If you’ve ever wondered what living in the crazy late 1960s was like, Cinnamon Girl captures it vividly in a dramatic and engaging love story that involves family conflict, love, sex, drugs, and protest.
It is exactly 50 years ago, 1969, the summer of Woodstock, and after nearly getting his head bashed in at a demonstration on Milwaukee’s East Side, John Meyer crashes down a hillside with fellow student Tony Russo. It looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship, until John meets Tony’s wife Claire, and from then on things get complicated in a very 60s way. Tony and Claire are at odds, although their toddler, Jonah, holds them together. John is at odds with his parents and with a society that supports the war in Vietnam. He is struggling with what to do about the draft and has little direction in his life. He begins to imagine that loving Claire and Jonah might lend his life the purpose it’s lacking.
Can John, Claire, Tony, and Jonah forge a new kind of family for a new age, as John dreams of them doing, or will the weight of a world gone crazy pull them down?
Targeted Age Group:: 18-75
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Cinnamon Girl was inspired by own experiences in college in the late 1960s and by an actual relationship I had during that era. A lot has been written about the Vietnam War, but not nearly as much about what life was like for young people not involved with the war during this confusing and challenging era. All of us who did not believe in the war were confronted with the prospect of being drafted, and, if we refused to fight in the war, going to prison or emigrating to Canada. It was a painful and difficult time, but also a time of social and spiritual change. I wanted to capture all of that in my novel.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Most of the characters I created for this book were loosely based on actual people I knew in college, including members of my family. They are by no means exact replicas of those people, but their general personalities are based on those of the people I knew. Characters one invents always take on qualities of their own, too, which differentiates them from the real people. I always end up feeling great affection for the characters in my novels.
Television lights flared on behind the police line, blinding us. For a few seconds, it was eerily quiet. I heard a siren in the distance. Then they charged. Time seemed to stand still. I saw their clubs waving over their heads, but in the penumbra of TV lights it all seemed unreal, like a war movie in slow motion with the sound track cut out. Then one of the TV riggers stumbled and fell, dousing his lights, and I snapped back to reality. It was only thirty or forty policemen against 200 or so of us, but we were bareheaded and wearing jeans and sneakers and they had helmets and billy clubs and jackboots, and they meant business.
We all realized simultaneously what was happening. Somebody yelled, “let’s get the hell out of here!” and everybody ran for it. a couple of people fell, and for all I know got trampled, if not by their brothers and sisters, then by the cops. Some of the cops were yelling and had their clubs up high, ready to bring them down—happily—on a hippie head. Someone near me was foolish enough to taunt them, but I just kept running.
I headed for the bluff that overlooked lake Michigan, where the underbrush was thick around the trees. I reached the verge as a smaller guy slipped through an opening in the brush just ahead of me. We crashed down the hillside together, barely keeping our feet, branches whipping our face. at the bottom of the hill, we emerged from the vegetation at a gallop and, exhilarated by the chase, continued through the lit park and across Lincoln Drive and out onto the broad beach, collapsing on the damp sand at the water’s edge.
As we lay there on our backs, panting, unable to speak, I gave my confederate a closer inspection. he was lean and wiry and wore a black t-shirt and black jeans. he had a high forehead and a shock of black hair, pulled back in a ponytail, a roman nose, and a thick goatee. his deep-set brown eyes brimmed with mirth, even as he struggled to get his breath. Laugh lines etched their corners, although he was clearly no older than I was. When he’d caught his breath, laughter overtook him, the goatee jumping as he howled into the darkness. I stroked the anemic blonde hair on my own chin and smiled.
“Goddam cops,” he finally said. “When it comes down to it, you just can’t argue with ’em.” He turned on his side and extended his hand. “Tony Russo,” he said.
“John Meyer,” I replied.
We shook, joining palms and grasping the heels of one another’s hands.
“Most people just call me Russo,” he added, running his fingernails through his scalp, maybe combing out sand.
“Want to smoke a ‘j’?” he asked. he dug into his jeans pocket and pulled out a crushed cigarette pack.
I looked around warily, and then felt embarrassed by my caution.
“Why not,” I said. “The cops are all busy cleaning up the park.” Tony extracted a joint from the pack, but it was broken in two places.
“Shit, this is no good,” he said. “Let’s get a few hits off of these pieces, then we’ll go back to my place and do up a decent one.”
“You live nearby?”
“Brady Street. above Headroom.”
“Is that your shop?”
“Nah. I couldn’t run a business if I tried.”
He struck a match and lit a piece of the joint, taking a long, deep hit as he did, he handed the joint to me, and I took a good hit myself. It was smooth and sweet.
“Nice stuff,” I croaked, holding in the smoke.
“Yaaaah,” said Tony, breathing out luxuriously, like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland with his hookah. “I got it from my friend Jimmy. He knows some South American dudes who get the stuff from home.”
The piece was nearly burned up after two hits. Tony told me to toss it
or eat it. I popped in into my mouth, putting out the live coal with saliva, and swallowed it. Tony was already lighting the second piece.
“You have roommates on Brady?” I asked.
