Delivering the message

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It's a jungle out there (in Central Park). Photo: JH.

Friday, June 5, 2020.  It was very warm yesterday in New York with the thermometer moving into the high 80s and its cousin Humidity tagging along to remind us of what Summer brings (when it does).

Another day of lockdown — although it’s beginning to open up. The 8 o’clock curfew that the mayor put in at the beginning of the week is still in effect. While COVID is not the main topic in the media, it’s not far behind with many predicting (or acknowledging) that these not socially distant crowds will bring on more numbers.

There was another gathering of protesters yesterday afternoon about 3:30 at the intersection of East 86th Street and East End Avenue. The third this week. The objective was to get their message to the mayor. It was a quiet event comparatively, perhaps several hundred demonstrators rather than the thousands  earlier this week.  They finished by about 7, exiting down to the Promenade overlooking the East River and out through Gracie Square and 84th Street.

And in other quieter parts of the city …

So New Yorkers — and much of the rest of the country, maybe the world have been confronted in the past three months with three major issues affecting every citizen (besides the weather). It began with the Covid-19 Virus followed by the lockdown putting thousands in New York and millions across the country in a state of unemployment; and then the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, who overnight became a kind of folk hero/martyr because of his death. 

None of this considers the problems about to arise over the next several weeks and months from the record unemployment caused by the shutdown. History has left us deeply troubling examples of the social probabilities that may very well affect all of us even more profoundly than these past few months. I know that sounds “negative” because outcomes for such matters are negative.

So at the end of the beautiful summer-like day, we were left with the chanting of the demonstrators as they very orderly leaving the scene peacefully into the quiet night.

For some reason which I can’t yet define, the demonstrations in memory of this man George Floyd reminded me of a quite dissimilar incident that occurred in the Spring of 1961 when I was a student at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

Colby is a beautiful liberal arts co-ed college that occupies a stunning campus on Mayflower Hill just outside the town of Waterville, a community that was then made up of manufacturing mills along the Kennebec River about 20 miles north of the state capitol Augusta in Central Maine. The student body then numbered about 1200 (it is close to 2000 students today). The tuition and room and board in those days was about $1,200.  (It’s about $70,000 these days.)

Colby’s picturesque campus.

The center of the campus was made up of the library and administration building on the hilltop overlooking the classroom buildings as well as the arts and drama centers and the college chapel. The men’s and women’s dorms were on the opposite sides of the library. The men’s dorms were placed behind and on either side of the library and then there was fraternity row with seven fraternity houses and at the far end of the row was the Roberts Union which included the infirmary and the men’s dining hall.

It so happened that those years (the late ’50s and early ’60s) were the beginning of the Civil Rights movement coming to the fore. Some of the first volunteers in early demonstrations and marches were from Colby. In those days there were very few students of color at Colby, including Asian, Japanese as well as African-American. On the men’s side of the campus there were only a half dozen that I am aware of in memory.

There were sororities and fraternities. The social life on campus revolved mainly around the fraternities which occasionally hosted parties and dances in their houses. Different fraternities had different personalities. The early ‘60s was also the beginning of the sexual revolution in this country, accompanied of course by the Women’s Movement.

The boys’ side of the campus did not have a notable movement other than nature’s evolution in the life of the male child. Sexual intercourse, for example, was regarded as a no-no when spoken of, and alleged “virgins” were who we were (in public). All other activity was  — with a few exceptions having to do with student women who were already liberated — a matter unspoken by the participants.

Fraternity Row at Colby. L. to r.: Delta Upsilon; Delta Kappa Epsilon; Alpha Tau Omega; Roberts Union; Zeta Psi; and Phi Delta Theta Fraternity.

There was one notable exception among the boys, and that was of a local young woman — what was referred to in those days as a “townie” — named Maisie Spooner. Maisie used to call fraternity houses (all of which were equipped with a single pay phone booth on the second floor of each house), often mid-evening, and make her acquaintances. I’d heard of her — although I’d never seen or spoken to her — but she was “famous” for servicing some students on late night visits to the rec rooms in the basement of the houses. 

It so happened one night in May, about eight o’clock when I was in my room studying, the phone on the second floor was ringing (the DKEs) without anyone picking up. Finally I ran down from my room to answer it. It was a sweet female voice on the other end, calling for one of the fraternity brothers. 

