Sally Johnson

A STORY OF WHITE PRIVILEGE ON STEROIDS … the American Dream granted to someone woefully unprepared to live it.

I immigrated to the United States in 1967.  In my first year working in Manhattan on the Miss America Pageant and other fashion shows, we watched the moon walk on a television brought in by my boss, and were evacuated from the building twice before the rioters arrived.  I woke up every morning listening to Cousin Brucie, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, only to experience the latter’s terrible loss, plus the massacre of Kent State students my age, and a long hot summer where Black people burned down their own homes and shot at firemen trying to put out the flames and don’t forget the shock of the Democratic National Convention.  We don’t have elections like that in England. 

I was 21 and two weeks old when I landed at JFK, and as soon as I stepped off the plane realized America was different from home: there was a young man standing under a NO SMOKING sign, smoking. 

In my first year, I had support and friends:  My fiancé had met me in London on his way back from Vietnam, and he took his time before telling me he had met a nurse he liked more than me before I had arrived (it only took me 18 months to immigrate under the old system.  I feel for lovers today when it can take 10 years).  In retrospect, those evenings he spent at the library were probably spent with her.  During that year, his friends from Columbia Business School looked out for me.  But after a year they successfully climbed over the student sit-ins for university integration to take their finals and then left Manhattan for the rest of their undoubtedly successful lives.

I did try to make friends.  New Yorkers are not known for that, so I joined British organizations thinking the members also would be looking for friends and would have insights into how to make the necessary adjustments to this world turned upside down.  What I found was a group of disgruntled, drunk salesmen who couldn’t wait to get out of this hell hole.  Not helpful.

My great uncle was Samuel Parkes Cadman, so I contacted some relatives I discovered living on Beekman Place.  None were interested in meeting a young English cousin who nobody had ever heard of before.

Then I tried a gym, my local bar on the Upper East Side named Friday’s (yes, the original), church, the New School, and volunteering.  My roommates were useless for intros.  Two were rich kids and were getting married.  My roommate, Libby, was also rich, and also heartbroken.  When the two left to get married, Libby announced she was going to grad. school, so I was now also homeless.

Did I mention that my entire department had just been laid off because DuPont was about to introduce Quiana fabric?  I decided to apply where I wanted to work and wandered into Conde Nast publications.  Within a week I was working, first for the Editor in Chief of House and Garden, and later for the marketing director of Vogue.  I turned down a job as one of three secretaries to Diana Vreeland, the Editor in Chief of Vogue.  I wasn’t emotionally up to that, and I knew it.

I tackled finding a home with the same blind faith.  I wanted to live somewhere old because it would feel familiar.  I wanted greenery outside my window.  I wanted something on rent control.  Ergo, off to the Village, and into the office of St. John’s Church on Waverly Place which owned an entire block of 1870’s buildings.  Yes, they had a first-floor apartment, with leaded windows overlooking the communal garden, two marble fireplaces, 16 ft. high ceilings, and lions’ claws on the bathtub.  On rent control, just, so I’d need roommates.  I signed the contract.

As I sat in the garden reading the Sunday New York Times accommodations section, I noticed a young woman nearby reading the same.  Her name was Carol, and she had a friend named Suzie, and they had just graduated from the University at Ann Arbor to be social workers.  We became roommates.

It was fun running around the West Village in bare feet; getting to know the doorman at the Village Vanguard (around the corner on 7th Avenue) so I could sit in on the last set for nothing if there was room; making friends with two Black Canadians, and having fun times at Palisades Park; seeing WOODSTOCK five times in one day and getting a contact high; partying with some Jewish friends of a friend, and taking uppers so I could dance on their bar.  But there was no joy in any of it because I was heartbroken … plus I have since learned I also have Seasonal Affective Disorder, and Homesickness Syndrome (not the type that goes away after six weeks, but the type that gets you sent home by the Peace Corps because it drags on for years.  The latest theory is that it has something to do with being hyper-sensitive to magnetic north).  There were days I couldn’t go to work for the hives on my face.  My doctor assured me my heart murmurs and palpitations were nothing.  I was fit as a fiddle.   Sure didn’t feel like it.

One day Suzie and Carol invited me to experience a different type of theater: some residents of Daytop Lodge in a play about drug addiction and recovery: Their “Saul on the Road to Damascus” conversion stories.  I was game.  Whatever.  I was a good roommate.

But it was riveting.  Afterward, the performers came around and hugged everyone.  They thanked us for coming and answered questions.  Would we like to go to Saturday Night Party?  Why not.

To my surprise Carol and Suzie were adamant.  I was not going to Daytop Lodge, I was going to a Saturday Night Party at Synanon on Riverside Drive.  They wanted to see their old friend, Ernestine Clark, who used to host the meetings at the University of Ann Arbor they went to.

