Charles Plymell on Charles Plymell–part 4
Later we moved down to the Bowery and stayed with our friends in a loft. At that time, lofts were restricted spaces for artists to work, but we managed to live there with our daughter. Pam worked downtown and we put our daughter in day care in the Lower Eastside. There were no clinics or doctors in SoHo at the time and when she had crying fits, I would soothe her with wet cloths and watch Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. Years afterward when we lived in D C area, lo and behold, Lady Aberlin from Mr. Rogers came to visit and stay overnight. She had married the poet, Seaborn Jones, from Georgia and they were on their way there. I commuted to Stamford Connecticut to teach High School. It was a well paying job, but I got an insight into compulsive state profitable monopoly rewarding non-performance enforced by police powers that I never forgot. It was a well-paying job and they waived my certification because of my graduate degree and my on-the-job experience as a printer (and they could find no one else to take such a position). It was a huge high-school complex larger than many colleges. They hired me to teach “Graphic Arts”.
The class was huge, composed of the many gangs in the great urban area thrown in the mix of compulsory education. I was to teach the ancient exacting trade of letterpress as well as the newer techniques and training of offset printing. They had plenty of machines bought with a huge budget somehow thinking that the impressive quantity of machinery would look good. It only meant more distraction to me. The training is highly technical and exacting on both letterpress and offset. Plus there were only two or three kids out of about 40 who had the slightest interest in it. It was a “shop” course designed for those not academically gifted, i.e. troublemakers. There were rival gangs in the same room and the rows of type faces became perfect lead projectiles. In the ancient printing guild, they would have been sorted exactly as to their typeface. In the other area were new offset presses, a different technology altogether. They immediately became a game of who could stick another’s hands in and crank them to the highest rpms. The power shear paper cutter was a guillotine of most dangerous application. I also had a darkroom across the hall that I was to teach the press camera process in. I saw that it was a hopeless situation and the three or so kids who were interested realized the situation as well, so I told them to learn on their own and just ask me when I wasn’t busy saving life and limb.
I had been the first printer of my life-long friend S. Clay Wilson’s cartoons. Many of his cartoons reminded me of the real composition of my class. I was lucky in that I had worked on the docks in a fairly dangerous situation with all races and kinds of people with their drugs and alcohol that prepared me to establish a workable relationship with the young students. Essentially, it was big pay for the responsibility to hold an unworkable situation together. I “proved” myself to the kids by adventures such as six of them being grouped in the darkroom smoking pot. I had to hang about a hundred meaningless keys on my belt to show authority and made up silly rules like I required no more than four (4) students in the darkroom at one time. A kid came to my desk and said he smelled something funny emanating from the darkroom. I rapped on the door. Came the reply that they were developing negatives and couldn’t open the door or they would ruin them by letting light in. I rapped again and heard the plea to wait. I began pounding and said I had the key and could open the door if they didn’t. (I would have to sort through the many keys I didn’t use that hung on my belt to find the right one.) Finally, as they turned on the fan and hid their stash, they opened the door. I turned on the light and they were paralyzed in fear that I had caught them smoking pot. I pretended I didn’t smell anything or knew anything, but in a very angry voice reprimanded them for breaking my rule! There were six in the room instead of four! I raged about the four in the room rule as we went across the hall and back to their seats. From then on, I was O.K., or the dumbest square they’d seen, but under the circumstances I got along fairly well negotiating their stupid grades more important than the course as hundreds of thousands of taxpayer monies in machinery sat idle.
There’s always a troublemaker. A black kid about seven feet tall with enormous lips hated me. Most all the kids had their own problems they worked out, but when he wasn’t causing trouble for me he went missing. I would get a call on my “police” radio that they had identified one of my students in the gym shooting baskets when he was suppose to be in my class. After about the third time he did this, I was ordered to come and get him, which I refused to do because I couldn’t leave my class. I was amazed at the “high school swat team” who returned him to my class. About six very sharply dressed men equipped with radios and who knows what else, central casting from a godfather movie, brought him back to my class telling me not to let him out again! At the end of the school year, they said I did a wonderful job and wanted to raise my pay, which was the biggest money I’d seen since I left the docks, but I politely declined. They pleaded that they would consider any of my recommendations. One suggestion was that the letterpress belonged to a guild of antiquity and a lifetime of experience and that there weren’t that many jobs for it compared to the offset press. It was something taught one-on- one and very exacting and couldn’t really be adapted to the number of kids in the course. It probably looked better to list on their brochure, and they resisted change. When asked again if I would consider coming back the next term, I wanted to blurt out “Not on your life!” but instead made the excuse that we were re-locating, which is always a polite way to terminate the job.
