Then you’d notice Meg’s big hazel eyes, that smile beaming at you from her open, round, face.
I’m sitting here trying to reconstruct a life from this poor excuse of mine for a memory. I resent needing to do this. I’m furious at the injustice of her absence.
Meg was always the organizer, and learned it from two of the best – her parents, BC and Simone. The Charlops didn’t have a ton of money, and in Great Neck in the 60s, that could spell trouble, keeping up, and all that. But if it was an issue for BC and Simone and the kids, I didn’t see it.
At some point, BC decided the basement family room needed a new coat of paint, so he had Meg invite all her friends over for a painting party. They provided the brushes, the paint, and the pizza, and the rest of us sort of painted that room, although I suspect BC had to go back in there the next day and make it all right. Oh well, but it was way too much fun.
BC, for me, was the kind of guy I would’ve loved to have as a father: sweet, funny, thoughtful, and never in a hurry when it came to his kids and their friends. A joyful man, brimming with love. I think he would’ve never chosen the life he led, suiting up each morning and heading into Manhattan, if he felt he had the choice. And while Simone had sharp elbows and would get impatient with us sometimes, she talked with us about things that mattered, about ideas, about Justice. We felt taken seriously by her.
Whatever might’ve been going on with BC and Simone was invisible to me. Later on, Simone broke out and demanded back her own life, a life of mind, and body, and politics. I didn’t know that BC wasn’t the world’s greatest business guy. I didn’t know how this might’ve shaped who Meg became. What I knew was that Meg’s home was always a place of welcome. And Meg was a true pal.
I can’t remember a time when I would look at her and not think: this is what joy looks like (although as a sulky teenager it sounded more like, how the hell does she stay so damned happy all the time?) Even as a kid, it’s as if she was in love with the intense beauty of the world, and fascinated by the infinite variety of humanity. Why not, she seemed to be saying, experience the joy of building something together, whether that’s a play, or a summer colony, or a family, or a social movement? And we don’t have to wait for someone else: why don’t we just go and do it ourselves right now?
We made it through junior high school and high school together. Meg shone as a core member of the high school theater group. Anyone who’s spent any time around the stage knows that – kind of like cops or firemen – theater people develop their own tight group, with language, common experience, gesture, all their own. A family. But it was more than that, I suspect, for Meg.
There is that experience you get when performing a great role on stage: you become more than yourself, you become the role, you are enlivened by it. And maybe for Meg, there was a way in which she tried to take that moment into her life. Let’s all act in the world, she seemed to be telling us, as if we are far greater than we believe ourselves to be. And by acting in that way, we’ll truly become greater. More fully human. Because what does a good organizer do but call on us to see the greatness in our everyday lives, to seize the day, to act on the stage of history in our families, our communities, our planet?
But Meg was anything but naïve about our frailties and failures. Did that come from watching BC and Simone struggle through their lives together? I don’t know. But what I do know is that Meg had an extraordinary ethical compass that gave the rest of us, flailing our way through our teens, a powerful reference point for what was right, what we needed to do, and how to live. She was anchored in this world, as much as she always saw the bright, joyful possibilities around the next corner. We knew she was one of the leaders, a heart-driven, passionate, loving woman-in-the-making who would mark this world with her own special touch. We knew that. We just didn’t know how that was going to happen.
Would it be pushing it too far to say that she was trying to figure out how to bring joy and justice into alignment?
And we were growing up surrounded by that fucking war. Meg worried about her younger brothers getting drafted. Or her guy friends doing stupid things to avoid the draft. And we wondered, how could this sweet world be so poisoned by this terrible, terrible thing happening around us? So we fought back against the insanity, against the stupidity of a cold war high school (what do you mean, girls can’t wear pants?), for justice and fun and life. We were just kids, after all.
We saw one another from time to time during college. One night in the summer of 1974 standing on the roof of her grandmother’s apartment building on the East Side, we talked, freshly minted college graduates, about what the hell we were going to do next. What do we do now? What really mattered? I was headed to Europe on a research grant for the coming year or so, and she was struggling with choices about work and community and politics – and nervously excited to be at this point.
