Jim O'Brien

Somerville, Massachusetts

 

 

Verbal Snapshots from Nine Years at the Free Press

I worked at the New England Free Press, usually part-time but sometimes full-time, from the Fall of 1971 to the start of 1980, then for two months in the summer of 1981 worked with Jim Barton (“Aikos”) to close it down.

When I came, the Free Press was on the fourth floor of a decaying piano-factory building on Tremont Street in the South End. (We were there till the spring of ’73, when we were urban-renewed out along with the other tenants; the Boston Redevelopment Authority paid for our move to Union Square, Somerville.)

There was an auto body shop directly below us on ground level. There was a stove and sink by the window. One day, the owner of the auto body shop charged up the stairs to complain that dishwater had landed on the head of his best customer. He was nonviolent, but from then on, we were all more careful.

 

Susanna Cobb, who became a lifelong friend from months of filling pamphlet orders during our time of overlap at the Tremont Street location, told me the story of a hippie who had wandered by the shop and picked up a copy of a pamphlet made from a book by Friedrich Engels. “This is great,” he said. “You should lean on this guy to write more stuff.”

 

When I came, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective was already in talks with Simon & Schuster to make Our Bodies, Ourselves into a commercial paperback. The most common attitude at the Free Press was: Who can afford to pay $2.95 for a book?! The cost of the newsprint edition distributed by the Free Press had started at 75 cents and gone steadily down, ending at 25 cents for individual copies and 10 cents a copy for groups that were going to give them away for free.

 

Wages were on the low side too. I remember Dan Kiefer asking at a meeting for permission to take $45 a week instead of the ceiling of $40. He’d been working there for free for nearly a year but the Unemployment benefits from his previous job had now run out.

 

A high school student from Newton, Dan Golden, worked there for a while – a fountain of whimsey. One of the first things he did was to create stickers with the slogan “Gum Up the Works” with “Gummunist Party USA” in smaller letters.

 

We had meetings. In my opinion, that was one thing we did well, both at Tremont Street and later at Union Square. We made decisions by majority vote. Two that I remember from Tremont Street were whether to adopt a kitten (we voted no) and whether to establish a policy that if the Free Press had an odd number of staff members, the majority would be women (we voted yes).

 

It was, heh heh, not uncommon to see cockroaches at the Tremont Street building. I remember moving pamphlets into the new space in Somerville, we would hold fistfuls in our hands and shake them vigorously onto the sidewalk before moving them in. For the most part, the shakeout wasn’t needed: our roach friends appeared to abandon their pamphlet homes when they saw us packing up.

 

The new space in Union Square had once been a bank, and there were vaults on the first floor and in the basement, both used for extra copies of our pamphlets. We never felt a need to lock the vaults. Above us on the second floor was the office of a major Somerville landlord. He was the Number One target of the Somerville Tenants Union (which stored its giant papier-maché rat in a space above our front door), but okay for us. We even got our security deposit back at the end, against all odds.

 

Back in ’71-72 it wasn’t only Our Bodies, Ourselves that was priced for free distribution. A lot of the women’s liberation pamphlets, with prices of 5 or 10 cents, were ordered in bulk by activist groups. I remember once trying to calculate the weight of 100 copies each of various pamphlets, so we wouldn’t have to count them one by one in filling orders. That was changing by the time we moved to Somerville. Paper was getting more expensive, we were paying ourselves slightly more, we started taking more pride in the appearance of our pamphlets, and at the other end there wasn’t as much need for basic consciousness-raising literature. By the late ‘70s the main use of our pamphlets was as supplementary reading in college courses.

 

More of our work was “job printing”–not our own pamphlets but posters, flyers, booklets, etc. for other movement organizations or at least for nonprofit groups and agencies. Even though our pamphlet sales were plummeting, we still felt like a resource for the groups whose projects we gave printed form to.

 

We also started printing more poetry, most of which came to us through John Crawford of West End Press and Ed Hogan, a tireless young Somerville native who later died tragically when his canoe tipped over in an ice-cold Maine lake. One poem I remember that we were especially excited about printing was called “Lot’s Wife” by Kristine Batey, in a little magazine called Jam Today:

 

While Lot, the conscience of a nation,

struggles with the Lord,

she struggles with the housework.

The City of Sin is where

she raises the children.

Ba'al or Adonai--

Whoever is God--

the bread must still be made

and the doorsill swept.

The Lord may kill the children tomorrow,

but today they must be bathed and fed.

Well and good to condemn your neighbors' religion,

but weren't they there

when the baby was born,

and when the well collapsed?

While her husband communes with God,

she tucks the children into bed.

In the morning, when he tells her of the judgment,

[that is, God's decision to destroy the city]

she puts down the lamp she is cleaning

and calmly begins to pack.

In between bundling up the children

and deciding what will go,

she runs for a moment

to say goodbye to the herd,

gently patting each soft head

with tears in her eyes for the animals that will not understand.

She smiles blindly to the woman

who held her hand at childbed.

It is easy for eyes that have always turned to heaven

not to look back;

those who have been--by necessity--drawn to earth

cannot forget that life is lived from day to day.

Good, to a God, and good in human terms

are two different things.

On the breast of the hill, she chooses to be human,

and turns, in farewell--

and never regrets

the sacrifice.

 

Having access to equipment that we could use for our own projects was an advantage. My own favorite memory of that time is of typesetting and then printing a collection of my mother’s poems.

 

With one exception, during my time at the press we never took on anyone who already had printing skills. They could make more money elsewhere, and the Free Press offered a chance to learn on the job. Some learned better than others (I was at the klutzy end of the spectrum), but it was part of our democratic ethos. There was a gender difference in regard to printing skills, but not the one that an outsider might expect: at least during the years in Union Square, the best press operator at any given time was always a woman.

 

At the end, when Aikos and I took responsibility for shutting down the operation, it was clear how much had changed since the old days. What we had that was valuable was the printing equipment. We semi-auctioned it off to other alternative presses in New England. The “semi” reflects the fact that in each case, when the price reached what we considered a reasonable level, we cut off the bidding and made a decision based on who could make better use of the item. On the other hand, we couldn’t find anyone to take over distribution of any significant number of our pamphlets. No group was doing what the Free Press had done in its heyday: making radical literature on a breathtaking range of topics (and range of viewpoints) available to a waiting movement.

Epilogue: Nothing stays the same. One evening in the spring of 2014 I went back to our old building on Tremont Street for the first time since we moved forty-one years earlier. I was there to see a couple of one-act plays in the small theater space that was part of the building do-over. Afterwards I went with a Somerville friend, whom I’d run into at the play, to a restaurant-bar in Union Square a few doors from the Free Press’s other old building. I was struck by the coincidence. That night when I got home I found an email message from the partner of Jill Goldstein, a pillar of the Free Press in the mid-70s and a lifelong friend, telling me that Jill had lost her battle with cancer.