Nov. 4–10, 2005
Who Are These People?
by Ryan Grim
The literature says, “Stop Bitching, Start a Revolution.” But at the Zendik commune, it’s more like “Stop Bitching, Start Farming.”
Uncurdled cottage cheese, apple slices, dates, sesame seeds, lettuce, and blocks of goat cheese sit on a stainless-steel counter. It’s raw-foods day at Zendik Farm on a warm day in May 2004, and this buffet will have to feed 40 to 50 people, depending on how many make it in from the fields.
Lunch at Zendik is, like much else at the commune, more than it appears to be. Long before the farmers finish scraping their bowls, the group-therapy session starts up. A thin, blond woman in her mid-20s garners attention with an “Ahem, everybody” and tells the table that Helen has something to share. Helen’s a short, stout woman who “realized everything was bullshit,” dropped out of Harvard, and moved to Zendik. (She has since left the commune.)
“I have a date with Talon tonight,” she says. Talon sits nearby, his blond hair falling halfway down his back.
“Are you going to have sex?” asks Fawn.
“Yeah, we will,” she says, then adds, “I’m gonna try to get pregnant.”
Talon drops his fork, then regroups and digs back into his lunch. The table roundly laughs at him, though Helen, who looks to be in her early 20s, goes on. She says she’s been trying casually to get pregnant for months by having random sex, but her efforts have failed so far. A few more men look up, an ounce of surprise on their faces—then get back into their bowls.
Helen’s declaration of intent to get knocked up leads to a drawn-out group analysis of her personality. Is she using pregnancy as an excuse to act out her natural desire to hump random men, which has been repressed by her strict Catholic upbringing? Does she want a child because she’s ready to be a mother, or because she has other emotional needs to fill, such as a feeling that she is not accepted by the group or that she hasn’t found someone to love? After a bowlful of tears, she decides that it’s not time to get pregnant, though the random sex will continue. Talon looks relieved, and the group moves on to the next farmer.
And so goes another three-hour lunch at Zendik Farm, a commune founded in—when else?—1969 by self-proclaimed poet and philosopher Wulf Zendik and his life partner, Arol Zendik. Along with a core group of friends and artists, they created the commune on property owned by Wulf’s parents outside Los Angeles, seeking the enlightenment that so many boomers sought in the late ’60s. The two created a place where malcontents who had turned on and tuned in could drop out.
Now, after more than three decades of bouncing around the country, the enlightenment seekers have found a new home in Marlinton, W.Va., population 1,271. They made the move so they could be closer to Washington, D.C., their sidewalk home away from home. But not because they love the city. Not because they hope to join the political fray. And not for the half-smokes or the free museums. No, the commune moved 300 miles west of D.C. for the T-shirts. Or, more accurately, so they could come here more often to sell their copyrighted “Stop Bitching, Start a Revolution” T-shirts and bumper stickers, along with their self-produced magazines, on sidewalks throughout the city.
Though they send at most 14 “Road Warriors” here on weekends, they somehow seem to blanket the area, or at least the relatively affluent parts of it. From Bethesda and Silver Spring to Dupont Circle and Georgetown and down to Eastern Market, you can find the Zendiks, magazine and T-shirt in hand.
Urban legends swirl around the city about this commune and its hippiefied ambassadors. Some say it’s a sex cult. Others assume the sales reps are part of an anarchist or fringe left-wing group. Others simply have no idea what these dreadlocked hawkers are doing—or why.
To find out, I spent a few days on their commune—then tucked away in the mountains of North Carolina—just before their move to West Virginia. Slowly, the farmers’ world opened up to me as they became more comfortable with my presence, though never entirely so. I painted houses and sheds and dug a latrine alongside the men, prepared meals with the women—the commune missed most of the women’s-lib movement, tucked away as it is—and interviewed past and present members. What became clear is that “Stop Bitching, Start a Revolution” seems to be more of a slogan than a mantra: The Zendiks do decidedly more bitching than revolting.
The Tribe Has Spoken
The oval-shaped building looked as if it had been lifted from the pages of an eco-architecture magazine. Petrified logs melded together with concrete to make up the walls; a glass-and-wood ceiling hung overhead. At the opposite end, up three wooden stairs, was a restaurant-sized kitchen, the requisite stainless steel throughout. A brown Labrador puppy charged at me, tried to hit the brakes on the hardwood floor, and slammed into the screen door.
“I don’t know,” said a guy near the center of the table. “I think it’s his attitude. His attitude’s just got to change. He brings me down, man.”
