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American Zealots: Shoot Out in the Kingdom of God

It is an easy drive to the mouth of Par­ley’s Canyon. The ascent is so gentle I feel safe glancing away from the high­way and back to the valley — to Salt Lake City, laid out in a fastidious grid, the outlines of its commercial center geometric and distinct in the late after­ noon sun.

In a blink the city is gone from my rearview mirror, obscured by the twist­ing gullet of the canyon. On either side, the peaks of the Wasatch Range rise in volcanic swirls. Snow begins to fall, one of those freak blizzards that blow in unan­nounced during the early spring. All I can do is hold to the road, barely creeping through the curtain of flakes until — as quickly as it came­ — the blizzard stops. The mountains have reced­ed. In their place is a high valley stretching silent, white, and dreamlike beneath the snow.

I follow a well-paved country road west, turning just before the village of Kamas onto Upper Loop Road. And there it is, sitting at the top of an unpaved lane — the Singers’ cabin. It appears innocent, its aging mortar spilling out between the logs just as one of its occupants had described it, like “white frosting on a chocolate cake.”

Weeks before, when I had seen the house on the evening news, it had ap­peared menacing and inaccessible, the hideout for a family of fundamentalist Mormons who had bombed a church in nearby Kamas. The suspects were the clan’s matriarch, a frail blond woman named Vickie Singer, and her son-in-law, Addam Swapp who, apparently, was mar­ried to two of Vickie’s daughters. For nearly two weeks the Singer-Swapps — numbering six adults and nine children­ — barricaded themselves in the cabin and, armed with an arsenal of handguns, ri­fles, and sawed-off shotguns, held off an army of county deputies and federal agents. On the 13th day, the standoff erupted into a gun battle that left one officer dead.

As far as I could tell from the muddled accounts coming out of the highlands of Utah, the Singer-Swapps were harboring a complex set of grievances against not only the Mormon Church, but the State of Utah and the United States of Ameri­ca. The bombing of the Kamas Stake Center was apparently intended as a pro­test against “wickedness.” Beyond that, however, it seemed to have a mystical significance peculiar to this corner of the world. The explosion, which lifted the roof off the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was meant to ring in the millennium, heralding the second coming of Christ — and the resurrection of Vickie’s husband, the late John T. Singer.

“If you’re going up there,” I had been told, “be sure and get there before nightfall. Visitors after dark make them nervous.”

It is well before twilight when I ar­rive, and driving slowly up the rutted lane, I park in the shadow of several outbuildings. Running along the walkway to the back door is a wire still strung with a makeshift warning system, fruit jars filled with bolts.

On the other side of the door, there is the sound of children laughing. It opens suddenly to reveal a teenaged girl with a long skirt and a lustrous blond braid. She is holding a baby. I recognize Charlotte Swapp from photos taken after her ar­rest, when she and her sister, Heidi, and their mother were being shuttled from jail to court in chains. She looked at least five years older then, her expression dumb with shock. Charlotte and Heidi were held in custody 12 days before U.S. prosecutors decided that, unlike their mother and husband, they had no active role in the bombing and released them.

Charlotte’s sweet face is radiant with goodwill. “Any trouble finding us?” she asks, ushering me into the living room. It is comfortable and surprisingly middle­-class, like some civil servant’s idea of a hunting retreat. The fieldstone fireplace, which occupies one entire wall, appears to be largely for show since the seven­-room cabin is heated by an enormous woodburning stove in the kitchen.

Charlotte motions for me to sit on a section of couch upholstered with bold orange sunflowers. She sits nearby cra­dling baby John Swapp to her thin chest.

“You’re not afraid we’ll take you hos­tage or anything?”

We laugh. The scene is so absurdly se­rene I am hard put to imagine how eight weeks earlier the living room was an armed camp. The irony of this seems to elude Charlotte, who talks on about her absent mother and husband as if they were away visiting relatives. What is fore­most in her thoughts, at this moment, is not the prospect of her loved ones down in Salt Lake behind bars, but whether she can get Addam’s birthday gift completed in time for the trial. (His birthday hap­pens to fall on the trial date, April 6. This is also, by certain Mormon calculations, the birth date of Christ.)

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She had been working night and day at her beading loom, fashioning cuff orna­ments for a new buckskin jacket. She clisplays them proudly, two beaded strips bearing a set of arcane symbols.

“What do these mean?” I ask her.

She looks mysterious, then replies with mock exasperation, “You’d just have to know Addam.”

More ambitious than the cuff piece is a larger design that is still on the loom. It seems to be a flag with blue and white stripes and 13 white stars on a blue field. This unfamiliar standard is the work of Charlotte’s older sister, Heidi, who has been hovering on the periphery of this congenial scene like a glowering wraith.

Heidi Swapp is a handsome woman in her early twenties. Ruddy and freckled, she wears her long red hair in a braid like her sister’s. Wherever she moves she is surrounded by a swarm of small chil­dren — I count five — whose screeching and tugging have put her in a foul mood. But I quickly perceive that Heidi’s irrita­tion extends to me.

“You write about murders?” she asks. An intermediary has sent her a collection of my articles. “What do you want with us? We’re not a murder.”

Not exactly a murder, I am tempted to say. But Lieutenant Freddie Floyd House was killed on your lawn not two months ago.

I hold my tongue.

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The real reason Heidi is so hostile, I suspect, is that she assumes I am a gen­tile (a term that Mormons apply to any non-Mormon). T0 be a gentile is to mix with and be contaminated by the world. To be one without understanding. But I understand Heidi’s thinking better than she imagines. When I read those strange news accounts of her family’s dangerous, enchanted world, I experienced a shiver of recognition. Not that I had ever known any of the Singer-Swapps personally. They, barricaded against the wickedness in the wilds of Utah, and I, rubbing el­bows with it in lower Manhattan, do not exactly run in the same circles. But I, too, was born a Latter Day Saint.

This is not quite accurate. I was born a Reorganized Latter Day Saint — a distinction that requires a few words of explanation. The Reorganization — a singularly graceless designation — refers to a faction that bears somewhat the same relation­ship to the original Utah Mormons as Reform Judaism bears to the Orthodoxy. The two were splinters of a church that scattered after 1844 when Joseph Smith was shot by an Illinois mob. The largest group followed Brigham Young to Utah. The next largest coalesced around the prophet’s son and settled in what would later become my hometown of Indepen­dence, Missouri.

We the Reorganized prided ourselves upon being more enlightened than those people in Utah. The church authorities saw fit to admit blacks to the priesthood as early as 1871 and three years ago or­dained women. When I was employed as a guide one summer at church headquar­ters, l was instructed to inform visitors politely but firmly that the Reorganiza­tion never practiced polygamy. (That was true.) Nor, in fact, had Joseph Smith ever preached it. (That was not true. The prophet’s first wife, Emma, devoted her widowhood to rewriting history.) In all respects the RLDS are a rather more easygoing outfit than the Mormons. I never heard of anyone being excommuni­cated. No one ever broke with the church. They just did what I eventually did. Drifted away.

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Although I recall summers of faithful attendance at vacation church school studying instructive stories from the Book of Mormon, my religious training played in the background of my upbring­ing like elevator music. Now, almost 20 years since last attending church, I can’t remember any particular tune. (Perhaps this is due to the merciful offices of deni­al.) I am, however, left with one lingering, powerful impression — call it an appre­hension — that at any moment, a perfectly ordinary street scene is liable to dissolve into a passion play. A Latter-day Saint­ — be he Mormon or Reorganized — is taught to admit the possibility of miracles as part of daily life. Every coincidence is fraught with divine import, every hunch is “the voice of God.” In the world of the Latter-day Saint, God speaks to humans as casually as Dr. Ruth chats with call­-ins.

Among the more vivid memories of my youth is that of the Wednesday night “prayer and testimony” service, where solid, sensible citizens would stand and report on the wonders that God had worked for them that week. In the grand scheme of things, these were only “little miracles,” which God performed to help ease his children through the trials of everyday life. I remember one Wednesday night, a schoolmate stood and told how her father had been laid off at the plant, and the family larder had been down to one pack of hot dogs. But they had prayed and, behold, the dogs had multi­plied to feed everyone. This Miracle of the Frankfurters sounds a little ridiculous as I now tell it, but on that Wednesday night, in a setting of uncritical belief, it sounded perfectly plausible.

There were, of course, unspoken guide­lines as to what constituted an acceptable miracle. The modern variety was under­stood to be more modest in scope than such Old Testament triumphs as raising the dead. To a true believer, such things were still possible. But no one at prayer and testimony would ever have presumed to put God to a test. There was an unspo­ken fear perhaps, that He’d lost His touch over the centuries. That if one tried to provoke the fireworks of antiqui­ty, one was bound to be disappointed. What struck me so profoundly in reading about the exploits of the Singer-Swapps was that they clearly had wandered over the line from “little miracles” to visions of the millennium, not only accepting the possibility of a resurrection, but actually making plans for it. The Singers were living in a full-blown Second Reality, where God was still a god of major miracles.

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Faced now with Heidi’s suspicion, I am tempted to invoke our common Latter-­day Saint heritage. She does not, howev­er, seem the sort whose heart might be softened by the prospect of women hold­ing priesthood.

“Well, Heidi,” I proceed gamely. “I would like to hear about your father.”

I do want to hear about Heidi’s father, who was, after all, the man upon whom this mega-miracle was to turn. During the early ’70s, John T. Singer enjoyed a modest celebrity when he took his chil­dren out of public school in Marion, Utah. The reasons he gave were diverse. He objected to sex education, he objected to drugs in the schools, he objected to a curriculum that taught equality of the races. Singer chose to instruct his chil­dren at home where they would not be polluted by worldliness.

Heidi’s resistance softens visibly at the mention of him. She is now eager to explain.

“My father knew all there was to teaching,” she says. “He taught as long as he pleased. He taught us when he pleased. He taught us arithmetic in our heads and not on paper. Then he’d teach us a hymn. You’d have to do exercise, jog around the hills a little. Some days we’d go out and school was gardening.”

Two of Heidi’s children are now scuf­fling noisily on the floor. She gives one a quick slap. Embarrassed by this outburst, Charlotte indicates that Heidi has been under some unusual pressures of late.

“I’m going to stand,” Heidi announces abruptly. “I have to stand. If I don’t, Dad died for nuthin’.”

It is not clear what Heidi means by “stand.” It seems that two months ago, she and her family “stood” for something — I’m not sure what — and got the wind knocked out of them. But here Heidi is, up again, seemingly ready for a fight. And all in her father’s name.

Exactly what it was in John Singer’s memory that inspires this fierce devo­tion — the compulsion to make “a stand” — is only hinted at in his photograph, which rests against a chalkboard above the couch. He is smiling slightly and his expression reveals a curious playfulness. But there is also a steely intractability — ­the quality that apparently infuriated the town fathers of Kamas during the weeks before he was shot one January morning in 1979.

Singer’s father was a German who came to America before World War II to raise money for the Nazis; his mother, a devout Mormon. This strong-willed pair apparently wore each other out and Herr Singer, intent that his two sons not join the Mormon church, packed them off to Germany where he enrolled them in an SS training school.

John Singer professed to have hated the Nazis and, indeed, to have been ex­pelled from the school for “rebellious be­havior.” After the war, he returned to America and later joined the marines, which he did not seem to like much bet­ter. John Singer could not endure any form of regimentation.

In his late teens, he was lured to Utah by the offer of work from his father’s brother, Gustav Weller, who owned a con­siderable amount of land in the Kamas Valley. In that tiny and predominantly Mormon mountain community, Gus Wel­ler was regarded as an eccentric who held dangerous opinions.

Since the late 1800s, the church had been quietly ridding itself of certain embarrassing doctrines, chief among these, polygamy. Plural marriage was one of the holiest tenets of the early Mormon church. The argument went that a man who had one wife possessed such a tenu­ous claim on eternity that he could only hope to go to the Celestial Kingdom — the highest rung of Mormon heaven — as a minor angel. But the man who spread his seed widely might actually aspire to be­come a God. For justification, the church pointed to certain Old Testament patri­archs who took many wives. During the late 19th century, however, this apologia did not play well throughout the rest of the country, particularly Washington, D.C., where the territory’s petition for statehood was under consideration. The church foresook polygamy, and Utah was admitted to the Union.

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To fundamentalists this was unthink­able hypocrisy. Despite the threat of swift and severe retribution, they contin­ued to espouse polygamy among other discredited beliefs. Gus Weller was one of these malcontents. He taught fundamen­talist tenets to a handful of followers in his home on Upper Loop Road. Among those in regular attendance was his nephew.

Mormon fundamentalism, with its ap­peal to megalomania, found an ardent adherent in John Singer. Years later his family would tell how, as a young boy, Singer had shot a bald eagle, which fell and landed at his feet. He interpreted this as an omen that one day America would bow before him. It must therefore have been the source of some discomfort that by the time he reached 30, he had not only failed to secure the fealty of the nation, but could not even find a woman to marry him. He had gone hat in hand to a number of eligible young women in­forming them that God had directed them to become his bride only to be re­buffed or chased off by some boyfriend or father.

With Vickie Lemon it was different. One of the most popular girls at South Summit High School, she accepted a date with John Singer and was struck, as she later described it, by his “smell of fresh pine.” He later took her to the cabin he was building on a two-acre plot Gus Wel­ler had given him. She was impressed by his self-sufficiency and impeccable grooming. As she sat on the couch in his unfinished living room she recalled a “perfect peace.”

A few weeks later, they eloped over the border to Nevada. Vickie’s parents were certain that Singer had thrown some sort of spell over their daughter, and dis­patched a posse of gun-toting town folk to get her back. But Vickie insisted that she was quite sane and intended to live out the rest of her life with John Singer in his cabin atop Upper Loop Road.

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During the early years of their mar­riage, Singer worked with his Uncle Gus in a television repair shop in Salt Lake City. This lowly occupation, however, did not suit his opinion of himself as a man destined to be a spiritual leader, and he would wander off without warning to teach outlawed doctrine to German im­migrants. Gus was dismayed to learn that his protégé was not only falling down on the job but usurping his spiritual prerogatives.

As the breach between the two men grew, so too did Singer’s estrangement from the community. During Sunday ser­vices in Kamas he would stand, Book of Mormon in hand, point to passages of discredited doctrine, and taunt, “If you people don’t think this is right, let’s tear it out and throw it away.”

The Mormon church, which esteems conformity above most other virtues, moved to end these challenges by excom­municating the troublemaker. In Mor­mon society, where social and profession­al advancement depends on the good opinion of one’s neighbors, John Singer found himself an outcast.

He did not appear to mind. He scorned his scorners, claiming that his questions made them ashamed of having aban­doned their own spiritual roots. Eventually the TV repair business failed, and he retired to his little homestead, devoting himself to the business of being a patriarch.

The life that Singer fashioned for him­self and his family was partly the product of his romantic imagination, partly para­noia. The frontier had always held a fas­cination for him as an ideal of self-reli­ance. He dressed in buckskins, Vickie in long dresses. They raised livestock, kept an orchard, and operated their own flour mill and granary and stocked enough pro­visions to last for two years. The possibil­ity of catastrophe loomed large in their minds. Like many fundamentalists, Sing­er was convinced that the economy was on the verge of collapse at which time “mobs” would come up from the city and overrun the farm. Singer often carried a Colt automatic.

In the beginning they had a child a year. Heidi, Suzanne, and John Timothy. When Vickie’s health began to fail, babies came further apart. Charlotte, Joseph Hyrum, Hans Benjamin, and Israel Mo­roni. John Singer greeted the arrival of each new child with joy. On the first night of its life, the newborn would sleep in an exquisite wooden cradle that Singer had carved with his own hands. John Singer’s children were, as Heidi and Charlotte were fond of telling me, “the apple of his eye.”

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Some say Singer’s anger at the public schools began when Heidi’s schoolmates began to tease her about her old-fash­ioned clothes. For certain, he was not pleased when his oldest girls brought home what he called a “haughty atti­tude.” Although sex education in the Marion school consisted only of a basic biology course, Singer was appalled that anyone but himself should be allowed to raise with his children the sacred subject of procreation.

The final outrage came one day when Suzie Singer brought home a history text showing George Washington, Betsy Ross, and Martin Luther King on the same page. In accordance with the teachings of Joseph Smith, Singer had taught his chil­dren that they should not mingle with blacks (known as “Canaanites” after an ill-favored grandson of Noah). He marched down to the school and led his children out behind him.

In the beginning, the school board de­ferred to Singer’s wishes, offering to sup­ply textbooks and teaching plans. Singer spurned this assistance, teaching his chil­dren “as long as he pleased … when he pleased.” The results, contrary to Heidi’s blissful recollections, were not fortunate. Four years after the Singers left school, the state sent a psychologist up to the farm to test them. Dr. Victor Cline noted that the children were “happy, kind, lov­ing to each other, dutiful to their par­ents,” but that the drop in their intellec­tual development was “shocking.” The children registered IQs almost 30 points below their progenitors. As the youths moved into adolescence, the psychologist noted, there was no way that they could be protected from all of life’s unpleasant experiences. “It might be wiser,” he con­cluded, “to teach the children to cope with these while they grow up rather than let them experience only a protected un­real life at present.”

John Singer would have argued that the life he envisioned for his children was just as real — more real, perhaps — than the one the school system had in mind. He had created on his two and a half acres a self-sufficient world where chil­dren obeyed their parents out of love. In one sense, that life was a model of peace and security. Yet that security was illu­sory. Dr. Cline’s report made it clear that the passionate reliance which the Singers had upon one another was based largely upon fear. Fear of abusive schoolmates, fear of contamination from gentiles, fear of the mobs coming up from the city. Rather than return his children to the world, Singer withdrew them from it alto­gether.

The state of Utah charged John and Vickie with child neglect. After that, the Singers kept to their property for more than a year, living off supplies from the root cellar and keeping an eye on Summit County sheriff’s deputies who kept an intermittent vigil at the foot of the lane. Vickie was spotted wearing a pistol and a leather holster. Heidi grew proficient with a bow and arrow. Whenever John Singer left the house, he would be watched by one of his family positioned at the living room window with a pair of binoculars.

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John Singer could have diffused the hostility by simply answering the com­plaints against him. He had already in­corporated his “school” as a private acad­emy, and had he been willing to make a few more minor concessions, he would have been allowed to teach his children at home. But he refused, insisting it was necessary to make a stand, as the early American patriots had by throwing tea into Boston harbor. And so, declaring his two and a half acres an independent prin­cipality, he raised over the cabin a blue and white flag of the same design I had seen Heidi beading the day of my visit. He called it the Flag of the Kingdom of God.

Even when there was a contempt cita­tion out for his arrest, John Singer flout­ed church and civil law by taking a sec­ond wife. This was a woman named Shirley Black who lived on Upper Loop Road. Shirley was 49 and the mother of seven children. She was also married. But in the fundamentalist belief, a woman could be released from an existing mar­riage if the man was unworthy — in Death of an American, a brief biography of John Singer, Shirley claimed that her husband beat her — and enter into a plural union if it was sanctioned by God. John, Shirley, and Vickie all claimed to have revelations that this was to be. Shirley’s husband was, not unsurprisingly, infuriated when she took four of their children and moved into a little house at the back of the Singer cabin. He vowed to get his chil­dren back. The townspeople of Karnas were once again outraged by Singer’s te­merity and rallied to the assistance of Dean Black.

On the morning of January 18, 1979, John Singer walked down the lane to the mailbox, when suddenly he found himself rushed by state and federal agents on snowmobiles. The lawmen later claimed that Singer raised his gun to fire and caught a blast of buckshot under his right arm.

Charlotte Singer, who was on duty as sentinel that morning, saw something quite different.

“Dad was aimin’ the gun at them like, ‘leave me alone,’ ” she recalls. “He turned and was runnin’ home. And that was when they shot him … They wanted Dad dead and they murdered him.”

From Charlotte’s mouth it is startling to hear so harsh a judgment as “murder.” Her gentle features contort slightly in a spasm of anguish. It is exactly the expres­sion I had seen on her mother whom I had visited, just that morning, in the Salt Lake County Jail.

My mental image of Vickie had been formed by family photos of her taken during her thirties when she was a pert blond, frag­ile but tough. Cheerleader turned frontierswoman. But when Vickie took her place on one side of the glass in the visitor’s room, however, I was shocked. She was only 44, yet her mouth was sunken like a crone’s. (She lost her teeth due to various illnesses and, as she placed her faith in God rather than doc­tors, was still waiting for Him to grow her a third set.) The only suggestion of youth was her shiny blond hair, which, it is said, John Singer loved to stroke by the hour. Most extraordinary, however, were her eyes, a cool and piercing blue.

How, I wondered, does the world look from the other side of those eyes? Does Vickie Singer see the bars and the sorry circumstances of her confinement, or is her gaze still wandering somewhere over the enchanted terrain of a Second Reality?

It is a matter of public record that shortly after her husband’s death, she received a “revelation” that he would re­turn. The night after John Singer was killed, Vickie spent the night listening to her children cry.

“In the early dawn,” Vickie told me, whispering through the mesh, “I felt the most marvelous peace … my husband spoke to me. He said, ‘Vickie. Don’t sor­row. Rejoice. Don’t look back. Look for­ward to the things to come forth.’ ”

“Did you hear a voice?” I asked. “Did you see something?”

“No,” Vickie replied. “Just a knowing. It’s like a marvelous burning … through your whole body … You can’t hallucinate something like this,” she explains, antici­pating my skepticism.

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Vickie tells me how during the days after his death, John Singer also comfort­ed his daughters. Charlotte had fallen se­riously ill, and her father appeared in a dream one night to explain that “Heaven­ly Father took me before it hit me.” Thereafter, Vickie came across a passage in the Book of Mormon that planted the idea that her husband had only been “marred,” not killed. She was also con­vinced that he was the “one mighty and strong,” whom Latter-day Saint prophets foretold would rise up and restore the original church. Each new revelation ap­parently supported the next until Vickie Singer and her daughters were convinced that John Singer’s return was not just s possibility, but a certainty.

Into this web of grief and expectation stepped Addam Swapp.

Addam was a country boy from Fair­view, Utah, about two hours south of Salt Lake. His cousin Roger Bates remembers Addam as a devil-may-care companion. The two of them would go on double dates and Addam, dark-eyed and good­-looking, got along well enough with girls his own age. He was not, however, part of the in-crowd. As Charlotte later ex­plained it, “He didn’t try to please peo­ple.” Addam Swapp, in fact, had the same stubborn, antiauthoritarian streak that had characterized John Singer.

In junior high, a fundamentalist class­mate had quietly introduced him to the discredited Mormon doctrine, which held that Adam, a mere man, had become God. Indeed, any mortal man could be­come God. It was a concept that appealed as mightily to Addam Swapp as it had to John Singer. After that, Addam read widely among unauthorized texts, which left him with contempt for the religion which he felt had abandoned its origins. He was in high school when blacks were allowed into the priesthood. It left him disgusted. After that, he never again set foot in church.

That was 1978, the same year he first laid eyes on 14-year-old Heidi Singer. It was during the 13-month siege, and she was telling a television reporter who had come up to the farm how her father had kept her “clean from the world.” Addam Swapp told himself, “I’m going to marry that girl.” In fact, he fell in love with the entire Singer family. John Singer, he felt, was one of those few men who “stood on truth.” Addam had decided to load up two guns in his car and go up to help out, but two days later John Singer was dead.

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If Addam Swapp had come of age in the mainstream church, he would have been sent on a mission. As a fledgling fundamentalist, however he was denied that formal avenue for spiritual adven­ture. His father, Ramon, later explained to me that a young Mormon male is usu­ally “full of vim and vigor, and wants to save the world.” The plight of the Singer women, left husbandless and fatherless, appealed to his son’s sense of destiny. “A seed,” as he put it, “in a fertile field.”

A month after Singer died, Addam went up to the farm and introduced him­self to the Singer women. Shortly there­after, he brought his cousin, Roger Bates, who began courting the 16-year-old Su­zanne. Addam, for his part, laid claim to Heidi. That fall, the four of them went to the woods behind the cabin and ex­changed wedding vows.

The Swapps’ first year of married life was apparently rocky. Addam later told me in a jail-house interview that he and Heidi were “bullheaded” and that he found the farm a little cramped. They moved for a time to an apartment in nearby Midway, and Addam worked with Roger selling tire casings. It is not exactly clear what Vickie made of all this except that she was upset over losing her “babies.” She also had to contend with Char­lotte, who had taken to her bed weeping.

Charlotte, then 11, claimed she was also in love with Addam, who treated her like a kid sister. A few years after his marriage to Heidi, he had a revelation to put things right. In this dream, he and Heidi were standing by a river. She was tempted to travel down it but Addam, seeing that it led to a wicked city, said to her, “No, it will destroy you.” Instead they took a narrow path that led into the mountains. At one point they encountered Charlotte standing in the middle of the path, and they both took her by the hand. All three tried to cross a crystal pond, but Charlotte sank. They pulled her up and walked together toward the glass doors of a shining city.

Addam interpreted this as divine reve­lation that he should marry Charlotte. In the protected, unreal world of the Singer-­Swapps, this announcement seemed to provoke only a flurry of resistance. Heidi sulked a bit at first, but inasmuch as Addam’s direction had come from God, it had to be credited. Addam took Heidi back to the farm where he married her sister, who was 15. After that, he was said to have divided his time equally between the two, who lived in their separate huts behind the cabin. Addam eventually had five children with Heidi and one with Charlotte.

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Vickie Singer apparently approved of this menage because, among other rea­sons, she was in need of a man about the house. Her eldest son, Timothy, who had taken over many of his father’s chores, was crippled in a logging accident and confined to a wheelchair. And she found herself embattled on many fronts. Gus Weller’s children, under the guidance of his son, Jared, tried to have her evicted from her property. She went to court, arguing that Gus, now deceased, had al­ways intended to deed the property to John. She won that round, but her legal problems were just beginning.

Vickie was grieved not only by the loss of her husband but the circumstances un­der which he died. A fundamentalist friend and a sympathetic physician had slipped into the mortuary and photo­graphed Singer’s body: he had clearly been shot in the back. With the help of John Singer’s brother, Vickie secured the services of the flamboyant Wyoming at­torney, Gerry Spence, and filed a $110 million wrongful death suit in U.S. dis­trict court against the State of Utah. Vickie was enthusiastic to the point of euphoria about Spence, in whom she per­ceived an invincible champion against the temporal world. Her joy was cut short, however, when the suit was dismissed on the grounds of “insufficient evidence.” She appealed, but that, too, was denied. Vickie’s outrage, which might have been dissipated by a proper hearing in court, continued to fester. To the Singer-Swapps, the failure of the civil suit was evidence of a conspiracy that, in their eyes, encompassed the Wellers, the Mor­mon church, the State of Utah, and the United States of America. In the years to come, any person or entity that appeared to threaten the interests of the family joined the swelling league of culprits. In the summer of 1986, the Marion Water Works was added to the roster.

Water is not a trivial issue in Utah, and during the dry summer of 1985, senti­ments were enflamed in the Kamas Val­ley. Until then, Vickie Singer had enjoyed rights to a spring above her property. The Water Works, however, dug a line that reduced her flow to a trickle. She appealed to the commissioners to restore her water, but met with no success. The argument dragged on well into the sum­mer of 1987, when Addam Swapp took matters into his own hands and dug a trench to bring the water back. This trench, unfortunately, ran straight across the property of Jared Weller.

One hot morning in July, two of Jared’s sons caught Addam on their land. Heidi ran up from the house to see what was going on, and the sight of the three men in fierce argument impressed itself upon her memory. Several nights later, she had a dream that she and Addam were standing in the lane, when they were confronted by a black bull. The bull then turned into a man with knives on his fingers. “He was supposed to cut and kill me,” Heidi later wrote in her journal, “but I knew Addam would shoot [him]­ — and Dad would be there to stop it also.”

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Heidi’s dream electrified the family, be­coming the subject of endless interpreta­tion. The bull, it was decided, represented their enemies. Vickie, whose longing for her husband had reached agonizing pro­portions, wrote that “the bull striking would be the cause of Dad coming home … right in the nick of time. I had a dream awhile back about John’s being home,” she continued, “and I said to him … ‘Oh, John, I want to hold you … God, help me. It’s been so long …’ ”

She even went so far as to speculate about what John might do once he had returned. He would help her discipline their sons. He would give a piece of his mind to his brother, Harald, who had insulted her by suggesting she get a job. “My husband knows that I already have ‘a job,’ ” she noted. “He also knows the tremendous serious stand that is required of us at this time, and that we are in no position to go out among the gentiles.”

Making the stand became the gateway through which this modern miracle would pass. The stand would set the molecules of the temporal world aquiver. It would summon God from his “hiding place” and John Singer from the dead. Together they would rescue the family from peril. The stand, then, became the frontier between the First and Second Reality.

Vickie seemed to go out of her way, just as John had nine years earlier, to provoke the authorities. She refused to reincorpo­rate the academy under state law, noting that it might “give them an excuse to come against us.” She also declined to pay the portion of her property tax that was earmarked for the school, reasoning that the board had had a hand in killing her husband. As a result, she got a notice that her home was being “sold for prior taxes.”

Addam wrote an angry letter to the county commissioners asking how “this wicked government,” after leaving Vickie Singer a widow, now had the nerve to take her home. “If you try to take away our land,” he warned, “you will have a fight on your hands and God will fight our battles.” Addam also sent letters to the Marion Water Works and the school board, suggesting that the Lord would “strike them down.”

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Addam’s scarcely veiled threats upset enough of the local citizenry that the Summit County sheriff’s department dis­patched three deputies to visit him on the farm. As Vickie described this encounter in her journals, Addam went out with guns on, telling them to stop or he would “hand them their heads.”

“Addam said he was surprised about what happened next,” Vickie mused. “His hand went straight into the air with the gun and he fired a shot.”

After that there was a standing felony warrant for his arrest.

Addam grew increasingly cocky. This bravado was due to yet another dream. He had been crouching behind logs firing at “the enemy,” when John Singer ap­peared in front of him and commanded him to “fight like a man.” Suddenly, Singer caught a hail of bullets in the back shielding Addam, who walked away un­scathed. Vickie interpreted this to mean that, since her husband had “paid the price … they couldn’t hurt Addam when he had to stand against them.”

The effect of this was to leave the fledgling patriarch feeling invincible. He would be a champion who, unlike John Singer, could not be destroyed. In the minds of the Singer women, the distinc­tion between the two men was growing increasingly blurred. Heidi had foreseen Addam and Dad saving them from the bull. Vickie then had a dream that Ad­dam had started talking to her in a German accent. When she looked at him he had been literally transformed into her husband.

Addam seemed to accept his destiny enthusiastically, assuming Singer’s fron­tier dress right down to the fringed buck­skin jacket. Whenever he left the house, he carried Singer’s old Colt. Once, after spending three days of fasting in the hills, he returned with a fresh revelation that he and John Singer were destined to be­come prophets. It had been shown to him that Singer would return to gather the tribes of Israel — all except for the Ameri­can Indians, which were to be Addam’s responsibility. (Addam had always had a special affinity for the so-called “Laman­ites” whose skin was dark because of their iniquities but who God had prom­ised would turn white if they repented. He even claimed to have some Indian blood in his veins, a fact which his par­ents later denied.)

That three-day fast produced another revelation. Addam was to take a third wife. The young woman in question was a daughter of Shirley Black. This news sent Heidi into a funk. She knew that a proph­et of Addam’s impending stature should have many wives. And she had accepted his marriage to her little sister, but an outsider was different. Heidi suffered for several days, during which time Vickie noted in her journal that this torment had also been foretold by the bull dream. “The bull meant death,” she wrote, “but in this sense ‘death to her mortal-ego self.’ ”

Heidi finally wrestled her troublesome ego to the ground and gave Addam leave to go courting. One morning in late No­vember, he put on his guns and Indian moccasin boots and paid his intended a call. His courtship was short-lived. Julie Black, who had been a child living at the Singer compound during the 13-month siege, hoped to forget the past and cer­tainly wanted nothing more to do with those people up on the hill. Her brother announced that he would rather see his sister dead than married to Addam and later drove up to the Singer’s lane to shout, “You’re going to get yourself killed.”

The hostility that Addam was arousing in the community alarmed Vickie’s moth­er, Marge Lemon, who saw her estranged daughter plotting a dangerous recreation of old tragedy. She wrote a series of let­ters pleading with Vickie to come back to earth.

“You have been a good mother,” she allowed. “You sure have some good kids. But this thing you have about John has got to end … Do you think that all peo­ple has to do is sit around thinking up revenge on you? You are the one that is dwelling on it … I do believe it’s within your power to control whether Addam’s life ends like John’s,” she warned. “Don’t make a martyr out of Addam.”

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By the fall of 1987, the Singer-­Swapp family, which now included Addam’s younger brother, Jon, was living in a world that they reinvented daily, weaving in the details of each new revelation. While Ad­dam was prophet-designate, it was Vickie who seemed to be the chief interpreter of the family’s dream life. Her journal en­tries for the next three months revealed a woman for whom material and meta­physical considerations had become vir­tually indistinguishable. In one breath she talked of getting the driveway paved and new chairs for the kitchen; in the next, she was scheduling social calls for her dead husband. Each minor inconve­nience that arose presented the opportu­nity to make a stand and thereby trip the switch on reality.

I remember reading Vickie’s journal well into the early morning hours and thinking that the difference between her and the stolid burghers who attended those prayer and testimony meetings of my youth is that she had no temporal curbs on her imagination. Neither did her family. Living as they did in their pro­tected, unreal world, they reinforced one another’s fantasies, crediting each dream with apocalyptic significance, finally fall­ing under the sway of a mass hallucination.

What was most amazing, however, was the detached and sometimes blithe fash­ion in which she would write about these events. It was difficult to tell how much of which reality she was experiencing during any given entry. There was one particularly surreal exchange that she was having with a small-time film pro­ducer who had contacted her, with the intention of making a TV movie of John Singer’s life. (Charlton Heston, it was hoped, would play the lead.) I was sur­prised to learn that Vickie was engaging in this kind of commerce. Even more surprised to learn that she was taking an active role in shaping and editing the screenplay, an uncompleted draft of which she had included in the journal. (Wings of Morning, as it was called, was the sensitive story of a high-minded po­lygamist. In this version, John Singer goes to the mailbox unarmed.)

A cynic might conclude that Vickie Singer was quietly laying her plans for Armageddon in hopes of providing a socko last scene for a movie of the week. A more charitable interpretation — one which I eventually came to adopt — is that she simply saw in the screenplay one more avenue to reinvent reality by writ­ing an ending to her liking.

Ironically, it was the producer who un­wittingly triggered the final episode of the Singer-Swapps’ real-life drama. Around the first of the year, he sent Vickie a videotape containing footage of John Singer during the school battle, sug­gesting thoughtfully that “You could view it on John’s birthday.”

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The following evening, the entire fam­ily gathered around a rented VCR to watch the tape. As Vickie later described that experience, she and Heidi wept. So did Addam. “It was a very profound spir­it that came upon us,” she wrote. “It strengthened Addam in his stand … He watched the film over and then again.” One week later she reported, “Addam says he knows what he had to do. He believes, or knows, it has to take place on the 18th. (The ninth anniversary of John’s martyrdom.) God be with us.”

What “it” might be was not spelled out in Vickie’s journal. Nor were the prepara­tions. Vickie, in fact, was sufficiently oblique as to allow her defense to argue that she had no knowledge of what was actually to occur. The U.S. attorney later filled in for the benefit of a jury the details of those preparations, which in­cluded the amassing of 23 firearms and the purchase of 100 pounds of explosives.

Vickie does mention the possibility of blowing up Jared Weller’s reservoir. The reason why they settled, instead, upon the Kamas Stake Center is unclear ex­cept that the previous year Addam had gone down to the church to get his name taken off the membership rolls and ended up in a shoving match with Jared.

On Friday, January 15, Addam made what Vickie described as a “blood-red pole” — it was more of a spear, actually­ — to which he attached nine white feathers and a message reading, “J.S. Jan. 18, 1979 — Church, state and nation will now be destroyed.” Vickie prayed as to wheth­er she should allow her 15-year-old son, Benjamin, to go along to carry the pole. It was revealed to her that he should. As Addam, his brother, and Benjamin trudged one and a half miles over the snowy fields, their cargo in tow, Vickie prayed for “The explosives, that thy blessing be upon them, that they will not malfunction …”

The blast was delayed by a timer, which allowed the bombers to clear the scene. They were back up at the cabin when the church blew. Addam thought it looked like many evil spirits were rising above the chapel because of the eerie red glow and the smoke in the darkness.

“It is very serious,” Vickie noted. “The battle has begun.”

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It is a virtual certainty in the temporal world that when someone dynamites a site of interstate commerce — which oddly enough the Kamas Stake Cen­ter was held to be — federal agents will gather quickly. Peering through the eyes of the First Reality, they found the blood-­red pole with its cryptic allusions to John Singer stuck in the snow in the church parking lot. They followed a set of tracks to the bottom of Upper Loop Road and by Sunday afternoon, the Singer cabin was surrounded by 150 law enforcement officers, including Treasury explosives ex­perts and FBI men. The Weller relatives at the end of the lane were evacuated to accommodate sharpshooters.

The Singer-Swapps, who were listening to the details of these preparations on a Bearcat scanner, were gleeful at having inconvenienced Jared and his family. Ad­dam broke spontaneously into a hymn, and Vickie hoisted John Singer’s old Flag of the Kingdom of God. That afternoon, they received a visit from Addam’s cousin and brother-in-law, Roger Bates, who had been dispatched as a peacemaker. Bates came back down the lane to tell reporters that the Singers were “just waiting for John to come home.”

On Monday, lawmen patrolled the perimeter quietly, hoping not to agitate the family on this, the proposed day of resur­rection. But it passed quietly. The ground did not open. The graves did not give forth their dead. And John Singer did not return. Vickie, that constant chronicler of the Second Reality, was curiously silent on this disappointment. She observed that certain TV reporters had pointed to this as the resurrection day, noting with irritation, “We haven’t set a ‘day.’ ”

Government agents operating out of a command post in the church parking lot ruled out rushing the cabin. The Singers were known to be well-armed and to be stockpiling dynamite. And the cabin was filled with children. They were also aware of the bungled attempt to capture John Singer.

For the next five days, police tried to flush the Singers out with nuisances. They cut off their electricity and water, buzzed them with helicopers and bom­barded them with lights. The sense of embattlement only seemed to make the family more peaceful. Charlotte played hymns. They all sang. “We cooked a nice dinner on the stove,” Vickie wrote at one point. “And also popped some after din­ner popcorn.”

“This is some STAND,” she rejoiced. “A little family against a whole army of ‘lawmen.’ ”

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But by the weekend, the euphoria had begun to wane. The FBI had posted a set of sirens, which shrieked throughout the night. The children muffled their heads with pillows. Vickie complained that the “terrible shrill sound penetrated my head so much I got a deep headache and began getting dizzy.” Addam and Jon Swapp first shot at the speakers, then went out and pulled them down. On Sunday, they allowed a visit by Ogden Kraut, a fellow fundamentalist and old family friend, who had offered his services as negotia­tor. Ogden greeted the children, who were very excited to see a visitor, and ex­plained to Vickie very gently that there had been “a spiritual resurrection. Look at all the attention he’s getting with ev­erything being brought up again.”

Ogden also offered Vickie Singer a chance to air her grievances. He would hand carry letters to the governor of Utah. Vickie agreed and subsequently penned a poignant account of her frustra­tion and anguish.

“I have not been able to have my day in court,” she wrote. “I have been perse­cuted by my neighbors in that they tried to have me thrown out of my home since my husband was shot to death, but by the grace of God they did not succeed …

“ALL in ALL the grievances suffered by this family in a ‘free’ country can hardly be told, let alone believed … We talked until we were ‘blue in the face’ so to speak, but could not be heard … ”

Addam also wrote a letter, and Ogden Kraut came for them as promised. They did not go to the governor, however, but to the command post where the FBI read Addam’s angry militant rhetoric and de­cided that the Singer-Swapps were hell-­bent upon confrontation.

The FBI felt that if Addam Swapp could be isolated and captured, then the rest of the family would surrender peace­fully. That evening they contrived a plan to remount the noisemakers this time with a booby-trapped explosive, which would stun the Swapp brothers if they tried to dislodge them. At that point, state officers hiding in a trench nearby would unleash dogs to bring the men down. The Swapps came out as planned but the flash fizzled and the dog that was to have attacked them turned instead and bit his handler.

The following morning, Addam and Jon walked out to the goat pen as was their custom. Lieutenant Fred House, a state corrections officer who was hidden in an outbuilding a few yards away, sig­naled his dog to attack. The dog balked. House leaned out the door to give the animal encouragement. From an upstairs window of the cabin where the invalid Timothy Singer was posted as lookout there came a shot that hit House in the chest. He slumped back against a wall. The color left his face, making him ap­pear, in the words of a fellow officer, “very similar to a cartoon.”

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A sharpshooter opened fire, catching Addam in the ribs. He fell to the snow, where he lay bleeding for a moment, then dragged himself into the house, where he was encircled by his dazed family. He asked for a blessing, then told them, “I’m going to have to surrender and get to a hospital.”

Vickie and Addam, as well as Timothy Singer and Jon Swapp, were charged in U.S. District Court with 32 counts of federal firearms violations and attempted murder of a federal officer. (The State of Utah held off bringing its own charges for the death of officer House until the feder­al government had concluded its business with the family.) After a trial that ran throughout April and half of May, they were convicted of virtually every charge. (Vickie was acquitted of attempted mur­der and possession of a sawed-off shot­gun.) The outcome surprised no one.

During the siege and after their arrest, all four defendants had made admissions of one kind or another. The only defense left to them was to plead insanity, but they would not hear of it. The family’s court-appointed attorneys had hoped that by focusing upon why their clients had acted as they did, they might elicit sympathy. The government, however, called a numbing succession of federal agents who kept the focus trained narrowly upon how they had accomplished their mischief.

All that remained then was the faint hope that the defendants might find sym­pathizers among the jury, which was drawn from the predominantly Mormon Salt Lake County. These were, after all, just the sort of people who might under­stand the nature of miracles. As a matter of faith they accept the premise that God speaks to man today just as he did in antiquity. And what God could do then, he could do now. But resurrection is a tough trick to credit. To good mainstream Mormons for whom the Second Reality is largely a Sunday exercise, the Singers probably were, as their patriarch once claimed, a prick in the conscience. They certainly were an embarrassment. The family elicited no sympathy from their Mormon brethren.

In the days thereafter, the family tried to put the best face on things, pointing out that Addam had been spared, they claimed, because John Singer had “paid the price.” A sign that God’s word had been fulfilled. Addam Swapp remained defiant, wearing to court each day the buckskin jacket that his wives had so carefully decorated with Indian symbols and the Flag of the Kingdom of God. He took the stand, against his attorney’s best advice, and claimed full responsibility for the bombing. Even this selfless gesture failed to move the jury, which appor­tioned guilt more or less equally.

After the verdict, Addam issued a Dec­laration of Independence, signed by Vickie and the others, declaring their se­cession from the Union.

