Growing Up on the Road and Off the Grid
Claudia (lower left) displaying her art with feminist comrades in San Francisco, 1978.
Joshua Safran lives in Oakland and is a lawyer, public speaker, and women’s rights advocate whose legal fight to free Debbie Peagler, a battered woman serving prison time for killing an abusive boyfriend, was explored in Crime After Crime, a heralded film at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. His recently released memoir Free Spirit: Growing Up on the Road and Off the Grid chronicles his unconventional upbringing in the 1970s and ’80s when his free-spirited mother, plagued by troubled relationships, set up house in communes, cabins, and buses from one coast to the other. Here, an excerpt from “Chapter One, Parental Truths.”
Adapted from Free Spirit by Joshua Safran. Published by Hyperion Books, a division of the Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Over the years, my father aspired to be a lot of things: a poet, a musician, a guru. But he never wanted to be my father. Luckily someone else did. A dark, giant stranger who went by Tony because Antonio had too many vowels for the Anglo ear.
My mother met Tony in 1975, before I was born. He was chairing the interview panel for the commune on Ashbury Street. My mother was nervous on the day of the interview because openings in a good commune were rare, and the admissions process could be fiercely competitive. She relaxed a little as she shared sourdough bread and kale with commune members around the long communal table in the kitchen. My mother was pleased to see that the interview panel included a black man and his Chinese wife. The place had the right diversity and a real earthy vibe. Leading the panel was a tall bearded Latino or Native American man named Tony. He stood against one wall, arms crossed, rocking back and forth a little, asking questions. He looked like he could have been the head of a revolutionary cadre. A freedom fighter from Central America, maybe.
But what he wanted to know was strictly Capitalist. How would she afford the rent?
“Well, I’ve always lived my life in such a way that if you are in the right place at the right time, with the right attitude, you can find anything you want—even money.”
Tony frowned at this. “What about a job?”
“Yes, jobs are good too. I’ve been nude modeling for art schools. And I do my own artwork. Sometimes modeling and painting at the same time!”
Tony was still skeptical. “That doesn’t sound like making a living.” They were all staring at her.
“Well, you should know, I will be eligible for Welfare soon.”
A child!? She wouldn’t have garnered more surprise if she had said she was a CIA agent.
“You’re pregnant!?” Tony took a step back and dropped his gaze to the floor.
Someone else said: “Are we ready to live with a baby?”
Tony nodded. “We all need to talk.” And the whole group of them adjourned into the next room to deliberate. When they came back in, my mother was prepared for more questions. But Tony was smiling. “We decided,” he said. “You’re in.”
My mother’s room at the commune was next to Tony’s. She discovered not the guerrilla leader she had imagined, but a soft, dreamy intellectual. A student of philosophy and history. He was the only one in the commune with a real job, though she was shocked to find out he was a janitor. “A janitor, Tony!? You went to college, for chrissake.”
His round face trembled. “I had to drop out. I had a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t finish.”
Tony had no memories of his real family. He had been kidnapped from his Mexican-American parents at a young age by an abusive and hateful Cuban woman who told him she was his “grandmother.” She claimed to be pure-blooded Spanish, and Tony was raised with the shame that he was nothing but a “dirty half-breed.” Tony’s childhood was a catalog of abuse and neglect visited upon him by his grandmother, her predatory boyfriends, and frightening Catholic schools.
In this total darkness, Tony sought redemption in his schoolwork and tested his way into the selective Lowell High School. There the light began to shine in. He started high school as the brown, dumpy, depressed “grandson” of an erratic abusive Cuban maid. But he left feeling like a refined intellectual, his spirit on fire with philosophy and Hindu theology. Stepping out of high school full of academic promise, he went on scholarship to San Francisco State University, where he promised himself that his studies would replace his past. He grew his hair out to become someone new and tried to toss himself into the ferment of the ’60s, to embrace freedom. But his traumatic childhood haunted him relentlessly. He was barely able to keep a lid on the nightmares, the flashbacks, and the phobias that crippled him. He had panic attacks in enclosed spaces and disabling fears of heights, flying, driving, and public speaking.
Before he could graduate, he was drawn back to his “grandmother’s” side as she lay dying in the hospital.
“Antonio, this is your fault,” she hissed. “You abandoned me. After all I did for you. I saved you from growing up like a dirty Mexican.”
“I’m sorry,” Tony said, feeling a void of darkness rushing in at him.
“You left me alone,” she whispered. “It’s all your fault.” Her wrinkled face froze into a scowl and then turned to wax. She was dead.
