Jim Ross

Having negative cash flow, the Free Store couldn’t pay its rent. I learned of its eviction when a housemate announced, “The Free Store’s moving into our basement.” Within hours, a pickup truck pulled alongside our house and two women started lolling boxes into our dirt-floored, walk-in basement. After they left, I counted 32 boxes of clothing sorted by adult/child and male/female. Many weren’t even marked. I haphazardly began organizing.

Because the Free Store’s traffic had been generated when passersby dropped in, it wasn’t clear how we’d find customers. Our wood-frame, farm-style house was backed on a forest, at the bottom of a dead-end hill. Nobody ever “passed by.” To get things rolling, I picked out a few casual shirts and a ROTC uniform I thought would be eye-catching at anti-war demonstrations.

Our bi-racial commune was still formulating what we protested against and the sort of world we sought to create. Two doors up, bi-racial Pig Patrol monitored racism and the use of force by local police. Across the street, Aquarius House, with seven white members, sought to accelerate the Age of Aquarius. Most neighbors were black and lived in 1920s townhomes.

When a Black family from the South moved in next door, we saw opportunity. We estimated sizes for mama, papa, Lucy about 5, Edgar about 7, then tapped the Free Store to deliver the goods. Mama smiled broadly, ducking inside her door weighed down with boxes.

We quickly noticed that the kids wore the same outfits day after day. Lucy wore one dress until it literally fell apart. It didn’t help that Lucy appeared to be getting skinnier. One day, Edgar asked, “You got more clothes, Mister?” I led him into the basement where, together, we selected outfits for each family member.

One day, I noticed 13 boxes had disappeared from our inventory. Without conferring with anybody else, a housemate called the police, who arrived to take report. Later, Edgar cried because the police said I told them he’d stolen the 13 boxes but he told them, “Mister’s my friend, he couldna said I did it, and he couldna snitched to the po-leece either.” Edgar and I got past that, but I never quite forgave the police.

In January, we officially listed our house as a crash pad. By February, we had one or more crashers nightly. We encouraged crashers to visit the Free Store; some obliged. If crashers left behind their underpants, socks, or other garments, we washed them and added them to our inventory. In March, the sounds of crasher laughter coming from the living room caused us to conduct an experiment for one week; we took over the living room and offered our bedrooms to crashers. Women said they felt safer that way. Occasionally, we had to clarify that clothing in our bedrooms wasn’t free.

By April we had four to eight crashers nightly. During the week leading up to the Vietnam Out Now Rally, we were inundated. That trailed off during the week of widespread civil disobedience that followed. A couple of crashers left with boxes of clothing.

A week after the violent May Day demonstrations, somebody broke into our house and stole our TV and stereo system. We called the police who dutifully took a report. A week later, someone again broke in and took our toaster, blender, and other minor appliances. We didn’t bother the police. The next week someone went through our house with a fine tooth comb, taking anything else of value. By then, I’d moved into the attic, where I’d buried my camera under dirty clothes in my hamper and kept my money in an old coffee mug. Even my camera and money were stolen. Somebody really took their time or knew what they were after.

Feeling stripped to the bone, we thought there was nothing left to steal. However, two weeks later, somebody unhinged our carved oak front door and carried it off. I picked up what possessions I could carry—my black-and-white sheepskin bedspread, a bag of clothes, the ROTC uniform, a dozen LPs, my school books — and walked nearly a mile to another group house, where I crashed on the couch. A week later, I went back to fetch my manual Royal typewriter and learned that somebody had carried off two ground-floor window shutters.

I spent the summer at the new group house with six women from Trinity College—poets, dancers, activists—who had taken over the lease for the Radical Lesbian Transient House. We baked bread, wrote poetry, practiced dance as protest, and cared for our pet mice, Emma Goldman and Moussie Tung.

At summer’s end, my Trinity housemates moved back onto campus. One of the Trinity women wanted a weekend/emergency crash pad for her Trinity sisters to break the repressive cycle of hypercontrol. I needed a place to live. She and I borrowed a newborn to pose as a couple, thinking that a cooing baby effused us with credibility, even in the absence of an income stream. Our ruse failed.

Two days before the lease’s expiration, somebody broke in and stole my sheepskin, ROTC uniform, clothes, and my LPs, leaving behind only my manual Royal typewriter. Fortunately, I’d been storing my school books, papers, and some clothes in the beaten-up, red-white-and-blue VW bus I’d purchased two months before with the last of my cash.

I took to passing my nights in a sleeping bag in an urban forest. Having no way for schools to reach me put me out of work as a substitute teacher. I also lost my fellowship to Howard University. But there in my forest haven, I resonated to Dark Night of the Soul (“All ceased and I abandoned myself, leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies”) and Soul on Ice (“I seek a lasting relationship, something permanent in a world of change, in which all is transitory, ephemeral, and full of pain”). The silhouettes of leaves hanging on against the winds danced on the page. I wrote about the goings-on using my trusty Royal in the back of the bus.

About the Author

Jim Ross jumped into creative pursuits in 2015 after a rewarding career in public health research. With a graduate degree from Howard University, in six years he’s published nonfiction, poetry, and photography in over 175 journals and anthologies on five continents. Publications include 580 Split, Bombay Gin, Burningword, Camas, Columbia Journal, Hippocampus, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Kestrel, Lunch Ticket, Manchester Review, Newfound, Stonecoast, The Atlantic, and Typehouse.. Jim’s recently-published photo essays include Barren, DASH, Kestrel, Litro, New World Writing, Sweet, Typehouse, and Wordpeace. Jim has also published graphic nonfiction pieces based on old postcards, such as Barren, Ilanot Review, Palaver, and Litro. He wrote/acted in a one act play. A nonfiction piece led to appearances in a high-profile documentary limited series broadcast internationally. A nonfiction piece was recently nominated for Best of the Net. Jim and family split their time between city and mountains.