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

lecturer.

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

the 1960s.

 

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

exclusion.

 

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

the fact.

 

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

peop

 

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

understand.

 

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

thing?

 

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."

 

"I was?"

 

"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

out.

 

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."

 

"Really?"

 

"You mean you wouldn't take a book contract if someone offered it to

you?"

 

"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

you can."

 

"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

smile."

 

"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

discomfort.

 

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

 

------------------------------------------------------------------------

 


Sue Walsh story: 1998 menu

Spielberg menu

Main Menu


email to Al Sullivan