For What It’s Worth

The year was 1979. Genevieve – the nom de guerre I’m assigning to this member of our Red Balloon Collective and Poetry Conspiracy (she did after all look a bit like Genevieve Bujold) – returned trembling to our rented collective house in Port Jefferson Station from her Physics for Beginners class at SUNY Stony Brook, half-way across Long Island heading toward Montauk. “Dr. Mould said the sun will burn off all its hydrogen in 5 billion years and go dark. We are half-way to the end. What’s it all worth, then?”

Genevieve was in the throes of an existential grief as profound to her as the terror generated in younger people by today’s planetary emergencies. The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Hershey Pennsylvania was in the process of melting down; the barely fictional Hollywood film “The China Syndrome” miraculously  hit the theaters around this same time, and it revealed the lies and apocalyptic results of the nuclear corporate madness we were all experiencing. Thousands of anti- nuke protesters – Genevieve and our mutual friend Bonita among them – marched repeatedly against the horrors and immorality of those who would hold the world hostage to their techno-fantasies and lust for profits. Barron’s Weekly, that capitalist paragon, summed up their sociopathic lunacy: “In the generation of nuclear energy, manmade hazards seem unavoidable, but bankruptcy strikes us as a needless risk.”

Dr. Richard Mould, physics teacher extraordinaire, saw his goal – at least one of them – as unravelling the politics and stultified thinking hidden in the way physics was generally taught. Dr. Mould had already become the faculty advisor for the Stony Brook chapter of Students for a Democratic Society when it formed on the campus in 1966; he joined his students in their desperate fights against the war in Vietnam, for social justice especially for Black people trying to survive in America, and in trying to make sense of the existence of the universe.

Our Red Balloon Collective grew out of the wreckage of SDS and its independent caucus. Nineteen and twenty-year-olds were thrown into debates that had perplexed philosophers from time immemorial. Would people come to revolutionary consciousness on their own, or would they – and we – need what amounted to a Leninist vanguard organization to intercede and provide Aesopian “morals” – the “correct line” – to lead them? The same debate wracked the hundreds of similar collectives that were sprouting up on campuses across the country, and indeed throughout the world.

Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t a-Marching Anymore” became the Red Balloon Collective’s theme song:

It’s always the old to lead us to the wars
Always the young to fall
Now look at all we’ve won
With a sabre and a gun
Tell me is it worth it all

– and so too did the Fugs’ nihilistic song “Nothing,” which tugged in a different direction. Pretty much everything seemed irrational and absurd; but we felt it also was imperative to fight to bring the warmongers to justice.

Che Guevara famously (and wisely) said: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” Everyone had pinned that poster to their kitchen walls. Che inspired me greatly, but I also wondered about the first part of that quote: Why would it be risking ridicule to say that true revolutionaries are guided by great feelings of love? Why would we be afraid of being ridiculed? The Jefferson Airplane sang: “We are forces of chaos and anarchy / everything they say we are, we are / And we’re very proud of ourselves.”

Indeed why not embrace the Absurd, the Irrational, the Alienation, the Ridiculous? The Talking Heads made it explicit in the 80s with their album, “Stop Making Sense.” It replayed over and over again as Marja and I – we’d met at the No Easy Answers Left conference in New York City – clutched each other to keep from flying off into the cosmos as we tripped on some of the finest LSD I’d ever taken (each drop in its own organic honeycomb section), compliments of a member of the Jefferson Starship for trying to help him salvage his relationship with his then girlfriend, a member of Red Balloon.

Forty-three years later, I’m just another old white guy sitting on the subway dozing in and out of what some call reality. I wake to see several Black teenagers finding a few dollars that had fallen out of a sleeping homeless man’s pocket. I ask myself a version of the question that comes up so frequently, “Should I intervene?” or, should I wait to see if the kids themselves resolve it. The first poem in this book, “School’s Out!,” unfolds that dilemma and tells that story. Kudos to the big-hearted teens at John Dewey High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn – and to the cops for not showing up.


