Getting from There to Here
May 1971—Cranking down the window in Herby, my leaf-green Volkswagen Bug, isn’t even an option, between the fumes of lumbering diesel trucks and the putrid air of north Jersey refineries. Besides, the rumbling road noise would drown out Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” wafting out the dashboard speaker. These lyrics—riding their sweet, rich, melancholic tune—stir me. They speak to the way I feel about the status quo of the materialistic society I grew up in, about the ease of not speaking out, of ignoring cries of frustration expressed on subway walls and in tenement halls. These lyrics make me wonder where Reality lies. They make me a part of a generation that is looking for answers, some in the activism that leads to politics and some in the quiet inner depths of our beings.
The mournful melody coupled with foul fumes reflects my mood. Just look at me, a hypocrite. I want to feel close to God but then go back and forth between sex and drugs. Is that the way to get close to God, with no control?
I can’t even resist piling donuts on my plate in the campus cafeteria. It’s like I’m being tempted, but no one is there to tell me not to be a glutton. Whenever I give them up, they show up back on my plate. I seem to be all at loose ends, like there’s no one in charge. Is it “free love” to sleep with Jack at school, or am I being unfaithful to Carlos while he’s in Vietnam? I don’t like getting stoned, but I still do it. I see these inconsistencies but can’t seem to do anything about them.
I go to church with my parents when I’m at home but not when I’m at school, yet I love God. The Episcopal church I grew up in was part of my life, the pastor a friend of our family. One of the ladies I’d talk to at coffee hour got me thinking about finding kindred spirits. She seemed so real to me, so familiar. Now I look for “real people” like her.
I pull out into the passing lane and stomp down on the gas, inching past a sixteen- wheeler, one with a capped diesel pipe poking up by the cab. I stick my arm out the window and pump it up and down. He blows his horn and a puff of acrid black smoke billows out from the pipe. I quickly crank the window up.
Do I love Carlos? I thought so before he left for Nam. My first electric love, short and compact with dark curly hair, wearing wire-rims like me. His free-flowing drawings and flair for guitar and songwriting made my heart beat fast all through my senior year of high school.
Once on the George Washington Bridge, I roll the window down a couple turns to blow stale fumes out. A passing seagull’s harsh cry and a barge’s low lament float up from the water. I know Carlos really likes me, but I have no desire to get married right away. I want to live first. I figure if Carlos and I get serious, we could still be engaged for a few years before getting married.
Traffic on the bridge is light. I gaze upstream past the barren cliffs and gathering stands of blushing spring trees. Carlos surprised me with a visit last summer. I was upstate helping Grandma at her historic home, Fish House, which was built in 1784 after being burnt to the ground during the Revolutionary War.
When my grandparents bought it, the house came with horsehair furniture still in the double room parlor with pocket doors, a room with a deep fireplace including a big iron pot that swung over the fire, and a root cellar with a trap door leading down to it. My grandfather had found his and grandma’s dream retirement home in Fish House after retiring from the Tuttle Roofing Company, known for putting the roof on the Empire State Building in 1931. At Fish House, Grandpa could all but “fish off the porch,” and Grandma could walk to the little white Methodist church at the foot of the drive and across the road to the country store.
I imagine the Hudson River running north to the Great Sacandaga Reservoir, with Fish House perched high on its lonely hill, the undulating lawn rolling down to a sandy shore. Carlos had hitchhiked all the way from Maryland, on leave before deploying. I treasured the friendship ring he gave me, a gold band with a little diamond chip. Catching myself straying into the wrong lane, I adjust, then look downstream to see disappearing riverbanks consumed by Manhattan’s clutter.
Off the bridge, tangles of highways, confusing green signs, impatient horns, and burnt-out shells of cars warn me not to even think about breaking down around here. Sweat prickles up under my armpits: Did I just miss the exit? Relief dries me up, restoring my confidence. On we sail, little Herby and I, his name hand-painted by Jack in yellow, an arc following the line of rear engine hood.
Yes, Jack. The closest thing I have to a best friend in New Jersey. Where my parents’ new home doesn’t feel like my home. Where Jack, his friends, his town, are becoming my friends, my hangout. Jack, in the seat next to me, quiet and reserved, like an alter ego to my bouncy, busy self. Content to listen to the radio, especially now that it’s Dylan playing, he’s happy to let me drive and worry about the roads, about our relationship. He doesn’t worry about stuff like that.
I glance over at him, his long delicate features obscured by silky dark-blond hair falling straight to his shoulders. All I can see is his tall, wide forehead—eyes cast down in thought. He’s probably contemplating what he’ll say at the meeting about the Theme we were given last week:
How long is my now?
Well, mine is finally over the Throgs Neck Bridge. It’s clear sailing ahead. Yes, sail boats swaying and pulling at their moors or floating past with taut canvas. Long Island stretches out before us with grassy greens, wide sweet skies, scents of salt and fish and gasoline engines. Hints of summer. Towns streaming past, each exit closer to the goal, closer to Sea Cliff and Mrs. Popoff. To creating a unified “I,” one that knows what it wants. An “I” that makes a decision and sticks to it with discipline. That lives inside a millisecond as long as eternity, as natural as breath. That loves God.
Yellow, then red, traffic lights slow my progress. We still have a way to go through thickening townships. Herby sputters and coughs, refusing the green light. I’m stuck at the intersection.
Praise for Real People
“It’s a lean, crisp, to my mind riveting account of the training course I have always been curious about and would have loved to be on if I’d heard about it before Bennett’s death in 1974 and if I’d had the nerve. But it’s also not the usual starry-eyed disciples’ book. Trained early in her Work years to ‘write your experience, not ABOUT your experience,’ she does just that. It’s a transparent, compellingly constructed 427-page manuscript which held my interest from beginning to end and taught me a lot, not only about the Work but about my own self.”
—Cynthia Bourgeault, author of Eye of the Heart, The Wisdom Jesus, Mystical Courage
“I enjoyed reading Real People enormously. It’s fresh, and open, and honest, and earnest—and very respectful towards Roberta’s teachers. I loved how Roberta built the descriptions of Work through time. It had a very real sense to me. The practice of Gurdjieff Work is an effort of a lifetime. This book recounts the story of an energetic and questioning young woman and how she confronted that challenge, laying the foundation for a lifetime of the honest application of Gurdjieff ’s teachings. Those who have also worked with Gurdjieff ’s teachings will resonate with Roberta’s story. And those who are new to Gurdjieff will find here an interesting account of what it was like to take part in the 10-month course at Sherborne House with J. G. Bennett.”
—June S. Loy, Associate Editor, Gurdjieff International Review
About the Author
Roberta J. Chromey is a memoirist, a life-long journalist, and a recent blogger who shares her insights based on fifty years of inner work in the Fourth Way of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. At seventy-one, Roberta continues to practice Gurdjieff Movements and lead morning-exercises developed by John G. Bennett. As a young adult, Roberta’s teachers were Irmis B. Popoff and John G. Bennett, both of whom worked closely with Gurdjieff. The diary Roberta kept while attending Bennett’s esoteric school in England from 1972-73 became the basis for her memoir, Real People.