The idea behind the co-op was that a bunch of people--largely but not exclusively college students--would live together in a house, in a spirit of co-operation and environmental awareness. I was first introduced to the co-op after it had been running for about 6 months by my friend BP from college. He was a smart, sensitive guy although I witnessed from up-close his drawn-out and difficult breakup with another friend from college, EF. Overall, BP had helped me out and I considered him a friend. I vaguely remember that I was told I could move in at that point, but that the offer turned out to be a mistake--someone else was on the waiting list first. But 6 months later, they told me I could move in, and I did. BP moved out before I moved in.
I was shown how to do the chores: recycling, compost heap (we composted our organic garbage), cooking, etc. The food was all vegetarian, and everyone was expected to sign up to help. We ate meals together when we could. We had meetings every week to share what was on our minds and to make house policy. Decisions were made on consensus, that is, everyone had to agree. I think there were 14 of us in the house at that point.
The people were nice. My best friends at first were Lucy, who was on leave from Brown University and worked baking bread and bagels, and JG, a guy who studied engineering at the University. There were a bunch of early-20somethings mostly: a guy who worked at a Mexican restaurant and a woman who played bass and worked at a video store. (I was 26-27 when I was in the co-op, a grad student.)
Intimations of Strangeness (but not in such a bad way yet)
One guy was rather odd, although not in comparison with the people who came later. SC had epilepsy, he told us, the result of a car accident. I think he'd said that his corpus callosum had been severed--the nerve cells linking the two hemispheres of the brain. And in fact he was very adept at writing backwards or with both hands. He could also contort himself to fit his entire body into a small suitcase. He had epileptic fits several times a week, and for some reason, at those times he needed glucose. So I found myself from time to time sprinting out to find apple juice for him (apparently the best source of sugars for him during a fit) or holding his head so he didn't hurt it while thrashing about. SC didn't have a job at the time, and was rapidly falling behind in paying rent.
Later, the story had it that SC was fibbing, although the degree was in dispute. Generally, we tended to believe that he was epileptic (though perhaps some of the fits were faked), but that he'd gotten hooked on sympathy and that his family hadn't actually perished (actually they contacted us at one point), and he didn't have, as he claimed, only a year or two left to live. Jenn adds: [SC] claimed that his parents and brother died one by one, as rent came up... also you don't explicitly mention that he only wrote backwards the whole time he lived with us and claimed that he couldn't write forwards.
Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll
That got your attention, huh? Bet you all want to know what went on in our wild hippie commune behind closed doors, huh?
Well mostly it was friendship, chores, and (later) political bickering. But I do remember one night I came home from deconvolving high signal-to-noise ratio spectra of the Wolf-Rayet star HD 50896 and found everyone partying naked and swimming (internally) in tequila. It might have been fun at first, but by the time I arrived people had started puking. Then of course SC had a fit and I had to hold his head.
The house didn't have a name when I arrived. We eventually called it Random House, although privately we sometimes called it "The G Spot."
When we expanded to a second house, the Brick House, all hell broke loose. But we had such fun in Random House.
About a month after I moved in, Jenn arrived. She was Lucy's roommate from Brown. Our friendship had an inauspicious start, though. The co-op had instituted a new "quiet hours" rule, and she and a guy JY were, during those hours, playing guitar music loudly while I was trying to watch a movie on TV. Perhaps I was obnoxious about asking them to pipe down, but they were obnoxious in turn--I ended up dumping the contents of a huge ashtray on JY and carrying Jenn and her guitar to the curb of the road and dumping them there. I'm normally a mild-mannered kind of guy; I guess JY was obnoxious in a provocative way.
The Funnest Times
But later Jenn became one of my very best friends at the co-op, and she was even at my 30th birthday party, along with David H, who I met at the Brick House later.
