By Rex Weiner
On August 28, 1967 a fifteen-year old black girl from Mt. Kisco, New York was admitted to the Hudson Training School for Girls. During her four months there she received letters from family, friends, and lovers.
A few years later, while cleaning out the drafty attic of an old red two-story house on North Bedford Road in Mt. Kisco, not far from where I’d grown up in Northern Westchester County, I reached into a pile of rubbish in a cobwebby corner and pulled out a mysterious bundle of letters bound together with a rubber band.
Most of the letters were addressed to someone named Faye Owens. No one by that name lived in the house. Perhaps, at one time, she had. But in the winter of 1969-1970 I was its sole, miserable occupant, a 20-year old college dropout paying a few bucks a month for the raw, unheated space. I sat down on the mattress on the floor, my only furnishing, wrapped in a blanket against the chill and, fortified by a bottle of cheap red wine, started to read.
It was the chilliest of winters, almost too painful to recall. Expelled from my parents’ house after dropping out of college, I was grieving the death of a high school sweetheart lost to drugs, and kicking a low-grade heroin habit of my own. The war raging in Vietnam flared across the nation’s campuses, roiling the tough streets of the Lower East Side where, supposedly attending New York University, I’d seen my share of combat. But now, having dropped my student deferment in a show of political defiance, the dreaded draft notice was sure to arrive any day, and my state of mind was not good.
Lacking TV, radio, or even a telephone in my attic quarters, the letters I’d found helped pass the time. I became fascinated. By the light of a single bare bulb hanging from the rafters, I read them one by one. Rough, ungrammatical, misspelled—but pure poetry, nonetheless, in almost every line of beautiful cursive handwriting, a skill in which schools used to drill students. From a few dozen neatly addressed and stamped envelopes, heartfelt yearnings unfolded—desires, sadness, joy and hope.
The letters were from a boyfriend in county jail for robbery, and another in Vietnam, from her devoted sister “Little Boots,” and from her distraught mother, often apologizing for not making the long and probably expensive trek upstate to visit. Letters from schoolmates told of the newest songs, latest dances, gossiped about who was going out with whom. Hastily scribbled pages torn from a notepad and passed clandestinely from cottage to cottage at Hudson alluded in sweet and often frankly bold language to crushes between the girls serving time there. The letter writers all urged Faye to take care of herself, to have courage facing the challenging situation, and to remember, most of all, that she was loved.
Lacing their letters with Motown lyrics, street slang, schoolyard rhymes, playful nicknames and straight-from-the-gut prose, the writers struggled to make sense of lives lived on society’s fringe in the time of war and civil rights struggles, and I was deeply touched by what I read. Here was I, too, receiving letters from Vietnam; my closest friend, a comrade with whom I’d shared epic adventures we both swore would someday be a book one of us would write.
Reading the letters to and from this young girl, incarcerated for God knows what infraction, my own troubles seemed small in comparison. Indeed, while race and class surely narrowed the range of options for Faye and her circle at that time, white middle-class privilege shielded me and my friends from the dire risks we chose to take. Steeped in Hemingway and other romances of lost generations, my buddy chose to enlist in the army as a medic. Never mind the draft sweeping up our high school classmates, along with Faye’s friends—my pal just had to see the war. Likewise, it was my personal choice, because of my opposition to the war, to drop out of a good school and face the draft, betting I could beat it; I had a strategy, which was why I was living in that attic on North Bedford Road.
Too broke for a car, I’d taken a job within walking distance at the Patent Trader, a county newspaper. The first day, my feet soaked from the slushy country roadside, they put me to work in the pressroom, loading lead bars called “pigs” into the melting pots of clattering linotype machines. I’d later earn my first byline as a journalist in the paper’s pages, watching my story set on one of those soon-to-be-extinct machines.
From the outset my salary barely paid the attic rent, much less the sessions with a psychiatrist who would supply the all-important letter that I eventually took with me to the draft center when I was called up for my physical. I’d humbly hit up my parents to pay the shrink—another benefit of my privileged status—and they readily agreed it was worth the cost. His diagnosis of a drug-abusing, mentally unstable character with a pronounced hostility to authority helped persuade the military to designate me 4F—unfit for service.
I was out of harm’s way. But it was too late for my friend; news of his death came like the hard rain Dylan sang about. As winter turned to spring, grief and anger fused into a determination to actively oppose the war and the forces behind it, in whatever way I could. Vacating the attic, I headed back to the city and volunteered for the front lines of the Revolution. For me, that was the anti-war, counter-cultural Underground Press, where as an editor, publisher, writer, and known associate of notorious subversives, I earned the croix de guerre of an actual FBI file.