Raucous teens explode
onto the D train at Bay 50th
from John Dewey High School.
Half a century past
my friends and I, too, would fly wild
like that station’s pigeons
clamoring in the rafters.

Subway screeches. Steel girders sway.
A homeless man, exhausted,
reeks from urine, sleeps through the ruckus.
At his feet, a plastic dish
filled with gruel.
By its side, a dollar and change.

One teen snatches the bill
holds it high: “My lucky day!”
What to do?
I sit quietly, waiting for the world to turn.

Hey,” his chum glares,
“that’s the guy’s lunch money.”
I hold my breath. A second passes. And another.
Then, “snap” – like that, just like that,
the way Derek Jeter
fielded ground balls and threw
to first all in one motion –
consciousness stirs, decision seamless.

“Wake up!,” he says,
shakes the sleeper,
does not wake.
He stuffs the dollar and 63 cents
into the homeless guy’s pocket. It falls out,
he picks it up
stuffs it back in.
“Careful,” he warns —
“someone might steal this!”

Through the windows, story after story rattles with me across Brooklyn. The D train – the ride to Coney Island that Bob Dylan found to be so interminable in visiting Woody Guthrie in his apartment on Mermaid Avenue – bounces me back and forth between the decades and key landscapes jolting the three-quarters- of-a-century of non-stop experiences and memories.

[ photo by Mitchel Cohen removed, because of large .tiff format crashed page 5/27/2023 ]

Here is the park, a triangle across from Lafayette High School, where my dad whacked a softball over the fence. The ball continued over the train tracks and then carried over the fence across the street – a gargantuan shot. The kids in the neighborhood followed the ball’s flight with mouths agape and jaws dropping. My best friend Lloyd said it was my responsibility to tell my father that hitting the ball over the fence – to say nothing of his hitting it over the train and over the second fence across the street – was, absurd as it sounds, an automatic out by our groundrules though worth trading an out for the glory and memories-to-be!

Here is the Marlboro housing project where I grew up after we moved from Brighton Beach. Down the block I see L&B Pizza and Spumoni Gardens. And here is John Dewey High School which my dad – elected to the school board to fill the last of nine slots – fought to set up as a “magnet” school in the belief that children in the Projects and not just the elites should have access to quality education.

One day on the D train I overhear a teen from John Dewey announcing that he’d just been diagnosed with lead poisoning – epidemic among Black children in New York City. His friend responds as only a New Yorker can: “Well at least the lead will block the radiation from the bombs and power plants.” They both laugh, aware of the absurdity. Yea, dad!

 Genevieve tore herself apart over the meaninglessness of it all, as the world would be coming to an end in 5 billion years. Meanwhile, the meaninglessness in this world smacked us around as well. Having no witty words for her – we’re back in the late 1970s, remember — I slid the Buffalo Springfield record, For What It’s Worth, from its sleeve and placed the vinyl onto the turntable, careful to match up the hole with the metal spindle, and cranked up the volume. (I write about those mechanisms for my grandkids’ benefit!) Blast the darkness away with music, absurdity, bales of sarcasm, laughter, and protests!

Flash forward forty years. I was excited to discover the Pandora App on a lover’s computer. She was six years older than me, already in her mid-70s and people on the street often smiled when we’d walk by entangled in each other’s arms. “Are you dating” some would ask and I would answer, “Yes, we’re carbon dating.” Using Pandora, with no bent spindle to misalign the record (the new technologies do have some ben­efits!), I began blasting For What It’s Worth over her wireless speakers.

There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
A-telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

The moment she said “turn it down” I knew we were star-crossed lovers. Her parallel universe held no recognition of the very loud Stony Brook where our music rebounded in every corner of the campus and stitched together the multiple threads of our movements! I tried to prolong our doomed relationship until she couldn’t bear it any longer.