We had great, wild parties. We had a "Guess Why I need a Lobotomy" party, in which everyone had a preassigned wild character to play. I organized a Mad Tea Party on Mad Hatter's Day, 10/6. We had a Halloween party (I was Alferd Packer, infamous Colorado cannibal, the subject of the musical Cannibal by Trey Parker and Matt Stone--I walked around with a knife and fork and steak sauce, I had long hair and goatee like Packer), and a Christmas party. We had an Enchanted Forrest party, where people dressed up as Hobbits and elves--one young woman dressed up as the Scallion Sprite, and covered herself in green scallions, but SC and I pretended to be Scallion-Eating Trolls and mischievously ate up her costume. At the low point of the co-op, when we were consumed with the issue of sexual harassment, I wondered whether we'd been too aggressive in our playing then...
Jenn adds: weren't there actually a few naked-ish parties, including one on "christmas," which was either on your birthday or beethoven's, i forget, and in which we had a really nice gift exchange where people weren't allowed to buy anything, but only give presents they already had.
We jammed: Lucy and I played her keyboards, the bass player her bass, SC on drums, Jenn on guitar--all together we kind of sucked but it was fun.
We also had a literary club and a writer's group; these were among the highlights of the co-op for me. Jenn often led the way in these. I remember many interesting experiments--listening to two different translations of Dostoevsky read at the same time and noticing when one translator used a euphemism... I read my grandmother's diaries out loud and read some Italo Calvino, some Paul Auster, and some Stanislaw Lem, but I got the best response from Gimpel the Fool by Isaac Bashevis Singer.
The bathrooms always had notebooks that people could write in, and lots of amusing stuff got written.
All Downhill: The Brick House
Now and then there were some changes in our membership; we added a smooth-talking guy, a woman from a college back East, a woman going to a Buddhist college, and JG's brother. (In the mean-time JG had come out as gay.) JG himself, our unacknowledged leader, was away for January, and his brother more or less filled the power vacuum, taking the initiative in expanding our co-op to include a second house.
The second house, eventually called The Brick House after that '80s song that goes "brick...house", was an ex-frat house (I believe it's a frat house again today), and was much larger. It could house as many as 28 people! It had a huge basement we imagined could be used for all sorts of parties. We went for it.
However, there were some things we hadn't thought out. We needed to fill the house, fast, so didn't screen the new members very closely. Although there had been a week of intense negotiations in which we worked out our official rules and by-laws (thinking those meetings boring, I mostly skipped them), we never thought carefully about how 2 houses would work together. We planned joint meals once a week, but the issue of new membership wasn't addressed. If someone wanted to move into the Brick House, did they need to get approval from Random House? In evolving practice, no--but that was a cause of trouble.
Another cause of trouble was the male/female disparity between the two houses. I joined the colonists going from Random House to Brick House, but perhaps because of the ex-frat house location, Brick House attracted something like 18 men and 4 women while Random House had something like 11 women and 1 man (JG). One of the stronger forces binding the two houses together was the developing relationship between JG and JB, who'd moved into the Brick House.
Sh'tara, Sequoia, Kurt: the Turbine hits the Septic Tank
The pioneers in the Brick House were an interesting and diverse bunch, although they never melded into a community. They included a 56-year old grandmother, a bunch of kids with great musical talent (I remember Blake, Mingus, and Adam had a band called Sleight of Hand), an 18-year old woman with strawberry-blond hair who had the figure of Jessica Rabbit without the hairy ears (I'll call her JR--at first she was a little flirtatious toward me, but not only was she inappropriately young but she believed in astrology which sorry if I offend you but to me is like putting a "Warning: mashed potatoes inside" sticker on your skull), David H (graduate of Colby, left-wing journalist who'd travelled to Guatemala), JB, and various colonists from Random House (me, Lucy, smooth-talking guy, East Coast college woman, JG's brother, a guy Johnny, SC, though he soon moved out.) I jumped houses for a couple of reasons--I wanted access to Lucy's high tech keyboard so I could write some music for my father's birthday, and someone with a dog was moving into Random House, and I'm afraid of dogs.
The male/female disparity caused the house cultures to diverge. I remember visiting the Random House for a literary club and finding the atmosphere too "precious" and domestically insular. One woman asked us all to "write about the rain", something that seemed designed to provoke pretentious cliches--so I wrote something crudely funny:
"Fuck," said Dr. Seuss, looking out the window at the angry mob calling for his death. Long ago Dr. Seuss, Theodore Geisl, had written a story about green slime falling from the sky in place of rain. "Ubleech" he called the slime, but it was only fiction, at the time. Now that it had happened in reality, there was nobody to blame but God... and Dr. Seuss....
