Jim Ross ~ The Monastery

Summer 1971, I lived with six women from Trinity College, DC.  The only male house­mate, I sort of slipped in and stayed. Previously, this Harvard Street res­i­dence had been the tran­sient house of the Radical Lesbians four doors up. Once, while I was sit­ting in the door­way, one of the tran­sients returned to pick up her stuff and kicked me. No acci­dent, because she kicked three times. I took it as either a polit­i­cal state­ment or a mat­ter of per­son­al expression.

The Radicals sub­let the house to fem­i­nist Trinity poet Tina Darragh who invit­ed some friends to move in. For a guy who had no sis­ters, being around six women day in and day out afford­ed quite an edu­ca­tion. The smells of bak­ing bread filled the air. The anadama was to die for. When nobody else jumped at the oppor­tu­ni­ty, I became baby sit­ter for the Radicals. I was a ter­ri­ble baby sit­ter because I rou­tine­ly fell asleep on the mat­tress on the liv­ing room floor. We all hat­ed to see the sum­mer house com­ing to an end.

With the lease was as about to run out, Tina voiced the urgency of keep­ing the house as a weekend/nighttime crash pad for Trinity stu­dents in need of a safe space away from the college’s repres­sive, Irish Catholic atmos­phere. I also need­ed a place to live. One of us hit on a sim­ple solu­tion: pos­ing as a mar­ried cou­ple, Tina and I would rent the house. To be extra con­vinc­ing, we bor­rowed a baby. The baby instant­ly cooed as if Tina were her nat­ur­al moth­er. The own­er of the house hap­pened to be my opti­cian, who had a store­front on Connecticut Avenue. We did our best to fill out their rental appli­ca­tion but had lit­tle to report as nei­ther of us had a job, work his­to­ry, income, or assets to report, and were both stu­dents. After vis­it­ing the opti­cian wear­ing bor­rowed clothes and car­ry­ing our bor­rowed baby, we turned in our scant­i­ly com­plet­ed appli­ca­tion and became irra­tional­ly über-con­fi­dent. That we laugh­ably failed to qual­i­fy came as a rude awakening.

I slept in the house until the day the lease ran out. One day, while I was out run­ning, some­body broke in and robbed all of my pos­ses­sions except for my sec­ond­hand, man­u­al Royal type­writer. I was espe­cial­ly pissed at los­ing my black and white sheep­skin bed­spread. Fortunately, I kept my school­books and some cloth­ing in my beat-up, red-white-and-blue, VW bus with faux stained class side-ceil­ing win­dows and a man­u­al slid­ing roof. Seeing no oth­er options, I began spend­ing my nights in a sleep­ing bag in the for­est. Reading by moon­light, I watched the sil­hou­ettes of leaves dance across the page. I nev­er called myself home­less, though tech­ni­cal­ly, I briefly was.  Tina snuck me into the Trinity cafe­te­ria sev­er­al times. Eventually, she found some­one to tem­porar­i­ly take me in. Meantime, with­out phone access, I began look­ing for an alter­na­tive locale for the Trinity crash pad. I still had no wor­ries about where I might live.

At Catholic University, I found a monastery-for-rent list­ing. I showed up at the monastery in cuff-off jeans, which giv­en my cir­cum­stances was for­mal attire. I met with Fr. Vito and told him I want­ed to rent his monastery for the women of Trinity. His mea­sured response: “You can’t fool me. You’re try­ing to turn this holy place into a whore house.” I sug­gest­ed that, before he jump to that con­clu­sion, he meet with some of the Trinity women. That night, I returned with Tina, Jane, and few oth­ers. Jane, the the­atri­cal one, charmed Fr. Vito who explained that the rentable monastery was the adja­cent, large, vacant, white build­ing. Tina said, “We don’t want that one, we want the one you’re liv­ing in, but you two can stay too.” Fr. Vito and bleached-blond Br. Bob said they’d like to meet our group. We said we’d return with them.

We came back to present our pro­posed group: a Buddhist cou­ple; Chacko, an Indian psy­chol­o­gist I knew from grad school; me; and a fourth indi­vid­ual. Fr. Vito res­onat­ed to Chacko, who worked at Catholic Charities. We were in! Fr. Vito said that he and Br. Bob would take the two bed­rooms down­stairs while we occu­pied the four upstairs.  But then, on the way home, the Buddhist cou­ple insist­ed that the chapel be con­vert­ed into a Buddhist shrine. I said, “You can’t do that with Fr. Vito and Br. Bob liv­ing here.” The Buddhist cou­ple dropped out.

We replaced them with a poet cou­ple, Michael and Lee Lally. Michael taught poet­ry at Trinity; his wife Lee was a fem­i­nist poet beloved by Trinity’s stu­dent poets. The sec­ond meet­ing had much high­er ener­gy than the first. At some point, Fr. Vito and Michael real­ized that, not only were they both from Newark, New Jersey, but their fam­i­lies were mem­bers of vehe­ment­ly opposed gangs, one Italian, the oth­er Irish. They screamed at each oth­er and had to be restrained from com­ing to blows. Second group failed.

Undeterred, effec­tive October 1, Chacko and I rent­ed two rooms from the grey Franciscans. In the United States, there were two oth­er greys, one in Newark, anoth­er in Juneau. An addi­tion­al twen­ty-two greys lived in Assisi, Italy, where they ran a home for retired sea­men. Chacko and I occu­pied rooms upstairs. Occasionally, monks from the brown Franciscan monastery two blocks away who need­ed a break or were on the outs occu­pied one of the two oth­er upstairs bed­rooms. Chacko and I enjoyed eat­ing qui­et­ly in the base­ment kitchen. Although we com­pet­ed with church mice in quiet­ness, Fr. Vito often accused us of vio­lat­ing unstat­ed rules, such as, flush­ing the toi­let too fre­quent­ly and nois­i­ly. On December 1, Fr. Vito informed us we would have to vacate by the end of December because the Vatican deter­mined that the greys lacked crit­i­cal mass and ordered them to dis­band and join oth­er orders. Chacko and I left before Christmas. The search for a place to live began again.


Jim Ross has pub­lished fic­tion, non­fic­tion, poet­ry, pho­tog­ra­phy, hybrid, and inter­views in near­ly 200 jour­nals on five con­ti­nents. His pub­li­ca­tions include Hippocampus, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Kestrel, Lunch Ticket, Newfound, New World Writing, The Atlantic, and Typehouse. He recent­ly wrote/acted in a one-act play and appeared in a doc­u­men­tary lim­it­ed series, I, Sniper, broad­cast domes­ti­cal­ly and inter­na­tion­al­ly. He began cre­ative pur­suits eight years ago after a reward­ing pub­lic health research career. He holds a grad­u­ate degree from Howard University.