“We have suffered the conspiracys [sic] of Wicked men in both Church and this the American Government,” he wrote. “We have suffered Publick Humiliation and the Defamation of our character .. By hounding, Persecuting and Depriving us of our Liberties … They have tried to … Wipe us out all in the name of the U.S. Government …

“Let it be known, to all Nations … that we are a Nation under God. That we are Independent, seperate [sic] and Free.”

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Several weeks after Addam issued his declaration, I made another visit to the Singer farm to see how the new republic was faring.

Charlotte answers the door with none of her usual perkiness. Her eyes are listless and she moves into the living room slowly, like an old cat.

I am not sure, now that the waves of spiritual euphoria have subsided, how much of her present condition she actual­ly comprehends. So I ask tentatively.

“What has Addam said about how all of you will be cared for?”

“Oh, boy,” she rallies slightly. “Day by day there are little miracles just showin’ us that the Lord is takin’ care of us.”

“Little miracles?” I ask, recalling invol­untarily the childhood image of hot dogs multiplying wildly in a Frigidaire. “What kind of little miracles?”

“Sometimes people send us some mon­ey. But people mainly bring us food … We’re doin’ just as good now as if Addam was goin’ to work.”

She cannot maintain this rush of optimism.

“I get depressed,” she confesses. “It’s hard, really hard, to believe, you know … because the Lord has promised us cer­tain things … Like Mom getting new teeth … He’s promised us that Dad is gonna come home. And it’s really hard because you know how you get in the mortal way of thinking and you think ‘How can that ever happen?’ ”

But doubt does not befit the wife of a patriarch. And whenever these heretical thoughts come upon her, Addam gives her a stern talking to from prison. If there is one thing the Singer girls are conditioned to respond to, it’s the rally­ing cry of the patriarch.

Outside dusk is falling, and from the window I can see all the way down the lane to the mailbox mounted on the post. It is the hour during which the Singers become uneasy about visitors. A witching hour when little miracles lose their com­monplace proportions and loom with fantastic promise. Bathed now in the glow of unreal light, Charlotte announces gravely, “I’m expectin’ a miracle. That’s the only thing that’s gonna free them is a miracle.”

In another room, her baby and the other children are playing under the watchful gaze of John Singer’s photo. They already know his legend by heart. They have heard countless times that his “blood was spilt” and that he “paid the price” for them. They saw their father shot down in the front yard — just as their mothers saw their own father shot down nine years earlier. Each time their fathers have done battle with the forces of the First Reality they have been beaten bad­ly. But adversity is mother’s milk to a zealot.

Just the other day, one of the younger boys set the dog on Jared Weller as he ventured too close to the cabin. And, I wonder, listening to the shrieks and gig­gles, if it will be him, or his brother, or his cousin, who will be called to make the next stand. ❖

Categories
FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

In Search of a Soviet Holocaust

A 55-Year Old Famine Feeds The Right

Something therefore always remains and sticks from the most impudent lies…
The size of the lie is a definite factor in causing it to be believed.

— Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf

The girl is dying. She looks about five years old, but we know she may be older, dimin­ished by hunger. She leans wearily against a gate. Her long hair falls lank about bare shoul­ders. Her head rests against her arm. Her neck is bent, like a stalk in parched earth. Her eyes are the worst — large and dark, glazed yet still wistful. The child is dying, starving, and we feel guilty for our witness …

The Ukrainian émigrés who made Har­vest of Despair knew a gripping image when they saw one. The black-and-white still, played over an arching, minor-mode chorus, was chosen to close the Canadian documentary on the Ukraine of 1932-33. The same photograph was used to pro­mote the film, to symbolize a long-dor­mant cause célebre: a “man-made” fam­ine, “deliberately engineered” by Stalin to crush Ukrainian nationalism and cow a stubborn peasantry into permanent col­lectivization. Seven million Ukrainians were killed, the narrator tells us, as “a nation the size of France [was] strangled by hunger.”

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The result, intoned William F. Buckley, whose Firing Line showed the film last November, was “perhaps the greatest ho­locaust of the century.”

The term “holocaust” still burns the ears, even in our jaded time. As we watch the film and see corpses piled in fields, bloated bodies sprawled in streets, pale skeletons grasping for bits of bread, we wonder: How can such a terrible story have been suppressed so long?

Here is how: The story is a fraud. The starving girl, it turns out, wasn’t found in 1932 or 1933, nor in the Ukraine. Her picture was taken from a Red Cross bulletin on the 1921-22 Volga famine, for which no one claims genocide. Rather than an emblem of persecution, the photograph advances the most cyni­cal of swindles — a hoax played out from the White House and Congress through the halls of Harvard to the New York State Department of Education. Pressing every pedal, pulling all the strings, is a Ukrainian nationalist lobby straining to cloak its own history of Nazi collabora­tion. By revising their past, these émigrés help support a more ambitious revision­ism: a denial of Hitler’s holocaust against the Jews.

There was indeed a famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s. It appears likely that hundreds of thousands, possi­bly one or two million, Ukrainians died — ­the minority from starvation, the major­ity from related diseases. By any scale, this is an enormous toll of human suffer­ing. By general consensus, Stalin was partially responsible. By any stretch of an honest imagination, the tragedy still falls short of genocide.

In 1932, the Soviet Union was in crisis. The cities had suffered food shortages since 1928. Grain was desperately needed for export and foreign capital, both to fuel the first Five-Year Plan and to counter the growing war threat from Ger­many. In addition, the Communist Par­ty’s left wing, led by Stalin, had come to reject the New Economic Plan, which re­stored market capitalism to the country­side in the 1920s.

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In this context, collectivization was more than a vehicle for a cheap and steady grain supply to the state. It was truly a “revolution from above,” a drastic move toward socialism, and an epochal change in the mode of production. There were heavy casualties on both sides — ­hundreds of thousands of kulaks (rich peasants) deported to the north, thou­sands of party activists assassinated. Production superseded politics, and many peasants were coerced rather than won to collective farms. Vast disruption of the 1932 harvest ensued (and not only in the Ukraine), and many areas were hard-pressed to meet the state’s grain requisition quotas.

Again, Stalin and the Politburo played major roles. “But there is plenty of blame to go around,” as Sovietologist John Arch Getty recently noted in The London Re­view of Books. “It must be shared by the tens of thousands of activists and offi­cials who carried out the policy and by the peasants who chose to slaughter ani­mals, burn fields, and boycott cultivation in protest.”

Such a balanced analysis, however, has never satisfied Ukrainian nationalists in the United States and Canada, for whom the “terror-famine” is an article of faith and communal rallying point. For decades after the fact, their obsession was con­fined to émigré journals. Only of late has it achieved a sort of mainstream credibil­ity — in Harvest of Despair, shown on PBS and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and at numerous college campuses; in The Harvest of Sorrow, an Oxford University Press account by Rob­ert Conquest; in a “human rights” curric­ulum, now available to every 10th-grade social studies teacher in New York State; and in the federally funded Ukraine Fam­ine Commission, now into its second year of “hearings.”

After 50 years on the fringes, the Ukraine famine debate is finally front and center. While one-note faminologists may teach us little real history, they re­veal how our sense of history is pulled by political fashion until it hardens into the taffy of conventional wisdom. And how you can fool most of the people most of the time — especially when you tell them what they want to hear.

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THE FILM

Harvest of Despair was the brain­child of Marco Carynnyk, a Ukrai­nian translator and poet who lives in Toronto. In 1983, Carynnyk found a sponsor in St. Vladimir’s Institute, which formed a Ukrainian Famine Research Committee of well-to-­do émigrés . The committee raised $200,000 for the documentary, including a major grant from the Ukrainian Cana­dian Committee (a spiritual descendant of the fascist Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists), and a loan from the simi­larly right-wing World Congress of Free Ukrainians.

As chief researcher for the film, Caryn­nyk had two major functions — to locate and interview famine survivors, and to find archival photographs. Talking heads would not be enough to make a case for genocide. To gain its intended shock val­ue, the film would have to show what the famine was like. “There can be no ques­tion,” assessed The Winnipeg Free Press, “that without the films and photographs uncovered from the 1932-33 famine, the film would lose much of its authority.”

“I gave them two sets of photographs,” Carynnyk said. “I told them, ‘Here are the ones from the 1930s, and here are the ones from 1921-22.’ But in the cutting of the film, they were all mixed up. I said this can’t be done, that it will leave the film open to criticism … My complaints were ignored. They just didn’t think it was important.”

One problem, Carynnyk said, was that producer Slawko Nowitski faced an im­possible five-month deadline to ready the film during the famine’s 50th anniversa­ry. (In fact, Harvest of Despair would not be completed until late 1984.) But the researcher believes it was more than mere sloppiness at work. “The research com­mittee was more interested in propagan­distic purposes than historical scholarship,” said Carynnyk, who has sued the Famine Research Committee for copy­right violation. “They were quite pre­pared to cut corners to get their point across.”

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In October 1983, Carynnyk left the project — “relieved of his duties,” accord­ing to Nowitski, “because he did not pro­duce the required material.” Three years and seven awards later, the lid blew last November at a meeting of the Toronto Board of Education, where terror-famine proponents were pressing to include the film in the city’s high school curriculum. The show stopped cold when Doug Tot­tle, former editor of a Winnipeg labor magazine, stood up and declared that “90 per cent” of the film’s archival photo­graphs were plagiarized from the 1921-22 famine.

Tottle traced several of the most graphic photos, including that of the starving girl, to famine relief sources of the 1920s. (Some of these resurfaced in 1933 as anti-Soviet propaganda in Voelk­ischer Beobachter, an official Nazi party organ.) Other pictures were lifted from the 1936 English edition of Human Life in Russia, by Ewald Ammende, an Aus­trian relief worker in the earlier Volga famine. Ammende attributes them to a “Dr. F. Dittloff,” a German engineer who supposedly took the photos in the sum­mer of 1933. The Dittloff pictures have their own bastard pedigrees — three from 1922 Geneva-based relief bulletins, others from Nazi publications. Still other Ditt­loffs were also claimed as original by Robert Green, a phony journalist and es­caped convict who provided famine mate­rial to the profascist Hearst chain in 1935. Green, a convicted forger who used the alias “Thomas Walker,” reported that he took the photos in the spring of 1934 — almost a year after the Ukraine famine had ended, and in direct contra­diction of Dittloff.

Although Green was exposed by The Nation and several New York dailies by 1935, right-wing émigrés have used his spurious photos for decades. “It’s not that these pictures were suddenly discov­ered in 1983 and accidentally misdated” in the film, Tottle noted.

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Tottle had done his homework. Caryn­nyk confirmed that “very few” photos in Harvest of Despair could be authenticat­ed, and that none of the famine film footage was from 1932-33. But the Ukraine Famine Research Committee de­cided to stonewall. At first they insisted that any photos from the 1920s were used only when the film discussed the Volga famine — a blatant evasion, since that segment lasts a scant 28 seconds and uses only two still photos, neither especially potent. Committee chairman Wasyl Jan­ischewskyj recently softened that stance: “We have researched further and made discoveries that some photos we thought were from 1932-33 were not … We are now having further deep investigations of these pictures.”

In the main, however, the filmmakers have sought to justify their fraud. “You have to have visual impact,” said Orest Subtelny, the film’s historic adviser. “You want to show what people dying from a famine look like. Starving children are starving children.” A documentary, added producer Nowitski, must rely on “emotional truth” more than literal facts.

“These people have never attempted to refute my claims,” said Tottle. (His book on the subject, Fraud, Famine, and Fas­cism, will be published this fall by Toron­to’s Progress Books, an outlet for Soviet releases.) “They have tried to lie and cover it up, but they have not tried to refute it.”

Nor have the nationalists refuted Tot­tle’s contention that several “witnesses” in the film were Nazi collaborators, in­cluding two German diplomats who served in the Third Reich and an Ortho­dox Church layman who blessedly rose to bishop while the Third Reich occupied the Ukraine in 1942.

“Just because they’re collaborators,” countered Nowitski, “does that mean we cannot believe anything they tell us? Just because they’re Nazis is no reason to doubt the authenticity of what happened.”

This slant pervades émigré research on the famine. Soviet sources are rejected out of hand, while Nazi sources (or known liars like Walker and Dittloff) are accepted unconditionally. In the Goeb­bels tradition, the nationalists’ brief al­ways serves their anticommunism — no matter how many facts twist slowly in the process. Harvest of Despair follows unholy footsteps, and never breaks stride.

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THE BOOK

According to a 1978 article in The Guardian of London, Robert Con­quest got his big break shortly after World War II, when he joined the Information Research Department of the British Foreign Office. Staffed heavily by émigrés, the IRD’s mission was a covert “propaganda counter-offen­sive” against the Soviet Union. It was heady, hands-on work for a young writer, a chance to slant media coverage of Russia by adding political “spin” to Eastern bloc press releases and funneling them to top reporters. The journalists knew little about the IRD, beyond the names of their mysterious contacts. The public knew nothing at all, even as their opinions were being sculpted.

After Conquest left the IRD in 1956, the agency suggested that he package some of his handiwork into a book. That first compilation was distributed in the U.S. by Fred Praeger, who had previously published several books at the request of the CIA.

The shy and courtly Conquest has come a long way since then, from gray propagandist to éminence grise. He is now a senior research fellow at the Hoo­ver Institute at Stanford, as well as an associate of Harvard’s Ukrainian Re­search Institute. But his heart and his pen never left the IRD. The Soviet Union would be Conquest’s lifetime obsession. He churned out book after book on the horrors of communism: The Nation Kill­er, Where Marx Went Wrong, Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps. His landmark work of 1968, The Great Terror, focused on Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s. But by 1984, his work had turned surreal; What To Do When the Russians Come was the literary equivalent of that politi­co-teen-disaster flick, Red Dawn. Yet he remained a mainstream heavyweight, coasting on reputation, his excesses ac­cepted as Free World zeal.

In 1981, the Ukrainian Research Insti­tute approached Conquest with a major project: a book on the 1932-33 famine. The pot was sweetened by an $80,000 subsidy from the Ukrainian National As­sociation, a New Jersey-based group with a venerable, hard-right tradition; the UNA’s newspaper, Swoboda, was banned by Canada during World War II for its pro-German sympathies. (The grant was earmarked for Conquest’s research expenses, including the assistance of James Mace, a junior fellow at URI.)

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The nationalists knew they’d be getting their money’s worth. At the time, famino­logy was virgin ground. There was little source material available, since the Soviet archives remain sealed. More to the point, most non-émigré historians viewed the 1932-33 famine as an outgrowth of collectivization, not a political phenome­non of itself, much less a stab at geno­cide. But Conquest was different. In his Terror book, he’d already concluded that more than three million Ukrainians were killed by the famine. Here, clearly, was the right man for the job, a man who once stated: “Truth can thus only perco­late in the form of hearsay … basically the best, though not infallible, source is rumor.” And with no one on record to dispute the issue, Conquest’s rumors could rule.

In The Harvest of Sorrow, Conquest outdoes himself. He weaves his terror­-famine from unverifiable (and notorious­ly biased) émigré accounts. He leans on reportage from ex-Communist converts to the American Way. He cites both “Walker” and Ammende. Black Deeds of the Kremlin, a period piece published by Ukrainian émigrés in 1953, is footnoted no less than 145 times.

Conquest can be deftly selective when it suits his purpose. He borrows heavily from Lev Kopelev’s The Education of a True Believer, but ignores Kopelev when the latter recalls Ukrainian villages that were relatively untouched by famine, or relief efforts by a Communist village council.

By confirming people’s worst suspi­cions of Stalin’s rule, The Harvest of Sor­row has won favorable reviews from The New York Times, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books. But leading scholars on this era are less im­pressed. They challenge Conquest’s con­tention that Ukrainian priests and intelli­gentsia — two major counterrevolutionary camps — were repressed more ruthlessly than anywhere else in the country. They point out that the 1932-33 famine was hardly confined to the Ukraine, that it reached deep into the Black Earth region of central Russia. They note that Stalin had far less control over collectivization than is widely assumed, and that radical district leaders made their own rules as they went along.

Most vehemently of all, these experts reject Conquest’s hunt for a new holo­caust. The famine was a terrible thing, they agree, but it decidedly was not genocide.

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“There is no evidence it was intention­ally directed against Ukrainians,” said Al­exander Dallin of Stanford, the father of modern Sovietology. “That would be to­tally out of keeping with what we know — ­it makes no sense.”

“This is crap, rubbish,” said Moshe Lewin of the University of Pennsylvania, whose Russian Peasants and Soviet Pow­er broke new ground in social history. “I am an anti-Stalinist, but I don’t see how this [genocide] campaign adds to our knowledge. It’s adding horrors, adding horrors, until it becomes a pathology.”

“I absolutely reject it,” said Lynne Vio­la of SUNY-Binghamton, the first U.S. historian to examine Moscow’s Central State Archive on collectivization. “Why in god’s name would this paranoid gov­ernment consciously produce a famine when they were terrifed of war [with Germany]?”

These premier Sovietologists dismiss Conquest for what he is — an ideologue whose serious work is long behind him. But Dallin stands as a liberal exception to the hard-liners of his generation, while Lewin and Viola remain Young Turks who happen to be doing the freshest work on this period. In Soviet studies, where rigor and objectivity count for less than the party line, where fierce anti-Commu­nists still control the prestigious institutes and first-rank departments, a Con­quest can survive and prosper while barely cracking a book.

“He’s terrible at doing research,” said veteran Sovietologist Roberta Manning of Boston College. “He misuses sources, he twists everything.”

Then there are those who love to twist, and shout — to use scholarly disinformation for their own, less dignified purposes. In the latest catalogue for The Noontide Press, a Liberty Lobby affiliate run by flamboyant fascist Willis Carto, The Harvest of Sorrow is listed cheek-by-jowl with such revisionist tomes as The Auschwitz Myth and Hitler at My Side. To hype the Conquest book and its ter­ror-famine, the catalogue notes: “The act of genocide against the Ukrainian people has been supressed [sic] until recently, perhaps because a real ‘Holocaust’ might compete with a Holohoax.”

For those unacquainted with Noontide jargon, the “Holohoax” refers to the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews.

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THE CURRICULUM

In 1982, the New York State Depart­ment of Education set out to blaze a new trail: a definitive curriculum on the Nazi holocaust. The department assembled a distinguished review committee, including such Holocaust ex­perts as Terrence Des Pres and Raul Hil­berg. It assigned the actual writing to three top-rated social studies teachers. The finished two-volume project, which went to classrooms in the fall of 1985, does credit to everyone involved. It is a balanced mix of archival documents, sur­vivor memoirs, and scholarly essays.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the high schools: The Ukrainian nationalists stole the show. Their point man was Bohdan Vitvitsky, a New Jersey attorney and author who was invited to join the state’s advisory council, which would steer the curriculum’s develop­ment. Vitvitsky’s first move was to gain inclusion of an excerpt of his book on Slavic victims of the Nazis. His second victory was to eliminate all but passing mention of Ukrainian war criminals.

“I took the position they should be dealt with,” said Stephen Berk, a Union College history professor and advisory council member, “but Vitvitsky insisted there should be no dwelling on [Nazi] collaborators.” (The Catholic lobby didn’t fare so well; over its protests, the curricu­lum includes a critical assessment of Pope Pius XII’s inaction.)

But Vitvitsky’s major coup, helped along by a nationalist letter campaign, was to install material on the Ukraine famine of 1932-33. In the curriculum’s second draft in 1984, the famine was treated as a 17-page precursor chapter to the second Holocaust volume — a plan which met heated resistance from Jewish groups. By the time the material reached the schools last fall, however, it had swol­len into a separate third volume, with 90 pages on the “forced famine,” and anoth­er 52 on “human rights violations” in the Ukraine.

A key player in the transition was As­semblyman William Larkin (Conserva­tive Republican, New Windsor), a retired Army colonel, assistant minority whip, and old friend of Gordon Ambach, then the state commissioner of education. Lar­kin had ample incentive to help; his dis­trict contains about 8000 ethnic Ukraini­ans. He arranged “four or five” meetings between the state education staff and 20 upstate Ukrainian nationalists in 1985. He also enlisted other Republican assem­blymen to press for the famine book, and says he spoke personally to Ambach. The commissioner “offered to do any­thing be could,” Larkin said. “But if we didn’t go up there in force, if we didn’t push it, it wouldn’t have happened.”

By most accounts, the political pres­sure was intense — enough to squeeze a department deemed relatively apolitical. The Ukrainians mounted “an enormous letter-writing campaign with the Board of Regents,” said Robert Maurer, the execu­tive deputy commissioner. “There were phone calls and visits. There’s not often that much interest in curriculum matters; it was very unusual.”

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The famine boosters found an especial­ly sympathetic ear in Regent Emlyn I. Griffith, then chairman of the committee that unanimously endorsed Volume Three in 1985 — a vote which ensured its future use. “As a member of a minority people put down by a majority govern­ment, I emphathized” with the Ukrainian nationalists, said Griffith, an ethnic Welshman. “There was a significant lob­bying effort … It was persuasive. It wasn’t threatening, it was positive.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly who made the fatal decision on Volume Three. Griffith said his committee acted on a strong staff recommendation. Ambach failed to return phone calls for this story. Maurer lodged responsibility with Deputy Commissioner Gerald Freebome, who in turn pointed to Program Development Director Edward Lalor, who referred questions to a low-level official named George Gregory, the chairman of the Hu­man Rights Series advisory committee.

Shrouded by this corporate haze, Vit­vitsky ran in an open field. No one chal­lenged his basic premise. The famine “certainly does represent another exam­ple of genocide,” Gregory asserted. “It was a planned attempt by Stalin to elimi­nate the Ukrainian people.”

(“George is the consummate bureau­crat,” said one educator involved with the series. “His experience is mainly in grade-school curricula — like ‘Appreciat­ing Our Indian Heritage,’ or ‘The Impor­tance of the Finger Lakes Region.’ When I started up there, he really didn’t know anything about the Holocaust.”)

To write the famine material, Gregory hired Walter Litynsky, a Troy High School biology teacher and a local chair­man of Americans for Human Rights in Ukraine. For the job of principal review­er, Litynsky recommended James Mace, the Conquest protégé who also directs the Ukraine Famine Commission under a $382,000 congressional appropriation. Mace and Litynsky proceeded to stack the review committee with Ukrainian academics, the omnipresent Vitvitsky, and four upstate nationalists. “No contrary [review] letters were either solicited or received,” Berk acknowledged. “I’m sorry this came out, because it was distorted — ­but I felt it was a fait accompli.”

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When asked about contrasting view­points from such scholars as Lewin and Viola, Gregory was unmoved. “Quite frankly, we have not heard of any of them,” he said. “We tried to present a balanced point of view. We didn’t ask for the Soviet opinion, since the Soviet view was that the famine never happened. [In fact, the Soviets now concede that a fam­ine was “impossible to avoid,” because of drought, mismanagement, and kulak sab­otage.] We relied heavily on James Mace; he’s the leading historian of that time period.”

This paean would startle academe, where Mace’s work is infrequently read and rarely found in footnotes, the base­line of a scholar’s importance. He is wide­ly regarded as a right-wing polemicist, an indifferent researcher who has made a checkered career out of faminology.

“I doubt he could have gotten a real academic job,” Manning said. “Soviet studies is a very competitive field these days — there’s much weeding out after the Ph.D. If he hadn’t hopped on this politi­cal cause, he would be doing research for a bank, or running an export-import business.”

The Mace-Litynsky partnership yield­ed a predictable end product — the undis­tilled nationalist line. The state curricu­lum on the Ukraine famine apes both Harvest of Despair and The Harvest of Sorrow. (The education department now supplies the embattled documentary, as an audiovisual supplement, to any inter­ested teacher.) Like the film and the hook, the curriculum features faked pho­tos from Ammende, dubious atrocity tales (including 16 selections from Black Deeds of the Kremlin), and sections of the “Walker” Hearst series, all without caveat. Like Conquest and Nowitski, the famine volume red-baits anyone who challenged the genocide scenario, such as New York Times reporter Walter Dur­anty. It goes Conquest one better by re­ferring to the region as Ukraine, with no article, in deference to a sovereignty that exists only in nationalist fables.

The curriculum is most obviously ex­posed in its estimate of the famine death toll: “… it is generally accepted that about 7 million Ukrainians or about 22% of the total Ukrainian population died of starvation in a government planned and controlled famine.”

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How did Litynsky arrive at this talis­manic figure, cited over and over again in emigre literature? “I don’t pretend to be an expert on this subject,” the biology teacher said. “This is not my field. I had a list of people who went from 1.5 million to 10 million. In my reading I saw seven million used more than any other figure, and I decided that was realistic. It got to the point where it was so confusing that you had to decide.” (Mace has opted for 7.9 million Ukrainian famine deaths in his own work, with an “irreducible mini­mum” of 5.5 million. Conquest fixes on seven million famine deaths, including six million Ukrainians, with no appendix to show how his numbers are derived.)

But the magic number, like the geno­cide theory it shoulders, simply can’t pass scrutiny. Sergei Maksudov, a Soviet émigré scholar much cited by Mace and Conquest, has now concluded that the famine caused 3.5 million premature deaths in the Ukraine — 700,000 from starvation, and the rest from diseases “stimulated” by malnutrition.

Even Maksudov’s lower estimates are open to challenge. Writing in Slavic Re­view, demographers Barbara Anderson and Brian Silver maintain that limited census data make a precise famine death count impossible. Instead, they offer a probable range of 3.2 to 5.5 million “ex­cess deaths” for the entire Soviet Union from 1926 to 1939 — a period that covers collectivization, the civil war in the coun­tryside, the purges of the late ’30s, and major epidemics of typhus and malaria. According to these experts, and Maksu­dov as well, Mace and Conquest make the most primitive of errors: They overesti­mate fertility rates and underrate the im­pact of assimilation, through which many Ukrainians were “redesignated” as Rus­sians in the 1939 census. As a result, the cold warriors confuse population deficits (which include unborn children) with ex­ cess deaths.

Which leaves us with a puzzle: Wouldn’t one or two or 3.5 million fam­ine-related deaths be enough to make an anti-Stalinist argument? Why seize a wildly inflated figure that can’t possibly be supported? The answer tells much ahout the Ukrainian nationalist cause, and about those who abet it.

“They’re always looking to come up with a number bigger than six million,” observed Eli Rosenbaum, general counsel for the World Jewish Congress. “It makes the reader think: ‘My god, it’s worse than the Holocaust.’ ”

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HIDDEN AGENDAS

Your husband’s courage and dedication to liberty will serve as a continuing source of inspiration to all those striving for freedom and self-determination.
— Letter from President Reagan to the widow of Yaroslav Stetsko, ranking OUN terrorist, murderer, and Nazi collabora­tor, read by retired general John Singlaub at a conference of the World Anti-Com­munist League, September 7, 1986.

In the panel discussion that followed Harvest of Despair on PBS last fall, Conquest addressed the issue of Ukrainian war crimes. “It’s not the case,” he said blandly, “that the Ukrainian nationalist organizations collaborated with the Germans.” Once again, the aging faminologist had tripped on the public record. It is one thing to suggest, rightly, that Ukrainian nationalism had little popular support among the peasantry. (It was actually a narrow, urban, middle-class movement.) Millions of Ukrainians fought with the Red Army and partisans. Many others can be accused of nothing worse than indifference, and a smaller number risked their lives to save Jews from the Ger­mans. But on the matter of the OUN, the principal nationalist group from the 1930s on, the record is quite clear: It was fascist from the start.

In its original statement of purpose in 1929, the OUN betrays a raw Nazi influ­ence: “Do not hesitate to commit the greatest crime, if the good of the Cause demands it … Aspire to expand the strength, riches, and size of the Ukraini­an State even by means of enslaving for­eigners.” This sentiment was echoed in a 1941 letter to the German Secret Service from the OUN’s dominant Bandera wing: “Long live greater independent Ukraine without Jews, Poles, and Germans. Poles behind the [river] San, Germans to Ber­lin, Jews to the gallows.”

As the authoritative John Armstrong, a staunch anti-Communist and pro-Ukrai­nian, has written: “The theory and teach­ings of the Nationalists were very close to Fascism, and in some respects, such as the insistence on ‘racial purity,’ even went beyond the original Fascist doctrines.”

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But the OUN storm troopers, like any terrorist group, prized action over theory. Their wartime brutalities have been am­ply documented (Voice, February 11, 1986, “To Catch a Nazi”). They recruited for the Waffen SS, pulled the triggers at Babi Yar and Sobibor, ran the gas cham­ber at Treblinka. During their brief inter­ludes of Nazi-sponsored “independence” (in the Carpatho-Ukraine in 1939 and in Galicia in 1941), pogroms were the order of the day, in the spirit of their revered Simon Petlura. They strove to outdo the Nazis at every turn.

And when the Third Reich fell, the nationalists fled — to Munich, to Toronto, and (with the covert aid of the U.S. State Department, which viewed them as po­tential anti-Soviet guerrillas) to New York and Chicago and Cleveland.

This is not ancient history. The Ukrai­nian émigré groups still contain more than a few former OUN members, and many of their sons and daughters. The nationalists still heroize their wartime past. On occasion their old passions sur­face as well — as in Why Is One Holocaust Worth More Than Others?, recently pub­lished by Veterans of the Ukrainian In­surgent Army: “In 1933, the majority of the European and American press controlled by the Jews were silent about the famine.”

From this perspective, the “conspira­cy” lives on: “In (February} 1986 the Jew­ish newspaper Village Voice … published one-and-one-half pages of accusations against a high-standing member of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, Mykola Lebed.”

And finally, most transparently: “Tens of millions of people have been killed since the Zionist Bolshevik Jews, backed by the Zionist-oriented Jewish interna­tional bankers, took over Russia.”

Not surprisingly, Ukrainian émigrés are among the harshest and most power­ful critics of Nazi-hunting. They have sought to kill both the Justice Depart­ment’s Office of Special Investigations and the Canadian Deschenes Commis­sion — and with good reason. Sol Littman, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Toronto, recently presented the com­mission with the names of 475 suspected Nazi collaborators. He reports that Ukrainians were “very heavily represent­ed” on the list.

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It may not be sheer coincidence that faminology took wing just after the OSI was commissioned in 1979. For here was a way to rehabilitate fascism- — to prove that Ukrainian collaborators were help­less victims, caught between the rock of Hitler and Stalin’s hard place. To wit, this bit of psycho-journalism from the 33 March 24 Washington Post, in a story on accused war criminal John “Ivan the Terrible” Demjanjuk: “The pivotal event in Demjanjuk’s childhood was the great famine of the early 1930s, conceived by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin as a way of destroying the independent Ukrainian peasantry … Several members of [Demjanjuk’s] family died in the catastrophe.”

Coupled with the old nationalist ca­nard of “Judeo-Bolshevism,” faminology could help justify anti-Semitism, collabo­ration, even genocide. An eye for an eye; a Nazi holocaust in return for a “Jewish famine.”

Just as the Nazis used the OUN for their own ends, so has Reagan exploited the famine, from his purple-prosed com­memoration of “this callous act” to his backing of the Mace commission. Faced with failing fascist allies around the world, from Nicaragua to South Africa, the U.S. war lobby needs to boost anti­-Communism as never before. Public en­thusiasm to fight for the contras will not come easy. But if people could be con­vinced that Communism is worse than fascism; that Stalin was an insane mon­ster, even worse than Hitler; that the seven million died in more unspeakable agony than the six million …. Well, we just might be set up for the next Gulf of Tonkin. One cannot appease an Evil Em­pire, after all.

As Conquest noted on PBS, after the starving girl’s image finally faded from the screen: “This was a true picture we saw … It instructs us about the world today.”

It turns out that the picture is far from true — that the purveyors of a famine genocide are stealing a piece of history and slicing it to order. It’s a brash bit of larceny for Conquest and company, even within the prevailing vogue of anti-Sta­linism. But if they say it loud enough and long enough, people just might listen. Lie bold enough and large enough, and — as the man once said — it just might stick. ❖

Categories
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Stop the G.O.P.! The Rise of the Counter-Constitution

I’VE BEEN WATCHING THE HOUSE Foreign Affairs hearings on television and am struck with the much­ remarked Yogi Berra sense of “déja vu all over again.” For it’s not just that current happenings bring to mind the televised Watergate spec­taculars. Dimly I recall from earlier eons, as an infant sprawled at my mother’s feet, watching yet other congressional hearings illumined on the screen. Senators were put­ting questions to their colleague, Joseph R. McCarthy. And the thought occurs that in each of the Age of Television’s three great contests over the Con­stitution, the rogues’ gallery has never really changed. Those are proud and pa­triotic Republicans sitting over there.

Gerald Holton tells the following story. Sir Peter Medawar, the British scientist, applied for a visa to America, went to the consul, and was asked if he intended to overthrow the Constitution. Sir Peter re­plied: “I would certainly not overthrow it on purpose, and I can only hope I wouldn’t do so by mistake.” The best that can be said of modern Republicanism is that three times in a generation it has nearly done so by mistake.

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Each of the three modern scandals has derived from a mania for anticommun­ism. Exactly what loosed that mania in the McCarthy era hasn’t ever, in my view, been adequately explained, and can’t be, since it has to do with the irrational. But there’s no mystery regarding the causes of the more recent scandals. In Watergate and Irangate alike, the mania got out of hand because of the big dys­function in American political affairs, which is the crisis, by now endemic, in foreign policy.

Everyone describes that crisis differ­ently, but the people to listen to are the ones who evoke it with the despairing phrase “the country has become ungov­ernable.” They mean, of course, that poli­cies acceptable to themselves no longer command automatic consensus, hence can’t be put into effect without going to a lot of bother. In the old days, from the late 1940s to the Vietnam War, things were different. There was a national poli­cy, the Truman Doctrine. The Truman Doctrine quite properly declared commu­nism a tyranny and worried about its spread. It identified Soviet tanks and machinations as principally responsible for the expansion. It pledged a stalwart American resistance. And since the doc­trine was drawn with an eye toward East­ern Europe, where its analysis was accu­rate enough, most Americans approved and in regard to Europe generally still approve, and aren’t entirely wrong to, as the trade unionists of Poland will leap to instruct us.

Unfortunately, the Truman Doctrine, having been devised for Europe, was de­ployed planet-wide. A fatal mistake: to err is Truman, as they used to say. Like all superinstitutions, the Catholic church, for instance, communism has different meanings in different places. On the banks of the Vistula it was a spearhead of Russian imperialism, but in regions far from there, in countries of the Third World, it was a spearhead of anti­colonialism. It wasn’t necessarily any more decent or democratic in these re­moter regions. Most places where com­munism led the anticolonial revolt it proved a disaster, just as Islam, Hindu­ism, and Negritude proved disasters. But like these others, the disaster that was communism didn’t lack, in one region or another, for popular support and national legitimacy. This fact turned the Truman Doctrine upside down. The same policy that led us, in countries like Poland, to champion the rights of the ordinary Poles, led us, in countries like Vietnam, to outdo the communists themselves at exterminating the peasantry. It became a monstrosity, that policy.

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The old Truman consensus split into three. Some people wanted to guide American policy along lines of realpolitik and have done with costly crusades­ — these people were the pragmatic center. Others wanted to follow a compass of humanitarianism and sympathy for whatever was sympathizable in the global anti-colonial revolt — they were the liber­als and the left. And these defections from global Trumanism placed the third group, the hard-line ultras, in a difficult spot. The ultras wanted no retreat at all from the “containment” crusade, or wanted something even tougher — active aggressions against communist move­ments and states. They wanted the sort of policy that, since it touches on mortal­ity and fate, requires, in democratic soci­eties, a consensus. But they didn’t have a consensus.

What happens when such a movement gets into power? Richard Nixon is what happens. Nixon is recalled as a man ani­mated solely by mean motives, namely the desire to be reelected. That’s unfair. Nixon’s motives ran high as well as low. His hairline was their graph. In wreaking his havoc over Indochina, be was making the usual fight for Western ideals and values. He was resisting the ruthless worldwide enemy. But he was discover­ing, too, that America was “ungovern­able.” No country can prosecute a war when TV nightly alarms the public and students riot in the streets and the oppo­sition party runs a virtual pacifist for president.

So the Republican president faced a choice. Either bend with the political winds, which some might call democracy, and lose the war that was defending Western civilization … or, what? Tell himself that necessity creates legitimacy, that the people were with him willy-nilly, that constitutions can take care of them­selves. Then summon the FBI and CIA to their miserable duties. Set up some frisky little agencies of his own. Call in a bit of California ruthlessness. Enlist those high-spirited right-wing Cubans.

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It’s said on Nixon’s behalf, hence on behalf of modern Republicanism as a whole, that Nixon did nothing that wasn’t pioneered by Franklin Roosevelt or by Truman and other presidents who stepped beyond the law, cut legal corners, swelled the powers of their office, operat­ed unconstitutionally. Well, true. When Dean Acheson was acting secretary of the treasury, Roosevelt ordered him to take the country off the gold standard. Ach­eson refused. There were laws; the laws forbade it — to which Roosevelt thun­dered, “That will do!”, promptly accepted the acting secretary’s resignation, and the gold standard was gone with the wind. So the imperial presidency is not a GOP invention.

But this argument evades a rather large point about the great Republican scandals. All government outrages aren’t alike. Every breaking of a law causes two injuries: to law itself, and to the victims at hand. The victims at Roosevelt’s hand tended to be marginal groups, tiny minor­ities, splinter factions. To oppress these people, to persecute small ethnic commu­nities, to harass the Socialist Workers Party, to torment and destroy the politi­cal groupings that champion or are sus­pected of championing one or another foreign power — that is terrible, horren­dous. Government abuses of that sort subvert democracy.

But Joe McCarthy, it will be recalled, ultimately started in on the U.S. Army. Nixon, not content with persecuting the Socialist Workers, went after the Demo­crats. The obstacle that Reagan has found ways to get around isn’t just the pesky peace movement; it is the House and Senate. There is subversion, and there is subversion. Democracies, let’s say, are governments that trample minor­ities. Despotisms are governments that trample majorities. And if, in America, the trampling of minorities has in prac­tice turned out uglier than the trampling of majorities, that’s only because Ameri­can majorities eventually notice what’s going on, and reflect on their historic rights, and then the Constitution does take care of itself, and the gates of Allen­wood prison fly open.

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CALAMITIES LIKE THAT WEREN’T supposed to happen to Ronald Reagan. The Reagan Revolution was supposed to be the modern colossus in American politics, something almost geological, a new mountain range, “the realignment.” It was the right-wing New Deal and Reagan was the new FDR, impervious to the ups and downs of political life. And if the administration was truly in tune with the moment, if it represented that great a shift in American life, what damage could a few moronic escapades inflict? New Deals don’t slip on banana peels.

Yet here are the peels, there is the slipping, and suspicion dawns that Rea­gan’s relation to the public is not like FDR’s. It is, on the crucial issues, like Nixon’s, the famous personality notwith­standing: Nixon with a human face. We haven’t really needed obscure Lebanese newspapers and down-at-heels Wisconsin mercenaries to see this. It’s been plain in the entirely open and public debate over Nicaragua. For what happens when a Reagan Revolutionary stands up to ex­hort the public on this topic? He begins with honest sentiments. Call them Rhetoric A. Global struggle between incompatible systems, says the exhorter. Ruthlessness. Western values. Strategic catastrophe. The Truman Doctrine and its militant codicil, the Reagan Doc­trine — all of this offered in justification of the administration role in Central America. Until suddenly, aghast, the Rea­gan Revolutionary espies his audience. There are canny pragmatists out there, sneers upon their lips. There are de­ranged nuns, people who have never heard of Nicaragua, readers of The Vil­lage Voice, Vietnam War widows. It is the American population. It is ungovernable.

So the Reagan Revolutionary makes a mid-breath shift, the shift we’ve been watching for six years with fascinated horror. From the speaker’s platform pours an unexpected new language, strangely left-wing in origin, of Human Rights, Resistance Movements, Demo­cratic Revolutions, Founding Fathers. It is Rhetoric B, offered in the same cause. Rhetoric A was coherent and plausible, though it makes most people duck. But Rhetoric B is preposterous. You can’t lis­ten to three words without reaching for a mental blue pencil. Nicaragua, no democ­racy, you remind yourself, still is not the human rights hellhole that El Salvador and Guatemala surely are. Somocista thugs are not the legions of the Lord. No one honestly believes in Rhetoric B, no one has ever been convinced by it. Yet it drones in our ears, and for an obvious reason. Any clever government that wished to stuff a minority policy down a majority throat would drone on like that. Who can’t convince, confuses. Who can’t lead, manipulates.

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I pick up the summer issue of Irving Kristol’s foreign affairs quarterly, The National Interest — a sectarian journal named with the right-wing hubris that has brought the country to its present fix — and flip through various disagreeable but honest celebrations of the Tru­man Doctrine, until I come to pages by Elliot Abrams, assistant secretary of state, El Maniotico of the Managua press, who is instructed with applying that Doc­trine. The assistant secretary assures his fellow ultras that from 1984 to 1986 the contras received no armaments aid, as per the congressional ban: “Thanks to the Democratic leadership in Congress, our humanitarian aid program to the resistance forces in Nicaragua has expired, and for two years we have given them no military aid whatsoever.” This from con­tra aid’s “general strategist,” in an article published at the very moment the strate­gist is now reported to have been conspir­ing with the Sultan of Brunei for the $10 million that subsequently disappeared! And if the urge to confuse and manipu­late is at work so cynically in even the soberest journals of the right, what skul­lduggery and disinformation campaigns must have been launched in less friendly terrains?

The Irangate details, what we know of them so far — the role of stupidity, in par­ticular — testify further to the uncolossal quality of the Reagan Revolution. Wash­ington is full of brand-new right-wing in­stitutions reeking with intelligence, de­scribed by Sidney Blumenthal in his brilliant and witty book, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment. They are think tanks and foundations and they account for Reaganism’s heft and deft, the eco­nomic ideas (such as they’ve been), the strategic initiatives, the administration’s ability to find ideologically suitable staff­ers. If we mention Reaganism at all in the same breath as the New Deal, it’s because of these new institutions, which were never available to Nixon and Republicans of long ago. But the right-wing counter-establishment is strangely limited. On its own it could never have captured Wash­ington. Right-wing thought hardly domi­nates the 1980s the way left-wing thought dominated the 1930s. An ordinary right­-wing politician could never have led the new organizations to spectacular double landslide triumphs. The right-wing move­ment was able to conquer only one way: by attaching itself to a miracle candidate, a once-in-history vote-getter.

Something peculiar results. The new right-wing institutions offer Reaganism an extraordinary base of power; but these same institutions depend helplessly on the one irreplaceable man. Nothing in the literature of American politics describes what such an arrangement can be like. I turn therefore to Leon Trotsky, the ex­pert. In his History of the Russian Revo­lution, Trotsky analyzed strengths of the Czarist Regime. There were powerful in­stitutions of every sort, the army, the bureaucracy, the aristocracy, the big capi­talists, who counted among them many capable and decisive people. But by the nature of their system, these people wielded power only by gathering around the throne. The regime was therefore cru­cially compromised. It was no stronger than the czar who held it together, and nothing at all could guarantee that a giv­en czar would be anything more than a royal jerk.