(Ok, maybe it wasn't that funny!)
Meanwhile in the testosterone-infused Brick House, our only "artwork" was the pile of discarded beer cans that was being arranged in our kitchen.
One day a couple of figures with shaved heads joined us at a meeting. They said they were friends of JG, that they wanted to park their trailer outside Brick House for a couple of weeks and would like to use the house to shower, and that they had seven puppies they would like to keep in the basement. They'd contribute to the co-op life and cook meals. At first I wasn't sure if they were male or female, but found out they were female. The thin one was Sh'Tara and the tall one was Sequoia. By consensus, we agreed to the arrangement.
The smooth-talking guy was our house accountant, and took on much of the work of the house. (It seemed to be a recurring pattern that one person would do most of the house's work, and would get hooked on that role, using it for moral authority, while others slacked off.) He also had sympathy for hard-luck cases (I think he was very interested in religion, although appalled by some traditional approaches), and asked a guy he met at the outdoor mall to stay at the Brick House for a few days, and if he liked it, to try to move in. This guy was Kurt.
Kurt was tall, gaunt, awkward, and could be considered creepy. He was interested, if I remember correctly, in camping, in Pink Floyd, and in horror comic books. He had a way of naively asking potentially offensive questions. For example, he once said to me, "When you smile, lines appear in your cheeks by your eyes--is that because you're Jewish?" I wasn't offended, though I thought it was odd.
So we had a house meeting in which we considered Kurt's membership. JR couldn't make the meeting; she was joining Sh'tara and Sequoia for a Women's Week meeting. I don't remember if at that point she had said something to me about her aversion for Kurt. At the meeting we mostly focussed on whether he'd be a responsible member of the household, and whether he'd be able to afford rent. When SC left the house he was $800 in debt, although our accountant I think paid for much of that out of pocket. Also, a woman in the other house broke up with her boyfriend, but the boyfriend for some reason had ended up squatting at our house, living there for free. JB in particular grilled Kurt closely on his ability to stay employed. At one point I said, "Well, we don't have everyone here at this meeting, can we go ahead and let him in now anyway?" And the general feeling was yes. Although most of the opposition to Kurt later came from women, I'm pretty sure that the grandmother was at the meeting, as well as the East Coast College woman, and possibly Lucy (who spent a lot of time cooking bagels.) The women at the meeting seemed to have no problem with Kurt joining the co-op, and neither did the men.
While I'd assumed that after that meeting that Kurt was an official regular member of the co-op, that it was a done deal, to the women in the other house, he wasn't a real member. "When is Kurt going to stop hanging around the co-op?" I was asked. Meanwhile, Sh'tara and Sequoia were thought of as de facto co-op members by Random House; the fact that they were never approved as members and didn't pay rent were thought of as technicalities.
On the one hand, I was upset that the other house didn't seem to respect our house and its decisions, and on the other hand, I was listening to those who had problems with Kurt. I tried my hardest to be fair to all. When they left the co-op, I parted company with both Kurt, and with Sh'Tara and Sequoia, as friends--but not without interim conflict.
Sh'tara (she was older than Sequoia, and more of a thinker) told me that some women felt uncomfortable in Kurt's presence, though they might not come out and say it directly. He'd made passes at some in a strange sort of way--one woman later told me he'd asked her if he could give her a piggyback ride (perhaps wanting to put his height to good use?) and seemed oddly disappointed when she turned him down.
I told Sh'tara that it would be troubling to invalidate someone's membership in the co-op without being able to point to the line they'd crossed. Were any passes forbidden, or how many, or worded in what way, or were they just forbidden for this guy because he seemed creepy? I thought in a way he was being discriminated against for a vague creepiness--someone could be turned down for membership in the co-op on the basis of a vibe, but could we kick someone out on that basis? Some of the complaints I'd heard were along the lines of: "He's just there" or "He's always there" which seemed to just object to his presence. If they'd said, "I think he's following me," that would have been another story.
