“If I’d known she’d tried to kill him, I might have sat at the counter instead of at one of her tables. But I hadn’t known, and I did sit at her table.”—William A. Balk, Jr.
By William A. Balk, Jr.
ELKO South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—June 2018—If I’d known she’d tried to kill him, I might have sat at the counter instead of at one of her tables. But I hadn’t known, and I did sit at her table, and—as it seems to happen sometimes in my long and convoluted life—my server and I would become friends of a sort over the next several months.
The restaurant occupied the street level of an old building on Connecticut Avenue, just two or three blocks above Dupont Circle. It was a vegetarian restaurant with a clientele drawn mostly from the Washington post-hippy, counter-culture, political activist neighborhood. We all were in the same barely-scraping-by straits in those pre-vegan days, and when customers would find themselves a bit short of funds, the restaurant would provide a meal in return for waiting tables, preparing food, or bussing.
The walls beside the entry from the street were always covered with posters and signs and notices, with want ads and offers of items for sale and rooms to share. We would check there for news about the next political demonstration or an upcoming meeting of the Gay Liberation Front or the regular Wimmen Fighting Back gathering. The Radical Film Collective would often announce the world premiere of their latest documentary, to be shown in the parlor of one of the once-grand Dupont Circle mansions currently occupied by one commune or another. One dollar donation requested.
Stone Soup, it was called, to honor the tradition of feeding a community well from a meager pot.
I had only just begun a new job, and since my bi-weekly paycheck wouldn’t come for another week, I had not eaten at Stone Soup for more than a fortnight, carefully husbanding my shrunken resources. I decided I could splurge for a sandwich at lunch, so I walked the couple of blocks from the Community Bookshop on P Street, checked out the posters and announcements at the entrance, and found a table.
It was not a particularly busy day in the restaurant; only a few tables were occupied, and the lone server was new. She made her way to my table and asked what I would like. Her manner was direct, but not curt, and she quickly took my order and left the table. There was, mercifully, none of the now ubiquitous, “Hi! My name is Trish, and I will be your server” rigamarole. The same businesslike, no nonsense manner prevailed when she brought my order. When I got up to pay my check at the counter, I left a tip—something that I knew not all the diners there faithfully did, and which I knew many of the servers depended on for survival.
At the register, I asked the new server’s name. “That’s Valerie. She just got here from New York.” As I left, I thanked Valerie and welcomed her to DC. She nodded in acceptance.
The next few times I ate at Stone Soup, Valerie was not my server, but I made a point of saying hello, and she would respond briefly. She seemed self-sufficient, not really interested in socializing, and I never saw her spending time with anyone in the neighborhood.
A week later, flush with the proceeds from my new paycheck, I sat eating my salad and sandwich as Valerie came over and stood next to the table.
“You’re at that bookstore?”
“I am,” I replied. “You should come by sometime.”
“I’m writing a book. You’ll have to sell it there.”
“Sure,” I said. “We have lots of books and chapbooks and pamphlets that our friends have written. Are you going to print it yourself?”
Valerie scowled, then looked up and declared, “I’ve just started it. It’s not ready yet. I’m not new to this, you know!” She turned and walked off.
As I paid my check at the register, I asked again about Valerie. “Well . . . she just got out of prison a short while ago in New York. She’s sick of the scene in the city, and she’s here in DC for a while to get away from New York and the Village.”
As I made my way to the door, I passed Valerie again. I stopped and suggested she come by the bookstore and check us out. “We’ll be happy to put your book on the shelf when it’s ready,” I said.
“Do you know what the book will be about, yet?” I asked.
“Me,” she said. “It’s my life story—told the true way!” She turned and went back to work.
Whether a book was in the works or not, I was certain that there was a story to be told. The telling might take a while, but I am a patient listener. I determined to do that listening if Valerie ever felt comfortable enough to talk.
She never did visit the bookstore, so I made a point of sitting in her section whenever I ate at Stone Soup. The first few times, our exchanges were the usual back and forth between server and guest. I didn’t try to ask any further about her book or her life, and I always left her a tip.
One day, after I had visited at the table of several lesbian friends, radical feminist organizers of some notoriety in the community, I sat at my usual table and Valerie came to take my order. When she brought my lunch, Valerie said, “You know them,” tilting her head toward the table I’d just left. It wasn’t a question.
I nodded, and she went back to waiting on other tables. When she came back, she told me I needed to give her 25 dollars because she had to make a quick trip to New York. That was a considerable amount for me at the time, but I agreed and handed her the cash. She pocketed it and went about serving customers.
I did understand that this was not a loan; that I was expected to give her the money she needed. I also understood that it was not a “kindness” or a tip or charity. She needed it, and I had it, it was understood.
