NOTES FROM THE WORKING-CLASS: On the Road to Woodstock
You didn’t need a road map or directions to get to Woodstock. An incredible buzz traveled through the air. By some eyewitness accounts, a “half-a-million-strong” got together on Sam Yasgur’s Farm to hang out and listen to great music.
Being in the moment in 1969 meant there was no limbo—that time warp we find ourselves in every time we compulsively snap one more pic to post on Instagram. No cell phones. No social media. No internet. Time unfolded before our eyes and seemed to last longer. There was no reason to say, “I can’t believe it’s August already.”
In YONKERS Yonkers, Cookie Colangelo travels to Woodstock. Twelve, almost thirteen, she prides herself on being a cross between a gangster and a hippie. She is not without fear but has no compunction about pursuing her dreams no matter how awkward or lonely they make her feel. This adolescent girl is one tough Cookie. I love her. And I love Woodstock.
After “YONKERS Yonkers” came out, some readers assumed I was “Cookie” and I had gone to Woodstock. Then, many women told me I had written their story—that they were Cookie! Cookie’s adventures notwithstanding, I have something important to say about Woodstock, and my erstwhile years of being a rebel and a defender of liberty.
The Woodstock era inspired me to make the world a better place, more fair, more just. In the late 1970s, I was a student ombudsman in college, an activist and a student appointed by the University President to be on the Title IX committee. With the Kingston Women’s Liberation, I traveled in a beat-up, white VW Beetle to a Women’s Law conference, where I met Ruth Baider Ginsburg, who at that time was a law professor at Columbia.
I was intent on equalizing a playing field that was rigged. I stood tall for our civil liberties. If there was a protest going on, I didn’t ask questions, I just showed up the same way a 19thCentury Russian peasant would see a line forming for bread and get in the queue.
Every day I ask myself: How did we get from there to where we are now? Fifty years later, a half-a-million-strong do not gather on the street to protest brown children being stuffed into cages, or an earth that is perishing before our eyes. We find ourselves in a time and place where a gathering of a half-a-million-strong would only invite an active shooter.
Even armed with cell phones, social media, and the internet, somewhere along the road I lost my way to Woodstock. Caught up with raising three children, making ends meet, I never lost the will to fight, but all of my energy was focused on survival, trying to keep the roof over my children’s heads.
I wasn’t the only one. Somewhere along the road we all lost our way. Struggling to survive will do that to you—it’s the curse of the working classes in America. If you have to worry about affording school lunches for your kids, you can lose sight of what’s really important, like our freedom, our fundamental liberties, fairness, justice and dignity for all.
During my life when the going got tough, I worked harder. Eventually there came a time when I didn’t have to struggle so much anymore, but I am one of the lucky ones. What bothers me are the unlucky ones. Those who struggled to survive and lost their way. Instead of chanting Make Love, Not War, they feel short-shrifted. They have become Haters who chant Send her back or Go Back Where You Came From.
Cell phones, social media, and the internet are wonderful tools, but they also create intense self-absorption and hyper fragmentation. There no longer seems to be a coherent way to develop a vision among all people to make the world a humane place. The decisions made by the #GOP have caused reckless disregard for human life and have thrust America into what is essentially a national state of emergency. It breaks my heart to think there were young people at Woodstock who no longer believe in something as important as our freedom, our fundamental liberties, fairness, justice and dignity for all.
Fifty years later, I still believe in Woodstock, but every day I ask myself: How will we get back to the garden?