Okay, one Saturday Night Party was as good as another to me.  And it was easier to get to Synanon than Daytop Lodge on Staten Island. 

Saturday, we put on our glad rags and caught the IRT uptown.  Then we hiked down some grimy streets (passed my ex’s old apartment door if I wasn’t careful) to the windy beautiful space overlooking the Hudson that is Riverside Drive.  The Synanon House was in a brownstone overlooking the river and park, with paneled walls, high ceilings, fireplaces, bow windows, and it was full to bursting with happy people.  We put out our gifts of store-bought cookies and felt suitably cheap when compared to the sandwiches, home-made cakes and pies, and general largesse on the dining room table. 

Carol and Suzie disappeared, but that wasn’t a problem.  I was surrounded by people eager to talk about why they were here and what they were doing.  No booze, no pot, no inappropriate comments, no solicitations for money.  What was the catch?  Matt said we should go to a speech in the basement.  Ah, now it’s coming.  A Philosophy by some Victorian named Emerson, a 1-year pin for a nervous young man with pimples, a joke from someone named Sid Braun who wanted volunteers to take out the trash afterward, and a speech about the Academy going on the Cubic Day at Tomales, which everyone thought was wonderful.  The money pitch must be at the orientation later.  In the meantime, Molly wanted to teach me the Hoopla after the chairs were put away.  The Hoopla wasn’t very exciting, but it was nice to stretch and move in harmony with all these people I didn’t know.  Now for the money pitch at the Orientation.  But no; to belong to this Club cost one penny a month — or whatever you could afford; you had to play the Game in order to belong; no acts or threats of physical violence permitted.  And no drinking on a day you come to the house or use of non-prescription drugs so long as you belong to the Club.

Really?  There must be a catch.  So, I visited the next Saturday night and talked to different people; and the next Saturday, and the Saturday after that.   Same membership pitch.  Speeches about a Notions building a glider in the basement of the Oakland House.  About a new school designed for the whole child in the carports in Santa Monica.  About working with the Black Panthers to feed poor people in the Bay Area.  About building a city in Marin County where things like toasters and cars were owned in common, and students only worked two weeks a month, so they had a week for personal pursuits and a week for college studies.  Synanon seemed to have creative solutions for much that I privately felt was wrong with the world.

New York was not in a good place in the late 1960s; people in Vogue’s art department and all over town were nodding out.  Rats, graffiti, dirt, and dissent were everywhere.  I had finally figured out that my friend’s “friends” were affiliated with the Jewish Mafia.  Being able to hang out at Synanon whenever I liked made all that manageable.   I was now answering the phones on Sunday afternoon and at the same time teaching spelling and vocabulary to a newcomer by playing Scrabble.  The phone didn’t ring often.  Afterward, I was always invited to dinner by the residents … usually, Liz’s homemade lasagna and salad, entertained by her two young daughters.

My first Game was memorable.  It was the first week of January; possibly a New Year’s Resolution?  It was a dark and stormy night … so stormy that only 8 people turned up, so we trooped off to the Library and were left to it.  At first, people ignored me; Steve was proud of himself for dropping 60 lbs. and he had the jeans to prove it, but no one cared because he hadn’t done something last week and left a mess; Norma didn’t know how she could pay the rent and feed her daughter; then from nowhere a large, young Black man named Curtis (an undercover security guard at Bergdorf Goodman’s) became incensed by the attitude of a white Jewish guy who wanted to be a chiropractor.  They were standing, facing off; fisticuffs seemed inevitable.  What to do?

The door exploded and magically Sidney was amongst us, demanding to know what these idiots thought they were doing; Norma quietly slipped in behind him and closed the door; a hush fell over the room; everyone was very still.  Rumors about Sid’s upbringing with Murder, Inc. members had reached me already.  We had never spoken: what could an imposter like me with an idiotic job organizing fashion photoshoots at the Kentucky Derby possibly talk about to someone as worldly and grounded as Sid?  But Sid had no trouble going around the room, speaking with uncanny insight to each one of us.  Basically, we were cowards and losers; we were desperate for free therapy or we would be warm at home watching the snowfall tonight.  I haven’t a clue what he really said to me; I was just shocked and outraged he would think such things of me, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to say that.  Then he announced he was going to finish his laundry.  We should behave or he’d personally throw us all out of his house.  The door banged behind him. 

The chiropractor and the floor walker looked vaguely embarrassed in the silence.  One had had a dreadful day at work, and the other one had been bullied at school and had vowed not to let that happen again.   They shook hands.  We talked about why we had braved a blizzard to come for genuine conversation that night, except for me, who hadn’t the foggiest idea why I had come beyond making a promise that I would attend.  We drank coffee, ate cookies, carried out the trash, walked to the subway together, and hugged farewell on the platform.  I never went to Games in storms after that; only crazy people would be there.

