La Boheme

White paint flaked off the walls, and like an ancient fresco suddenly revealed to air, the beige underlayment created bizarre shapes and outlines. On Camac Street in Center City Philadelphia, art students rented the top floors of an old carriage house converted to a garage for studio space. Tony took over the garret from another artist at $15/month, and we used it for three or four years until 1966, when we married.

Electricity but no heat, except for a small space heater that ultimately burned out. We found a stack of old Life magazines from WW2 years, and an orange crate filled with Rosicrucian texts. We had a “re-purposed” sofa and someone’s mattress for the floor, and a cable-spool table. And spirit, lots of it, among the art, philosophy, and political science students steeped in impatience and naive expectations who came there along with Tony and me.

Too cool. A place for parties and trysts, the romantic patina was pitted by my rampant anxiety that the bourgeois neighbors in their trendy, tiny townhomes would call the police on us. Or that lightening would strike its metal roof during one of those vicious East Coast summer storms.

We hosted a famous Halloween party, when a sculptor meticulously wrapped himself in linen and wax as a mummy, a painter dressed only in a trench coat and an empty nail barrel fitted about his waist, and Gabriel, a Jew who professed to be a Satanist, held a séance. Then the electricity blew. Candles were lit and blankets wrapped some of us up close. Others left to parade through  the surrounding streets.

“Camac Street” was our 20-something playhouse, where we practiced being adults—learning about sex and sorrow, trying out new ways of thinking and being. We were latter-day beats a la Ginsberg and Burroughs, rebels with too many damned causes, black and white, SNCC, CORE, and SDS advocates, united until the King, Bobby, and Malcolm slaughters, when rage and sorrow, the Panthers, women awakening to their rights, and that stinking damned war ripped up our dreams, flamed into riots, broke friendships, and dug deep new trenches along our many fronts.

It was sweet and bitter and fantastic, full of hope and fear and sadness. And I would not be who I am if I had not had its creaking stairs, the bitter cold, rusty door hinges, and drafty windows. It’s where I go in memory whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth and I need to forswear arthritic joints and ticking clocks.

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