An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

To Commune, or not to Commune

In Minnesota, where I grew up, there was a strong tradition of community service, as well as historical practice of working collectively: characteristics of the original Finnish immigrants. Settling on the far northern plains in an area whose climate mirrored the tundra from which they came, they, along with later waves of Eastern Europeans, opened up the vast open pit iron mines that came to be known as The Iron Range. The International Workers of the World (IWW; the Wobblies) were strong on the Range. They led some of the bloody strikes that characterized the first years of the last century, and, along with the Knights of Labor and others, laid the base for the modern Union movement.

One of the great events of Labor history, the Teamsters' Strike of 1934, took place in Minneapolis. Our traditions (at least in the more urban areas and on "da range") were solidly Liberal. In Minnesota, ethnicity tended toward German, Scandinavian and Eastern European. Revolutionists and anarchists had helped elect a governor (Floyd B. Olson) whose populist and socialist views matched those of Huey Long, but without the corruption. Hubert Humphrey was mayor of Minneapolis before he was our senator, with Eugene McCarthy as his "junior".

The Commune movement of the 60s, while it had much in common with these antecedents, and drew much of its rhetoric from them, was more reflective of the spirits of its own time: civil rights, student movements, sexual freedom, and the dawning of the drug culture.

In 1961, Robert Heinlein published “Stranger In A Strange Land”, a novel about a messianic alien whose attempt to lead humanity to a “better place” ends with his being torn apart by a howling mob. His disciples are taught the joys of multiple sexual partnerships, in sequence or in combination, as part of a general rejection of the notion of exclusive property.

My pal Willy and I had both read “Stranger” when it came out: we were Sci-Fi fans. We were both sharing our households with other folks, out of economic necessity. We re-read it in 1963, by which time we and our spouses had already begun experimenting with “free sex”. Upon re-examination, the book had a whole new set of meanings for us: it seemed to us to be revolutionary, and prophetic; a revelation of the way life should be.

Being children of the middle class (his dad was a pharmacist, mine a grocer), we decided to pitch communalism to others as a great way to get more bang for a buck, focusing on things like sharing automobiles, and not having to have a kitchen, bathroom, living room, or TV for every person. We figured the “free sex” thing would come later.

We discovered that a small hospital in the University area had closed down, and that the building was for sale. We went to look at it, and it was perfect. 100 bedrooms, a large industrial kitchen, and a dining area that could seat everyone at once; lots of common areas; a basement that could easily hold a swimming pool and a gymnasium; a parking lot that was more than adequate. The telephone system was already in place, and all the rooms were wired for TV. The price, 100,000 dollars, was more than reasonable. Now all we had to do was find 100 people with a thousand apiece to invest, and we were in.

What we found out was that it doesn't pay to be too far out in front of the mob if you intend to lead them anywhere (see “Where Did They All Go?”). We got pledges from perhaps ten people. All the rest had an excuse why they couldn't get involved, the most common of which was “you mean, just live with a bunch of strangers?”. It was an idea whose time had clearly not yet arrived. Still, as we continued to move into the age of “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll”, we hung on to the ideas that “Stranger” had given us.

Meanwhile Ellen and I got married, and in 1965, we decided to try California. We lived in the North Beach area of San Francisco for a couple of years, being “weekend hippies” in the Haight Ashbury, and working “straight jobs” during the week. In 1967, believing that LBJ was planning to have himself declared an Imperial president in order to continue to prosecute the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, -I know it sounds absurd now, but you just had to be there at the time - we took off for Europe, looking for a “new life”.

On the way east to catch the cheapie Icelandic Airlines flight to Luxembourg, we stopped in Minneapolis for a visit, to discover that Willy, his wife Mary, their children, and Willy's “second wife” Barbara were living in a communal household on the south side. They were planning to move the whole scene to Eugene Oregon, and asked us to ditch our plans and join them. We took a rain check, and continued going east while they went west.

We returned a year later, in debt to my folks for passage home and enough money to set up a new household in Saint Paul. After working for the school year (Ellen was a teacher; I worked City Desk in a metals warehouse) we had paid our debts and accumulated enough extra cash to get us to Eugene, and in June of 1969, we began what the Grateful Dead described so well: a long, strange trip (see “Which One of You…”).

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All materials copyrighted, 1994-2004 by Stan Gotlieb and