Skip a year … Carol and Suzie never joined or played the Game because they had both decided New York City wasn’t for them.  I put an ad. on the office bulletin board for a roommate, and Barbie Eaton applied.  She worked at Glamour down the hall.  Her fiancé had just dumped her also, and she was on anti-depressants.  She was petite, vivacious, and looked like Audrey Hepburn with a pixie cut.  We became fast friends and roommates on the understanding she would play the Game. 

A few months later the Director, Jim O’Brien, and his wife returned to the West Coast, as did Sidney and his wife.  With them went the culture of hustling for donations and keeping the Jewish parents in line; persuading parents to stop parenting their young Synanon residents while still financially supporting their reeducation took effort.

In their place came two early 20 “flies” from the Tomales Academy:  Kenny and Phyllis Elias.  Kenny was trained to be a plumber and I’m sure Phyllis was a terrific secretary-cum-organizer of anything she put her mind to.   These “flies” had been let loose on the organization to shake things up.  Synanon no longer thought smoking cured addiction; in fact, in 1970 it recognized that nicotine was addictive and ruined your lungs; hundreds of residents fled rather than quit. 

Synanon then decided that leaving after three years was a bad idea: most people relapsed.  Residents were invited to stay for as long as they liked, and live a clean, fulfilling life helping others accumulate clean man-days: the analogy of a coal miner leaving the mine to cure black lung disease was used.  No one went back to the mine after that; except the residents who fled by the hundreds. 

Somewhat oblivious to the fallout from these changes, in New York, we embraced these ideas because they showed that Synanon was an innovative place for young idealists to call home.  And Ken and Phyllis turned this tiny outpost into a real Synanon House with weekend retreats; Emerson readings; sex talks; the women’s movement arrived in our conversations; we sold raffle tickets to the Street Fairs held in San Francisco and Oakland, CA.  I volunteered to help Kenny install a darkroom in the basement one Saturday night.  There were all-night games every week which started after the Saturday Night Party ended, with breakfast at a famous deli on Fifth Avenue at 8 a.m. (I may have forgotten the restaurant’s name, but not the delicious taste of those lox and bagels).

So many people joined the Synanon Game Club in New York that Kenny opened up another night for Games — and made me the Tribe Leader.  To say I was surprised is an understatement; I was hardly charismatic or a good Game player. 

Before the first Tribe night, I spent about six hours making phone calls and talking to people in order to make the Game groups.  At the meeting, made the usual announcements and asked for a volunteer to take out the trash.  Silence.  I moved along and completed my business when Kenny walked in … he was all of 5 ft. 5 inches and would blow over in a high wind.  He was a songwriting, piano-playing, plumber-philosopher, and all of 23.  But he was the Director, and what he said, went.  He asked if it was true no one would volunteer to take out the trash.  No one said a word.  Okay, he said.  The Tribe is disbanded.  Goodnight, and don’t bother to come back next week.  Then he invited me up to his office, turned on his heel, and left. 

I was momentarily guilty and shocked, then it occurred to me that I should “act as if” this was quite normal.  I stood up, said “Good night”, and followed Kenny upstairs.

He handed me a much-appreciated mug of tea and closed the door after me.  We sat by the fire, wondering what was going on downstairs, and placed bets on whether or not the trash would be there when we went down. 

It was gone.  There was a petition signed by about 30 people on the table apologizing for not cooperating and asking to keep the Tribe.  Kenny called me later in the week to say he had received phone calls and letters asking for a reprieve.  He suggested I turn up for Game Call-offs as usual and see who came. 

I had a great Tribe after that.  The trash marched out every Game night with no problems.

It’s hard to say wherein all of this was my conversion.  There was no moment of revelation on the road to Delmonico’s for me.  I had experienced the power of Sid’s personality and wanted his power to change hearts with words.  I saw a kid plumber have the presence to bring his elders to heel by telling them the truth about cooperation and community.  I saw Barbie stop taking anti-depressants and start having fun again.  It took a while for the palpitations to stop, the hives to disappear, but I did notice that when I left a Game there were a magical few hours before the depression curtain fell again, so I played a lot of Games.  I no longer thought about trying to cadge uppers from the Mafia.  Instead, I saw the possibility of taking control of my future — and the future of America – because Nothing Less Than Changing The World Is Mickey Mouse To Me – Charles E. Dederich.  And that would happen with leadership from enlightened, energetic young people who sincerely wanted to live a better version of America than we had been given.

And then came the night where it was up to me to exercise this new-found verbal enlightenment to do and say the right thing.  We had some California “life-stylers” in the Game Club … they were non-addict “squares” who had moved into Santa Monica Synanon house, and for whatever reason had relocated to New York.  The little house on Riverside Drive didn’t have room for them, so they rented an apartment nearby and went over frequently.