Tony was choking up as he confessed all of this to my mother, and then he told her about his nervous breakdown and his suicide attempts. “Now I’m a janitor,” he concluded. “And I’m all alone.”
My mother leaned in and hugged Tony over her expanding belly. They were both lonely. Both wanted to be held. After a long hug, Tony pulled back, his eyes alive again.
“What did you eat today?” he asked, brightening.
“I had some broccoli and tofu.”
“That’s not enough!”
“I’m not hungry, Tony.”
“No, I told you before, it’s not for you. It’s for the baby! We have to feed the little guy.”
Tony returned shortly, bearing a plate loaded down with a massive cheese omelet. He began feeding my mother forkfuls of his latest culinary creation. “We’re going to have the strongest, healthiest baby. Eat!”
My mother put his hand to her belly. “Feel, Tony, feel! The baby’s kicking!”
Tony felt me moving inside of her. “¡Ay, mi angelita!” Oh, my little angel! Tony swore he couldn’t remember any Spanish but reverted to it whenever he became emotional. “Angelita, he likes my omelets!”
When I was born, Tony threw himself into the role of father with abandon. After cleaning the State Building all evening, Tony would come home to the sound of my colicky cry, and dutifully scoop me up from my foam pad on the floor. He would bounce, burp, and change me, and then sing me to sleep with a mixture of Spanish lullabies and the Rolling Stones. Night after night Tony paced back and forth with me until the first rays of sunlight filtered in through the leaves of the commune’s raised marijuana garden.
Once I could sleep through the night, my mother decided it was time to leave the commune—and Tony. With all the cooking and the child care, he was starting to act like a father and a husband. My mother wrote in her diary:
Afraid that I am becoming his wife . . . to allow him to care for me . . . what do I owe him? Others are there for the drama, he’s there for the grind—the dirty diapers and the night feedings. Have I sold myself to him for payment of debt?
The bottom line for my mother was: Tony was not the hero of the Revolution he appeared to be at first glance. He lacked the requisite toughness, guts. He was too prone to fall back into a pattern of self-destruction. He just wasn’t her type.
My mother broke the news to Tony one night after I’d fallen asleep. “Why?” he pleaded.
“Tony, my room is too small. Josh is starting to crawl. Steve, from the basement, almost stepped on him the other day. Marian’s got hepatitis. Did you see the open sores on her face? And how am I supposed to bathe him in the sink with George’s coffee grinds clogging it up? I have to find a place Josh can move around safely.”
“Can I come with you?” Tony asked the question she was dreading.
“No, Tony. You’re acting like we’re a married couple, and we’re not. You’ve got this shabby outer world, this job. That’s hard for me to relate to. And I know that you’ve got this magnificent inner world where you’re having ecstatic visions of the Virgin de Guadalupe and experiencing parallel universes, and I enjoy sharing that aspect with you. But you’re asking me to help you deal with your emotional problems and the ghost of your grandmother, and I can’t spend all day long reading your energy.” My mother took a swig of rosehips tea. “I want to have a real boyfriend, Tony. Someone committed to the Struggle. When we go out, I see guys who look interesting in cafés and restaurants, but they all assume we’re together. I’ve got to get away, Tony. Besides, think about it. The longer we wait, the harder it will be on Josh to leave you.”
Tony had tears in his eyes, but he accepted her decision. “Claudey, you know, after you leave, can I still visit you and the Babu?” He called me Babu, which was short for Baboso—the Slobbery One.
“Of course, Tony,” she reassured him. “You can always visit us.”
My mother and I moved around the city four more times, and throughout it all, Tony was my loyal and regular visitor. Wherever we were, I could count on his weekly visits. He came every Sunday, bearing some little gift, and each time he took us out to dinner.
At first my mother resisted the weekly dinner: “Tony. I’m a feminist. I’m not going to let a man pay for our dinner. I’ll pay my own way.”
“Claudey, if you have to pay for your own dinner, will you still go out to dinner with me every Sunday?”
“OK, so I want to eat dinner with you every Sunday. So let me pay for it on the days you wouldn’t have come out on your own.”
He paid for dinner every week.
At one of those dinners, I asked Tony whether he was my father. Tony looked at Claudia for a long time and received only silence in return. Tony finally shook his heavy head, No.
“But he’s like my brother,” Claudia offered as a compromise, “so he can be your uncle.”
Uncle Tony. I liked the sound of that. It was like a father, only better. Uncles were real.
Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid by Joshua Safran (Hyperion, 2013, $24.99, 270 pp).