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As it happened, Trotsky tells us, the czar in 1917 was the sort of man who, with revolution breaking out around him, wrote in his diary: ”Walked long and killed two crows. Drank tea by daylight.” He was “a jolly, sprightly fellow in a raspberry-colored shirt.” His own aides were perplexed. “‘What is this?’ asked one of his attendant generals, ‘a gigantic, almost unbelievable self-restraint, the product of breeding, of a belief in the divine predetermination of events? Or is it inadequate consciousness?’ ”

Really, Trotsky has the last word on the Age of Reagan. “The sole paper which Nicholas read for years, and from which he derived his ideas, was a weekly published on state revenue by Meshchersky, a vile, bribed journalist of the reactionary clique, despised even in his own circle … He felt at ease only among completely mediocre and brainless people, saintly fakers, holy men, to whom he did not have to look up … He selected his ministers on a principle of continual deterioration. Men of brain and character he summoned only in extreme situations when there was no other way out, just as we call in a surgeon to save our lives. The czar was might­ily under the influence of the czarina, an influence which increased with the years and the difficulties.” She in turn was un­der the influence of “our Friend,” Raspu­tin, and complained that the country didn’t appreciate the mad monk. And this czar was actually governing.

Thus the life of the vast Republican coalition. We always knew about Rea­gan’s brain; but bamboozled by the mythology of realignment and a right-wing New Deal, we never really thought the brain was making decisions. We thought the miracle candidate was a sort of dum­my put up by the real government, the way bubbleheaded newscasters read scripts written by the real journalists. We thought George Shultz and Caspar Wein­berger were the government and Reagan their newscaster, which was, of course, reassuring, since Shultz and Weinberger appear to be moderate mullahs among the medieval fanatics, to indulge a crazed distinction. But no: Shultz and Weinber­ger were the dummies, there to project the proper image. Reagan was ruling all along. The right-wing institutions pollulating along the Potomac, the national conservative alliance, the cabals of new capital and Sun Belt entrepreneurs that we took to be the powers-that-be — none of these counted in the end. They were strong, but without the miracle man they were nothing. The miracle man therefore held the power. This we learned at Reykjavik, when the jolly, sprightly fellow went into the room all alone with Gorbachev, and not even the American press doubts Gorbachev’s version of what next occurred.

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Events have followed, then, an intelligible course. The ultras are committed to policies like overthrowing the Sandinistas that can only be accomplished with broad consensus support. They get in office and learn there is no consensus. Their own philosophy obliges them to forge on nonetheless, meaning, to connive and manipulate. And since they hold power only because they made the cynical deci­sion to back a miracle candidate, the con­nivances and manipulations necessarily take no shrewder form than the miracle man is capable of providing. Power seeps into the hands of Oliver North, the mad monk. And the path proceeds thusly: In­competence (the blowing up of the Beirut Marines and CIA station), Panic (the ef­fort to ransom Agent William Buckley after he’s instantly captured trying to re­build the CIA), Sentimentality (the effort to ransom everyone). Next comes Cupid­ity (the discovery that the Ayatollah pays cash, good for undercutting congressional bans on contra support). And finally the decision was taken, probably the weirdest move ever made by an American presi­dent: the decision to sell off half the na­tion’s foreign policy under the table in order to subsidize the other half. The popular part of the nation’s policy, ad­mired worldwide, the policy, that is, of antiterrorism: sold! The unpopular part, terrorism of our own: bought! It was a moronic thing to do. It was an action that probably thousands of Republican office­holders could have accomplished with more finesse. But in its main lines, in its ruthlessness to battle what is imagined to be the Soviet foe, in its willingness to have done with the inconveniences of de­mocracy, in its sense that now is the moment of danger and all is permitted, no matter what Congress or the people may desire — in these ways it answered perfectly to what the right has wanted of its president.

Of the members of the Nixon adminis­tration and underground, 20 were con­victed in the aftermath of Watergate. In the present affair, the pile of broken stat­utes has already grown knee-high, even without knowing what happened to the Sultan’s $10 million and the profits from the Ayatollah. There’s no way to figure, of course, who exactly will be convicted. North, the half-late William Casey, John Poindexter, Felix Rodriguez (who wears Che Guevara’s plundered watch), Luis Posada (the mass murderer), Elliot Abrams (the essayist), Richard Secord, George Bush, Robert MacFarlane, Robert Owen, Colonels Mott and Broman — these have to appear on everyone’s list of possibilities. The trials, when they come, will center on specific offenses, such as violat­ing the Arms Export Control Act (pun­ishable by two years in jail or $100,000 or both). But as always in cases like these, the real offenses will have been the “high crimes and misdemeanors” of traditional English law, meaning crimes against the essence of the state.

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THE HEARINGS SHORTLY TO radi­ate anew from every television will spread gladness and delight, of course, and for weeks and months to come, oh joy; but they will spread nonsense, too. For there is a reigning ideology in affairs like this, shared by prosecutors and legislators of both parties and the lawyer class general­ly, according to which politics is nothing and procedure is all. If only Defense and State had been consulted, as correct pro­cedural rules mandate. If only the Na­tional Security Agency was kept to size and not allowed improperly to swell. If only Oliver North’s long-ago hospitalization for “an emotional illness” had not been covered up, thus keeping the ex­-patient’s hands off the national steering wheel. If only Senator Pat Moynihan and select colleagues had been brought into the secret, as by law ought to have oc­curred. If only, then surely …

Lists of new procedures will therefore be proposed for the purpose of “saving the presidency,” as variously interpreted by conservatives and liberals, to wit: the conservatives wish the presidency saved from the liberals, and the liberals wish it saved from itself. The conservatives will seek less restraints for White House may­hem, reasoning that what really caused the Nica-Persian fiasco was a meddling press and hypocritical liberals. The liber­als will seek congressional control, rea­soning that sanity and common sense vary inversely with the geographical spread of a politician’s electorate. The liberal proposals will be vastly preferable. But what will even the most liberal of procedural reforms accomplish in the end? It can be predicted.

The year is 1995. For six years there’s been a new president. It is Jack Kemp. Why shouldn’t he be? Looks like Bob Forehead. Never been accused of selling a nuclear weapon to the Ayatollah. Ex-star. Chairman of the House Republican Con­ference. And President Kemp, a sincere man, sets about enacting his program. This program is not a secret. He outlined it on the New York Times op-ed, Decem­ber 23, 1986, under the ominous title “Trust the President’s Foreign Policy.” Key points are: support for the South African-backed mercenaries in Angola (“freedom fighters”). Support for the So­mocista cocaine traders in Nicaragua (more “freedom fighters”). Opposition to the Contadora negotiations, in spite of State Department preference for diplo­macy. No SALT II. Opposition to any congressional attempts to restrain these extremist policies (the president “must draw the line, and, if necessary, veto any reduction in his authority to conduct for­eign policy”). Also, “immediate deploy­ment” — never mind r&d, those are for sissies — of star wars. The reason: only thus can “Western ideals and values” be defended against the “ruthless, dangerous enemy.” The source of legitimacy: the Truman Doctrine, or rather, “the Roose­velt-Truman-Kennedy tradition.”

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So Kemp acts, and since his program is war-ish and produces actual corpses at the hands of U.S. proxies, he stands in need of across-the-board political back­ing, the kind of backing that the Truman Doctrine enjoyed in its early years. A large Cold War consensus is what he needs.

But there is no consensus. The scien­tists balk at star wars, hardly anyone likes the Somocista drug runners, support for South African mercenaries is confined to three counties formerly under federal occupation in Alabama. Since Kemp’s forehead is, after all, hirsute, Congress votes halfway support. But halfway mili­tarism is no use. President Kemp there­fore faces a choice. He can bend with the wind, which some might call democracy, and abandon his ultra position … or, what? Tell himself that necessity creates legitimacy, that the people are with him willy-nilly, that constitutions can take care of themselves. Then set up some frisky little agencies of his own. Hold a meeting with some aging but ever-spry Cuban-Americans. Be decisive, by God.

So it’s 1995, and the TV is on. Con­gress is holding hearings. Prosecutors prepare preliminaries. Much has gone wrong, the simplest laws have been vio­lated, and everyone is astonished. Shocked! Everybody agrees what caused this new fiasco. It was the violation of procedures; they need to be strengthened. No one will propose the other explana­tion: that political parties can go bad, traditions can turn rancid. Yet this has plainly happened to the GOP, once the party of the upright business aristocracy, now the party of plots and conspiracies, the gangster party in modem politics. ❖

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A Farewell to Machismo

Yeah, the Kid is his name
And he’s too tough tuh tame,
He’s the fastest, the meanest, the best!
Jist blam! blam! blam!
And he don’t give a damn!
He’s the Savior of the West!
He’s the Savior of the West!

— Robert Coover, “The Kid,” 1970

For me, the Kid was machismo, and he’s almost gone now, and Goddamnit, in a lot of ways, I’m going to miss him.

I know: The style was full of exaggerated masculinity; peacock pride; brutal vanity and the lan­guage of stunted boys. And the Kid, carrying the baggage of that style, is riding out of town at last, leaving the women and freeing the men from the force of his pre­sence; it was one of the longest, most violent visits in history. The Kid always wore the mask of chiv­alry, appearing tough, resourceful, brave and solitary, and his image seduced generation after genera­tion of Americans, including mine. Statesmen and steamfitters, prizefighters and presidents, foot sol­diers and Harvard men: few were immune.

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And now, at last, it’s over; the chivalric mask has been removed. In the end, we saw Richard Nixon’s features crawling underneath: we saw the dead of too many wars speaking from the eyes of the Kid; we saw marriages dissolved into bitter personal history, bodies lying on the streets of a dozen cities, macho princes filling up the prisons, all of them moving around behind the mask. The Kid could not stand exposure. Battered by long attack from the female citizenry, deprived of crucial support from some of the men, and worst of all, subjected to laughter, the Kid is riding off into what might prove to be a permanent sunset.

It hasn’t been easy. In some ways, the Kid has been central to being an American, affecting men and women almost equally, deeply integrated in the American character. The Kid, after all, was a product of the American frontier, rootless, without limits, making law with his cock of a gun, and moving on. The reality of the fron­tier was barbarity in some in­stances, banal in others. But le­gends, as constructed by Ned Buntline and made into poetry by John Ford, are always more powerful than facts. Those popular legends — of which the Kid with his code of machismo was the centerpiece — created the images by which American men were mea­sured. They taught at least five generations of American women their place (as whores or school-teachers or mothers, but seldom anything else). And far more important, these legends became, the spine of the American ideology, frequently superseding capitalism and democracy for several generations of American foreign policy makers. American statesmen, American presidents, and American spies were Americans before they were anything else; that means they were educated to respect and emulate the Kid.

And it is no simple thing to damn them for this. After all, the Whole Macho Thing was one of the most attractive life-styles ever con­structed. For me, it was Shane riding in from nowhere to clean out a corrupt town. It was the Contin­ental Op wiping out Poisonville. It was Gary Cooper, standing alone before hostile guns at high noon. It was Robert Jordan on the side of his hill, with his wounded leg and his machine gun, waiting for the Fascists. I was there with all of them; they peopled the empty spaces of a young man’s mind. I walked out on the tarmac of the Casablanca airport with Bogart and stood with him in the fog, as the woman he loved flew off to safety, while he lit another Camel and started his beautiful friendship with Claude Rains. I was in the upper deck of the Polo Grounds, cheering in the steaming New York night, while Ray Robinson flicked away the blood from the gash over his brow and called on himself to come on and knock out Randy Turpin in the 10th round. They were heroes, muy macho, and I loved them all.

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The macho style was careless, death-defying, existential, and it had its own Pantheon: Edward R. Murrow, the trench coat pulled tight, the cigarette dangling from the long piano player’s fingers, describing the Blitz from the roof of the BBC in London, oblivious to danger; Jackson Pollock, grizzled, swaggering, hard-drinking, bust­ing open the timid traditionalism of American painting, scoring one-round knockouts over the children of the School of Paris, carousing with Franz Kline at the bar of the Cedar Street Tavern, surrounded by the art history majors from Wellesley and Sarah Lawrence; Dylan Thomas destroying his gorgeous sullen art with drinking and whoring until he landed in his final bed at St. Vincent’s Hospital. For a kid growing up in America, they were the models: Along with John Garfield, with the gentle eyes set in the face of a tough Brownsville Jew, dying in bed with a woman who wasn’t his wife; Pete Reiser, smashing his beautiful talents against the walls of Ebbets Field; Charlie Parker, reinventing jazz on the tiny stages of the 52nd Street clipjoints, his arms scarred with heroin tracks, dying with his Countess; Beau Jack, Stanley Ketchel, Babe Ruth, Rocky Graziano (“I brung home the title to Noo Yawk, Mal”) lighting a Pall Mall in the dressing room, swallowing a beer, as they worked on Zale down the hall). And Hemingway.

“I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev,” Ernest Hem­ingway told Lillian Ross in 1950. “Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one. Nobody is going to get me in any ring with Mr. Tolstoy.”

That was the precise tone of the later, debased Hemingway, the Hemingway that Norman Mailer once described as “the cavalry of American letters,” and the Hem­ingway who became the central figure in the modern American macho style. That style was boast­ful, competitive, full of sports met­aphors, because sports had be­come the arena for acting out the legend that had once been very real on the frontier. Hemingway became the poet of machismo, the chronicler of bullfighters, deep sea fishermen, hard drinkers, saloon brawlers, and wasted soldiers. Two generations of American writers were forced to confront him: They emulated him or re­belled against him, but they had to deal with him, because in Heming­way, they were dealing with a deep, ferociously strong compo­nent of the American character itself: the Kid.

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“Hemingway’s he-man performance was, among other things, a means of combatting the American stereotype of the writer as a sissy,” the critic Harold Rosenberg has written. “… One might say that each of his novels origjn­ated in a new choice of male makeup.”

And there was a strain of theatricality in everything that Hemingway did from the time he arrived in Key West in 1928. He became one of the country’s first media heroes, a development that coincided with the triumph of the gossip column and the rise of the picture magazine, and he worked hard at it, dropping notes to Leonard Lyons, posing for photographs with giant marlin, or slaying water buffalo. Other photographs showed him at the front in Spain, or drinking with the partisans after liberating the Ritz in Paris in 1944. Growing older, the broad-shoul­dered body thickening, the moustached face finally assuming a full white mask of beard, as he made the transformation from Ernest to Hemingway to Papa. There were many people who thought the whole performance was ludicrous; critics like Edmund Wilson made more serious observations, pointing out that as the media image grew, as the focus shifted from the writing to the Hemingway persona, in short, as the macho image overwhelmed the scared young poet of World War I and the young man who sat at the feet of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, the art itself was being ruined. Certainly the Jake Barnes of “The Sun Also Rises” would have snickered at the Colonel Cantwell of “Across the River and Into the Trees.” If you looked closely at the photographs, only Hemingway’s eyes — increasingly uncertain, vul­nerable, and remorseful — indicated that Hemingway himself knew what was happening to him.

Because central to the macho style was performance. The macho man should be able to climb into a ring with a hangover and a bad stomach and win the title: he should be able to drink and whore all night and still work a typewrit­er the next day: and more than anything else, he must always be capable of an erection. It is a young man’s style; it doesn’t encourage a writer to grow old and write masterpieces; it does not teach anyone to embrace weak­ness, most importantly, one’s own. All that business about Grace Under Pressure is the code of the Kid: it leads to a brief performance, a culminating explosion of violence, and a slow ride out of town. And in some way, Hemingway was our best writer of West­erns. It is no accident, perhaps, that when he reached for that last shotgun, he was living in Idaho.

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***

When I went looking for a defini­tion of machismo for these notes, it wasn’t easy to find. The new Ran­dom House Dictionary talked about “maleness, virility, male domination.” There was nothing at all in the Webster’s New Third International, and the Oxford En­glish Dictionary described a vari­ety of birds, from the “macho mullett” to the British puffin. In defining the word “macho,” the Velasquez Spanish-English Dic­tionary was more helpful, if some­what comic: “1. male animal; in particular, a he-male or a he-goat. 2. A masculine plant. 3. A piece of some instrument that enters into another; a screw-pin. 4. An igno­rant fellow.”

All of the above might apply, of course, but no dictionary definition could come close to explaining what machismo has been in action. One thing is certain: machismo kills.

“We know that men stand a 500 per cent greater risk of a coronary than women,” writes Harvey E. Kaye, M.D. in his book, Male Survival: Masculinity Without Myth, “and, in the past two de­cades, deaths from heart attacks have jumped 14 per cent among men aged 25 to 44, while declining among women in the same age group.” Kaye, whose book is one of several recent volumes dealing with what he calls The Masculine Mystique, goes on to say: “Characterized by intense striving for achievement, competitiveness, aggressivity, impatience, a pre­emptive speech pattern, and a constant awareness of the pressure of time and responsibility, the can­didate for a coronary is a living embodiment of the ideals of the Mystique.”

1975 Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about the discontents of machismo

In “Naked Nomads,” his recent study of unmarried men in Ameri­ca, George Gilder also shows the effects of macho pressure on single men who are asked to perform to impossible standards as “swingers” and sexual athletes, and cool urban versions of the Kid. He quotes studies showing that single men are over 30 per cent more likely than married men or single women to be depressed; 30 per cent more likely to show ‘phobic tendencies’ and ‘passivity’; and almost twice as likely to show severe neurotic symptoms. They are almost three times as prone to nervous breakdowns.”

And certainly married people are in some trouble with machi­smo. Male possessiveness, and its dark side, sexual jealousy, are central to the macho style. And in the United States, jealousy is a killer. One New York homicide detective told me that “jealousy kills more people in New York than heroin,” claiming that in his expe­rience, two thirds of the city’s 2000 annual homicides can be traced to jealousy. Impossibly high stan­dards of male performance have also contributed to the wildly esca­lating rate of family abandonment, and the resulting social disorder and swollen welfare rates about 700,000 women and children with­out an adult male in the household in New York City alone. The male who finds that his life simply cannot measure up to the standards imposed on him by movies, television, and some literature can solve his problems with violence, the passivity of alcohol or drugs, or with flight. The macho style, trapped in an eternal adolescence, usually sides with Huckleberry Finn, urging us all to light out for the Territory. Take the Struggle somewhere else. Start all over again. The Kid is never asked to fully understand another human being, to learn to love a woman raise a family, admit human frailty and weakness and fear.

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But if the macho style can be killing on a local, domestic level, it becomes almost suicidal on an international scale. And there is no way to disguise the fact that the same myths that formed the rest of us also formed our recent presi­dents. The first champion of the macho style in this century was clearly Theodore Roosevelt (who was, incidentally, the president when Ernest Hemingway was growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, and who was one of the early examples of the rough-riding, war-hardened, big-game hunting style that Hemingway exemplified later; in some photographs, Hemingway even looks like Teddy Roosevelt). Consider this passage from Roosevelt:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place all never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Jason Miller quotes these words  in a crucial scene in his play about the failure of machismo, “That Championship Season.” Worse, they were quoted with approval by two recent American presidents, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. But when you examine the words, they are so clearly foolish, so dangerously romantic, that a high school student should recognize the horrors they might bring to a nation that believes them. Who, for example, are “those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat,” those to whom, presumably, no credit belongs? Einstein? Freud? Leonardo da Vinci? Jonas Salk? Bud­dha? Walt Whitman? Karl Marx? Tolstoy? These are the words of a football coach, the “winning-is­-the-only-thing” credo of a Vince Lombardi, whose courage is al­ways of the sideline variety, growing stronger with each mauling yard earned by the players who suffer the actual pain.

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What they are in reality are the romantic words of a man who needs glorious rhetoric to cover up murderous reality. Roosevelt was the champion of the American Empire; he clearly saw it as an American right to grab Puerto Rico and the Philippines, to carry the message of a burgeoning American capitalism to the far corners of the earth. He didn’t have the power then, but he certainly had the words. Imperialism is the ultimate form of machismo: aggressive; possessive; competi­tive; fearful of appearing impo­tent; its malign reality covered with the language of chivalry, talk of duty, honor, and courage.

In the era of Roosevelt, it was necessary to create a rhetoric to justify the killing of Indians, the robbery of the American land, and the terrible working conditions in the great cities.

The macho style served that purpose for almost a half-century to follow. If the American male was made to believe that it is somehow “manly” to endure discomfort and pain, then he could go down to the coal face every day and believe he was doing something valuable. If World War I had been explained as a struggle for colonial markets, Woodrow Wilson would not have been able to raise an army to go to Europe and fight; call it a “war to save democracy” and the volunteers would line up in the millions. The American male was given some small edge: He could enforce monogamy on his wife, have her as his possession, and perhaps even beat her up once in a while. (The ultimate macho advice was once given to me years ago: “Kid,” he said, “never marry a girl you can’t knock out with one punch.”) Women were generally kept off the job market so that they would not compete with men as a source for cheap labor, and discriminatory laws were passed almost everywhere to make certain that women were treated as slaves and/or children.

The result was that men did all the terrible jobs. Men fought the American wars. And machismo, elaborated and codified as the cen­tury grew older, became the domi­nant force in our foreign policy. When an aroused United States reacted passionately to Pearl Harbor, the earlier events behind the quarrel with the Japanese were forgotten — the struggle for raw materials and markets in Asia­ — and the duty of every American male was to enlist. In the words of one song of the era, it was time “to knock those Japs/down to their Jap-a-knees.” When the war was over, when the survivors moved through the ashes of Hiroshima and Dresden and Nagasaki and Berlin, the United States was the greatest power on the earth; the Kid ruled the town.

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But with great power came the macho style, and the macho style requires enemies. You cannot be the toughest gun in town unless there are other people in town, and the romantic nature of the argu­ment requires that the hostiles be the epitome of evil. The results are familiar: the rise of the Central Intelligence Agency, populated by romantic anti-Communists who had started out in the OSS, and were soon engaged in gunfights in Greece, Iran, Guatemala, and a hundred other places; Cold War with the Soviet Union, which had its own macho types sitting at the feet of Stalin in the Kremlin; the attempt to impose order over all forms of nationalist revolution; commitments to fight against any­one who tried to overthrow a colonial power; the still-puzzling war in Korea. The War Department changed its name to the Defense Department, but the people were the same and the weaponry grew enormous. Presidents other than Eisenhower, who had been a general, and, therefore, understood better the limitations of the mili­tary mind — seemed in awe of the men with the scrambled eggs on their hats who walked so briskly, so efficiently, in such manly fash­ion through the corridors of the Pentagon. By 1960, the stage was set for tragedy.

“The main thing implicit in the Pentagon Papers,” Daniel Ellsberg once said, “is a great and sometimes irrational fear of losing; both the decision-maker’s fear of appearing irresolute or ‘soft,’ and his perception of the American voter’s inability to accept de­feat.”

1975 Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about the discontents of machismo

So John F. Kennedy, who had written a book about political courage, and who had grown up in the Hemingway era, went to Vienna and met Khruschev. Somehow his manhood was thought to be at stake. And soon the troops were moving to Berlin, and to Southeast Asia. He could not ap­pear weak. He could not let Khrushchev think of him as a boy. The Americans financed a botched invasion of Cuba. They moved more strongly into the civil war in Vietnam. And then came the Mis­sile Crisis. In the recent television version of the events, called “The Missiles of October,” it was clear how the entire crisis was a ques­tion of proving masculinity. To prove he was a man, Kennedy risked the obliteration of the Earth. It was chilling and foolish, a 13-day exercise on the brink of doom, about a relatively minor episode (Cuba, which, after all, had been invaded two years earlier by American-financed Cuban exiles, certainly had a right to arm itself defensively against the United States, and if the Americans had the right to place missiles in Tur­key, on the border of the Soviet Union, then the Soviets had the right to place missiles in a friendly country near the border of the United States). But Kennedy seemed prepared to risk everything, and all accounts describe how cool he was during the events, how he displayed Grace Under Pressure. Fortunately for the earth, Khrushchev was not so dedicated to macho principles; he was willing to back down, to be reasonable, to display simple human fear about the consequences of the nuclear poker game.

Unfortunately, the Missile Crisis was seen by many observers as a triumph for the macho style. Clearly, it helped propel us into the quagmire of Vietnam. When Ken­nedy was assassinated, and Lyndon Johnson came to power, the decision-makers in the White House, Dean Rusk, Walt Rostow, Robert McNamara, the CIA peo­ple, and Johnson himself seemed convinced that If You Stand Up To the Communists They Will Back Down. Nobody passed the word to the little men in the black paja­mas. They fought on, and the Americans plunged deeper into the war. By the winter of 1965, it seemed as if a Western were unspooling Johnson’s head, and his cavalry was plunging into the fray against the hostiles. Americans, after all, went West to get to the Far East; the new frontier seemed to be located somewhere in the Mekong Delta.

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Billions of dollars were thrown into Vietnam. Almost 55,000 Americans died there and another 200,000 were wounded as 2 million young Americans fought across swamp and highland. Johnson destroyed himself politically. His Great Society programs died and the money went to Asia, and the once-mighty American dollar started to shudder, as the Treasury printed paper to pay for the war, because Johnson refused to ask the Americans for a tax increase.

Richard Nixon arrived in the White House but nothing changed. He said he was not going to be the first American president to lose a war. America would not become “a pitiful, helpless giant.” Nixon surrounded himself with macho types: Bob Haldeman was tough; John Ehrlichman was tough; John Mitchell was tough. Antiwar demonstrators were “bums.” They talked to each other, as the White House tapes showed later, in a curious private language, partly derived from sports, partly form the Pentagon, and the rest from the advertising business. They were all tough. Yeah.

Nixon’s foreign policy advisor, and later secretary of state, was Henry Kissinger who actually described himself in an interview with Oriana Fallaci as “a gunfighter” striding into town alone. Nixon invaded Cambodia. His attorney general tear-gassed and arrested antiwar demonstrators. When Nixon took a strange late night journey with his chauffeur to talk to antiwar demonstrators during one of the moratoriums; he tried to talk to them about football. They were flabbergasted.

And while the bombing continued, while thousands died, and Nixon talked about how terrible it would be for the United States to be “defeated” or “humiliated” or turned into a “second-rate power,” his vice-president was roaming the country attacking the “effete” intellectual snobs. Nixon had picked Agnew, he explained, because he had been a “tough guy” with black leaders when he was governor of Maryland (he didn’t know, presumably, that Agnew had also been a pretty tough thief), and because Agnew was capable of “forcefulness” and had a “strong-looking chin.” For as long as it was possible, Agnew carried your Nixon’s domestic policies, creating enemies when none existed intellectually mugging those who disagreed with the Nixon administration. It was no accident that when Agnew wanted to abuse Republican Charles Goodell in the 1970 New York senatorial contest, he described him as a political “Christine Jorgenson.”

It lasted for almost five years. The war ended after the murder­ous Christmas bombing of 1972 when Kissinger was finally able to negotiate an American retreat “with honor,” a peace that left the war going on, but at least took American bodies out of the way of Vietnamese guns. And at home, Watergate had already happened; Agnew resigned and was saved from the penitentiary through a deal. The cover-up was begun, and then started to unravel, and finally Nixon was led away in disgrace to his Elba in San Clemente. No more phone calls to football coaches. No more tough speeches to hand-­picked audiences. Only silence, as his followers, those champions of the macho style, enter and leave their various prisons.

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***

Vietnam and Watergate proba­bly finished off the Kid. But there were other forces at work too, all of which led to the decline of the macho style. In literature, Joseph Heller demolished the Hemingway ethos in “Catch-22” (although Yossarian’s final decision — to make a separate peace — was es­sentially no different from the de­cision made by Frederick Hemingway in “A Farewell to Arms” (1929), Hemingway’s last novel be­fore he became a celebrity). More important perhaps was the rise of rock music; rigid codes of dress fell away as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones took center stage in a generation’s con­sciousness. “Gates of Eden” was a long way from the Man in the Arena. The Beatles grew their hair long and in a single year changed the way young men had worn their hair for a half-century; through the Nixon years, all of his young men, like Haldeman himself, made a point of wearing their hair in the short ’50s style, as if telling the young that power was clearly masculine, and you proved it by the way you chose to look. Mick Jagger sniggered, and did his epicene dance.

More important was the way women were changing. The Pill had opened up an era of freer sexuality, and women were increasingly demanding the same rights as men. From the publica­tion of Betty Friedan’s “The Fem­inine Mystique” in 1963, the basis of male-female relationships was brought under the most stringent examination in memory. Many men resisted from the beginning, but others saw it clearly, if not immediately, that equality for women was certain to lead to an expansion of the humanity of men themselves. The docile, submissive woman was going out of style quickly; in sexual matters, women were more aggressive (in some cases scaring some men into bouts of impotence); more important, women started moving into politics, demanding that their voices be heard on matters other than specifically “women’s issues.” In literature, hundreds of novels by women seemed to appear, explaining their lives in ways that men had never seemed capable of un­derstanding before; Erica Jong became a best-seller by writing the sort of book Henry Miller had written in the past. Joyce Carol Oates exploded all over the place, issuing a stream of novels, short stories, poetry, and essays that made her a major writer in a space of a few years. There were, of course, problems. If American male writers had always had trouble fashioning believable female characters, women seemed to be having the same problems with creating male characters. But the change had begun. The future appears rich and fecund.

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But all of this is a continuing process, and the Kid is still with us, if not as powerful a figure as before. He hasn’t yet left town. The vast American public still prefers its movie heroes in the old style, and Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, Burt Reynolds, and Warren Beatty are in the classic mold. Women stars are more visible on television than in movies, and the only woman among the top-10 box office stars is Barbra Streisand. A lot of people laughed at Gerald Ford’s “WIN” button, but still talk yearningly about the need for a charismatic leader in 1976. Some of the best young American writers — Thomas McGuane, Tom McHale, Jim Har­rison, Don DeLillo — work out of the Huck Finn tradition, their books full of football players, fishermen, rock ‘n’ roll stars, and other lone men struggling with problems of courage, honor, and sexuality. In sports, Muhammad Ali remains a superstar, although he is the only one of the current world boxing champions who is an American; professional football, which be­came the repository for most of the theatrical macho brutality of the late ’50s and ’60s is still drawing big crowds, but doesn’t seem to be as packed with win-or-lose emo­tions; baseball, that lone holdout from a gentler era, seems to be making a comeback.

There is, in fact, a growing conservatism, some of which can be traced to an exhaustion with the issue-oriented life-styles of the ’60s, and the rest to the growing economic recession. The rock music industry is having its tro­ubles, and with the Beatles a thing of the past, and the Rolling Stones only sporadically active, the time when rock stars could determine the way people dressed and acted seems behind us. When Dylan  made his triumphant tour of the United States last year, the audiences seemed restrained and even middle-aged. On the campuses, short hair is back in fashion and there has even been a resurgence in fraternities and sororities. The National Equal Rights Amend­ment, which seemed such a cer­tainty to pass a few years ago, is now in trouble.

But there have been some important changes, and they seem permanent. When President Ford tried to make the defense of Cambodia a question of national honor the American people refused to go along; some 78 per cent of those polled by George Gallup said they didn’t want to support the Lon Nol regime any further, and all the talk about the “fall” of Cambodia, or it “loss” to the Communists was simply shrugged away. It will be a long time for an American president will able to raise an army to fight a distant war over something as abstract as honor, courage, or some specious commitment to a dubious ally.

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Men are no longer afraid to ad­mit that they don’t want to die for their country, or for any other good reason either. The current assault on the CIA and the FBI can be seen in one light as another example of the fall of the macho hero; the last James Bond film did not do well at the box office, and it is difficult to imagine a film being made today in which the hero is a member of the CIA or the FBI. Very few Americans today would cheer for a man who steals, cheats, burglarizes, or kills for a Higher Purpose. And there has not been a hit Western since “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” which parodied the form, so that even the Western, that most enduring American legend, seems to be a vanishing form. Those changes seem permanent.

And yet … There is something odd and appealing about all those movies I see late at night. We have changed, but those movies remain the same: documents of old emotions, heavy with nostalgia. None of us, men or women, will be able to live with those emotions again. They are finished, as dead to our time as Trilby and East Lynne. The Kid doesn’t work for us anymore. He’s left town for good. I guess what bothers me is that we never got a chance to say goodbye. ❖

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FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Atlanta Reconstructed

In mass murder as well as in war, the great darkness of death can often inspire a sentimentality that distorts our perception of the intricate human struggles that preceded and will prevail beyond the body count. Such is the case of Atlanta, a city in which the grand ideals of democracy and the mid­night oil necessaa Joury to achieve them have come together in ways which relate to the Civil Rights Movement in much the same way that Reconstruction relates to the Civ­il War. Yet the miscegenated identity of its political history, its culture, its alliances and antipathies are shrouded by the pain and terror felt locally and nationally each time the body of an adolescent black man is pulled freshly dead or in some stage of decomposition from a river or other hiding place.

But the texture of terror is not im­mediately experienced in Atlanta. What one first notices after traveling the interminable distance through the ugly Hartsfield Airport — the world’s largest­ — is the spring air and the brightness of the sun. Then there are pine trees that seem primitive and gargantuan bottle brushes, slopes that give the city a roller coaster effect, many churches made of wood or stone, and more than a few fronted by Grecian columns, and finally the new of­fice buildings and hotels and entertain­ments for conventioneers and locals that spread out from the center of town to impinge upon what classical American structures were left unharmed by the as­sault of Sherman’s troops and the march of modern age. There is a terror there, how­ever, and it brutally counterpoints the city’s typically Southern relaxation, elo­quence, humor, and fatalistic sullenness. It is expressed in the somber understatement of a fine preacher quietly describing Satan, or it stutters the rhythm of speech like a loose fan belt. It is sometimes wrapped in a mystified outrage or dressed up like a grim Christmas tree with statistics of ar­rests, leads, time lags between disap­pearance and discoveries. Nothing, how­ever, has led to a significant arrest or a solution to any of the killings.

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= 1 =
THE HERITAGE OF RECONSTRUCTION

Atlanta is a city far more complex and far more segregated and given to bloody battles above and below the surface than most accounts allow us to see. The city proper consists of two counties, Fulton and DeKalb, and except for pine-filled woods and slopes, it is predominantly flat, with the nearest mountain range 400 miles away and the ocean 300 miles away. Over the last 10 years, 102,000 white people have moved out of the city proper, while 27,000 black people have moved in, making the population of 450,000 65 per cent black and leaving white Atlantans two thirds removed from political control.

1981 Village Voice article by Stanley Crouch about Atlanta

The fossils of classic segregation exist in streets that change names beyond certain points because, in the old days, whites didn’t want to live on streets with the same names as those where Negroes lived. Many neighborhood schools were built for black children following the desegregation ruling of 1954. Present segregation works, as it does in the North, by neighborhood. Most of the black population now lives in the south, southeast, and southwest ends of Atlanta, while most of the whites live in the north end, with midtown the most integrated. At the turn of the century, the well-to-do Negroes had lived on the south­east side of town, at the outskirts. Slowly they moved west, unavoidably leaving the poor behind. Presently, the more am­bitious black business people are taking their trade to Campbellton Road, the main street of the Southwest area, where the upwardly mobile Negroes have been buying houses as a result of white flight to the north and the suburbs (an interesting historical twist in that whites on the run from black political control now turn, as runaway slaves once did, to the north, albeit a local one).

The Atlanta University Center, because it has long provided the black braintrust of the city and the South as well, is largely responsible for making Atlanta so dif­ferent from every other city in the South. Examples of those associated with that braintrust are: James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. DuBois, Benjamin Mays, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Atlanta Univer­sity, which was founded literally in a box­car in 1867 — 18 years before Georgia Tech — was the first of the city’s five black colleges, the others being Morehouse, Spelman, Morris Brown, and Clark (there are also the Interdenominational Theolog­ical Center and the Atlanta University Summer School, both cooperatives). The black colleges, in conjunction with the black churches, businesses, and social clubs, not only produced a developing intellectual and economic elite that inspired many Negroes to move to Atlanta, but also built a network of social organizations de­signed to address the problems of reloca­tion and community development. As At­lanta University’s Dr. Edyth L. Ross wrote in the December 1976 issue of the college’s review of race and culture, Phylon: “These organizations, varying in social structure from relatively amorphous social movements to highly formal voluntary associa­tions, constitute a legacy which looms large in the structure of social welfare today.”

Ross goes on to point out that the or­ganizations expanded upon the settlement houses created as adjustment centers for European immigrants; these were full community efforts designed to provide ev­erything from care for the aged to recrea­tion for teenagers and homes for colored girls, from medical care and housing improvement to remedial reading and legal assistance. As early as 1873, 100 years before Maynard Jackson took office, a black church ran three health centers so successful that the death rate among those it served was one-third less than that of the white population. It was this tradition of educational advance and social change that enabled the city’s Negro community to continue the work of Reconstruction up through the election of Maynard Jackson. The colleges, churches, and businesses provided the city with theorists, re­searchers, organizers, sponsors, and, even­tually, politicians who would parlay their growing strength in votes to a power posi­tion in the middle of city negotiations, not on the outskirts.

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The long march from the first phase of Reconstruction to its present man­ifestation has not come without enmities, for though Maynard Jackson’s adminis­tration is predominantly black, Atlanta’s economic power is almost completely white, with each side convinced that the opposition will only gain greater ground or maintain its strength at the other’s ex­pense. As an architect from an old Atlanta Jewish family says, “The financial strength is in the white community and it is being clutched more tightly than ever before because of the black political power. I think there needs to be a sharing of the financial power. But the mayor’s in­terpretation of joint ventures has soured much of the white community because it sees the mayor’s city government as serv­ing a black constituency above all else. And the mayor’s list of power positions in city government is quite considerable. The ma­jority of the city council, the commissioner of public safety, the police chief, the presi­dent of the Atlanta Chamber of Com­merce, and the chairman of the Fulton County Commission are all black. I don’t care what the color of somebody is, but I do care about what they consider their consti­tuency to be.”

Yet except for its understandable suspi­cion of white people, that black consti­tuency is far from monolithic and is given to considerable infighting, most of it based on color, class, and what part of the coun­try one is from. It has also thrown its share of punches at Maynard Jackson and his staff, at his appointments and his firings. As with most light-skinned Negroes in positions of power, when Jackson does something the black community likes, the entire group takes credit for it; when mis­takes or unpopular decisions come down, he is seen as a “high yellow” selling out blacks or working for whites. Writer Toni Cade will tell you that success in the city can depend on whether or not you’re light-­skinned and are part of the middle-class Morehouse-Spelman crowd to which Jackson and many of his appointees belong. Since Negroes from rural Georgia and just about every other place in the country now migrate to Atlanta seeking better lives, just as they did right after the Civil War, a television executive will tell you that though he is successful, it took him almost four years to get local Negroes to see him as something other than part of a wave of black carpetbaggers come to take jobs away from the city’s black, brown, beige, and bone sons and daughters. One of the mayor’s appointees charged that jealousy is behind it all, that most of the native black Atlantans don’t have enough drive and ambition to achieve success or prominence. Jackson’s job then, is to balance his credibility in both racial groups while continuing the traditional involvement of Atlanta’s black middle class with the greater black community. The two strata have al­ways been close, because racism made it difficult, if not impossible, for a Negro to achieve a significant position outside the black community if he or she happened not to be an entertainer. Consequently, the city’s black leaders in business, medicine, education, and religion achieved their prominence through the trade, the pa­tients, the students, and the congregations provided by the bulk of the city’s Negroes.

Because of Maynard Jackson’s de­termination to better Atlanta, his adminis­tration has had to live up to its progressive heritage at the same time that it has been forced to scuffle with the riddles of black political power and the aforementioned white money, the complications of race and class and the ills of poverty and crime that exist as appendages which bruise and wound a growing city that is still, for all the media talk of cosmopolitanism, an urban country town quite schizophrenic in its mix of eloquent sophistication and mumbl­ing naivete. As Janet Douglass, executive director of the Community Relations Commission and the Committee on the Status of Women says, “Sharing power never comes without pain.” That pain, as well as a complex kind of pride, is felt on both sides, black and white. For certain whites, the pain results from Jackson’s playing a kind of political hardball Ne­groes have never played in Atlanta; for lower-income Negroes the pain is con­nected to expectations that impose upon Jackson’s leadership a messianic mantle that fits like a yoke; and for still others, both black and white, there is a pride in the fact that Atlanta has long been an oasis of relative political enlightenment sur­rounded by the redneck mandates of the rest of the state.

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= 2 =
VARIETIES OF PATERNALISM

The versions of that political history are quite different if one is talking with an older white Atlantan as opposed to almost any black person who worked to break down segregation during the Civil Rights Movement. Those older whites will point with pride to William B. Hartsfield, the city’s mayor from 1937 to 1960. As de­scribed by local white historian Franklin Garrett, Hartsfield was a man “who could be a hairshirt at times because of his quick temper but he could also be quite man­nerable and genial. He discovered the charm of reading as a child and, though the son of a tinsmith and a man who came up the hard way, he got his law degree by reading law on his own. He wanted the city to become part of the aviation industry, which is why our airport is named after him. His desire was to see the city develop the standing it had as a transportation center which dates back to its significance as the most important railroad center in the Southeast with four major railroads by 1860, when Atlanta became the manufac­turing hub of the Confederacy and turned out railroad ties and steel plates for the navy. He created the term, ‘Atlanta, the city too busy to hate,’ and realized that, with the Primus King Decision of 1946, which ruled that blacks couldn’t be barred from local and general primaries, he could build a coalition since the city was 50-50 black and white, and had an educated claas of blacks with which you could deal without a lot of loud rabble-rousing.”

Hartsfield’s coalition of upper-class whites and middle-and lower-class Ne­groes was formed to stave off the politics of redneck whites. This was a considerable achievement: on September 8, 1948, dur­ing the period when Hartsfield was integrating Atlanta’s police force, Herman Talmadge gave his acceptance speech as governor of Georgia with Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Sam Green on the podium. Soon afterwards, Talmadge attacked the Atlanta Negro Voters League, of which Maynard Jackson’s grandfather was a leader, and boasted that he’d keep prima­ries as white as possible. When asked if the black police would be allowed to arrest white people, Hartsfield is quoted as saying, “When somebody’s breaking in your house and you yell, ‘Police,’ you don’t care what color he is, all you want is for him to get that man out of your house.” But these same policemen had put on their uniforms at the black Butler Street YMCA because they weren’t permitted to change in the station house.

1981 Village Voice article by Stanley Crouch about Atlanta

Many black people saw Hartsfield as a benevolent dictator whose paternalistic politics used the black vote only to determine contests between white can­didates. The same is said of his successor, Ivan Allen, a wealthy merchant prince who was mayor from 1961 to 1969. Lonnie King, one of the organizers of the de­segregation protests during the Civil Rights era, says of Allen: “He was a pater­nalistic man whom some white people would say had noblesse oblige. Black folks know better, however. The best example is the Peyton Road wall which Allen had put up in the southwest when black people were getting ready to take advantage of other housing opportunities. It was a sym­bol that meant, ‘Black people stop here. These homes aren’t for you.’ But Allen later took down the wall and went through a strange metamorphosis which led him to testify in Washington in support of the Civil Rights Bills of 1964 and 1965. He did it, by the way, against the advice of his affluent black supporters who had weaseled into a corner of the power structure. You know how some slaves look out for the master. But I think Allen saw beyond what they were telling him and realized the image of racism would, finally, do damage to the business interests of the city and discourage investors from coming to a town that might be constantly shaken by racial confrontation, which could mess up conventions, property, and profit.”