My phone started ringing in my West Village apartment mid-week.  I can’t remember the details, but it was shocking gossip about them, and clearly, my Game was going to be the big-ticket item next week.  Feeling painfully unqualified to give marital advice, I decided to have some of the aforementioned Jewish parents with me and prepared my usual plea for not speaking Yiddish for more than a couple of sentences at a time.  That was the best I could do.

On the night, a couple of my friends and I and a couple of residents decided to have dinner at a Chinese place on 7th Avenue before Game call-offs.  After dinner one of my friends lit a cigarette and blew smoke over the now non-smoking residents.  That I knew I could deal with.  I reshuffled the name cards before Call Offs, and you could feel the disappointment in the room when people heard they were not in THE GAME.

The chosen few and I settled into our chairs, and after an appropriately pregnant pause, I started talking about how we were the representatives of a better way of life in New York, and when we behaved like moronic idiots, it didn’t just reflect on us, it also reflected on Synanon.  And therefore [another theatrical pause] … we don’t smoke in restaurants when we are with the residents, Jo-Jo, let alone blow smoke in their faces. 

The room erupted.  A week’s worth of virtuous indignation was released on the obvious guilty transgressor – but I could see the wife squirming in her seat having assumed the indictment was coming her way.

The conversation did move to their relationship after the initial burst of energy had exhausted itself on the smoker.  I just asked them what the hell was going on, and didn’t they have anything to say to each other.  You could see the relief in their eyes as they had a chat about whatever it was that had happened.  I think they went away feeling heard, and I don’t think we did any harm to a sticky situation.  Afterward, I saw Kenny check in with the husband to see if everything was okay.  I got no blowback, so apparently, my efforts at marriage counseling were adequate.  Phew.  Fake it until you make it.

Then came the decision from California to close the New York House.  Those Daytop players were taking away too many paying customers, and the State of New York wanted to keep their addicts at home where they could still smoke and graduate.  We petitioned.  We cried.  We wrote letters.  We scooped up the furniture and took it home.

I and about 25 others quit our jobs and made the cross-country trek that summer to sunny California.  Actually, I flew out on the 4th of July weekend.  I decided not to smoke in California, and when the captain said we were crossing the State line I offered my partial cigarette pack to the guy next to me, explaining that I was quitting.  He looked surprised and took them.  I felt exceedingly virtuous. 

One great sadness:  Barbie stayed in New York.  She didn’t believe she could use anti-depressants if she needed them in a drug-free society.  That it wasn’t a medicine-free society didn’t gibe for her.  So, she moved into a one-room apartment in the same complex and continued on at Glamour.  Later she visited me in the San Francisco facility, and we had a wonderful afternoon remembering the good old days.  And a year later when I was working at Holiday Inns International Sales Office, I earned a free 1st class trip to Hawaii and a lanai room at the Holiday Inn of Waikiki.  About that time Barbie wrote that she had earned a one-week photography assignment documenting a boy band’s trip to Hawaii.  So we went at the same time … she slept in my suite and ate my fruit basket, and I rode in her car as we trailed after the blond teenage Mormons, eating at ice cream parlors on her expense account.  It was quite hilarious.  She took a couple of stunning pictures of me, which my parents were relieved to receive.  I didn’t look like a hippie or a brainwashed cultist; perhaps I did have more of Uncle Sam Cadman in me than they had guessed?

But the laughs didn’t last.  A couple of years later, my husband, who was working night security for a month, woke me up saying that Barbie had called and needed to talk to me now.  I went to the nearest phone and for an hour I dialed her number.  Her phone was continuously busy.  I went back to bed.  I wrote asking what was up and called a couple of times in the next few days.  Nothing.  I sent a Christmas card, and it came back to me marked “deceased”.  I called the landlord, and he told me she had committed suicide by jumping onto the subway tracks – ironically under St. Vincent’s hospital where she was taken to die.   

That trek was 53 years ago last 4th of July, and I still haven’t had a cigarette in the State of California (or anywhere else).   After my husband died, I developed PTSD.  And who turned up during my treatment, demanding attention?  Barbie.  Fortunately, some of my Synanon friends remembered her so I belatedly posted a Facebook memorial to her saying that I still love her like a sister, and goodbye; and they joined in.  Writing this, here she is again.  Hi Barb.  It’s not lost on me that if I hadn’t made the trek, I easily could have ended up with you on those subway tracks.

Synanon saved many lives … desperately unhappy immigrant lifestyler squares included.

2 responses to “Sally Johnson”

  1. Gary L Williams Avatar
    Gary L Williams

    Bravo Sally. I enjoyed your writing and your story. I look forward to more of your writing.

  2. What a lovely experience it was to read that, Sally. Thank you for years of friendship and encouragement.

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