Jonathan Lerner at "Days of Rage" press conference, 1969.
by Jonathan Lerner
Jonathan Lerner was a radical activist in the Sixties and Seventies, and a founding member of the Weather Underground. His new novel Alex Underground is the story of two young revolutionaries who end up on the lam, and how one of them uses the secrecy and subterfuge of life as a fugitive to explore his gay identity. The novel is loosely autobiographical, but most importantly in revealing that psychology, more than ideology, can underly decisions that superficially seem all about politics. “Take me,” Lerner says. “like millions of other kids then, I was full of idealism, and outraged at the Vietnam War, at racism and inequality. That was genuine and I’m proud of it. But the personas I adopted – political apparatchik, armed militant – never really fit me. I made those choices because I had bought into the idea that they were the only valid path, and because of whom I wanted to be with, and because I wasn’t confident enough to make my own way.”
An Excerpt from Alex Underground
(Penpower Publishing, 2009)
It’s 1970. Alex and his best friend Doug have provoked a campus antiwar rally into riot. To get away from the cops, they go on the run, and end up joining a work brigade to Cuba. While there, an indictment is issued for the riot. They convince the Cubans not to send them home with the rest of the brigade, since they’re afraid they’ll be busted, and instead to send them to Europe. There the boys hope to create false identities so they can return directly into the U.S. radical underground. As this passage opens, they have spent a week waiting, in Havana’s Hotel Deauville, for seats on a flight out, and discussing how they will survive. One of those ideas, suggested by Alex, is to trade sex for money. Orlando is their Cuban government minder.
In the morning, Orlando comes looking for them, with another copy of Time and the news that they are to have seats on the Tuesday flight to Prague. Unless perhaps something should change before then. “Come,” he says. “I will take you out from here a little while. It’s very boring, yes?”
They get into his Chevy Bel Air and cruise along the Malecon, windows down; Alex sits in back, the wind tangling his hair. It is Sunday, still early but already hot. The ocean looks oily and thick today, sucking in and out. It has been very boring, yes, and now Alex, visually starved, doesn’t know where to look first. Ahead, along the gracious sweep of boulevard toward the cluster of modern towers in Vedado? To his left, at the beautiful continuous façade of old buildings facing the water, each with its peculiar and snazzy flourishes too subtle to take in at this speed - and all discolored, weathering, starting to crumble? Or down the narrow side streets that lead to the dark heart of the city, which try to capture his gaze as they flash past? From the shadows of their five-story tenements people pour out, to stroll and idle along the sea wall. Boys and shirtless men clamber over it and down, to the low shelf of coral rock where they dip and play, cast fishing lines, spread towels and stretch out to sun - on a bed that looks as uncomfortable as coarse gravel. But suppose you were tired, feeling cramped, thinks Alex. Splayed out on your back down there, you could almost get away. You wouldn’t see Havana at all, just the horizon of water and sky, the blank of the sea wall over your head. You probably wouldn’t hear the endless music and talk, the rumble of cars each with its muffler ten years past replacing – but only the gentle arrhythmic hiss of water swelling through porous rock. If you felt hemmed in all week, it might be soothing. It might be worth it.
“Is there any something you need?” Orlando inquires. Doug asks once more for false passports, launches into a repeat of his argument for them. Alex is surprised; they had not discussed bringing this up again. Doug is demanding and petulant - as if Orlando himself could easily produce the documents but chooses not to, like a parent withholding an allowance in arbitrary punishment. But Alex doesn’t hear that. He hears Doug the forceful, Doug the visionary, bold Doug who knows what’s needed and what’s what.
But anyway Alex, in the back seat, is hardly paying attention. He is intoxicated by the gorgeousness of Havana, by its urban denseness here at the edge of the sea, by the Sunday morningness of this moment in it. He wants to be out in the city on his own - on foot, exploring down narrow streets, stepping through to shadowy courtyards, climbing down to the water, himself, to see.
Orlando, a good-humored dissembler - which qualifies him for this politically sensitive and responsible job – does his best to jolly Doug out of it. “Passports, compañeros, no, I cannot.” He lifts his hands from the wheel and shrugs grandly. “I can offer you some little things. Toothpaste, perhaps? Some clothes for where you are going?”
“Actually,” Alex voices a sudden idea, “I’d like to get a haircut.” He is still imagining sophisticated pickup scenes in French hotels. A tangle of long hair will be fine if he only wants to bum floor space off hippies. But he is into this idea of sex for money – excited by it, sure he can make it work. A neater appearance will be called for. He’ll have to be able to make it smoothly past doormen and into classy cocktail bars.
Orlando seems to love this idea. “So. We go to Coppelia now for ice cream, and after I take you to the shop for the haircut. Doug, you also?”
“Probably not,” Doug says, with the trace of a sulk, about the passports - but Alex thinks it’s at the suggestion he should get a trim. Alex can’t imagine his friend without the springy mass of dark curls. He would like to crush
them softly, with open palms, to either side of Doug’s head; how close their faces would be then.
The barber shop is back near the Deauville. To Alex’s delight, Orlando announces that he must drop him off, to walk back alone afterwards. “I take my children now to my mother’s house – every Sunday for lunch,” he says with the same apologetic grin he had used to shrug off the plea for false papers. Doug waits in the car while they go in and Orlando arranges things with the barber.
