“To Acknowledge You Could Have an Ass”
If you've been to my apartment in the past six months, you've witnessed a terrifying demolition project going on outside my window. Four buildings have been torn down to make way for a luxury hotel that hasn't been approved by the city but seems to be going up apace. In the midst of the rubble stands one lone building, gutted on the bottom two floors but with tenants on the top two.
In the morning I drink my coffee and watch the women in the windows with their windchimes and orchids and flora drink their own coffee, all of us peering out into the the pit of destruction below.
So, this being NYC, a city where I can see Bob Kerrey at the coffee shop last week followed by unscripted personalities dining al fresco and then just today Nicholas Kristof and his family on the subway to Queens, it turns out that one of the two tenants refusing to be bought out of the crooked little building two feet away is none other than legendary writer and feminist Hettie Jones, former wife of LeRoi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka, aka severely rabble-rousing Beat poet/former poet laureate of New Jersey.
Tonight I accosted her on the sidewalk outside my building and thanked her for resisting the buyout offers (the hotel will have to be built around her building because she's not giving up the loft where she's lived forever, evidently a haven for the Beats when she lived there with LeRoi). I told her I was a poet and she asked my name and I did that thing people do when in the presence of people they admire, I said I wasn't famous like she was and she said "Well, that's okay! One day you will be!" and I think now why did I take a neighbor-to-neighbor moment and turn it into an idol-worship one, but anyway she was so kind and said "You should read my book, How I Became Hettie Jones, because it tells the story of everyone and everything that went on in that apartment!"
She also said I should wave to her when I see her in the window, probably a little freaked out that I admitted I've been watching her across the abyss for a decade.
So I was reading up on her and found this tremendous interview with her and Joyce Johnson who I've always adored (Read In the Night Cafe and Minor Characters if you haven't already.) And now I feel it's essential that I stop not knowing enough about Hettie Jones. Check it out:
How did your group contribute to the women's movement at that time?
Jones: By physically taking a stand, rather than intellectually, or through any particular writing. Simply by saying, "Okay, I'm going to live on my own. I'm going to acknowledge that I am a sexual being and I'm going to have sex and I'm going to practice birth control. I'm going to be a responsible person comparable to a man-I'm going to live what is generally regarded as a man's life. I'm going to have my own apartment and I'm going to have a job and I'm going to be self-supporting." Even among the young women I knew who were slightly younger than I, all this was really considered an accomplishment. You just weren't supposed to leave home until you got married and already lived under another man's hand...
Also, clothing! Young women today don't have any idea of the discomfort. I always talk about this when I make speeches-that to take off your girdle was a radical move-first came the girdle and then came the bra-but to take off your girdle! Ah! And be able to think and walk and move without feeling blistered all the time. To acknowledge that you could have an ass. And to wear pants!
Now, the 7am construction and imminent loss of light and privacy seem somehow part of something larger Well, maybe I'm trying to put a glossier sheen on a bad jackhammer situation, but maybe this is a wake-up call. Maybe this is the clarion call urging me to stop reading memoirs of coke-addicted art fraudsters and spoiled socialite spawn and actually read something historically relevant and inspiring.