In googling the song I found the Wiki­pedia entry to be a revelation. I had a mistaken idea of the song’s actual origins. So I’ll offer an excerpt here:

“Although For What It’s Worth is often considered an anti-war anthem of sorts, Stephen Stills was inspired to write the song [not about Chicago 1968, which many assume, but] because of the Sunset Strip curfew riots in Los Angeles in November 1966 …

“On Saturday, November 12, 1966, fliers were distributed on the Sunset Strip inviting people to join demonstrations later that day. Several Los Angeles rock radio stations also announced a rally outside the Pandora’s Box club on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights. That evening, as many as 1,000 young demonstrators, including future celebrities Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda (who was handcuffed by police) gathered to protest against the curfew’s enforcement.

“Although the rallies began peacefully, trouble eventually broke out. The unrest continued the next night, and periodically throughout the rest of November and December, forcing some clubs to shut down within weeks. It was against the background of these civil disturbances that Stills recorded For What It’s Worth on December 5, 1966. …

“Stills said in an interview that the name of the song came about when he presented it to the record company executive Ahmet Ertegun (who signed Buffalo Springfield to the Atlantic Records’ ATCO label). Stills said: ‘I have this song here, for what it’s worth, if you want it.’”

There’s battle lines being drawn
And nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Gettin’ so much resistance from behind
It’s time we stop
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

As usual, things happen sideways – for what it’s worth. I still can’t console Genevieve’s existential despair, or definitively resolve my Collective’s political dilemma – intervene by brandishing Aesopian moral lectures, or trust in the creative human spirit to find its own way? Does doing the one damage the possibility of achieving the other? Is there a correct answer? As a child I loved the maroon-covered book of Aesop’s Fables from which my mom would read to me. I’d try to understand the “moral” of each story. These days, I remind myself of the motto from my own Zen-Marxism writings: If there’s only one answer the question is wrong.

Are stories and poems meaningful today in the face of Covid and pending nuclear war?  Bob Dylan sang: “Without freedom of speech I might be in the swamp.” Should a writer of any color or creed squander time on joyful word-plays and personal and even fanciful tales, when drivers, if Black, are systematically pulled over by police and face the crapshoot reality of summary execution with every encounter? Leonard Peltier, Mumia abu-Jamal and Julian Assange remain locked up in prison, the latter two for the hubris of publishing exposés of government violence, terror and insanity.


As little kids in Brighton Beach
little Odessa, today
we wore outfits
knit by my grandmother
that had no “Lekhereh”  —
no opening through which to pee.

It’s been 73 years
yet every time some politician today
talks about a “No Fly” zone
I remember Granny
and have to pee.


Emma Goldman – America’s infamous anarchist agitator in the late 1800s and all the way up through her death in 1940 – wrote in her autobiography Living My Life of returning to the apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that she shared with her lover Alexander Berkman. Berkman berated her for having gone to the movies with another lover. Berkman fumed, roaring, jealous. But jealousy is not cool for good anarchists, so he turned it into a political tirade against Emma, ranting that films are just bourgeois and that she’d squandered money needed for their new anarchist publication (all of 10 cents). Berkman then bummed a few dollars and went down to the local pub; he ordered a steak, again rationalizing it by saying “revolutionaries need to eat well to keep up their strength”.

Emma could have looked into the future and rejoindered with: “Instead of spending our money eating steak, maybe you should practice shooting a revolver, so next time you’ll hit the vitals when shooting capitalists like Frick (manager of Carnegie Steel in Homestead, near Pittsburgh Pennsylvana), and not just wound them.” Frick had deployed hundreds of Pinkerton thugs to kill striking workers and crush the 1892 steelworkers’ strike. Berkman spent the next 14 years in prison.

Time is not sequential. It overlaps. Twenty-year-old Emma, who had fled St. Petersberg in Russia for New York City (by way of Rochester) described the first time (1889) she met Berkman … “While the four of us were having our dinner … I suddenly heard a powerful voice call: ‘Extra-large steak! Extra cup of coffee!’ My own capital was so small and the need for economy so great that I was startled by such apparent extravagance. … I wondered who that reckless person could be and how he could afford such food. ‘Who is that glutton?’ I asked. Solataroff laughed aloud. ‘That is Alexander Berkman. He can eat for three. But he rarely has enough money for food. … I’ll introduce you.’”

