Zoe Schein ’12 created "If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want Your Chocolate Chip Cookies" for one of her favorite classes — a six-week radio essay course taught last fall by visiting professor Jeff Porter, author of the memoir Oppenheimer Is Watching Me.
For more works by Grinnell students, see "Writers @ Grinnell" in the Summer 2012 issue of The Grinnell Magazine.
Transcript: Emma Goldman Radio Essay
Author, narrator: Zoe Schein
(“The Night That Goldman Spoke,” from the musical Ragtime plays)
Emma Goldman: I have just returned from Lawrence, Massachusetts, where eight weeks ago, the workers there went on strike. They are starving, their children are dying, but they are holding firm. And we must support them!
(Song continues, quietly.)
Narration, read by Schein:
I know, logically speaking, that Emma Goldman is not my grandmother. But the night I first saw the musical Ragtime, and the fictional Emma Goldman moved a crowd of chorus boys dressed as union workers to a rousing critique of Capitalism, a strange association took hold. I looked up at the stage, wide-eyed, as Goldman curled her fist into the air, seeming to command the soot-covered laborers to throw their arms skyward and jazz-hand in unison. As her voice rang out into the audience, commanded us to leave our little backyards and find a cause to die for, it sent chills through my eleven-year-old body. At that moment, my father leaned to my ear and whispered, “She’s buried next to your grandma Tobey, you know.”
(“The Night That Goldman Spoke” rises again)
Goldman: “You!: He thought he heard her say, “What brings you here today? Poor young rich boy, masturbates for a Vaudeville tart, what a waste of a fiery heart, dear,” he thought she said…
The key change, the sudden chill, the image of the figure above me. She stood in a single shaft of yellow light, feet planted in a heavenly cloud of fog-machine smoke. Some might say the three-part harmony caused a synapse in my young brain to misfire, but people usually talk about science when they want to deny a good old-fashioned divine intervention. All I know for sure is that at that moment, the thought was planted.
Emma Goldman is my grandmother.
(“The Night That Goldman Spoke” rises)
Mother’s Younger Brother: In the arms of fallen women, in the thought of suicide!
Mother’s Younger Brother: Like a firework! Unexploded! Wanting life but never knowing how…
Goldman: My brother, life has meaning, I’ll show you how!
Mother’s Younger Brother: ‘Till now…
Goldman: My brother, you are with us now!
A few years after Ragtime, my family took a trip to Chicago to illegally spread Tobey’s ashes along a beach in Roger’s Park, one that she’d helped rescue from privatization. In the spirit of the weekend, we also swung by her grave.
(Ragtime piano plays.)
It’s true, both Emma Goldman and my grandmother, Tobey Silbert, are buried in the Forest Home Cemetery, the last stop for a number of notable communist, socialist, and anarchist activists. Most of them, like my Grandma Tobey, were active mainly in the Chicago area, but Forest Home houses a few more widely known remains. The Google keywords “communist cemetery Chicago” transported me to the “Find-A-Grave.com” site for Forest Home, which boasts a list of over twenty notables, including three congressmen, a dozen labor leaders, and, of course, Goldman. A disclaimer at the top of the page reads, “You are browsing famous burial locations. If you are looking for a non-famous grave, please start from our homepage.”
Goldman’s glamour was intoxicating. As my dad and his brother stood quietly, shoulders touching, by Tobey’s non-famous grave, I itched to examine the much larger tombstone a few feet down the row, bearing a relief sculpture of Goldman’s profile in withered bronze.
(Ella Fitzgerald’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me” begins to play.)
I could see from the corner of my eye that there was an inscription below the death date. And like a fan waiting for the announcement of the American Idol winner, I crossed my fingers anxiously. I was hoping for my favorite quote, the only quote I knew. “If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution.” This single, clichéd statement summarized all of Goldman’s grandmotherly potential. She and I would dance our way to justice, or maybe just in the kitchen while we baked chocolate chip cookies. Over the speakers, Kelly Clarkson would belt “A Moment Like This,” or maybe “Miss Independent” if we were feeling sassy. Grandma Goldman would light a cigarillo, pat me on the head, and say, in the thick Lithuanian accent I knew from hundreds of plays on the Original Broadway Cast recording, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
(“Dream a Little Dream of Me” continues.)
Everyone would be jealous of my Grandma Goldman, the musical anarchist. The famous grave. I knew nothing about her politics, but I knew that Grandma Goldman was hip. She was edgy. And by association, I would be too.
(“Dream a Little Dream of Me” rises, then fades.)