I found an empty chair against the wall and pulled it in toward the table, where a friendly-looking Laotian-American guy, Vong, slid over to make room.
I eventually gathered that they were in the middle of the all-too-familiar scene that ends many reality-show episodes. The group was discussing dumping one of its members. The bad vibes didn’t last for long, though; someone demanded a change of subject.
Arol Zendik, the lone survivor of the founding couple, accomplished that by imparting some “wisdom,” which later several of the farmers specifically referred to as just that: “What did you think of Arol’s wisdom?”
Arol is quite clearly the leader of the commune. In a string of mostly anti-Zendik posts from former members at hipforum.com, one disgruntled ex-farmer writes: “If you do go there, ask to see the quarters where Arol lives; and then ask to see where YOU would be living if you decided to move there. Be smart.” The Zendik Web site is just as clear: “Arol, 65, is the heart and soul of the Zendik movement.…Arol is a leader in the best possible sense of the word…Arol’s overview is tremendous, and includes every aspect of our work and lives.…[S]he pushes herself and everyone around her for more.”
You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide
In 1998, though, as in California before, sprawl crept up to their back door, and the farmers packed up, cashed in on the increased property value, and moved on. They went to Central Florida in what one farmer, Siah Zendik—many farmers informally take “Zendik” as a substitute surname—calls a “momentary lapse of sanity.” After less than a year in a dusty, muggy orange grove, where many of their animals died, they packed up again and moved to North Carolina, where the mountain air was purported to be good for Wulf’s ailing lungs. (He died in 1999.) Around this time, marijuana was banned. That’s right, they don’t smoke pot on the commune. Billed as a remedy for Wulf’s illness, the prohibition also came about thanks to the high number of recovering drug addicts arriving on the farm, seeking dry land.
In the spring of 2004, the farmers were faced with a familiar conundrum. They’d lived in the mountains outside Asheville since 1998, and the former Appalachian emptiness seemed to be filling up. An 18-hole golf course, they’d heard, was going up in their back yard. Michael Jordan was said to be building a mansion just down the dirt road. Cookie-cutter developments were springing up, naming themselves after the wilderness they were clear-cutting. The world the farmers spent their days trying to forget was once again making itself known. The group that thought it had made its clean break with society found itself in the uncomfortable position of being asked to sell out one more time.
Rainbows, Nazis, and Gardens
Pocahontas County has had its share of the nation’s spotlight, and is, for no obvious reason, a magnet for extremism. Beyond hosting two well-known communes, it is also home to the headquarters of the National Alliance, America’s neo-Nazi party. In 1980, the national Rainbow Gathering—an annual event in a national forest that draws somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 hippies—was held near Marlinton, Zendik’s new home, and two women were murdered en route in what became known nationally as the Rainbow Murders. This summer, the Rainbow Gathering, despite organizers’ reservations, returned to Pocahontas County, and I expected to find the Zendiks there. They never made it. Colt, a short Zendik in his early 20s, says of one of the country’s most far-reaching hippie experiments: “It’s not really our scene.” Rainbow Gatherings are strictly noncommercial events. No money is allowed to change hands—even for provocative T-shirts.
Marlinton has mostly welcomed the Zendiks, according to locals as well as the Zendiks. Arol now writes a monthly gardening column, “The Art of Great Gardening,” for the local paper, the Pocahontas Times. “Everyone in the county has a garden here,” says one newspaper employee, who asked not to be identified. “There are hardly any roadside produce stands [in Pocahontas County], because everyone grows their own. And then Arol came in telling everyone how to garden organically.…People thought it was pretty funny.” Arol, says the employee, timed her first spring planting wrong; a frost wreaked havoc on her premature garden. “We live in the mountains, and the frosts are weird,” says Arol. After that, she began taking advice from locals. She continues to write her column, which she says is much loved in the community, though she’s not sure if it’s turning anyone on to organic gardening.
Loving the Death Culture
It’s the Work, though, that defines Zendik Farm. “A man is nothing without work,” said Arol one night at dinner. In the Zendik concept of work, however, the commune enters a dangerous flirtation with what it calls the Death Culture—mainstream society—when it inadvertently idealizes the work ethic of that culture. An integral part of the group’s philosophy deals with its impression of the outside world. The farmers have a very clear idea of what American society is. On the surface, they hate everything America stands for. They rail against the routine of a 9-to-5 job, against whatever invasion or war is currently under way, against Hollywood’s glorification of death and war, against polluting corporations, against a political system that offers no real choice or chance for participation, and against a society that doesn’t value human interaction and happiness.
