ON SEPT. 18, 1969, Jane Alpert put on a white A-line dress, kid gloves and a touch of make-up and tucked a bomb into the oversized handbag she had stolen from a department store. She rode the bus to the Federal Building in New York's Foley Square and O took the elevator to the 40th floor where the Department of the Army had its offices. A few minutes later, she left, leaving the bomb in a room full of electrical equipment.
She didn't see the bomb go off, never saw the blinding light, never heard the nerve-cracking explosion that impelled the splinters of glass, the shards of metal. She was not a witness to the violent aftermath of her handiwork. She didn't, for that matter, put the bomb together; the visions of its going off in her face interfered with her manual dexterity.
But the night she planted the bomb in the Federal Building, she and her friends assembled on the roof of a nearby building and peered through a small telescope in the direction of 26 Federal Plaza. At 2 a.m., all the lights in the building went out.
"Holy s---," someone whispered.
"Did you see that?" asked someone else.
She was, she writes, "too awed to speak," and for "a few hours that night, I wanted no more happiness."
Jane Alpert was 21 when she was arrested in 1969 for her part in a bombing conspiracy that blew large and substantial holes into six large and substantial buildings, including the Whitehall Induction Center, and the headquarters of Chase Manhattan, General Motors and the Standard Oil Corp. She was out on $20,000 bond when she was convicted of conspiring to destroy government property.
A week later she went underground, two months after Kathy Boudin and Cathy Wilkerson ran naked out of the ruins of a Greenwich Village townhouse/bomb factory and vanished into the outlaw afternoon. Like them, she had tried hard to shed her middle-class trappings. But by then, there was a harder edge to life outside the pale; the soft glow of hippie love had long ago given way to harsher coruscations that set the teeth on edge.
Now even Kathy Boudin is back, resurrected in a hail of bullets and a Brinks robbery. The political consequences of her act are lost in the question of the three dead men in her path and the awesome differences that 12 years can make. Now Jane Alpert can say, as she works resolutely at her lunch in the middle of her middle-class working day, "I don't miss that time. I'm glad it's over."
Alpert was one of the first to return, but one by one, they've come back, Bernadine Dohrn and Mark Rudd and Cathy Wilkerson, and the question is whether it was ever possible for them to change themselves the way they hoped they could, these angry, aging children who tried so hard to be born again, to replace their awkward pasts with radical innocence.
They were middle-class kids who had grown up taking mock cover from one kind of bomb, crouching beneath their desks or in the institutional hallways, envisioning the mushroom cloud. There had to be a certain satisfaction in turning the tables. It was, after all, 1969, a different time, even though it is hard now, and not a little embarrassing, to remember what it was like, remembering the eyes stinging from tear gas, the voices hoarse from shouting Ho, ho, Ho Chi Minh -- the crack of a club -- NLF is gonna win . . . how short the skirts were, how long the looks . . . remembering teach-ins and sit-ins and flags burning and draft cards burning and cities burning also . . . " 'The question now,' said Miss Dohrn, at an SDS meeting at the beginning of the year, 'is how do we become more than a campus-based antiwar movement?' " . . . the way the National Guard would line up and the young girls would put flowers in the mouths of the rifles and the young men would chant, Join Us, Join Us, Join Us . . . the way the soldiers would smile sometimes when they charged. . . . It was acknowledged that the Black Panthers carried guns. It seemed conceivable that any qualms in this directions were a bourgeois hang-up. . . . "Two, four, six, eight, organize and smash the state."
Jane Alpert was a leftist when she went underground to lead a lonely life, singing the outlaw blues with the temporary lovers in the rented rooms. She thought that her life would end there, fighting for the revolution she felt sure would come. She waited for a martyr's death.
It didn't come; she became a feminist and raged against the men whose love she thought would save her and learned to hate them with the same fury that she had once reserved for the capitalists and their crimes. Maybe her hate had been born of the moment, born of the war, but her anger had been always there, filling in the gaps of her life, making her less lonely, as she looked for the place where she would finally belong. She needed the comfort of someone to blame.