“We had finished our meal and several people came to our table to talk to Solotaroff. The man of the extra- large steak was still packing it away as if he had gone hungry for weeks.” And then she relays the incident that changed her life: “Berkman remarked to me: “Johann Most is speaking tonight. Do you want to come hear him?”

“How extraordinary, I thought, that on my very first day in New York I should have the chance to behold with my own eyes and hear this fiery man whom the Rochester press used to portray as the personification of the devil, a criminal, a bloodthirsty demon! I had planned to visit Most in the office of his newspaper some time later, but that the opportunity should present itself in such an unexpected manner gave me the feeling that something wonderful was about to happen, something that would decide the whole course of my life.”

Quite the historic first date!

So when Berkman scolded Emma years later for wasting money on a movie, their whole encounter came full circle, as it began with Emma griping about Berkman spending money on his beloved steaks! “Why should one not love beauty?” Emma asked. The future Phil Ochs joins the debate: “Ah, but in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty.”

“I did not say one should not,” Berkman replied; “I said it was wrong to spend money on such things when the movement is so much in need of it. It is inconsistent for an anarchist to enjoy luxuries when people live in poverty.”

“Beautiful things are not luxuries,” Emma insisted. “They are necessaries. Life would be unbearable without them.” Yet, at heart Emma felt that Berkman was right. Revolutionists gave up even their lives – why not also beauty?


I was thinking of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman and Johann Most, whose great granddaughter was a member of the Brooklyn Greens – as I stood perplexed watching the huge line of tourists outside of Katz’s deli and its 3-inch thick pastrami sandwiches – total heart attack material. In prior years, the line wrapping all the way ’round the block and across the street would be greeted by a statue of V.I. Lenin atop a condo overlooking E. Houston St. known as Red Square, in front of a giant clock whose numbers were scrambled and spun backwards. The statue was removed a few years ago, so I guess now everyone comes to Katz’s not to visit Lenin but to practice their orgasm vocalizations — which, come to think of it, would make a fantastic Tik-Tok followup to that famous scene in Katz’s from the film When Harry Met Sally!

The cost of an apartment in the 6-story building on E. 13 St. near third avenue that replaced the apartment where Emma lived from 1903 to 1913 today rents for $5,500 per month.

Human beings make their own history, Karl Marx wrote, but they do not make it just as they choose; they do not make it under circumstances they’ve chosen freely, but under circumstances already existing that they’re born into, given and transmitted from the past. Dilemma after dilemma from yesteryear re-emerges in the fierce urgency of now. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and social conditions, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.**

So it was one day when I, having hitchhiked into the city dishevelled, hungry and craving a Lower East Side slice of Challah, stumbled into the no-longer-existing famous Jewish res­tau­rant Ratner’s, a few blocks from Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side. There was no line, and no tourists. That statue of Lenin would appear as soon as one turned off Delancey and onto the parallel Houston Street. (That’s “How-ston” in New Yorkese.) The management and waiters at Ratner’s, to say nothing of the customers, were already eyeing me with suspicion. So I innocently asked (hoping they’d give me a free slice) “How much does that Hallah cost?” (say it fast.)

Dead silence.

Historical encounters have long fingers, clawing upward through ancient dust. They embed themselves in yesterday’s hidden folds of our being. Life is as complex and as confusing today as it was generations ago – maybe more so. Human emotions are as fraught with profound uncertainties as ever. Still, humor and compassion – and Love – dare to risk the same ridicule Che fretted over as he reached across the chasm of existential fears and panic. Songs and memories arising out of the steam of social conflict and personal experiences almost 60 years ago, let alone radical anecdotes like Red Emma’s from 130 years ago, burst upon us today raising the same issues, as they are rediscovered by new social movements.

Today I revel in stories for their own sake (forgive me, Berkman!), the wordplay of poems, the unusual connections, the joy of learning about our forebears, fascinated by how such stories can explode into meaning, rage or joy, with or without moral lessons, across canyons of doubt but bridging them regardless, in this jumble of greater and lesser holocausts.

The scene: Bonnie’s Grill in Park Slope. Out of the blue, I hear the almost never publicly uttered Fugs’ song, “Nothing.” I catch my breath, look up; at the next table sits a family with three kids all being led in the song by the dad and mom.

