The Common Ground Restaurant on Elliot Street in the late ’70s was “a place for really tasty healthy food and great conversation,” wrote photographer Roger Katz. “The pace of life in town was a bit slower then, sometimes allowing for ‘extended’ lunches at the larger common tables with provocative co-diners.”
Roger Katz archive
The Common Ground Restaurant on Elliot Street in the late ’70s was “a place for really tasty healthy food and great conversation,” wrote photographer Roger Katz. “The pace of life in town was a bit slower then, sometimes allowing for ‘extended’ lunches at the larger common tables with provocative co-diners.”

There was no stopping us

In the 1970s, we came from everywhere to this place, this time, this piece of history

BRATTLEBORO — That summer.

We were in our glory then, spilling out into the streets, cropping up like dandelions, disheveled like young puppies, hairy and floppy. There was a war going on across the world, and we had arrived at a little Vermont town with a cumbersome name. It was 1973.

The town was a mix of old and new, the Dutch Bake Shop at the corner of Elliot and Main, which was not at all Dutch and had been there for who knows how many decades, its bloated pastries and wooden plaques on the walls, its regular-clientele coffee with two sugars each morning.

The Public Market at the corner of Flat and Main, its gleaming white enamel, black enamel, all sorts of cheeses and produce, a combination of gourmet and old-school food. And Mann's, the department store where you could buy fabric and thread - the basics - in the basement.

But there was also the Common Ground Restaurant, all wood and soup, a papier-mâché ark on the ceiling, the clink of bowls and serve-yourself. From the porch on the second floor there, I saw Stacy and Joan turn the corner to Main Street, arm in arm, looking like two hound dogs playing, all big-eyed and floppy, entangled in the joy of friendship. And next came Frank B., an almost-pirate with a real parrot on his shoulder, a crazy-good saxophonist as it turned out, emphasis on crazy. A real parrot.

And there was the Good Life food store around the corner, where you could get tofu in bulk, that new thing that Ellen would eat raw and unadorned. It tasted like nothing, but she apparently didn't care.

And after Paul and the Davids finished cooking at the Common Ground, we would go to their place on Clark Street, a sort-of garage, and eat tapas and drink mezcal and listen to Neil Young's whiny, beautiful voice in the background.

* * *

We thought the angels were on our side, and perhaps they were.

Some energy allowed for creativity seeping out of every pore, every door, in town, spilling out like some warm flood. We were sexy and defiant. We were in our power.

We came from everywhere to this place, this time, this piece of history.

We started a free clinic with Ellen and Danny. We studied to be paramedics, found benevolent doctors who trained us, worked for free at the free clinic. Danny, it turned out, was in the Weather Underground, but who knew then?

We fundraised: a square dance and booths on a farm, quilts on the ground, pony rides. We did this. We young ones. We opened the clinic, and our first clients were the from a local commune, a sizable bunch of folks all with scabies, a relatively easy fix. We learned to draw blood and to do pelvic exams, thanks to the generous doctors and The Well Body Book and Our Bodies, Ourselves. We took it on.

* * *

There was our famous solstice party on Sunset Lake Road, 45 years ago now, where we combed the fields for wild strawberries and added them to our vanilla ice cream made with that crank machine because, no, we did not have electricity. But we had a battery-powered tape player, and Marvin Gaye's What's Going On floated through the blue air.

On Flat Street, there was Overseas Auto, where people bought parts for their Saabs and Volvos, most always vintage cars pieced together, a collage from this car and that.

And there was the vintage tea shop down the block from Overseas. A young woman - her name was Amy - created this magical space of sweet linens and herb tea. She died of brain cancer a few years later.

There was the Flat Street nightclub where first Stéphane Grappelli played and then Roomful of Blues. A gathering of the tribes, meandering and sweating in the building on many levels, in many nooks, the dance floor a few steps below.

Eventually, there was Spring Tree Cafe. We waitressed, making coffee to “The Girl from Ipanema” before the morning crowd meandered in, later serving ToasTites and bagels and The New York Times to the beat of Fleetwood Mac.

* * *

And then there were the performances from Packer Corners and friends. The Stuff of Dreams. The Tempest on the pond, a real raft. Alice in Wonderland, with the set outdoors, magnificent settings made by the young ones, the giant mushroom for the caterpillar, Alice's arms coming out of the house. Oh, for a film of that last one.

But there were no iPhones then. For good or bad, there was little documentation. The Stuff of Dreams was documented. Alice, the most magical of moments, was not. As far as I know, it lives in our minds only.

* * *

We exuded energy. There was no stopping us. And us it was. Perhaps that was the source of it all, this sense of us as a large wild mass of energy and creativity, unstoppable, changing the world, tomato by tomato, tofu by tofu, play by play.

The music was us also. We were Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Aretha. We were The Band. We each had our own struggles, our own backgrounds, our own pain and joy and love and lovers, but there was a large we in it all. The invisible web.

There was the map of the USA at the Common Ground where we could pin up rides wanted, rides offered, where eventually this one chose to ride with those two young women going to San Francisco leaving from Frost Street in two days. There were the lost dog ads, the bookcase for sale, the apple picking job all tacked downstairs as you walked up to the restaurant.

I do believe we were all amazed at this. We each came here for a reason, we thought, but there was clearly some larger reason - some pull - that encompassed us all. We did not really have free will. We were swept here by that wind.

* * *

Who was I in this? It didn't matter much but, for the record, years ago I had gone to a tiny college near this little town, had most recently lived in Brooks, Maine, built a house with Rico, left him.

I was the one living in the cabin with Ellen on Sunset Lake Road, the one dancing and sketching and pruning trees for Halsey Hicks, the temporary paramedic at the Free Clinic previously working at the Retreat as a psych aide in a gray uniform purchased at Montgomery Wards. (This was when there were real stores in town, stores where you could buy uniforms or an umbrella.)

There were real bars, too, one being the Village Barn, where you could dance to Widespread Depression playing Duke Ellington and where you would make out with Greg on the dance floor, and who cared? There was good music, our music. I wasn't a musician, but was it was part of me and I, it.

What was this it? This it was fueled in part by psychedelics and marijuana, partly by the insane government and the war in Vietnam, partly by the energy of youth, perhaps partly by those large planets guiding us - the angels I say, the spirits, who really knows?

This was a time when we felt our power and we did not hold back. Where we had hope despite it all. Where we knew there were many realities and we still hauled our manure and grew our tomatoes, our golden summer squash, where we canned our corn into succotash. Where we read the Foxfire books to see how things had been done but where we did them our way despite. We tai chi–ed around the government. We didn't know quite how privileged we were.

There was Captain Bullfrog's, where there were endless records, started by a young entrepreneur. And there was the Book Cellar with its countless stacks of books to browse. But most of us didn't have much money, so we went to the library for our books. We shared our records. We bought our clothes at the rummage sales at the Baptist Church - 25 cents each.

Yogurt was new then, to us at least, not being Bulgarian.

Todd taught yoga at the library, nights. Classes were free. Flexible us, we became more so in mind and body as we left his class. I fell in love with his steady energy and warm, wide smile.

The world was wide open like his smile. This world we were creating. The world by the hills in the valleys. The carrots. Digging into the earth to ground us from this crazy world. Reaching the sky also, always blue beyond the clouds.

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