With Max in the Red Beetle

Button blanket, Haida artist, late 1800s

Max and I continued to see each other during the spring of 1977, after my trip to Detroit and the dissolution of the Women’s Press Collective (WPC). To recap from a previous post, I met Max a couple of months before going to Detroit, when I had gone to her house to talk with some of her housemates. After that conversation Max invited me upstairs to “get to know her better,” and we danced and then went to bed.

Max was somewhat taller than me, with short blonde hair, a high forehead, and square features. She came from a small town in the Midwest. Her father died when she was a teenager, as I recollect, leaving her mother to raise five children in poverty. Exceptionally bright and wanting to get out into the wider world, she got her chance with a full scholarship to Harvard. She didn’t fit in there, though, either socially or intellectually. Her classmates were privileged young women with cashmere sweaters, and as she saw it, the instruction was all about teaching people what to think and making connections among the young elite. She dropped out and struggled to survive, while doing independent research in the subject of her passion, women’s history.

In 1977, as summer approached Max suggested that we take a road trip. She wanted to visit museums with collections of Native American art, in particular art made by women, and take photos for the slideshows that, years later, would later become her internationally known Suppressed Histories Archives. I was grieving the collapse of the WPC and the loss of friendships that had meant so much to me. I had no idea what to do next. Perhaps a cross country journey would be a salve to my wounds.

Back in 1975 I’d purchased a Volkswagen Beetle from Pat Davidson, who had rebuilt the engine. Whenever it needed work, I brought it to her shop and, step by step, she taught me how to repair it. For those who’ve never looked under the hood of a VW Beetle, that’s where the trunk is, where you can put luggage or groceries or whatever. Behind the passenger compartment, in the space that in most cars would be the trunk, is the engine. The trunk was full of my tools, so we took the back seats out of the bug and packed in tents, sleeping bags, and clothing. And we were on our way.

Max couldn’t drive because of a medical condition, so I was the one behind the wheel for the whole trip. Even packed to the eyeballs, the old bug was a light car, and the ride was bouncy. As I recollect, we did around 300 miles a day, which meant at least one fuel-up, usually late in the afternoon. After crossing a long stretch of desert or climbing over the mountains, we’d come to a town. Exhausted from driving, I’d want to pull in at the first gas station on my right. If Max saw one on the left advertising gas for two cents less per gallon, she’d demand that I make a U-turn or go around the block. We were sharing expenses, and she insisted that stopping at the closer gas station would be wasting her money. However, since the tank held 10.6 gallons, that might have been a whole additional 10¢ per day out of her pocket. I suspected that this was a matter of wanting to exert control rather than economic necessity.

We usually camped out in parks or forested areas. Whenever we passed through a flyspeck town or a reservation with a one-room museum, Max asked for permission to take pictures of the native art on display: basketry, weavings, pottery, anything usually made by the women of the tribe.

Then we came to Denver and its art museum. Room after room of display cases, each featuring the work of a particular tribe, and on the wall a plaque with some descriptive information about the objects. At the bottom of each plaque were two numbers: estimated population of the tribe before the whites came, and how many were left afterward. Just those numbers—no narrative of the wars of extermination, the stolen lands, the smallpox-infested blankets.

It was a record of genocide. I had been feeling sorry for myself, for the demise of my revolutionary dreams with the WPC, but my losses were nothing in the face of that horror—or the horrors that my own people suffered through pogrom after pogrom and the Holocaust. The self-pity drained away. Clearly I needed to read some history, to get some perspective. That would happen after we returned to California.

To be continued

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