Phil Ochs Plays Chess (cont.)

by Martha Moffett

a copy editor's salary, I abdicated the groomed, self-assured, middle-class life I had led and was transformed into a strapped, stressed 35-year-old, barely under the wire to claim the sixties as my decade.

Luckily it was a time when everybody wore jeans to any event, there were free days at all the museums, free breakfast at school for the kids until Richard Nixon took it away, and I grew my hair long and straight down my back, mostly because I couldn't afford a good haircut. For entertainment, I could walk down Broadway and meet a friend who asked if I had heard the newest Beatles song, and we could duck into a pizza place with a jukebox and find it.

There were places I could go, alone or with a friend, that cost little more than a subway token and the price of a beer. I could hang out at Fillmore East, the Free University, or Malachy McCourt's Belles of Hell, where I could hold a glass of wine and lean against the bar, a little in everybody's way, and join the conversation. Or I could go to poetry readings to read some of my own angry poems.

It was about that time that I ran into Phil Ochs. I was spending some of that time with a young man who had recently dropped out of Yale, pleading that the feeling of elitism he experienced in New Haven was unbearable. He was waiting to hear about his application to Brandeis, which he'd heard was a radical school. A year earlier, I would have said to him, "Don't be an idiot. You're not an elitist, you're lucky. You're in the best school in the country. Turn right around and go back." Now I didn't even point out that Brandeis cost as much as Yale.

I had always been good at telling people who were not my children what to do, but during these years I stopped doing that altogether. People were inventing themselves, and nobody interfered.

When I could find a sitter, my Yalie and I would go downtown, to loft parties, to openings in SoHo for the free wine, or uptown to a jazz place near Columbia. One night we were in the Village and someone told us that Phil Ochs was playing chess at the chess club; would we like to go and watch? The club was a basement apartment, a few steps down from the sidewalk. Some patron paid the rent, and you could always find a game of Go or chess. I don't know why we wanted to watch Phil Ochs play chess, but we said yes.

No, I do know. I liked his music, but besides that, Ochs and I both had Fidel Castro for a hero. At Ohio State, after Phil said that Fidel was the greatest figure in the Western Hemisphere in the 20th century, he had to drop out of school. On my part, when I couldn't pay for the children's summer camp, I had volunteered to go to Cuba by way of Toronto and cut cane for a summer on the Isle of Pines because someone at the Free University told me that Fidel would come to the fields and cut alongside us and share a meal outdoors at the communal tables, only when I was told my kids would have to go to a separate camp, I backed out.

Phil was playing someone we didn't know, and the game was going very slowly. Onlookers sat against the wall on folding chairs; some people near the door silently came and went. Ochs was hairy and drunk; I could smell the alcohol coming off his skin. He reached out and touched one piece again and again, the Knight, I think.


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