By 1974, she needed more than that. Four and a half years after she had gone underground, Jane Alpert came back, to renounce her past and serve her time.
"This is the happiest day of my life," she said the day she surrendered to the U.S. marshal in New York.
"I am," she says, "really proud of my life."
The voice is flat, the hazel eyes look steadily ahead. "I had to make some pretty drastic decisions to get to this point. But I've met a lot of people who are my age and say they haven't taken enough risks. I do not," Jane Alpert says, "have that problem."
She sits quiet and tense in the recesses of the Binibon Restaurant, on the lower East Side, near the old neighborhood. After the bombs went off, after she got caught, the headlines had called her the girl next door, and, in fact, there is a quiet decorum about her, a surface placidity that betrays nothing of what lies beneath the surface.
In the old newspaper photographs from that lost decade, she looks too tiny for the anger she is carrying, the frown she is wearing. The pale face is twisted in hate, the arm raised, the fist clenched, the body lost in the drab utilitarian clothing of pea coat and blue jeans.
Now she is wearing the armor of the workaday world -- black sweater, gray slacks, a pink shirt, her brown hair neatly coiffed, a meager smile playing on her pale lips. The anger is gone, but it's hard to know what has replaced it, now that she is living out of her time, now that she is no longer cloaked in the heroic self-image of the urban guerrilla nor living a semblance of the straight life in the shadows of the underground.
Jane Alpert looks as if she is still in disguise.
"It is impossible for me to imagine myself bombing a building now," she says. "It seems harebrained and scary and an act of misdirected rage. But it is also difficult to recreate the political climate of those times, when the standard lunch table talk was about blowing up cops." She pauses for a moment. "Some people took it more seriously than others, obviously."
It is the context, she says, that you have to remember. So much killing then, so much hate. They were not the only ones using bombs. They were not even the first. It was raining bombs in Vietnam, and it seemed only appropriate to bring the war home to the army and to the giant corporations. Besides, she says, "there were so many good people getting killed, what was the use of being nonviolent?"
Those who took it most seriously called themselves revolutionaries, talked about the struggle. They hardened their ideology in their anger, drew back from the traveling circus of the counterculture, enforced the line. Those who took it most seriously made bombs and threw them. In a season of hate and helplessness there were many who identified with them, with the Weather Underground, with the Black Panthers, with any one with one hand on the rhetoric and the other on a gun. There were those who cheered them onward, covered them in cheap romance, wove their own fantasies from their example, wove them, that is, within the limits they had set on their own rebellion.
Only a few, of course, crossed the line from fantasy to action; those who did looked, somehow ennobled, their anger fiercer, their ideals stronger. When they went underground they got stuck in time, remembered, when they were remembered at all, as political fossils. Life had moved on.
And when they emerged, one by one, it seemed almost inevitable that some of them would betray the casual fantasies that had been foisted on them, their heroism retired on the scrap heap of history, betrayed by the sometimes embarrassing ways in which they opted out of their images, designing jeans or finding Jesus or the stock market, or indulging in counterrevolutionary hysteria: "I didn't do it, he did."
She started out a middle-class Jewish kid from Forest Hills, New York. Her parents were the children of Russian immigrants, refugees from the pogroms, products of the Depression. The psychological building blocks included an adored but fallible father, a businessman with a history of false starts and failed ventures before he settled into a successful partnership in a dental equipment business with an old college friend. His failures in the business world were not quite redeemed in his daughter's eyes by his eventual success. Her mother was bright, ambitious and undemonstrative; she and her daughter didn't get along. There was a younger brother, born with multiple birth defects, and for a time she resented him for the extra attention he demanded.
At 14, she read Ayn Rand and dreamed of being a freedom rider, like those who claimed her attention on the evening news. There was a picture taken then with the family of her father's business partner and her own. "The sun is not in my eyes," she writes, in her book, "Growing Up Underground," "but I am scowling, obviously attempting to spoil the occasion for the rest. Like some congenital monster, impossible to dispose of or to love, I am fixedly ignored by both families."