I can’t say exactly when or why the shift occurred, but recently I’ve found myself thinking more and more about my actual grandma, Tobey. Maybe it’s because I’m at a liberal arts college where her radical politics are suddenly cool and interesting. Maybe it’s my feminism, which sprouted late in high school, that compels me to shimmy back up the family tree towards my grandmother. Maybe it’s because she changed her name from Flora to Tobey, and for that reason I always suspected that she might have been a bit of a lesbian. We’d have something special to bond over, something to mark me as different, better, than the other granddaughters.
(Joe Purdy’s “Wash away” begins to play.)
Purdy: I got troubles, oh, but not today. ‘Cause they’re gonna wash away.
Or maybe I’m just at that age when I’m realizing that my own memory might one day be lost beneath the persona of a flashier, more famous, adjacent gravestone. That I, too, might one day stand on the edge of being forgotten. I feel responsible, in some ways, for remembering her.
(“Wash Away” fades.)
I never met Tobey. She died before I was born, before my parents were married, even. So I only know her through stories—my dad’s, my Uncle Fred’s, or, more recently, the FBI’s. Their thoughts on my Grandma Tobey are preserved in the four-hundred page thick surveillance file that arrived one day on our doorstep, courtesy of Fed-Ex and the Freedom of Information Act.
Despite their diversity, there’s one thing each of my sources agrees on: Tobey was a badass communist.
(Kelly Clarkson’s “Miss Independent” begins to play.)
She built coalitions from the ground up, she spoke passionately at community meetings, and she never allowed her forty-year membership in the Party to erode her principles. Even as a leader, my dad told me, Tobey continued to pound the pavement, to knock on doors, to organize tenant unions and canvass for political candidates with her feet firmly planted on the sidewalks of Roger’s Park. While I have to note the bias inherent in her sons’ accounts of her, you just have to look at their birth certificates to realize that they spoke the truth about her devotion to the cause. While their last names belonged to Tobey’s husband, Lester Schein, her sons belonged to Communism first:
Clarkson: What is this feeling taking over? Thinking no one could open the door…
Howard Karl—that’s Karl with a “K”—and Frederick, were named for Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Even the FBI file can’t help but give her kudos.
“The source,” the file reads, referring to the neighborhood dry-cleaner who supplemented his income by snitching for the Feds, “The source described Silbert as one of the hardest working Communists in the Communist Political Association. She devoted nearly all her time to Communist Work.” Tobey was the monster of one thousand McCarthyite nightmares. I half-expected the Bureau’s exhaustive and unflattering physical description to include scales or claws. Instead, they noted her unusually “thick” ankles.
(“Miss Independent” rises, then fades.)
I’m proud that my grandmother was the hardest working Communist in Chicago. But I am the baby of a Capitalist era.
(Old-timey ragtime music plays.)
I type papers on my MacBook Pro. I have monogrammed Nike high tops. Almost everything I own has Batman on it. I recognize the absurdity of the things I surround myself with. Sometimes I even feel guilty. But because of my laptop, and my high tops, and my Bat Signal beach towel, the question keeps returning: If Tobey were alive, would she even like me?
(Ragtime music rises, then finishes.)
A while back I had a bit of a depressive spell. My dad did everything he could think of to cheer me up. In the car on the way to the sneaker store he cut through my melancholy. “Did I ever tell you about when I got Moy pregnant?” he asked, referring to the Chinese woman he had been involved with before he met my mom. I could tell from his tone that we were having one of those Mature Adult Conversations, and that I should suppress my reflex to respond with disgust.
“No, you didn’t,” I said.
“Well it was unplanned,” my dad said. “And so she was going to get an abortion.”
I felt more mature by the minute.
He continued, “But Tobey was pissed.”
This news came as a shock; it did not go with my image of Tobey, the benevolent activist, the progressive community leader. I felt as though he’d built up an idol, and was now poised to tear her down into humanity. “You’re kidding me. Tobey was against abortion?”
At this my father let out a giggle. “Tobey? Of course not! She just wanted an interracial granddaughter.”
(“Dream a Little Dream of Me” returns.)
Fitzgerald: … dream a little dream of me. Stars fading, but I linger on, dear, still craving your kiss…
In the midst of my fantasies about my Musical Grandma Goldman, I’d never stopped to think that Tobey might have had her own fantastical ideas of what her grandchildren would be like. I imagine Tobey’s vision: walking to a Party meeting with a small, half-Chinese girl gripping her hand. On the way home, carrying this alternate-universe me on her hip, she’d pass a dark sedan with tinted windows and say, “That’s your Nana’s federal agent! Can you say ‘Nana’s federal
“Na-na!” The girl would say.
Fitzgerald: But in your dreams, whatever they be, dream a little dream of me….