I knew he wasn’t in and told the caller. I asked her name to give him. She told me, but then continued the conversation by asking me about myself, my name, what was I doing, all very friendly, and warm and curious. It was a lighthearted but inquisitive with obvious intentions of getting to know me. Then she asked what I was doing that night, as if to imply that I might be available for “some fun.” I got the picture and told her I was studying for an exam. but that I’d convey her message.

I told a couple of others in the house about the call and learned that Maisie had visited the frat house (DKE) recently on a late night, a guest of two members who later proudly detailed the meeting. I also learned that sweet voiced young woman was not as sweet looking and alluring as her voice. She had, however, satisfied her hosts who had invited her back more than once and in more than one fraternity house. Free of charge.

Then one night in early May, I was studying in the Library when a friend of mine told me that a bunch of guys were down in front of Roberts Union at the end of fraternity row, where they said Maisie Spooner was “visiting” one of the students who was working at the reception desk. He was, like this writer, on a working scholarship, and evidently not a fraternity member but living in one of the men’s dorms with a roommate. Naturally those who knew him wondered where he and Maisie were going to “get together” for some fun after he finished his shift.

Roberts Union at the end of fraternity row.

Shortly after learning of her “presence,” curiosity got the best of me (and it was close to eight o’clock), and I decided to go back to the fraternity house which was on the way to Roberts Union. It was Daylight Savings and just beginning to turn dark. Sure enough, there were maybe 30 or 40 male students gathered on the embankment at the end of fraternity row, across from Roberts. 

The lights inside Roberts Union had automatically gone on, possibly giving the students a chance to actually see her. They began to chant “We want Maisie! We want Maisie!” 

Soon more students joined the gathering and voices rose louder. As it was now turning dark, the student whom Maisie was “visiting” — everyone knew who her host was because the student body was small — had to close the reception desk at 8 o’clock. He then lowered the shades on the windows of entrance, so that the crowd couldn’t see in. 

That meant she’d be coming out the front door to this “reception” of anxious students awaiting. By then there must have been 40 or 50  present for a view. But nothing happened; no Maisie. 

Minutes went by. The student receptionist’s shift was over yet he and Maisie didn’t emerge. Voices grew louder and more demanding: “We Want Maisie! …”

Nothing. And it was getting darker when suddenly someone in the crowd shouted that they spotted the couple. They had left the building by the backdoor and were moving behind the building toward Johnson Pond which was behind fraternity row. And like a mass of humanity in the shadows, the dozens of curious and anxious Maisie-seekers began to chase the couple, as in a mob pursuing a victim.

Johnson Pond where the incident took place, with the back of Roberts Union on the left and the Deke house in the center.

Within seconds the dozens of male students caught up to them right behind the Deke house overlooking the pond. The “boyfriend” had disappeared leaving the terrified girl, ungainly in her weight and helpless to defend herself. She was now in the center of the raging crowd, when one of them pushed her to the ground. She screamed in panic. 

And then the heaving mass moved in on her, as she lay crying out like a bird. Squealing helplessly as the gang of amorphous humanity harassed her with foul language, some of the boys started urinating on her as she shrieked. It was a mob in a life of its own, completely out of control. 

This went on for several harried minutes in the almost-dark now only lit by the windows of the fraternity houses 20 and 30 yards away from the pondside.

Then, suddenly out of nowhere it seemed, Jimmy Johnson appeared. Jimmy was in his junior year, and one of the few students of color. He was slender in build, not tall; familiar to everyone because he worked a shift in the men’s cafeteria for his scholarship (a dean’s list student). Without a gesture or a word, he walked into this pulsating, ranting crowd surrounding their victim sprawled on the ground. On sight of Jimmy, the crowd silently separated to make a path, as if respecting him. He moved to the center where she lay helpless and in hysterics. The crowd — like a single mass — without a word, moved farther away from her. It was as if a greater power had pushed them. One man. Who Cared.

Jimmy Johnson helped the sobbing girl up to her feet, and with his arm around her quaking shoulders, he walked her out and away from the withdrawing, dispersing crowd onto the roadway and out of sight — all without the slightest motion of deterrence — more than likely helping her home.

The final moments were like watching the work of a sainted individual rescuing the victim from a horrendously threatening danger, and back into the comfort and safety of this man that I never knew. Until that very moment.

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