There were the ordinary values and virtues pinned to the persona of a middle-class white kid growing up in the quiet, complacent '50s, progress and problems -- the good grades, the lonely adolescence, the slow burn of an unexplained anger. "My parents were very grateful for what they had. Everything was handed to us, and gratitude was expected," she says now. "There were certain things you didn't question. I remember sitting down once, during the Pledge of Allegiance, to see what would happen. Everyone was furious with me."
She went to Swarthmore when she was 16, majored in Greek, minored in muddled affairs, drank the usual draught of adolescent angst. Already, however there were signs of the chaos to come -- she got arrested at a demonstration protesting the conditions at a ghetto school in nearby Chester, a demonstration where she met Cathy Wilkerson, whom she regaled with tales of her own courage.
This is what she wrote about the moments before her first arrest: "I had stopped thinking about Franklin School, the citizens of Chester, the evils of racism and poverty. The utopian vision that had tugged at me yesterday was gone. In its place was something else, a fury that tore out of me with a life of its own, primitive as infancy. I was screaming against everyone and everything that had stood in my way -- the boys who had rejected me, the man who had fired my father when I was nine, my absent father, my mother, my brother."
There were other portents -- the friend from high school who went to Berkeley, had a baby, refused marriage and an abortion and went on welfare, the friend who went to Rome and died in a suicide pact with her lover. Random acts of meaningless violence -- the old assumptions were unraveling.
She graduated from Swarthmore in 1967, and dreamed of becoming an archeologist. Instead she took a job with Cambridge University Press and graduate courses at Columbia University and watched with nose pressed to the windowpane: life among the revolutionaries seemed to vibrate with all the energy and camaraderie that was lacking in her own.
Finally in the fall of 1968, she met Sam Melville, tall broad-shouldered Sam Melville, who dressed like a revolutionary and talked like a revolutionary, who caught her eye, dark-haired as he was, serious and intense as he appeared, as he took his place beside her at the demonstration: Heathcliff in a workshirt.
Eight days later, he called her at home, asked if he could come over. "I wanted nothing so much as to surrender to his power," she wrote of that first night, "to lie inert beneath him as he stroked and kissed me into a frenzy." In the morning, she gave him the spare keys to her apartment.
Remember boys and girls," said a character in what used to be called the underground comix, "keep a smile on your lips and a song in your heart when you go out to smash the state."
At first, they didn't talk about bombs. At first, she followed him to the lower East Side, harsh and violent and electric with energy, to a broken-down tenement flat, where the only heat came from the fireplaces and the litany of the government's oppression of the people was chanted to the light of Coleman lamps. There was an ideological problem with enriching the coffers of Con Edison. To live there in nerve-searing intensity among the dropouts and panhandlers and runaways, to the rhythm of the knife fights and speed freaks and street confrontations, to the tune of the street musicians, to the rhetoric of the times, in the jingle-jangle mornings and the apocalyptic nights where even the day-to-day became political, and the very atmosphere seemed to vibrate with the redemptive possibilities of anger.
They tried to live as a collective, Jane and Sam, and a woman named Pat and the man she calls Nate in the book, although that is not his real name. They didn't have straight jobs, there wasn't time. Alpert worked for the Rat Subterranean News, an underground newspaper that ran articles stuffed with rhetoric and recipes for Molotov cocktails -- "Yield: One pig car in flames." She was the only woman on the staff, and when she objected to automatically assuming the role of secretary, the men invented new titles for her on the mast head, "Hip Princess," "Gorilla," "Office Liberator."
In the collective, they dug the ditch between themselves and the establishment deeper and deeper. The four of them made love in most of the possible combinations, trying to break what seemed to be the bourgeois shackles of fidelity. This made her unhappy, but that, she decided, was her hang-up. Possessiveness was a capitalist emotion.
They smoked dope, dropped acid. Sometimes the drugs made the day glow, sometimes they didn't -- "Guilt and shame," Sam muttered about five hours into a particularly bad trip. "The demons of guilt and shame." They lived in nervous juxtaposition to the somewhat more visceral politics of the neighborhood, the perpetual gang wars, the looted minds of the sidewalk heroin addicts, the leering men who pinched her as she walked by the corner bodega.
