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The Unconventional Life of Audrey Goodfriend

The Death of an Anarchist

by ISHMAEL REED

Upon hearing of Audrey Goodfriend’s death, my partner, Carla Blank, burst into tears. I’m sure that many of those attending a standing room only memorial for Audrey, held at the Hillside Club in Berkeley on March 31st, had the same response. Audrey was named appropriately by her immigrant family. She was everybody’s good friend. Her career was multifaceted. Speakers spoke of her as an educator, co-founder of Walden School; actor, she performed with Stagebridge Theater company for over thirty-two years; movie buff, she organized a Wednesday film club, liked strong women characters; book keeper, she was bookkeeper for the legendary bookstore, Moe’s Books. Dancer. She liked the Mambo. She was also spoken of as a swimmer.

That’s how I met Audrey. I grew up in the YMCA. It was the segregated Y located in Buffalo, New York. In those days, working families who lived in the projects could drop their kids off for all day programs. I even spent weeks at a summer camp in the woods and, when my money ran out, they kept me on for an extra week, anyway.

About a decade ago, I returned to the Y. This time in Berkeley. My doctor told me that swimming was the perfect all-around exercise. He was right.

Swimming culture at the Y is divided into two categories. There are the transients, people who begin a swimming regime only to abandon it. Then there are the regulars. Dedicated. Addicted. Among them, Joanne, Wendy, Ina, Karen, and Mo. Mo brings us cakes from time to time.

Audrey was a regular and while swimming, I managed to have many conversations during which I was exposed to her quick wit and musings about life. I wish I had kept a notebook of her priceless sayings.

For example, often people will compete over who would occupy swimming lanes. It sometimes takes on the form of the old Roller Derby. Over a month ago, one swimmer collided with another and even though the offending swimmer apologized, the other swimmer started splashing water on her in anger. I looked over at Audrey and told her that one day we might have to call the police about these lane wars.

One of the speakers at the memorial recalled names that she gave to swimmers who were obnoxious. The trasher, the splasher, the washing machine. Fins. Said in jest; I never heard her express ill feeling toward anybody.

Audrey Goodfellow at the DeYoung Museum. Photo by Tennessee Reed

Audrey Goodfriend at the DeYoung Museum. Photo by Tennessee Reed.

Audrey said that a graduate thesis could be written about the lane wars. That was an example of her sense of humor. Even after having six hip replacements and declining health, her humor never faltered, and when, as an actor, she couldn’t memorize lines, she improvised.

Improvisation is what brought her to California. She and her companion bought round-trip tickets from New York to Los Angeles for $28.00 a piece. They decided to take a side trip to San Francisco and remained here. But despite the humor, Audrey was serious about her beliefs.

She was a dedicated anarchist. Her parents were anarchists from eastern Europe.

She grew up in the Sholem Aleichem Cooperative Housing, named for the great Yiddish writer, and described as a “Neo-Tudor fortress built in the 1920s and one of the first housing cooperatives.” She joined the anarchist movement when a teenager and died keeping the faith. She was fiercely dedicated to a movement that fought against the intrusion of the state. When a teenager, she hitchhiked to Toronto where she met Emma Goldman. Her ideas were formed by events like the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti. She sent supplies to the members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, among whom were Jewish Anarchists from New York who fought against the fascists in Spain. During World War II, she was a member of Why?, an Anarchist publishing collective. She appeared in the film, ”Goldman: The Anarchist Guest “(2000).

She defied convention all of her life. She never voted. Had two children out of wedlock because she didn’t believe that love had to be endorsed by the state. Last Christmas she told me that she wasn’t going to celebrate it. She celebrated birthdays though. Among Audrey’s keys to longevity was to keep in contact with friends. She said that good friends were more important than sex, but if such an opportunity came along to go for it. Other keys were to laugh with people whom you love. Love books. Keep your brain active. Read newspapers. Don’t find yourself too far from the restroom.

Another of her expressions was “why die to day when you can do it tomorrow?” Audrey postponed tomorrow for ninety-two years. Her friends said that she faced death unafraid and even took in a play at the Berkeley Rep. before coming home and laying down for the last time. They say that she stroked the dog a few times and listened to the plums falling on the roof of the house. She told Carla that when tomorrow came she wanted her ashes to be spread over the site of The Haymarket Massacre, which took place in Chicago on May 4, 1884.

During those last weeks, she told me that she was experiencing shortness of breath. I was lucky to have a final conversation with Audrey. It ended with her encouraging me to watch a series called “The Abolitionists.”

Audrey used swimming to maintain her health, twenty laps per day. She was an example to all of us who are trying to postpone that tomorrow.

One of our regulars took up a petition to have the Y name the shallow pool after Audrey. Seemed like an easy thing to do. After all they had named Grace’s pool after a Y member. On April 1st, I spoke to Marjorie Cox, Volunteer Chair, Board of Managers at the Downtown Berkeley YMCA about the result of the petition. She said that they couldn’t accommodate the request and that the Y only named places after people who made sizeable contributions. But she promised to send a letter that would include alternative ways to honor Audrey. Maybe a mention in the Y’s newsletter or a poster in the lobby.

I was really disappointed. My mind went back to the summer camp at the Michigan Avenue Y. Even though my folks couldn’t pay for an extra week at the camp, they said that I could stay on. Just wash some dishes. In those days, the Y wasn’t all about the money.

The highlight of the memorial was a poem read by one of her daughters.If you believe that the shallow pool should be named for a woman who exemplified what the Y is all about, a healthy mind and a healthy body through the discipline of exercise, someone who was a friend to all, and if you are a member of the Berkeley YMCA please call and request that this be done.

Ishmael Reed’s latest book is “Going Too Far.” He is the publisher of Konch at ishmaelreedpub.net .