“Multitudes: An Unauthorized Memoir”
By Sam Smith
The trouble really began at the wedding. I didn’t know it, however, until a few months later when I received a letter from an MIT student thanking me for the summer job offer. I didn’t actually remember offering him a job. In fact, only two things about the wedding remained clear. One was my younger sister — who leveled any playing field she happened to cross — introducing me to her “good friend Billy.” I blinked and realized that my sister’s new-found friend Billy was in fact William McChesney Martin, Chairman of the Federal Reserve. He had the happy look of someone remembering what it was like to be called Billy again.
The other thing I recalled was purchasing a wedding present for Charlie and his new wife Cornelia. The present was a bull calf bought during libational negotiations with Charlie’s farmer neighbor. It seemed a suitable present for about your oldest friend and Charlie and Cornelia apparently thought so, too. They named the calf Sam. It was eventually converted into a steer and eaten.
I did not, however, recall hiring an MIT student for the summer. Still, I could hardly — according to the not unreasonable code of the day — wriggle out of an obligation simply because of consumption-induced impairment.
Which is how Jim Smith came to work for me, how that summer 1966 I started The Capitol East Gazette, and in many ways how I ended up where, however shakily, I find myself today. How, in brief, the real trouble began.
Jim Smith — no relative but our families were friends — had started his own publication at MIT and already possessed the energy, enthusiasm and chutzpah that would eventually lead to his publishing a short-lived daily newspaper in Brooklyn, running as an independent for mayor of New York City and virtually inventing the modern trade of broadcast transcripts. The latter enterprise began one night when Jim sat down with a videotape of a national TV news show, typed out the entire dialogue and delivered it to the show’s headquarters the next day as a sample of what he could do. From this grew Journal Transcripts, a name that would become commonplace on the closing credits of years of TV talk shows.
At the time, of course, Jim had no more idea of where it all might lead than I did. I was still editing the Idler out of my apartment on Capitol Hill, a neighborhood that was racially mixed but becoming less so with the growing success of a restoration movement led by a vigorous herd of real estate dealers. The community’s black residents were not happy with what was going on, but neither were many white residents, more than a few of whom had moved there to live in an integrated neighborhood.
Living there, I found it hard to ignore both the simmering tension and the hope of something better. Besides, I soon met Bob Smith — no relative but a Presbyterian minister — an Alinsky-trained organizer who was methodically laying the foundation for a major community coalition. Bob and I had some long talks into which I would occasionally slip my dream of starting a neighborhood newspaper to compete with one that was deeply in the service of the restoration movement. Since I barely had time for putting out the Idler, however, these talks were mostly just that.
Until, that is, I got the letter from Jim Smith. Why not, I thought, start a neighborhood newspaper over the summer with the extra help? If it worked out, fine; if not, at least I could stop imagining it. Bob Smith gave his blessing and his support, but urged me strongly not to use the term “Capitol Hill.” “The Hill” consisted of the blocks closest to the Capitol, which were rapidly turning white. Bob proposed that I use “Capitol East,” a phrase then only found on the maps and in the reports of city planners. It included an area deep into black Washington, with only about a quarter of its residents white.
Which is how I came not only to start The Capitol East Gazette but tried to rename the whole neighborhood at the same time.
There would come to be the notion that the sixties were the product of immaculate conception. In fact, they were more an act of conversion, conversion of the isolated, unfocussed, dispersed and inarticulate alienation of the 1950s into a mass movement with common language, direction, and rules. One of those rules was that nothing good and pure had ever happened before.
So if you had come of age in the fifties you were something of an anomaly, especially if you were a big guy, white and easily mistaken for a cop. Under a tree by the Lincoln Memorial’s reflecting pool during a big peace march in 1967, the tie-died, pony-tailed protester next to me was quiet for a long time. Then he turned and asked softly, “CIA?”
I puffed on my pipe. “Nope”
I took the pipe out of my mouth. “Half & Half, all day long.”
“Cool,” he said and gave me his love beads.
I did not get off as easily at later demonstrations. At an early environmental protest, an alternative video squad from upstate New York found me taking notes in a dark blue T-shirt and baseball hat. With camera rolling, they quizzed me at length as to my law enforcement affiliation, finding my answers profoundly unconvincing. Later, I sent them some copies of the Gazette along with a note saying that even 220-pound iron-pumpers might want to save the environment. I never heard from them.
Once, a demonstration against a proposed Potomac River bridge was joined by New York City radicals in town for another, more macro-political protest. There was no more ostentatiously radical activists than those nurtured on the polemics and politics of New York City. They were, as Oscar Wilde put it, more certain of everything than I was of anything.
In this case, the New Yorkers’ tactics included throwing rocks at the police. There had not been much of that sort of thing in Washington. As I wandered down Georgetown’s M Street — turned into a sort of free fire zone with helmeted cops on one side and protesters on the other — the prop wash of a rock lapped my face and I decided it was time to leave the scene.
Others did likewise, propelled by the constabulary. The whole protest reformed on the campus of Georgetown University where I was soon accosted by several screaming, camera-grabbing, visiting radicals absolutely convinced that I was an undercover cop. This misapprehension annoyed me, since I was actually one of the few anti-freeway journalists in town. I was about to express my annoyance more firmly when a local demonstration leader stepped in and vouched for my bona fides.
In truth, undercover agents were all around. Throughout America, police were spying on, infiltrating and disrupting movement groups. Even outside America, students took notes on other students for the CIA, students – it was later reported – like Bill Clinton. You knew it was a problem, you saw it, it had names on it. I tried to be pragmatic. After all, I had spent summers in a house in Maine with a crank telephone and a 10-party line. Anyone on the line could listen in on anyone else and the operators could listen in on everyone in town. If you asked the operator to dial Joe, it would not have been surprising for her to tell you that Joe was currently at the barbershop or that she had just seen him walking down Main Street.
I thus had never thought of the phone much as a device for private conversation. Further, I figured that one of the best ways to handle the problem was not to overload one’s life with secrets and conspiracies. I told friends that the worse thing that could happen if my phone were tapped was that the intruder might actually learn something. I considered myself something of a missionary and who better to convert than a member of the intelligence community?