But underneath the disdain and dismissal, they actually admire the Death Culture’s efficiency, its work ethic, its expertise, its Dream. During one group-therapy dinner, Arol told the lead carpenter, after chewing him out for slow and sloppy work, that he “would never make it in the real world with that work ethic.” It was meant as an insult, not the compliment that many dropped-out hippies would take it as, yet no one asked her: Who cares if he could make it in the real world? What’s the point of living on a commune?
By catching glimpses of America only in snapshots—on weekends, in chat rooms, on AM radio (they love listening to but don’t agree with Rush Limbaugh, and they think Sean Hannity’s a bit too much)—they are free to create their own ideal, their own image of America, based on right-wing media and their fleeting interactions with people on the streets. In their vision of America, there is no subtlety or nuance, and yet they don’t tolerate subtlety or nuance in their own lives. For them there is Truth and Lie, Pure and Impure, Zendik and Everyone Else. In their America, everyone is depressed. In their America, everyone hates his job and family, lives to buy the latest gadget, and has an unquenchable thirst for violence. The stereotype of the 2.5 kids, the minivan, and the white picket fence serving as a façade for a miserable society sums up the farmers’ understanding of America. The recent move to Marlinton, however, seems to be cracking the Zendik isolationism, as small-town life draws the farmers into the tightknit community, showing them there’s more than just misery behind that picket fence. The effects on the commune’s bitching and revolting remain to be seen.
Donations to the Revolution Are Tax-Deductible
“Have you seen our magazine?” Coz recites to no one in particular. “We’re underground artists.”
The Dupont crowd walks past, occasionally dropping a polite nod or a “No thanks.” A new magazine is produced about once a year, though sometimes less frequently. The first one I bought, sold by a Zendik in Savannah, Ga., in the spring of 2000, matched the one they were selling in 2004, as far as I could tell, except for the cover.
“It’s a psychic thing,” says Coz, when asked how he picks a person to pitch his mag to. “Every group or population has its good people and its bad people, so I don’t gauge by dress or Mohawk, but by looking in their face.” He sees a face he likes: “Underground mag. Take a peek—it’s an underground artist magazine.” The man walks past and Coz goes on: “You can tell by looking at the person,” he says. “Or you can just blast everybody.”
Caroline corners a young woman in a bus shelter. She’s trapped, and she fairly quickly buys a magazine; she’s $5 lighter but now in possession of underground artwork.
Zendik Farm relies on “program service revenue”—mostly sales of T-shirts, magazines, and bumper stickers—for 80 percent to 90 percent of its income, according to its tax returns. The remainder comes from tax-deductible donations. Since the “Road Warriors” who hit the streets with their wares often refer to the fee charged for a magazine as a donation—which is almost exclusively paid in cash—it may be difficult to distinguish between the two. Whatever its income sources, Zendik Farm Arts Foundation Inc. is registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational/religious foundation.
To qualify as a public charity, an organization must conduct its fundraising activity with an aim of some sort of public benefit. In order to know exactly what public benefit Zendik Farm claims to the Internal Revenue Service it is providing, a review of its 1023 form would be required. The form is currently unavailable, because the IRS is upgrading its West Virginia documents from microfiche to DVD. However, to judge from Zendik’s literature, it seems fair to assume that Zendik’s benefit to the public is to encourage it to stop bitching and start a revolution. Therefore, in order to convince the government that it deserves to be classified as a public charity, it must convince the IRS that its activities and fundraising are directly related to overthrowing the government, however peacefully they hope to do so. The Zendiks are surely hoping, then, that the revolution will not be audited.
Regardless, Zendik Farm Arts Foundation Inc. is, at least according to its 2001–2003 returns, a nonprofit in a very real sense: It shows annual losses between $22,677 and $89,906. Its declared revenue during that period ranged from $300,000 to $400,000. Although the commune’s tax returns don’t specify which items sell best on the streets, the Zendiks say they sell around 30,000 magazines a year. At $5 apiece, that’s $150,000. If they sell a third that number of T-shirts at 10 to 20 bucks each, that’s another $150,000 or so. Add in the sales of T-shirts at the roughly 1,500 stores that they claim stock them, and it’s not hard to break $300,000.
Especially when the commune catches a publicity break. When Christina Aguilera wore a “Stop Bitching, Start a Revolution” shirt on MTV’s Total Request Live last fall, sales went through the roof, says Kaila, one of the “Phone Warriors” who helped handle the onslaught of orders. The Sept. 24 anti-war march in the District was also good for business, though the revolutionaries, who frequently bitch about war on their Web site and in their magazine, didn’t stick around for all of it. “We sold everything we had and left early that afternoon,” says Talon. “Well, maybe we had a few double-X’s left.”
