The Annotated MAD MEN: Diggers, Crash Pads and Motherfuckers

The sixth season premiere of MAD MEN plunges Betty into the counterculture underworld - one partially founded by Peter Coyote. 

When you think of the counterculture in 1967, you probably think of the Summer of Love and Flower Power and hippies. Hippies were huge in 1967, a media sensation. But peace and love weren't on the minds of every counterculture figure, and a darker, angrier feeling was brewing in the streets.

In The Doorway, the season six premiere of Mad Men, Betty Francis travels to the Lower East Side - St. Mark's Place - in search of a young girl who is pretending to go to Julliard but is actually running away to join the counterculture. Betty, the immaculate 60s housewife, finds herself in a tenament building that has been converted into a filthy, creepy commune. There she finds a decidedly non-paisley young men who have been shoplifting the ingredients for a meal, and who are committed to keeping the whereabouts of that young girl a secret.

By the end of 1967 teenage runaways had reached an almost staggering level. Kids from the suburbs left their square, oppressive homes and headed in droves to counterculture meccas like San Francisco, New York City and Los Angeles. An alarmist article in the November 1967 issue of Life Magazine (almost surely a touchstone for the writing of this episode) claims that there had been an 18% increase in missing persons reports in that year, likely caused by kids skipping home.

What they found was a squalid mix of idealist living and exploitation. New York City became famous for its East Village crash pads, places where anybody could come and stay. But the high minded concept of happy communal living almost always gave way to a reality of filthy quarters, rampant drug use (while acid and pot are the romanticized drugs of the late 60s, speed was making a big splash at the time) and sexual violation. The countercultural creed of free love often meant that underage girls were communal sexual property to be used by older members of the group. 

In New York City there were two hippies who were the faces of the crash pad world. Galahad was a handsome kid who claimed to have turned down a spot on Johnny Carson, where he would have talked about communal living. Galahad gave great soundbites, and he was often in the media, being the beaming face of the hippie revolution. Also on the scene was a guy named Groovy (you just have to go with these names) whose claim to fame was to be brutally butchered with his girlfriend Linda in the basement of a crash pad tenament. At the time the official story was that Groovy was killed by a group of black kids on a bad acid trip; if you do some research into the stories of hippies who were living on the Lower East Side at the time you'll see that many of them believe it was a ritualistic black magic murder.

The spirit of the crash pads was that of cooperative living, and that was exemplified by a group called The Diggers. Founded in San Francisco by a group of anarchist theater activists that included the great actor Peter Coyote, the Diggers took their name from an English agrarian movement of the 1600s that farmed common land to escape the then-current social order. The San Francisco Diggers operated a Free Store - which is exactly as it sounds, a store where everything was free - and gave out food to anyone who wanted or needed it. They worked with local bands like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane to put on free shows. They staged exciting street theater events, like the October 1967 Death Of Hippie march, where they laid to rest the media-created idea of the hippie. The fact that Don Draper is talking about San Francisco hippies in The Doorway shows just have pervasive that image had become.

The Diggers inspired many groups, and Abbie Hoffman was hugely impacted by what they were doing*. A Free Store was opened on the Lower East Side of New York, but it never quite took off. An incredible Village Voice article from October 1967 details the tribulations of the Free Store the Diggers opened on East 10th near Avenue A:

But to some on our block, the Diggers -- flamboyant, energetic, highly visible -- are nothing but turf trouble, and last Thursday night, in a series of volleys at half-hour intervals, bricks sailed off the roof of the building across the street through the plate-glass windows of the store.

A couple of days later, I walked across the street to ask Richie and Suzi about the trouble. At first, they seemed to suspect I was a narcotics detective and were reluctant to talk. But suddenly they opened up -- in a disoriented flow of bitterness, exuberance, anger, and hope, wild swings in which the medium was not so much language as energy, all punctuated with frequent requests to "print that!"
"We're going to split, man," Suzi said. "I'm afraid someone's going to get killed in all this."

"It's just like the gangster days," Richie was saying at the same time. "The only way these Puerto Ricans will respect you is if you kick their asses."

As he worked on his dismantled motorcycle, he talked about his several encounters with the Puerto Ricans on the block. "These seven guys feel they own the street." Apparently the trouble started when "I beat the living bejesus out of their leader. They've got to get rid of us to save face." About the only thing that's kept the lid on this long is that one of the seven is wanted on a rape charge and is hiding out.