All around them were the effects of the war, the government's intransigence, the seemingly overwhelming popular opposition. "There was a culminating rage that the government was not going to express the will of the people," she says. "It was as if the war gave us permission to reexamine everything we'd grown up with; it was all part of an ethos, the sex, the drugs, the politics, everything."
Somewhere along the way, a line was crossed; it is hard now to say when or where. At first the people in the collective just talked about bombs, and it was almost like a game of chicken -- no one was going to say they were bluffing, everyone assumed that the others took it seriously.
It was Sam who decided to look for a cache of explosives to steal, and who followed little green trucks from downtown blasting sites, hoping to find the dynamite's source.
It was Jane who suggested that they look under explosives in the Yellow Pages, if that's what they were looking for. Sure enough, Sam found a warehouse in the Bronx to rob. It was a piece of cake, although it bothered Jane that Sam wouldn't let her come because she was a girl. They stored the 150 sticks of dynamite and the 50 blasting caps in the refrigerator; it was the only place to keep them in the heat.
At first, she didn't think she'd heard him right.
"I planted a bomb this afternoon," he said.
He said it again. "I planted a bomb."
It wasn't the bomb itself that bothered her that late summer night in 1969. What drove her crazy was the target he'd chosen, the reason he'd chosen that day to plant it. Sam Melville hadn't decided to bomb the Marine Midland Bank because it was on the list of the corporate enemies that every good leftist knew by heart.
No, he had chosen his target because its glass and steel gleamed arrogantly in the sun, because it looked like the sort of place where the enemies of the people would be found. There was no symbolism to the timing. It was not the birthday of a revolutionary hero, not the anniversary of some corporate atrocity. He had planted the bomb that day because she had told him she was going out with another man that night.
She asked him what time it was set to go off. Eleven o'clock, he said. That meant the bomb would explode in two hours' time, when there would still be people in the building, cleaning women and late-working secretaries, their power-driven bosses. She ran to a pay phone to call the security guard to warn him, but the man on the other end of the phone heard the pleading voice, registered the fact that it was female, and didn't believe her. "I'd like to help you, lady, really I would. But I don't leave this post until midnight when I make rounds."
The bomb went off at 11, just as Sam had said it would. Twenty employes were taken to the hospital for emergency treatment, just as she had feared. Something had to be done. Someone had to take responsibility, pay attention, take heed of the consequences, to orchestrate the planting of the other bombs. To do it right.
"I sought out someone who would help me act out my fantasies," she says now. "I did certain things that he manipulated me to do, but, in the end, it led to a deeper commitment. It was easy to take the lead, after that. He didn't know what he was doing." She did, of course; she was the bright one, the hardworking overacheiver, the honors graduate whose desire for perfection hadn't changed simply because she had decided to enlist in the revolution.
"The Establishment is in for some big surprises if it thinks that kangaroo courts and death sentences can arrest a revolution. The anger of youth and all oppressed people is mounting against this mockery of justice. There's one thing the cowards that rule the world might as well know now: The will to freedom of the people is stronger than the fear of any repression. Liberty or death!" -- A note she left at one of the bombings.
"Were we happy then?" she says. "It wasn't something we thought about. The times were too frenetic to think about happiness. Besides, happiness was a bourgeois emotion."
She is walking along Avenue B toward the apartment she used to share with Sam Melville and the bright white light of an autumn afternoon appears, for the moment, to scour the misery from the littered, empty street. Only for a moment,though, before the tumbled tenements come back into focus and the sun glints on things fast and sharp and shiny. It is hard to read her expression. Her eyes are as impassive as those of the men who sit staring, not speaking, in front of corner stores with Spanish names. The graffiti on the walls merely mention the names of temporary lovers and the music of punk rock bands; there are no calls to arms, no messages to the masses, although the word "kneecapping" is there in big black letters.
There is the grocery store from which she used to steal half of their food and the dog food for their pets, Bernadette Devlin and John Keats. It was new then, and so there was a particularly piquant thrill to stealing from its freshly laden shelves, to dealing a blow to the capitalist bounty. "I got caught once," she says with a reluctant smile. "But it being the time it was, I yelled at the security guard, telling him that it was a capitalist pig establishment and he was a dupe of the system, and he shrugged and let me go."
