Hippies' Free Store Not So Popular With Thugs
Not Everyone Loves You For Giving Things Away
by Ross Wetzsteon
To those of us who live on East 10th Street between First Avenue and Avenue A, the Diggers' Free Store doesn't have anything to do with the residue of capitalism or the exorcism of money. It's just the reason we see a lot more police lately, or the explanation for the huge pile of garbage in the middle of the block (officially, the store is "a commercial enterprise"), or the subject of ominous rumors (is it true they have guns? did the police tacitly agree to let the neighborhood gamblers drive them out?).
But to some on our block, the Diggers -- flamboyant, energetic, highly visible -- are nothing but turf trouble, and last Thursday night, in a series of volleys at half-hour intervals, bricks sailed off the roof of the building across the street through the plate-glass windows of the store.
A couple of days later, I walked across the street to ask Richie and Suzi about the trouble. At first, they seemed to suspect I was a narcotics detective and were reluctant to talk. But suddenly they opened up -- in a disoriented flow of bitterness, exuberance, anger, and hope, wild swings in which the medium was not so much language as energy, all punctuated with frequent requests to "print that!"
"We're going to split, man," Suzi said. "I'm afraid someone's going to get killed in all this."
"It's just like the gangster days," Richie was saying at the same time. "The only way these Puerto Ricans will respect you is if you kick their asses."
As he worked on his dismantled motorcycle, he talked about his several encounters with the Puerto Ricans on the block. "These seven guys feel they own the street." Apparently the trouble started when "I beat the living bejesus out of their leader. They've got to get rid of us to save face." About the only thing that's kept the lid on this long is that one of the seven is wanted on a rape charge and is hiding out.
The night before the volleys of bricks, "this cat with a knife came up here saying he was going to kill us." His hand was bleeding, so they took him in, gave him a beer, bandaged his hand, and told him to "cool his head." Soon he left, but in 10 minutes he was back, claiming he'd left his leather jacket. Who swung first? Anyway, Richie speargun guided the fight out onto the street, police arrived, and to Richie's amazement, again "this cat threatened to kill us -- right in front of the cops."
"If we get out of here, those cats are going to be joyous," Suzi said. And though she'd said, just 20 minutes earlier, "we're going to split," now she seemed determined to stay.
But that reminded them of their problem -- money -- and they spoke with a great deal more bitterness. If they're disillusioned, it isn't at racial violence but at the dogged persistence of money. "Nobody cares about the store," they complained. "It's not our store, it's everybody's store" -- but "everybody" has diminished, in just a few weeks, to a small core of fewer than a dozen people.
Abbie Hoffman? -- "he ain't shit."
The communes? -- "they tell us how we ought to do things but they won't help us with the work."
Benefits? -- "500 people came to one and you know how much we got? $85."
"One cat left us make a documentary for ABC for $3000 -- do you think we're going to see any of that money?" But they were just as bitter about the day they made oatmeal instead of stew and "this spade over in the park took one bite, spit it out, and said 'this shit's oatmeal!'"
The most specific threat is the lease on the store -- the landlord wants a "responsible" person to sign. "Paul Krassner is the only motherfucker who cares," Richie said. "He offered to sign the lease for us. He even offered to pay our rent for a year. But we can't put that burden on him. We don't want to be in a position to have to say 'hey, Paul, we need this,' or 'hey, Paul, we need that'."
But the conversation kept returning to "that cat who came up here with a knife." "Death was close that night," Suzi said.
On the block, everyone speculates about how long the Diggers can stick it out. Richie and Suzi seem to take both the longest and the shortest view, swinging in only minutes from exuberant optimism to exhausted pessimism.
"Since this store's opened I've seen such good and such shit," Suzi said. "I mean I've had experiences..."
After a pause she added, almost absently, "but you can't live on nothing." This might have been an interesting irony, coming from a Digger, but I had the feeling she meant more than money.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]