Although it wasn’t clear at the time, she was about to commit herself with all her heart to a way forward (I was trying to avoid that as long as possible, as it turned out). I loved this friend of mine, I was beginning to realize, for the courage of her commitments. When Meg and Richie visited Rachelle and me last summer, she talked about that night, and how it affirmed the direction she felt herself headed in, now that her life, she felt, was about to begin.
Meg started doing tenant organizing, first in Hells Kitchen, and then, in 1975-6, up in Morrisania. She’d met this guy, Ramon Rueda, who’d convinced her for reasons simple and complex to come up to the Bronx with him, to organize tenants and try to get the city to help save landlord abandoned buildings in the neighborhood. It wasn’t too long before Meg found the true loves of her life, and her moral center from that point forward: the people of the Bronx, and her future husband, Richie.
By the winter of 1976, I was looking around for something to do – a disastrous attempt at graduate school at the New School was coming to a close. Meg said, hey, you should come up and take a look around in the Bronx, see what we’re doing, it’s pretty cool. So I went up there, looked around, got totally sucked into what they were doing, and started commuting on the #6 train from the loft I rented across the street from Cooper Union up to 163rd Street and Washington Avenue. For $85 bucks a week.
Meg spent all her waking hours organizing the landlord abandoned but still occupied apartment buildings around the neighborhood, I worked in the construction trailer outside 1186 Washington Avenue, mostly doing the one thing I’m any good at – writing – and the one thing that’s got to be genetically hardwired into my shmatta-trade family – selling. Except instead of selling ladies house dresses, I was selling an idea. I’d go downtown with Ramon or on my own and talk to foundations or the bureaucrats at the housing department, and sell them on the notion that this gang of dreamers, hustlers, strivers, and misfits could save a neighborhood – when the rest of the world wouldn’t even accept the fact that people still were living there.
That winter was one of the worst in New York history, bitterly cold. It was also the winter I began to understand just who my friend really was becoming. The first week I started I asked Meg if I could go with her to the buildings she was organizing. We walked into one building – the front door was wide open – and coming down the stairway from the upper floors was a cascade of ice a foot thick: a scavenging crew had ripped out copper piping in an upstairs apartment, but the water service was still turned on. It flowed down the stairs, and froze. The orange extension cord coming in from the light pole on the street was a giveaway that someone was still living there, and Meg climbed up the icy stairs, following the electrical cord, and found an old man bundled against the cold sitting in front of a space heater.
In New York City, the capital of capital.
Meg got the guy relocated into one of the buildings that was in better shape, and got him hooked up with rental support and social services, and did it with a brutal efficiency and smouldering anger – and always, that smiling inviting face – that made it clear: this woman has come into her own. She knows what she’s doing. Do not get in the way.
And she was committed. Richie and Meg moved into an apartment on Valentine Avenue around the corner from our main renovation project. She got pregnant with Sarah. She was deepening her connections, step by step. She was growing into the adult community leader that people in the Bronx came to know and love, and now miss so much. (But “The Mother Teresa of the Bronx”? Spare me.)
By the summer of 1978, our paths began to diverge. While Megan was deepening her roots in the Bronx, I was getting ready to leave again, a pattern I’d stick to for another ten years, until I found my own place in this world. I was, I think, ashamed by my inability to make the kind of commitment to a place that Meg was making – and she made it seem so easy, so organic – she seemed so adult in her mid-20s.
We saw one another a couple of times in the years following, and Meg would send out a letter each winter reporting on the latest configuration of kids and pets and work.
And then, we reconnected last summer. Richie and Meg came out to California and stayed with us for a couple of days. We picked up the conversational thread where we’d left it back then, it seemed without missing a beat. As if we were old friends, just dropped by for a chat.
Her hair had that rich, lustrous glow, and her face was as open and inviting as it had been when she was 13 and we’d just met on the first day of junior high school.
But today is the day Richie and her brothers and BC and her kids and her friends buried her.
Today is not a day for joy, or for justice.