I therefore found it interesting but not unduly alarming when a subscriber I suspected was with the CIA bought two subscriptions year after year. I was somewhat flattered when this subscriber introduced himself and invited my wife and me to dinner and then was somewhat disappointed when nothing more was heard from him after the dinner except for his annual renewals. Apparently my policy of non-conspiratorial openness was too boring to pursue.
Similarly, I enjoyed my conversations with a 9th Precinct police officer who would drop by the Gazette office with his dour squad car partner. I may have been the only underground newspaper editor in the country who was periodically visited by a uniformed cop to discuss politics, both of us on company time.
To be sure, I had known the officer over the years, mainly as his sister’s brother. He had first come around to my office shortly after graduating from Harvard to discuss what he was going to do with his life. One of the options had been to join the police department. I attempted to discourage him but to no avail. He took the job and ended up in my own precinct and with my own office on his beat. Officer Don Graham would continue to ignore my advice in his later employment as publisher of the Washington Post.
I assumed Graham was filing reports about me with someone, just as someone had filed a report on another alternative paper in town, the Colonial Times, when it ran a cover showing a fat lady protesting a local revenue proposal with a button reading, Fuck the food tax! A Postal inspector, apparently assuming that our papers were locked in mortal commercial combat, came by my office one day to suggest I file an obscenity complaint against the Colonial Times. Instead, I gave the man a lecture on the First Amendment and called my friends at the Times to warn them of the danger afoot.
In 1969, my friend Gren Whitman called from Baltimore to borrow my office “as place for the press to meet before an action.” I asked what was up. “Don’t ask,” he instructed. “I don’t want you to know. That way you won’t be liable.” I agreed to help. The reporters and the activists arrived at my office at the scheduled time and within minutes departed on their still-unidentified mission. Later that day I learned that nine protesters had broken into the offices of the Dow Chemical Company and spilled blood over the files in an anti-war protest.
The next morning Kathy woke me saying that I’d better look at what was in the Post. In the upper left corner of the front page was a story describing the attack. In the lead it said that reporters had been told to meet at the offices of the DC Gazette and gave the address, 109 8th Street NE.
I was upset and angry. The Post, it appeared, was setting me up for retaliation — legal and otherwise. My only role in the affair had been to provide a gathering place for my news colleagues and now the Great Prude of 15th Street was out to punish me for having done their reporter a favor. I called a lawyer friend who came over and calmed me down. Nothing more came of it. Which, however, is how I came not to trust the Post.
It was a time of hidden agendas and multiple agendas. The police had found a few black militants willing to disrupt white peace groups and a few white radicals willing to do the same. A member of the DC Statehood Party steering committee was, I’m pretty certain, a police informer. When I referred in passing to reported police ties of a certain ostensibly radical black councilmember, he gave me a wink the next time I showed up at the council press table and never denied it.
On May Day in 1971 the police arrested 13,000 people in DC — including reporters and bystanders — in what was probably the largest mass arrest in American history. I noticed a prominent black militant trapped in one of the corrals the cops had improvised. About a half hour later, he was out of the corral and talking to a top department official. Then, not long after, he was back inside the roped off area. You learned to look for things like that just as I had learned to keep looking behind me at demonstrations so I could see where the cops were moving. Which is how I didn’t get arrested on May Day 1971.
Some of those trapped were detained in an old sports arena; others were herded onto the playing field of RFK Stadium. That night the temperature dropped to the thirties.
I went to the courthouse — crowded as a Thanksgiving weekend airport — sometime after midnight to bail out Gren on personal recognizance. I wore a coat and tie and when the judge asked if I were a DC resident, I stood at parade rest and replied, “A native, your honor.” My friend was released.
For three days the DC police department had literally ran amuck. In a searing report , the American Civil Liberties wrote later:
“Between May 3 and May 5, more than 13,OOO people were arrested in Washington, DC– the largest mass arrest in our country’s history. The action was the government’s response to anti-war demonstrations, an important component of which was the announced intention of the Mayday Coalition, organizer of the demonstrations, to block Washington rush-hour traffic. During this three-day period, normal police procedures were abandoned. Most of the 13,000 people arrested — including law-breakers caught while attempting to impede traffic, possible potential law-breakers, war protestors engaged in entirely legal demonstrations, uninvolved passers-by and spectators — were illegally detained, illegally charged, and deprived of their constitutional rights of due process, fair trial and assistance of counsel. The court system, unable to cope with this grand scale emergency caused by the police, was thrown into chaos.”
During the Mayday police riot, people were beaten and arrested illegally, locked up by the thousands in makeshift holding pens with inadequate toilet facilities and food, or stuffed into drastically overcrowded cells. People on their way to work, patients going to see their doctor, students attending classes, reporters and lawyers were all caught up in the sweep arrests. Most of those stashed in the DC Jail exercise yard were without blankets throughout a night in which the temperatures fell into the thirties. And in the most symbolic display of contempt for the law, more than a thousand persons were arrested in front of the Capitol where they had assembled to hear speeches, including several from members of Congress. When Rep. Ronald Dellums tried to keep a policeman from arresting a member of his staff, saying, “Hey, that’s a member of my staff. Get your hands off of him. I’m a United States Congressman,” the policeman replied, “I don’t give a fuck who you are,” then hit Dellums in the side with his nightstick and pushed him down some stairs.
It was the grimmest display of mass police power — not just selective brutality against a few — this city had seen. And it was a clear warning of the fearful danger inherent in Washington’s acceptance of police power as a form of government. The fact that neither the black chief executive, Walter Washington, nor the white liberal newspaper, the Washington Post, could summon up either the wisdom or the courage to denounce what Wilson and his men, acting under orders of the Justice Department, had done made the affair all the more dismal. More and more the city was listening to sirens luring liberty onto the rocks of repression.
In my neighborhood, the Age of Aquarius often looked more like a war zone. Many of the people there were not part of a counter-culture but of an abandoned one. Even the jukebox at the Stanton Grill — purveyors of Greek and American food to white Appalachian boarding house residents — played the Supremes and the Temptations, not Bob Dylan.