Shock and Awe
The gentlemen on the farm, when her arrival was discussed, tended to focus on her sexuality. They doubted that she was a “real” lesbian and were convinced they could overcome what they saw as a minor barrier.
She told me how excited she was to be in a place where she could focus on her art. I had been there long enough by then to know that she was in for a rude awakening. Very few of the members do any actual art—there’s no time; everyone’s working—unless you count work as art. The Zendik philosophy, as articulated on its Web site, refers to “Life Artistry,” which “takes the rigors of Art—the workmanship, the daring, the objectivity and intensity of focus—and applies them directly to the problems of Life itself, providing a framework of critique and self-awareness that is woefully absent from our common day-to-day reality.…In this way, Life itself becomes the Art, an object of endless fascination, where there are no limits on the potential of imagination and creativity.”
Three months after my first visit to the farm, I got a call from Welsh in Milwaukee. “They kept telling me that I was only a lesbian because of the influence of the Death Culture, and now that I was in a loving family I should embrace my hetero side,” she said. The line didn’t work.
Though she was disturbed by the incessant advances, she said, the real reason she left had more to do with the lack of revolutionary zeal on the farm. “They advertise themselves as revolutionaries, but they’re nothing but a bunch of dropouts…who couldn’t hack it in the real world. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that, and I wish them the best, but they shouldn’t try to recruit people who are actually interested in making the world a better place.” And though they relentlessly bitch about politics and politicians in their publications, Welsh said, they don’t vote. More than just that, Welsh was shocked by the workload. “They work all day long,” she said. “There is no time for art, even if anyone there was actually interested in it.” The final straw, she said, was when they tried to stop her from leaving for a day for a gay-pride parade. She shouldn’t miss work, they told her.
Recently, though, the farmers have entered Pocahontas County politics—a move that may indicate a coming shift away from bitching and toward revolution, or at least the start of a revolution. The nearby Snowshoe Mountain Resort is embroiled in a controversy over its desire to have the county build a sewage plant primarily for the resort’s use. The farmers, as well as other opponents, say the plant, while much needed, shouldn’t be built on the ecologically sensitive site planners have chosen. Arol spoke out at a recent public meeting, and the Zendiks have placed a billboard on the site that advertises the cleverly named group they’ve created: Citizens Reacting Against Proposed Sewage Site (CRAPSS). As for voting, Arol says she is personally registered in West Virginia and recently voted in a local election; she boycotts national ones. Most people on the farm, though, don’t choose to vote at all, she says.
Woke up, Got out of Bed, Dragged a Comb Across My Dreads
Lunch is scheduled for noon but usually gets going around 2, along with its two to three hours of group therapy, which the Zendiks call “interpersonal time.” Though the mealtime topic was generally sex when I was there, all aspects of a Zendik’s life are on the table, so to speak. And like something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, these are often blistering attacks on the character of a particular person, everyone piling on the fury in the name of love and honesty.
Fawn Zendik, Arol’s daughter, clearly intends to replace Arol as Queen of Zendik when her mother moves on. She flexes her muscles most clearly during group-therapy sessions. Not inclined toward deliberation, Fawn most often speaks in declaratives. “You will stop leading him on,” she said one afternoon to a farmer who was complaining about the advances of a man on the farm. And, Fawn added, he was to stop caring and being miserable. Fawn does not beseech; she describes how the future will be by the sheer force of her will.
With that finished, Arol started in on her “great friend Siah,” who works on the Web site. He’s lazy and doesn’t get his work done, she said. He’s a self-hater. He’s a child. The Zendiks discussed cutting off his Internet access. A man without work is “just a dude,” Arol said. Eventually it was determined that the Death Culture was responsible for Siah’s laziness. The remedy was to realize that Zendik seeks to overthrow the Death Culture. In a clever twist of the blame-society excuse, Siah must therefore attack that society, the source of his laziness, by working harder at Zendik with the zeal of a personal vendetta.
Following afternoon therapy, it’s back to the fields until dinner at around 8, and with it more interpersonal time. Then, at around 10 p.m., for most, it’s back to work—whatever can be done inside—until about midnight. Exemptions are made for “dates”; those not working or on a date gather around a TV or log on to World of Warcraft, their current Internet game of choice. “They watch a movie every single night, and then rail against Hollywood,” said Welsh.