Sh'tara said to me, "I think I understand where you're coming from. You have this ideal of Justice. The woman with the blindfold holding the scales. But that has to be balanced against safety. Do you want to wait until there is an incident?"
In my Justice-based thinking that was a little like saying "round up the kids wearing black, they could blow up the school"--we don't treat people based on what we think their psychological potential is, we treat them based on what they do.
"How do you know there would be an incident?" I asked.
"I just know," she said, "I bet you that I could press the right buttons to show you what Kurt is really like."
JG told me that Sh'tara had asked Kurt, "What do you think of gays and lesbians?" And Kurt had said, "I have no problem with them, as long as they don't try to convert me." "Convert you? Who's talking about anyone trying to convert you? Why do you bring that up?" Sh'tara said--JG said that Kurt gave a helpless look in face of those PC accusations that were beyond his sophistication.
I thought the most serious accusations could be pretty serious--mainly that he'd said to one woman, "I see you have holes in your jeans [there was apparently one near the crotch], I like that, I like that a lot, heheh." Kurt vociferously denied that wording, and in fact it was that vociferousness that eventually got him kicked out of the place.
JR, the Jessica Rabbit lookalike, also had major reservations, although she was too shy to come forward and detail them.
The Trial of Kurt
So we arranged a big meeting of both houses, facilitated jointly by Sh'tara and myself. Sh'tara had an unusual method of facilitating meetings, designed to share power in a more equitable way, and designed not to intimidate women. She also left in frustration midway through the meeting, although that was also construed (in light of some of her later history in the co-op) as being manipulative. Halfway through the meeting, the accountant returned from vacation--he was the one who brought Kurt to the house in the first place, and he was presumably shocked to see what had resulted from that in the intervening week!
In the end, Kurt was pressed and he got angry. "I did NOT say that!" he said, and his anger lost him the sympathy of the co-op. He stormed off, and we didn't have to take a formal vote. We all knew Kurt was leaving.
I helped him move out. His window was open, and I was shivering. "Are you afraid of me too?" he asked. I told him I was cold, and he closed the window. He gave me a fractal t-shirt, which I think he said had sentimental meaning for him--given to him by an ex-girlfriend?--I don't remember exactly why.
During this time Jenn was a great influence on me. She really cared about the people and the co-op.
Aftermath: Sh'tara and Sequoia
I've mostly glossed over some of Sh'Tara and Sequoia's more extreme aspects because I thought their point was legitimate and they represented others as well. But they caused trouble for the co-op too, and eventually they, as well as Kurt, were personae non grata.
To start with, there were their seven puppies, who were not house-trained. The basement was filled with dog-poop, and instead of staying 2 weeks, S and S stayed 2 months. A prospective co-oper, an African-American single mom and artist, stepped into the basement and had to brush the glop off her shoes.
Sh'tara's involvement in house politics continued to be divisive. JY, who was so obnoxious I dumped an ashtray on him, wanted to move back. Sh'Tara considered him abusive, and was dead set against him moving in. Remember, she was not herself an official member of the household. Although JY was an asshole, he was a charming one (think Buck Mulligan in Ulysses, although JY rejected the comparison), more self-aware than Kurt, he was a founding member of the co-op, and a good friend of JG. I think Jenn had an infatuation for him. I went away on vacation, but left instructions that I would probably vote against JY, but that I was wary of the growing influence of S and S in these matters.
Jenn adds: lucy also voted down [JY]; it wasn't just a feminist conspiracy. he was pretty
darned abusive, in retrospect. though you're right, i was definitely infatuated!
(Me: I also recall that Lucy cast the decisive vote, but I think she did it partly because she was just wanted the bickering to be over).
That struck a chord with the co-op members at the meeting, who also pointed out that S and S had converted an unoccupied room into a "Women's Room" complete with a Shrine to the Earth Goddess--all without paying rent.
That's around the time Laima moved in, and Laima said she thought at that meeting that Sh'tara was being theatrical and manipulative.
