My Escape from New York

How New Yorkers see the world (drawing by Saul Steinberg)

When I was in high school, my best friend Yehudit repeated a sarcastic line about New Yorkers’ provincialism: “The world ends west of the Hudson.” At that time I hadn’t been west of the Hudson River before and had no idea what the rest of the country was like. Ten years later, in February 1968, I visited the San Francisco Bay Area. There the plum trees were in bloom, while NYC was deep in snow. But the Stonewall Riot and subsequent gay activism distracted me from this plan. As I’ve written in previous posts, I became totally caught up in the Gay Liberation Front, Come Out! and RAT newspapers, and then WBAI radio.

People seemed to like my show, which I produced from 1972 to 1974. The programming manager got no negative feedback from the audience, and neither did I—well, except for my mother. She told me that she always listened to the show and then added, “I don’t agree with anything you say, but I love hearing your voice.”

Most of my friends and acquaintances seemed comfortable with my new status as a media person. However, there were some odd incidents. While I was traveling around the West, recording interviews for WBAI, I let a friend use my apartment. She was barely 20 and couldn’t afford her own place, so she had been living with an elderly relative in one of the outer boroughs—a stifling arrangement for a young lesbian. Upon my return, I found fartha belly and a couple of other insults scrawled on the kitchen wall.

Judy Liebler, another adolescent, said she wanted to do a program too. I loaned her my cassette and mic for a few days. She came back with a tape of her and another friend singing a childish ditty they’d made up about pubic hair. It was too late for me to create a decent program so I went on the air and talked for a while. It was the worst show I ever did. In retrospect, I should have let the station engineer play music to fill the time slot.

Kate Millett, who suffered from bipolar disorder, invited me for dinner at her place and asked me to bring my recording equipment. She had me keep the cassette running while she rambled on in one of her manic phases, clearly convinced that every word she said was gold, and talked down to me as though I was a mere servant whose job it was to capture those precious nuggets. The tape was completely unusable. The lobster was delicious, though.

On the positive side, Pamela B. wanted to do some five-minute segments. She was from England and had a British sense of humor. The material she produced, using the name Mary Flowerpot, was very well received. However, she kept stretching her five minutes longer and longer each time and using up more of my half hour than I had planned.

Despite the show’s popularity, I knew that I didn’t want to make a career in radio. I wasn’t sure what to do next. Writing was and is my passion. I’d kept up contact with Judy Grahn and the Oakland Women’s Press Collective and was thrilled to find that they wanted to publish my first book of poetry, Crossing the DMZ. It came out in 1974.

I had brief affairs but no success in finding a long-term relationship. A woman I had a crush on dumped me for a man. I resolved some of the unhappiness in a risky and irresponsible way, as so many of us did when we were young: I hitchhiked by myself to Chicago to stay with friends for a few days. My parents sent me the money to fly home.

During the summer of 1973 Margaret Stephendaughter arrived from Paris. I don’t remember exactly how we met, but she stayed in my Lower East Side apartment for a week. She had been involved in the 1968 student uprisings in Paris and shared some hilarious feminist literature from that time. We made love every day. She insisted that the right way to live was in a collective house with other like-minded women. After that week she moved on to graduate studies in California.

Persuaded by Margaret’s argument, I put together a collective, and we rented a run-down house in Brooklyn. Within a couple of months two of the other women had quit work and were spending their days in bed together. Apparently they expected me to come up with the rent. I left them behind and moved again, to a duplex in Staten Island which I shared with Eileen Kurtzman and her collie. (Eileen is crazy about animals and is a talented artist. We are friends to this day.) The landlord lived downstairs—a nice man, he would give us produce from his garden. Staten Island was almost rural back then, before they built the Verrazano Bridge, and I loved taking the ferry into the city.

At the end of 1973 I turned 30. Naturally I’d heard the expression, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Now I too was over the hill! Just to prove that I still had what it took, somewhere on West 14th Street I reached up and grabbed one of those walk-don’t walk signs and started to do pull-ups. The first went well. On the second, the sign broke away from its pole and came down on my head. I landed on the sidewalk, with broken glasses and the flesh on the bridge of my nose sliced and bleeding. I hurried away so as not to get arrested for destroying municipal property. Back in my Lower East Side apartment, I washed the wound and slapped the slice back in place, with a band-aid covering it. It healed—but with a chunk of NYC soot underneath. It was an odd sort of birthday present. Some of the soot is still there and still visible. I carry that piece of my home town with me, along with the accent, forever.

I don’t remember exactly when I decided to take the plunge, but one day I called Judy Grahn and told her I was planning to move to the Bay Area. Much to my surprise—and delight—she said they had a room in their collective house.

I gave up my slot at WBAI and gave away all my furniture, except for shipping the typewriter desk and chair. My brother Ira helped me schlep 60-lb boxes of books down the stairs and to the post office. Mom cried, saying she was sure she’d never see me again. (Unfortunately, she was right—but that’s another story.) A few friends gave me a farewell dinner. At the beginning of October I took the bus to the airport, suitcase and plane ticket in hand, feeling light-headed, as though I’d lost my ballast and come unmoored.

 

3 Responses to My Escape from New York

  1. Anne Charles February 3, 2021 at 8:43 am #

    Fabulous story, Thanks for sharing.

  2. Perry Brass February 6, 2021 at 6:49 pm #

    What a wonderful piece, Martha. It’s interesting how people leave New York, but the city never really leaves you, especially after a certain amount of time here. I left in 1978, and moved to Germany to be with my then-lover who was a sargeant in the US Air Force. For 3 years I was an Air Force spouse, back when you couldn’t even breathe the word “gay” in the Service. I was really fed up with New York then, but moved back, in late 1979, to a very different city: rents were climbing by the second; computerization was marching in fast. The New York of now would be unrecognizable to us in GLF, but in some ways I find it actually nicer—less violent homophobia.
    Now I want to read the next chapter of your story: what you did in California, and how you got to Portland.

  3. Martha Shelley February 7, 2021 at 7:26 pm #

    Thank you, Perry. The city certainly never left me since I was born and raised there. I sure couldn’t afford to move back now.

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