Max Finstein is a man of history, not yet recognized. He probably deserves a monument, a Finstein Memorial, erected in the memory of the 1960s, an era that Max Finstein helped invent and is now perfectly willing to bury. Aren't we all.
Around Santa Fe, a lovely adobe town still swarming with droupouts of various kinds, Max is his own memorial, known and loved by thousands. He is 56 now. He has moved out of communes and into a yellow Honda; he has gone from heroin and hash and peyote to Camels and whiskey; he has stopped writing poems and is into selling art posters.
As Max is the first to admit, times have changed -- even here, in the beautiful, bare and enormous landscape of northern New Mexico, where the '60s once found a natural home. "I mean, here we are sitting around with the country getting ready to vote for Reagan," Max said the other day, laughing heartily. "I mean, it's all some kind of TV show."
It wasn't a TV show 15 years ago, when Max was a serious apostle of a new future and still assumed that the future would work. He was the father of the commune movement in northern New Mexico, a status he acquired by founding the New Buffalo Commune, the first and longest-lived of them all.
Both Max and the New Buffalo are still in business, but both have been transformed. The story of what happened to them is a real-life parable for an age.
Finstein grew up Jewish in Boston in the 1930s, a risky proposition. He remembers an uncle who was a good boxer and, as a resident of an Irish city, also a good diplomat. Finstein's uncle fought under the name "Battling Kelly."
Max became a saxaphone player, apparently a good one, but gave it up "when the occupational disease of heroin addiction hit me." He ended up in New York, working first as a stenographer in an ad agency, eventually becoming an account executive. He chucked that in 1956 and moved to New Mexico, a dropout ahead of fashion.
In subsequent years he continued to move around, back to New York for a while, out to San Francisco from '63 to '65. That was the year he began thinking about setting up a commune. "It was sort of in the air then -- alternative lifestyles."
"So I came back to New Mexico and just started gathering people who were of a like mind," Max recalled at the bar of La Posada Hotel, sipping at Bloody Marys. "I didn't know where it would all come from, but I hoped it would come together. Then finally some young friend of mine who had been sort of a poetic protege suddenly came into some money, came out here to find me and said, 'I've got $50,000. What do you want to do?' So I said, 'Let's go buy some land.'"
They bought 103 acres of rolling hills and sagebrush outside Taos, in the shawdow of some of North America's most beautiful mountains. "We started it with about 30 adults, a bunch of children -- mostly couples . . . ." s
These were the hippy pioneers, and Max's role as founder of the place -- New Buffalo, he called it made him the Abner Doubleday of rural hippy communes. "Some people thought we named it for Buffalo, N.Y.," Max said apologetically. "But I was thinking of buffalo in the Indian sense -- the great provider."
The first communards at New Buffalo signed on for life. "It was going to be for our grandchildren," Max recalled. "Forever. But it's a hard life, you know. And especially in the early years, it really required an awful lot of everybody. It wasn't any plaything, it was like 14, 18 hours a day of work."
That original group consisted of "people who had dropped out from what they were doing. There were only two people who actually lived in New Mexico when this thing started. All the others came from either the West Coast or the East Coast -- painters who stopped painting, doctors, who stopped being doctors, people in law school who just quit -- all kinds of people like that."
First they built an adobe peublo in the shape of an L. Later barns and outbuildings were constructed. The idea was to become self-sufficient. Another idea was to hip, pastoral, and cool. This meant, among other things, drugs.
"People used acid a lot. Marijuana, of course, was just household. At New Buffalo we deliberately went into peyote. I knew that we needed some kind of a binding force, and that religion was it. I had been in the peyote church before this thing started, so we started having regular peyote meetings every two weeks -- the Indian way, in a teepee and all that. And I think it really worked. I mean it really held people together for a long time."
Well, for a year anyhow. After the first year every one of the original couples had broken up, swapped partners. "Everybody got to love each other, because we were all involved in this thing together. And so suddenly you found you didn't love your wife any more and there was somebody else you wanted."
After a year New Buffalo started to fall apart. Max decided to leave. (Others stayed and kept it alive, rightup to the presnet, in fact. More around that momentarily.) He moved on to found another commune called The Reality Construciton Company.
Max had perfect pitch in the '60s -- not musical pitch, but political-cultural pitch. New Buffalo was founded in 1966 as a pastoral commune, a place to find quiet self-sufficiency. Within a year Max sensed that times had changed.
"Instead of saying, 'Well, let's just get away from it all,' now revolution was in the air. So we started this commune. It was Anglos, Chicanos, black people and Indians. And then we started to attract all kinds of outlaws. And we were bad.
"It finally got where -- I mean, all these people were talking revolution, and nobody was planting. And then when it started getting really factional, and people started sticking knives in peoples' heads, telling them to shut up -- the Maoists and all that -- I just decided the hell with it. I'm going to Israel. If I'm going to have to fight I think I'll fight with my people. Obviously these aren't my people, man. They don't like me. I'm white. So I left. And that place collapsed.
Like the revolution.