He smiled but couldn’t answer right away, because he was holding in a hit. He held out the piece of joint to me. I took another hit, too, drawing some of the sweet smoke up my nostrils. Tony exhaled and laughed.
“You might say I have roommates,” he said. “A wife and a kid.”
I blew out my hit. “No shit? A wife and a kid already?”
“Claire and I have been married almost two years, now, and Jonah’s six months old.”
The dope was beginning to make me feel everything in an exaggerated way. My chest ballooned with every breath of fresh lake air. My eyes were wide, taking in the sparkling lights across the bay in South Milwaukee. The sound of lapping waves was captivating.
“It freaks me out, sometimes,” said Tony. “Hey, man, watch yourself.”
I looked down at my hand, which seemed as if it was detached from my body. Then I felt the heat of the coal on my fingertips.
“You want to eat it?” I said.
“Pop it into my mouth.”
I did as he asked. It sizzled on his tongue. he chewed it up as he set about lighting the last piece of the joint.
“You meet Claire at UWM?”
“Uh-huh. You go there, too?”
“I’m an education major . . . I guess.”
“Hey, me, too. But you don’t sound too sure about it.”
“Are you sure?”
“I guess not. Seems right for now, though.”
“How about Claire?”
Tony nodded agreement as he toked on the freshly lit joint, and then handed it to me. I sucked in a small hit, then snorted a few more to fill my head with the lovely aroma. I was getting good and stoned. I handed it back to Tony.
“Let’s split,” he said.
We started walking along the beach, not saying much, just enjoying our buzz with the soft breath of a breeze off the lake and the whoosh of cars on Lincoln Drive. It was perfectly clear, stars shining through the glow of city lights. Out on the horizon, where the sky darkened above the water, stars massed like fireflies. We walked right by the Brady Street footbridge, which would have taken us more directly to Tony’s apartment, and continued on past the floodlit marina, past the old Coast Guard station with its tall white mast, devoid of flag for the night, past the duck pond lined with willows swaying sensuously.
We followed Lincoln Drive as it curved up toward downtown, then turned onto Prospect Avenue and headed back toward Brady Street. Prospect was a busy street lined with shops, apartment buildings, gas stations, and the occasional private home. It followed the bluff above the lake, but the roar of traffic shattered our meditative mood.
“That was nice stuff, Tony. Thanks for getting me high.”
“Not bad, is it? It’s a perfect night for it, too. I could get used to this kind of weather.”
We passed an old church with a half-timbered parish house attached to it. On the wall beside the house’s entrance was a carefully lettered wooden sign that said “Draft Counseling Center.” We noticed it simultaneously.
“Bummer,” said Tony.
We walked in silence for a minute under the garish yellow glow of the streetlights. Tony tugged his beard thoughtfully.
“What would you do if they drafted you?” he finally asked.
“God, I don’t know. There’s no way I’d join the army with that dumbass war going on, and I sure couldn’t deal with prison, so I guess I’d have to go to Canada. But that scares the shit out of me, too, running off someplace where I don’t know anybody, not being able to come back and see my family. I can’t see faking insanity or pretending to be a conscientious objector, the
way some guys do—there are wars I’d fight in. What about you?”
“Pretty much the same. I’d try hiding out in this country before I’d run off to Canada—maybe somewhere out West. There’s a lot of open space out there. Like the song says, ‘Any way you look at it, you lose.’”
A pall hung over us for the next few blocks. Then we turned onto Brady Street and walked silently past 1812 Overture Records, Age of Man, The Silver Shop, B.J.’s Antiques and other storefront businesses until we came to the Headroom head shop below Tony’s apartment. We peered in the window at paraphernalia, ranging from tiny alligator roach clips on beaded leather thongs to a huge, freestanding glass bong. our mood brightened immediately.
“Maybe you should get to know this guy, Tony.”
“I should. Maybe he’d give me that bong for my birthday.”
He unlocked the electric pink door next to the storefront and we entered a dark stairwell.
“The light’s busted, so watch your step.”
My moods are vulnerable to my environment, especially when I’m high, so I felt like my whole world had gone dark as we climbed the steep steps. I kept a hand on the wall, which was covered with peeling paint. Tt the top, Tony slipped his key into the door, and while I wondered how he’d managed to find the keyhole, he jiggled it until it turned, then pushed open the door.
Maybe it was just a function of standing out in the narrow, dark stair, looking into the bright expanse of the room, but the place seemed like a shining refuge in an ominous realm. In truth, it wasn’t all that bright, just a couple of lamps casting pools of yellow warmth on the shabby rug and furniture. In the far pool was a ratty green couch with a woman perched on its arm, her long bare legs crossed. She wore a short, lacey white dress, and a magazine rested on her lap. She held a cigarette in her hand and the smoke from it caught the light of a standing lamp beside her, obscuring her face. She looked like a Vogue magazine version of an impatient bride waiting for her groom. As we entered, she swung her head toward us, her long, straight, strawberry blonde hair sweeping away the smoke to reveal a lovely, pale face with green eyes and a few freckles sprinkled like cinnamon across her nose.
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