Date Night on the Farm
Every commune struggles with issues of sex and promiscuity. At Zendik, in order to break sexuality away from the bondage of intimacy—the false entanglement of which, says Arol, is the source of much misery—a Zendik couple is often called on to fully explain to the group what’s behind their lust. If the group decides that two people shouldn’t be together, then they generally don’t get together. If the group decides that two people should be together, then they’ll be together—though because of Zendik’s anti-monogamy attitude, they are not together exclusively. There are no hard, fast rules, said Talon, as we painted a house bright yellow back at the North Carolina commune. “If your 40 best friends are telling you to do something, and they know you better than you know yourself,” he explained, “you’re probably going to do it.”
Slinging T-shirts on 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan on a recent Sunday night, Talon said he still struggles to reconcile living on the commune with a normal love life. “There’s a nurse in Georgetown I really like, but the reality of the situation is I live on a commune. It’s just not gonna happen.”
The Christian Zendik
“On their Web site it’s art, art, art, philosophy and art,” he told me in the guesthouse as he sat on his bags, waiting to leave. “When you get here, it’s work, work, work.”
His first day, they put him to work “hammering things on the sides of windows.” That sucked, he said. Next he herded, fed, and watered the horses. (Zendiks keep horses “for their beauty and their elegance,” says Coz. “No, actually just for their beauty.”) Organically minded, they hadn’t sprayed their horses for flies yet, and the poor beasts were jumping and stomping in apparent agony, plucking Foster’s heartstrings and convincing him that nobody who treated an animal like that could be a compassionate person. On top of his Christianity, Foster was also a picky eater, preferring Cheetos and Ho Hos to lettuce and tuna salad, no matter how organic. Despite the long hours and the lousy dinner, Foster said, he went to bed the first night thinking he saw his future in front of him.
The next day was a Sunday, when the farm takes a much-needed rest. Even so, it wasn’t a stellar day for Foster: Brunch was bad and so was dinner, though someone fixed him a grilled goat-cheese pita. On the third day, Monday, he repeated the grueling schedule. He felt like shit; barely eating and working too hard was leaving him weak.
The next night of group therapy would have its guns trained on Foster. He looked “miserable,” noted Vie, a redhead who has since chopped it all off and gone blond. The group agreed. The consensus was a simple one: cheer up or get out. Foster gave it one more day, didn’t cheer up, and got out.
Before he left, Foster let me read and copy the brief journal he had kept while a Zendik. His last entry: “I’ve decided to leave at lunch. I’ll tell everyone then call mom then call [his high-school acting teacher] Riggle and see if she can come get me tomorrow and if she can’t I’ll call the hutchintsons, they both have trucks and could take me home, tail between my legs.”
It’s this ability to leave freely, tail between legs or no, that distinguishes Zendik Farm from a typical cult. Talon says this is his third stay at Zendik. He can’t take more than a few years at a time before dipping back into the Death Culture. The noncommittal trend is more pronounced in men. About half of them, says Arol, have left and come back at one point. The women, on the other hand, tend to leave more often for short visits to family—another trend that distinguishes Zendik from a typical cult. Increasingly, says Arol, families of members have been coming to Zendik for visits—and, she adds, thoroughly enjoying themselves.
In other ways, though, the farmers do resemble what you’d expect from a cultish commune, particularly in the way they all speak for each other. Last winter, at their new home in West Virginia, I asked Neyci, a former AT&T customer-service rep, what was for dinner. “Meatloaf,” she said. “It’s our favorite.” Several others said the same thing that night: “Meatloaf is our favorite.” The meatloaf was good, with a zesty red sauce, but it was hard to imagine that it was a universal favorite. Didn’t anybody prefer pork chops?
At an annual hippie music festival, Bonnaroo, held deep in rural Tennessee and attracting more than 100,000 heads, the Zendiks weren’t there for the jam bands. “We don’t like this kind of music,” said Colt, slinging magazines in a thick crowd. “We think it’s played.”
All You Need Is Love
It took two trips to their commune and about a dozen street or concert meetings until some of the Zendiks began to recognize me. They called on Saturday, Oct. 22, saying they were in a bind: Eight of them needed a place to stay the following night. Despite my girlfriend’s misgivings, we hosted half of the group; the other half stayed with my downstairs neighbor. In the morning, I watched as they made an elaborate breakfast of eggs, rice cakes, organic ground beef, and goat milk. Their leftover eggs would make a nice afternoon snack, they said, never once offering me a bite. CP
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