My Roommate, My Father

 
 Photo by Chris Lawton

It’s a late autumn afternoon in Center City Philadelphia, and Michael and I are heading to the subway. I’m beat from work, my nose is running, and I can’t find a goddamn tissue anywhere in my corduroy jacket. Michael runs up ahead before pulling a huge potted palm plant out from under a pile of black garbage bags. “Oh wow!”

 

“We are not taking that back to the house,” I say.

 

He starts dragging it along the sidewalk. I sigh, wipe my nose on my sleeve, and help him lug the thing a few blocks to the SEPTA. The train rattles toward West Philly and Michael, his face peeking out between the big, green palm fronds, breaks into “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” I squirm in my seat as other riders shake their heads and roll their eyes. I’m mortified, again, and I decide it’s probably time to find a new living situation. Soon, though, Michael got sick, and I decided to stick around because, sure, he’s my roommate, but he’s also my dad.


 

***

 

At one point, Michael went by the name “Michael Morning Sun.” My family lived on two communes when I was a kid: A Zen commune in Colorado and then a back-to-the-land commune in Glorieta, New Mexico.  It was the early 70s, and the hippie ideal was to raise our own food, stay out of ‘The System,’ and be free of ‘The Man.’ The vision for parenting on these communes was that everyone would pitch-in. The reality was that my brother and I were left alone for long stretches. To entertain ourselves, we covered ourselves with Michael’s shaving cream, peed in giant ant hills, and, at one point, snuck into the greenhouse where all the delicate seedlings were waiting to be planted. For fun, we pulled out each of the little green shoots. Rows and rows of them. The adults had just finished a primal scream session. When they found the carnage in the greenhouse, they were ready for round two.

 

Unfortunately, the hippie ideals of freedom and self-sufficiency seemed to be a poor match against the siren song of American commercial culture. Michael somehow never gave into the temptations, but as a hippie kid, I sure did. I would escape the compound so that I could go to public school, and one day visited a new friend’s house. When he swung open a kitchen cabinet to find an after-school snack, it was as though the lid had been cracked on the Arc of the Covenant.  My face didn’t melt, but as a kid who was fed hand-ground whole-grain gruel for breakfast, I stood mesmerized before boxes of highly-processed sugary cereals: Tony the Tiger pushing his frosted sugar flakes, Cap’n Crunch and his treasure chest of mouth-shredding empty-calorie ecstasy, and that frog with his sugar “smacks.” A short while later, my parents took us for a picnic at a state park where I witnessed a family making bologna and American cheese sandwiches on Wonder Bread. As I set down my hand-ground peanut butter sandwich on bread as dry as the fucking Sahara Desert, I had the thought: That’s America, and I want it!

 

Fortunately for me, the commune scene didn’t work out because, in both cases, the leaders were insane ego-maniacs. We moved to Upper Canyon Road in Santa Fe – still using an outhouse, but now within biking distance of a Woolworths.  Michael moved out, rented a separate place and lived on his own. He had a bushy beard now and came to visit every few weeks, grabbing my brother and me with his big hands, and swing us between his long legs.  Other times when he visited, he shut himself in the bedroom and we could hear him crying. When my parents split for good in 1976, my mother moved us to suburban New Jersey near where she’d grown up. Michael stayed in Santa Fe, living in a converted school bus that sat on cinder blocks at the end of a dirt road.

 

In Jersey, I lost my shoulder-length hippie hair in my first barbershop haircut, putting an end to the “so are you a girl or a boy?” questions I was getting in school. My mother, now working three jobs, didn’t have time to hand-grind anything, and my brothers and I fully immersed ourselves in highly-processed American culture. When I turned thirteen, Michael talked my mother into sending me to visit him for the summer.  I had mixed feelings, but I went.

 

In Santa Fe, Michael set me up with a bicycle so I could tag along on his gardening gigs — he’d put those commune skills to some practical use while I’d been away. We hitchhiked wherever we couldn’t bike, and he’d have me stand out in front of him to increase the chance of us being offered a ride.

 

One evening, Michael and I were eating his creative interpretation of enchiladas on the back stairs of the school bus, the sun setting over the arroyo and the smell of the pinyon trees in the air.

 

“I’ve got something to tell you,” he said.

 

I took another bite and shrugged my shoulders. “Alright.”

 

“Brian, look at me. I’m gay. I love men.” he said.

