Thayer Street

After my presentation in Providence, I drove up the hill past Brown University to Thayer Street.  I haven’t stopped in Providence since 1968, when I was sent there to organize against the Vietnam War by the American Friends Service Committee (the Quakers).  For those not of the hippie era, it is hard to convey the ferment of those days, the fervor for change, the sense of revolutionary possibility that seems so far away from us today – as the corporate oil gushes and the pointless wars rage.

These days Thayer Street is a genteel boutique main drag for the college students.  No more Omega Coffee house (Omega, Ohm, symbol of resistance, get it?) where I showed up for an antiwar meeting early in June of 1968, driving the VW ‘bug’ my brother lent for the summer. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had just been assassinated, drugs were in full swing, and the country was on the precipice of something either beautiful or very nasty.  In the event, neither happened – life went on, as it usually does, but those of us who lived through it are bonded in a way that will never be broken.

I stayed in the spare room of a couple of straight looking but sympathetic Providence Journal reporters who were never home, and whose refrigerator was a total disaster.

That night I met Michael Frenchman, a chemistry major recently dropped out from Brown, one of the smartest people I have ever met, and still my friend these forty years later. (He produces most of my DVD’s, lo, these many lives away.)

That night I met Anne Finger, differently-abled in her body, but sharp in her mind.  Despite my self-congratulatory freedom from convention, Anne taught me my own class prejudice in a few well-chosen words, a lesson I have always remembered.

In another building, long gone and gentrified by modern architecture, was the Rhode Island Committee for Peace in Vietnam, the center from which we organized draft counseling and anti-war protests.  Upstairs from a tobacco shop, we had typewriters donated by liberals, a pencil sharpener, a lot of ideas and laughs, and a mimeograph machine, which, along with classifications of 1-A or 4-F, are long forgotten.

Faced with forced conscription into an unpopular war, the able were left with few options.  Some left for Canada, some manufactured gayness (a serious disadvantage in 1968) or craziness or a medical excuse.  The most courageous refused induction and were prosecuted.  Michael refused but avoided arrest; Tony Ramos served two years in Allentown before resuming his successful career as an artist (I have written of this in an earlier entry:

We counseled young men as to how to get around the law, shuttled a few sailors from the navy base to Canada, supported Tony in his run up to trial, and were generally a pain to the Providence ‘pigs’, who obliged with porcine behaviour, hitting us with flashlights and clubs (on the back, where it wouldn’t bruise), throwing us in the paddy wagon and taking us to jail (me only once, and the record was supposedly ‘expunged’ – I’ve never checked.– after I’d spent a long night in a cell and been put on a line-up in front a roomful of cops and called ‘a Communist outside agitator’.)

It’s all gone, it’s all history, and none of it was left, so I bought a few trinkets for home from the Indian store, and hit the road back to Boston.


One Response to “Thayer Street”

  1. Deborah Serrano Says:

    I remember visiting you in Providence at that time. That was a big adventure for me at the time. I think I helped out by washing the dishes that were in the sink. Was that building still there? 1968 was an intense and chaotic year, almost more than my 16 year old self could bear. I kind of wish I could have spoken to my 1968 self to tell her, that she would survive and life would get so much better.

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