The grill, open from 6 am to 10 pm, was run by two Greek brothers, Pete & Sam, who split the shift. They never took a vacation and put at least one boy through collage through their unflagging provision of braised short-ribs, chicken Greek style, and “I Hear a Symphony” calling from the juke box. They fed the old Capitol Hill roomers, the guys from the union hall down the street, and a few young singles like myself with good plain food that varied no more over the yeas than the shade of brick on the school across the street. One of their sons now owns a restaurant on Capitol Hill.
We lived in one of the toughest sections of town but experienced relatively few problems. Which is to say that two cars of friends were stolen from our block. Our house was broken into several times. Once, a half gallon of vodka was returned to us by the police, complete with blood stains and evidence tag. I kept it like that in my bar. Some months later, the house was broken into and the bottle stolen again.
There were also a few break-ins that were less than routine. One afternoon I came home and found my front door busted open. Through the void, two friends were pushing an ugly old mantle piece they thought would look nice around my fireplace.
I had bought the traditional Washington row house on 6th Street NE after becoming engaged, but before getting married. I assured Kathy that the neighborhood was safe. It was, after all, only about four blocks away from where I was already living. The neighborhood kids who helped me move weren’t so sure. Over lunch at my new abode, one observed that he “wouldn’t come over here with the whole US Marines.”
“But,” replied another, “it’s better than Death Alley.”
“You know, Sam, that alley behind your apartment.” I had never thought about it from a kid’s point of view, but he was right: the dead end of Death Alley would not be a pleasant place to be trapped.
THE ‘ONE IOTA’ IN FRONT OF ‘GLORIA’. THE HULL WAS MADE OF STYROFOAM
When I returned to my new house the next morning, I found that one of my prized possessions was gone already, an eight-foot styrofoam sailing dinghy precisely named the One Iota. It was barely more than a beer cooler with canvas, rudder and a dagger board, but at forty pounds, it was easy to flip on top of Gloria and drive down to Roach’s Run at the end of the National Airport runway for a late afternoon sail. Gloria was my ten year-old Chrysler New Yorker. It was also precisely named. I called it Gloria because it was sick transit.
Sailing on the Potomac was something of an exercise in maritime masochism. The down draft of a landing plane could flip a small sailboat using the end of the runway for home port. On one occasion I beached the boat and took refuge during a thunderstorm in my swimming suit under an Anacostia freeway overpass. There wasn’t much wind in summer and it was said that if you fell overboard you should get a tetanus shot. I tried, however, to provide some elegance to the experience: I placed a jack staff on the transom from which I flew a tiny yacht ensign and added two cocktail glass holders mounted on gimbal rings.
One day, Jerry Cabel, press secretary to Senator Phil Hart, joined me for a late afternoon sail. We were lolling about the Potomac drinking Myer’s rum when Jerry proposed that we have dinner at Hogates, a waterfront restaurant,.
“I don’t think we’re dressed for it,” I demurred.
“Leave it to me.”
And so two slightly damp sailors in t-shirts and jeans walked up to the maitre d’ and as he crinkled his nose, Jerry announced haughtily, “A table for two, please. We came by sea.”
Now my beloved yacht had been stolen from the backyard. The window in the basement was broken and mast, oars, rudder, daggerboard, lifejackets and sails were all gone. Nothing else in the house had been touched. Clearly a ruthless gang of cheap sailing dinghy thieves had been at work.
I walked down to the 9th Precinct — then claiming the city’s worst crime rate — and reported a stolen boat. The desk officer looked intently at the Polaroid I had brought along. “Would you like to keep it?” I asked. “No, I wouldn’t know where to file it.”
Later that same day, Thomas Glasgow Smith, attorney at law, part Cherokee, all alcoholic, and about the foulest-mouthed, craziest paragon of decency I ever met, called to say that he had borrowed the One Iota and would soon be returning it. It seems he had been on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay the previous evening and had decided at about two in the morning to go for a sail and thought I wouldn’t mind.
Which is one of the reasons I was less than totally surprised by the subsequent forced entry by mantelpiece. One of the perps, after all, was Tom Smith. Tom was beloved in the neighborhood until about the third drink after which almost anything was possible. He had, as chair of the local recreation council, once called a 6:30 am emergency meeting to deal with the just discovered gross misplacement of several pieces of play equipment in an unprotected corner of a park only a few feet from a freeway entrance ramp. We quickly gathered in a nearby home as Tom awakened the recreation director with a torrent of obscenities. The equipment was moved later that day.
Kathy hadn’t really bargained for all this. Less than a year earlier we had met at what was for both of us the atypical locale of a Georgetown cocktail party. Kathy, after several years as head of public relations for the Wisconsin State Historical Society, had recently arrived in a city that was still the sort of place where, when she went for an interview with a liberal Democratic congressman, she found him wondering aloud to his aide what they would “do with her” and the aide responding, “Well, Gaylord’s got a girl and they like her.” Kathy went to see Senator Gaylord Nelson and ended up as his assistant press secretary.
Kathy, although she didn’t completely understand it at first, had not only married me but had joined, for better or for worse, my friends and relations. It could be puzzling. A long afternoon with several of them, for example, deteriorated into a loud and unforgiving argument about Vietnam. When the last of my buddies left, Kathy said how sad it was that we would probably never see them again. “What do you mean?” I asked. She told me that our words had seemed irreparable. I assured her they would soon be back. And they were.
Among our mutual enterprises was yet another urban sailing craft, this one co-purchased with my friends Terry Murphy and Gerry Bunker. The boat was a 19-foot Shark-class cruising sloop with triple keels. It was basically a Lightning with a cabin, but it had a double bunk far larger and more comfortable (once you were in it for the night) than that of much grander vessels.