Economics are pivotal, as usual. White businessman George Goodwin says, “In the late ’40s, I wrote for the Atlanta Jour­nal that the property tax digest was just up to what it was in 1860, when slaves were considered property. What is now Atlan­ta’s First National Bank was started in 1865 and it was 10 years before it had $1 million on deposit and 1917 before it had $10 million. In 1929, mergers led to $100 million for a few days before the Great Crash. It was the late ’30s before it got back to $100 million. After World War II, the pent-up buying power began and didn’t really take off until the 1960s, which produced the array of office buildings you see in the city now. Though we were hit by the ’70s depression, Atlanta is now a trans­portation center, wholesale center, retail center, financial and insurance center. In recent years, it’s become a convention center, probably the third-largest in the coun­try. This provides jobs in hotels and serv­ices for visitors. The rest of the South may not be aware of it, but Atlanta knows we lost that Civil War. Sherman burned At­lanta because if he hadn’t, it would have gone back to functioning in the same way for that time which it does now.”

Following Allen was Sam Massell, a real estate man who was Atlanta’s first Jewish mayor. Jews had been coming to Atlanta since before the Civil War and had often done well, but the city was hardly free of anti-Semitism, which was most brutally exhibited in the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, who had been convicted of raping and murdering a young Christian woman on circumstantial evidence supplied by a black janitor. Atlanta Jews often sup­ported progressive causes, but many blacks recall that Jewish merchants were no quicker to desegregate than anybody else in Atlanta’s white power structure. Rich’s, the city’s largest department store, opened its lunchroom to blacks only when faced with the embarrassment of having to put Martin Luther King, Jr. in jail in his own too-busy-to-hate home town. To this day, there are clubs in Atlanta that Jews can’t join and more than a few are bitter about it, just as some ruefully recall the bombing of a synagogue during the Civil Rights era.

Massell’s appeals to the black com­munity had been instrumental in his vic­tory over an apparently more conservative opponent, Rodney King, who also lacked the New South image preferred by many affluent white voters. The flaps involved his brother, Howard, who had been ac­cused by nightclub owners of traveling around in a police car to gather campaign funds with the promise that the city would become wide open if Massell were elected. Sam Massell claimed his brother’s ap­proaches were misinterpreted, only to watch him leave town for Miami after an­other scandal involving people with sup­posed connections to organized crime. Un­der Massell, the new police chief was John Inman. By 1973, Atlanta police led the nation in per capita police killings, with 29 civilians slain — 27 black, 12 under the age of 14.

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= 3 =
MAYNARD JACKSON’S NEW DESIGN

Maynard Jackson entered politics in 1968 by running against Herman Talmadge for U.S. senator. Jackson lost, but carried Atlanta by 6000 votes, and in 1969 was elected the city’s first Negro vice­-mayor. Although expected to run again for vice-mayor in 1973, he instead took on Massell and defeated him handily. Soon after he took office on January 7, 1974, Reconstruction returned to Atlanta. Prior to Jackson, the City Council was both administrative and legislative. In effect, the department heads ran the city, which gave it what George Goodwin calls a “weak mayor form.” Jackson made all the committee heads responsible to him, which resulted in a “strong mayor form.” This didn’t sit well with entrenched whites, who no longer had the power to distribute jobs and money on the basis of friendship and familial connections. It also gave the mayor a more complicated job and made him less accessible to individual visits from businesses and others who had been accustomed to visiting the Mayor’s office. Even so, there are those who feel that Jackson is far less effective one-on-one than when addressing masses of people, that the very distance itself is more comfortable to him.

Jackson’s confrontation came with Chief Inman. Under Inman’s predecessor, Herbert Jenkins, there had been a chosen few black officers, most of whom were disgruntled because they rarely got promotions almost entirely by briefly assigning his favorite whites to acting of temporary positions and then, when time came to promote, pushing those whites into the slots, claiming that they had more experience than black officers who had been on the force longer.

1981 Village Voice article by Stanley Crouch about Atlanta

Jackson initially moved to replace Inman with a white man named Clint Chasen. Inman confronted Chasen, eventually calling the SWAT squad into Chasen’s office with guns drawn. Chasen decided that there were better jobs available in the world and Inman took his case to the Supreme Court, claiming that he had an eight-year appointment through the former mayor and could not be fired, demoted, or replaced. The resentful legal staff which Jackson was saddled is thought to have sold him out by botching the case. But Inman was unpopular with the District Attorney’s Office, and a case in which Inman was obliquely involved set the stage for another approach. Inman had been living on the estate of pesticide tycoon Billy Orkin, who attempted to get a police officer to kill the husband of a woman he was dating. The officer went to the district attorney’s office and an out-of-state policeman was brought in for an undercover investigation which led to the jailing of Orkin. Inman wasn’t specifically implicated in the conspiracy, but a lot of questions were raised about how and why Orkin came to believe he could get an Atlanta police officer to commit the murder.

Jackson’s new city design included a commissioner of public safety, charged with administering the police and fire departments as well as civil defense. Reginald Eaves, a Bostonian who had gone to Morehouse with Jackson and participated in his campaign, was appointed to that slot even though he had no experience in police work. The white press in Atlanta, which immediately proved itself hostile to Jackson’s designs, statements, and policies, dubbed the position “Super Chief.” Inman was assigned to an office in a roach-infested basement and later left.

Eaves gained attention on his first work day by demoting 37 white policemen, and he busted 14 more by the end of the week. Soon he became a villain in the white press and a hero in the black community. Even after it was revealed that Eaves’s secretary had a heroin conviction in New York and that one of his relatives had gotten a CETA job, his popularity in the black com­munity was undiminished, primarily be­cause he announced that he would person­ally charge with murder any police officer who killed without reasonable cause. Po­lice homicides ceased. Over a two-year pe­riod, Eaves got press by going on police raids, rigged to allow him to kick in doors and collar criminals for the cameras, much as J. Edgar Hoover had done in his day.

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“Reggie,” says another Jackson appointee, “took off in that job. Where he had kind of stood in Maynard’s shadow before, he developed into an incredible speaker and was suddenly everywhere — at churches, picnics, socials, and everything in the community you could imagine. He was single, so the bitches liked him, and he took a hard line on crime, like Maynard did. He defined criminals as parasites within the community and let it be known he would give no quarter to a lawbreaker, regardless of color. He transferred cops with bad brutality records into jobs like guarding airplane runways and fire sta­tions and made strong efforts to get the community to see the police as public ser­vants, not trigger-happy parts of an occu­pying force. Quiet as it’s kept, he was using the office to run for mayor and Maynard didn’t know it. Then the shit hit the fan.”

In the fall of 1977, Eaves was accused by officers within the department of sup­plying the answers to the civil service ex­amination for the police force to black men he wanted to hire. Jackson was forced to call for an investigation that was handled by two private lawyers, one black, one white. The 300-page report proved that certain cops had memorized the tests beforehand since they gave the same se­quence of answers when retested even though the questions were reordered. Eaves took a lie detector test that proved inconclusive. When the results were made public, 300 black people were gathered on the steps of city hall. For the cameras they asserted their belief in Eaves’s innocence, but privately they said things like, “So what if he cheated? White folks have al­ways been cheating.” Some white liberals argued that there was no other way to balance the force.

Jackson had long taken the position that affirmative action was only a response to racist hiring practice, that it was neither a means of forcing the unqualified into jobs nor a form of reverse racism. But at the same time he was burdened with what those close to him consider his greatest weakness: an almost aristocratic sense of loyalty. Some kind of showdown was in­evitable. Eaves was speaking in churches and at rallies, opening his statements with phrases like, “Though my skin is dark and my lips are thick,” implying, some that if he was removed it would have more to do with in-group color prejudice than a mis­handling of authority. Cannon fodder from the University Center was hot to trot in support of Eaves and the press was making much of Jackson’s deliberations. Eaves finally agreed behind closed doors to ten­der his resignation, promising it on a certain day, then another, then yet another. Jackson started getting angry at demands from the street that Eaves not be fired. “Maynard started saying,” quotes one aide, “‘I hired him and he carried out my policies, not his. Now these people want to act like I didn’t have anything to do with bettering the police force.'” Finally, in the middle of the night, the resignation was delivered to Jackson’s chief of staff, Gerri Elder. On the same night, much later, Eaves called Elder and said he’d changed his mind and would send his bodyguards to get it back. Elder, in a panic, called Jack­son, who blew up and ordered her not to return anything, then sent his own body­guard for the resignation.

The next day, in a cold, formal tone and in front of witnesses, Jackson called Eaves and told him his comment to the press was to be no comment and that he was to maintain a low profile. Eaves agreed, but in a matter of hours he was speaking to the press on television. “Maynard went through the roof,” reports an appointee, “and called a press conference immediate­ly at which he announced that Commissioner Eaves had been suspended. From that moment on, it was over because, you know Maynard’s sister married a Nigerian, and he said, ‘Even if my sister pickets me in Yoruba, Reggie Eaves is gone!'”

Jackson responded to continuing ten­sion in the black community by appointing Lee Brown to replace Eaves and George Napper to take the slot vacated by Inman. Both were black and had doctorates in criminology. The resentment cooled.

Then there were the murders.

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= 4 =
EVERY MOTHER’S CHILD

I arrived in Atlanta the Friday before Reagan was shot and Timothy Hill’s body was pulled from the Chattahoochee River. I checked in at the Hotel Georgian Terrace, a grand old midtown place with stone columns out front, plenty of marble in the lobby, and each of its first-floor wings given over to the hybrids only modernization, can produce. To the left of the entrance is a 24-hour German deli and to the right, the bar, which has high ceilings and many potted plants, a few pinball and electronic space games, and a sound system that blurts out disco tunes at what seems the highest possible volume. After touring the city with newswoman Alexis Scott Reeves, I returned at early evening to find the lobby filled with black homosexual couples. Throughout the week, I was to find that the hotel was an evening meeting place not only for homosexuals but for certain integrated couples of whatever persuasion and that the midtown area had become the hub of the city’s homosexual world. I also found out that Atlanta is the homosexual capital of the Deep South. Organized crime control the city’s homosexual bathhouses, discos, and gay bars, and as a result, the Atlanta Police Depart­ment’s tough Organized Crime Division bumps heads with homosexuals as it moves to keep the mob from getting a toehold. The black female community, which some say outnumbers black men as much as nine to one, is hostile to both homosexuals and integrated heterosexual couple.

The next day I went on the search party for the then-missing children, which met at Ralph Abernathy’s West Hunter Street Baptist Church, now a stone-columned structure on Gordon Street next door to the Wren’s Nest, the home of Joel Chandler Harris, which was long controlled by a group of old white ladies who made it a segregated historical site until the 1960s. The search parties, of course, accept all comers, some of whom I was surprised to see that Saturday morning.

A light spring wind had set in, flipping Caucasian hair and that loose enough among the Negroes to move to so easy a touch. Green ribbons were in motion, tied to arms and the broom handles used for searching through bushes, or pinned to the fronts of coats, shirts, and blouses. The fancy patterns in which some of the rib­bons were tied marked how long the searches had been going on, although per­sonal style is never very far behind the establishment of insignias and symbols. Yet it seemed at first like a picnic gather­ing or preparation for an Easter egg hunt. This impression lasted only as long as it took to notice the search dogs and the ambience of sorrowful expectations cast­ing an ambivalent mood in its wake, a mood that made the laughter and the jokes of those searchers who had become famil­iar with each other through the 25 weekends seem as much reactions to strain as expressions of humor or camaraderie.

1981 Village Voice article by Stanley Crouch about Atlanta

The ironic flip-flops of history were also evident, for here were white men dressed in army surplus, sometimes driving panel trucks and sometimes possessing classic red necks, who had brought their dogs to work in combination with black men, women, and children to find the bodies of dead black children, not capture runaway slaves. Also ironic was the fact that more of the white girls wore what used to be con­sidered exclusively black, even militant, hairdos as well as the gerri curl look favored by many of today’s black men and women. Acknowledging the scavengers who gather around tragedies, a representa­tive of the church’s United Youth Adult Conference announced to the volunteers as they gathered in the cold gymnasium be­hind West Hunter Baptist, “We are here only to find the lost children and hope to God we find them alive. If you have any other reason than that, please don’t go. We don’t want anybody trying to convert any­body to be a Democrat, a Republican, a Black Nationalist, a Ku Klux Klan, or anything else.”

The word for the day was going house­-to-house within the lower and lower­-middle-class black community to find out if anyone had been the most recent of the missing children, Timothy Hill and Joseph Bell, who had disappeared a few blocks from each other. Canvassers armed with photographs of the two boys boarded  buses to work in areas of roughly 10 blocks. ­No one in the strip we covered, on and off a main thoroughfare called Simpson Street, had seen any of the children, but all communicated the dismay, the sorrow, the rage, and the wounded hope of those who had felt so much optimism since Jackson’s election. The reports that Jackson, who had battled down a huge waistline, was gaining it back on ice cream binges in the wake of the crisis, were then understandable. The murders constituted a growing weight that promised to sink the administration’s achievements.

In fact, the computer technology and the the task force directed by the relatively new commissioner of public safety, Lee Brown, seemed to increase the burden rather than ease the populace. Whenever anyone was asked if he or she thought the ­police were working as hard as they could, the response was disillusionment. “I hate to say so, but I really don’t think so. No, not with all this time has passed. Seem like they would have come up with something by now. They got all the best equipment and plenty of money. No, sir, they can’t be doing much as they can do.”

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That sentiment was expressed often that week, usually by people at the lower end of the economic ladder and those for whom literacy wasn’t important or didn’t have much to do with their daily lives. They were the black people who gathered most of their information and opinions from television and conversation. The up-shot was that the television cop shows had created in them unrealistic expectations of the police. Unlike the television-show vil­lain who announces himself at the start of the hour and is captured within 10 minutes of the next hour, the criminal or group working outside the established crime world is very difficult to capture, especially if he has even average intelligence, which is something most criminals don’t possess. When a criminal or criminals work outside the underworld network, the effectiveness of bribes and rewards is limited. With $100,000 being offered, Atlantans can be sure the crimi­nals of the city are on the lookout for the killers, as is everyone else who could use that kind of money. The lower-echelon criminal world is particularly concerned, according to Julian Bond, because the heavy presence of police during this period has greatly reduced the rapes, robberies, and car thefts that make Atlanta a typical urban center.

Atlanta is experiencing the paradoxes of success in the modern age and no one seems ready, the police any more than  anybody else. Jackson’s push for conventions, international investment, and the image of a cultured town — complete with dance troupes, jazz musicians, community theatre, and free city-wide festivals — has attracted representatives of every one of the Fortune’s 500 to the city. It has also at­tracted Northern-style crime. Vern Smith of Newsweek, though observing that black-on-white crime can make headlines while black-on-black crime is rarely reported in the white press, adds that street crime in general is far less pervasive than what he saw when assigned to Detroit. “The crime Atlanta may have to worry about is drug traffic,” observes Julian Bond, “because changes in vacationing patterns and the frequency of internation­al visitors to the Southeast make for big profits in tourism and a lot of popping in and out of the airport. With any conven­tion centers come vice, and there is now so much pressure on Miami dope smuggling that gangsters take advantage of the many little airports in Georgia that exist for private planes and quick jaunts by businessmen.” Both black and white point out that the popularity of cocaine as an upper-middle-class drug results in grand profits for gangsters. Those who believe that the murders may involve the killing off of rival couriers in a dope war explain that in that world a $100,000 reward means very little.

During the first press tour of the task force office the question of homosexual killers was raised again and again. Com­missioner Brown would only answer that there was no evidence of homosexual connections though the investigation wasn’t ruling out any possibilities. Local tele­vision, however, reported that, according to task force sources, two or three of the victims were thought or known to be guilty of petty theft or burglary, 10 of drug violations, and 10 of homosexual prostitution. A teacher interviewed on the show cor­roborated that at least three of the chil­dren were known to travel with adult homosexuals, and that the boy found the day Reagan was shot, Timothy Hill, had often been seen in their company. (This was also attested to by one of the cleaning women in the Hotel Georgian Terrace, who knew the boy and lived in the same neigh­borhood). An FBI source I interviewed agreed that homosexual prostitution could be connected to some of the cases. He went on to say that the local police weren’t experienced or sophisticated enough to handle this kind of big-city crime and were no further along than they were four or five months ago, adding that he knew federal agents who believed the obvious serial murders could be solved within two or three weeks. He observed that the initial belief that the killings were racially motivated may have cost many leads if, say there is a black judas goat involved, which seems more probable by the day, and that the black community’s ingrained distrust of police black or white had hampered the investigation. In all fairness, however, neither big city police forces nor the F.B.J. always apprehend highly publicized killers or fugitives immediately, if at all. In San Francisco, the Zodiac Killer was never cap­tured; the Boston Strangler remained at large for years, and the Weather Under­ground surrendered on its own schedule.

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Since 1979, county prosecutor Hinson McAuliffe, in conjunction with Lieutenant F. L. Townley’s organized crime unit, has closed down or run out of town 80 porno­graphic bookstores, 12 X-rated theatres, and all bathhouses, and are now moving on homosexual street prostitution. This has been a difficult and dangerous process. When Townley’s unit began pressuring vice operations run by Tony Romano from Cleveland, he was subjected to death threats, a dead horse’s head was put in his daughter’s car, Xs were painted on his home’s doors and windows, and a detec­tive’s car was blown up. Townley, a white man who has been on the force for 20 years, disparages charges of inefficiency that old Eaves supporters and other impatient citizens have leveled at Brown. “I think he’s going to be the salvation of this city. He’s a man’s man; he’s not afraid of any­thing, you can’t buy him, and I feel more comfortable and have more confidence in him than anybody I’ve worked under in this department. If it hadn’t been for him, I would have left here when those threats started. My wife and daughter were telling me to quit, officers in my unit were fright­ened for me, and Lee Brown stepped in, personally made sure my family was pro­tected and backed me until we got Tony Romano, his wife, Virginia, and his son, Greg, several years in prison. They got it for prostitution escort services, bath­houses, bookmaking, pandering by com­pulsion, and communicating gambling in­formation.”

Townley couldn’t corroborate the rumors that bitter white officers who had left the department after problems with black administrators were attempting to botch the investigation by leaking per­tinent information they received from friends still on the force. He did say the leaking of plans for investigating organized crime was a problem within the depart­ment and there were other examples of corruption. He cited the recent arrests of a Fulton County officer for running a whore house, and an Atlanta officer found driving three stolen expensive cars when a $500,000 car-theft ring was-bro . n,e sponse to the homosexual murder theories, Townley reported that a house of homo­sexual child prostitution had been smashed a few weeks earlier but the 40 boys were all white. Townley added that boy prostitution wasn’t the problem it is in the North but that informants were close to the network in the black community, though no substantial leads had yet turned up. He concluded simply: “We know that whatever happens in the North eventually comes to Atlanta. The kind of money and resources these killings have brought in are almost what we need on a regular basis. If I had six more people in my unit, I could rotate them and be twice as effective, and we’re not doing a bad job as it is. It’s just we’re overworked as hell.”

However frustrated the police may be, the strain is obviously felt more deeply in the black community, with responses that range from habitual paranoia to irrational condemnation. The reduction in normal amiability is signaled by the questioning stares that arise when adult strangers enter black neighborhoods. The young restlessly resent the lack of mobility necessitated by the crisis; one parent, reporting a growing callousness in the children, repealed this comment by his 12-year-old son: “They found another one today. Bet they won’t get me.” The murders have taken on an obsessive quality for the mothers of the victims and for those who join search parties every weekend. But there’s still no excuse for the black sentimentalists who complain that city officials take a business-as-usual attitude once they’ve publicly decried the horror of it all, as if the officials would have had any other choice were the dead children white-or as if the critics themselves have stopped the business of their own lives in the face of the present murders.

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= 5 =
A CRISIS OF IMAGE

Those who criticize Jackson’s concern that the killings mar the image of Atlanta his administration has worked so hard to create do not appreciate the nature of social and economic change in this society. They will dismiss local media claims about great improvements in public education with reports that the schools are terrible and frequently graduate illiterates, not realizing that improvement is impossible unless the tax base is increased, which means coaxing runaway whites back to the city. Blacks complain with considerable justice that a poverty level twice that of the na­tion, 23 per cent, belies the image of a growing international metropolis. But the plight of Atlanta’s poor doesn’t move those affluent whites who believe their home town is now perceived as a black city, and who lend their voices, to periodic rumbl­ings about incorporating greater Atlanta’s other 13 counties to bring about a resurgence of white political control.

“The entire population of all the counties is over two million and majority white,” says Dr. Richard Long of Atlanta University. “But what black folk don’t un­derstand is that Jackson, even in face of certain bad and embarrassing appointments, didn’t have to do what he did; he could have made some gestures like the improvement of police relations and gone on to placate the whites with money. His greatest achievement was the airport, which he demanded be a joint venture with both black and white contractors involved. Whites had never noticed when their competitors were white but they definitely did when they were black for the first time. Jackson also got 40 per cent of the concessions — the shops, the duty-free busi­nesses, and so on-for black en­trepreneurs. This made the whites even madder. But black business here is, like every place else in the world, a joke. The myth of a successful black city does haz­ardous things to those Negroes who think they’ve been left out of the pot of gold. If there is a pot of gold, it’s tin painted over. Almost every black in this city is on somebody else’s payroll. But you know how susceptible blacks are to the myth of alchemy and always have been. At the same lime, there is this image of an inter­national city which Jackson has pushed very hard for by getting direct flights to and from London into the airport’s schedule, foreign consulates to open offices here, and so on. This isn’t liked much by the whites in or out of the press. They say he’s the only mayor who has a foreign policy. Obviously, they’ve never heard of Ed Koch.”

Though embattled and accused of ar­rogant sanctimoniousness by his de­tractors, criticized by his own staff for standing by bad appointees on sinking ships until the water reaches his nose, and convinced that his greatest victory was over the police department, Maynard Jackson’s place in history will have most to do with what his supporters call “the poli­tics of inclusion rather than exclusion.” In the great tradition of Atlanta University Center and the many historic figures it has produced, he has not only striven for a contemporary vision of the full community efforts that date back to 1873 but has brought Negroes into positions of authority, involvement, and decision making that have not existed in the South since the first phase of Reconstruction and were nowhere near as comprehensive even then.

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Eugene Duffy, Jackson’s youngest ap­pointee, says, “Maynard got them to bring that airport in under budget and early. The federal government can’t do that with a Trident missile or a shuttle. He’s marched with the striking garbage workers and has made sure that the black community gets exactly the same public services as the white people. He also plays hardball these white boys aren’t used to from a black man. For instance, when Arrow Shirts wanted to move its factory outside Atlanta and sell the land to the Transit Authority for the subway route, Maynard knew it would cost the city 800 jobs and dwindle the tax base further. He called them and let them know if they tried to leave, he would inform the Transit Au­thority they would be denied a demolition permit. Arrow agreed to relocate inside Atlanta. Black folks don’t appreciate that kind of stuff, unfortunately, because most don’t know what high power politics is. Maynard does, though.”

The city’s cultural texture is, finally, much more subtle and complicated than the obvious struggles for political power and money initially reveal. It is as interwoven as the genetic histories of its people, histories affirmed by the broad range of features, hair textures, and miscegenated skin tones that also illustrate the failure of African-American representational painting. As one middle-aged white woman said, “I got Cherokee mixed in me and probably some other things. People brag about the Indian in them, but they’s a whole lot of things they know and everybody else knows about the family blood that don’t get talked too much about.” That is just as true of the Negro community — ’60s nationalism has in­fluenced many younger, light-skinned Ne­groes, who frequently speak of racial matters so snottily that they seem to be suggesting they themselves are pure black, just as certain even lighter ones used to try and pass for pure white. Yet blacks and whites retain almost identical taste in foods, and their sense of humor is much the same. The good old boy, the gen­tleman, the belle, the orator, the scholar, the tale-spinner, and the fool-cutter also have idiomatic Southern variations on both sides. For all the huffing and puffing about who’s got what, the geniality in more than a few integrated circumstances equals when it does not surpass that of almost all similar situations in the North.

The afternoon I left Atlanta was the 13th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination and there were funerals for the two black youths found dead that week, one of whom was in his early twenties and retarded. I thought of the in­evitable sentimentality and the observation by State Representative Tyrone Brooks that the fund appeals had become “a pimp circus; all kinds of people pretend­ing to be raising money for the mothers and putting it in their own pockets.” By then, green ribbons symbolized moral pomposity and avarice as much as they did empathy.

As the cab traveled to the airport past the beautiful colors and trees and red clay in the gorgeous spring sun, I thought of Sherman’s observation as his troops pulled out of the ravaged city: “We turned our horses’ heads to the east. Atlanta was soon lost behind a screen of trees, and became a thing of the past. Around it clings many a thought of desperate battle, of hope and fear, that now seem the memory of a dream.” ❖

Categories
FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Going Down With the Replacements

Not a Bunch of Loads

“Go ahead RJ, get the notebook out,” Tommy cackles. A bubble of beer hangs from his chin, but he doesn’t know about it. Four nights into the Replacements’ road trip and already things are getting ugly. The Replacements, four miscreants from Minneapolis, are setting up their equipment in a cafeteria at the Universi­ty of Windsor. Ill-humored after a pro­tracted shakedown at the border and feeling confrontational, they can’t get past the soundcheck before a guy with “student patrol” on his T-shirt complains about the volume. The alcohol the pro­moter foolishly left for them in the dress­ing room before the soundcheck only for­tifies their hostility.

With me making eight (for a week) in their seats-six-comfortably Econoline, the Replacements are worming their way around the Midwest, out east, south to Georgia, and eventually to California, promoting their new album Let It Be. They figure they’ll come home broke as they left.

The ride from the cafeteria to the hotel is a crusade — we get lost and then turn around only to get lost some more. Everybody’s babbling, everybody’s experienc­ing preshow panic: how can we get away with it tonight? The manifold sprang a leak first night out of Minneapolis, and it fills up the van with a carbon monoxide cloud. But the band’s already addled, so it’s no big deal.

Guitarist Bob Stinson has hidden the scotch on singer Paul Westerberg. Not that there’s more than a trickle left to conceal. “You’re not going down on us tonight, are you?” shouts drummer Chris Mars, the only one keeping sober this trip, as he grabs Paul around the neck. “I am going down tonight without you if I have to,” Paul says, sounding a little sad at the prospect. “But it would be nice if we went down together.”

That night, Paul finds security in num­bers. Almost everyone in the band is crocked by the time the show starts. Af­ter putting on lipstick and eyeliner, vase­lining back their hair, and donning hippie overalls, they open with a heavy metal version of “The Marine’s Hymn” and close by passing around instruments to one another and more or less anybody who’s interested. Somewhere in between Paul says, “Fuck this rock shit, we’re a jazz band from now on,” and the band grinds out a few minutes of Holiday Inn lounge fusion. All this to a stupefied crowd, half of which has already split. After the show Westerberg is rueful that the Replacements hadn’t flopped more profoundly — if only they’d tried a little harder. That’s later on that night, though. Back in the van, still trying to find the crummy little hotel, Paul spits into the footwell of the van. In his lacon­ic, cartoon voice that seems to merge the sound of those two great Norsemen, Wal­ter Mondale and Lars the Janitor, he says, “I feel like I’m in another country.”

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They like Hydrox bet­ter than Oreos, but good people won’t hold it against them. On a great night or on a shitty one (but not inbetween), the Replacements are the most exciting, soul-searching out there band around. Their newest record, Let It Be, encom­passes hot-blooded country and rockabil­ly, Randy Newman pop and the all-out white noise that was always hardcore’s deepest (and sometimes only) text. They’re as giddy as kids standing up in the front car of a roller-coaster; and yes, they toss their cookies routinely, getting down to disclosures — not just of bad nights on their knees, but of why they do this to themselves in the first place. And why anyone would do such miserable things. All of this told in the plainspeak of a high school dropout afraid he might die, or simply disappear, before he knew what to do with his life.

There’s no hurricane’s eye with the Re­placements, just four forces pulling in different directions. Bassist Tommy Stinson, 18, has an “I Love ET” sticker on his amp, proudly calls himself a John Waite fan, and is the only band member who passes for cute. Gaunt, mop-headed, he tries to look sharp on stage, with his scissor kicks and rock-star stances. But why he’s so lovable is that pretty soon he just looks like he’s hurting, as if he knows that posing for pictures isn’t going to save him from anything. He really is a kid growing up in a band, and when he screws up, the group’s usually paternal. In contrast to Tommy, his big brother Bob, 24, is pudgy and cheerfully non­-plussed most of the time. If he were a cartoon, his eyes might be asterisks; if a moose fell into his TV dinner, he’d just ask for another one.

Most of what I learned about 23-year-­old drummer Chris Mars was from watching him work. Behind the drums he looks terrorized, teeth bared and eyes en­larged as if he were getting electroshock. He says even less than Bob, but his quiet isn’t puzzling — he’s clean-cut, almost in­visible. And then there’s singer Paul Westerberg, at 24 the most ambitious member of the band and the skinniest (there are fatter breadsticks around). “You should have seen him when I first met him,” his girlfriend says. “I thought he was going to die.” If Paul instigates a lot of the rabble-rousing, he doesn’t seem to enjoy it as much as his cohorts — he plays the sourpuss and the fool. Like the others, he never finished high school.

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“Yeah, I went to Catholic school all the way — all the way and nowhere,” he says. “I was constantly drunk and stoned, just messed with drugs and stuff. I did that all through high school, that’s why I think I have a real bitter attitude toward it now. It was the worst four years of my life.

“It was also bad because they would send kids from [alcohol/drug] treatment there, supposedly getting a good atmosphere. So you would have like half these goody-goody rich kids and the other half were these fucking loads from the inner city. I mean, being drunk every day in typing class and by the time you get your paper out the drill’s over.”

Part of the thrill of any Replacements show is that at any moment they may fall apart — fall on their face, fall off the stage, fall as they try to fly. They have no idea what success might be like, or how to crawl away from what they don’t like about their lives. And they know a plan doesn’t mean much by itself, not the way the pop marketplace is currently orga­nized. So most of all they caterwaul for all the stuff they don’t have and proclaim themselves the kind of wrecks that denial produces in the end. In short, the Re­placements are always making spectacles of themselves. Bob appreciates a good tutu, or a go-go skirt with a paisley top, as much as the next man. When the band played an all-ages show in Minneapolis to kick off their tour, he honored the event by wearing just a diaper, which kept com­ing undone as he walked around Minne­apolis after the concert.

Why this is affecting, and why it’s a pisser, is that the Replacements never look more like themselves than when they’re trying to look like someone else. Painfully regular guys, they take the stage and totter in the direction of their idea of pop stars. The Replacements’ role models are the marginal refuse of late ’60s and early ’70s rock — acts reacting against rock’s newly arrived-at art status (T. Rex, Alice Cooper) or bands so natu­rally disposable (the Sweet, the Grass Roots) they went nowhere critically. Paul, the band’s principal writer, says watching the Raspberries on Rock Con­cert in 1974 made him want to play music in the first place. With nothing original to say — and knowing it — the Raspberries wanted to be big anyway. They weren’t going to lie about it, so they sang about like wanting a hit and feeling confused about their lives, and like how great all those bands in the ’60s were. The Re­placements weren’t the only fans to catch a dose of catscratch fever from Don Kirshner, but they’re one of the few bands who aren’t embarrassed about it. There’s another difference, too — Paul writes better than Eric Carmen.

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But the Replacements’ love of ’70s grunge is veined with something more complicated, something less pleasant to think about, than fond remembrances. In the van the morning after a show featur­ing scads of covers, roadie Bill Sullivan mused, “Those people last night, they didn’t understand. They thought you were making fun of them.” To which Westerberg said, “Well, we kinda are.” True, but only inasmuch as the Replace­ments were making fun of themselves. Doing a soundcheck in Kent, Ohio, the band lashed into a vicious version of Golden Earring’s “Radar Love,” and af­ter it broke apart Tommy leaned over to manager Peter Jesperson and said happi­ly (not smugly as some might suppose), “That was when dogshit was real dog­shit.”

Denying that there’s more than dogshit in such a song, or in themselves, is a constant. I got on the van with the Replacements wanting to know how a band with no money provides for itself, and how this affects their attitude and performances. What I came away with — hell, it’s blatant every show, and it fills up the van faster than the carbon monoxide­ — was a penetrating sense of obstruction, of being blocked, that made them willing to gouge into themselves to remove what makes them feel like things. I learned to judge a Replacements show like a scary movie — chart the splatter.

And there’s plenty of splatter, because these guys just naturally act like they’ve been barfed out of a particle accelerator. They are within the tradition of trouble­makers like Wynonie Harris or Jerry Lee Lewis, musicians who might flop or might instigate a riot and who do both for the same reason — to wipe the features off your face. The Replacements are balled-­up boluses of high hopes and low feelings, wildcat growls and boredom, longings they try to beat down with a stick but never quite can. It’s an unstable mix, and sometimes it pulls a show together, when it’s not pulling their lives apart.

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In 1979, the Stinson brothers were jamming with drummer Chris Mars at home — neighorhood kids, blammied and wailing on tunes by Ted Nugent and Aerosmith. (Tastes that haven’t disappeared by any means. Witness this exchange in the van, some­where between Boston and Providence. Bill Mack, driver/soundman, smirking while Elvis’s Sun Sessions blares from the box: “Aw, what is this shit?” Bob, “Yeah, turn it off. I’ve got this Johnny Winter tape.”) Paul Westerberg, a janitor at the time, would hear them through the basement window on his way back from work and hide in the bushes.

Before Paul, the band was happy with the singer it had — truth is, sometimes they say they’d be happier if they still had him. Paul was enlisted strictly as a guitar player. “I went in and I was the lead guitar player. Bob was rhythm, and we had another singer that they all want­ed to keep,” Paul recalls. “He was a friend of mine, and I told him that I loved him but the band hated him.” A few pep talks like this and the singer left. “To this day, I don’t think he knows,” Paul says.

The band started as the Impediments, and gig number one was in a halfway house for alcoholics. They came to the show pilled up and plowed and got thrown out. They were told they wouldn’t play again. The next day they became the Replacements.

They issued the splendidly entitled Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash in 1981, and though it’s brutal enough to harpoon a seaful of Moby Jacks (punk cut with Johnny Thunders’s Heartbreak­ers), it also reveals Paul’s knack for pop vernacular. “Shiftless When Idle,” if they’d taken the time, might have turned a few heads as a single, and the accompanying 45, the gruesomely blue “If Only You Were Lonely,” is as moving a honky­tonk tune as this decade has produced. A year later, there was The Replacements Stink, an appeal to hardcore’s troops; gratifying blare, it’s also the least of their records. And while last year’s all-u-can-­eat genre-smashing Hootenanny was mightily confusing at first, its pastiche of folk hokum, blues, and thrash-a-go-go serves both as a provocation to their fans and as an homage to the music the band likes.

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After an all-night drive to Columbus, the Replacements are tired and jittery for their first show on the road. Stache’s, the club they’re playing, is tiny and covered with the green carpeting usually found on putt-putt courses. Westerberg discovered not too long ago that he has pleurisy, and tonight it’s dogging him, causing his chest muscles to bunch up like wire cables. Before the soundcheck, he calls his girlfriend — “I told her everything was fine, that we’re all okay,” he says. “Already lying to her,” Tommy responds.

Halfway through the show, when they lace into Let It Be‘s magisterial ”16 Blue,” and Paul is so excited he pushes Tommy out of the way to turn up his amp, the song crashes away. Soon they shred “Take Me Down to the Hospital,” about that first pleurisy attack, and it’s obvious everybody in the club is either a true believer or another candidate for the emergency room. Some nights the band won’t connect, and people stand around like they’re waiting for a pizza, and if you think about the R.E.M. song where the rank and file of clubdom are compared to pilgrims you’d laugh a black guffaw. But there’s no laughter tonight, unless you count the fun Tommy’s having shouting along on “Hospital.” There’s a shocked sound rolling around the four walls as the set ends. Nobody feels like a stranger.

After the show, there’s time for anoth­er drink while the money is counted and the equipment gets put in the van. Tom­my’s made a friend he’ll have contempt for in the morning. Bill Sullivan’s got an electric cord in one hand, the other in a woman’s ass pocket. Paul’s nursing a carton of milk and just wants to get to sleep. Somebody passes out a fanzine, and somebody says the bar is closing.

And always pressing some flesh, maybe in the back of his mind counting the drinks everybody’s having, is manager Peter Jesperson. The band’s relationship with their label, Twin/Tone, and with Jesperson, has evolved from accidental beginnings. Trying to get a gig at a Minne­apolis club, Paul took a tape to Jesperson, the club’s booker who was also part owner of Twin/T0ne, a local compa­ny the band had never heard of. After playing the demo, Jesperson offered to record them. He became their manager at their second show, Paul says, “because we didn’t want to talk to the asshole at the bar.”

Late one night on the tour, outside a gyro joint, Bob complains about Jesper­son. He’s unhappy about how little the band makes, about Jesperson’s co-pro­duction on the new album. He says, “I just don’t know why he’s here.” “Because he liked us when nobody else did,” Paul replies.

The support’s been important, but the band’s antsy for change. They have what Jesperson describes as a “loose but perpetual” contract with Twin/Tone (he re­fuses to say whether they have a written agreement). By the band’s account, they haven’t seen any money from their rec­ords. “You know, none of us are whizzes at math or anything,” Paul says. “And they say to us, ‘You’re welcome any time you want to come look at the books.’ Well, Christ, I don’t want to see a page full of figures. We say, ‘Where’s our mon­ey?’ Twin/Tone doesn’t spend enough money to make money. They spend enough to get it out, the smallest amount necessary. It’s all they have, they say. I don’t know where the money is.”

Everyone on the tour collects a per diem, usually $15, though either a packed house or an empty one the night before can alter that. Twin/Tone fronted the group $500 to get out of town, which, along with the take from each show, is what the Replacements are rolling on. A band like the Replacements can expect to make anywhere from $200 to $1250 a gig. Once in a while — a single time in the week I traveled — Jesperson sends money home, to pay off the studio time, the pressing and mastering of the record, the van. But after springing for hotel rooms (this is the first tour the Replacements have not depended on the kindness of strangers for lodging) and gas and instru­ment and van repairs, there isn’t much scratch left. What they save up from their per diem is what the band members will take home. Out of this is born vari­ous strategies for economizing. Bob will politely ask anyone to buy him a drink. Paul sometimes eats about three bites a day. Occasionally there’s a splurge — a band-buy of food, say, or a case — which comes out of what Jesperson’s been holding.

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Which isn’t to say that the Replacements don’t make things hard for themselves. First, there’s the volume to consider, a prime reason some clubs decline to book them. Besides being one of the few acts to bring the cops to Maxwell’s for disturbing Hobo­ken’s nappytime, the Replacements have had a number of club managers yank the plug on them. Once in Oshkosh they were playing at 128 decibals, over the legal limit and as loud as the sound board could register, when an amp gave up with a column of smoke. The show ended, and they got extended applause. “The guy there keeps calling us to play there again,” Jesperson says with an amused look. Not always is the management so sensitive. At a Minneapolis show a man­ager came up to the front of the stage with a bouncer and shouted at Paul to either turn it down or get off. “Do we still get paid if we leave?” he asked, as the purple hose in the manager’s forehead throbbed a little more, and the band launched into “Shut Up,” only with Wes­terberg shouting, “Fuck you.”

Other tales of terror: the Cleveland jinx (thrown out of two clubs, one because Bob pissed on stage); a show in Virginia, where a crowd of hardcore kids, mad be­cause the band delivered their patented “pussy” set (country covers and slow stuff served up to knee-jerk thrashers), took it out on the van; an Ann Arbor date, er, performance art piece, consist­ing basically of tuning up, falling down, and starting maybe 20 songs without completing a one.

The point in running down this bad behavior isn’t in the details. I had heard many of these stories before, but it wasn’t until I was on the road with the Replace­ments that I began to see how depressing their untenable heap of ambitions and energy can get. Hootenanny sold only about 6000 copies, and they’re deep in the hole financing Let It Be. The record industry isn’t going to look at this band and see a stack of Krugerrands. When the Replacements came to New York and played for some a&r people at CBGB, they flopped. To me it seemed meaningful.

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New York was where they figured they’d be heard by some big label repre­sentatives — Warner Bros.’ Michael Hill was coming out and, because he was a fan, he had set up a meeting with the band once they got to town. According to Paul, nothing in particular happened. “I wasn’t expecting to sign a deal or noth­ing, at all. Basically we’re talking ‘in a few years.’ He didn’t say anything specif­ic at all. He just wanted to know if we had half a brain or if we were a bunch of loads. At this point he’d be embarrassed, it would be too much of a risk to bring some bigwig down and see these guys who could possibly fall on their face.

“Last night [at CBGB] was a classic example. We went up there and did what we wanted to do, and they [the record industry] wanted us to play our best songs as best we could. And we didn’t feel like it. And so they figure, ‘They’re a small-time bunch of amateurs.’ That’s one way to look at it, and that’s partly true. But I think it’s also the spirit that makes rock exciting and immediate.”

But if Paul and Jesperson say there were no big hopes for the meeting, I re­member the argument outside the gyro restaurant. Bob was complaining about the size of Twin/Tone’s operation. And I remember Paul saying, “Well, just wait until we get to New York. We’re going to talk to somebody from Warner Bros. there.” He wasn’t just placating an angry Bob. And then there was the show the night of the meeting with Hill. Shortly into the set Paul babbled, “You may have guessed tonight that we don’t want to play any of our own songs.” This was big­-league self-abuse: not the rocket ride that can make their covers go bang, more like an extended submarine fart. The audi­ence was howling at them, and the band couldn’t come up with anything to shout back. Finally, they stumbled into the Stones’ “Start Me Up,” with shit-eating grins I would swear were slapped over some raw feelings. And then Paul said into the mike, “Do we get a record con­tract now?” No, but Hill did say he had tried to get Rod Stewart to cover “16 Blue.”

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In the end, to be hon­est, the Replace­ments have to dis­tinguish what they want from what they want. They have folks on their side like R.E.M. and X, bands who talk them up in interviews. The last time the Replacements opened for X, the headlin­er added part of their own take to the Replacements’ cut. There is support for the band, and in their calmer moments they think they just have to find a way to stick together and keep on sucking car­bon mono before they start generating cash from it all. Except that there’s a song on Let It Be called “Unsatisfied” that questions what success will mean. When Paul sings “Everything you ever dream of, it’s right in front of you,” he’s not even teenage-miserable. He feels cleaned out like a fish, worrying that fans or money or some such shit won’t make him feel any better about himself — that his depression will last a long time, may­be until the permanent vacation.