Max did go to Israel, where he lived on a Marxist kibbutz. This is one of the many byways in his long, rich story for which there is inadequate space here. But part of that experience in Israel is relevant -- what he learned there about the difference between a well-organized, functioning commune (the kibbutz) and the hippie, New Buffalo variety:
"The kibbutz has a much more valid reason for people to be there. It's much more structured, whereas New Buffalo was completely unstructured. If you didn't feel like doing what everybody else was doing, you didn't do it. In a kibbutz you can't act like that."
Max is a small man with slightly hunched shoulder and a gray beard. He doesn't look much like a hippie now, except for the earring in his left earlobe. It's a diamond, a gift from a woman about nine years ago. "It was turquoise before that, so I moved up. I guess it's the pirate in me."
He referred proudly and more than once to the fact that New Buffalo had survived. He himself came back to it after his time in Israel and stayed for another year. "Some people left, and other people came. And there were a couple of times when it looked as though it might disappear. I remember one year all the women left because the men were so hopeless. It was down to like four people. And then suddenly a huge busload of communnards from California showed up, they put a bunch of new energy into it, and it survived." Today, Max said, New Buffalo realy is self-sufficient and is home for 14 or 15 people.
If you go up there, Max had said, ask for Pepe. So after a lovely drive up the valley between Santa Fe and Taos and a hunt along the dirt roads on the outskirts of town for the true New Buffalo, a visitor asked for Pepe, and Pepe appeared.
It was a beautiful, wintry April day. A freakish snow squall had dusted the rugged countryside with white, like powdered sugar on a spice cake. Outside the pueblo stood several cars and an ancient milk truck. There was a swing set on the edge of a field, and in the courtyard stood a small two-wheel bicycle equipped with training wheels.
Pepe Rochan, a Chicano from California and a gifted silversmith, was a friendly host. He apologized that he had no marijuana to offer. He spoke quickly, sometimes disjointedly, like a man who couldn't put the words together as smoothly as he once did. He had been in and out of New Buffalo and a lot of other communes since the late '60s -- he's 39 now, and getting bald.
The communal movement is doing fine, Pepe insisted: "I feel it's greater now than it was back in the late '60s and '70s, but it's more subtle, you don't hear so much about it." Pepe showed off his silverwork, mostly in photographs, because the originals were long since lost or stolen. He also explained what was going on at New Buffalo -- the dairy and so forth.
"Five years ago, when I was trying to perpetrate a cottage industries trip, we bought a couple of cows," Pepe recalled. Since then more cows and some goats had been added, and New Buffalo was in the milk and cheese business. Pepe said Goat John could explain the whole deal. Goat John was one of six adults living at New Buffalo, Pepe said.
Goat John said the number was seven. Why had Pepe said six? "He probably forgot to count himself," Goat John explained.
John Gaugenmaier, 28, his wife Marcy and their pretty, lively 6-year-old daughter live in two low-ceilinged, dirt-floor rooms in the pueblo around the corner of the L from Pepe. The rooms are tiny and dark, lit by skylights that were leaking the melting snow onto the floor. John has hair to his shoulder blades that he wears in a pony tail. Marcy, a handsome, slim woman, wore a wraparound leather skirt with a slit in the rear that revealed an absence of underwear. They have been at New Buffalo for 8 years. John was an unsuccessful artist in California before they came. Now he cares for four milking cows and 12 milking goats.
Goat John also thought the communal movement was doing okay. "People don't have all the same craze ideas now," he added. For example, "now people have to be allowed to own their own things, for self-motivation." No more of the communal sharing of all property.
A few minutes' conversation with John and Marcy revealed that New Buffalo today is more of a jointly run home and farm than a commune. The residents rarely eat together now. They take care of themselves. And their things. Both John and Marcy take care of themselves. And their things. Both John and Marcy were crestfallen to discover during this conversation that their glass pitcher had an ominous new crack in it.
Did they ever get back to California? John had been once, on a vacation four years ago. "That was the last time I had a day off." He liked San Francisco, particularly the restaurants.
"That's what I like to do, go out and eat," John said.
"Oh, wouldn't that be nice," Marcy added wistfully.
But there were more pressing issues, like finding several hundred dollars to buy gas for the old tractor so this year's plowing could be done. And then getting the dairy operating.
The dairy was to be New Buffalo's salvation -- a certified dairy that could produce milk year 'round was the plan. The new milking barn, its roof laden with solar panels, was nearly completed. Solar energy would help power the dairy when it was finished.
And where did the New Buffalo commune get the money to build a solar-powered milking barn?
From the federal government. The National Center for Appropriate Technology in Butte, Mont., had granted New Buffalo $10,000 for this project.
Thus ended the '60s. Not with a bang or a whimper, but with a federal grant.
Max Finstein's plans for the '80s are to make some money in the poster business. "I've gotten to that point where I really want to make some money so I can be good to my kids and say -- like parents are supposed to -- 'Here, you want to fly somewhere? Fly!" That's what I want to do now. Just make some bread."