The boat was supposed to be delivered to us at Don Williams’ Back Creek Marina in Annapolis. I faithfully logged the event:
Kathy, Sam, and Terry waited at Back Creek for four hours but no boat. As it turned out, the cradle had collapsed en route and Little’s henchmen had spent two hours repairing it by the side of the highway. We launched the boat without problem and proceeded in a stiff northwest breeze towards Don Williams’ dock. Disaster quickly overtook us as the main sheet became entangled with the motor, yanking it out of its bracket and dumping it overboard. Shortly thereafter, the mainsheet jammed between the outboard bracket and the transom causing us to lose full control of the boat. There was a minor collision with an anchored craft and considerable difficulty coming into the dock — rounding out an active afternoon. On Sunday, April 23, Sam and Terry procured the assistance of two Navy divers who searched vainly for the motor.
Not an auspicious start for former officers of the Navy and Coast Guard. Still, I was chosen mess treasurer and reported regularly to my ship mates. In October I wrote:
The main noteworthy event of late has been a general consensus on the name October for the boat. There is somewhat less consensus as to whether the figure 2 or Two should be added, being the sum of the digits of all our wedding dates, and it is expected that we shall continue to have a meaningful dialogue on the subject .
March was slow:
No cruise. No news. No dues. Faithfully submitted, Sam
Although extensive scraping and sand-papering has taken place at this point, the boat remains on dry land into the navigation season. There are primary, secondary, and tertiary reasons for this, including civil disorders, inclement weather etc. The boat also remains unnamed. Recently some grassroots support has been developing for Quandary. Not too much should be made of this since it has happened before.
The boat is launched but at the present time lacks a main halyard which slows it down somewhat.
The following year it took us five weekends to get the boat ready — thanks to a series of late afternoon thunderstorms that caused wet paint to bubble and buckle. We sailed the boat only three weekends and sold it the following season.
My circulation staff came from the neighborhood — when they weren’t in jail. At one point, about half of them were. I found needles behind stacks of papers in the office, had a few checks stolen and was even tipped to a kidnap threat credible enough that my wife and son left town while the police staked out my house for a day. But most of the time things went pretty well.
With ten to fifteen thousand papers to distribute, I needed some help and there were plenty of youths in the neighborhood who wanted work. I could fit myself, ten thousand copies, and three kids into Kathy’s roof-rack equipped red Volkswagen.
One day I came home to find several of the neighborhood youths watching another run out in front of cars that were forced to swerve or brake suddenly. I asked what was going on. “Oh, Bo, he crazy,” I was told. “He try kill hisself.”
When Bo returned to the sidewalk I introduced myself and suggested some alternative activities for the afternoon, none of which seemed to interest him much. Bo was 16, somewhat older than the others, and seemed considerably more sophisticated when he wasn’t doing dumb things like trying to kill himself. Talking some more, I discovered that Bo actually knew how to type. Bo, in fact, was quite bright.
Which is how Bo became a part-time member of the Gazette staff. There were good days and bad ones, but I was an editor and not a therapist and so when Bo told me one day he was going to kill himself all I knew how to do was to sit with him and talk and talk and talk. Or when he called me up one night with the same intent, to talk and talk and talk again.
He didn’t commit suicide but he didn’t really get better. I tried to get him help but he had been raised on the idea that you were either crazy or you weren’t and he, as he made sure I agreed, wasn’t crazy. I finally persuaded him to go with me to the Area C Mental Health Clinic but that didn’t take either.
Matters deteriorated and with the deterioration, Bo became more manipulative and less dependable and more frequently clearly on drugs. I finally reached the end of what I could do and told him so.
That didn’t work, either. One night around eleven-thirty he showed up at our front door, high and scared, begging for sanctuary from his pusher who was on his tail. As I looked out the window, I saw a two-tone brown Cadillac drive slowly by several times.
I wasn’t going to get into the middle of Bo’s failed deals. I finally figured that the safest place for Bo that night might be jail. So I called the local precinct, explained the situation and suggested they just take him down to the station house until the problem subsided.
A white cop arrived and Bo left with him. As they walked down the street, something went wrong and the two started fighting, with Bo eventually losing and being forcibly taken off. A neighbor, a popular black singer at the nearby Mr. Henry’s bar, looked out his window, saw a white cop assaulting a black man and went down to the precinct and bailed Bo out. One hour later, Bo was at my door again begging to be let in. This time I called the precinct and asked them to send a black cop and just take Bo home. They did and the evening ended.
But Bo continued his slide and was eventually arrested for robbery. While in prison, he wrote me a letter blaming me for his troubles. I wrote back in considerable heat telling him to stop blaming others and to get some help so he wouldn’t be so screwed up when he got out. This time he listened.
When his sentence was over, he came to see me, rational and sell-possessed. He wanted a job but I told him that it was time for him to move on. I saw him once again and he seemed all right.
CAPITOL EAST GAZETTE, 1968
NOTE RED STAFF CAR AT LEFT
There were several times I might have followed my own advice and gone straight. But I declined a job offer from a Post editor and when James Reston called and asked if I would like to be his assistant, I also turned him down. Reston asked me if I had any suggestions. I gave him the name of my friend and ex-roommate, Jim Sterba, then with the Washington Star. Sterba went on to cover Vietnam for the New York Times and become foreign editor at the Wall Street Journal. Neither fate would have pleased me much. Not long after, Reston called again and invited me to lunch at the Metropolitan Club. There, he proposed another job: editor of the Vineyard Gazette, a paper on Martha’s Vineyard he had recently acquired.
I politely told him I felt I was too young to retire and I never heard from him again. The way I saw it was that I had enough money to risk doing something different and still had time to recover if I failed.
It was a time for trying things. I even seriously considered working for the National Enquirer. A friend at Congressional Quarterly called with news that a mutual acquaintance — a deputy editor at the tabloid — was looking for a Washington column. The Enquirer was willing to pay $800 a week — an enormous sum at the time albeit some of it intended for loosening lips.
My friend’s scheme was brilliant. Four of us would write under a single pseudonym. Thus we could all keep our day jobs while writing one quarter of a column for a fee greater than my salary as a Coast Guard lieutenant.