The night before the volleys of bricks, "this cat with a knife came up here saying he was going to kill us." His hand was bleeding, so they took him in, gave him a beer, bandaged his hand, and told him to "cool his head." Soon he left, but in 10 minutes he was back, claiming he'd left his leather jacket. Who swung first? Anyway, Richie speargun guided the fight out onto the street, police arrived, and to Richie's amazement, again "this cat threatened to kill us -- right in front of the cops."

"If we get out of here, those cats are going to be joyous," Suzi said. And though she'd said, just 20 minutes earlier, "we're going to split," now she seemed determined to stay.

But that reminded them of their problem -- money -- and they spoke with a great deal more bitterness. If they're disillusioned, it isn't at racial violence but at the dogged persistence of money. "Nobody cares about the store," they complained. "It's not our store, it's everybody's store" -- but "everybody" has diminished, in just a few weeks, to a small core of fewer than a dozen people.

Abbie Hoffman? -- "he ain't shit."

The communes? -- "they tell us how we ought to do things but they won't help us with the work."

Benefits? -- "500 people came to one and you know how much we got? $85."

"One cat left us make a documentary for ABC for $3000 -- do you think we're going to see any of that money?" But they were just as bitter about the day they made oatmeal instead of stew and "this spade over in the park took one bite, spit it out, and said 'this shit's oatmeal!'"

The most specific threat is the lease on the store -- the landlord wants a "responsible" person to sign. "Paul Krassner is the only motherfucker who cares," Richie said. "He offered to sign the lease for us. He even offered to pay our rent for a year. But we can't put that burden on him. We don't want to be in a position to have to say 'hey, Paul, we need this,' or 'hey, Paul, we need that'."

But the conversation kept returning to "that cat who came up here with a knife." "Death was close that night," Suzi said.

It's possible that Betty met some members of the Diggers at the St. Mark's crash pad, but I like to imagine that she actually met some Motherfuckers. The show doesn't give enough details - Zal and friends could just be generic counterculture communal living kids - but the Motherfuckers were one of the most interesting and least documented groups in the East Village at the time. Their full name was Up Against The Wall Motherfuckers, taken from LeRoi Jones' poem Black People!:

All stores will open if you say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother fucker this is a stickup!

The Motherfuckers grew out of an arts magazine called Black Mask that threw an anti-Vietnam protest called Angry Arts Week (which included unfurling a banner in St. Patrick's Cathedral during mass that had a picture of a dead Vietnamese child with "Thou Shalt Not Kill' written on it. They chose St. Pat's because New York's Cardinal Spellman had declared Vietnam 'a war for civilization'). The Motherfuckers were anarchists who hated the Flower Power movement, and they operated more like a street gang then a traditional activist group. They'd get into street brawls with other groups they disliked, like Maoists, and they'd start riots when their members were arrested. They saw Bill Graham's new nightclub Fillmore East as a co-opting of the counterculture and violently forced him into giving free shows.

The Motherfuckers also operated like the Diggers, running a free store, handing out food and maintaining a series of crash pads. They were the maniacs who, in 1967, actually forced their way into the Pentagon during an anti-war protest. In 1969 they cut the fences at Woodstock so that anyone could get into the festival. Valerie Solanas, who shot Andy Warhol, was briefly involved with the group, and was friends with lead Motherfucker Ben Morea. 

Did Betty meet the Motherfuckers? Probably not, but Ben Morea had been a jazz musician at one time. Could Zal, who intends to learn the violin, be slightly based on him? The ethics of the group Betty meets seems to line up perfectly with the Motherfuckers, who stole and rumbled but also had a sense of creating a better, more cooperative world. The Motherfuckers eventually drifted apart as the political climate changed, but they heavily influenced domestic terrorist freedom fighters The Weathermen. 

There's a great, underseen movie about exactly the world that Betty enters - Joe. It stars Peter Boyle as a factory worker who hates the counterculture and would love to kill a hippie and who teams up with a rich guy to off a few while searching for the rich guy's missing daughter (Susan Sarandon in her screen debut). It's a terrific film that truly captures the white suburban terror of the world the Diggers and the Motherfuckers were creating.



* New Year's Eve 1967 is a major event in The Doorway. While Don Draper is uptown making the same mistakes he always makes, down in the Lower East Side Abbie Hoffman, Paul Krassner and Jerry Rubin were at a party and inventing the movement that would become known as Yippie, which would be one of the defining youth movements of the next few years.