When Old Friends Meet
I ran into Sue again on July 16, 1985 -- one of those odd historic
coincidences that Freud might have labeled an "anniversary syndrome."
Our former professor had invited many alumni back for a special class he
was holding over the summer. He had invited Allen Gingsberg as a guest
Professor Terrance Ripmaster was WPC's primary radical, who had found
himself a niche as the campus radical, teaching classes on the counter
culture, deriving his popularity from kids intrigued with the bravado of
Most students who attended WPC during the 1970s and early 1980s
considered Ripmaster the "coolest of the cool." He was the man to whom
the avant-garde flocked, seeking his advise and his approval. Many of
the more brilliant students such as Mike Reardon drank with Ripmaster in
the pub, or journeyed down to one of the Haledon bars where he would
talk about the current state of the counter culture. Those outside
Ripmaster's inner circle gnashed their teeth jealously over the
Joel was particularly guilty of this, envying not only Reardon's special
relationship with the professor, but the off-campus life-style Ripmaster
maintained. In the early 1970s, Ripmaster and several other couples
conducted an alternative lifestyle experiment by establishing a commune
in Teaneck. Joel often talked about it, the envy thick in his voice as
he giggled over the folly of swapping wives. Perhaps Joel, who was then
a student at WPC, craved an invitation, his voice full of the same tone
of erotic curiosity as when he talked of Sue's demise. Joel did not
forget slights of any kind, whether exclusion from Ripmaster's exclusive
club, or rejection by Sue.
Oddly enough, I didn't realize a connection between Sue and Ripmaster
until after Sue had graduated, though I had been aware of other closer
to campus experiments that had gone on with co-eds. One such co-ed had
tried to kill herself on this account, though the details of her
relationship had always seemed hazy.
Had Sue dabbled with the "coolest of cool?" If she had, I never heard of
it, but I could see her flocking to his inner circle, partly because
they both held forum in the same pub, and partly because he fit the
profile she found most attractive. He knew important people, and
sometimes brought them to campus, like Abbie Hoffman in 1981, and Allen
Ginsberg in 1985.
Despite his reputation for being WPC's counter culture guy, Ripmaster
had missed much of the 1960s, even though he was at the right place at
the right time. He was in Michigan when the Students for a Democratic
Society wrote the Port Huron Statement in 1964. But he was a good
student, serious about his classes, and knew nothing of it until after
He was also at Columbia University in 1968, doing graduate work when
David Shapiro, another WPC professor and then student activist at
Columbia, posed with a cigar while seated behind the Columbia's
president's desk in a now infamous photo. But Ripmaster by this time was
married with children, and did not take an active part.
Then, he found himself at WPC, which was then still mostly called
"Paterson Teaching College", despite the name change to William Paterson
College, and an effort to become something more. The draft helped. For
most of William's Paterson's history, many more girls attended. Now, as
Ripmaster arrived, so did many boys seeking college deferments.
The radicalized the campus and Ripmaster, and he became the unchallenged
leader of the movement at WPC, something slightly behind the times, but
something that made his "Culture of the Sixties" amazingly popular right
up until the 1980s.
Some of us returned to sit in on his classes.
Ripmaster admired me. Unlike him, I hadn't missed most of the 1960,
though I had been a cultural drop out, not a political one, choosing to
avoid the campus combat for a more personal conflict with society
itself. Ripmaster saw me as a contemporary, aone, choosing to avoid the
campus combat for a more personal conflict with society itself.
Ripmaster saw me as a contemporary, although I was slightly younger than
he, and he often invited me to his classes. He invited me this July, and
was slightly embarrassed when Mike and I barged in and pinned his guest
to the wall, more or less accusing Ginsberg of selling out the movement.