For five hours, we sat in the dark, dignified dining hall of the Mayflower Hotel discussing the project with the tabloid’s chief editor, a small, dapper Englishman who moved from national politics to the importance of dog stories in perfect segué. We sold each other on ourselves and the three other conspirators — all of whom worked for Congressional Quarterly — returned to broach the subject with their publisher, Nelson Pointer. Pointer pointedly responded that they could either work for CQ or for the Enquirer but not for both. The scheme disintegrated. I did get paid $100 for a one paragraph item the Enquirer published, but afterwards I felt a little tawdry and never submitted anything else.
After that, the establishment press pretty much left me alone, except that quite a few years later Jack Limpert, editor of the Washingtonian, came up to me at a party and said, “Sam, if we were to name you a Washingtonian of the year, would you say anything outrageous?” I sort of smiled and he excused himself and I never heard from him again either.
Not accepting two job offers from Scotty Reston was far from my only apostasy of the era. I also let my name drop from the Social Register and never returned the form when I was invited to be listed in Washington’s similar Green Book. I don’t recall having any particularly noble thoughts about this although perhaps a clue exists in an article I wrote in 1966 on the city’s society pages: “a place where cliches and commercials hang from paragraphs like Spanish moss and where implicit values and attitudes have the twisted character of a cypress root; a place inhabited mainly reporters and publicity gluttons.”
I also noted:
The society section acts as though Negroes never got married, gave to charity, or held parties. This stems in part from the general attitude of newspapers towards Negroes. Then tend to report them as an issue or a problem, but pay little attention to them as individuals. The average Negro can only hope to attract the notice of his local daily by robbing a liquor store, playing football, or dying.
More important, however, Negroes are not part of the society page because they are not part of society. Society is an institution strongly based on the ugly foundation of discrimination. Its premises are similar to those of Sheriff Jim Clark, filled with spurious ideas about people’s “worth” and “place” . . . We have enough problems in this country caused by false emphasis on status, hoked-up values and worthless discriminations without such a healthy assist from the press.
At the time that I talked to James Reston, I was in the breakfast nook of our pullman kitchen on 6th Street NE, the first editorial office of the Gazette. A Yield House, pseudo-general store, cubby-holed, pine desk filled the opening between the kitchen and nook. An electric frying pan sat atop the desk, which is how some of the galleys went back to the printer with chicken grease all over them.
Paste-up and layout were done on the dining room table. Kathy, who had been in charge of publications for the Wisconsin State Historical Society, taught me the intricacies of making words look good on a page.
At first we used a letterpress printer, then we went offset with rub-on letters for headlines, and later used a complex, malodorous and malfunctioning machine that required each headline be typed on film using an alphabet mounted on the circumference of a disc that was a foot in diameter. The results were routed on movie projector-type ratchets through three small containers to be developed, fixed and washed.
Our typesetter was an IBM Executive typewriter (later a pair of IBM Selectrics). Each mistake was retyped, the corrections excised from the paper with a razor blade and then affixed with rubber cement. At the end of an issue our dining room floor was covered with confetti.
Kathy fell comfortably into the questionable notion that one should publish a newspaper from one’s house. She was listed on the masthead as ‘Editor’s Wife’ and wrote a column of the same name. I thought it described her ubiquitous role pretty well while also providing a hint of Thurberesque menace. When the women’s movement arrived, however, I would be informed by several staffers that what I thought was wrong. By this time, Kathy and I had decided that putting out a publication together and staying married wasn’t all that easy. We opted for the latter. Kathy became an historian and we thereafter followed the rule that I would take care of everything from the 1960s on and she would take care of everything before. It’s worked pretty well as the anniversary of our marital and publishing adventures have marched hand in hand down the decades.
Sally Crowell became the Gazette’s first regular staff member, and her new son, Ted, became the first client of the paper’s day care center (AKA the living room floor) It soon became clear, however, that the paper needed its own quarters. We moved into a storefront on 8th Street NE. I splurged on a big sign with The Capitol East Gazette in gold P.T. Barnum type on a black background. It made me feel that now I was running a real newspaper.
The Gazette was part of a explosion of underground, alternative and community journals of the period. Only a few of this era, such as the Bay Guardian which started the same year as the Gazette, remain. The explosion had political roots, but also technological ones. The 1960s happened along just as conventional newspapers were switching from hot type to offset printing. The new machinery was expensive and, because of its efficiency, idle much of the time, especially at weekly publications. Printers were scrambling for any work they could get. The result was that a tabloid press run of 10,000 to 15,000 could cost less than $400.
There were other economies as well. The Underground Press Syndicate, started in 1967, eventually included several hundred papers willing to share stories and graphics without charge. The resulting journalistic synergy was remarkable. These were papers unhampered by the ambivalence that would come to afflict later independent media — publications unable to decide whether they were an alternative to conventional journalism or merely its farm team. In the underground press, we knew which side we were on.
The Gazette was also blessed by a steady stream of talented folk who provided copy, let us use their columns or otherwise looked kindly upon us, among them Chuck Stone, Charlie McDowell, Erbin Crowell, Jim Ridgeway, Larry Cuban, Tuli Kupferberg, Paul Krassner, Anton Wood, Anne Chase, Marcia Feldman, Jim Ramsey, Carl Bergman, and Mitch Ratner. Long before Tony Auth won a Pulitzer, the Gazette ran his cartoons. Zippy the Pinhead and Dave Barry were also introduced to Washington readers through the Gazette. And the paper featured Archihorse, the only urban planning comic strip in the country (by John Wiebenson) and the only regular column written by a jail inmate.
Then there were the critics. Kathy kept saying that the Gazette ought to have an arts section. Though I played jazz, I had flunked Fine Arts 13, seldom read cultural criticism and regarded myself pretty much a philistine. I finally told Kathy that if she really wanted an arts section she’d have to find one. She shortly came back with Joel Siegel to cover movies and Tom Shales to write about drama. Siegel went on to be a local cinematic guru and Shales was hired by the Washington Post’s Style section, becoming its famed syndicated television critic.
When Style began, Tom wrote a Gazette column in which he quoted someone as saying, “What the Post needs now is a section called Substance.” After he went to work for the Post, Shales continued to write for the Gazette under the pseudonym of Egbert Sousé, a W.C. Fields character. A Post editor, however, discovered the disguise, which is how the Gazette lost its drama critic. Nonetheless there was no shortage of fine cultural criticism thanks to Andrea Dean, Cris Wittenberg, Jean Lewton, Val Lewton, Sally Crowell, Ed Merritt, Patti Griffith, and Richard King.