After returning to rural Upstate N.Y. and no jobs during the recession, I went back to teaching Graphic Arts in another well-paying job in New Jersey, which was another failure. I rented a small cottage in Bruce Springsteen country and spent my day walking near the deserted boardwalks and scenes that were to become popular again in his songs. I liked driving in the fire lanes and thought how fun it would be to race in the deserted landscape of concrete roads and sand. It would be a few years before he would sing about it, revving up my memories of making a hot rod “straight out of scratch behind a 7-11 store,” an eastern version to my western roads of youth. It was when McGovern was running against Nixon and it seemed like I was the only one supporting him. The administrators of the school were state wealth politicos of the education system and they soon realized I was not of their ilk. The students didn’t want to do anything except brag about which one’s family was best connected to the mob, the real governance of the area. One girl delighted herself (and me) by sitting exactly in my line of sight with her legs spread and her snatch exposed. It was on the Nazi end of the Prussian scale and when the loudspeaker blurted out noisy useless information just to keep the Orwellian mind control at its correct anxiety levels, I turned around and gave it the finger. One of the proper mob family students went to the authorities to inform about my behavior. Meanwhile they had gotten a copy of my semi-autobiographical collage novel published by City Lights in San Francisco and summoned me to their offices to question me on what part of it was fiction. Meanwhile, I had come down ill with walking pneumonia because I probably didn’t develop immunity to their chemical laden air, so I was happy they fired me.
After trying more jobs upstate, even applying for gravedigger for the village, we decided to sell our beautiful home and barn and four acres in the village to an artist friend of the person in the Art Dept at W.U. many years ago who had become a successful artist in NYC. It was especially difficult for me, because I had thought my creative writing might save me financially in the form of a fellowship at least and we could keep our house. After all, both of my friends, Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg were awarded one each as were several other couples and friend of friends in the hierarchy of NEA funding. We sold our house for about the figure of one fellowship; it taught me again that I should have counted on the union instead of hope government subsidy by any name. We packed up and moved to outskirts of D.C. and lived in Silver Spring, MD with our two kids and put them in better schools, we thought, than rural upstate. Since I had graduated from an institution in the area and had part-time teaching experience in area colleges it was easy for me to find part-time instructor and lecturer positions at the many colleges. One was through a faculty member at the University of Maryland who had become a Dean at Southwestern downtown D.C. whose students were foreign students. There were many Africans and Mideastern students. I got along well with the Nigerians, who couldn’t speak or write much English, but had a sense of humor I could naturally tap into. I remember a very dark ebony beauty who was from a Muslim country in Africa that was very strict with the their students who couldn’t visit their families until the four-year term was complete. I felt sorry for her and accommodated her in every way I could. She emitted such sexual energy, I couldn’t stand close to her in class discussing her writing without being embarrassed by a rise other students picked up on instantly.
A student from another strict country maybe Iraq or Iran gave me a bit of trouble in that I could see he was having all his papers written for him and brought newspapers to class with written assignment that might fit any generic in-class assignment. I didn’t particularly care that he played the game well, but by the time of the mid-term report, he came into my office and exclaimed. “Professor Plymell, I need my A” They were all after the letter “A’” in the system which it generally obscured or made the instruction more difficult. I said to him that he really hadn’t done anything in completing assignments and tried to beat the game by slipping in bogus assignments, etc., which didn’t surprise him. He calmly asked for my address to send an expensive gift. I told him all mail should go to my office and that in this country the university would consider the offer a conflict of interest or a bribe. I had learned that it was the custom with some foreign students to bring gifts to their teachers and one had knitted me a scarf during her course, so I didn’t want to offend them either. Also, it was following the Nixon-Agnew years and I could imagine him in his country over coffee reading the translated papers and concluding that bribery was the normal means of doing business here as it was elsewhere in the world. So there was the philosophical nuance as well. There was no point at getting angry with him as he described the hand-painted sets of China he wanted to give me, so I resorted to humor and asked him if he had any Persian rugs. He didn’t get my joke, but raised the argument to another level exclaiming that his folks, they will be killed if he doesn’t have his “A”. I can forever hear the special inflection of the pronunciation of their flat A’s. I resorted to the western linear argument, building the case of grades per institution, which was difficult for me because I thought the system of grading had more to do with achieving a false and highly ambiguous goal rather than an education of the subject. Anyway, his argument was cyclical, raising the pitch, desperation, and stakes each time against my linear logic, the East-West minds in action. I worked out a system with him based on his other grades and future effort to save his family and assured him we would make them safe and that it was all pretty much bullshit anyway. He was puzzled by the expression as I could see him mentally trying to translate it.