There is the mom and pop store that sold the racist bread, or at least that's what Sam called the fresh loaves of rye she bought there after he heard what he thought was a racist comment coming from the owner. There is the laundromat she frequented, there the electrician's shop where the FBI agents watched their comings and goings those last few days before Sam and Jane were arrested, there the store that sold the little Westclox alarm clocks they liked to use in the building of their bombs.
The empty streets seemed filled with ghosts, with the dead and the missing and the living with whom there is no longer any connection but the bitter words of the last irreparable quarrel. She has been, after all, a woman of harsh conviction, and she has been known to change her mind. But no, she says, "there are no ghosts, I've really put my ghosts to rest. My ghosts," she says, "are dead." She doesn't hear the silences, not anymore. "When I first came back," she says, "it seemed eerie. But then I realized it wasn't eerie, it was just normal people leading normal lives."
Her eyes soften for a moment, and for a moment she is no longer on emotional hold. "You know, being down here makes me feel like I was pretty happy," she says softly. She is thinking about "having breakfast with Sam, looking out the window, and people, our friends, dropping by."
The day she went underground, in 1970, she boarded a train at Pennsylvania Station. The station was full of demonstrators, it rang with their camaraderie. She was in disguise, her brown hair bleached an attempted blond, a pair of tortoise-shell glasses replacing the contact lenses, a new dress from Bloomingdale's and thick pancake make-up separating her from the tattered jeans and ragtag exuberance of the protesters. She thought that they must despise her for her apparent allegiance to the other side of the cultural divide, and she felt again on the outside.
To live outside the law, you must be honest; no one ever said anything about being alone.
Over the next four years, she traveled the country, living day to day, chafed by the fierce paranoia that caused her at times to fear that the car she was traveling in through the Midwest was bugged, that the sheriff in the coffee shop in Kansas had noticed her, that the man leafing through the radical magazine in the commune in Michigan would recognize her. She depended on the kindess of strangers.
She watched friendships wear thin, crack and finally break. The Yippies in Indianapolis got angry when she overstayed her welcome. The fugitive with whom she shared a house in the depths of a snowbound New England winter got on her nerves so much she threw a bottle of molasses at her; she was scraping the sticky remains from the wall for days. The plans for revolution eroded slowly, changed into the mere hope of survival, and finally into the question of why she continued. She called herself Frances Ethel Mathews, she called herself Ellen Davis Blake, she longed for the sound of her own name.
She found jobs as a waitress, and as a medical assistant, she found temporary refuge in a rented farmhouse, a rented room. She talked on pay phones to other pay phones, she froze whenever someone, laughing, produced a camera, wanting to capture a giddy moment, to preserve the present. A terrifying idea, when the past is already preserved on a wanted poster. ("Caution," read the poster: "Alpert reportedly advocates the use of explosives and may possess firearms. Consider dangerous.")
She saw America, and the kid from New York City was astonished at her first look of the country she had become used to spelling Amerika. "The geography and the landscape dazzled me. I was seeing what had made America. The people in these isolated places seemed to live in harmony with the land," she says. "I was sipping coffee one day in the Sierra Nevada with a woman who had lived there for the last 50 years. She sat there talking about the last blizzard she had survived, and somehow, it didn't seem right to ask her about the Vietnam war. Somehow, we had missed the pulse of the country. I found that for a long time, I had been pulling in impressions and fitting them into a system of thought and I couldn't do that anymore."
She was surprised as well by the avenues of support. It wasn't from the radicals she once imagined to be her comrades in arms. "I was amazed by the overwhelming generosity of my parents and college friends, friends I had scorned for their bourgeois life styles. They helped me out of just plain human generosity and compassion, not for political reasons."
In the beginning she had hoped that someday she would be reunited with Sam Melville. He wrote her a letter once, on five squares of toilet paper: "Despite an incredible irrational bias, bourgeois science now admits the sense of smell as being the longest retained in the memory," he wrote. "In the environment in which i live, one develops the memory of a mastodon. Yes, sweet bitch, i love you. And if they ever let me out and the wind is right, i'll find you."