There was also an elusive corespondent named Josiah Swampoodle who described himself as “purveyor of split infinitives for more than 30 years.” Swampoodle covered the news that others didn’t:
Well, here it is fall again, that time of year when the leaves drop gently from those trees that haven’t already died of air pollution and pesticides. It’s just too bad the Highway Dept. doesn’t plant more trees. The fallen leaves hide the trash the Sanitation Dept. doesn’t pick up. . . .
Keep your powder dry, remember to call your ambulance early, and tell them you’re going to the airport. Then they’ll be sure to come. . . .
Then there was Roland Freeman. Roland had introduced himself by screaming at me over the phone. We had run a striking front page shot of two karate students sent us by the Southeast Enrichment Center. When I answered Roland’s call, I quickly learned that the photo had been his, that we should have given him credit, that he was a poor black drop-out who was working at a car wash trying to break into photography and how could we have been so cruel and so forth. Normally, I would have felt chastened, but Roland’s aggressiveness sparked an uncharacteristic response: I started yelling back at him.
“Listen, you say you want to be a photographer?” I shouted.
“And you want credit for your work?”
“Well, I’m gonna to tell you how to become a photographer and get full credit for your work.”
“OK. I’m listening.”
THE PHOTO IN QUESTION
“What you do is you go and get yourself a fucking rubber stamp that reads ‘Credit Roland Freeman, Photographer, all rights reserved’ and you stamp every photo you take with that stamp and then you’ll be a real photographer and I won’t print anymore of your frigging photos without giving you credit.”
We both quieted down and the next thing I knew Roland was the Gazette’s photo editor. Later he would win the first photographic grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and become a nationally known photographer and an expert on African-America quilting.
Roland had been on his own a long time. By the time the Baltimore-born Freeman was 12 he had already been a newspaper delivery boy, shoe-shine boy, and a helper on junk and watermelon horse-and-wagons driven by men called “arabers.” A biography Roland prepared for one of his exhibitions continued his story:
In the next two or three years he traveled with a small carnival, worked as a migrant laborer in the Southwest and rode the, rails for a short time, after which he settled on a small tobacco farm in Southern Maryland until the age of eighteen. Several months later, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force for four years, much of which time he spent in Paris, France. The complete renaissance which he underwent in Europe influenced his outlook on life from that time on. Upon his return to this country, he worked at a variety of jobs to support himself while he dabbled in art and folk music and he became deeply involved in the civil rights movement. Then he worked for a while as a hospital attendant manager of a car wash and filling station while he returned to school at night to further his education.
On the face of it, his history follows a not uncommon pattern for a black child born into an environment which assured poor formal education, backbreaking work, often inadequate diet, constant economic, and sometimes legal insecurity, and. a future that has to be fought for without letup.
Years later he would return to Baltimore for an exhibit of his work on the arabers as well as a presentation from the mayor. When Kathy and I arrived at the Baltimore Museum of Art auditorium, Roland was running up and down the aisles personally making sure everyone was where they were supposed to be. He just couldn’t get it through his head that he was the guest of honor.
Everything excited Roland. Once, as Kathy was driving him on a photo mission, he started barking orders, “Slow down! See that man on the park bench, I want to get him. . . Take a right . . . Okay, now grab a left. . .”
It was, however, a no-left turn and a cop pulled Kathy over. As Kathy and the officer discussed her malfeasance, she heard a repeated click and whir. Glancing to the right she saw that Roland had his camera resting on the seat and pointed at the cop as he wrote the ticket. Fortunately the officer didn’t notice and we ran the photos.
The meat and potatoes of our coverage were the endless meetings taking place in the community, not a few of them spurred by questions as to what to do and who should do it with the money coming from the war on poverty. Everyone knew Robert’s Rules of Order and its locally sanctioned addenda: “Mr. Chairman, I have an unreadiness.” Sometimes meetings broke up in pandemonium. One was literally turned around after the chair declared it illegal. The vice chair, a minister and cab driver who wore a clerical collar around his neck and a coin holder on his belt, stood up in the back of the room and announced that the meeting would go on and requested everyone to turn their chairs around. Most did, leaving the chairman speechless in what was now the rear.
On another occasion this same preacher-cabbie urged the audience to “Calm the tempest, bridle tongues, and govern our thoughts.” It didn’t work. The minutes of the group bring back the flavor, if not the purpose, of the dispute:
The meeting was held on the above date with Mr. Swaim presiding. As a background he reviewed the Annual Assembly of Delegates which was not held because there was no quorum, and questions concerning the By-Laws, missing minutes and the fact that the Executive Committee minutes were not available . . .
Mrs. Mayo felt that all people should be allowed to speak. Mr. Geathers stated that it was not legal for non-members to participate. Mrs. Mayo then asked, “Who are the members?” Mr. Geathers stated that we were going to establish definitely the answer to this question . . .
The meetings may have seemed chaotic but they were actually part of a community coming alive, of power being transferred to better places, and of the anarchistic results of discovering hope. And you met some wonderful people covering the story, people like the Reverend Imogene Stewart of the Revolutionary Church of What’s Happening Now.
And public housing activist Lucille Goodwin. Ms. Goodwin, it seemed, spent all day on the phone. A long-time resident of Langston Terrace public housing in Near Northeast, constantly cropping up on anti-poverty boards and committees, ever-present at the big fights, chairwoman of the citizen’s advisory arm of the Neighborhood Legal Services program, she had plenty to talk about. A memo had come in the mail that she wanted to read, someone was putting something over on someone else, or perhaps she just had to report that at some local meeting “those folks messed themselves up good last night.” She carried out her civic functions with an energy more typical of one half her age, and she did so despite an ill and old husband who had to be helped in and out of rooms and who would sit quietly in a corner fiddling with a little plastic soldier while his wife took on the accumulated offenses of the system. It was her intensity and concern more than her language that carried her through, and she would toss around transliterated multisyllabic words like confetti. Everyone knew just what Lucille Goodwin meant even if they hadn’t understood what she said. One day, though, she ended her call with a message that hung around. “You know how you got to treat them people downtown?” she asked, and then without waiting offered the solution: “You gotta technique ’em.”