“This is my compañero Miguel,” he explains. “Everything is settled, he is happy to give you the cut. So you see how to go back? Just down this street to the Malecon, and you will have the hotel soon on your left.”
It doesn’t actually feel like a barber shop – more like a futuristic beauty salon that’s been depopulated and left to drift in time. There should be two dozen noisy women in here, preening and being preened, clouds of gas from the permanents and dyes. Instead, there’s nobody but Miguel. Hair dryers like empty space helmets line one wall. A row of work stations runs down the other with form-fitting chairs, like those pilots sit in, facing curved formica counters patterned with parabolas of turquoise and pink. But all the gleam of the place is gone. The room is dusty and dim – some light sifts through its glass front, and overhead a single fluorescent tube is lit. It’s nothing like the barber shops of Alex’s recollection, either (not that he’s been inside one any time lately): no spiral-striped pole, combs in jars of blue disinfectant, chorus of kibitzing gents. Miguel the barber is thin, angular, dark-eyed, his own longish hair in a pompadour. He smiles Alex into a chair and gets to work. He speaks no English, and Alex’s Spanish is rickety, so they don’t bother to talk. Alex tries not to watch in the mirror as his thick, shoulder-length, parti-colored hair – brown, but coppery at the ends where it had been dyed, streaked blond on top from the Cuban sun – falls away in hanks and his neck and ears emerge. He cuts his eyes sideways instead, out the front window, to the passing life of the street. After a while, looking sideways threatens to give him a headache. He shuts his eyes.
He is mildly surprised when Miguel tips him back in the chair, and swathes his face in warm, wet cloths. Surprised, but pleasured. Miguel murmurs something he doesn’t catch – an instruction to relax, perhaps. Alex does. He had not expected a shave. Or the shoulder rub that seems to be part of the package. It is warm in the barber shop, warm under the towels. Miguel’s fingers move with gentle pressure under his neck. Alex dozes a little.
Afterwards, in the narrow, shadowy street, he still feels deliciously out of it. Or deliciously in it. After two months in Cuba, this is the first moment he finds himself on his own – a solitary traveler on a strange street in a foreign city. He feels he can’t walk slowly enough to take it all in. Four men playing dominoes on an upturned crate, six more hovering near to watch – all quiet, concentrating, their group giving off the dark perfume of cigars. Two little boys racing crude home-made scooters. Pairs and trios of older women who have carried chairs to the pavement for a visit. Very occasionally, along comes an old whale of a Plymouth or Ford, its passage slowed to a crawl by the people and the potholes. Solitary girls, single men with shirts off, smoke cigarettes on upstairs balconies and watch the street with rapt languor. Big archways in the front of nearly every building lead in to sunless courtyards. Alex wants, and does not want, to look. What’s in there is too intimate: strung-up laundry, fragments of conversation, dangling wires, walls aching for paint.
At a corner, there is a bar. Its outside walls are only shutters, opened wide to the pavement. Music pours out. Not instruments though: just a man singing – wailing some tale – with his audience of neighbors doing call-and-response. The singer is very black, possibly drunk – he staggers as much as dances – his face elastic with emotion and moist with sweat. The people around him are every color, and all know this song and its story. Alex stops just outside, enchanted. A few people notice and gesture an invitation to come in and drink, but he smiles and shakes his head no. He is happy where he stands. He is high enough just being in this foreign friendly place. He feels safe, and also separate, deliciously disengaged. He had stepped from the barber shop, too, with only a nod to the man whose hands had just been working his shoulders.
Where the street puts him out on the Malecon, he is blinded by the sudden openness, sunlight off the ocean. The Deauville looms dark against the sky two blocks away. He crosses the boulevard and strolls along to take a seat on the sea wall, not quite opposite the hotel. He is in no hurry to go inside again. The next time he leaves the place, it will be for a long flight. People stroll in front of him, a few walk along the rock ledge below, where the ocean quietly seethes. One or two guys catch his eye and would probably stop and start a conversation if he gave any encouragement. Alex only smiles, mutely, vaguely, holding no one’s gaze. He feels cocooned, protected, so much at home - in this moment, in this city, his faulty Spanish notwithstanding: welcomed, made much of, taken care of. If there is no rum raisin, there may be coconut or else guava: to each according to his need. Alex is 22, and has never held a job. He was a student supported by his parents, then for a brief moment he was a locally famous fugitive supported by the radical counterculture. Now he is a foreign comrade supported by the internationalist revolution. He has spent a week in what passes here for a luxury hotel, a guest of the state, required to purchase only his few packs of cigarettes; at the brigade’s work camp, even these had been provided - cigars too, but just for the guys, one per male brigadista each night after dinner along with the regulation thimbleful of sweet coffee. Soon he will be back in the capitalist world, where nothing is free – and on the wrong side of it, where he is celebrity or hero to no one. Soon he will have to make his own way.
Jonathan Lerner writes on art, architecture and travel. His previous books are the novel Caught in a Still Place and the oral history Voices from Wounded Knee. Reach him atwww.penpowerpublishing.com.