Discover more from Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins
THE DAY ROBIN MORGAN CAME TO FAYETTEVILLE
Arkansas Spellbound, Summer 1974
I've been trying to write the title line as a country lyric for many years, but I have come to understand that to do so would require the ability of someone who could have composed "Desolation Row." I have been telling bits and pieces of this story to people over the years, but it never struck me to write this true story as a whole until yesterday, when I was telling a fragment to my daughter and son-in-law at their Queens condo pool, when it felt like a gummy kicked in.
It was a long summer weekend, 1974. Unemployed but being paid severance all summer from my first job, I traveled to California to spend three weeks with a woman from the University of Colorado (she was my date to the Elvis Presley concert in Denver) who was a friend with hints of possible romantic connection. You remember those. Sometimes they worked; this one didn't. She was working on her PhD thesis; she was a dedicated scholar, and became a provost at one of California's great state universities.
I returned to Boulder for a week or two, to try to take up again with another old flame. It was awkward, at best. Carol was an outstanding flirt, even magnetic on her level. Hollywood celebrities were in Boulder for a private fundraiser for Gary Hart's campaign for U.S. Senate (a race he won that November). We crashed the party because Jack Nicholson was there, and Carol's stated goal was to fuck Jack Nicholson that night. If she could pull it off, more power to her. Jack dismissed her with just a sideways glance and a few words that must have been just crushing. I spent the night next to Carol, was crying all night at Nicholson's rejection. It was time to move on.
Shelby was a friend I met at Bard; she was my girlfriend's suite-mate at an off-campus mansion turned dorm called Schuyler House. This was the 1969-1970 school year. I visited and stayed at Schuyler House between travels to the west and midwest. That summer of 1970 Shelby, who was from Arkansas originally, planned to study piano at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Boulder had a good counterculture buzz summer of 1970: it was beautiful, peaceful, friendly, and stoned. Like Berkeley or Madison, without the politics. People were on a spiritual trip. My girlfriend and I, with nothing else to do, drifted to Boulder. We found space in a rooming house a couple of blocks from Shelby's. My girlfriend studied dance, I enrolled in some journalism courses. Both women left at the end of the summer; I stayed and got accepted in the journalism program, from which I graduated in 1972.
In the summer of 1974, Shelby had moved on to graduate studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. She was planning to take a long weekend to visit her kinfolk: her brother and sister-in-law and many friends who were in grad school at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, smart young people who were studying English, or Political Science, Creative Writing, or working on a snail's track towards a PhD in philosophy.
Checking the Greyhound bus schedule now, it seems nothing has changed in nearly 50 years except the price. A bus leaves Denver at 7:06 PM, arrives in Lawrence, KS, at 8:48 AM the next day. That sounds right, as does the highlighting on the Greyhound map of Hays, KS, about mid-journey. I was surprised to learn that Hays has a population of around 21,000, the largest city in northwestern Kansas, with a university (Fort Hays State), a museum or two. In the middle of the night, it looked like it was Population 1280.
Arriving at 1 AM in Hays, Kansas, in the summer of 1974, there was only business open: a coffee shop which would reopen its doors for the arriving Greyhound each night. Steady business. I sat alone at a table, had a cup of tea and a donut or muffin. I was at a window seat near the screen when a very large fly flew onto my table. The fly sat there for a moment. We looked at each other. Then the fly rolled over and dropped dead. The coroner might report that the fly died of natural causes, probably instigated by boredom.
Back on the bus, there wasn't much to see out the window during the day, much less overnight. Shelby picked me up that morning, where she was living with roommates in a nice suburban house in Lawrence. It took her a couple of hours to get ready, so I got high with one of her roommates. She was one of my unending parade of women-met-at-first-sight-who-if-she-was-my-girlfriend-all-of-my-problems-would-be-solved. She decided to climb up on the roof. I decided to follow. It was then I realized not only multiple phobias, including heights and fear of falling off roofs. Worse, I was wearing a well-worn pair of shoes, with holes in the soles and ground down heels, with no traction on the steep asphalt-shingles. It was hard enough to climb up. While the no- longer perfect girl enjoyed the view, I had the panic attack to end all panic attacks and wondered if this nice girl would call the fire department to send a ladder truck over to get me down. I could see no option than sliding down, losing my footing and grip, and dying or, worse, spending months recuperating from many broken bones in a Kansas hospital. That was not my fate. I followed her down very slowly to the open attic window, and decided that's a not-so-fun thing I'll never do again.