It is one thing to use political power; it is another thing to be denied political power and still produce change. It was the latter talent that a number of exceptional and unexceptional Washingtonians developed following the awakening of a local civil rights movement. The old-line groups, like the white liberals on the Home Rule Committee, the local NAACP, and the black ministers would plod along with traditional lobbying, petitions, and failure and increasingly they would be estranged from agitators, troublemakers, and radicals like Julius Hobson, Sammie Abbott, and Marion Barry. The newer activists realized that without the vote, policymakers would be influenced only by techniques and strategies that surprised, confounded, aggravated, delayed, or just plain scared them.
The biggest manifestation of this new spirit in our neighborhood came in 1969 when Bob Smith created a large Alinsky-like umbrella group called the Capitol East Community Organiation. At its first convention, representatives from more than 70 groups showed up to form what the Washington Post called a “broadly based, citizen-run community coalition.”
Not everyone was impressed, though. Regina Cobb, chair of the DC Family Rights Organization, took one look at the proposed slate of officers and demanded, “Why are there so many well-to-do people on the committee? Why aren’t there more poor people?”
Before long, seven new names had been added to the slate of 13 vice presidential candidates, among them Mrs. Cobb. Again she was not impressed: “I didn’t ask to be nominated as a board member, I asked to be president.” She lost.
Mrs. James Morrison of the League of Women Voters also had an objection; she wanted to know what the body’s condemnation of the Vietnam War had to do with Capitol East: “Let’s deal with Capitol East and not worry about the rest of the world at this assembly.”
CECO would be short lived, one of its most noticeable achievement being window signs that warned gentrifiers, “I love Capitol East and will fight to STAY!” The organization’s demise was speeded by the financial misdeeds of the director that led to a court trial notable for the appearance of two nuns as character witnesses. He may have been a sinner, but he was our sinner and not the courts. Saul Alinksy would have smiled.
Only a few national figures gave more than passing attention to the city. The most striking exceptions were Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. When Congress wouldn’t act on home rule, LBJ gave the city its own de facto government through the expediency of a bureaucratic reorganization, his appointees instructed personally by the big man to “act as if they had been elected.” And Ladybird personally directed a beautification program for our neighborhood. This was no publicity shot, rather a carefully designed program in which she enlisted the efforts of premier landscape architect Larry Halperin who produced one of the few urban plans I’ve seen that didn’t involve the probable displacement of currently resident citizens. Further, she assigned a White House staffer to work with neighborhood leaders — using skill instead of spin — in carrying out the project. There would be periodic reports of a White House limousine arriving in our neighborhood as Mrs. Johnson quietly checked on how things were going.
Mrs. Johnson is one of the most underrated of president’s wives, ignored, for example, by the boomer women who fawned over Hillary Clinton. In fact, Mrs. Johnson had certain similarities with HRC. She was fiercely independent, she struck out on her own, she was a professional, she made her own money, and she had to deal with a husband who was abusive and a sexual predator. The difference was that Lady Bird took on these challenges with skill, wisdom and integrity. Add in the far greater prejudice against women of her time and this becomes truly impressive. For example, Lady Bird had the nerve to major in journalism long before the days of ubiquitous blow-dried blonde anchorwomen. There weren’t glass ceilings back then but heavy, locked doors. She was the first woman in the White House to earn a million dollars on her own. And she ran her own television operation.
Instead of heavily contrived “listening tours,” Mrs. Johnson took a four-day 1,628 mile trip through the south to sell the 1964 Civil Rights Act to towns, writes one biographer, that “were in such racial turmoil it was not considered safe for Johnson to go. Her message was that the Civil War should at long last come to an end which could only happen if the South shed its racist past and moved into the modern world.” As the Washington Post noted years later, she faced “bomb threats, snubs from local governors, rumors of riots, and heckling from crowds.” When key Johnson aide Walter Jenkins was spotted in homosexual activity at the local Y, Lady Bird urged LBJ to let her give him a job at her television station so it wouldn’t look at though they were deserting the Jenkins in their time of need. Said LBJ, “You won’t have your license five minutes.” Replied his wife: “I’d just rather offer it to them and let the license go down the drain.” Being that her husband was LBJ and the time was the 1960s, Lady Bird eventually capitulated.
Techniquing them was made considerably harder by the fact that Washington was, without a trace of rhetoric, a colony. Washingtonians reacted to the city’s political status in varied ways. Some resigned themselves to it; some ignored it; some were not aware of it; some capitalized upon it and some fought to change it. To the poor of the city the matter often seemed quite irrelevant compared to their more immediate problems. To the businessman with contacts on the Hill and at the District Building (and to those he contacted), the situation was in many ways quite satisfactory. To long-time residents, the District’s status appeared as sadly inevitable as the summer humidity. And among those oriented towards the federal government — the powerful and the wealthy — the city was seldom mentioned except as an impediment to automobile travel, a threat to their personal safety, or a dwindling source of reliable maids.
But there are still many people who threw themselves into the problems of Washington with vigor, if not always with wisdom, They became accustomed to failure and to having their efforts ignored by the government, by the federal and suburban oriented press, and by their friends. Many of them adopted the city. Commissioner Walter Washington came to DC from Georgia. Marion Barry moved from Tennessee, and activist Julius Hobson was born in Alabama. The lack of a powerful native elite — with the exception of the Dunbar High School alumni crowd in the school system — made it easy for concerned, impatient, or ambitious outsiders to make a mark on the city. In fact, the newcomers often provided a counter-force to the feeling of futility, that often gripped the city.