He never did, he died first, killed in the Attica riots of 1971. In the beginning, she cherished his memory, and wrote an introduction to a collection of his prison letters that bathed their time together in a loving light. But when she showed the essay to her feminist friends, they were horrified, pointing out to her the masochism on her part, the cruelty on his.
By then she had joined a consciousness-raising group in San Diego, and drank deeply of the warmth and support she found there. By then, she had grown apart from men. There had been lovers along the road, fellow travelers, some of them strung out on drugs and uncertainty, slipping on the glazed ice of life on the other side of the mirror. But they would fall away, in part because "the sexual intimacy was a way of letting down barriers, and that wasn't something I could afford to do. And since fugitive life was supposed to be permanent I couldn't afford to admit that it was dictating my choices. So when the Nixon administration ceased being a focus of hostility, I transferred it to men as a gender. I think," she says, "that most of the men that knew me at the time would have described me as hard to get along with."
In time, she broke with the women in the Weather Underground as well, although for years all she wanted was to be a part of their closed circle. In 1972, she met with Bernadine Dohrn in Golden Gate Park, was charmed by her "slow dazzling smile," amazed by the fiery red she had dyed her hair. She wondered if she had "wimped out" when she tried ineffectually to convert Dohrn to her brand of radical feminism as they sat one afternoon on Mount Tamalpais, Dohrn in her crocheted bikini top, acting like "some Great Mother Underground, ready to hear the prayers of all fugitive faiths."
She envied Dohrn her friendship with Cathy Wilkerson, the way they tried to protect each other from curious eyes in a public restaurant. She was intimidated by Kathy Boudin, with whom she spent a dreary day in a tenement in Boston, arguing against what she considered to be the sexism of the Weather Underground and longing for something more to eat than the plain yogurt and cucumbers to be found in the refrigerator.
She was always looking for something to be a part of; the needle of the compass swung violently enough, but it wasn't just politics that determined its direction, but the passion to belong. When she could not convince the Weatherwomen to forsake their male colleagues, she turned her back all the more vehemently on her commitment to the community that had driven her underground.
Now she was a radical feminist. She disavowed her leftist past; it was riddled with male oppressors. The shift was a violent one; in an open letter to her "sisters in the Weather Underground" she wrote, "you fast and organize and demonstrate for Attica. Don't send me news clippings about it, don't tell me how much those deaths moved you. I will mourn the loss of 42 male supremacists no longer."
In the end, she was living as Carla Weinstein, the secretary in an orthodox Jewish school in Denver, Colo., watching the Watergate hearings on TV with an addict's compulsion. Her favorite character was Jeb Stuart Magruder, whose plea "that he was misled by his patriotic ideals and by his superiors was very moving to me."
And so, she came back. "I wasn't fulfilling any political purpose," she says now. "There wasn't any place in the underground for a women's movement." She served two years in prison while the rumors swirled among the feminists and what was left of the left that she had informed on the others still on the outside, rumors she denied then, denies now.
She has a job now, writing position papers for a family-planning agency. "Part of growing up for me," she says slowly, "is learning to be content with making small changes. You have to learn to feel happy, short of revolution." She worries a little that she will lose the "vigilant skepticism" that is one of the few legacies of the period she would like to keep. She lives alone, in Greenwich Village. She has a gray and white cat named Grimalkin. She had a love affair that recently ended. She likes to swim two or three times a week, and she sees her parents once a month. She wants "family and friends, a sense of integrity, continuity. I want a feeling of where I came from and where I'm going. I'd like to write another book. I'd like to have a kid or two. I'd like to travel."
And no, she says, the sudden, violent re-emergence of Kathy Boudin did not strike as close to home as might be expected. Too much time, too much distance; she had come in from the cold a long time before, had warmed herself in front of other fires. She had released the complicated tension long ago.
"The thing I really identified with," she says, "was the deaths at Jonestown. The fact that it was a utopian community, interracial, pro-communist, I could identify with that. I could understand," Jane Alpert says with the flicker of a smile, "what drove them to look for simple solutions."