Still, the Replacements deserve every consumer good they can cram down their cakehole, and it will be a more just world which will give them merely some of that. And an even juster one that will ease the vacancy that bunches up their chest mus­cles. But for now they have to contend with the fear of defeat that one way or another works its way to the surface of any great Replacements show and that sometimes gets broken in their effort.

And sometimes that fear just lays low, nibbles away at the band until they feel there’s nothing to do but get fucked up. That’s the way it was for the great trek through Canada. Driving from Windsor to Rochester through Ontario was the longest time I spent in the van with them. Fortified with more alcoholic Ca­nadian beer, they were mostly wrecked. There was tag team wrestling in the back — when we got to Rochester the proper response belonged to Bob, who lobbed a smoke bomb into the van and might have burned it down.

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It was fun. But better than fun was the larger-than-life wrestling with boredom that went down a few nights before in Kent, Ohio. We were at JB’s, a large, hops-soaked basement where, the band was told, Alice Cooper had played 15 years earlier. There was no sign for the place outside. The show wobbled at first, the band playing material from Let It Be not particularly well. Then something like the hootch and something like panic began to lay a finger on them. Songs started crumbling after a few bars; there was no agreement about what to play. “Hey, let’s pick a chord, guys,” Paul said. Nobody did. And then, to Bob, “Hey, you’re the guitar player,” trying to make him pick a song. So they tuned up for a few minutes instead.

Plink, plink. “We’d talk to you be­tween songs, but we’re not any good at it.” And then Paul cackled out of the side of his mouth, “Bob will start this next one for you right now. Watch him. Now … ” The audience had long ago stopped laughing at the patter. Now they’re yell­ing things like “Bark my hole” and “Fuck you.” Finally Chris kicked into the drum intro to “Billion Dollar Babies,” which made it nearly to the part where the vo­cal was supposed to come in before every­body in the band started cracking up too much to play. Plink. “We can do this all night,” Paul hooted. No shit.

There was an empty dance floor in front of the band. And suddenly the rest of the place was thinning out, too. What Paul once said on another stage must be running through his mind: “I can see some of you are still here. That means our work is not finished.” What followed, at a glance, was family-sized loathing — ­for themselves and for the audience, need it be said. But as they fell down the cis­tern, something pretty strange was also happening. The band essayed Bad Com­pany’s “Can’t Get Enough,” and the crowd wasn’t articulating too much any­more, they were making crueler animal-­like sounds. Next up was “Taking Care of Business,” only the real joke was it was a monster, and all at once the band wasn’t laughing exactly. They were … smiling. Hell, beaming. This was suddenly, unex­pectedly, really fun.

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And for as long as they kept officious­ness at bay, they were not even precisely the Replacements, they were just fans. When they took on “Roundabout,” Bob was smiling as much as he had the whole week, and he glowed throughout the Jose Feliciano, the DeFranco Family. I think they may have played some of their own stuff here, oh, and “Walk on the Wild Side.” Greil Marcus writes approvingly about Sonic Youth making rock so crude it was almost noise, but at JB’s the Replacements made Sonic Youth sound like the Dillards. This was gap-toothed noise laughing at music. It had been a while since the people who had thrown lit ciga­rettes and cans of soup and toilet paper had left, and everybody else now was ei­ther just tired, or, I think, subtly paci­fied. And happy, too.

“My Sharona” came then, and when I looked over, I saw the bartender shaking a tambourine and bopping from one end of the bar to the other. Eventually they got to “Breakdown,” and Jesperson sang every word from the back of the room. And then, pretty quickly, they found a way back, maybe found a new way, to being Replacements once again. And when they wailed on “Johnny’s Gonna Die,” it was maybe more fucked-up, and more moving, than ever. A friend in Ann Arbor a night later would tell me the Replacements were great because they had so many “objective correlatives” poking out of every song, like shrapnel in some Vili nail fetish, and maybe here was the biggest example of all. Westerberg at 20 writing about role-model Johnny Thunders, how his update of Hank Wil­liams’s life was appealing, and terminal. Built on the chords to “So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star,” “Johnny” is a kid meditating on what’s not a kid’s theme: that what he loves — and it’s not really junk, it’s speed, wide-eyed and no pauses — may kill him. The Replacements are crucial because they proclaim their hunger, and they don’t shut up. From the mournful din of “Johnny” to Let It Be‘s expansive, calamitous variety, they’ve been even smarter than they have been stoopid.

Nobody else left once things got inter­esting at JB’s, but the band was getting tired. Still, the set never really “ended.” Somebody left the stage, Tommy and Bob sat down on the edge, and roadie Bill Sullivan took the mike to say, “Once again we’d like to thank you for that big Ohio welcome.” It cleared out briskly after that. ❖

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FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Orthodox in New York: A Journey Through the Year 5738 

During the past year I’ve spent a great deal of time in New York City’s Orthodox Jewish communities — particularly on the Lower East Side of New York. It has been a wondrous voyage through time. Now, whenever I get off the F train and walk down East Broadway, I am sud­denly in the Jewish calendar year of 5738. I am in the pious world of my European ancestors. 

I felt drawn to that world in 1972, when I spent months on the Lower East Side, writing about the poverty of elderly Jews there. I talked about my feelings with some of the younger Orthodox people I met then — men and women — who had managed to integrate their religious traditions into their American lives. But the bearded, black-garbed older sages seemed unapproachable. They reminded me of my assimi­lation — of my ignorance of the basic Hebrew blessings, of most holidays that marked the cycle of my ancestors’ years. I feared they would either treat me as an irretrievable outcast or demand that I embrace their ways. So, for the most part, their world seemed off limits. 

Once, several years ago, though, I did spend an afternoon in the Munckaczer talis (prayer shawl) factory close to the Wil­liamsburg Bridge. David Weider­man, 72, born in Hungary, was weaving the exalted garments on a clattering 50-year-old mechanical loom. His father, who had taught him the trade, had died in a concentration camp. Now Weider­man, isolated from his past in that small, noisy store, tried to uphold the careful tradition of religious crafts­manship he had absorbed when a boy. His prayer shawls were made only of pure Turkish wool. He was scornful of the “cheap, mixed talisim” imported from Israel, made of wool diluted by rayon. “Let the others do what they want,” he said. “It’s not my business. I’ll do it the way it has always been done.” 

How proud he was of that ancient trade. For a moment, I saw him as guardian of an irrecoverable past. 

That night I described David Weiderman to my father. Fascinated, he urged me to continue exploring what I’d glimpsed that afternoon. 

I was surprised by his interest. Until then, I’d always seen my father and mother as committed-but-not-religious­ Jews. Like most of their generation, they had been deeply affected by World War II. They insisted that my brother and sisters and I remember our kinship to the six million dead. In dozens of dinner-table conversations they imbued us with the principle that our history of oppression should make us sensi­tive to injustice; we fought for civil rights in this country and fought to end the war in Vietnam. 

Yet my father had changed his name from Cohen to Cowan because he hated his embittered, unloving Orthodox father. In my parents’ house, we celebrated Christmas, not Chan­nukah. My brother and I attended Choate, an Episcopalian prep school, where I learned stately Christian hymns and lita­nies by heart. I don’t remember knowing anyone who kept kosher or observed the Sabbath when I was growing up. Those acts seemed archaic customs to me. I assumed they did to my father, too. 

In recent years my feelings about Judaism continued to change. By 1976 I was fasting on Yom Kippur. And my wife, Rachel, who is not Jewish, had become even more convinced than I that simple aspects of worship — holding Passover sed­ers in our apartment, fasting, gathering in close as we lit the Sabbath candles — would enrich the fabric of our family’s life. 

I told my father we were fasting. To my astonishment, he said that were he in better health, he’d join us. He had fasted every year until he was 30, he said. He had never told me that. 

We talked of other religious traditions than Yom Kippur. A few weeks earlier, I had learned of a Jewish law that says holy books must be buried, for to throw them out profanes the name and works of the Lord. My father believed that all books were sacred. He said a friend of his had searched the Talmud and found the wording of that injunction. Now, my father wanted to hang a typed copy of it in his study. 

When would I get around to writing my article on religious Jews, he asked. 

On November 18, 1976, my parents died in a fire. This piece began as a form of mourning — and of carrying out a wish of my father’s I didn’t fully understand. It came to be even more. It helped me recover a part of my own lost past. 

=✡︎= 

I was lucky to find a teacher, a guide — Rabbi Joseph Sing­er, 62, born in Poland to a family of rabbis, the 10th-genera­tion descendent of Gershon Kitover, who was the brother-in-­law of Baal Shem Tov, founder of the hasidic movement. 

He is both a rabbi and a social worker. When I first met him in his office at a social-service agency, the United Jewish Council of the Lower East Side, he was in his cubicle, talking on the phone to an elderly woman who refused to have her phlebitis checked at Beth Israel Hospital. His dark gabardine coat hung over his chair. He was pacing back and forth, shouting, joking, cajoling in a rapid mixture of Yiddish and English. His phone had a hold button on it. As soon as he finished with the first call he answered one from a man in Brighton Beach who hadn’t received a Social Security check in six months. How could he deal with city officials, the man asked Rabbi Singer? He always felt afraid in the presence of such powerful people. Rabbi Singer tugged at his beard and toyed with his payes (the sidelocks tucked neatly behind his ear) as he listened to the desperate voice. He arranged to go out to Brooklyn the next day and accompany his frightened client to the Social Security agency. 

From that first encounter Rabbi Singer has never called me by my American name. To him I am Saul (Sha’ul). Once or twice, at first, he railed against the Biblical Paul, an early per­secutor of the Jews. Now he intones my Hebrew name in such a fond, natural voice that I no longer worry that he is judging my identity. Instead, I feel he’s helping me enrich it with a new, special one. 

Every day, at about 6 a.m. and 4 p.m., he goes to his old shul on Stanton Street, across from a rubble-strewn lot, to make sure the men who pray there will be comfortable. He boils a large pot of water for coffee and tea and always has a bagful of cookies in the refrigerator. On a winter day, when the congregants come in early to warm themselves, to savor a cookie or two and a few minutes of fraternity, those things are especially important. 

Some of them love to sit for 15 minutes around a spare wooden table with Rabbi Singer, studying a portion of the Talmud in honor of the dead. Others grow impatient. Soon, someone urges the rabbi to begin the daavening, the praying. He smiles back — they’ve been doing that for years. 

Then Rabbi Singer ties a black prayer belt, a gartel, around his waist. That ornamental garment shows his respect for the Almighty; it ensures that the passionate juices of the lower half of his body won’t interfere with the purity of his prayers. 

Once the gartel is on, he walks up to the ark, where the To­rah is kept, and intones prayers as he rocks back and forth with controlled dignity. Sometimes, during the services, members of the congregation talk with each other — about their health, or the merits of a housing project. The shamesh, the sexton of the shul, wheels toward them and shouts for silence. Rabbi Singer continues praying at his own unhurried pace. 

After the service, he is teasingly gentle with the congre­gants. He feels a deep, unquestioning affection for them. He wants them to see the shul as a home. 

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Soon after we met, during a very cold week, the syna­gogue’s pipes broke. Rabbi Singer asked me to go with him to fix them. We hurried to the shul. He huddled inside his frock coat against the freezing Manhattan winter wind as we walked down Essex Street — where Rabbi Moses Eisenbach, the scribe, was correcting letters on the flowing parchment page of a Torah; past the tiny basement shop where three women bent over their sewing machines, making yarmulkes; past the cavernous old market near Pitt Street, where the sho­chet, the ritual slaughterer, honed his knife to be sure the chickens squawking in their wire cage would be killed quick­ly and mercifully in accordance with Jewish law. Those peo­ple were all his friends just as they would have been in the hein, in Galicia, where he was raised. But he couldn’t stop to talk with them now. He wanted the shul to be clean before anybody arrived for services. 

On the way over, he reminisced about the Europe of his youth — “where the air was, holy” and “a town without a rab­bi was like a wedding without music,” about the Thursday nights he and his schoolmates stayed in heder, in religious school, praying, fasting so they could study harder, reading from the Torah so that the holy word would echo through the night. 

He’d loved the feeling of Friday morning, when everyone went to the market to buy fish or milk for the Sabbath and the town square was filled with Jews from the countryside come to get their chickens killed by the shochet; when the tradesmen stopped their work to go to the mikva, the ritual bath, then to pray; when the entire town was already half-bathed in the lovely amber glow of shabbos

Once we entered the shul we quickly began to mop the floors in the freezing bathroom. Then Rabbi Singer got out a stepladder and held it while I replaced some bulbs in the vestibule.

As we worked I wondered aloud what I was doing there. But I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather have been than in that shul, performing that mitzvah, that good deed. Why did I — why did someone as Americanized as I — feel that way?

Rabbi Singer answered instantly. Sometimes, he said, when you have an ancestor who was a rabbi or a scholar, his piety creates a spark that smolders through the generations until it burns again. 

My parents had never talked much about their European past. My mother’s German-Jewish ancestry was too remote. My father wasn’t sure which Eastern European country his paternal forbears had come from. But one of his cousins had given me the name of a great-uncle in Chicago who knew a little family history. I called him after I talked to Rabbi Sing­er. In the course of our long conversation he told me that Ja­cob Cohen — my great-great grandfather — had been rabbi in the province of Gradno, Lithuania. He’d been a Cohen, a member of the Jewish priestly caste. I realized that wasn’t so miraculous. Every Jew must have a few holy people in the family tree. Still, the news delighted Rabbi Singer And it de­lighted me. 

Several days later, while walking down East Broadway, I heard someone call out the name “Sha’ul.” I looked around. 

Rabbi Singer was hurrying toward me. “Did you really hear the name Sha’ul?” He asked the question several times. As­sured that I had, he beamed at me through his ginger-flecked gray beard. “You see. That name is somewhere in your subconscious.”

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So. I was Saul Cohen with Rabbi Singer and his friends, Paul Cowan in my own world. I began to feel as if I were leading a double life. When I was on the Lower East Side, in the year 5737, I always put on a yarmulke. For a while I told myself I was doing so as a sign of respect, an attempt to conform to long-established traditions. But that didn’t explain the pleasure I took in pinning the skullcap on my head. Wearing it was like fasting on Yom Kippur: not a duty but a way of reclaiming part of my identity. Sometimes, when I got on the subway at Delancey Street, I would pause before I took the yarmulke off. I alway’s removed it, though, always emerged from the subway bareheaded. Uptown, in the year 1977, it felt uncomfortable and a little misleading to wear it. I wasn’t an Orthodox Jew; I was still in flux, still at the begin­ning of a voyage whose destination was not yet clear. Rachel and I were trying to figure out how to observe the Sabbath, but in a way that blended the realities of our highly mobile, multi-cultured life with our desire for peace and ceremony. All I knew was that I wanted to find my place in the tradition that Rabbi Singer and my great-great-grandfather, Jacob Co­hen, represented. 

I began describing those feelings to friends. Many, to my surprise, were involved in similar searches. Others seemed confused by my new interest in religion. Some, I’m sure, thought I was seeking solace. The truth was that my parents’ death only  intensified a feeling I had harbored for years. 

I am one of history’s orphans. I love the variety, the mobil­ity of this country; much of my journalism is an effort to re­discover frontier dreams. But I have never been able to shake a feeling of personal disorientation. Because of the holocaust I can’t go back to the Jewish sectors of those German and Li­thuanian towns my ancestors came from. They don’t exist. There are no long-memoried bards or yellowed documents or even old libraries or cemeteries, to acquaint me with the Eu­ropean ghosts that still inhabit some part of my personality. There is no way I can find out even the barest details of Rabbi Jacob Cohen’s life; no way I can discover why his son Moses came to America or why his grandson Jake, a terrible failure at business, clung to the forms of Orthodoxy with the reflexive ferocity that made my father equate religion with rage, Or what it meant to my family’s psyche that, after all these years, we were Cowans, not Cohens, that we were lawyers, writers, historians, entrepreneurs who had succeeded at worldly activities but were utterly ignorant of the intimate details of our own heritage. 

There were so many relentless, subtle pressures in Ameri­ca that conspired to rob people of their pasts. There were the careless immigration officers who might mangle your name at Ellis island. The landsmen — the countrymen who had been here for a year or two and saw your side-locks, your gabardine coat as a sure sign you were a greenhorn. The friendly ac­quaintances in the shop, or the boss himself, who told you you’d “look like a Yankee”, if you just shaved off that beard. The wealthy German Jews, “Our Crowd,” the uptowners, who were ashamed of the Eastern Europeans, who called them “kike” behind their backs who established settlement houses and sent forth stump speakers to convert them to the view that it was un-American to adhere to Jewish traditions here. The public-school teacher who ridiculed a kid for speaking Yiddish in the classroom. The friend or lover, or the college or business or law firm that might accept a Co­wan, but not a Cohen; a Livingston, but not a Levi. 

Telltale details, perhaps, but add them by the hundreds, spread them among people who are thrilled to be free of the economic and intellectual confines of the shtetl, who are mortified by the suggestion that they are different from main­stream, melting-pot America, and, miraculously, a collective identity seems to vanish in less than a century-a wink of time in the thousands of years of Jewish history. 

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Rabbi Singer. There is a legend in the Jewish tradition that the world exists because there are 36 just men in it. No­body knows who they are, or what their faith is. But I have come to believe that Rabbi Singer is the kind of man who could be one of the lamed vovnik — one of the just. 

He is immensely proud of the legacy he has carried from Pilzno, Poland, where he was born, to Stanton Street, New York; of his blood relationship to the early hasidim, whose personal warmth, whose ecstatic religion, kindled a passion­ate piety that swept through the shtetls of Eastern Europe in the 18th century. 

It was a world in which people “felt the way of the Al­mighty in their soul. They felt every little thing was from the Almighty.” And that spirit endured in Pilzno, a town of about 250 Jewish families, about 1000 gentiles, located near the Vistula River. To almost all the Jews who lived in the ramshackle wooden houses that lined the town’s rutted streets Rabbi Singer’s grandfather — Rabbi Gershon Singer­ — was a man who could use his faith to make miracles. Rabbi Singer’s mother used to reminisce about his holy feats in later years — after the family had moved to another part of Galicia during World War I. 

Once, a boy from the city of Lemberg, who had married a girl from Pilzno, disappeared without a trace. According to Jewish law, the girl couldn’t remarry unless she had a get, a writ of divorce. “They looked for him, right and left,” Rabbi Singer says. The girl’s relatives advertised in newspapers in Lemberg and Cracow to see if anyone knew his whereabouts. But he seemed to have vanished. 

Nearly two years went by, and the girl and her parents were desperate. “Her mother bothered my grandmother, and my grandmother bothered my grandfather,” Rabbi Singer says. At first Gershon Singer demurred — he thought a more noted csaddik, holy man, in a nearby town, was better equipped to help. He didn’t like to promise to aid people if he wasn’t certain he could keep his vow. 

Then, one night, he came home from the bet hamedresh, the study house, where he’d been daavening minha and ma’a­riv, afternoon and evening prayers, to find that the girl had fainted in his living room. “She wasn’t making believe. She was heartbroken and she couldn’t take it anymore.” So the rabbi and his wife gave her some smelling salts, and they talked late into the night. At last he told the girl, “Go home, rest, sleep. It’s ot going to be long before your husband re­turns.” She was calm at once, Rabbi Singer says, for every­one in Pilzno believed that if his grandfather made a promise, it would come true. 

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“Two months later a man came to town in a covered black coach — a carriage that was much finer than the horse-and-­carts in which most Pilzno Jews traveled — and he went straight to my grandfather’s house. When he got out, people saw that he was a young man with a high hat, like the fancy people used to wear. They thought he was probably a well-to-do person, maybe a German Jew.” They soon learned that he was the missing husband. 

“He and my grandfather had a long talk. He said that when he’d left his wife he had gone to Paris. He didn’t like living in a small town like ours. He had made up his mind never to come back. 

“He started a business in France and he made out very well. He met a woman, and he fell in love. He was very hap­py. But, then, during the past two months, everything he did was unlucky. His life became lull of tsouris,” a series of relentless problems. “His business went down. One day he was in a forest near Paris. He felt like his head was spinning. He fell and broke his arm. 

“He had bad dreams. He couldn’t sleep nights. He became very sick and had a nervous stomach. 

“He dreamed about Pilzno, and he saw that his wife was crying. When his tsouris began, he started to feel her tsouris. She was alone, she couldn’t get married, she had nobody. 

“He decided to make her feel better, so he came back to Pilzno. And my grandfather didn’t let him off. He called in the sofer, the scribe, and, within two days, the get was arranged.” 

After that, the husband went back to Paris, and he sent back letters and pictures, which showed that he was living a fine, prosperous life. But the wife was still sorrowful. 

“She wondered if she would ever marry again. One day she began to cry, even though she had the get. Then my grandfather called her by name and said, ‘My daughter, you’re going to be very happy. You’re going to meet a good person.’ She met a fine man, a wonderful man. He was a bookkeeper and a scholar. The children and the grandchildren had such a hap­py life. I knew them when I was growing up,” Rabbi Singer said. 

He was reluctant to tell many stories like that. “The Torah likes mitzvahs better than miracles,” he says. One of the mitz­vahs Rabbi Gershon Singer used to perform in Pilzno 100 years ago symbolizes the qualities Rabbi Joseph Singer seeks to embody in New York. 

Every Thursday night, the Rabbi of Pilzno would walk past all the Jewish houses in town accompanied by his sha­mesh. Their mission? To inspect the chimneys of the congre­gants. They looked for houses where there wasn’t any smoke. Those families couldn’t afford enough kindling to heat the Sabbath meal. So Gershon Singer would fetch a chicken for the shabbos

But the mitzvah must never be discovered. The rabbi must remain anonymous. The people who received the food must never be embarrassed by the knowledge that he was aware of. their poverty. 

So, between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., when the Jews of Pilzno were asleep, the rabbi and the shamesh would pile the chick­ens and some kindling into a wheelbarrow and place them in front of the houses. Then they would hurry away, before their goodness could be detected. 

=✡︎=

Rabbi Singer was the youngest son in a family of six boys and two girls. 

His father, David, a rabbi, a rav, a scholar in Jewish law, lived in Pilzno until the middle of World War I. He had a house with two large rooms on one of the town’s main streets. In one of the rooms a large section of the floor was set aside for any traveler who needed sleep. “All my father’s seforim, his books, were in that room, and a table for study, and a To­rah, too, in case there was bad weather on shabbos and wet couldn’t go to shul.” 

During the day the town’s Jews formed a noisy line in the back of the room and waited to consult the rav. He would de­cide whether a tiny blister on a chicken’s gizzard meant the meat was kosher or treyfe; or whether Talmudic law instructs the pious man to respect his elders by keeping a mean-spirit­ed mother-in-law in the house or to preserve his marriage by banishing her. 

Once, when the rav was coming home from shul he saw a child crying. Why was the boy so sad, he asked. Because an older man, a fisherman, had slapped him. The rav decided to see whether a wrong had been committed. When he got back home, he told the shamesh to summon the fisherman. Then he bade the child and the adult tell their versions of the inci­dent. After concluding that the boy was telling the truth the rav fined the man to guilden — the money being very important, as the child came from a poor family. “That story went all around Galicia,” Rabbi Singer says. “Everyone was im­pressed that my father gave so much attention to a little boy.” 

Throughout Eastern Europe, the turn of the century was a difficult time for rabbis, for the laws and customs that had governed the shtetls for centuries were losing their force. Many young people were beginning to lose their faith alto­gether. They embraced new creeds — Communism, or a so­cialist brand of Zionism. They would sneak copies of Marx or Herzl into heder and study the heretical literature behind the cover of holy books while they intoned the familiar Talmudic chants. 

So, when Rabbi Singer was growing up, the shtetl was the scene of a cold war between believers and non-believers. “Our parents” — religious parents — “were afraid the children would mix. Of course, religious people argued among themselves — there were always great disputes about whether this kind of meat was kosher; that kind of meat was treyfe. But those people were against religion basically, against its foun­dation. I cannot say we hated them. But we were afraid of them. And we looked down on them because they were open­ly against the Almighty. There was a hydrogen curtain be­tween us.” 

Besides, technology — in the form of cars and trains and steamships —was transforming the once-isolated shtetl. America beckoned. But it also threatened. Each time a pros­pective immigrant left home his family and friends accompa­nied him to the railroad station, often wailing with grief. They’d never see him again. He’d be robbed of his piety by the lures of the new world: 

“We knew that in the United States people were free — too free. When they came back to Europe they had different opinions, different ideas. They left the religion. They left the life they had always known.” 

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There wasn’t much sages like Rabbi Singer’s father could do about that. Still, to solve problems that arose in the shtetl, they had to span the ancient world and the modern one: to scour Talmudic commentaries, written in medieval Europe, in an effort to understand how to use an invention like elec­tricity. Rabbi Singer’s father wrote a major work on a prob­lem he encountered several times during World War I. Mod­ern governments had sent young men from Pilzno to fight a war few of them understood in places — like Russia and It­aly — that few of them could even imagine. Often, the soldiers never reappeared in town. And an indifferent, inefficient army bureaucracy failed to tell the families whether their sons or husbands were alive or dead. Were the women who were left behind widows, free to remarry? 

It was an extremely difficult problem in Jewish law. Rabbi David Singer, after months of study, decided that every man who was going to war should apply for conditional gets — con­ditional divorces-once they were drafted. If they came home, the gets were canceled. If they didn’t return, the di­vorces took effect. 

The rabbi’s commentaries were read in Yeshivas through­out Europe, according to Rabbi Singer. “But his writings are all lost now. Some were destroyed after World War I, and Hitler took care of the rest.” Recently, Rabbi Singer learned that a student of his father, now a rabbi in Israel, had pre­served one of his pronouncements. It is still circulating among scholars. “That was a miracle.” Someday he hopes to go to the Holy Land and recover that scrap of his precious legacy. 

It is one of the few things that remains of his youth. To­ward the end of World War I his family, like many people, fled from the turbulence that surrounded them in Pilzno; his father resettled in Kashow; an eight-hour train ride away. David Singer’s health deteriorated. “He didn’t eat the right foods. He didn’t get enough sleep,” his son says. In 1925, he died of lung problems. 

In 1934, life in Pilzno seemed normal enough for one of Rabbi Singer’s older brothers to return, to resume his fami­ly’s role as rabbi of the town. At the age of 20, Rabbi Singer accompanied him to serve an apprenticeship — to prepare himself for a life very much like that of his father and grandfather. He had never even contemplated another profession. His entire family consisted of “rabbis, not businessmen,” he says proudly. 

But, “as soon as Hitler took over Austria we were afraid.” One day, he and his brother went to Tarnow, a large city near Pilzno. It was noontime and they were walking down the Main Street, which was filled with Jews. Some gentiles started harassing them — jostling them, taunting them, knocking off their hats. 

“That used to happen on the side streets, or at night. But in broad daylight, in a place that was lull of Jews? That was something new. 

“We knew that a terrible war was coming. The earth was not sure under us. 

“Until then, the great rabbis in Europe didn’t want you to go to the United States. But, at that time, when Hitler came, they said, ‘Go, go.'” 

Soon he and a brother — now a rabbi in Borough Park — left for America. “We were the runners.” But four brothers — all of them rabbis — and two sisters, remained behind. “I don’t know exactly where they were killed. Maybe at Auschwitz.” 

“After the war I dreamed of those times always — about someone I knew, someone who got lost. I saw him and I said, ‘You’re alive? You are not alive. This is a dream. 

“How can I forget what happened? It was my memories, my childhood. I cannot forget.” 

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Before he left Europe, he decided to settle in a small Amer­ican town — the equivalent of a shtetl — and “be an all-around rabbi. I don’t like the rush, and I thought that in a village I could be a Jew in a European way. I’d be a rabbi. I’d be a scribe. If they needed a shochet, I could be a shochet, too.” 

But when he got here in 1939, he realized that was impossi­ble, since most Jews who lived in small towns had assimilated to the point where they didn’t even know what a shochet was. He had to stay in New York and New Jersey, in the few Orthodox communities that existed during those years. 

Earlier, when Americanized Jews had returned to visit Eu­rope, the fact that they were clean-shaven was taken as one inaication they’d strayed from the faith. It wasn’t exactly a religious necessity. “A lot of fine, wonderful people in Eu­rope cut off their beards,” Rabbi Singer says. Nevertheless, “if someone had grown up with a beard and payes and cut them off in America, that could be harmful for him. He cut not only his beard. He cut other things too. He cut his reli­gion.

“I was 24 years old when I came to the United States. I didn’t want to cut off my beard. I didn’t want to change. I had a big beard — much bigger than it is now — and it was fiery red. When I got on the subway the whole train looked at me. And everybody — even religious people — thought I was an old man because of it. 

“Once, right after I came to America, I made a speech in a big synagogue in Paterson, New Jersey. Afterward, one of the gabbaim, the officials, came up to me and said, ‘Rabbi, the people say you are an old man. But I can see in your face that you arc young. These Americans don’t know — your beard makes you look old to them.’ 

“I was so happy that one person knew I wasn’t an old man. So I said, ‘How old do you think I am?’ 

“‘Rabbi,’ he said. ‘Let me say exactly. You are 40 or 42.’ Probably the other people in the synagogue thought I was 60.” 

Young women were perplexed by the beard, too. “In those days the girls were afraid of it. Maybe because it was old­-fashioned; it wasn’t stylish. I wanted to be old-fashioned. I’m still old-fashioned. But the girls took it differently. And the Torah says, ‘Don’t do things that make you look strange in the eyes of other people if they are not against the religion.’ So I took the beard off. As a matter of fact, my cousin, he should rest in peace, an old rabbi, told me I should cut it off, I had no choice. ‘But,’ he said, ‘make a condition, before you take it off, that you’ll grow it back again. After a while my wife said okay, I could grow it back again. And I did, too, a few years after I got married,” he said with a chuckle. 

In 1940, when he became the rabbi of a synagogue on the Lower East Side, he began to hear stories that told him just how difficult it had been for the early immigrants to remain religious. “Jack, the gabbai, had been here 30, 40 years. He was in the garment business. He had Jewish bosses, but he had so much trouble keeping the shabbos, I cannot tell you. He would say to the bosses, ‘Oh, you’re working shabbos.’ And the bosses would say, ‘Get out of here. I’m a good Jew, and I still work shabbos.’

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“Jack was a good cutter. Finally, he got a job where they said he could be religious. But on Friday afternoons they only let him leave at 4 p.m., a few minutes before shabbos. Summer, it was okay. The days were big and he could get home in time for supper. But in the winter he had a terrible tsouris. The day was short. He daavened minha in the shop and walked home. When there was snow on the ground he’d get to his apartment very late. His wife would still be waiting to light the candles.”

Experiences like Jack’s were so different from what Rabbi Singer had left behind, from the Fridays he loved, when the entire shtetl bustled to greet the shabbos. And his own life was so different from anything he, or his forbears, had imagined. “In Europe, a rabbi was a power. Here, your president is a power. A rabbi is on a much lower level. Besides, a lot of them don’t care as much about religion as they did about making money.” 

Those things disappointed him deeply. “In 1943 and 1944 there was a boom in diamonds and a lot of rabbis went to work in the diamond district. I did, too. I didn’t give up my shul, but I made my living in diamonds, as a cutter. 

“Why did rabbis go in there? Because diamonds is a Jewish line. You have no trouble with the shabbos. Most of the work is on contract, so you can come in whenever you want to. It is hard to be religious and punch a clock. If you want to go to the mikva, or if you daaven slow, you don’t always have time for holiness since you have to get to work by eight or nine in the morning. But in diamonds, if I went to the mikva and finished daavening at 10 o’clock, I could come in at 10 o’clock. And when I wanted I could always work late, since there were enough men to form a minyan.” 

After World War II, the boom in diamonds ended. Rabbi Singer abandoned his dream of settling in a small town, an American Pilzno. He decided he could carry on his ancestors’ traditions on the Lower East Side of New York. 

In Pilzno there had always been the noisy group of people waiting for advice in his father’s back room. Now, his cubicle at the United Jewish Council is as crowded and noisy as his father’s house must have been. 

Scores of pink messages, some in Yiddish, some in En­glish, are strewn all over Rabbi Singer’s desk. This man wants a safer apartment. That woman wants a new mattress. The congregation at a nearby shul is involved in a bitter quar­rel over the proper form of daavening. A cardboard box is piled high with similar requests. “You think he’s a holy man,” a co-worker said one day. “He’s really running a bookie joint.” Rabbi Singer heard the joke and laughed. 

But “every little piece of paper is a trouble,” he says. And a mitzvah that echoes back through the generations.

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Itzhak Hirsch, strong and raging at 75, is a Jew without money. Hirsch has no family or friends — no human contact to connect him with his past. His universe consists of the splintered tables and chairs, the chipped paintings and broken phonograph records, the mounds of tattered old clothes, old newspapers, old magazine and girlie photos that fill his apartment. 

The management of the housing project where he lives has charged that Hirsch’s home is a health hazard and has threatened to dispossess him. Desperate, he called on Rabbi Singer for help. But he is disoriented by the isolation of his life in that fetid room. Wrath has become the sole filament of his human relations. His emotions, his memories, the meager remains of his personal history reside in the litter he must get rid of. Rabbi Singer, his salvation, is also his enemy. 

Although temporarily appeased one day when Rabbi Singer told him his goods would go to charity — that he would res­cue others, not himself — Hirsch nevertheless raged at the rabbi and five young co-workers when he saw them sorting through the possessions in his rooms, placing those things he wanted to keep on one side, stuffing the others in garbage bags. Still, he let the grimy work go on. 

Soon, though, he began shouting Yiddish invectives. He was watching his life vanish. Each bag of trash contained the ruins of some half-forgotten dream. He stood near the dirt-streaked window, in front of an old, scavenged steamer trunk, looking like a sentry. Itzhak Hirsch pointed two fingers at Rabbi Singer, as if to shoot him. 

“All right, Hirsch, we’ll go,” Rabbi Singer said. “And to­night you’ll sleep in all the garbage in the East River. How many times have I come here to help you, Hirsch? Five? Six? You’re tearing my heart out. Listen, my voice is just a whis­per. I don’t even know if they’ll hear me in my shul tonight.” 

With a laugh that was almost a caress, the descendant of the Baal Shem Tov kissed his own fingers and stroked Itzhak Hirsch’s taut, quivering hand. Hirsch’s fingers remained cocked. His invective turned to obscenity. Several days ear­lier, he had cuffed Rabbi Singer on the shoulders. Now he threatened to hit him again. 

Rabbi Singer, in a gesture of intimacy that none of the younger people could ever duplicate, cupped his hands over Hirsch’s ears, then over his own, and glanced at the old man. 

Moments later, still shouting, Hirsch stepped away from the trunk, giving us tacit permission to open it. 

Occasionally during the next hour, he even pointed out some of the garbage bags he wanted us to remove. Hirsch never was dispossessed. 

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One morning last spring Rabbi Singer wanted Rabbi Moses Eisenbach, the scribe, to help him perform a mitzvah

A few days earlier, he had found some battered tefillin (the phyllacteries religiously observant Jews place on their arms and head when they say morning prayers) in an abandoned shul on Henry Street. He wanted Rabbi Eisenbach to repair the scrolls inside the tefillin so that he could give them to some immigrants from the Soviet Union — Jews just learning about their faith — in time for Passover. 

When we entered his shop, Rabbi Eisenbach, an old man with a long gray beard, was bent over a Torah, a handwritten flowing scroll made of sheets of parchment sewn together by thread spun from the sinews of a kosher animal. He was repairing damaged letters — with a razor blade, a turkey-feather quill, and a special black ink blended of gall-nuts, copper­-sulphate crystals, gum arabic, and water, whose formula had been in his family for decades. 

He was performing one of the holiest of religious deeds: in­scribing the words of the Almighty for the human race. The Talmud says that sofrim, scribes, must labor for the love of the Lord — not for wealth. Hence, in Europe, they were paid subsistance wages. Their fee was for their presence, not their output. It allowed them to labor patiently, lovingly, over each Torah, mezuzah, pair of tefillin. 

In appearance, Rabbi Eisenbach, a whisper of a man, seems to fulfill the Talmud’s injunction. 

We waited in silence while he worked, for the task involves enormous physical and spiritual concentration. According to Talmudic law, if a sofer makes a mistake in writing the name of the Lord, or has a malicious or carnal thought while work­ing, he must remove the entire parchment sheet, put it aside for burial, insert a fresh sheet, and begin anew. And each morning the sofer cleanses his spirit in the mystically holy, purifying waters of the mikva, and goes to shul to daavan shaharit. When beginning his labor he intones the ancient He­brew blessing that says he is making the scroll in the holiness ol the Lord’s name. Then, once again, he prays until his mind is free of any impure thought. 

At last he finished his work and made his way to his office, a tiny desk in the back of the store. Rabbi Singer squeezed by the Torah scrolls and handed him the slightly charred tefi­llin — leather thongs and small boxes that contain four injunction, to remember the Lord one of which is from Exodus:

And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and a symbol upon your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed us from Egypt. 

The two men completed the transaction in Yiddish and then, because I was there, switched to English. Rabbi Eisen­bach, very reserved, talked a little about himself. He learned his craft in Jerusalem 50 years ago, and his years in the Ye­shiva there still seem like some of the sweetest in his life. He came to the United States in 1946, when tensions between the Arabs and the Jews began to wear on his nerves, when he found “it was hard to run a business with all those troubles.” Now, much of the time, he wishes he had remained in the Holy Land. He feels lonely in America, convinced that the environment here is so contaminated that it is difficult for a sofer to work in the proper way. 

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An entire body of religious law dictates that scribes must shape their letters perfectly, that their letters must not run together, that they must be written in straight lines. In Rabbi Singer’s Europe, Orthodox Jews heeded that law strictly. They would travel for hundreds of miles to trade with a sofer who was also a tsaddik, who would fuse holiness and crafts­manship. 

But it is different here, where many people who consider themselves religious disregard the rules Rabbi Eisenbach learned in his Jerusalem Yeshiva. They don’t know — or care — about the way the letters inside a tefillin or a mezuzah must be formed. 

Long ago, Rabbi Eisenbach decided, quite simply, that he would never risk taking on an apprentice who was born in this country. It is not only a matter of calligraphy but also of faith. You can have a knack for making alephs and bets, and still not love the Lord enough to be sure that all the hours of your day are holy, that all the works of your hands are per­fect. 

And, according to Rabbi Eisenbach’s reading of the Tal­mud, a sofer‘s responsibility is awesome. If he makes a flawed tefillin or mezuzah or Torah, it is likely that no one will know except himself and his Maker. Certainly, the unaware cus­tomer is not to blame. Nonetheless, he may suffer. The mezu­zah, for example, is a small case attached to the upper third of a doorpost in a religious home and contains a small rolled piece of parchment that expresses love of the Lord and love of the Torah as a way of life. Religious Jews believe a mezu­zah affords a family spiritual protection. But if the words on the parchment are lettered imperfectly, the household may not be protected. The family could thus suffer for the scribe’s mistake. So his error could become his curse, his lifelong burden, a sin that will haunt him in the afterlife. 

Rabbi Eisenbach once did decide to train an American. But the younger man was hesitant to make a correction with­out asking the scribe’s approval and, eventually he decided to leave the pressured sofer‘s life and go into the diamond busi­ness. 

I asked Rabbi Eisenbach if he ever worried that something might happen to his own highly trained hands. “What can I do?” he asked ruefully. “Insure them? Put them in a bank?” Then he went back to work. 

Rabbi Singer and I stood in the store, watching him. He took such care over every letter. I could hear the traffic out­side on Essex Street, but in his shop the stillness was broken only by the faint scratching of his turkey quill, the faint chip­ping of his razor. 

There was a red light when we got to Grand Street. Rabbi Singer took my arm to prevent me from lunging ahead. He told me that the traffic light itself was a mirzvah, a reminder that it was a blessing to protect yourself. And, when you paused and said a brachah, a prayer, for such small things, you reminded yourself to be thankful for the enormous, won­drous gift of life. 

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It was nearly Passover, and Rabbi Singer was reminiscing. 

In Pilzno and Kashow, before the holiday, 10 or 15 fami­lies would gather in the rare house that had an oven and, ac­cording to hasidic custom, sing Hallel, the Psalms of David, while the men baked the matzot. As the holiday drew near everyone in the shtetl would search their homes for hametz, leavening — the removal of which serves as a reminder of the Jews’ hurried flight from Egypt. They would remove every trace of it. 

Such traditions had been preserved in Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Borough Park, where thousands of hasidic Jews had settled after World War II. The traditions are observed by religious Jews all over America. They are ob­served on the Lower East Side, too, though many people have forgotten all the details of the faith that pervaded their parents’ lives. 

Rabbi Singer felt a special responsibility to those people —­ especially to “the elderlies,” who would have commanded so much respect in Europe and who were often abandoned here. For the past five years he had used a modern, spacious syna­gogue near East Broadway to hold free Passover seders for about 200 of them. The United Jewish Council has paid for and helped arrange them. 

Still, he trusts no one but himself to supervise the exhaust­ing search for the hametz. During the days before the Passov­er he takes off his black jacket, rolls up the sleeves of his white shirt, and mops the floor, scours every pan, squats in from of the synagogue’s oven with an acetylene torch to be sure that he’s burned away all traces of bread crumbs. 

“I know most of the people who are coming to the seder don’t care about those things. But I do. I care for me and I care for them.” There was more than a hint of loss in that wry remark. 

Shortly before Passover, Rabbi Singer left the hurly-burly of his neighborhood to perform a special, personal mission in the placid, Orthodox milieu of Williamsburg. A hasid he knew, a rebbe from Galicia, had promised to give him two of the especially holy round brownish shemurah matztot. Like the Jews in Pilzno, the rebbe had planted and harvested the wheat that was in them. He had ground it on a stone mill he kept in his basement, secure in the knowledge that no water or heat would cause fermentation, chanting prayers as he la­bored. 

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Children were playing tag outside the rebbe’s house, their sidelocks flying in the breeze. But, inside, the mood was sol­emn. The rebbe’s wife and daughter, whose aprons enveloped their long, chaste dresses, were scrubbing the house as they would have in Europe a century before. They told us the rebbe was upstairs in his study

He must have heard our voices, for he summoned us to the room where the holy book he was reading lay open on a long wooden table. Moving slowly, he greeted Rabbi Singer climbed on a chair, and reached to the top of a cupboard where some white boxes containing the  special matzot were stored.

The two old friends began to talk in Yiddish. Soon the rebbe, looking somewhat puzzled, was staring; at my clean shaven face, my tweed cap, my tan windbreaker.

“He wants to know how you came to me,” Rabbi Singer said. “I told him our grandparents were connected.”

Earlier that day, he had described a place in Williamsburg where hundreds of hasidic Jews would be baking shemurah matztot and chanting psalms. My religious imagination was still half-conditioned by all the services I had attended Choate’s Episcopalian chapel, and, particularly, by the solemn hymns we had sung as Easter approached. So I visualized the hasidim in a staid, solemn frieze — enacting a Good Friday in Yiddish.

