My Date With Sam Dolgoff: A Memory of Old-Timey, NYC Anarchy
(I am accused of being less than fair with my red comrades, of being dismissive, arrogant. While on occasion that may be true, I will say that beyond the theoretical squabbles, the back and forth of ideas, I maintain an underlying sense of empathy, of solidarity for its own sake with these individuals and tendencies. In addition, I realize that being an anarchist at twenty is easy, at thirty is difficult, and over fifty is outrageous. I resolved at the age of 27 to never look back, to follow the lifeway of an anarchist until there is no life left. I didn’t arrive at these two sentiments through rigorous analysis—rather, they were given to me by a red anarchist couple, sixty years my senior, Sam and Esther Dolgoff. To whom this article is dedicated, and to whom I still owe a great deal--pzs)
“You’re both soaked. Stay on the mat, I’ll get you towels.”
“Yes, Sam,” my friend says.
“Yes, Sir…err Sam,” I say, feeling a little embarrassed at inadvertently using the formal appellation.
“Sir…” he mumbles to himself as he chokes back a smile, then turning back to get some towels he says it one more time under his breath with a low laugh,”….sir.”
It is March 1986, it is the Lower East Side of New York, and it is pouring outside. Suffice it to say that by that date I had become an anarchist with all the attendant vices and virtues, I hated the state, I lived on the Lower East Side, I attended interminable meetings; I read much and worked little. The city had two operating anarchist groups the Libertarian Book Club, and the Anarchist Switchboard. I was a participant in both. There were a lot of folks through each of these collectives, but mainly a hardcore group of about 20 souls maintained the beating heart of anarchy in that Foul Year of our Lord, 1986. I had been friends with LA for several months and she had called, saying she was on her way to see Sam Dolgoff and invited me to tag along, so I met her at the Anarchist Switchboard on that March afternoon. She said that we should just walk to his apartment as, other than busses, no trains would put us anywhere near his place. I asked where that was and she said that he lived in a building for retired members of the NY painters union. LA had made it her business to bounce around New York and introduce herself to as many of the old time anarchists as possible. Among her acquaintances were Sam and Esther Dolgoff, the staff of the recently defunct Yiddish anarchist journal Freie Arbeiter Stimme (The Free Voice of Labor), Vilario—an old Italian gentleman who at one time was involved with the Galleanisti, and it was rumoured also Malatesta. So this trip to the Dolgoff’s was just her doing her best to string these old time anarchists to the younger anarchist scene—to maintain some semblance of continuity.
After we dried off Sam invited us to sit in the main room at a dinner table. As we settled in I got a look at him, a short man, glasses--built stocky and compact with a grey shock of hair, longer on top. He walked with a distinct gait, like he was used to carrying heavy loads. From the kitchen came the sound of pots and pans being sorted and rustled. As we sat down Esther looked around the corner and smiled at us. A small women in a house dress, stocky like her husband, with glimmering white hair. She said,” Welcome Comrades, lunch in a minute,” and then returned to the kitchen and the pans.
There was something familial in the conversation, he saw us as his kids—perhaps a bit misguided and dressed badly—but relations nonetheless. LA introduced me and Sam asked the typical anarchist questions—what was I doing, what was I reading, what did I think of that son-of-a-bitch president, etc.. Much of our conversation was simple, topical. Sam talked about what he called the “Soviet Onion,” the horrible waste the whole thing had been—reliving the defeat of a revolution gone very wrong. We discussed Bakunin, a topic that Sam knew well, as he had edited an anthology of his works. I asked him about the mature Bakunin’s ideas of the lumpen being the revolutionary subject and he smiled and shrugged and said, “We’ll see.”
After refusing any help Esther proceeded to set the table. A simple meal, spaghetti sauce out of the jar, pasta, white bread and butter. Water to drink. As we ate Esther was having something of a struggle with the pasta and she picked a small piece up and put it into her mouth with her fingers. As she did so she looked at me, winked and wiped the sauce off her cheek with a napkin. In that moment, my heart melted. Whatever I felt for these two Comrades, it was strong, and it rang like a bell in the center of my chest. We ate, we laughed, we chatted about Chicago, the Haymarket Martyrs, and how fucked up the rain was. After lunch LA and I carried the dishes back to the kitchen and set them to soak.
We spoke for another twenty minutes and then LA and I got ready to leave. I asked to use the bathroom, and Esther pointed me in the right direction. As I walked back through the hallway I began to notice the paintings and drawings on the wall. They were not the usual saccharine depictions of pastoral or city scenes that one glimpses on the walls of most elderly folks dwellings. These were drawings of barricades, a man brandishing a lit Molotov, bands of people marching in demonstrations, a portrait of Kropotkin. This was an anarchist home, and a proud one at that.
As we bundled up Sam invited us back as he shook our hands, Esther embraced us with a smile and a tap on the shoulder. As we walked off under a dark and wet Lower East Side sky LA said,” So, what do you think?”
“Gives me hope…I guess,” I replied.
“Oh, in what?”
“The future, no, I mean, my future.”
“And that means…”
“That not all anarchists are twenty somethings who will fade into the suburbs. Some hang on, regardless. The hope is that I hang on, like Sam.”
“I get it,” she said,”…me too.” And to this day we have both stayed in the fight.
Paul Z. Simons