My Nights in Hippie Haven
June 1, 2006 — It all seems like a loopy and slightly depressing dream. I once lived at Ganas, the Staten Island commune where an apparently deranged former resident shot a respected longtime member this week.
I was as shocked as the next person to learn about the bloodshed among otherwise peaceful geriatric hippies, and I don’t claim to know anything about events leading to this tragedy. But I guess in a place with group marriages and “safe sex societies,” you have to be prepared for surprises.
It was 1998. I was new to the city, needed somewhere cheap to live and needed it fast. Another reporter talked up Ganas, especially the reasonable rent, friendly atmosphere and nightly buffet dinners cooked by cheerful communistas – just like dorm life, but without the pounding death metal and puking frat boys.
So I paid a visit to the collection of sprawling old houses with beautifully landscaped connecting back yards at the top of a steep hill on Corson Avenue. At the bottom was sketchy Jersey Street, with boarded-up stores and drug dealers on the corner. In comparison, lushly landscaped Ganas looked like a little slice of hippie heaven.
The houses weren’t as appealing on the inside, though. They had a vaguely institutional feel, with dark hallways and impersonal, common areas.
But they had space for me. The world’s smallest bedroom was up for grabs, right above a heavy front door. They wanted $450 a month for it, including all bills and access to the telephone down the hall.
The kitchen was stocked with cheap bulk goods – like a massive block of tasteless cheese – but the price was more than right.
The nightly dinners in the dining room were a bit bland, but at least someone else was doing the cooking. Then there was the sex. Think it’s hard keeping a relationship healthy and strong? You don’t know from sexual politics. This was a place that maintained a group marriage between two couples. And back in the 1970s, those crazy hippies tried to establish an open, free-love atmosphere, with no boundaries between willing sexual beings.
From what I heard, that experiment turned ugly, just like any other attempt at “open” relationships – check out HBO’s polygamist drama “Big Love.”
But even in my brief time, I saw some leftovers from those swinging days – in the form of a written invitation to join the commune’s own safe-sex group. I was a bit flattered – but mostly creeped out.
It was all very politically correct. Interested parties had to take an initial AIDS test, and then another one after three months, in keeping with medical advice. If you tested clean, your name would be circulated among the rest of the group, and you were free to have all the graying swingers you wanted.
I paid rent for months but actually stayed there for only couple of nights.
The place was indisputably well-run, and many of the residents were interesting foreign students or travelers wanting to rest their heels for a while. But any commune is going to attract its share of weirdos, and this place maintained a big-hearted policy of accepting everyone it could fit. Enough said.
I knew neighbors harbored dark suspicions of cult-like behavior that no amount of flower-planting and community beautification could fully erase. But every time I thought I’d finally found an example of it, the reality was a lot more boring.
Take Mildred, at the time a 70-something founder and charismatic leader – with a much younger boyfriend. At dinner, she sat in the comfiest chair, and bright-eyed devotees would take turns rubbing her feet.
Aha! Classic cult behavior! Except that it turned out Mildred had poor circulation.
I never did fill out my application for the safe sex group.