Instead, the place was  huge and bustling, alive with throngs of men and women in traditional hasidic garb, kneading dough at separate tables. It was all done very rapidly, since Jewish law insists that the matzot must be baked and all the utensils washed within 18 minutes, before fermentation can begin.

Groups of Yeshiva students kept arriving. There was soon no room for them at the tables. Some stood in corners while others elbowed their way through the crowd to find a where they could begin their baking. Meanwhile, those who had been there a while raced from the oven to the main room carrying boxes full of finished matzot high above their heads

Some people standing near us chanted Hallel as they worked. Rabbi Singer’s ancestors had praised the Almighty by chanting Hallel when they baked matzot in Galicia, More than. 2000 years ago the Kohenim, the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem, had chanted Hallel on the afternoon before Passover, to commemorate the Exodus, the miracle that brought the Jews to that hallowed place:

Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.

“Did  you take it all in, Sha’ul?” Rabbi Singer asked later. “You’ve had, a little taste of Europe now.”

He took my arm. As we walked to the subway, people kept glancing at us. What an odd-looking pair we must have made.

 Once we were on the train he held the white box close him so the shemurah matzot — sacred in themselves, so full of precious memories — wouldn’t crack on the short, jarring ride back to the Lower East Side.

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Rabbi Singer was heading toward shul when Frieda Provda appeared in the window of the Masaryk Cake Box near Delancey Street and rapped on the place, summoning him gently. A woman who had lived in the nearby Masaryk Towers had died of bone cancer the night before, and her only relative, a brother, lived in Los Angeles. The Masaryk Cake Box had been Anna’s second home during her last year. Most days, at noon, she’d leave her radio — her closest companion — and come down to gossip with friends or take care of the customers children. Now, Frieda Provda and her friend Betty Fried, feeling the responsibility of surrogate kinship, had to arrange the funeral, which, according to Jewish law, must occur as soon as possible. 

Frieda Provda was dressed for the 1970s: She didn’t wear a wig or a long, modest skirt as the women of Williamsburg. She was an Americanized businesswoman — “be kind to the next person, that’s my Judaism.” But she’d chosen to work in a bakery where the shabbos was observed, and she had no doubt about her deepest religious loyalties. “I’m not Conser­vative or Reform,” she told Rabbi Singer proudly. “I think she should be buried as one of us.” 

So she had chosen an Orthodox funeral home and asked the director to comply with age-old traditions: to be sure there were women from a hevrah kadishah, a burial society, to make a taharah— to purify the corpse by cleaning it — and to watch it through the night. He didn’t exactly refuse. But, she said, there was an unsettling hint of reluctance in his voice. 

Passover was a busy season at the bakery. But Frieda Prov­da was worried. What if the funeral director decided to save $100 or $200 by omitting the taharah? What if he were too busy to bother calling a hevrah kadishah? The widow’s broth­er was coming to New York that day. What if the funeral di­rector convinced him to assuage his grief by purchasing an expensive coffin, not the simple pine box in which Jews are supposed to be buried. That would be sacrilege! 

What luck that she had glimpsed Rabbi Singer’s gabardine coat as he rushed by. He would help her ward off the greedy bureaucrats of death. 

This was a mitzvah he was glad to perform. He’d hated the Jewish funeral business ever since he’d come to America­ — hated the morticians who cared more about today’s profits than about the afterlife. For, traditionally, death has been the most egalitarian part of Jewish life. Before a funeral, the dead, both rich and poor, are dressed in simple white shrouds — shrouds without pockets, to show that one’s soul, not one’s possessions, are important to the Almighty. All are buried in a simple pine casing, or on a bed made of natural substances, so that the body and its casing can decompose naturally and return to the earth. 

Rabbi Singer raged while he waited for Frieda Provda to phone the funeral director: 

“Who would have thought that Jews would hold funerals in a chapel — that they’d take a fancy-smancy custom, a non-­kosher custom, that they wouldn’t make a taharah, but put a fancy-smancy suit on the body — just to make money? 

“In Europe, a funeral was a holy thing. It belonged to the community. The community was the boss of what happened. And if somebody passed away, everybody helped out, every­body knocked a nail in the coffin. Everybody pushed to do that. It was an honor and a mitzvah, not a business. Who thought about a business then? 

“Well,” he said, answering his own question, “sometimes a rich man passed away and he’d be very stingy. Then the ke­hilla” — the Jewish community council — “taxed his family. The community used the money to pay the rabbi, the sha­mesh, to fix the shul, to fix the mikva, to help the poor on shabbos. When the community took money from such a per­son it was 100 per cent right to do so. But otherwise? A busi­ness? Bah! Here a chapel is a business. There it was a sign of deep respect, of deep feeling, to go to a funeral, to help a family.” 

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At last, the funeral director was ready to talk. Rabbi Singer edged past the case of almond macaroons, of marble cake mixed with matzoh meal — the sweets the Masaryk Cake Box was displaying for Passover — and transformed himself into a religious diplomat as he began to issue gentle, steely orders over a pay phone. 

Of course, the funeral director would pay the hevrah kadis­hah. Of course, there would be a simple pine box and a shroud. And he’d see that a few flecks of earth — preferably earth from Israel — were placed on the corpse, in conjunction with the biblical phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The funeral was scheduled for nine o’clock the next morning? Fine. Rabbi Singer or his cousin, who had a synagogue in Washington Heights, would be there … just to help out. 

When he hung up, Frieda Provda was smiling with relief. But Rabbi Singer, still angry, reminisced about his past bat­tles. “Once I had a funeral uptown. It was in a fancy place. They wanted to sell the family a casket for $1500 or $1800. I told them, don’t take it, don’t be meshugenna. Buy one for $150. The owners of the chapel were so angry they began to chase me. They wanted to hit me. 

“Do you blame them? Do you know how much I cost them? Most chapels hate me like poison. I spoil their busi­ness.” 

That dusk, we left Rabbi Singer’s shul. As always, a police car was waiting outside, to take the rabbi home. He’s on ex­tremely good terms with the officers. Sometimes they attend services — a policewoman sat in the basement one night when we daavened; an Irish cop joined the congregation as it booed the evil Haman during Purim services. Rabbi Singer invited several policemen to attend his daughter’s wedding. 

That night, though, he felt like walking; three of his con­gregants rode with the cops. As we cut across Pitt Street we passed a bodega where three Hispanic kids were drinking Cokes. They’d seen Rabbi Singer before. In a joking voice, one of them looked at him and hollered out “La barba de Fi­del” — the beard of Fidel. When I translated, Rabbi Singer smiled back. 

Suddenly, a bareheaded middle-aged man emerged from a hardware store and ran toward Rabbi Singer, hollering in agi­tated Yiddish. When he caught up to us he grabbed the rab­bi’s tie and held it tightly. Then he and Rabbi Singer both signed a handwritten piece of paper. 

He was selling his family’s hametz — all the alcohol and medicine and cosmetics that contained leavening — with the understanding that the rabbi, in turn, would sell the hametz to a gentile who wasn’t bound by the laws of the season. The transaction was a legal construct, a link to the Exodus. It in­volved an exchange of paper, not a transfer of property. He would seal the items with hametz in a closet until Passover ended, then buy them back from the rabbi and use them again. When he signed his name to a piece of paper, and touched the rabbi’s garment, he was heeding a Talmudic in­junction, a guarantee that the contract was sealed. 

Afterward, he walked back to the hardware store. Rabbi Singer glanced after him, brushing some dust off his gabar­dine coat. Then he touched the beard that would have been so typical in Pilzno or on the streets of Williamsburg, which had caused him so much trouble when he first came to Amer­ica. His coat and beard seemed to contain almost magical properties for many Jews on the streets of the Lower East Side. 

“When they see me, they remember who they are,” he said. “If they didn’t see me, they might forget.” 

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It was a Thursday night between Passover and Shavuous, and Rabbi Singer had invited me to his home for dinner. In a few hours he would show me a modern-day reenactment of the Thursday nights in Poland, when his grandfather deliv­ered chickens to Pilzno’s poor. 

His wife was waiting for him when we got to his apart­ment, with its lovely religious objects, its pictures of the fa­mily’s European ancestors. It’s not always easy to be a tsad­dik‘s wife, to wait for him while he’s out performing mitz­vahs. In their traditional marriage, she concentrates a great deal of energy on home life-talking with and helping her neighbors, making plans with her children, taking care of the grandchildren. Rabbi Singer is loathe to describe to her the problems he sees every day, loathe to inflict his clients’ grief on her. So her conversation is rich with the details of her community, of weddings, births, bar mitzvahs; of her friends’ triumphs and their losses. She’s an engaging woman who loves to discuss the news she’s heard on the radio, the ar­ticles she’s read in the newspapers. And, sometimes, to sup­plement Rabbi Singer’s reminiscences with stories from her own childhood in Hungary. 

She had fixed a delicious meal of chicken liver, matzoh-ball soup, roast veal, kidney beans, and potato pancakes. We washed our hands, according to ritual, and then said the motzi, the traditional blessing over the bread. For a while, Mrs. Singer talked about a relative who was just getting her doc­torate at Yeshiva University. Then Rabbi Singer began to prepare me for our trip by describing Gershon Singer’s atti­tude toward charity. “He didn’t want to be a show-off. Of course, sometimes it’s all right to be a show-off because if you give, others give, too. But the highest point of charity is ano­nymity. The taker shouldn’t know who gave the gift and the giver shouldn’t know who took it.” 

After dinner he took me to a brightly lit garage on a tree­-lined residential street in Brooklyn. Inside, about 50 hasidic men were filling grocery boxes with chicken, fish, wine, bread, and vegetables, and loading them into cars on the street outside. Soon they would distribute the cartons to needy Jews. They would drive away before the recipients could see them. 

In one corner of the garage a stocky young diamond cutter had replaced his black suit with a blood-flecked butcher’s apron and was cutting up a carp. Three more hasidim, still dressed in gabardine, wrapped the fish in plastic bags and placed the bags in boxes. Then a young man whose father had died several weeks earlier came in. They’d been waiting for him to arrive before they daavened ma’ariv: they would provide a minyan for him to recite a mourners’ kaddish. 

All work stopped. Everyone picked up their siddurs — their prayer books — and, lacing the Eastern wall of the garage­ — symbolically, facing Jerusalem — they rocked back and forth, praying. Toward the end of the service they said kaddish. A few minutes later the labor resumed. 

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The organizer, middle-aged European-born, a civil serv­ant, stood by the shelves full of packages. Writing in Yiddish, he inscribed each box with the addresses of the people who would get them. But not with their names. To spare the recipients any embarrassment, even the drivers who deliv­ered the food would remain ignorant of their identities. 

My presence made him uncomfortable. Some younger people argued that I could provide the organization with some publicity, that my article could help with fund-raising. Nevertheless, he made me promise not to mention the organ­ization’s name — or even the area of Brooklyn it worked in. He kept telling his colleagues that the principle of anonymity meant more to him than the prospect of contributions. 

Outside, Jacob, 25, an air-conditioner salesman, almost skeletally thin, with a teen-ager’s wispy beard and sidelocks, sat in his sleek 1977 Mercury. He was testing the CB radio he would use that night when he and his friends drove to Wil­liamsburg, Borough Park, Flatbush, and the Upper West Side, making surreptitious deliveries in time for shabbos. 

With Rabbi Singer and me jammed in the front seat, boxes of food jammed in the back, he tooled his Mercury down Brooklyn’s streets. He would yell out greetings whenever he saw a friend. Once he speeded up, then slowed down, to throw a scare into a man he’d known from Yeshiva. Then he congratulated the pedestrian on the birth of his new niece. He flicked the switch of his CB and began to talk to a friend with his space-age patois. “Breaker, breaker,” he began in faintly accented English. “The handle here is Gumshoe.” Then he switched to Yiddish, but his conversation was punc­tuated with phrases like “10-4, guy” and “negatory.” 

Jacob was on a tight schedule, for the recipients knew just when the packages were due, and what number to call if they were late. While Rabbi Singer and I watched, he hoisted a box out of the back seat, whisked it into the lobby of a build­ing, and rang the apartment number that was written on the package. Then he hurried down the street — a black wispy beard in the murky light-and gunned the car down the block, toward the neighborhood’s main street, where he’d meet some friends outside a kosher pizza parlor. 

Rabbi Singer had to leave. Every Thursday night he and his son David read passages of the Torah and some commen­taries together-just as Rabbi Singer’s father and grandfather had done, over candlelight, in Pilzno. This week, as the holi­day of Shevuous approached, he would sit at a table in Da­vid’s comfortable Borough Park apartment, rocking his two­-week old granddaughter who was strapped in a bassinet be­side the seforim, the holy books. He’d read to his son from a commentary that discussed the mysterious days in the desert when Moses descended from Mt. Sinai and transmitted the Lord’s commandments to the people who were still bewil­dered, still weary, from their flight out of Egypt. 

As we stood near the pizza parlor, waiting for a bus, Rabbi Singer bent forward to show how his grandfather had looked when he pushed the wheelbarrow full of food through Pilz­no’s dark, winding 3 a.m. streets to make his clandestine shabbos-eve deliveries. Then the bus came, and he hurried of! to study Torah into the night. 

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A few days later I went back to Brooklyn to visit a friend of Rabbi Singer’s, Mrs. Dora Shapiro, the wife of a mohel, a cir­cumciser. She lives on a quiet street in Flatbush, among members of the hasidic sect she grew up with in Poland. Ev­erything else she knew as a child has perished: Dubie, her tiny shtetl, her friends, the rest of her family of nine. 

Like thousands of survivors she is a kind of living yarzheit (memorial) candle. She doesn’t burden you with her grief. At times she was even merry as we sat at her plain dining-room table. I was dressed carelessly in a slightly tattered blue and white yarmulke and my casual American clothes. Mrs. Shapi­ro looks neat and tidy in her long, modest dress and reddish bridal wig. We developed our own special language, a blend of Yiddish and English. Whenever she translated a word, she’d look at me with a smile that spanned the chasm of lan­guage and say, “There, you see how each one helps the oth­er.” 

She lives to protect the memory, and the strict religious culture, of her dead. She was just 16 in 1937, when Hitler’s emissaries came to Dubie and ordered the 35 Jewish families who lived there to destroy the town’s old wooden shul. “Even my father had to do it, and he was the rabbi. We worked from 6 in the morning until 6 at night, when everyone went home. It took many days, but we couldn’t fight back. The Nazis guarded us with guns.” 

When the job was done all the Jews were transported out of town. Mrs. Shapiro escaped to the ghetto in Cracow, where she worked as a nurse. The Nazis arrested her father. Then they promised him his freedom. Then they took him to a cemetery and buried him alive. Mrs. Shapiro didn’t learn of his fate until she met a cousin in Cracow a year later. 

In 1942, the Nazis evacuated the Cracow ghetto. Mrs. Sha­piro was sent to Leipzig, a concentration camp that was ad­ministered out of Buchenwald. There she witnessed a scene that would haunt her and inspire her for all the days of her life. 

Chaim Zelig was one of the few Jews who remained openly religious at Leipzig. He always wore a yarmulke, in defiance of the Nazis. Although there was never a minyan, he would put on tefillin and pray everyday. 

One morning a guard, searching the barracks for the faith­ful, caught him worshiping. The next dawn all the 10,000 Jews at Leipzig were told to gather in a large plaza to watch as Chaim Zelig was punished. Nazi guards stood behind them, bayonets ready. A firing squad waited for Chaim Zelig on the hillock above the hushed crowd. 

Despite the Nazis precautions he hid his yarmulke under his shirt. He put it on his head as soon as he began to walk. 

Mrs. Shapiro, who was one of the 10,000 below, remem­bers the thrill she felt when she saw that skullcap, that sign of bravery. She could just make out Chaim Zelig’s lips moving in quiet prayer. As he climbed the gentle slope the Nazi guards jostled him so relentlessly that the yarmulke fell off his head. When he stooped over to get it, they pushed him on the ground and lashed him with their rifles. 

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His two sons were in the crowd, watching. 

Before Chaim Zelig reached the top of the hill he managed to put the yarmulke back on his head. He resumed bis prayer. 

Then someone from the firing squad handed him a shovel and ordered him to dig his own grave. 

Then he was killed. 

It was 8 o’clock in the morning. 

The Jews had to go to work directly after that. Mrs. Shapi­ro’s job was sewing uniforms for Nazi soldiers. 

In 1945, Leipzig was liberated by the Russians. Very little news had filtered into the camp. She had no knowledge of the full extent of the holocaust. So, like thousands of Jews, her first instinct was to return to the shtetl. That, after all, was the traditional pattern. You, were chased out of town during a pogrom, you were allowed to return in calmer times. But, as she crossed the Polish. border and began her voyage to Cracow, she began to learn what the Nazis had done.

Then when she got to Lodz, “Other Jews began to tell me that the Poles still hated us. They made a pogrom in Chelm after the war. There was still a Nazi underground. A friend of mine was in Cracow, in shul, daavening on shabbos, when the Poles attacked. They yelled things like, ‘Hitler shoul have killed you all’ and “We don’t want you back here.’ They threw rocks at the Jews. It was even worse in the shtetl. There they killed the Jews at night.”

In Lodz, she realized that her father’s fate was a typical one. “I went back to Poland to find my family, but I had no family left,” she recalled, coughing. “There was practically no one from my part of Poland left.”

Mrs. Shapiro had to leave the room to compose herself. When she came back, moments later, she brought some seltzer for us both. I said the blessing Rabbi Singer had taught me to utter before beginning to drink. She was still coughing, still upset, but she smiled approvingly. They she continued to reminisce.

In Lodz, she said, she and her friends decided, as a matter of principle as well as faith, “that all of us should get married and have as many children as possible. We should try to bring back the six million, to be sure the Jewish nation wasn’t reduced.” Like many survivors, they decided to use the Jewish tradition of naming children after those who had died as a way of commemorating the victims of the holocaust.

Mrs. Shapiro has seven children and 20 grandchildren. One of her sons, a Yeshiva student, bears Chaim Zelig’s name. He and his brothers and sisters know that one of Chaim Zelig’s sons — who’d stood in the Leipzig courtyard that long-ago morning — nearly went mad with tormented grief after his father was killed; that finally, after 20 years, he settled in Jerusalem, married an Orthodox woman, and began to live a productive life. They know the entire tale by heart.

Mrs. Shapiro met her husband in Germany, in one of the camps established by the American government for wandering, disoriented survivors. He’d been a mohel before the war, a revered figure in his shtetl. He had a wife and two children when the Nazis came to town. On the day the Jews were to be shipped away, he carried one child toward the transport truck, his wife carried the other. A German soldier asked if he were the father. His wife answered before he could talk. “No,” she said, “he’s just a man I met.” Then she snatched the youngster from his arms. A family woman, she was sent to Auschwitz. An able bodied bachelor, as far as the Germans knew, he was sent to a labor camp and survived.

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In the postwar years, the Americans gave him a chauffeur and a car so that he could travel from one D.P. camp to the next, circumcising the survivors’ babies.

He was older than Mrs. Shapiro. When their marriage was arranged she was in awe of him. It was only after they’d had three children and moved to America that she could bring herself to drop the respectful third- person singular that her mother had used with her father in Dubie (“would the mister like”) and address him with the simple, intimate “you.” 

To many hasidim, in those years, Israel , with its brash, So­cialist pioneers, seemed like a nightmare of secularism, a hor­rible perversion of the Messianic dream. So the Shapiros de­cided to come to America, despite the warnings against this country that had resounded through shtetl shuls and study houses ever since the Eastern European immigration began. 

Hasidic survivors like the Shapiros decided to make assets out of the very details of dress, language, and custom that earlier generations of immigrant Jews had found so onerous. There were tens of thousands of hasidim and they constituted the first wave of militantly Orthodox Jews ever to come to this land. They owed a debt of blood and spirit to martyrs like Chaim Zelig. They decided to build themselves a wall of spiritual segregation and, by doing so, preserve a pure Torah life for themselves and their young. 

The size of their communities guaranteed that the huge Yeshivas they erected in Williamsburg, Borough Park, and Crown Heights would flourish and seal their children off from the assimilationist dangers of public school. In some neighborhoods, they went even further than that and estab­lished an informal ban on television sets, movies, secular literature — anything that would bring the allurements of Amer­ica into their homes. Sometimes, they bought entire apartment buildings and reserved them for Orthodox Jews. 

There were so many of them that they could create a self-sufficient urban economy; in the diamond trades and huge electronics and camera stores that are run by hasidim; in the glatt kosher restaurants and butcher shops that you now find in every Jewish neighborhood in New York. 

Mrs. Shapiro is proud of that strategy of isolation. When I told her that the drab clothes hasidim wear still look strange and uncomfortable to me, she laughed with unexpected satis­faction and said, “That’s the way we want it to be. Our garb is like a mask over us. It doesn’t let us go many places. If peo­ple see that you’re Orthodox, they don’t come up to you with dirty intentions. Our clothes help prevent us from feeling temptation.”

Once, a decade after the Shapiros had settled in New York, Mrs. Shapiro bought her oldest son a bicycle. A few weeks later she wandered past a sale of used clothes and picked up a striped short-sleeved polo shirt for the boy. That Sunday her husband saw his son peddling down Eastern Parkway, his polo shirt furnishing a striking contrast to his black pants and sidelocks. 

Mr. Shapiro was angry enough at the bicycle, for it would allow the boy to leave the block, leave the neighborhood, and roam uncontrollably through sections of New York the Sha­piros could barely imagine. But the polo shirt seemed even more dangerous. If the boy acquired a wardrobe of similar clothes he might be exposed to the worldly contacts his parents found so perilous. Shortly afterward they sent him to Yeshiva in Israel. Two years later he rerurned to America. Now, still a hasid, he has a job in the diamond district. 

Mrs. Shapiro says she’s constantly thankful that her lapses of judgment were countered by the unflagging piety of the man she married, whom she still reveres. 

That attitude, with its roots in the safe, orderly world of Dubie, fills her with a kind of pity for the assimilated, Ameri­canized women who, for their part, define her role at home and in synagogue as unbearably slavish. 

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She feels freed, for example, not constrained, by the segre­gated seating pattern in synagogue. In fact when she sits in the balcony of her shul “I always push myself as far back as I can so that my husband, on the ground floor, can’t see me. I couldn’t cry if I thought he was looking at me. I’d be ashamed. And when you daaven you want to open up your heart to the Almighty, you have so much to say. But if I sit with men, or even see them, I worry that I’ll look like a fool. I cover myself and act like I’m in a shell. If I’m alone with other women I feel very free, very open to cry.” 

Doesn’t it bother her, though, that the piety she respects so much in her husband makes him begin each day by utter­ing a prayer in which he thanks the Almighty he’s not a wom­an? 

She says she’s “not resentful”; she, in turn, thanks the Almighty that she is a woman. She accepts the premise that, in his universe, her role is to stay at home while her husband’s is to function in the world. “But he has all 613 mitzvahs to do, and a woman has only three main mitzvahs. There ‘s the cook­ing and the preparation for shabbos. But the main mitzvah is that she should bring up the children in the Yiddishe way.” That she should transmit the religion and traditions to them. “What else, in life, is more imponant than that?” 

The children: a tribute to the dead. Nothing fills her with more anger — and more sorrow — than the idea of birth con­trol. “These modern Jewish families! They don’t want to be bothered with babies. They don’t want to worry about diaper rashes and earaches, like my daughter did last week. Her child had a very high fever. She’s all right now, thank the Lord, but think of the sleepless nights. 

“These American men and women want all the good things in in life instead of the problems. But l feel sorry for them. They’re shortsighted and stupid. When they’re old they’ll feel useless, as if their lives bad no meaning. They don’t know how lonely they’ll feel.” 

It wasn’t a sermon. It was a warning — and a description of the sense of loss that never leaves her. 

As we talked she fingered a ripped, faded photograph of her father, the only one that had ever been taken. The photo­graph stirred her memories of the shabbos afternoons in Du­bie, where her zeydt, her grandfather, would gather all the children around him and give them candies and cookies and tell tales of his boyhood, and of the hasidic tsaddikim, the holy men and wise men, who kept his own faith so strong. Those rich, indestructible memories have more to do with her Jewishness than anything he had ever read in a book. 

It was the week before Shavuous when we talked and she reminisced, lovingly, about the beautiful spring afternoons in Dubie when she and her brothers would gather weeping wil­lows and flowers and fill their synagogue and their home with those simple treasures. The men would stay up all night, studying the Bible, in commemoration of Moses’s ascent up Mt. Sinai, the act that marked “the marriage between the Torah and the Jews.” In the morning, she remembers, “we’d give them plates full of cheesecake and kreplach andjish. My husband and I try to do that here, but we worry about Weight-Watchers. Anyway, Dubie was a little town where everyone was alike. It can’t be like that here.” 

Then, sadly, she adds that “when you meet someone from the hein, from home, that is all you talk about. You talk about what it was like. 

“But as much as I try to tell my children, it is difficult. They don’t have much in common with us. The main thing is that the children should know what they bad and what they lost. In Dubie, we could turn to my grandfather for that. But here the children have no zeyde. I miss that more than anything. When the Nazis killed my father they killed my fami­ly’s past.” 

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=✡︎=

Once a hasid, a tsaddik, was asked why Jews don’t prosely­tize. He answered, simply, that a candle glows without mak­ing an effon to give light. Religion should do that too, he said. 

Rabbi Singer doesn’t proselytize. Still, by his example, he helps to close the gulf that Mrs. Shapiro, in her ceaseless grief, thinks is unbridgeable. It will be years before I under­stand the religious lessons — or the degree of religiousness­ I’ve absorbed from my travels through 5737 and 5738, or how to incorporate them into my life: how to integrate Paul Cowan and Saul Cohen. But I know now that Rabbi Singer has helped me recover some of what I lost. He has brought me closer to my past — and, in doing that, helped me glimpse a kinder, more peaceful future. ❖

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FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Sleaze-Out on East 14th Street

From the Annals of Pre-Gentrification

All the popcorn pimps, penny-ante pross, nickel-and­-dime pill-pushers, methadone junkies, and doorway-living winos felt the hawk wind as it blew down East 14th Street. It’s late October, the time of the year when one night, all of a sudden, you know you better break out the warmer coat. Except that on East 14th Street, who has a warmer coat? One creep — a downer-selling vermin — knows the raw of it all. He stands in front of the pizza joint on 14th and Third Avenue, begging for eye contact. “Robitussin, man, Robitussin.” Robitussin? Two dollar Placidyl is low enough — that shit’ll make your breath smell like metal. But Robitussin? “Robitussin, man. You have got to be kidding.” 

The creep’s voice squeaks up a couple of octaves, his scarred-up head sags. He says, “Just trying to get over. This gonna be a rough winter.”

Shitsure it’s gonna be a rough winter at 14th Street and Third Avenue. It’s always a rough winter at 14th Street and Third Avenue. Rough for the blond junkie and his girlfriend. They told the people at the methadone center on Second Avenue and 12th Street that they were going out of town. Back to Ohio to visit the chick’s parents. The methadone people gave them a week’s supply of bottles. Good plan: the blond guy and his girlfriend weren’t going nowhere except to 14th Street to sell the extra shit. But they got into a pushing match with some of the Spanish guys drinking Night Train Express on the subway stairs. The methadone bottles fell down the stairs. The shit got out. What a bitch.

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Rough winter, too, for the big black cross working the entrance of the Contempora Apartments on Third Avenue. Checking her, you’d figure she could open a 14th Street branch of the Fresh Air Fund. Tits for days. But, then again, if you’re looking for scrubbed Tahitian babes in redwood tubs, 14th Street is not the place. The other day, though, it got embarrassing for the big black pross. A Chevy filled with beer-drinkers rolled slow by her doorway. She said, “Wanna go out?” It was sincere bargaining in good faith — “Wanna go out?” But the Chevy was deadbeat. The driver yelled out the window, “Yeah, how much you want to pay me, pig?” Some joke. Whip a pross, stick her with sewing-machine needles, step on her face, but don’t call her a pig. The pross took out the after the Chevy, breasts lurching north and south, ass bumping east and west. The Chevy was stopped at the light. The big black pross slammed her pocketbook against the windshield. Mascara pads and fake eyelashes flew. “Motherfucker,” screamed the big black pross, “why you come down here and try to make fun of me?” The Chevy rolled up the windows and sped away, laughing.

Rough winter, dead rough winter. So rough some have already taken off. Nobody in the Durkin, the creep joint with the tilted bar, has seen Joey the Eye for a while. Joey the Eye was messed up — too fucked up to cop pills, never had a girl out on the street. But he could — and would — take his bloodshot eyeball out of his head and hold it in the palm of his hand. The Hung Man is also missing. He spent some of the summer leaning on a parking meter, stark naked. Valium pushers came over, slapped five, and said. “Man, you hung.”

Beat Shit Green is gone, too. But no one in the pill­-pusher ginmills on 2nd Avenue figures Beat Shit is soaking up rays in Miami Beach. Beat Shit is one of the worst scumbags ever to stand at 14th Street and Third Avenue hustling “Ts and Vs” (Tuinals and Valium). He used to claim that he was the one who sold the white boy that fatal bunch of beat shit in Washington Square Park last year. The white boy didn’t dig getting burned and came back with friends and baseball bats. People got bruised. One died. Back on 14th Street Beat Shit bragged. He is the kind of pill-pusher who doesn’t give a shit if you take one of his tuies that isn’t even a tuie and go into convulsion right at his feet. Damn, he made his $2.50. Beat Shit has been known to sell methadone that was really Kool-Aid and aspirin. He’d suck the juice out of a Placidyl and sell the shell. But, they say, that kind of beat shit comes back on you. They say Beat Shit’s not going to make the winter because he got thrown off a roof on East 13th Street.

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Rough. Cold. In one of the bars next to the cuchifrito stand, Willie (“call me Big W”) is wondering if he’ll see April. For a downer salesman, Willie is a pretty sweet dude. Sometimes if one of the barmaids in the Durkin is smooching it up with an off-duty cop, Willie will take a bar stool next to the chick and wait. Soon she’ll curl her hand around her back and make a little cup. Willie will slip her a couple of Valiums. The barmaid will put her other hand in the cop’s crotch and pull her face away — pretending to cough or something. While the cop is dealing with the barmaid’s squeeze, she’ll swallow the pills and go back to tonguing before the guy knows anything. Willie digs that kind of move. He says, “She’s slick, huh?”

Recently, though, things haven’t been going too good for Big W. He makes a little bread selling his shit to kids from Jersey on 14th Street — enough to keep a room in an SRO hotel uptown. But, like they say, Willie is his own best customer. Talking to him gets you seasick; he’s always listing from side to side. Tonight Big W is wearing his skullcap funny. It’s not pulled down over his head; he’s got it done up in a little crown. Willie says he don’t want it skintight, it puts too much pressure on his stitches. Seems as Willie was in the Durkin a couple of weeks ago and got into an argument with a pimp. Willie thought the guy was just bullshitting until the iron rod came out. Willie forgets what happened next. Except that he woke up in Bellevue with a head that looks like a roadmap.

Stitches get Willie mad. Mad enough to “get violent.” The other night, Wille kept looking at those stitches in the mirror so long he decided he was “just gonna go mug myself somebody.” He went around to the stage door of the Palladium and picked out a kid who was completely destroyed on Tuinals. The kid was waiting for an autograph. Willie figured anyone jive enough a wait for a fucking autograph has to be an asshole. It got better when the rock star came out the door, “got into his fucking limo, and didn’t even give the sucker an autograph.” So Willie made his move. The Jersey kid beat Willie into the sidewalk and “stole my Placidyls.” At this rate, Willie figures he’ll be lucky to live till spring.

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You wouldn’t predict better for Leroy and Sally. They’re sweethearts. Leroy, a good-looking mother with a brown hat, used to push pills but he got behind them. Half a dozen Placidyls a day. Bad news. So he hooked up with Sally. Now she’s on the street and he’s home with the housekeep­ing. It’s worked out good, too. They got a place without roaches on 13th Street in a building with a locked door. Sally had some chairs and a blue light bulb. Leroy slipped the super some to tell the landlord the dead Polish lady hadn’t moved yet, so the rent is dirt cheap.

But then Sally started taking busts. Every Friday night the cops’ pussy posse would pull her in. She changed corners, went over to 12th Street. Nothing worked. Sally always got the toughest judge. The fines mounted up. Leroy and Sally started arguing. Sally got uptight and started crying. Sometimes she cried for no reason. Leroy told her to shut it up. He said she was an ugly bitch with a fucking pinhead bobbing on the top of goddamned two-foot­ long neck. Sally cried some more.

A couple of weeks ago she was crying in the laundromat the Chinese guys run on 2nd Avenue and 12th Street. Leroy whacked Sally with a clenched fist. He never hit her with a clenched fist before. When the Chinese guy who folds the towels said something, Leroy screamed, “Shut up, motherfucker.” Then he went over the dryer and pulled out all his underwear. He told Sally it was over and was gone.

He was lying. A few days later Leroy and Sally were back together. They were in a bodega on 3rd Avenue, screaming at the Spanish guy behind the counter. The guy was claiming Sally stole a bag of Planter’s peanuts. Sally said, ”You cocksucker, spic. Fucking cocksucker, spic. We don’t need your fucking peanuts, spic. I got a fucking hundred dollars in my fucking pocket, spic. So take you fucking peanuts and shove them up your ass.”

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The 10 Sleaziest Street Corners in New York

I have always wanted to write a story called “The 10 Sleaziest Street Corners in New York.” Once, while I was working for New York Magazine, I suggested this idea to my then boss, Clay Felker. The story would be an enormous asset, I said. Diplo­matically I pointed out that the magazine seemed to spend inordinate time and space deciphering and celebrating the city’s high life. Why not devote equal time to the city’s low life? Certainly, New York is as much about its sleazoids as its swells. Here, I bargained, was a fabulous opportunity to do some truly meaningful city reporting. More than reporting. This would be a major breakthrough for the publication; it would be city anthropology — no, city sleazology, I called it, coining a perfect cover line. I mean, why did certain street corners — excluding obvious “ghetto” area ones — become hangouts for pill-pushers, prostitutes, winos, bums, creeps, cripples, mental pa­tients, mumblers, flimflam men, plastic flower sellers, peepshow orators, head­-cases, panhandlers, and other socially unacceptable netherworld types? How did these corners get this way? How long had they been this way? What was their future? Which ones have McDonalds? Which ones have Burger King? Did this matter?

I submitted a fairly comprehensive list off the top of my head: 96th Street and Broadway — the first subway stop down from Harlem; 72nd Street and Broadway — good old needle park; 53rd and Third — the Ramones sang about ‘hawking there; 28th and Park Avenue South — the Bellmore brings the pross; 2nd Avenue and St. Mark’s — the dregs of the burned-out hippies; Bowery and Houston — the creme of the classic bum corner; 6th Avenue and 8th Street — the aggressively plastic up-and-­comer; 90th Street and Roosevelt in Queens — home of the low-level Colombian coke dealer; 14th and Third; and, of course, the granddaddy: The 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue-42nd Street and Eighth Avenue complex.

To me, it was a brilliant idea. Even the title was perfect for New York. I was prepared, however — if pressured — to add the word “hot” to the headline. Felker listened to this rap with ever-widening and horrified eyes. Then he looked at me like I was a bug and told me to get cracking on Barry Manilow.

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Still, the sleaze story festered in my brain. But ambition wanes. It soon became apparent that it was crazy to “do” all the corners of crud in New York. How many burgers can one be called on to eat for the sake of journalism? It would be better to hone in on one singular slice of sleaze.

Fourteenth Street and 3rd Avenue was the natural choice. I live around there; it’s my neighborhood sleazy street corner. The pross have seen me enough to know I don’t wanna go out. But, also, 14th Street and Third Avenue is a classic, time-honored choice. 14th Street — the longest crosstown Street in Manhattan — has been on the skids, for the past 120 years.

Once, long ago, blue blood ran through this stem. An 1853 edition of the New York Herald said of East 14th Street, “Here, there are no stores — nothing but dwelling houses, which are substantial, highly finished, and first class.” When stores did come, they were Tiffany’s and FAO Schwarz. When the Academy of Music was built, in 1854, it was hailed as the city’s center of classical music and opera. Europeans sang there. The Metropolitan Opera House was built uptown by smarmy nouveaux riches, like the Vanderbilts, who couldn’t get boxes at the Academy.

It didn’t last long. East 14th Street did one of the quickest and earliest “there goes the neighborhoods” in New York history. By 1865, the New York Times was reporting that “all of the once-splendid row houses of the 14th Street-Union Square sector are now boarding houses.” Even more august sources scorned the street: In 1868, Charles Dickens saw 14th Street as a precursor of Levittown. He said: “There are 300 boarding houses exactly alike, with 300 young men exactly alike, sleeping in 300 hall bedrooms exactly alike, with 300 dress suits exactly alike ….”

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Never trust a Brit snob’s sum-up of Amer­ica. 14th Street got seamier, but it was cooking. Prostitution was firmly rooted on East 14th Street by the turn of the century (a Gentleman’s Companion of the time lists 15 whorehouses in the area), and it aided some unlikely causes. Emma Goldman writes of doing a little flat-backing on 14th Street to pick up revolutionary pocket money. Those days, there were plenty of Reds around. Socialists and worse stood on soapboxes in Union Square Park. Once, during the Sacco-Vanzetti trials, the cops mounted machine guns on top of the Guardian Life building. John Reed and Trotsky discussed eventualities in the 14th Street cafeteria, which had a sign on the wall: A TRAYFUL FOR A TRIFLE.

Capitalists did not lie down in the face of such impressive lefties. D. W. Griffith’s Biograph Studio, where Lilly and Dolly Gish graced one-reelers, was on East 14th Street. Buster Keaton made shorts here. Old-rag salesmen and handlers made shop on 14th Street. Many of the schlockmeisters who made it big — and some who didn’t make it so big — started on 14th Street. Macy’s, Hearn’s. Ohrbach’s, and Klein’s were here.

Today the only vestige of leftist activity on 14th Street is the sign from the ’60s underground newspaper Rat, which had its offices next to the Metropolitan porno theater. It reads, “HOT RATS WHILE YOU WAIT.” The capitalists didn’t fade, they moved out. Only Klein’s, with nowhere to go, held on. The trade from Stuyvesant Town in the east couldn’t sustain it. There was no future in selling to Puerto Ricans. Three years ago it closed. Now the massive “Klein’s on The Square” is an empty 300,000-foot hulk. The square-rule logo makes the place look like a decrepit Masonic Temple; except there’s no “all-seeing eye.”

The East Village Other, in one of its last issues, published a secret report predicting a deadly and monumental earthquake about to flatten half the city. The scientists, (all Hitlerians, said EVO) were keeping the news from the public. The report said all the major fault lines ran right underneath 14th Street. It was a totally believable story. 

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East 14th Street should have settled into a typical cycle of urban decline and upshift. Sure, the area has its share of pross and winos in Union Square Park and on the line to go to the bathroom at the Variety Photoplays. But that wouldn’t have both­ered the loft people or the apartment renovators. It didn’t happen, though. The sleazos came instead. And East 14th Street continued to go down … down … down. In fact, after a 120-year skid, it hasn’t bottomed out yet.

14th Street at Third Avenue is more than a sleazy street corner, it’s the epicenter of a mini­-sleazopolis. In the blocks around the hub, several different creep scenes operate side by side, and almost independently. Occasionally a pimp hanging out in the Rio Piedras bodega, on Third Avenue near 11th Street, will go up to 14th Street to sell some pills, but not often. The girls stay fucked up most of the time but don’t sell. Pill-pushers don’t even go to the same bars as the pross. It’s a real division of labor. The thing that holds it all together is that it’s all so low. Low! Ask the Robitussin man, or the big black cross, or the methadone tripper, or Willie — they’ll tell you: After 14th Street, there ain’t no more down.

The pimps ain’t happening. They sit on the steps of the barber college at Third and 12th, talking big and pretending to be Mexican hacienda patroons. Fake, all fake. These pimps aren’t taking no territory from King George, no way. These pimps never even get to lean against an El D, much less have a fur hat. They’re lucky to have one girl working. And the pross ain’t making bread. They’re turning $200 a week when it’s good. No chance of them taking their act Lexington or even Eighth Avenue. They’re on 14th Street because the big pimps think the place is so funky they don’t even care to organize it. Creeps say 14th is one step from the glue factory. Shit, a few months ago the cops picked up a 53-year-old pross by the Contempora Apartments.

Pill-pushers are no better. Most of them started turning up on 14th Street back in the late ’60s after two doctors, Vincent Dole and Marie Nyswarder — the father and mother of methadone maintenance — shook up the dope-fiend world by setting up a clinic at the Morris J. Bernstein Institute of Beth Israel Hospital. Methadone was touted as a wonder drug. Everyone said it would be the end of the heroin problem in the city. Junkies from all over the city were sent over to Bernstein (on Second Avenue and 17th Street) and other nearby “model” clinics to drink little clear bottles and kick.

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Some kicked. But most just got a short course in how to manipulate the Medicaid programs politicians loved to pour money into. Drugs led to drugs. It was easy to take your little methadone card and Medicaid slip over to a “scrip” doctor who would be willing to write you an Rx for a 100 Valiums if you told him you were “anxious.” Otherwise, you could write your own scrip. The forms were usually lying around the program offices. Anyone who could write more than “X” could get a pharmacist to fill the scrips. What you didn’t use to get fucked up on, you could sell. Same thing with extra methadone.

14th Street and Third became the flea market. It was an Eco-101 example of supply and demand. The drug of choice among the dumbo suburban kids these days is downers. And that’s what the 14th Street pillboys sell. Throughout Long Island and Jersey blond-haired types driving their papas’ Le Sabres know 14th Street is the place to go. Any night a useless boogie band is playing the Palladium (what they call the Academy of Music now), you can see the most mediocre minds of the next generation go into the toilet.

Everyone knows it. Go over to the emergency room at one of the hospitals in the area, tell them you’re dying from a headache and want some Percodan. The intern there will be surprised and ask you, “Sure you don’t want Valium?” Insist on Percodan and the intern will tell you, “Take the Valium. If you don’t use them, sell them on 14th Street.” There’s no night (except for Sunday, when the Street is eerie and dead) when you can’t walk from Fourth Avenue to Second Avenue on 14th Street without at least half a dozen ball-cap-wearing spades and pinpoint-eyed junkies asking you if you want downers. Placidyls for $2.50; Valium, 75 cents; Tuinal, $3; Elavil, $2 on 14th Street (prices somewhat higher on weekends when the Paladium is working). You’d figure that would add up. Especially since Medicaid pays. No overhead. But these guys ain’t got no money. They’re too spaced out. That’s why they’re on 14th to begin with. They couldn’t get over selling smack on 123rd Street. They couldn’t even get over selling smack on Avenue B and 6th Street. They don’t got the concentration. No big “pusher wars” here. These guys couldn’t tell friend from enemy. They are in trouble if you ask them for more than three Valiums. They pour the pills out into their hands and start counting. And keep counting.

