“Women are already outsiders, so there’s less pressure to fall into established tropes. In the classic tale of Man vs. Nature, either man or nature wins – which means that the other one loses. But that’s a narrow framework, and without identifying with the writers of the canon, it’s easier for female writers to sidestep the competition entirely. –Blair Braverman
Ellis Island Los Angeles
Men are from Mars, Women are Goddesses
This May 1 will be Ellis Island Los Angeles’ 50th anniversary. You can find more about the Ellis reunion at my Facebook fan page.
My times and stories animate the early 1970s of the urban commune in a three-story Victorian mansion near the intersection of Adams and Hoover boulevards in south central Los Angeles.
I’ve spent the last few weeks developing a mini-memoir for Robert Rush Riddle’s reunion book. Below is an excerpt of the memoir. Click on the links to my website with many more pictures and memorabilia.
At UCLA in 70s, I indulged my new fascination with Sinophile with as many classes in the Chinese department as I wanted. I took Elements of Modern Chinese (Mandarin), Far East Literature in Translation, Archaeology Early and Modern China, Influence of Buddhism, Southeast Asia History 1815 Forward and Chinese Art. I couldn’t get enough.
The poetry in free verse translation was like none other I had read, exquisite and brimming with fantastic imagery and ideas. I still have my textbook, Anthology of Chinese Literature from early times to the fourteenth century edited by Cyril Birch, ripped and stained with ink from Printmaking 140. I would sit in the sculpture garden next to the School of Fine Art, perched on my favorite abstract, nude bronze while poring over the English translations.
At the same time, the Peoples Park controversy at the Berkeley campus erupted May 30, 1969. Radical students at UCLA wore armbands to classes in solidarity with their actions and took over the Administration Building. In Fall Quarter I took Angela Davis’ Themes of Black Literature in the Philosophy Department. Here’s a link to a news clip of Davis at UCLA in May 1969 which mentions the Student Strike.
What does this have to do with an urban commune in downtown Los Angeles near another institution of higher learning, USC? I’ll get to that.
After graduation, I found myself living in a quaint cabin high up in Laurel Canyon. My boyfriend was never around, spending most of his time in San Francisco. I was ready to break up and move on to the next thing in my life. Quelle surprise! He didn’t agree and pounded the daylights out of me. The cops came. Back in 1971, police response to domestic violence was a joke. No report was filed. I had to move out right away.
This was when a friend of mine from Long Beach, Tom Conerly a commune resident, offered the third-floor ballroom to crash in, and I moved in Fall of 1971.
The Goddess moves Downtown
“Did I tell you that you were the first liberated woman that wasn’t attached to some other male in the house? I told that to a lot of people.” --Rush Riddle
Until a room opened, this was my home. Up on the third floor it was quiet. No one went up there. No one knew me and I was happy to have a mattress to sleep on. There was no glass in the windows and the spacious room was wide open to the elements on three sides. I later learned Ellis had a policy about underage crashers. Runaways could stay the night but had to go in the morning. While I was up there, no other crashers arrived to invade my solitude.
Karen Poplawski took me under her ample wing and initiated me into the Ellis regime. Every resident had to help with running the house, a magnificent Victorian which had been converted to a fraternity at some point. There was an enormous bathroom with shower heads arranged around the four walls. Privacy was restricted to your room, and everyone had their own. Couples shared, and the population fluctuated between 14 and 18 residents.
You were required to sign up every week on two sheets. One was the food program and the other was cleaning. For $5 a week a resident could get all meals provided. The folks on the shopping gig would find bulk items at the Grand Market downtown and stock the pantry with dozens of loaves of bread, eggs and milk in the several refrigerators, breakfast, lunch and snack foods. For those meals everyone was on their own. Routinely I would get up to have breakfast cereal and juice, make a sandwich and take it to work. Dinners were prepared by other people and served to everyone at 6pm. Others cleaned up the kitchen after.
My activism continued while I was here. In April 1972, some of us went to the March to McArthur Park organized by UCLA Committee for New University. It was a circus. People in costumes, a character calling himself General MacArthur with rockets on his epaulettes. Weed. Fun. And we managed to eventually stop the damn war by speaking out.
I made a painting studio out of a third-story room and carved my name on the brick chimney outside the window. As artists do, I experimented with everything that was new, including drugs and sex. I enjoyed them both and had lots of friends who shared my point of view. If the men of Ellis regarded me as a goddess among them, they were polite. I picked who I wanted to sleep with and who I didn’t. Often early risers would witness a young man hurrying through the house from my room, clutching their shoes.
They say that Maui noka oi
“If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing.” --Cheryl West
I formed an idea that I would travel to China. The first step was to fly to Honolulu and then on to Maui where I joined a group of young people. We ran our simple farmhouse commune along the same lines as Ellis, everyone cooperating and working. One of my chores was to rise early to milk the Holstein cow, Lani, huge as the Queen Mary, swaying across the pasture with her keiki dancing around and coming right at me holding a bucket of pineapple waste.
Tom Wallace shipped my 1967 Honda 350 to me there. The day I had a terrible fight with my boyfriend, it ended up in a gulch, and I missed a day of work.
Although I had my passport, I lost sight of China, drifting in the West beyond my grasp. Mao was dead. The Cultural Revolution was over. I returned to California.
Did Ellis Island change my life?
“Cheryl – You helped me be higher than I have been in a long time… & I love [you] for it.” – Bill Schaffner
It was years later that I completed my goal, traveled to Beijing, China, and worked at Tsinghua University in 2011 in their Communications Department called Overseas Promotion. It was perplexing to my Director that I had lived in a commune in Los Angeles in the 70s. The idea had no reference for her, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. Americans are supposed to be capitalists and think they’re better than everyone.
Ellis, the grand damme, eternally elegant and functional, a beacon of civility amongst the scrum of south Los Angeles off Adams and Hoover boulevards. She rests in my heart, a solid piece of evidence that I existed, and all these things happened, and we were there.