The Attic Letters came with me, always. The mysterious bundle held together by a rubber band was a curious keepsake with which I could never bear to part, a talisman of someone else’s pain, a reminder of my own confusion and loss, a warning of how close I came to my own destruction, even as others around me fell by the wayside. As one classmate said to me at a 40th High School Reunion, recalling the many fallen, which included his sister, lost to a drug overdose: “Rex—you’re a survivor, aren’t you?” It felt like an accusation. But it made me more determined to do something with the Attic Letters, which had survived with me; they were all about survival.
I thought that once I’d eventually authored a book, I’d have the credentials to undertake the proper research for a publishing project based on the letters. The book I eventually published—Woodstock Census: The Nationwide Survey of the Sixties Generation (1979, Viking)—made me an authority of sorts on the era, and the Attic Letters rose to the top of my to-do list. I sat down with a typewriter (the personal computer had not yet arrived) and transcribed about thirty letters, intending to find a publisher. It was not to be. Hollywood called—a bad excuse—some stories I’d written were optioned by a studio and, flying out to Los Angeles under six-month contract to write a screenplay, I remained in LA and fell down the showbiz rabbit hole for a few decades.
Now, with several careers in my rear-view mirror, and recently pausing to take inventory of my remaining tasks, I turned once again to the loose bundle of letters, the rubber band long since disintegrated. I called on friends for advice: Tyree Boyd-Pates, a curator at the California African American Museum (CAAM), and Shonda Buchanan, an author, professor, historian, and writing instructor at Loyola Marymount University whose memoir, Black Indian, has just been released. It was the first time I’d entrusted anybody to look over the letters. They immediately recognized their extraordinary value; both encouraged me to pursue the clues leading to their owners, as a first step toward bringing them to the public in some way—perhaps, we speculated, an exhibition at CAAM devoted to African American letter writers; perhaps a book backed by scholarly research on which Buchanan could advise; all just as I’d always envisioned.
With CAAM’s approval, and no longer just some guy hassling strangers over the phone, my first move was to Google the addresses on the envelopes, beginning with the most obvious—Hudson Training School for Girls. Was it still in existence? Could their institutional records lead me to Faye Owens? I quickly discovered it was now the Hudson Adolescent Offender Facility, a part of the New York State Correctional system. With no clue as to how to approach that bureaucracy, I saw something else pop up on my screen—the Prison Public Memory Project. Their mission: [PPMP] engages people from all walks of life in conversation, reflection and learning about the complex role of prisons in communities and society. The Project works with individuals and organizations in communities with prisons across the United States to recover, preserve, interpret, present, and honor the memories of what took place in those institutions. We use public history, social practice art and new media technologies to integrate community knowledge with more traditional forms of historic preservation.
I contacted PPMP founder and director Tracy Huling, and our conversation quickly led to a realization: here was the place to begin answering all of my questions about the letters, to help solve the mystery that I’d carried with me for so long, and to eventually share in a professional manner whatever was uncovered. It would be a first step toward finding the right home for the Attic Letters.
Because, of course, from the beginning their rightful home has always been with the owners of the letters—the people who wrote and received them back in 1967. Why had I not contacted them before and just handed over their lost property? I know that my hesitation had something to do with my reluctance to call them out of the blue—a stranger with no official purpose or credentials. Also, before Google existed, a search would have been difficult. The landlord of the old red house on North Bedford Road—when I’d asked him—had no memory of Faye Owens or a family by that name.
But I have to confess, as well, that I was fearful of returning the letters; they might be lost, and their true value as written works (in my own eyes) never realized. Sort of like the British, believing the Elgin Marbles, the sculptural frieze stolen from the Parthenon in Greece, were better off in the British Museum in London, than in Athens. It was the same arrogance, a privileged point of view, which is also a lack of respect that I acknowledge. I’m sorry that it is too late to apologize directly. Faye Owens is gone, according to a quick Google search, predeceasing “Little Boots,” her sister, Barbara, who died in 1999.
But others in Faye’s circle surely remain. And it may be that, with the publishing of this essay, the authors of those letters, or their descendants, will contact PPMP. Meanwhile, these letters will be digitized and made available to subscribers to PPMP’s private archive for viewing and research purposes. With the permission of the letters’ owners, they could eventually be accessed by the public, as part of PPMP’s ongoing project documenting the history of the Hudson Training School for Girls. In time, I hope we might find an appropriate institutional home for the original letters.
I like to imagine we will eventually learn the larger story of Faye, Little Boots, family and friends, their life and times. It will be a window on the Hudson River Valley’s historic African American community, a voice for America’s incarcerated women, a story in which, now that I’ve had my say, at long last, I’ll be no more than a footnote. For the first time in nearly fifty years, I’ve let go of these letters, and I’ve left the attic behind.
Rex Weiner is an investigative journalist, author, and reporter on contemporary culture based in Los Angeles, writing for many publications in the US and Europe. He is also an editor, stage and screen writer, and co-founder and executive director of the Todos Santos Writers Workshop.