If you want to draw a map of the 14th-and-Third sleazopolis, give the pill-­pushers 14th Street between Second and Fourth. But they’re never, for some reason, on the north side of the street. Scoring spots include the doorway of the Larry Richardson Dance Company and the corner of Fourth Avenue. Most of the guys up there are in business for them­selves but there are also “steerers,” creeps who will tell Jersey kids to come around the corner to 13th Street. This is usually for “quantity” and sometimes for rip-off.

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The rest of the scene, working from the west and down, goes like this: Union Square Park is bonkers these days, the sight of curving benches packed with sali­va-streaked and leathery faces is truly impressive. The park isn’t a major retail center for the pill-pusher, but many will come over for a little rural R and R. After a tough day of Placidyl pushing, you can lose it back playing craps or three-card monte. There are also several “loose joints” guys who got off the wrong subway stop on the way down to Washington Square. Some smack here, too.

The pross take Third Avenue. Their spiritual home is near 14th Street, where there are two miserable excuses for peep­show joints as well as three porno theatres (that includes the Variety when it’s not showing devil movies). But the ‘toots will graze down to 5th Street. They are careful, however, not to mess with the turf of the pross operating out of the Delancy-Bowery area. The Regina Hotel on Third and 13th (a featured backdrop in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver) is no longer a big pross hole. The cops broke the manager’s balls so now he plays it cool. Most of the hotel tricking goes on at the Sahara, a little oasis on 14th. The Sahara has a sign saying LOW WEEKLY RATES even though most guests spend less than a half hour at the Sahara. Seven dollars is the room tariff. But this isn’t a hotel scene. It’s all $20 blow-jobs and wack-offs in the hallway down where the super keeps the trash cans. Or in the cars in one of the parking lots along Third Avenue. The West Indian guy who used to work there charged $2 for use of the cars. Hope they didn’t use yours.

The “he-shes” (also called “shims” or “he-haws”) hang near Second Avenue and 12th Street, and also congregate at Little Peters, a swish bar by St. Marks Place. This is one of the biggest t.v. scenes in the city. Of the 1400 pross arrests the cops made in the area during the past year or so, nearly half were men dressed up as women. Ask why he-shes are usually Puerto Rican and a “he-haw” says, “our people are so mean to us … besides, haven’t you ever heard that Latins were made to love?” The he-shes are much classier looking than the straight pross. Johns claim you can’t even tell until you get real close. And, even then … you can’t. But, then again, most of the johns who cruise 14th Street just don’t care.

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With this kind of scene in the streets it makes sense that many of the “legitimate” businesses that have stayed on East 14th Street during the downtimes fall into the seedy category in most Upper East Siders’ book. Up the stairs at the Gramercy Gym, where Cus D’amato trained Patterson and Jose Torres, the fighters don’t think too much about the sleazos below. Fighters figure they’re on the fringe of the law themselves. They don’t point fingers. They know Placidyls make it tough to run six miles in the morning, so they don’t play that shit and let it be.

At Jullian’s Billiards, one of the great film-noir light-over-the-faded-green-cloth­-Luther-Lassiter-played-here pool halls in New York, hardly anyone makes mention of the scene either. The old men who sit on the wood benches, watching the nine-ball games, don’t have time to think about creeps; this is a game of hard planning; ­you’ve got to know what’s coming five shots ahead. So just shoot pool. Who cares who pisses in the hallway?

Paula Klaw has her private thoughts. She’s been on East 14th Street for better than 30 years. She remembers when the cuchifrito stand was a Rikers. And when there were two Hungarian restaurants on this block. She is not, however, complain­ing. “Who am I to complain?” says Paula Klaw. Paula Klaw runs Movie Star News, a film-still and “nostalgia” store stuffed into the second floor of the building next to the Jefferson Theatre. It’s the best place to get photos of Clive Brook. But from the street its hard to tell if Paula Klaw is open. The window, which says, IRVING KLAW, THE PINUP KING is covered with soot. The window is left over from the days when Paula’s brother Irving ran the place. Those days the Klaws were more famous for bondage pictures than portraits of Gary Cooper. Paula and Irving Klaw were the bondage kings of New York. Together they took more than 4000 different pictures of ladies in satin bras and panties in the apartment above Movie Star News. Paula was in charge of posing the pictures. She tied ladies to chairs, hung them from clotheslines, gagged them on beds, and manacled them with leather. The pictures had titles like “Betty Comes to New York and Gets in a Bind.”

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“It was wonderful those days,” Paula says now, “we had politicians, judges, prime ministers coming here to buy our photos. They would park their limos right outside on 14th Street.” After a while, however, Irving got busted for sending the stuff through the mails. Lengthy court cases ensued. Fighting back a tear Paula says, “it was all that that killed Irving, I think. They said we sold porno. We did not sell porno.” Today Paula sells a book called The Irving Klaw Years 1948-1963 containing “more than 200 out-of-print bondage photos.” Paula calls it a “fitting remembrance to my brother.” Paula has white hair, blue makeup, and wears Capri pants, doesn’t have to come to 14th Street every day. She lives in Sheepshead Bay and “has plenty of money.” But she “just likes it … you know, this used to be quite a glamorous street.” She says she hasn’t washed the IRVING KLAW, PINUP KING window in 20 years. She does not intend to.

If Paula, Jullian’s, and the fighters add aged seed to the surroundings it’s the cynical “businessmen” who give 14th Street and Third Avenue its shiny veneer of plastic sleaze. Who could have been sur­prised when Burger King opened in the old Automat where the man who’s buried next to Lenin once ate club rolls? America’s Burger King knows its customers when it sees them. The burger boys probably have whole demographic departments to psyche out every sleaze scene in the galaxy. No doubt they felt they had to keep pace after McDonald’s sewed up 96th and Broadway. Then there are the donuts. There are at least five donut joints in the immediate area of 14th Street and Third Avenue. One even replaced Sam’s Pizza, a lowlife landmark for years. Donuts are definitely the carbo-junkie wave of the future. In fact, if some doctor would publish a weight-losing diet of Placidyls and donuts, airline stewardesses would make 14th Street another Club Med.

But, of course, the real merchants of 14th Street and Third Avenue are the sleazos. They control the economy. And why not? No one else wanted to sell stuff on East 14th Street. You have to figure that more Placidyls and pussy gets sold at 14th and Third than the pizza joint sells pizza or the cuchifrito place sells pork rinds. Or the boarded-up Jefferson Theatre sells tickets. No wonder the sleazos were pissed the other day. The Third Avenue Merchants Association was having a fair. They closed off the avenue. Ladies in print dresses sold pottery. Bug-eyed kids stood by tables of brownies. A nice day in the sun for the well adjusted. But the fair halted abruptly at 14th Street, even though Third Avenue continues downtown for several streets before it turns into the Bowery. The implication was clear, and the sleazos weren’t missing it. A whole slew of the local losers stood on “their” side of 14th Street, gaping at the fat-armed zeppoli men pulling dough and the little kids whizzing around in go-karts. One Valium pusher looked up at the sign hung across the avenue and read it aloud. “T … A … M … A … ,” he said. “What the fuck is a T.A.M.A.?”

The Third Avenue Merchants Association, he was informed. “Shit,” he said, looking very put out.

“Motherfucker, I’m a goddamned Third Avenue merchant.”

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“The Livingest Street”

So what if 14th Street is low? The soul of the city boy looks into his heart of hearts and says, 14th Street is okay by me. Does every block have to look like SoHo or one of those tree-lined numbers in Queens that Catholics say they’re ready to die for? This is New York, isn’t it? Chalk it up to local color. The other night I was helping my friend move. He had been living on 15th Street and Third Avenue in a high-rise, but the money got tight. So he took a place on 12th between Second and Third. As we were carrying an enormous filing cabinet into the lobby of his new building, he said, “Well, this place is dumpy, but at least I won’t have to pass the prostitutes every day on the way to work.” A couple of seconds later we heard a noise on the staircase. A ‘toot was slapping a solid on a guy who we swore had a turned-around collar. We almost dropped the cabinet, laughing. Funny. After all, where else but on East 14th Street can you hear a blasted Spanish downer freak abusing a little Polish guy, saying, “Que pasa? Que pasa? Que pasa?” To which the Polish guy says, questioning, “Kielbasa? Kielbasa?”

And it’s not as if the street is like the South Bronx, with parch marks around broken windows and savage skulls in the street. Considering the amount of petty law-breaking that goes on in this area, the incidence of violent crime is small. The drug pushers got some mouth on them but are pretty docile at five feet. They won’t steal your television set. Medicaid pays for their drugs . The pross, too, are a model of whore decorum. Reports of mug-teams and wallet lifting are minimal.

Of course, there are those who do not ascribe to this type of thinking. Like Carvel Moore. Explaining why sleaze is essential to the big-city experience to her is like explaining it to Clay Felker. Except that Carvel Moore takes it more personally. She is the “project coordinator” of Sweet 14, an organization dedicated to making 14th Street “The Livingest Street in Town.”

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They are a cleanup group. Ever since I saw the moral “uplifters” take the young couple’s baby in Intolerance and Mayor LaGuardia swing an axe into a pinball machine, I’ve been suspicious of “clean-up groups.” This group was no different. The list of names who attended their kickoff meeting at Luchow’s (the only good thing about Luchow’s is that the Nebraskans who eat there have to wade through degen­erates to sop up that Restaurant Associates’ teutonic swill) read like a who’s who among New York powermongers. Charlie (Black-out) Luce, David Yunich, Mayor Beame, Percy Sutton, representatives of Citibank, the phone company, and Helms­ley-Spear. They issued a joint statement saying 14th Street wasn’t dead, it could ”be turned around” and it was up to the businessmen and government to do it. Luce, the chairman of the group, offered $50,000 of Con Edison money each year for three years to this end. 

Suspicion smelled a set-up. The high-­rollers must be running scared. Con Ed and the phone company have their main offices on East 14th Street. Helmsley-Spear has major holdings in the area. Something had to be done about the sleazo effect on property values. Or maybe Luce just doesn’t like seeing creeps when he pulls up in his limo. Things got fishier when it was noticed that the Sweet 14 offices were on the eighth floor of the Con Ed building, right alongside the other “customer-service” rooms. 

Carvel Moore, a prim lady who once headed a local planning board, said it was “dead wrong” to assume that Sweet 14 was a front group for Charles Luce, the phone company, or anyone else. Sweet 14 was an independent organization looking out for “everyone’s interests on East 14th Street.” She said that Luce’s $50,000 was “just a small portion of the money” the group had to work with. Then she brought out a bunch of art-student line drawings showing me how “incredibly inefficient” the 14th Street-Union Square subway station is. It is one of Sweet 14’s major tasks to “help remodel the station,” said Ms. Moore, pointing out how the station’s “awkwardness” made it difficult for employees to get to work. The project will cost $800,000.

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She also was very high on “Sweet Sounds in Union Square Park,” a concert series sponsored by Sweet 14. Ms. Moore detailed how these musical events brought “working people on their lunch hour back into the park … and made the drunks and junkies feel uncomfortable.” Drunks and junkies always feel uncomfortable when “normal” people are around, Ms. Moore said.

The most important task of Sweet 14, however, continued Ms. Moore, was “to break up the vicious drug trade and prostitution on 14h Street near Third Avenue.” What kind of business, Ms. Moore wanted to know, would want to move to this area with things the way they are now? Sweet 14, said Ms. Moore, was now working closely with the cops to take “special action” on 14th Street. One of the main problems with local law enforcement, Ms. Moore said, is that the yellow line down 14th Street separates the jurisdictions of the Ninth and 13th Precincts. According to Ms. Moore some of the more nimble-footed degenerates in the area know this and escape cops who are loath to chase bad guys into another precinct. Sweet 14, however, has been “instrumental” in getting Captain Precioso of the Ninth Precinct to set up a “14th Street Task Force” to deal with this situation. The organization has also “been active” in monitoring the OTB office at the corner of Second Avenue and 14th Street. According to Ms. Moore, many people loiter in this office, making it a hangout for sleazos.

I wanted to tell Ms. Moore that I often make bets at the 14th Street OTB and then hang out there (admittedly not inhaling deeply), waiting to see how my nag ran. But I held it in. Instead, I wanted to know what, after Sweet 14 succeeded in making East 14th Street safe for businessmen, she suggested doing with the several thousand nether-creatures now populating the street? She indicated that was a “social problem” and not part of her job. All in all it was a somewhat depressing conversation. And I walked out feeling I would rather buy electricity from Beat Shit Green than a cleanup from Charles Luce.

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More troubling was a talk I had with George and Susan Leelike. They are the co-heads of “East 13th Street Concerned Citizens Committee.” The very name of the group brings up images of whistle-blowing at the sight of a black person and badgering tenants to get up money to plant a tree. But George and Susan Leelike are a little tough to high-hat. After all, they are from the block. They’ve lived on East 13th Street for 15 years. Raised a son there. And they came for cool reasons: Back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the East Village was hip. Charlie Mingus and Slugs made it hip. The Leelikes related to that.

So, when these people tell you they don’t think a pross and a priest in a hallway is funny, you’ve got to take them seriously. They do have a compelling case. George explains it all: He says the Lower East Side gets reamed because the neighborhood’s major industry is “service.” Any time a neighborhood is poor, “service” becomes a major industry. The Lower East Side is both poor and liberal. So, says George Leelike, it has a higher percentage of social work agencies than any other neighborhood in the city. He questions the validity of some of these projects, pointing out that one place, Project Contact, started in the ’60s as a teenage runaway home, then went to alcohol treatment, then to drug rehab, and now is back to runaways. This is “grant-chasing,” says Leelike. For the social workers to keep their jobs, the projects have to stay open. To stay open, they have to get grants. To get grants, they have to show they understand the “current” problems of the community and attract “clients.” George Leelike says there are more “clients” on the Lower East Side than any other place in the world.

“Clients,” the Leelikes say, are not the most stable neighbors. The worst are the methadone junkies. Beth Israel, says Leelike, has made “millions” from its methadone-maintenance programs that bring thousands of “clients” to the Lower East Side. So have the individual private doctors who run their own methadone clinics in the neighborhood. The Leelikes were a major force in a community drive that shut down one Dr. Triebel’s clinic on Second Avenue and 13th Street. Triebel pulled in more than $700,000 in one year, much of it in Medicaid payments.

This kind of activity brought still more sleazos to the neighborhood, the Leelikes said. They pulled out Xeroxed arrest reports from the Ninth and 13th precincts, showing that the majority of the pillpushers pinched on 14th Street said they were on some kind of methadone program. They said it was a vicious cycle, that many of the people on methadone had no desire or intention of kicking. Most of the local meth freaks were here on “force” programs. The city told them, sign up with a methadone clinic or no welfare.

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These were frightening charges, not just because they were indisputably well-thought-out and apparently true. But because they went to the very core of the two most important issues in the city — race and class. Talking to George Leelike, you had to admire his rational approach to subjects that usually inspire mad, inflammatory outbursts. You also got a closer look at why Ed Koch will be the next mayor of New York City. After all, didn’t he run an indisputably well-thought-out, apparently true, eminently rational campaign that appealed to the get-the-creeps-out-of-my-neighborhood constituency? Didn’t he win by taking the side of the harried, postliberal middle class against the nether class?

It was chilling and inescapable. Tolerance levels have gone down. The Leelikes said the thing they hated most about the sleazos was that they’re so snotty. In the old days, when Susan Leelike went to Cooper Union, junkies hung out in the Sagamore Cafeteria, near Astor Place. Dope fiends those days knew they were outcasts and acted accordingly. The Leelikes remembered these Burroughsian types with a touch of romanticism. Now, they said, methadone makes being a junkie legal. And the creeps have come out into the daylight, where it quickly becomes apparent that junkies aren’t the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.

This hit home. A few weeks ago I was walking by Cooper Square. A guy in his mid-twenties was stretched out on the ground, twitching. He didn’t look like a lowlife; he had French jeans on. A small crowd gathered around him. A cabbie stopped and put on his emergency blinker. The guy seemed to be having a seizure. Maybe he’s an epileptic, said the cabby, pull his tongue out of his mouth. Two people went for the cops, another to call an ambulance. Finally an older man rolled up the guy’s sleeve. The dude’s arm looked like a Penn Central yard. The older guy threw the arm back on the sidewalk in disgust. “He’s just a fucking junkie,” the cabby said. “A fucking junkie.” Half the people in crowd said, “Shit … ” And everyone just split. Me, too. I split. When the guy’s an epileptic he’s human; when he’s a junkie, fuck him. I remembered how, 10 years ago, we used to guide Hell’s Angels through bad trips even though we knew they would probably run us over if they were straight. Somehow figured it was our duty. This guy wasn’t any of my business.

So I knew the Leelikes had the trend on their side. Also, it was clear — they are determined. They are willing to run the risk of being called redneck — Susan Leelike says, “I hate it when they call me the white lady” — to get rid of sleazos. And they don’t flinch when you ask them where they propose the sleazos go. “It’s just not our problem,” they say.

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The Arrest of Ernest James

Patrolmen Bob Woerner and Dennis Harrington are in an empty office above Glancy’s Bar on East 14th Street and Irving Place, hiding. Harrington and Woerner have been partners for six years. They used to work the smack detail on Avenues A, B, C, and D (called avenues X, Y, and Z in cop parlance). But pressure from Sweet 14 and local politicians on the department to “do something” about 14th Street brought them here 11 months ago. Since then Woerner and Harrington, tough and smart cops, have been the most effective (in terms of arrests) of the twenty men on the Ninth Precinct’s “14th Street Task Force.”

Sometimes Woerner and Harrington walk down 14th Street and ask buzz-brained cats, “Hey, man. What you doing?” It’s a torture technique; they know that the toughest question in the world for a sleazo is “What are you doing?” Creeps’ knees buckle under the weight of that one; they say, “I dunno, what am I doing?” But what Woerner and Harrington really like to do is make busts. Which is why they are hiding in the empty room above Glancy’s Bar with their binoculars trained on the action beneath the Palladium marquee.

Making busts on 14th Street isn’t tough. Sometimes guys will be so loaded they come right up and say, “Placidyl … Placidyl … oh, shee-it” before they realize they’re talking to the Man. It is tricky, however. First of all, the captain doesn’t like cops to make too many arrests. He says busts take police off the street and put them in court. But cops say the department doesn’t give enough of a shit about what’s in the street to pay overtime. Primarily though, when you’re making “observation” busts on 14th Street, you’ve got to see them good. Most of the sellers get their stuff from scrip doctors, which means their own name is on the bottle. It is not a crime to carry “controlled substances” — if the (not-forged) scrip is made out to you. Selling the stuff, however, is illegal. So, instead of just grabbing a single party, like a smack bust, cops have to get both the buyer and the seller as well as recover the shit cold. They also have to see the deal go down perfectly — that is, if they’re not into fudging evidence in court. Woerner and Harrington say, why fudge, on 14th Street if you miss one sale, they’ll soon be another. But still, it hurts when you’ve been freezing behind the Con Edison fence at 14th and Third, waiting for just the right view. And then, right at the big moment, a bus goes by.

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Tonight, however, it ain’t gonna be no prob-lem. Foghat, some mindless boogie band, is playing the Palladium and a dozen suburban kids are milling around in front of the theater, looking to get stupid. Woerner and Harrington are licking their lips. All they need is a seller. And from down the street, trudging slowly up from Third Avenue by the poolroom, here he comes. In unison the cops shout, ALL RIGHT, ERNEST JAMES … COME ON, ERNEST JAMES. Ernest James, a gangly guy with a face and beard like Sonny Rollins, came on. He walked into a crowd of leather-jacketed white kids. Got into a conversation with one. Took him off to the doorway of the fight gym. Then it couldn’t have been clearer if Otto Preminger were directing. Out came the bottle. There went the pill. Across came the three dollars. And down the stairs went Woerner and Harrington.

Like nothing, Harrington was reading Ernest James his rights. Woerner had the buyer, a blonde boy from Pelham Bay, up against the wall. Ernest James, the perfect degenerate, pulled out a slew of false I.D.s, a Kool cigarette, and looked impassively at the sky. Against the wall another kid was screaming to the buyer, “Jeff, Jeff … give me your ticket for the show.”

Ernest James was in big trouble. He had a goddamned drugstore on him. Ten bottles of pills in all: 26 big white tabs thought to be Quaaludes, 21 Tuinals, 15 Seconals, 40 unknown peach-colored pills, 34 unknown white pills, 23 ampicillins, 29 unknown yellow pills, and several dozen Placidyls. Most of the bottles were made out to Ernest James. Some to Ernest Jones. Some to A. Ramos. One was just to “Ernest,” which prompted Woerner to wonder if Ernest James was on a first-name basis with his pharmacist. Also found were two Garcia y Vega humidors full of 5- and 10-mg. Valium. Neither one of those was made out to anyone. Almost all the scrips were supposedly written by one Doctor Jacob Handler of West 103rd Street. Doctor Handler is a 14th-Street favorite. Harrington keeps a little scorecard of doctors’ names that appear on bottles. Doctor Handler is way up near the top of the list. But the cops say nothing will happen to him because “it’s tough to bust a doctor.”

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In Dr. Handler’s defense, it was thought that Ernest James forged some of the scripts. After all, Ernest has half-a-dozen different medical identification cards. Some are made to the name William Summersall, others to A. Ramos and Ernest Jones. He also had a little notebook in which he has apparently been practicing different signatures. Most are Ernest Jones. But there is also a page on which “Texas Slim” is written a dozen times.

Under the 15-watt glare in the Ninth’s arrest room, Harrington books Ernest James. This is nothing new — Harrington has arrested Ernest James before. In fact, Ernest has six busts for pills this year already. Too bad, figures Dennis Harrington: Ernest James is not a bad guy. In fact, Dennis thinks, most of the guys he busts aren’t real bad. Just a bunch of losers. Ernest James had $84 on him, but that had to be his life savings. Most guys have about $30. “Sometimes it is that ‘there but for fortune thing,” says Dennis, who is haunted by the memory of his brother, who was “into junk.” He also thinks about that same picture they always show of Karen Quinlan. Dennis wonders if she got her downs on 14th Street.

Asked where he got all the pills, Ernest James is cool. “I’m qualified to have as many pills as I want,” he says. Asked about all the different IDs, Ernest says, “I’m qualified to have as many names as I want.”

While the cops count up the rest of Ernest’s stash, I ask him if he thinks the businessmen and cops can clean up 14th Street. He says, “I dunno ’bout no cleanup. All I know is I wanna get to St. Louis. I can do security over there. I can’t sell these pills no more. But if I don’t, I got bread and water. My philosophy is that if the city put the clean in the street, they put the dirt in the street, too. Goes both ways. There is one thing that’s sure. Ain’t no way to clean up this. Cops come fuck up with 14th Street, people just gonna go somewheres else. If they want to get rid of the dirt, they gonna have to shoot those motherfuckers. Line up those motherfuckers and kill them. All of them. Dead.”

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‘Junkies Out of the Park’

Woe is Ernest James. He got caught in the cleanup. Usually Ernest winds up with one of those mumbo-jumbo raps like Time-Served or Adjournment Contemplating Dismissal. In other words, he gets off. Not bad, considering pill-pushing is a class-D felony worth up to seven years. This time, however, Ernest James is taking the fall. The D.A is making an example of him. A special grand jury on soft drugs is indicting him. Instead of the usual weekend at Rikers, they’re offering Ernest a year. And that’s if he pleads.

Tough shit, Ernest James. Add insult to injury: When Ernest got picked up on September 30, he claimed it was his birthday. No one believed him. But it was true. Happy birthday, Ernest James.

Another thing Ernest James was right about: If you move a sleazo, he’ll just go somewhere else. You got to kill the motherfuckers … dead. Down in Chinatown, they say that’s what Mao did with the opium addicts. Hopheads can’t drive tractors, so Mao’s guys just put them up against the wall and blew their brains out. Bet there ain’t no sleazy corners in Shanghai.

For a society stuck with half a million sleazoids (conservative metropolitan-area estimate) this could be an eminently modest proposal. Discussing this alternative with liberal city councilman Henry Stern, he says, “Of course, I’m not in favor of killing these people.” But Stern admits that he can’t figure out what to do with them. “It’s a dilemma,” he says, “maybe it’s one of the biggest dilemmas in the city today.” Miriam Friedlander, another liberal councilperson who has been working closely with Sweet 14, also does not favor wholesale annihilation. She takes a more conventional tack, saying. “It’s my primary function to break up that situation and get them out of the neighborhood.”

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In place of execution, the pols offer “redevelopment.” “Redevelopment” is a coming concept in the city-planning business. A modification of the pave-it-all-over-and-start-from-scratch school of urban studies, “redevelopment” essentially means taking over “depressed” areas and transforming them into middle­-class shopping and residential areas. The best-known example of “redevelopment” is on 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. A civic group came into possession of several “tax-arrears” buildings and redid them into boutiques. Henry Stern, Miriam Friedlander, Koch, and the rest feel that “redevelopment” is at least worth trying on 14th Street and Third Avenue. And with economic biggies like Charlie Luce, Helmsley-Spear, Citibank, and Restaurant Associates around, you know the job will get done right. Oh, boy, will it.

Of course, “redevelopment” stops short of final solutions. So Ernest James’s philosophy holds up. Due to the hard-nose police work by the “14th Street Task Force,” the sleazos have begun a minor migration. Routed from parts of 14th Street, they camped in Stuyvesant Park on Second Avenue and 15th Street. According to the locals, who say they pay extra rent to live near the park, the situation is becoming disgusting. Methadone addicts are leaving their bottles all over the place. Pill-pushers are dealing. The other day two of the he-shes got into a little mutual around ­the world.

The neighborhood forces rallied, led by one Jeanne Pryor, a right-minded lady who loves a firm grip on the bullhorn (who last week opened a cleanup storefront at 14th and Third). They decided that the 13th Precinct was not providing adequate protection from the sleazos. They demanded police guards in the park.

One night last month a protest march was organized. About 150 people showed up to carry signs saying things like OUR CHILDREN ONCE PLAYED FRISBEE IN THIS PARK. Others carried shopping bags full of empty scrip bottles they said were collected in the park. These were a present for Capt. Joseph Neylan of the 13th, who, Ms. Pryor kept shouting, “has been out to lunch for the past six months.”

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The march, accompanied by a man in a kilt playing a bagpipe, began at 15th Street and headed up Third Avenue toward the precinct house on 21st Street. Ms. Pryor had planted stories in the Daily News, so the local television stations sent out crews to cover. Arc lights flooded the streets as Ms. Pryor led the chant of “JUNKIES OUT OF THE PARK.”

As the march reached 17th Street, it started to get interesting. A messed-up black guy bounded in front of the marchers and held up his hands like he was stopping a runaway team of horses. “Stop!” he said, the TV lights glaring in his buzzed eyes. Stunned, Ms. Pryor halted in her tracks. The whole march bumped to a stop. There was a silence. Then the guy started chanting, “JUNKIES OUT OF THE PARK. JUNKIES OUT OF THE PARK.” The marchers stepped back. The guy kept screaming, “JUNKIES OUT OF THE PARK.” Then he stopped and looked the bagpipe player right in the eye and said, “I’m a fucking junkie … I’m a fucking junkie … I’m a fucking junkie … Get me out of the park … GET ME OUT OF THE PARK … GET ME OUT OF THE PARK … “

The mock has turned to a plea.

It was then that Jeanne Pryor should have acted. She should have taken out a 12-gauge shotgun and blown the creep’s head off. 

Categories
FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Holy War in West Virginia: A Fight Over America’s Future

Charleston, W. Va. — The turbulent textbook controversy that has crippled schools here is more than a simple fight over the adoption of 325 first through 12th grade supplementary English textbooks. For the 229,000 people who live in the coal and petrochemical-rich Kanawha Valley it is not an isolated battle, not some rustic re-run of the Scopes trial, but a microcosm of a basic conflict in our culture. It is nothing less than a fight over America’s future. 

This fight has taken place in many different localities, over many different issues. Its themes are the same as those that were echoed in New York City’s fight over community-controlled schools, in Boston’s battle over busing, in the black militant attempt to establish a New Africa in Mississippi, and in the Chicanos’ attempt to drive most Anglos from administrative jobs in Crystal City, Texas. Can America’s mainstream culture, made pervasive by the electronic media, absorb all the diverse groups that live here, that are passionate about maintaining their identity? 

To me, the protests here are a fresh sign that the melting pot — with its dream of a single, unified American culture — is largely a myth. I don’t believe we have ever been united except during times of national crisis like wars and assassinations — and as consumers. I think that, to an unrecognized extent, we are a collection of religious, ethnic, and generational tribes who maintain an uneasy truce. We had to conquer this continent in order to exploit its vast resources. But we were never able to conquer our own atavistic hatreds and loyalties, to live comfortably as a single people. 

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The battle in Kanawha is a cultural revolution, in the strictest sense of the term: an effort by the rural working class to wrest schools — the means of production of their children — away from the permissive technocrats who now control them. 

It is a holy war between people who depend on books and people who depend on the Book. 

And it may be a harbinger of fights that will flare up during the next few years as the Depression, the Mideast war, and the rise of conservative Christianity cause people to lash back at the cosmopolitan elite (the “educated fools” or “upper-class Communists,” as they’re called down here) they blame for their problems. If the textbook controversy is a harbinger, then education is likely to be a more important battleground than the media or pornography, though those issues kindle the same profound wrath. You can turn off your TV set, avoid movies or massage parlors, but you must send your kids to school. 

Most of the people who Live in Kanawha County’s hollers see the textbooks as a collection of skeptical comments about God, of four­-letter words and salacious stories, of subversive essays by black revolutionaries like Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X. The books symbolize the horrifying 1960’s culture which the schools are inflicting on their young; the infection that began on liberal campuses has spread to Kanawha County and now threatens to turn their kids into sex maniacs, drug addicts, and Manson-like killers. So they want to cleanse America of its filth if they’re strong enough; seal themselves off from the plague if that’s their only alternative. For the moment, that means they’ve turned their backs on upward mobility. They feel that if their children establish any friendly contact with the corrupt forces that run the nation’s institutions, their characters are certain to be corrupted. 

Here the fight is between the “hillers” and the “creekers.” The “hillers” tend to support the textbooks: They are the doctors, lawyers, mine managers, and petrochemical engineers who live on Charleston’s luxurious South Hills. They read the Times and The Wall Street Journal just as avidly as the Charleston Daily Mail or Gazette. Many take the United Airlines flight to New York City so often that it’s almost like a commuter trip. They make regular vacation trips to Atlanta or Miami or, if they’re genuinely rich, to Europe. They regard the books as crucial ingredients of the kind of contemporary school system that will let their kids keep up with their peers across the country — that will help them get into Harvard or Haverford instead of Morris Harvey or West Virginia Tech. 

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The “creekers” live in the rural towns and hollers — Big Chimney, Cabin Creek, Cross Lanes — that dot this sprawling, windy, moun­tainous county. They work in the mines, or in fetid factories like the duPont plant in Balle, or, if they’re lucky, as truck drivers or construction workers. Most of them have never been on an airplane in their lives. Many went to cities like Chicago, Dayton, or Cleveland during the Appalachian migration of the 1960’s, but they found those places alien and hostile and returned to their own tight-knit communities. Their reminiscences are laced with the same bitterness they display toward the textbooks. 

In September, the books were introduced into the schools. There was so much violence in the county that the board of education decided to withdraw the books from the schools for a thirty-day review period. During that time, there were exchanges of gunfire, school rooms were dynamited, school buses shot at, cars and homes firebombed. One night, someone put fifteen sticks of dynamite under Charleston’s board of education building and demolished part of it. It was clear that most of the county felt some sympathy for the protestors. In November, a Charleston Gazette poll showed that just 19 percent of the community wanted all the books returned to the schools. Nevertheless, in mid-November, the board of education voted 4-1 to return most of the controversial materials to the schools, though they ruled that some of the most controversial grade school books would remain in the library. The sporadic violence continued. And, as in any war, attitudes kept hardening. 

Susan Bean, 35, who lives in South Hills, was a member of the committee that reviewed all the textbooks. She’s the wife of a landscape architect, the mother of three grade school kids. She was born in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee, where her father was a member of the John Birch Society. In his small construction business, he sys­tematically underpaid all the blacks who worked for him. He whipped Susan whenever he caught her reading unorthodox books, whenever she disagreed with him. At 17, she ran away from home, got a job as a typist at Sears, and worked her way through the University of Georgia, where she was an English major. 

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Interestingly, it is Susan Bean’s conservative background that has made her a fierce supporter of the books. Indeed, she is glad that her children will study the religious unorthodoxies that her father despised. One day, I told her I thought we were witnessing a class struggle, and she responded, quite tartly, “Sure it’s a class struggle, but not in the way you outsiders think. You come from a liberal background. You can’t imagine how much the opportunity to give my kids unlimited freedom means to me. It’s a way of making sure that I, and my kids, rise above my past.” 

Nell Wood, fortyish, the English teacher who selected the text­books, is the daughter of a Fundamentalist railroad engineer from a rural county in West Virginia. Now she teaches an honors English class for seniors at the prestigious George Washington High School, nestled in the midst of South Hills. Though most of her students come from wealthy, sophisticated families, she is still a practicing fundamentalist. She never smokes or drinks, feels uncomfortable when people take the Lord’s name in vain, and has to ask her team teachers to read whatever four-letter words crop up. 

It’s possible that her support of the textbooks comes from her special classroom experience. There are teachers who argue that if she had to face a classroom full of rural work­ing class kids each day she might feel more ambivalent about the issue. But she is a woman who loves books and wants to share that pas­sion with her students. She refuses to weed out stones and attitudes that other fundamentalists consider blas­phemous because I can’t  bear the thought of standing in front of a group of kids and telling lies by omitting ideas I know exist.” Just as many protestors have quotations from the Bible 1n their homes she has a quotation from the Areopagitica in her spare. tiny cubicle behind the George Washington High School Li­brary. “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature. God’s image: but who kills a book kills reason it­self.”

But thousands of people here say they’d die fighting the blasphemy that Nell Wood believes is freedom. Emmett Thompson, 55, a riverboat engineer from Nitro, West Virginia, lives quite comfortably in a neat red brick house which is larger than Susan Bean’s white frame house on South Hills. His oldest son is a trim, impeccably dressed short-haired man who has just graduated from the Lynchburg Bible College. Thompson, whose bushy cinnamon­colored moustache makes him look a little more dashing than his boy, is what people here call a “Wednesday nighter” — so devoted to the local Calvary Baptist Church that he at­tends it twice on Sunday, once on Wednesday. He considers the intro­duction of the books “moral geno­cide.”

“It’s an insidious attempt to re­place our periods with their question marks,” he says, and he thinks it has to he fought. In a county where coal miners are experts with dynamite, where every rnan and boy is a hunter and every house 1n every holler has plenty· of guns and plenty of ammu­nition. he longs for a “return to the spirit of the Boston Tea Party,” “revolution of righteousness.”

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Skeeter Dodd. the manager of radio station WKLC, is the sort of person who might help lead that revolution. A chunky, sturdy man in his mid-40s. Skeeter is an early morning disk jockey. whose taste in country music, in syndicated jokes from the “Funny Wire,” and in imaginary dialogues with the fic­tional hillbilly “grandad” has made him a favorite with “creekers” throughout the county.

“If they don’t wake up to me. they ain’t gonna wake up that day,” he says in his exaggerated West Virgin­ia accent, his genuinely hearty laugh.

Though KLC is Charleston’s third largest station, Skeeter spends much of his time worrying about collecting bills from advertisers and finding new sponsors who will keep his sta­tion afloat. But he is also a patriot who, like Emmett Thompson, sees the textbook struggle as a salvo in a war to “restore the faith of our fathers. Look at it this way, friend. They tax us for the schools, but the schools don’t represent us. Isn’t that what them dumb hillbillies and creekers was fighting about 200 years ago?”

He not only despises the books, he believes that they are part of a communist plot hatched in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1917 to destroy democracy. He showed me a replica of this curious document which proposed, to corrupt the people. get them away from religion. Make­ them superficial. Destroy their rug­gedness.” And, like thousands of people here, he believes in the existence of an upper-class conspiracy to bring Communism to America. Most people equate Communism with de­cadence. and argue that because rich people want to legalize drugs. legitimize pre-marital sex. porno­ graphic movies and massage par­lors, they are subversive. But Skeeter’s reasons are more person­al. His dad worked on an assembly line, he says. “Neighbor, you better believe that under a system like socialism this old creeker’d still be back there.”

He’d been in Navy intelligence during the Korean War. and now saw himself combating Communism in Kanawha County. He carried a citizens band radio in his car so that other movement leaders could alert him if there was trouble. He was “Boots” in a cb network that includ­ed “Kojack,” “Blue Flag,” and “Money Man.” Late on a chilly fall night, wearing his battered black overcoat as he slumped over his mike and exchanged information on the small radio. he looked like a weary, dedicated member of a nascent band of freedom fighters, the nucleus of an army which wants to cleanse America, to restore it to the paths of righteousness.

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From the Holler to the Space Age
In a sense, this is the story of an idea whose time never quite came. The idea was that educational planners could reach into America’s ghettos, its hollers, and its tradition-­bound ethnic communities, like Can­arsie and South Boston, and coax people there into the “melting pot.” That was the principal rationale be­hind bussing. It was also the reason that states like West Virginia mandated “multi-cultural, multi-ethnic” programs in their classrooms.

The theory is clearly stated in a funding proposal for the training of teachers, dated 1970, signed by West Virginia’s Superintendant of Schools. According to the document, teachers are supposed to be trained to “induce changes … in the behavior of the ‘culturally lost’ of Appalachia … The setting of the public school should he the testing ground. the diagnostic basis, the experimental center, and the core of this design … The most important ingredient of social change is the change agent” — the teacher.

You have only to look at the textbooks to see how they fit in with that theory. Though I personally found many of them quite appealing — the sorts of books I would like my two children to study —I  could also see how their sheer physical appearance would shock parents who had been brought up on Dick and Jane stories, on the six point type of the King James Bible, and on the rigid belief that education meant rote memori­zation. Now their children are using post-linear paper-backs where car­toons, photos, and gaudily colored pages dominate the print; where you don’t read about Evangeline or the Courtship of Miles Standish but about sports heroes, rock stars, and street gangs, where achievement doesn’t rest in a child’s ability to repeat a lesson accurately, but in her capacity to answer the provocative, questions at the end of each sec­tion.

And the stories do, as Emmett Thompson said, “attempt to replace our periods with question marks.” Reading them I could see, for the first time, how a theist, who was still embittered because the Supreme Court had outlawed school prayer, could believe that the relativism and humanism that I have always cherished as the highest kind of open-mindedness represents a dogma of its own whose very skepti­cism embodied religious values.

For example, there is one exercise which asks students to compare the biblical story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den with the tale of Androcles and the Lion. To conservative Chris­tians the question itself is blasphemy since it suggests that something they take to be revelations is nothing more than myth. Similarly, the books include writings like Mark Twain’s “Adam’s Diary,” which shows God’s first offspring as a bumbling upstate New York house­holder and includes a New Yorker-­style cartoon of a naked Adam and Eve peeping out over some bushes. The books invite students to invent their own gods, an exercise which suggests that God himself might be an invention.

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The idea behind the books is the classic liberal assumption that a child who learns to question himself and his surroundings will grow beyond the confines of his culture. But, apart from the religious heresies, that means the books are also filled with a set of assumptions that many West Virginians regard as secular blasphemy. For example, some of the exercises encourage kids to tell each other about their dis- agreements with their parents, their reservations about authority. They ask whether it is ever legitimate to steal. They contain a great many four-letter words (whose use, in many Appalachian households, would condemn kids to severe beatings. ) They suggest that standard English may be one of many dialects spoken in this country, that rules of English are relative, that ghetto English might be a legitimate form of speech. Some of the high school textbooks include writings by revo­lutionaries like Eldridge Cleaver.

Now, it’s easy to see how a profes­sional educator, who has learned, almost as a matter of dogma, that schools were always the vehicles by which working-class kids achieved a level of success that was beyond the wildest dreams of their parents, could have thought that “multi-cul­tural. multi-ethnic” textbooks could bring kids into the “melting pot.”

But it’s probably too much to de­mand that a countyful of people make the spiritual journey from the holler to the Space Age in less than five years, especially when the trip forces them beyond the furthest barrier of their belief. It makes them the victim of a sort of psychic overload. Sometimes they submit in confusion. But in Kanawha County they found leaders who could articulate their fury at the annihilation of every value they revered. They fought back.

Alice Moore is the lone dissenter on the school board. Her husband, a Church of Christ minister, had parishes in Tennessee and Meridian Mississippi before he was station­ed in the lower-middle class town of after St. Alban’s. In 1970, two years after her arrival in Kanawha County, Alice Moore decided that she’d run for the board to symbolize her opposition to sex education in the schools. She was elected.

She is a stunningly beautiful, intelligent woman who adopts a Southern belle’s flirtatious style when she argues with the four male school board members.

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But it’s clear that when Alice speaks thousands of people in the creeks and hollers listen. She’s in the newspapers nearly every day now, on TV nearly every night: a Joan of Arc, witty and resolute in her battle against the male “hiller” majority of the school committee. Whenever she appears at board meetings or at public rallies she is greeted with jubilant standing ovations, with cheerful choruses of “we love you, Alice, oh, yes, we do,” with clusters of flowers and placards that read “Alice Moore for President.” In place like Big Chimney and Kelly’s Creek — towns the hillers can barely find on their maps, let alone in their cars — her name inspires the same kind of glisteningly popular response as Huey Long’s did in the back­-country parishes of Louisiana.

When the textbooks came up for only adoption last spring, she was the only school board member who read them thoroughly. She was enraged by their emphasis on she calls “situational ethics” — the heathen creed that encorages kids to believe that any set of actions can be jus­tified by sociological conditions.

I could see her anger during a long interview one afternoon when she told me about a teacher training program she’d attended. her tone alternated between Andy Griffith­-like wonder and fundamentalist wrath. She was particularly amused by an instructor who’d tried to show how the concept of camouflage could be conveyed by hiding some green toothpicks in grass. He failed because the grass was so brights that the toothpicks were visible at once. Then, angering quickly, she talked about another education expert who sought to prove there was a cultural justification for Eskimo mothers who put their babies outside to freeze. “You know,” she said, “I was the only only person there who argued she was wrong.”

With my longish hair, my credentials from an urban liberal newspaper, I must have suddenly seemed like the enemy. She was courteous, and her lovely southern voice never lost its slight hint of conspiratorial laughter. But: “You just don’t understand what you’re doing to us,” she said. “How can any school board force me to send my kids to a school that teaches God is a myth, that justifies mothers who kill their young?” 

“But how could I send my kids to schools that outlawed those textbooks?” I asked. “I bate censorship as much as you hate blas­phemy.” “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe there’s no school system in this country that can provide for your kids and mine. Maybe we Americans have come to a parting of the ways.”

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The Parting of the Ways: “Don’t Educate Them Above Their Rearing”
Maybe the parting of the ways has already come, and the only question is how many people are on each side. Certainly many conservative Christians in Kanawha County feel the frustration, the sense of isolation, that Alice Moore describes. They are so appalled by the America the textbooks represent that they’d rather forego the idea of college altogether, the dream of upward mobility, than risk the infection of relativism. 