We didn't understand at the time that Ginsberg had a deeper commitment
to change than many other so-called radicals, a personal dedication to
I was actually surprised to find Sue there when I arrived. After having
heard all the rumors of her rise and fall, I have expected her to vanish
then and there, seeking refuge in some small town somewhere west where
nobody knew her. She seemed delighted to see me, standing near the back
door to the study hall with the dark campus behind her, the glow of
Science building like a halo around her head. She gave me the same old
smile with the same old glint in her eye. Yet something significant had
changed in her, perhapsher to vanish then and there, seeking refuge in
some small town somewhere west where nobody knew her. She seemed
delighted to see me, standing near the back door to the study hall with
the dark campus behind her, the glow of Science building like a
Much later, I would recall that first glimpse and think just how much
Sue seemed in transition, like a snake shedding its skin, with the
aspect of old Sue still evident as the new Sue emerged. I did not know
then how different the new Sue would be from the old. I do recall her
bragging about her child, and the oddly, remarkable glow to her face
that most new parents had, her eyes still touched with the wonder of the
situation, and the thought that this bundle of living flesh had come out
of her body and was now growing into a unique and separate human being.
When she held up her child, the boy seemed pathetic and vulnerable, in
all the same ways Sue had traditionally claimed for herself.
"Isn't David cute?" she asked.
It was hard for me not to agree, though some of the old Sue showed in
her pride -- and again, later, I would think I saw a conflict underway
in that pride, as if the two aspects of Sue struggled over the issue of
the boy, one Sue bragging over the boy's heritage as the nephew of the
rock star, Joe Walsh, while another, more serious Sue claimed a greater,
personal importance for the child that someone like me could never
Although her features looked the same, something in her expression
showed the strain of the struggle, not just over the child, but over the
whole road leading up to that room, from Show World to the Haledon
arrest, to rehab in Pennsylvania. Only when I looked deeply into her
blue eyes did I see the shadow hanging over her life, that cloud of doom
she carried with her everywhere, as if marked from childhood with some
dreadful fate. She could speak to no one about it, only allude to it,
trying to live up to the "Brave and Noble" mythology Bill Madaras had
painted for her, trailing the entrails of her life behind her as if she
was still bleeding from birth.
Most of her former class mates had moaned when Sue announced her
pregnancy a year earlier, each one mumbling something like "that poor
baby" or "not another Bucky." But seeing her now, at a class room at
WPC, I could see her going through tlike "that poor baby" or "not
another Bucky." But seeing her now, at a class room at WPC, I could see
her going through the sequence of emotions, from the initial shock she
felt the doctor confirmed
"Me? A mother? Are you out of your mind?"
And this shock shifting to something much more terrible, she staring
down at her own body -- a body she had depended upon for all its frailty
-- and cursing it for betraying her. Gradually, the panic would start,
the feeling of walls closing in on her.
"A baby? Me?" she'd thought at first, and then look around for a way out
of that trap, some way to get rid of the thing inside her as if she
equated the growing embryo as some kind of cancer.
The fear would follow that as she recalled her other mother and the
march of fathers who had come into her life, and from that, would come
the memory of the incident that most marked her, that early rape when
Sue became a woman for the first time.
How could Sue become a mother and subject some other being to such a
Perhaps, she noted my observation. She stiffened a little, adopted a
pose, and then fell back into one of her many caricatures, easing her
head down slightly, tilting it to one side, so as to look up at me
through her eyelashes.
"I'm married now, you know," she informed me in a low voice, as if
imparting some secret that the others in the room did not know, or
should not know, as if she expected me to keep that secret.
"I heard," I said.
"You did? How?"
"People talk. You know how the rumor thing goes. You were always a
rather popular subject on the grapevine."
"Still are," I said with an uncomfortable laugh. "Though I imagine all
that'll change now that you have your baby."
"I suppose so," she said, and actually sounded disappointed. "So what
brings you here, if not to see my baby?"
"Professor Ripmaster's guest, of course," I said, again laughing, having
already performed part of the circus.
Ripmaster had invited me because he thought I would help pay homage to
the icon of the beat movement, but Michael and I had cornered the man in
the lobby of Raubinger, where he was giving his press conference for the
local media, and we had grilled him with questions as to why he had sold
Gingsberg only shook his head sadly at us, as if we weren't old enough
to understand such a complicated motivation, as if we might never
understand with such rebellious attitudes -- that a man or woman must
finally fine a place to stand in the universe, settling for something
before death takes him.
This wasn't selling out; but Michael and I would not know that until we
reached mid-life crisis, at which point I would get involved with yet
one more go-go girl, and Michael would flee to Texas.