It was almost a surprise that Valerie was back waiting tables within the week, so I welcomed her back. She nodded in reply and took my order. This time, when she returned with my soup and salad, she sat down across the table from me. “Look,” she said. “I’ve got to get back to the city. I’ve got too much important work to finish, and DC is driving me crazy—it’s so boring. I’ll show you something. Stay here, don’t leave.”
She jumped up, continued serving her other tables until most of the restaurant was empty, and then returned to sit down across from me, looking sternly into my face.
“You need to buy this.” She was holding some sort of manuscript: multiple mimeographed pages stapled together, well-used and creased, with a few smears of ink on the title page. “I’ve gotta have 30 dollars.”
My look of surprise must have touched a nerve. She glowered at me. “You have no idea! This is priceless! There are only three or four left—of this one, I mean. That ridiculous version fucking Olympia did is worthless and total bullshit. This is the real thing, damn it! And I’m going to fucking show them all. I’m going back to the city and I’m going to publish this CORRECT version and get rid of that goddamn Olympia piece of shit!”
I had managed to get a glimpse of the cover of the manuscript during Valerie’s outburst. Among other words there, I clearly saw the capital letters “…SCUM…”
Suddenly, I understood everything.
Valerie was still ranting. “Jeez! I used to sell these for a dollar. Oh, shit! You’re a fucking man. It was two fifty. Two dollars and fifty fucking cents! And fucking Maurice ripped me off with nothing so he could turn it into a travesty and rake the money in. Fuck him!”
“Valerie,” I said, leaning across to her. “I’ve got 40 bucks. I’ll leave six dollars for lunch. The rest is for you to get back to New York. I’ve long ago read your Manifesto in Sisterhood Is Powerful. I worked with Robin Morgan’s husband a couple of years ago on a feminist project, and I have read Ti-Grace’s work repeatedly. Hold on to these last original copies of your Manifesto.”
I stood up, turning to go pay for my lunch, leaving several bills on the table. “Truthfully, it is an honor to have known you.” By the time I reached the cash register, she had pocketed the cash and cleared the table.
I never saw her again.
The manuscript which I recognized in Valerie’s hands was titled: “Presentation of SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men).”
In 1967, some five years before I met her in Washington, Valerie Solanis had been living in Greenwich Village, writing, acting, hustling, getting by on the streets. She had written a play, “Up Your Ass,” and had convinced Andy Warhol to read the play and consider producing it. She had also composed a lengthy diatribe, which she called her SCUM Manifesto, detailing the many transgressions of the male sex throughout history and proposing various solutions to the male problem.
When Valerie returned to Warhol, expecting her play to be produced, she instead was told that it was missing; had been lost. She was infuriated, and decided that Warhol had stolen the manuscript for his own benefit; that he owed her for the manuscript. Eventually, she accepted a small role in a Warhol film for $25.00.
Valerie had self-published her mimeographed SCUM Manifesto and sold copies for a dollar each to women. To men, the price was two and a half dollars. The first sentence of the manifesto read,
“Life” in this “society” being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of “society” being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.
It was in 1968 that I first heard of Valerie Solanis and the SCUM Manifesto. Newspapers all over the world reported breathlessly about a woman who had gone to The Factory, Andy Warhol’s studio building in Soho, and shot Andy Warhol and one other person, then turned herself in to the police. Warhol was severely wounded; he and the other victim survived.
All the news stories gleefully reported that the shooter was part of a radical women’s group called the Society For Cutting Up Men (there was no such organization) which had a manifesto calling for the elimination of men. The manifesto had managed to be both radical and parodic, and it fit perfectly into the sensational story of Warhol’s shooting.
Much of the press focus on the manifesto had come from the publisher, Olympia Press, which had paid Solanis to republish her original manifesto. Maurice Girodias, the press’s owner, had made some changes to the text— “ruined it,” according to Solanis.
The SCUM Manifesto had a number of champions, especially after the attempt on Warhol’s life had made it—and Solanis—famous. The writer Norman Mailer compared her to Robespierre. Ti-Grace Atkinson and Florynce Kennedy of NOW praised Solanis as a feminist heroine, and Florynce Kennedy acted as her attorney during several phases of her trial. (Kennedy was also a witness at my own anti-war trial in Columbia, SC, in 1970, and Mr. Mailer came to speak at the coffeehouse we ran.)
Valerie Solanis had become famous overnight. The court first confined her to mental institutions, then convicted her and sent her to prison for two years. She was finally released in 1971, still struggling to make her way in New York. It was after getting in trouble several more times there that she decided to try living in Washington, DC.
Valerie had graduated from the University of Maryland years before; perhaps that connection is what brought her back to the area. Unfortunately, as she told me, Washington couldn’t provide the intensity she craved in New York, so she returned there for several more years. She died in San Francisco in 1988.