Sammie Abbott had been in the Washington area since 1940 but he was still on the outside. By all rights, though, Abbott should have been disqualified as a DC leader on at least three grounds: he was too white, he was too old, and he lived in the suburbs. Instead, this short man with a nail-file voice became the nemesis of public officials for years. Abbott, the grandson of Arab Christians who fled Turkish persecution in Syria, had been a labor organizer, a bricklayer and a World War II veteran with a Bronze Star. He had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was arrested about 40 times for his labor, peace, civil rights, and anti-freeway protests. His wife’s father had introduced him to her while the both men were in jail.
Abbott worked high in an office building on Connecticut Avenue as a commercial artist. Between dabs of rubber cement, he kept on the phone tracking down witnesses for the next freeway hearing, plotting strategy against the Highway Department, always mad as hell about something. Occasionally his eyes would break into an elfish twinkle, but most of the time Abbott was an angry middle-aged man showing angry young men and women how to be angry. The Post once described him as “strident, confrontational, acerbic, cantankerous, even abusive.” Abbott himself said,, “I’m perpetually mad person. I hate injustice. As far as I’m concerned, I’m living to fight injustice. I’m living to fight the goddamned thing. I’m too mad to sleep.” Once he got so mad that he threw a bottle of India ink out of the window ruining the clothes of a passer-by below.
One of Sammie’s advantages was his voice. His hoarse fury roared through a room like coal crashing down a chute “The people of the District,” he told a group at the proposed site of the Three Sisters Bridge, “are fighting not only the highway department, the Congress of the U.S., but the media — particularly the Star and the Post — which are not only the handmaidens [of the highway interests] but the prostitutes.” Abbott said he was prepared to die in the fight. The Post reported :
Abbott seemed to warm to the crowd as the crowd warmed to him. A physically small man, he seemed to grow as he almost yelled, “Before another inch of these damn freeways gets laid down in the District there’s gonna be flames, there’s gonna be fighting, there’s gonna be rebellion! And I for one–” He was drowned out by cheers and clapping, raised his fist in salute to the crowd.
Sammie never stopped his agitation, in his seventies serving as mayor of a nearby suburb affectionately known as the People’s Republic of Takoma Park. After five years in office he lost by seven votes to a lawyer more in tune with the young, non-political professionals moving into a town that had been once been among the first to refuse to do business with companies making nuclear weapons.
By the middle of the sixties I was fast approaching the age of thirty which — according to contemporary mythology — was about to render me totally untrustworthy. Having only recently signed up for social change, I found the prospect of such early forced retirement from righteousness annoying and depressing. Then I noticed a curious thing. In the peace, civil rights and anti-freeway movements, some of the people who were making the most sense — and the most difference — were even older than I. People like Abe Bloom, David and Selma Rein, Julius Hobson and Sammie Abbott.
These were the sort of people who, to a degree not widely recognized, held things together in the sixties, often old leftists who actually knew how to organize marches and rallies and fight in court and keep offices going even when overfilled with people who were just passing through or trying out a new direction for a little while or using that moment in history as a crash pad for their souls.
CITY COUNCIL HEARING ON THE FREEWAYS
As a product of the fifties in which cynicism and disengagement were the highest forms of political activity, I had found myself unable to identify with the Aquarian optimism of those just a few years younger than myself. Aquarius was not an age, I thought, but brief happy fireworks in the long night before human understanding. I came to believe that Bobby Seale’s appeal to “seize the time” best summarized the transitory nature of the success that social and political change were then enjoying. In a literal sense, narrow in focus, I was not off the mark. But because I came to know a few people like Sammie Abbott — it came not to matter.
Sammie, after all, had been a union organizer before I had even been born. He had been protesting against the bomb while I was still in elementary school. He had been black-listed while I was in high school. That he had remained so committed, creative and indefatigable for so long was a truly remarkable discovery. That he had done so during times not only without the support of mass demonstrations, mass media, and the cheers of a whole generation, but in times when such activities were considered akin to treason was inspiring. Above all, the constancy of it, the steadfastness, made me comprehend for the first time the existential concept of personal witness that had eluded me even during my years of Quaker education.
Of course I could not have thus described Sammie’s effect on me back then. Nor, I regret, did I ever mention it to him. There was about Sammie the compelling aura of a job to be done as soon as possible and the day to sit back and reflect on it all never came. In fact, I wondered what Sammie would have said about his memorial service, at which hundreds of activists gathered for two and a half hours of eulogy, music and anecdotes. Looking at the energy, talent and faith in the room, I suspect he might have been annoyed that at a time so hostage to puerile apocalyptic visions, we were wasting the afternoon with mere memories instead of action. I would not have been surprised if he had arisen in mist from the middle of the room and in that voice and with that pointing finger so reminiscent of an old testament prophet interrupted our proceedings and demanded that we get back to business.
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER CAUSE
For my part on the program, I remembered for my friends that voice and that finger pointing at Thomas Airis, director of highways, or Gilbert Hahn, chair of the city council. Through that voice flowed the aggregated anger of a city abused, of justice ignored, of dreams dismantled.
But I also remember that the anger was only the beginning. Always there was a plan, an idea, a way of doing it. Drive down U Street, through Brookland or up the Potomac River by the islands of the Three Sisters and you will find no freeway there, in part because Sammie knew how to move from anger to productive action.
Like the time someone discovered an internal DC government map showing a proposed freeway right through the heart of Shaw. Sammie immediately sat down and created a 3 by 4 foot poster with a blow-up of the section in question, with the freeway overlaid in red and identifying exactly which buildings — such as Pride headquarters and the Howard Theatre — would be torn down. The headline: “White Man’s Roads Through Black Man’s Homes.” The posters were tacked up all over Shaw and within a few days the DC government was disingenuously denying it had even thought of a freeway there. It may have been the first and only freeway stopped after less than a month of protest.
Sammie built his entire life around truth and justice. A cause was not a career move, not on option purchased on a political future, nor a flirtation of conscience. It was simply the just life’s work of a just human.
Sammie built his entire life around truth and justice. A cause was not a career move, not on option purchased on a political future, nor a flirtation of conscience. It was simply the just life’s work of a just human.
Sammie built his entire life around truth and justice. A cause was not a career move, not on option purchased on a political future, nor a flirtation of conscience. It was simply the just life’s work of a just human.