Last Gasp at Fun
Laima had gone to Cornell and was smart and talented--she played the violin. We had one last great party, one with an Eastern European/Russian theme. I am of Latvian Jewish ancestry, the Scallion Sprite was also of Latvian ancestry, and Laima was of Lithuanian ancestry. We drank lots of vodka and danced polkas while Laima improvised on violin and Blake played along on guitar. I think it was Jenn who made some horrendous "polka dots"--little molds made of jello and vodka, colored with food coloring. Everyone hated them so I ate them all. I danced wildly, rolling on the ground until I knocked over a lamp...
It was perhaps ironic that Sh'tara's strongest opposition was from JB; it was a gay against lesbian war. Perhaps the fault line was hyper-masculine versus hyper-feminine? One contributing cause to the hostility was that JY was to be JB's roommate and share some of his rent; Sh'Tara's opposition doomed that plan. By this time JB had become the house authority--he filled the "alpha male" vacuum of a co-op run by consensus. And Sh'tara was his enemy.
Deadlines passed but they stayed at the house. After threatening to let her dogs out and maybe call the cops, JB finally got S and S to leave. JR went with them; though she was heterosexual she admired Sh'tara's worldview, and went with them to a women's collective in the midwest.
New Feeble Beginning
That whole mess was out of the way. The Brick House was becoming more gender-balanced. The African American single mom (who was also quite a political activist) and her 7-year old kid moved in, some hippie kids moved in, a partly deaf film student moved in, a guy who collected guns, a woman from Normal, Illinois, a guy with bipolar mood disorder, a guy with a mild developmental disability, a philosophy major, and a college student/gym instructor moved in (that student is now, as far as I know, the sole member of our group to be involved in Boulder's present co-op system.)
We continued recycling and composting, buying our food in bulk, and cooking vegetarian meals (until the oven broke!)
We tried to get serious about things, about properly screening people who wanted to move in. But bizarre disasters kept happening.
One day the grandmother claimed she'd been assaulted in the park, and now had amnesia... As with SC, we now suspect there was a grain of truth to this but that she was a fibber. Unfortunately, she was also our liason with the landlord, and with amnesia/"amnesia", she couldn't negotiate with him to get our oven fixed, and our communal meals stopped for about a month.
The 7 year old kid was hard to handle--I used to take him to play Mortal Kombat III, he used to make me run around pulling him on his skateboard (lots of exercise!)
The next big house conflict involved me and JG's brother--but it's time for me to go to dinner (I got the last of the hyssop at the store and I'm making hummus!) I'm leaving so much out! I will come back and write more.
Cats and Dogs
The conflict with JG's brother was mainly about JG's brother's friend who wanted to move in with his dog. As I wrote before, I'm afraid of dogs, partly because I used to go door to door for an environmental group (one of the PIRGs) and got bit and chased by dogs. In this conflict, I think both sides again had cases to make, visions of how the collective life should be.
Nevertheless, I won, mainly by going back to our bylaws and other defining documents. People had started assuming dogs were allowed because exceptions had been made in the past (such as the puppies in the basement for supposedly 2 weeks), and the end result was that nobody paid attention to the rules.
My victory in preventing JG's brother's friend from moving in with his dog propelled me closer to the "alpha male" position that always seemed to develop in spite of our goal of equality. JB had run his course; he'd picked power-fights with a couple of hippie kids he accused of stealing from him, and otherwise made his influence felt. But he'd had enough.
Jenn adds: also, wasn't there some incident where some punk kid who had just moved out threw a brick through the window, keyed [JB]'s bike, and stole a bunch of musical instruments? at which point [JB] sprayed the fire extinguisher all over his former room to make sure he wouldn't come back? or something like that...
At this point, I was the most senior co-op member in the Brick House--I tried to keep traditions going and tried to keep the house functioning, without being a taskmaster.
We foolishly gave up the lease on Random House, so that Brick House was the only co-op. A few of the Random House residents moved over to Brick House, including Jenn.
To the end it was chaotic. To the end, it was still fun at times.