"I think I offended Mr. Ginsberg," I told Sue.
"He doesn't look offended," Sue said.
"He's too busy celebrating his new book," I said. "He's a big shot now."
"I think he was always a big shot," Sue said. "It only took time for the
major publishing houses to realize it. I wish I was so lucky."
"You mean you wouldn't take a book contract if someone offered it to
"Only if I believed in what I was doing," I said.
"Then you're a fool," Sue said. "You have to grab at opportunity when
"And suppose you're not ready?" I said, aware of the many flaws I had
with my art.
"Then you make do," Sue said.
"Like you did with Joe Walsh?" I asked.
A sly look came into her eyes and she gave me that famous "Sue Merchant
"I didn't marry Joe Walsh, I married his brother."
I didn't see the distinction, but kept silent on that point, saying only
that I liked the story better with its fairy tale ending, New Jersey
girl makes good in the big bad world.
"Are you happy?" I asked.
"Very," she said, then held up her baby again for my inspection, asking
me when she was satisfied if I would like to meet her husband.
"Sure," I said.
She motioned towards the door and a shadow of a man eased in, looking as
out of place at WPC as a hillbilly might have entering the New York
Hilton. In the years to come, Sue would drag this man through a private
hell that would make him come to hate her, dragging him down into the
New York City porno scene the way my ex-wife had dragged me through the
porno scene in LA But all I saw at that moment was his uncertainty, a
shy man who blinked up at the bright lights as if they hurt his eyes,
and blinked toward Ginsberg as if Sue's new husband had never met an
celebrity, let alone had a celebrity entering the N
Mark eased in, staring up at the rows of ascending seats that defined
this room as one of WPC lecture halls, not classroom, this room serving
as Ripmaster's platform for as long as I'd come to school. Strangers
stared back, students and guests, who had come to witness Ginsberg's
lesson. Some knew Sue, others did not, but none knew Mark, and he
blinked back, his mouth shaped into an expression of distaste as well as
Mark looked exactly as I would have imagined Sue's husband would look,
one more of the many moody men Sue had collected around her, too shy to
make much noise about her past or present activities, yet just enough a
man to serve Sue's necessities -- at least, for a while, until she got
bored, or made some new and dreadful mistake for which she would have to
flee. She left most men like him in pieces when she was done, shattered
shells of men whose pieces hung together by some great new force of
nature, but pieces that might fly apart if he should stub a toe or
stumble. I could see the uncertainty in his eyes, as if the process of
Sue's eventual separation had already begun. Joe's look was in those
eyes. So was Danny's, and Stanley's and all the Joes, Dannys and
Stanleys that had come before and after them, and all that would come
after Mark, ego-shredded victims who had yet come to the realization
that they had been victimized, clinging to their pride as the one last
piece of dignity they could count upon.
Mark eyed me briefly, even nodded during the introduction, but I made no
more impression in those eyes of his than the strangers seated in the
rows of seats, though I did catch one sliver of what might have been
jealousy, his eyes asking what Sue's father would later ask me, if I was
one of the living dead who had come to love Sue, too, or who had used
Sue for my pleasure.
I shoved my hand towards his to force him to shake it. But he did not
shake my hand. He did not even touch it, recoiling from my hand as if
expecting it to strike him, as if he had been struck before.
"No, friend," I wanted to tell him. "I'm not one of Sue's victims, or
one of the sharks who used her. But I may be the only man you meet
tonight who can say as much -- except for Ginsberg who is gay."
Mark did not want my comfort. Perhaps at that moment in time, he still
believed Sue's lies, believing in the tales of stalking she often
spread, tales she might even have believed herself -- though some claim
not. Whatever comfort I could have offered, he apparently did believe,
his gaze already fixed with the look of a man in shell-shock, a man hurt
by Sue's past. No Band-Aid from me would heal his bleeding. And I knew
right then, their marriage would not last long.
"So who does David look like?" Sue asked, again holding the baby in
front of me for my opinion.
"Both of you," I said, though in truth, the boy, David, looked more like
Sue, and oddly enough, when Sue held that baby, she lost a little of her
own fire, as if she needed some of that energy to shield her son. But I
didn't know what she was shielding the boy from.
A Miracle for Sue