1970 was drawing to a close when I got the call. A woman who I knew as a member of a radical feminist group summoned me to a meeting at their office. We were to gather on New Years Eve, wearing warm clothes and bringing sleeping bags if we had them. She wouldn’t say what action they were planning or where we’d be going.
A dozen women were in the office when I arrived. After a short pep talk, and without giving us any more information, the organizers led us out into the night.
A light snow drifted down on us as we marched eastward, single file, from the office in lower Manhattan. Other people might be having boisterous parties indoors, or gathering in Times Square to watch the ball drop, but East Fifth Street was very, very quiet.
Our guides led us to a building that had been a welfare center before the city stopped using it and let it fall into disrepair. It took up most of the block, if not all of it. Almost all the windows were broken. The organizers had picked the lock before we arrived and led us in. They had also hauled in a few propane heaters, but these were next to useless in that cavernous hall. Still, if you stayed close enough—but not so close that your bedroll caught fire—the heaters were better than nothing. The concrete floor felt like a frozen lake under my sleeping bag, and the wind moaned through the broken panes.
The plan, we were told, was to reclaim the property and turn it into a women’s center, with a focus on serving the poor—which was just about everyone who lived on the Lower East Side back then. The next day somebody brought in some clothes racks from a store that had gone out of business, and soon we had hung them with donated sweaters and other clothes. Word spread quickly. Within hours neighbors arrived to pick over the freebies. Other women came by to help, including a statuesque redhead who put herself to work sweeping up trash. Someone informed me that she was Marion Tanner, the wealthy aunt of Patrick Dennis, who was widely believed to be the model for his book Auntie Mame.
My place was just a few blocks north, so I decided to go home for a hot bath. Mikki, a young woman I’d been chatting with, asked if she could join me since she lived in Queens, a long subway ride away. I said sure.
The apartment—a tenement originally built for immigrants in the 19th Century—had a bathtub in the kitchen, with a cover of enameled tin. The cover served as a counter for meal preparation, and I took it off to bathe. The toilet was a closet so small my knees bumped against the door when I shut it, and I’m pretty short. The bedroom was just about big enough to hold my makeshift loft bed. Since I’m no carpenter, it creaked and swayed when I turned over. But with this addition I had room to shove a desk and chair underneath.
Somehow, after the bath, Mikki and I ended up in bed together. Later I learned that she’d had her eye on me for a while, but I was too dumb to notice. She was young but at 18, no longer jailbait (I was 26). She had short blonde hair, freckles, a quick mind, and a fiery spirit. From that night we were lovers for about nine months and are friends to this day.
We returned to the old welfare center in the morning. We had lots of work to do, with plans for free meals and a health clinic. Our plans hit a roadblock, however, when the police came in and arrested us. This time they didn’t run us around the city in paddy wagons, or fingerprint, strip search, and humiliate us. The building our leaders had picked for us to occupy just happened to be right across the street from the precinct house, so the cops simply escorted us over. And since the city had basically abandoned the building, they didn’t need to “teach us a lesson,” the way they had when we barricaded ourselves into the executive offices of Grove Press. After all, we weren’t trespassing on a rich man’s property.
We spent the afternoon with the arresting officers. One of them kept trying to get us to admit that we’d broken the law, but we avoided any confession of wrongdoing. Finally I asked, “Why are you bothering the women’s movement? You should be going after the Mafia instead of us.”
He gave me a disgusted look. “Listen, sister,” he said, “the government is the Mafia and the Mafia is the government. And the trouble with you”—he stabbed the air in my direction—“is you’re on the wrong side.”
An honest cop. I was impressed. They released us without charges.
* * *
We didn’t get to keep that old welfare center, which probably would have cost over a million dollars to repair. But the organizers negotiated with the city and were able to rent an unused fire house, in somewhat better shape, for $1 a year. It had a spiral staircase. We called it the Women’s Liberation Center, and we had it from 1972 to 1987. And in 2019 it was designated a historic landmark.