 

He asked me if I had any questions.  “Nah, I’m, I’m cool,” I told him. A few weeks later, I went back home to Jersey.

 

It was the 1980’s, I was in Middle School now, and it seemed like the worst insult that could be leveled as a pubescent white boy was ‘faggot.’ I didn’t know anyone else who was ‘out,’ so, as much as I liked to brag about my care-free summer in Santa Fe, I was glad that my dad was a couple thousand miles away. I loved him, but the distance it made it easier to leave that piece of him out of my stories.  

 

Perhaps the most successful hippie social experiment in the US was called “Movement for a New Society” or MNS for short.  A bunch of very organized urban hippies got together in the 70’s and created a real alternative hippie infrastructure.  There was an MNS credit union, a food co-op, and New Society Publishers, all of which are still around today.  But at the heart of the movement was a land trust of several large, four-story row houses clustered in a neighborhood. Ten to twelve hippies could shack up each of these homes and live affordably. Each person had their own room, but they shared common meals and other resources, and a third of one’s time was supposed to be spent earning “bread money.” The remaining two-thirds were for social change work.  

 

It was a social change movement built on a roommate model, a situation that suited Michael perfectly when he decided it was time to leave Santa Fe. He got a room at an MNS house, plugged into the infrastructure and started cleaning homes part-time for his bread money. Now in Philadelphia, he was only a short bus ride away.  

 

One day, Michael surprised me with a call and told me he had some friends who were moving to Colorado. I could earn some money by driving their car from Philadelphia to Denver for them. “I also wanted to let you know,” he said, “I’m HIV positive.”

 

That was 1987, the after Azidothymidine (AZT) – the first effective AIDS drug - was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration. Now HIV wasn’t a death sentence or, at least, not an automatic one.

 

I thought about this news while driving west in a borrowed car and eating greasy hashbrowns in Stuckey’s restaurants. I started attending classes at the University of Colorado, and I thought more about Michael. About mid-year, I bailed. I caught a Greyhound bus and took the long, two-day ride to Philly without any intention of making it back to class. Michael greeted me at the door laughing, his green eyes sparkling, and gave me one of his big bear hugs. That’s how I became one of Michael’s roommates.

***

I had to admit that the palm plant made a fine addition to Michael’s mostly trash-picked room furnishings.  Thriving spider plants reached to the floor and made his place feel like a jungle. He would invite roommates into his room to join him for tea and discussions, and we played lots of pinochle.

 

Most of my high school classmates were in college, picking up marketable skills and degrees, but I spent my time cleaning houses with Michael, reading books from New Society Publishers, discussing America’s orgiastic materialism, it’s fetishized militarism and, it’s confused, fragile, desperately frightened brand of masculinity. Michael introduced me to homeless philosophers, soon-to-be or recently institutionalized poets, challenging any latent assumptions I had about the kinds of folks society tosses aside.

 

My dad took his AZT religiously and seemed to be holding off opportunistic infections — a good sign.  My brother, Chris, graduated high school and decided to join us at MNS.  And Charles, Michael’s lover and companion, moved from Santa Fe and found an apartment nearby. Inspired with new energy, Michael decided to plant a garden out in front of the big row house.  He and Charles took the subway to the garden center, and Michael hefted a big bag of soil onto his shoulder and headed back home, singing. When a pain shot through his lower back and he collapsed on the sidewalk,  Charles hailed a cab and rushed him to the doctor. The bag of soil stayed on the sidewalk.

 

The news was not good – Michael’s liver was wrecked by infection, and also, possibly, from the high doses of AZT. In just a few months, he was skin and bones, unable even to prop himself up. Sitting next to his hospital bed, listening to his shallow breathing, blood and spittle caked around his mouth; I considered this man: my friend, my freak, my roommate, my dad. I felt like that abandoned bag of garden soil, carried briefly in Michael’s loving arms, then dropped and busted open on a West Philly sidewalk.

 

The memorial service was held at the neighborhood church he’d taken to going to. All of Michael’s family and friends, the functional and the broken, sang his favorite songs and remembered him. We took his ashes and turned them into the soil in the new garden. Then I went upstairs and looked around the space my roommate had left behind. I grabbed a spider plant to hang in my room before I noticed the palm plant, bright and healthy. I grabbed that, too.

 

Background, Context & Reference

 

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