A few guys passed through the co-op who were quite out there. One, who I will call BN, had been a founding member of the co-op, but had apparently taken too much speed. One typical day he walked into the co-op and announced he was becoming a doctor. "That's right," he said, performing pantomime surgery, "I wanna just go in there, and take out that gall bladder! Yessiree, just take out that puppy! That gall bladder!" He went on to rephrase that concept ad nauseum. JR was grossed out, and Sh'tara and Sequoia wanted him blocked from entering the house. (Jenn says BN tried living in a box in the basement, claiming he was not in the house, but in a box.)
BN spent some time homeless. I remember I saw him in a crowd up on The Hill near campus, and he accused me: "I was in the co-op long before you. I was one of the founders. But you guys kicked me out in the cold. It's my co-op!"
"You were in the co-op, but you left before I even got there," I said, "And JR is in the co-op now, and she has problems with you. I have to protect the people who are there now."
"But I'm out here on the street, and it's because of you guys!" he said, and I thought he was getting some of the crowd's sympathy. Then some guy came up and asked for a nickel for the bus. BN shouted at him something like: "No way are we going to give you a nickel 'cause you're just going to die anyway and life is horrible and what did you ever do for us anyway?" The crowd seemed to reevaluate BN.
I thought I should do something though, and got a big printout from the USENET (this was in early 1995) listing all sorts of social services available to the homeless. I gave it to BN, but I think he just tossed the pages to the wind.
In another irony, once Sh'tara and Sequoia had left, a protege of theirs MS, a woman who'd been influenced by their philosophy, ended up going out with BN. BN was now at least tolerated in the house. He was unremittingly weird, but also a very talented flute player. (Once he wandered into the music school, trying to get an audition to play the Snoopy theme on flute.) I remember BN and Laima performing a haunting improvisation on flute and violin, and Blake used to sneak BN into his room for some music too.
But BN and MS were both trouble: they behaved inappropriately, left piles of dirty dishes, and MS had inherited one of Sh'tara and Sequoia's pooping puppies. They got on the bad side of JB, and we kicked them both out of the house. MS soon became pregnant, but had a miscarrage. I saw her and BN soon after in a coffeehouse, and approached them. I think MS expected me to rebuke them for being irresponsible, but I said, "I was very sad to hear about what happened. I'm sorry for ever kicking you out of the house," and she looked at me very gratefully.
The partly deaf film student organized a coffeehouse in the basement to raise money for the house. (We'd planned a great big party, Brickstock, but the police didn't like our sign.) We had another lesbian member who was very much into the literary club and coffeehouses--one poem in particular I remember made light of the serious Earth Goddess kind of imagery Sh'tara went in for. My brother moved in as my roommate for a while; he got the consensus of the co-op and moved in as a member. One woman, an epileptic stripper, was so dedicated to moving in that she gave up her dog. She revelled in the power of consensus decision-making when she got to personally announce to a creepy guy that he was denied membership.
I left the co-op, finally, a couple of weeks before I defended my thesis. I was just too upset that random people would appear in the kitchen unaccompanied at 3am--after the Kurt disaster we needed to screen the people who stayed with us to protect people's sensitivities. But as alpha male enforcer, I would have to be the one to set everything straight myself--and I didn't want that. I moved to the Youth Hostel and finished and defended "The Accretion Flows in the X-ray Binary Pulsars Vela X-1 and Hercules X-1 Inferred from Time-Resolved Ultraviolet Spectroscopy". It could have been better, but I plead chaotic home environment.
My brother knows how the rest goes. More chaos, more disasters, and we eventually lost the Brick House. Limpopo House formed on the other edge of town, with the student/gym trainer who is still in the Boulder co-op system...
Here is a picture of some folks from the Brick House:
I think they took this pic when I was away, so they could sneak in my nemesis the dog. Notable in this photo is Eleonora (black hair in the middle of the photo, Jenn is just above her to the left.) Eleonora was an exchange student from Italy, and was going out with JG's brother's friend, who owned the dog. Still, she didn't involve herself in house politics, and was friendly with me. She's actually the last co-op member I've seen (other than my brother)--we got together when I went to a scientific conference in Rome about a year ago. The student/gym trainer who still lives in a Boulder co-op is the guy with blondish hair to the top right.