Monday nothing, Tuesday nothing, Wednesday and Thursday nothing,

Friday for a change a little more nothing, Saturday once more nothing.

I half-recognize the dad, Steve Becker, one of the important poets in The Red Balloon Poetry Conspiracy half-a-century ago. I too have become as unrecognizable as he is. I join in singing, of course — as I said, Tuli Kupferberg’s and Ed Sanders’ musical absurdity was one of my Collective’s theme songs!

The kids look over to my table amazed that this old guy (me!) actually knows the words to the song they’d known as their own private mantra since they’d been born. When it comes to the verse, “Carlos Marx, nothing, Engels, nothing, Bakunin and Kropotkin, nothing, Leon Trotsky, lots of nothing,” we all are enthusiastically pounding the table, anticipating the next line … which we shout out just as the Red Balloon Collective had always done: “Stalin, less than nothing.” To the young ones the names we are all singing are just loony-sounding chants devoid of meaning – the way my brothers and I would “pray” before bed every night, “Shaday, Ishmoraini, Mot­zalaini, McColoroo.” What could they know of the daily insanities and struggles that dominated our existences and propelled us into some dystopian version of a shared future?

Years later, after Steve Becker had died from pancreatic cancer, I happened upon an old friend of Genevieve’s while on line to use the bathroom at a croissant cafe in New York City during the giant rally for women’s rights in 2018. Stunned and unsure, her name barely made it through my lips. “Bonita?” I stuttered. She stared at me, “Yes,” and then “Who are you?”

In 1978, Bonita had driven a few of us to West Virginia – our collective’s second trip there — to support the coal miners’ wildcat strike. Red Balloon had collected three large truckloads of food at Stony Brook and sent them to the independent groups of miners we’d met. “We don’t need no Jews or Commie food,” the union officials muttered. So we worked directly with the strikers we’d met on the previous trip who’d set up an autonomous distribution network. On this trip we distributed thousands of copies of our newspaper. The strikers’ pictures and stories in Beckley and Bluefield  leapt from those pages, for me imixing with the exciting smells of Bonita’s body as we drove all over a section of West Virginia, slept in the same bed, and hoped to change the world. The unconscious excitement of those smells more than anything else had staggered through four decades frayed but strangely intact!

One doesn’t often get the chance to touch-up the frescoes of an old romance. It took Michelangelo four years to complete the Sistine Chapel and you (I write to myself in the third-person) – poor delusional boy – think you can just say, paintbrush in hand, “oops,  missed a couple of spots!” There are reasons – there are always reasons – for why people believe what they do. I’ve met Jew-haters who attach their worldview to mistranslations of the Bible, reinforced by Michelangelo’s David. “Where are your horns,” some North Carolinians asked my parents in 1945 as my dad drove back from the war cross-country with his 19-year-old soon-to-be bride, perplexed that these Jews – the first they’d met – didn’t have horns, a mistranslation from the Aramaic of David’s “halo”. So Bonita and I tried; perhaps someday we’ll try again.

With my poetry muse (and romantacism) finally returning after a pandemic’s hiatus, I think back to Genevieve’s existential anguish regarding the coming burn-out of the sun and the trove of philosophical questions she raised. I may no longer shoot for the Aesopian moral lessons at the end of each story, but those smells from yeasteryear linger like tattered antiwar posters peeling from the crumbled walls of time’s elaborate maze. I sniff through them, clutching at one or two, pressing them to my nose, and – odors being the most elusive of our senses and yet the key to remembering – I let them unlock those memories and carry me off.

I may not have the answers, still, but along the way I have at least accumulated a helluva lot of good stories …. for what it’s worth.

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life, it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away
We better stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

*Written by Stephen Stills, performed by Buffalo Springfield

** Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

This essay is excerpted from Mitchel Cohen’s forthcoming book “The Rubber-Stamp Man: Poems & Snippets”.

Mitchel Cohen is Coordinator of the No Spray Coalition in New York City. He can be reached at: