker-managed collective. It was your basic socialist, anarchist, feminist, Cambridge counter-culture cottage industry, which meant that we had long meetings and intense discussions that accomplished nothing tangible.
Among our partners was furtive Monica, who could eat only when locked in the bathroom where no one could see her, and we had Allie, who smuggled so much dope from Hawaii that she and her Boston College boyfriend followed elaborate telephone signaling procedures each time they left the building to make sure they weren’t being followed. There was Alex, who had learned mechanics in the Peace Corps while posted in Pakistan. Alex griped bitterly as he loaned the business more and more money to keep it from going under; still, he became furious when anyone suggested that he stop, because he wasn’t going to be a selfish capitalist with his inheritance. Aaron once tried to convince me that the almost invisible punctures he found on his skin in the mornings were because Alex had been infecting him with rabies while he slept. “You haven’t proven that it’s not true,” went part of his paranoia-laced argument with me. Aaron was actually pretty reasonable most of the time, but he had stiff, slow movements from cerebral palsy, and powerful, overdeveloped muscles because they fought each other all day. He was always dropping tools and parts while he attempted repairs. Even his speech was labored, as if his tongue were too thick for his mouth, and it seemed his voice was always hoarse with the effort that doing everything in life took from him. Aaron’s worst problems were in tightening and loosening long bolts, where precisely the same movement must be repeated many times. I can still hear his slow raspy explanation to me that with the single exception of sex, his nervous system couldn’t perform repeated, rhythmic movements. “I can do regular sex pretty well,” he warned his prospective partners, “but if you need a lot of heavy-duty finger fucking, I’m not your man.”
There was Cynthia, who retired from the shop on the award she received from the makers of the Dalkon Shield; she managed to get a man whom she didn’t even like to testify that he wouldn’t marry her because of her possibly reduced fertility. There was Allen, a veteran, who was so repulsed by the violence he’d experienced in Vietnam, that he dedicated every facet of his life to extreme pacifism. He became a self-made milquetoast, who had been so effectively humored and admired by our group that he was actually surprised when a judge ordered him to undergo psychiatric evaluation during his petition in court to change his name to Cute Little (“C.L.”) Ducky.
A number of us lived in a group house where we had dinners together, sang songs, and played guitar in the evenings. The house was owned by small, slender Liz, who wore teeny-bopper short skirts and tight, shiny, knee-high boots, and had black hair down her back. She was a nurturing soul and our de facto den mother. She was much older than she looked, and was permanently exploited as an adjunct English instructor, specializing in film. Her passion was astrology; she read my chart and told me I was destined for great things much later in life, when I would be in my mid-twenties. Liz was hopelessly stuck on a tenured professor who never quite left his wife, though for years he trooped upstairs with Liz to her little room for sex. If she took the boots off then, it was the only time. Debbie, on the other hand, was often seen comfortably lounging barefoot, in fact in no clothes at all. She was a delivery room nurse so obsessed by babies—the walls of her room were covered with baby photos—that not even her zeal for sex enticed a suitable man to help fulfill her obsession and stay with her.
At the emotional hub of the shop, and firmly in command, was Julie Diane. First name Julie, last name Diane. This was the thoroughly feminist era, and there in Cambridge, where we sustained the very epicenter of the American Left, women dropped their surnames (last names were presumably all from some man after all) and used their middle name as a last name. Julie was a blond earth mother from Madison (which we all knew was as hip as Cambridge, though none of us had been there). She walked in hiking boots all winter and sandals all summer, and even the hairs on the tops of her feet were blond. She had a melodious, calm voice, a level gaze, and wore flowing, farm-wife dresses. Her limitless patience allowed her to explain to the Irish, Italian and Portuguese men in the neighborhood how to be reasonable, fair, and respectful to women. Like all the males in the shop, I myself was respectful, and eager for instruction whenever she addressed me about anything, and when her pregnancy began to show, I felt chivalric impulses so intense they were physically painful. Julie had a husband who did biomedical research, and she also had Alex,the put-upon capitalist who supported our shop, for a lover. I’ll never forget watching her casually fellate his finger while they sat on the porch steps one evening after dinner.
Like all business conducted at Mystic Cycle (did I mention that it was collectively owned and managed?), the store opened behind schedule. We had installed and polyurethaned a lovely hardwood floor, but had been too rushed to apply the same coating to the plywood repair benches. As a result, they were grease-soaked and always peeling with splinters. One evening Julie came back to the desk where I was working away at the payroll taxes, my mouth full of cherry and cheese Danish from the bakery next door. She was pregnant, she was radiant, and she looked right at me.
“Jon, I need your help.”
I swallowed the pastry.
“I have a splinter under my fingernail and I need you to take it out.”
“It’s in my right hand or I’d do it, but I doubt I can really manage the tweezers with my left.”
“Let me see.”
Julie and I were alone in the shop so I got the first-aid kit we kept under the sink, and found the tweezers. We stood at the desk, where the flourescent ceiling light was strongest and where the last of the day’s sunlight filtered in through the huge exhaust fan ticking in the back wall, producing a mild strobe effect. I stood over Julie’s hand which she pressed palm down onto the desk blotter. I dipped the tweezers in alcohol, and started probing under the nail. She winced. I could see the end of the splinter, black with grease. I pushed a little harder, and Julie kept her chin firm, and her hand flat on the desk. I started feeling terrible, imagining and actually experiencing what it felt like to her, the piercing under the nail, the burning, the tearing. Sweat drenched my brow, I became nauseous. Although I somehow made myself squeeze the prongs together, the splinter was still just out of reach. The delicate muscles around Julie’s eyes tightened, and her lids were nearly all the way down. I was watching myself cause pain to someone that millions of years of heterosexual evolution had formed me to protect. I couldn’t stand it. The room began spinning, but I knew I’d have to push even harder to reach the splinter. And then something in me snapped. I couldn’t stand it any more and so—I just didn’t. I stopped feeling Julie’s pain. I returned to my own body, which was of course in no pain at all. That was her finger down there, not mine. I could do whatever I thought best to that hand. My pulse slowed, the creepy background music went silent. I simply pushed in under the nail until I could grasp the splinter, pulled it out, and disinfected and bandaged the nail bed, which was bleeding a trickle. She was fine and I was fine. She thanked me with the same polite poise she used equitably for everyone. The episode was over, but I was changed.
My shirt remained pleasantly damp with sweat and biking home I felt a buoyant, lifting sensation as a tailwind carried me in a gentle, warm envelope through the darkness down a silent Oxford Street. That was the first time I noticed the streetlight relay team racing against me through the city at night. As I approached each light, the shadow cyclist pursuing me shortened and gained on me until, as I passed the light, he sprinted out ahead. As I approached the next light, a new shadow picked up the chase, passed me, and then he too would extend and finally fade out ahead into the darkening road.
I knew that night that I could become someone’s therapist because their pain would not become mine. I could get cheek by jowl with anyone, while they revealed anything at all, while they felt anything at all, and I would still be in my body, and they’d be in theirs.
Until then, I had held a romantic, tragic vision of the separateness of individuals: separateness means our parents don’t understand us, it means we have to find lovers, and it means that we become economic competitors instead of one community. From the time I removed Julie’s splinter, I began to appreciate that separateness can also give strength and stability to communities and families, and that separateness means that we can support and care for each other. Soon, I found myself preparing to separate myself from the community that had sheltered me since college.
A first step would be to move out of the group house and live with my girlfriend. Beth had been one of the last polio victims in America; and to get around she needed crutches and a brace for her small and atrophied leg. She was direct about her insecurities, as well as her hopes, and liked to talk with me. Once, another housemate had gone on a trip and left her beloved ancient little dog, who was really rather senescent, in our care. On a Sunday afternoon, when we were lounging on the porch, none of us reacted as the dog sidled casually past us and then made a heroic dash for freedom out the front gate just as a pickup roared down the narrow street. I saw the dog rolling after being run over, then get up to give a couple of yelps before it died. There were many neighbors on their own porches who rushed to join us at the dog’s body.
One lady, with whom we’d never exchanged a word, asked quickly “Was it the crippled girl’s dog?” as if she were sure that the world was so unjust that a life with one tragedy would attract others.
On the wall of Beth’s bedroom she had a series of black and white photographs of herself, nude, outdoors. Her previous boyfriend had shot some close-ups of her face, and some of her entire body, so he could show her the insecure, haunted expression she wore whenever she thought her leg was visible.
When she thought only her face was visible, she smiled and glowed like a beauty pageant winner. I trusted Beth and I felt that we understood each other. She taught me to drive her car, I passed the driver’s exam, and I was ready to move ahead.
I had been 5 to15 years younger than everyone in the group, but my place in the house was soon taken by another young one, Adam, whom I never had the chance to meet. Unlike me, Adam smoked the pot that the group offered.
And unlike me, he agreed to go skinny dipping with the group on their midnight visits to the Winchester Reservoir. Somebody heard him say he was tired and those were the last words anyone heard him say. The police found his body washed up on shore at first light and eventually his parents appeared to collect his things. It was all anyone talked about for a while, but I no longer really felt a part of the group. Eventually, I sold my share of the shop, and left town to study psychology, where many aspects of the work have proved more difficult for me than being close to a person in pain.
I don’t know what became of many of these people who had fascinated me so much, but I know a little about some of them. Beth became an activist and leading consultant in the national disability rights movement and had two children with a blind man who was more committed to her than I had been.
Liz, our den mother, died in a freak accident, but not before Susan Sontag praised one of Liz’s reviews in the New Yorker, and not before she found someone who really loved her, someone who still reviews for the Washington Post. The bike shop closed. One of us went to medical school, two others became therapists. Debbie adopted an African-American child and is having a wonderful time, though she may never speak to me again if she reads this.
Allie’s Boston College boyfriend does drug research for GlaxoSmithKline. Late some nights I Google others and usually find nothing. The vividness of my memories tells me what close attention I paid to everyone from this part of my past, though it pains me to realize now that I was so focused on their external traits, rather than who they really were on the inside; I wish I’d had the chance to know them the way that I get to know people now. I am left with questions about them that will never be answered, though I can still learn things about myself from reconstructing my own experiences with the group. It saddens me to think that we are scattered now, a dwindling band of people with our overlapping memories of a shared time together—some of us cherishing them and some of us avoiding them—and I wonder where those memories will be when none of us are left. I knew as I lived that life that I found those people compelling, and that I felt united with them in some shared struggle against the world. I even knew that I would always remember them, but I really had no idea that I loved them all so much.
Jon Farber, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist in Chapel Hill, NC.