I remember little about our drive down through the Ozarks, except that exhilirating feeling the young traveler experiences when passing through an actual place only seen on maps, studied with diligence, as a child: "I'm really going through Joplin, Missouri!" "These really are the Ozarks. Wow!"
Fayetteville is south of Lawrence, about 266 miles, maybe a four or five hour drive, Shelby behind the wheel. We arrived for late dinner at her brother and sister-in-law’s house, where we stayed the weekend, in separate rooms (we were not a couple), but things were a little tense at the dinner table. One sensed the marriage wasn't going well for Shelby's brother Peter. And Peter's wife, Caroline, was one of Shelby's best friends, so it was awkward for her.
But there was something else going on, some hoodoo that had struck this usually civilized college town, just days before. It was the aftermath of an event that had the men, for once, Stepford-ized, and the women rampaging in their bodies, souls and minds. It was a few 24-hour cycles of the clock since the day Robin Morgan came to Fayetteville, but the aftershocks were continuous.
Robin Morgan is an author, poet, lecturer, feminist firebrand. She was editor of the influential 1970 anthology Sisterhood is Powerful, which gave name to many facets of the emerging women's movement. She married the poet Kenneth Pitchford in 1962, and were divorced in 1983. If you look him up on Google, the header says: "poet. Robin Morgan's husband."
In 1968, she led what is often recognized as the first modern feminist street action, the Miss America Pageant Protest in Atlantic City. Morgan is a co-founder of W.I.T.C.H., an appropriate anagram for someone who has described herself as Wiccan; the initials have many guises, but I like the guerilla theatre protest style of Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.
What she actually said in Fayetteville that summer is not clear. The effect was Sapphic thunderbolts hurled at and immolating the patriarchy. Every male-female couple that Shelby knew was splitting up, or taking a time-out. Morgan's speech had turned the educated and intellectually ambitious women of Fayetteville into women who needed men like fish needed bicycles.
It was a serious, mean, fever. Shelby took me to meet a small group of her women friends: They booed when she introduced me as her friend. At dinner another night at an Italian restaurant, two minutes of man-hate turned into 10 minutes, and I had to step outside to compose myself.
Peter, Shelby's brother, blamed Elvis. This was really my first time in the Deep South, and Elvis Presley was still alive and still in the air. I'd seen Elvis perform, thought Peter and I could bond over some Elvis love. But Peter hated Elvis.
He used the following terms to describe Elvis Presley: That prick. That dick. That dickhead. That motherfucker. That cocksucker. Once he settled on "cocksucker," he kept repeating, "Elvis, that cocksucker," as if it was a ghost chant, to bring back all of those young, small town Arkansas women who had rejected him because he wasn't Elvis.
Eventually, the fever must have broken: the frenzied undertow of man-hating was too much to sustain. But it may have been the single greatest women’s consciousness raising talk in the 20th century. It took some time for all to regroup. One or two or a whole bunch of women went in new directions; but eventually, many people once again talked about Razorback football and worryied about tenure.
Shelby insisted the one "must-do" on our weekend agenda was the ritualistic Sunday morning breakfast of eggs, grits, and the reading the Arkansas Gazette, the state's best newspaper, at a diner attached to the bus terminal in Fayetteville. It was my first taste of grits, and I liked them just fine. We were drinking our coffee and reading the Gazette when I felt another presence staring at me. I lifted my head and there was Robin Kravitz, my girlfriend from Herricks High School, on Long Island, when I was in 11th grade and she was in ninth. I hadn't seen her since then. What were the odds of that? She was with a mangy boyfriend and a dog, the latter two looking like twins. (This Robin or Robyn Kravitz is not the same person as two women with identical names who worked in the music business for many years.) Shelby thought Robin "exotically gorgeous," something I was too stupid to notice about her.
They were wandering hippies: They had been in Alaska, meandered down the west coast through the Southwest, and materialized at that moment in the Fayetteville, Ark., bus terminal. They may or may not have been tripping. They were on their way to Maine, or somewhere. They stopped in at Caroline's later that day before they hit the road. I remember almost nothing after that, how I got back to New York. I'm going to surmise that I drove back towards Lawrence with Shelby. I'd had enough of bus terminals.
Most likely, she dropped me at Kansas City airport. I waved goodbye, thinking, "I'm going back to New York City, I do believe I've had enough."
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