Many young people are as passionate about the holy war as their parents. I spent a great deal of time interviewing the elite students at George Washington High and the working-class kids from Campbell’s Creek who attend duPont and East Bank. There is no communication between them-only mutual stereotypes, mutual contempt. 

Many students from George Washington are aware that their wealth spawns resentment, that the fact that they go to GW creates an almost insurmountable barrier of resentment. And some wish, wistfully, that the gap could be bridged. But even though there are many “creekers” at GW, not a single one of the fifteen “hiller” kids I interviewed had ever visited them or invited them home. And, though they’re theoretically aware that “those kids are angry because they think our parents have money,” it never occurred to them that their freedom to leave school in their family car, to gather at Gino’s Pizza for a pleasant lunch, rankled the kids from the hollers, who had to stay in school all day and eat their meals in the cafeteria. 

During an interview, one girl asked me, sharply, “why anybody would want to visit people like those coal miners.” When I asked some other students to describe the textbook protesters, they used phrases like “closed-minded and violent” people “who want to protest corrup­tion, but don’t even know how to use the word,” “Wednesday nighters who carry clubs.” Three students gave me an issue of The George Washington Pride, the school’s underground newspaper, which con­tained a long satire about the conflict in which the protest leader’s name is “the Rev. Rodney Necc, but my friends call me Red,” who has come to a demonstration sponsored by “the Christian and Righteous Association of Parents … to show my deep dedication to upholding CRAP.” 

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I felt completely at ease with the kids from George Washington. But many “creekers,” and their children, were quite suspicious of me as an outsider, particularly because I was a reporter. At one of their rallies they had beaten up CBS’s Jed Duval. When I went to the “anti­-textbook headquarters” in Campbell’s Creek, two separate groups of people insisted on frisking me, on examining the documents in my wallet. A woman who saw that I had a pocket-sized Sony tape-recorder accused me of bugging them all. After a while, many of them became friendly, but they still warned that “they’d come looking for me” if I wrote an unfavorable story about them. 

That afternoon, at a small white Baptist Church, off a windy dirt road in Campbell’s Creek, I met with about 10 teenaged children of coal miners, truck drivers, construction workers, and ministers. They didn’t feel as free with me as the kids from GW had, so their comments were more cramped and restrained. Still, some were scornful of the hillers. They talked about their wild, dope-filled orgies where maids had to lock themselves in their rooms for fear of being beaten; of their rich, reckless parents, who were too busy to take care of their kids; of the ease with which they could bribe the police when they got in trouble. And of their hedonistic atheism. “They’re rich people who think they know everything,” said a coal miner’s daughter. “But they haven’t been taught right. They don’t have any common sense. They don’t really care about God.” 

Other kids sounded genuinely wounded by the “hillers'” insen­sitivity. “I can expect someone who doesn’t believe in God not to see anything wrong with the textbooks,” said one minister’s daughter. “But they can at least respect our rights, since it does say something about our God. We’re not asking that they teach Christianity in the schools. We’re just asking that they don’t insult our faith.” 

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The truck driver’s son had a more practical objection. He was afraid that the books would hurt his chances of earning a living. He wanted to go to West Virginia Tech, to be an engineer, and felt he needed a “good basic education.” 

“I mean, they could teach English in school without going to this ghetto language or some of this slang,” he said. “lf they drop that standard, then society’s just going to go down. Until now, we’ve always been taught to make speeches in front of class, to write letters with correct punctuation. But in this new set of textbooks, they say, whatever sort of speech is common in your area, well, that’s all right. But if you move out of state, it will be just like going to a foreign country. How will you know what other people’s meaning is? And, I know from my father”s experience-if you look for a job and can’t talk the right English, they won’t hire you.” 

Of course, for many protestors the issues are far more general and ominous than the practical questions of grammar and employment. Many students from duPont and East Bank arc already into rock music and dope: the parents-and more chaste kids-are scared that the heretical ideas in the school-sanctioned textbooks will rid them of their last vestiges of social control. 

At meeting after meeting, I heard complaints about kids from Kanawha County who’d gone to college and come home acting like aliens. The conclusions? “Don’t let them be educated above their rearing.” “I was going to send my boy to college,” said the wife of a food salesman from St. Alban’s. “But I’ve changed my mind. It was a difficult decision. In my husband’s profession, now, you need a college degree. But I’d rather see him become a coal miner or a construction worker than know he was risking his soul.” 

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If the Christians Fight Back
Of course, religious controversy is not new in these parts. Nor is separatism. The ancestors of the miners and teamsters who live in Cabin Creek and Big Chimney were Anglo-Saxon yeomen who settled here 200 years ago because they were dissatisfied with Virginia’s upper-­class Tidewater planters and their moribund Anglican church. They were inspired by the first Great Awakening, the national fit of religious ecstasy which, with its stress on holy fervor and personal salvation, swept westward from New England in the eighteenth century. Even now, in the small Baptist and Pentecostal churches that dot the landscape, thousands of Baptists and Pentecostals scourge themselves by listening to sermons that sound Like replicas of Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” 

For generations, the Fundamentalists were sure that some version of their creed was America’s dominant faith. Then, without warning, they found themselves waging a defensive war against the heathen idea of evolution. The Scopes trial was a watershed: Between Clarence Darrow’s courtroom tactics and H. L. Mencken’s scathing prose, they suddenly ceased to be America’s conscience and became its laugh­ingstock. Though they clung to their faith, sometimes defiantly, many of them felt a private, lingering shame. It took decades for that shame to vanish. Now, their church is likely to become militant again. 

If Kanawha County’s army of Christian soldiers ever decides to wage all-out war, life here will be unbearable. This fall’s rash of dynamiting, firebombing, and shooting has terrified educators all over the county. Protest leaders deny responsibility for most incidents, blaming some on stoned-out kids, others on the books’ supporters. Still, the violence has merged with the Fundamentalists’ ardent support of censorship to make each teacher feel like a potential target. For example, during the weeks the books were out of the schools, English teachers all over the county were scared to teach anything but grammar in case any work of literature, even Shakespeare, goaded some hotheads to bomb their buildings. 

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Late one Wednesday afternoon, someone threw three sticks of dynamite into a first-grade classroom at the Midway School in Campbell’s Creek. The teacher whose room was bombed had spent a decade collecting books and toys for kids whose families couldn’t afford them. Now, all that was destroyed. The room itself was littered with the debris from a waist-high partition-bookshelf that had been shat­tered by the blast. Hundreds of books were scattered on the floor. From the outside, all you could see was four shattered windows, the traces of some tables and chairs, a brightly lettered alphabet attached to the blackboard, and an American flag that still perched above the whole room. 

The Wet Bridge Elementary School in Cabin Creek, the most rural part of the sprawling county, is even more threatened than Midway. In October, someone tossed two sticks of dynamite into the building. The afternoon I visited it, just eight of 300 enrolled students showed up for classes. “Each day seems like it’s two million hours long,” said one teacher. 

One of the older teachers at the school has taught most of the parents of the boycotting children. The fact that they won’t trust her to use the books responsibly has robbed her of her self-confidence. In a community where hundreds of people are functionally illiterate, where they are ignorant of the rudiments of personal and sexual hygiene, she is now afraid to offend them by instructing them. 

“Soon we won’t be able to teach anything,” she says. “It’s as if those parents and ministers are staring over our shoulders, waiting to get us for saying anything that sounds immoral. I’m afraid that if this boycott ever ends, I won’t see the children as students. I’ll see them as spies in the classroom.”

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So We Are Two Nations…
I have rarely covered a story that left me feeling as emotionally conflicted as this one has. For it seems to me that some of the pro­-textbook people — the northern educators and bureaucrats who devised them, not the local people who adopted them — are involved in a kind of cultural imperialism. But some of the protestors, who may be able to gain control of the county through the courts, through elections, and through threats of violence, are capable of outright totalitarianism. 

I know that the people who designed the textbooks believe that the children of Fundamentalists (and, to a lesser extent, of the white working class in general) have to be freed from the narrow-minded influence of their parents in order to become functioning members of twenty-first century America. But is it ethical or prudent to confront them with textbooks they regard as blasphemous, to use their class­rooms as “testing grounds,” to train their teachers to be “change agents”? To me, that is, quite literally, a way of telling kids “we have to destroy your culture in order to save you.” I’ve interviewed some curriculum reformers and textbook authors, and it’s clear that they see the “creekers” in the same derisive terms H. L. Mencken used during the Scopes trial. They regard the objections of people like Alice Moore as problems to be dealt with, not opinions to be respected. 

Their intentions are probably benign, but isn’t their policy a fresh example of the arrogance of power? You can invite a person into your culture. But I don’t believe you can impose your culture on another person without risking unforseeable psychological harm.

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If the trip is voluntary, as Susan Bean’s was, then the person is likely to maintain a sense of identity and pride. But if it’s an imposed journey to a totally unknown destination — as it would be for many children in Kanawha County — then it could produce considerable psychological harm. It could set them adrift, with no reliable traditions, no moral compass, in an agnostic, post-linear, multicultural, multi­ethnic Space Age world which bas no connection at all to their familiar hollers.

You cannot outlaw, school prayer and still pretend that secular humanism — momentarily our national creed — does not carry its own deep assumptions about religion. Why not recognize that both attitudes are dogmas, and try to develop an educational system that’s flexible enough to furnish federal funds to schools that base their curriculum on theism as well as to those that base their curriculum on relativism? 

Most outside journalists who have come here to cover the textbook controversy have become fascinated by the relatively novel kinds of injustices I’ve been describing. As a result, many have tended to glorify the protestors a little, to explain their excesses by arguing that they are victims of a class struggle. But I think they are sentimentalizing a potentially dangerous movement. 

The last scene I witnessed in Charleston is the one that grates most painfully on my imagination. It was a protest rally the day after the textbooks were restored to the schools. It wasn’t in any of the rural churches or parks where the movement was nurtured, but in the cavernous c1v1c center, one of the most modern buildings in Charleston. 

The audience of 2,500 was in a fervent mood. Most of them wore large stickers which asserted “Jesus Wouldn’t Have Read Them.” As they sang “Amazing Grace,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and “God Bless America,” more than half of them swayed back and forth, waving their right hands in the air to show that they were born-again Christians. The podium was bathed in lights from the TV cameras. On the right side, a stern, trim youth held the American flag aloft through the two-hour program. On the left side, an equally rigid young man bore a Christian flag, with a silky white field and a blood-purple cross as its emblem. The flags, and their martial bearers, framed each speaker.

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The main speaker was the Rev. Marvin Horan, who is supposed to be one of the more moderate protest leaders — more moderate, say, than the Rev. Charles Quigley, who wore army fatigues that day and who’d shocked the county a few weeks earlier by issuing a public prayer that God would strike the pro-textbook school-board members dead.

As Horan spoke, his voice rolled with righteousness; the audience applauded nearly every sentence. He held a Bible in his right hand, two textbooks in his left and, shaking both arms angrily, he cried, “Which are we going to stand for, the word of God or the filth in these books?” Then he threatened his audience — “the Bible says not to use the Lord’s name in vain or the person who does so will not be held guiltless at the seat of judgment” — and read several blasphemous sentences from Catcher in the Rye, a text which he, at least, had clearly studied quite carefully. For he told his audience that “out of all this book, almost three hundred pages, there’s only twenty pages that don’t use the Lord’s name in vain.” Then, waving Catcher in the Rye aloft, he asked, “Do we surrender or do we fight?” 

Behind me someone yelled “burn ’em,” and hundreds of people began to applaud. 

Now Horan was talking about the importance of maintaining the school boycott. “The board of education may think we’re yellow, but our real colors are red, white, and blue … If we stand unified, we can rid Kanawha County of these filthy books and the people who put them there.” 

It wasn’t just platform rhetoric. Though the school boycott wasn’t nearly as successful as Horan had hoped, and the county became outwardly calm after another week of sporadic violence, the influence of the anti-textbook movement has spread to other states. The series of textbooks that started the controversy here has been rejected in Georgia and Texas. There are similar disputes in Virginia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Indiana. The League of Decency, an antipornography organization from California, attaches enough impor­tance to the fight here to let its chief spokesman. a former TV personality named Robert Dornan who’s paid $42,000 a year, spend most of his time in Charleston. 

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The school board’s decision to put most of the books back in the classrooms has been a Pyrrhic victory for the county’s liberals. Last week, the board adopted a set of guidelines — most of them proposed by Alice Moore — which would probably have caused this English series to be rejected if it had existed a year ago. From now on, Kanawha County textbooks can’t contain profanity; they can’t intrude on a student’s privacy by asking personal questions about his family or his inner feelings; they must encourage loyalty to the United States; they can’t defame any of America’s heroes; they must teach that traditional rules of grammar are essential for effective communications. 

It’s still possible that the English books will be withdrawn from the schools. Last week, some protesters filed a lawsuit charging that the adoption might have been illegal because the school board first voted for the books on April 11, instead of the state deadline of April 1. If that doesn’t reopen the issue, then the adoption of a new set of social studies textbooks, slated for next April, could kindle an even more disruptive set of skirmishes. 

Meanwhile, protestors from rural Kanawha County, which includes towns like Cabin Creek and Campbell’s Creek, are urging people in their region to secede from the rest of the county. 

Maybe the prominence of the Christian flag at Reverend Horan’s rally awakened my own tribal Jewish fears, but the experience left me deeply unsettled. The Reverend Horan, and the countless conservative Christians who identify with him, are absolutists. My question marks are sacred to me. Each attitude is a dogma, but the difference between them is vast. I would like to think that there is plenty of room for people like Marvin Horan in my America. But I don’t believe there’s room for me in his. ❖

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Legs McNeil: Teenage Hipster in the Modern World

Cool in an Uncool World

Two years ago, standing on a pier jutting into Delaware Bay, I told Legs McNeil, the “Resident Punk” of Punk Magazoon, the most moral thing I’ve yet said in my journalism career.

Legs and I were in Wilmington, Delaware, for the “First Annual Sleaze Convention.” Legs was the “Con Special Guest Star.” This owed to his then-inflating reputation for doing nothing much but drinking, eating in McDonald’s, watching television, and reading comic books. Those days Legs’s professed only goal in life was to sing the theme song from Eva Gabor’s TV show Green Acres before a packed house at Madison Square Garden. He had also been known to take an elevator to the top of the Empire State Building, look out on a perfectly clear city night, and say, “Wow, you can see Nathan’s from here.”

This was very impressive to the organizers of “Sleaze Con,” a group of Delaware weirdos who edited a magazine called the Daily Plague. Legs was the embodiment of sleaze, a true citizen of the Modern World. They treated Legs and me to an annotated tour of an all-night supermarket. All nine brands of pork rinds were identified and labeled. A boys’ choir sang recipes for “mock apple pie” off a box of Ritz crackers. Later, Richard Nixon sugar packets were passed around. It was all “random American rot,” the Sleaze Con people said.

Now Legs and I were waiting for Godzilla. There was some hope the great beast would raise his head above the electric green waters. After all, the entire state of Delaware is the personal playground of the Du Pont family, and the city of Wilmington puts up signs on Interstate 95 saying, WELCOME TO WILMINGTON, THE CHEMICAL CAPITAL Of THE WORLD. These factors seemed to produce a unique environment. Not long before Sleaze Con, the Wilmington city fathers paved over the decaying downtown streets where blacks hung out. Shiny malls full of potted oak trees and contemporary supergraphics were put in. The idea was to get white people to shop downtown, and that worked, but there was a problem. The development was overrun by Mall Monsters, a mutant strain of huge cockroaches. Supposedly swollen to an incredible girth by the concentration of test-tube runoff in the area, the giant bugs were the scourge of Wilmington’s urban renewal plans. Baskin-Robbins employees reportedly got plenty of overtime sweeping the roaches away with push brooms.

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Legs and I, both hypersensitive to the thickening rumble of the apocalypse, took the insects as a sign. Our sources had informed us that there was enough witch’s brew in the Delaware River to make a comfy home for any Oriental radiation monster that no longer got high off the atomic surf in the Sea of Japan. Legs and I felt that if we watched the water long enough, things would begin to cook. The air would get dank and expectant. The water would begin to crash against the hulls of supertankers. Soon the trumpeting ring of raging foam would begin to form. And then, there he’d be — ­Godzilla, sardonic and magnificent, the soul of the Modern World, the patron saint of the postatomic age. Just sitting there, staring at the smelly water, made Legs and me feel like Wise Men, searching the skies for the right bright object.

But Legs, with an attention span as long as a manic-depressive’s fingernail, got bored. He bought a six pack of Rolling Rock and drank it all, just the way he always did. Soon he was raving, screaming his usual shit about teenagers taking over the world. Shut up, I told him, yelling was spoiling the vigil. Fuck that, Legs said, he wasn’t waiting for Godzil­la, like some asshole in a play. He was taking matters into his own hands. Seconds later he jumped off the pier and disappeared into the murk. Next time l saw him was a minute lat­er. He had his spindle arms wrapped around a piling. Bright algae was smeared across his face so he looked like a messy kid eating a blue ice. After I helped him onto the dock, he looked at me with a desperate horror that had my socks going up and down. “I saw things down there,” he said. “I saw things, but I didn’t see him. I didn’t see Him.” Then Legs collapsed. I had to carry the jerk back to the Lord Della-Warr Motel, the hooker­-infested joint where we were staying. It was then, as I recall it, with Legs over my shoulder like a harpooned carp, his spittle dripping on the back of my knee, that I said my most moral thing. I said, “Legs, you asshole. I am not doing this story on you. I am not taking the responsibility for making you famous.”

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Teengenerate

It wasn’t until later that night, only after he had rolled out of bed, located a Sleaze-Con groupie, taken her back to the motel, and was interrupted fucking by members of the Blondie band who broke into his room and threw ice cubes on his kitty back, did Legs get the gist of my meaning. Those days I was working in the Felkerian salt mines for New York  magazine. The Felk, frothing to finger still another trend, sent me to “identi­fy” punk, the crest of which was then beginning to media crash. Legs liked the idea of New York magazine, he thought it was toney.

Back then Legs was devoting most of his ferret energy to becoming “famous.” He used to crawl around the beer­-dripped floor of CBGB, biting people on the calf. When they looked down, Legs would be there with a shit-eating grin on his face. “Hi, I’m famous,” he’d say, and scurry away. After the Godzilla incident, however, Legs and I weren’t so tight. He’d see me on the Bowery and shout, “There goes the guy who didn’t want to take the responsibility for making me famous.”

Legs will never believe it, but I held off for love, because there’s something about Legs McNeil I really love. I used to think that someday I’d write a novel with Legs as the leading character, and the book would contain everything I know about living in the Modern World. Legs’s character would be similar to the one Ray Milland plays in the Roger Corman film X — The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. In that movie Milland is a doctor who discovers a special serum that enables him to see “what others cannot see.” In the beginning Milland has fun. He cheats at cards and looks through blouses. But eventually he sees too much. He sees the center of the universe, the driving force of the galaxy. “No one,” he says, “should see so much.” The last scene in the film takes place at a revival meeting. The harrowed and half-crazed Milland tells his problem to the brimstone preacher, who says, “If thy eye offends you, pluck it out.” Milland does.

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Talking to Legs has always given me the ghostly feeling of being with someone who knows too much for his own good. In Legs’s case, it is knowing too much about the true horror of his generation. That, as it turns out, is a road to madness.

Legs could have avoided this if he didn’t have such a crazy desire to be cool. Legs has got to be cool, or Legs isn’t anything at all. Once Punk ran a contest asking readers to write in why they were punks. The best reply came from somewheres in Queens. It said, “I’m a punk because I’m cool and I ain’t got nothing to show for it.”

That was Legs. He grew up in Cheshire, Connecticut, a suburban town that has DENTIST written all over it. The streets in Cheshire are neat and Waspy. The kids go to college and have fathers like Jim Anderson. Legs’s life, however, did not follow that pattern. He lived across the railroad from the manicured lawns, in the hollow of swamp bog. His father died of cancer when he was two months old. Before that, his grandfather blew his head off in the family chicken house, and his grandmother committed herself to a mental institution. Throughout his childhood Legs always asked his mother where his father was and why his grandmother’s house had bars. His mother worked as a secretary to make sure the McNeils would always have a home in Cheshire. But they never really belonged there. Legs’s face tells you that. It is a shanty-­Irish face, the kind that rides a forklift in Fall River, Massachusetts. But Legs wasn’t born for the treadmill. He felt a tiny artist’s pitter-pat in his cholesterol-influxing heart and wanted desperately to have something to show for being cool.

To Legs, teenagers were the coolest. All the Archie comics he read and TV he watched in Cheshire told him that. He saw how the big kids drove cars and took chicks to the Fillmore blasted out of their gourd. He figured that must be what cool is. But by the time Legs got to be a teenager, in the early 1970s, everyone was telling him he was too late. All the cool stuff was over. The Summer of Love, acid, battling the government, splitting for the Coast, none of that was left.

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Legs couldn’t believe it. Waiting all this time to be cool and getting gotz. There had to be something to break him out of Cheshire, something cool to call his own. The radio and everything else were still jammed up with the flotsam and jetsam of another generation. Crosby, Stills, and Nash, my asshole — Legs knew a burnt-out case when he heard one. He tried glitter rock, but he couldn’t make his butt fit the French cut.  And everywhere they were talking about how this new batch of youth had the “new seriousness”; how kids today only wanted to get good grades and be corporation lawyers. No doubt, Legs thought, these have got to be the uncoolest times ever to come down the pike.

Desperate, Legs dommied up in his room overlooking the swamp and proceeded to go into one of the longest wigstretches on rec­ord. II ow could a cool person be cool in an uncool time? It was a skull buster and Legs schemed far and wide. He went out into the stratosphere, the zoneospbere, the goneos­phere, and the way-goneosphere. When he came back and dug what he had brought back with him, it knocked him under the bed covers for another two weeks. Cool, Legs psyched out, is an arbitrary thing. Anything could be cool if you say it is. Hitler said hating Jews was cool, so the German teenagers said, hey, lets stop painting our toenails and go hate some Jews, it’s cool. That nugget buzzshotted Legs’s gray curls. So he stayed home another week and spun out another mess. He furthermored, it wasn’t so much the things you thought were cool that made you cool, it was the feeling of being cool — ­when you know you’re cool — that really made you cool.

This month-long head session gave the teenage McNeil a blueprint for action. In­stead of apologizing for being born too  late, Legs railed against his smug ’60s-loving eld­ers. “What do you love?” he demanded. “Pot, long guitar solos, battling the govern­ment, wearing bright colors, being mellow? … Well, I hate all that. All that sucks and is uncool.”

“And what do you hate?” Legs went on. “Television, burgers, drinking, violent beha­vior? … Well, I love all of that. I declare these things to be mine. I appoint liking Ho­gan’s Heroes and McDonald’s to be cool. I love America, too. I love everything about Modern America, the long freeways, the whole bit. Any country that produced Eddie Haskell has to be cool.”

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Legs’s coolness cosmology was, of course, total reaction. But anyone without his brains buried on the Upper West Side has to realize the necessity and logic of it. I mean, the kids have to dance. But who would have figured Legs’s coolness would turn out to be brave? By deciding the Modern World was his Godhead, Legs decreed that, in order to be cool one had to be hip to how to live in such a contemporary landscape. It was a task an entire generation had called impossible, choosing instead to label the Modern World “plastic” and cuddle themselves in the fantasies of “going back to the land.” Legs had picked a rough road to ride. But at least it was convenient. To be cool, Legs wouldn’t have to go to Mexico and get the runs under a volcano. Nor would he have to give pennies to belly-swelled babies in Calcutta. Legs grew up in Cheshire, Connecticut. His muse was all around him, inside and out.

It didn’t take Legs long to realize there were other disgruntled, would be cool teenagers who shared his search for the hip. There was John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn, his buddies from Cheshire. They wanted to be cool, too, albeit without Legs’s manic desperation. Better adjusted to the middle class, they dug Legs because he did reckless things like talk the local high school into giving him money to make a class film and then get expelled for spending all the bread drinking. One night, when the three friends were driving down the Wilbur Cross Parkway with nothing to do, Legs grabbed the wheel, swerved the car across three lanes of traffic, and drove it into a ditch. Then he jumped into the back seat, stuck his nose into the crease, and started whimpering about how he was having a “coolness freakout.” He needed an outlet for his coolness or he’d commit suicide.

To save Legs’s life, Holmstrom and Dunn decided to move to New York and start a magazine. At first Holmstrom wanted to call the mag Teenage News because they were only interested in teenage issues. But it was eventually changed to Punk because Legs was a big fan of a Dictators song, “Weekend.” It goes: “Eddie [Legs’s real name, sort of — his actual name is Roderick Edwin McNeil. He took Legs because he loves Ray Danton] is the local punk / throwing up and getting drunk/ eating in McDonald’s for lunch.” Dunn, a budding capitalist who compared Punk‘s mimeograph machine to a Carl Sandburg steel mill, became the publisher. Holmstrom, a genius cartoonist, and Harvey Kurtzman disciple, made himself editor. Legs, however, couldn’t figure out what to call himself. He couldn’t draw and had no head for business. Finally he decided on “Resident Punk,” a combination “secret agent”/ Alfred E. Newman title calculated to make him a legend by age 19.

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At last, Legs was cool. It was mid-1975, the beginning of the CBGB punk emergence that Punk would help turn into a national media phenomenon. Legs was key on the scene. Any night you could see him standing in front of CBGB, a loose cigarette hanging from his lower lip, two punkette groupies on either arm of his leather jacket — the one with the rips under both armpits — cutting a wicked figure.

Those days Legs’s brain cooked like a burning idea factory. On the Bowery he met other suburban kids who had suffered the uncertainty of cool through their early teenage years. Kids who had also racked their brains for an answer to the question: How to be cool in an uncool time. Many of them, like the Ramones, the members of Blondie, and the Dictators, had come to the same conclusions as Legs and thrown themselves headlong into study of the Modern World. Legs spent those early CBGB nights discoursing on Bullwinkle Moose and TV commercials with Joey Ramone. To Legs, these conversations had the momentous freshness of Mao and Chou revealing their similar passions for ideas by the light of one candle in a cave.

One night Legs found out that he, Joey, and two members of Blondie had all had the same dream. They dreamed of Monty Hall saying, “Well, would you trade your life for what’s behind that curtain?” After that, Legs knew that his generation, the first ever to grow up completely within the Modern Age, had acquired a huge collective subconscious. The power and vastness of this concept made Legs burst with creativity. Often he would sit in the back of CBGB, listening to the Talking Heads sing “Don’t Worry about the Government” and make up his “Famous Persons” interviews for Punk. Legs did straight Q-and-As with “personalities” like Boris and Natasha and the cast of Gilligan’s Island. He treated people like Carl Betz as if they were real. Which they were, to Legs. Once he said “I am exploring an alternative environment. It’s love a world like ours, but not quite. It’d the kind of place you could wake tomorrow and think you’re home but actually you’d be just part of the boot heel of some asshole in another galaxy.”

I remember the day Milton Glaser came by my desk and picked up an issue of Punk. He thumbed through it, looking at the hand-printed features (it was Holmstrom’s master stroke that made Punk the best magazine of neo-literate times — he made the whole thing look like a comic book; that way he could print the theory of relativity and kids would read it), the illustrated interviews with Lou Reed, Legs’s craziness. Glaser sat down, visibly shaken. “These guys could put me out of business,” he said. If Punk worried Milton Glaser, I knew here was something big.

This was the beginning of my appreciation of punk as a spectacularly American way of cool. How fabulous to have something new to dig after years of mealy-mouthed postmortems in Berkeley. All that baloney by drones like Norman Plodmorris about the essence of the 1970s and here it really was. I loved that the Ramones’ first record was made in 18 hours and cost only $6000. Figures like that cut away the flab of indecision. So did the music. The Ramones song “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around with You,” which has the lyrics, “I don’t wanna walk around with you/ I don’t wanna walk around with you/ so why you wanna walk around with me?” boiled away any other, superfluous ideas I had about high school cool. It was all I needed to know about adolescence in general. It was as if the Ramones, none of whom were named Ramone, were saying to the dull sixties establishment: “See, we can express ourselves fast, cheap, and good. We’ll tell you about our own experience as teenagers, and it will be real.”

The hipness of this idea pulled my coat no end. Like Legs said, “We don’t care what no one says. Sure, things are supposed to be shit now. But, fuck it. We’re here and we’re gonna have our fun. We’re gonna be cool.” The audaciousness was super; Legs and his buddies were reinventing cool before my eyes. They were accepting the crap of the Modern World, all that mind rot, and they were celebrating it, not protesting against it. What a brilliantly existential decision! How modernistic a concept!

I thought back to all the philosophizing I’d once read about what was hip and what was not. And dredged up an old quote from Norman Mailer. Big Norm said, “For Hip is sophistication of the wise primitive in a giant jungle … ” Who else was Legs? This described him and his fellow punks to a T.

It was early 1976, the Five Spot, where so much bop was played, had just closed for the last time. It was replaced by a clothing store called the Late Show, which catered mostly to the CBGB crowd and played Ramones records constantly over its booming speaker set. I made this a sign. And envisioned a whole generation of hipsters lurking along the Bowery in black leather jackets. A collection of wise primitives making incisive comments about a culture nobody even wanted to admit existed. To me, it was very moving.

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Legs McNeil and the Obsolescence of the White Negro Theory

Legs became the spokesman, such as it was, for this new generation of hipsters, partially by default, since most of the band members were into catatonia, and partially due to his zeal for self-promotion. Legs would sit under the Fonz poster in the “Punk dump,” the storefront “office” he, Holmstrom, and Dunn kept underneath the approach ramp to the LincolFcarlinn Tunnel, and pontificate for the pop-culture reporters. About hippies he said, “A bunch of yin wimps. Woodstock was a hip capital pajama party.” About glitter rock, he said, “Homosexuality shouldn’t be pushed on 15-old kids.” About the future of visual expression, he said, “I think movies should only be thirty minutes long and be in black and white. Kids don’t have the concentration for more.” About himself, he said, “Every time I look in the mirror it’s like watching a home movie.”

One of the classic Legs McNeil interviews appeared as part of an August 1976 Voice article by Frank Rose. Rose was trying to decipher punk’s effect on the supposedly large issue of “butch,” a term Frank described as “self-conscious masculinity.”

At the time, Legs was on a search-and-destroy mission against disco, which Punk had described in an editorial as the source of “everything wrong with Western civilization.” Legs said disco was the creation of synthesizers, a fact he claimed left the limp shit devoid of human energy and turned listeners into “zombies.” Disco, Legs asserted, was an uncool Communistic plot invented by jaded grown-ups to rob teenagers of their naivete. But more interesting and inflammatory was Legs’s conjecture that disco was the product of an unholy alliance between blacks and gays. Neither of these groups was currently in favor with Legs, and he routinely called them niggers and faggots. If Legs was the next big thing, as Lester Bangs and others suggested, then Rose was worried about this.

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Rose’s story had Legs saying all kinds of apparently reactionary and reckless things like, “Punks are normal people, that’s what we are, normal. We’re not a bunch of perverts” … “Punks are like — the guys know they’re guys and the chicks know they’re chicks” … “David Bowie is really sick. He’s such a faggot” … Also, about blacks, he said, “We’re not really racist …. We’re just into our own thing. It’s like saying to Italians [why don’t you like] Polacks?”

Rose concluded, not incorrectly, or surprisingly, considering the evidence he was given, that Legs was a blue­-collar poseur who saw life as “giant high school.” Legs’s racism and gay-baiting, portrayed as borrowed from Irish bars in Ridgewood, were simply attitudes to fill in the image of a man’s man. This seemed true enough on the surface, but I couldn’t help feeling that in Rose’s rush to tenderly put Legs and his punk crew down as still another potentially brutish terror a gay man in New York has to contend with, Frank had taken McNeil’s quotes far too seriously.

I thought back to a night at the 82 Club. The Dictators were playing. Punk had run a “Punk of the month” contest. Readers were asked to send in pictures of themselves proving they were more punky than anyone else. One Ronald Binder won three months in a row. He sent in low-angle pictures of himself eating chains. Sent telegrams threatening to blow up the Punk camp if he didn’t win. Holmstrom said, “Wow, we got to give it to this guy. He’ll kill us if we don’t.” Still, no one had ever seen Ronald Binder in the flesh. Until that night at the 82. Binder came over to Holmstrom and said, “Hi, I’m the punk of the month.” One look was enough. Binder was maybe five feet tall, he weighed plenty. He looked completely harmless. Holmstrom was beside himself. “My God,” he said. “I thought you ate dead babies for breakfast … This is terrible. Don’t tell anyone who you are, you’ll make us look bad.”

Binder seemed hurt by Holmstrom’s abuse. He went off in a corner and hung his head by the 82’s Ukrainian wallpaper. He stayed there until Legs, who had seen the whole confrontation, came over and said, “Don’t let it get you down. I’m a fake, too.”

This was no surprise. Self-mockery has always been Legs’s meat. He wore his leather jacket as a cocoon of fakery. He was to a real street punk as Goldberg’s is to a pizza pie: a witty but not particularly faithful parody. Legs has never been tough at all. He weighs about 110 pounds. He couldn’t break his own nose. As a macho aggressive, he’s never been confused with a tiger fighting for his mate. That, of course, was the whole joke, the ironic core of the coolness.

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But this didn’t make Legs a clown. To me, his self-mockery recalled the way Thelonious Monk plays the piano or Earl Monroe dribbles the basketball. With those two there has always been a tension between the dead seriousness of technique and the ironical understanding that in the scope of the universe all those hours developing a style like no one else might mean nothing. They could drop a bomb on you. You could get hit by a truck. The only sane way to deal with this looming spectre of random destruction was to have a sense of humor about yourself.

This, I figured, was the key to Legs. No matter how ardently he argued his perceptions about the world, he didn’t want to be held to them. For him, proselytizing was technique, but none of it was hard and fast. It was Legs’s hipster nature, I thought.

But it also caused problems. If Legs was a hipster, and CBGB a hipster scene, where were the blacks? I can’t remember seeing more than three or four black in any CBGB crowd. Not one punk-rock band has been dominated by black musicians. No CBGB band even seems to borrow firsthand from traditional R&B or blues sources. The only noticeable influence down at CBG are the fall-down guys who drift over from the Men’s Shelter. This, coupled with Legs’s remarks about how “blacks have their culture and we have ours,” seemed to contradict everything I know about white hipsters.

Everything I know about white hipsters, theoretical-wise, comes from Big Norman’s famous essay, The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster. And I knew I’d have to go to the woodshed with Mailer if I wanted some enlightenment on this Legs puzzlement. Written in 1957, Norm’s essay says the hipster was a man who realized “our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war.” This fact was particularly distressing to white men ticketed for two cars in the garage and a neat hedge around the lawn. With the threat of death haunting every moment, middle-class striving seemed a waste of time. According to Mailer, the only sane thing to do was “to encourage the psychopath in one’s self, to explore that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness, and one exists in the present, in that enormous present which is without past or future, memory of planned intention, the life where a man must go until he is beat … ”

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This road, especially for the passel of Brooklyn-Queens Jews and Texas gays who felt compelled to take it, was totally uncharted. A guide was needed, and in the Negro these searching whites found one. Spades had been living with the knowledge that they could be wiped out at any given moment for 350 years. Mailer called this “living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy.” He also said the blacks had produced an entire culture based upon living on the edge. They traveled light, spoke a secret and flexible language, gambled, and wore orange pants with green shirts. It was living on the brink, but their constant state of “psychopathy” had also produced the wondrous jazz, the perfect “orgasm” of brinksmanship.

Hipsters, or whites who recognized the descending sword for what it was, understood and dug the brilliance of the blacks’ achievement. “So,” says Big Norman, “there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night, looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existential synapses of the Negro and, for all practical purposes, could be considered a White Negro.

I was a White Negro for the better part of my consciously hip life. Probably still am. I worked as a porter at the Port Authority Bus Terminal so I could do a black man’s job. I began smoking Pall Malls because the blacks did. Along with my other White Negro friends, I lived at the Brittany Hotel on 10th Street. When Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf brought their blues band to stay at the Albert, we supplied them with smoke.

We hung around with as many jazzmen as would have us. Major Holley, who played bass with Roland Kirk occasionally back then, was our buddy. He knew we were just another bunch of hopeless Queens Mezz Mezzrows looking for a taste of the millennium, but he was sweet and let us play our game. In return we would sit ringside at the Five Spot and, when Holley soloed, we’d shout, “Major, you so fucking good, they ought to make you a general.” Once, the Major must have been bugged because he put down his bass during a Jazz Interactions concert, went to the microphone, and said, “Damn, I am all tuckered out. So let’s meet and greet Jake the Snake, who will provide us with some meal ticket in the meantime.”

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I didn’t want to go onstage, I had never even held a bass before. But my buddies pushed me to it. I picked up the big momma and plucked it a couple of times. Then Roland Kirk turned to me. With the cigarette smoke around his beret like gauze, three fat horns stuck in his mouth, and wraparound sunglasses across his blind eyes, Kirk was a vision of boogie hell. But it was okay. He said, “Shit, sounds black to me.”

This, I have always felt, was one of the crowning moments of my life. But Legs would not buy it. Explaining why spades were cool and worth imitating was a pointless conversation to have with Legs. As pointless as trying to explain why Dylan going electric was important, as pointless as explaining why getting arrested at People’s Park was both useless and consummate at the same time. Legs simply refused to comprehend why my generation of hipsters dug blacks. He would not even accept such seemingly irrefutable black-coolness raps as George Carlin’s schoolyard scene. Carlin said put a bunch of white kids and a bunch of black kids together and after a week the whites will be talking like the blacks. But none of the blacks would be saying, “Golly, gee, we won the big game.”

To Legs, blacks were mostly on the radio, making the rotten disco music he hated, or in the first three pages of the Daily News sticking 9mm guns into people’s chests. He said he had “no guilt.” The only other thing he’d say about blacks involved a bizarre theory about why listening to their music was so repugnant to him. He said that because of “racism, or whatever,” most blacks didn’t get on the radio until they were 30 or 40, so they always sang about 30- and 40-year-old concerns. He said this was alien to him. If all blacks were teenagers, like the Jackson Five, singing “like A­ B-C, One-Two-Three,” that would be all right with him. Otherwise, blacks didn’t interest him in the least.

This troubled me. Racism, or whatever, is understandable, even poetic, in the mouth of a blue-collar worker or a southern sheriff — it’s an integral part of their worldview. But this attitude of racial indifference coming from a hipster hit a discord. If Legs McNeil were a hipster and he didn’t think blacks were cool, my universe was about to go into a tilt.

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Actually, I had been busting my brain with certain notions about the apparent de-emphasis of blacks in the Hip and Square cultures respectively for some time.

Mailer’s essay was better than a nice sum-up of ’50s attitudes. He predicted the ’60s, too. Norm drones on in The White Negro about hipsters relentlessly seeking their “orgasm,” which I have always taken to mean the sexual­-emotional act or state that would give meaning to their “psychopathic” position on the edge between oblivion and the security of the middle class. For me — and I assume this is true for most White Negroes of my generation — the entire ’60s experience was an “orgasm.” After all, what were hippies if not white kids acting like spades? It horrified me when sign-wavers chanted about “student as nigger” and the rest of that. But there was a basic truth to it. We were smoking dope, being casual about sex, pretending poverty so we might be niggers.

Blacks, not surprisingly, were aghast at this national insanity. They might hang around Hippie Hill for some white pussy, but they had to be wondering why people with money were trying to act like niggers. Once, when I thought I was a dope dealer, I got ripped off in a Stanyan Street apartment by a black guy. I was supposed to pick up 10 keys of Michoacan from the guy. But as soon as I got into the room, he stuck a gun in my ear and took the $750 my friends gave me. He tied me up so I wouldn’t “even think” about following him and put a Jimi Hendrix record on the box. Then he looked at me, like this is just too easy, shook his head in sympathy, and said, “You know, I just don’t understand you people. Don’t you know this is dangerous?” Then he split. A few minutes later a paste-white chick with drugged eyes and matted hair came out from behind an Indian-print curtain. She squinted into the red light bulb, said it was cold, and lit the stove. After she untied me, she said, “Doug is really a dynamite guy, he just gets wild sometimes.”

I don’t know what I was expecting: to sit down with the ghetto guys, talk about the impending shadow of night, and have them say, “Hey, we’re all in the same boat, welcome aboard”? It was never going to happen. Knowing handshakes and slick words didn’t make you cool. Besides, the “psychopathy” in the blacks that we admired was not calculated to produce white-man-lovers or even very nice guys. You could dig their orgasm, feeling passionately about the plight that made them crazy men, but you had to be wise. Wise that getting next to them was like cutting your own throat.

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Also, sometime in the early ’70s, blacks began doing things that might be considered uncool. Their horrendous affectations of the worst parts of the hippie movement were embarrassing, no lie. Talk of astrology and wearing medallions didn’t fit the image of the existential hero. What were the Temptations doing singing about “Psychedelic Shacks”? I felt like grabbing black kids with Robert Indiana LOVE pins stuck to their double knits and saying, “Don’t do it. Don’t go down that road. It’s shit. I know.” This was distressing. Blacks acting crazy, like psychopaths, made sense: being black drove you crazy. But blacks acting dumb was another thing; these were the people who were supposed to understand the secret of the 20th century.

It didn’t take long to figure out what was happening. When you have Diana Ross playing Billie Holiday in a movie made by blacks, when a WBLS destroys WWRL in the ratings, when macho singers get pushed out of the foreground by violin strings, it’s pretty clear. The Nat King Cole element of black culture is overrunning the James Brown segment. Black culture is redefining itself in a middle-class mode. This, of course, is the blacks’ right as Americans. In this country all immigrants — even ones who were brought here in chains — are allowed to become consumers.

But this produced a serious dilemma for White Negroes. If ghetto blacks were simply too dangerous to deal with, the middle-class ones, with their “crossover” concerns, were no longer compelling. George Jefferson wants the same things as my parents; his cleaning lady steals, too. This is not acceptable. It brings to mind the old hipster saw about blacks with seemingly white values: “What an Oreo. He’s not a spade at all.”

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Doing a little cultural cross-referencing, I dug that so-called “Squares” had also made a shift on black people. During the civil rights time in the ’60s, when the closet Commies and liberal types still had pull in showbiz, media blacks pretty much got the Eleanor Roosevelt treatment. Between them, Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones produced more guilt through dignity than a million Jewish mothers could through nagging. But now, it’s almost as if the guilt-exorcising Squares are saying, “Well, we gave these guys their chance. We highlighted their struggle. What did they do? Gave us Rap Brown, the ungrateful loudmouth, and mugged our grandmothers.”

Therein, I think, is the basis for the elevation of the Italian-­American in the mass media. With a self-propelled reputation for toughness and the supposed ability to call their Uncle Vinnie at the drop of a confrontation, Italians are perceived by black-fearing Squares (as well as black-fearing hipsters) as the only group of whites capable of fending off the onrush of “them.” How many times have you heard the joke, “Well, I guess this is a safe neighborhood” while walking by Bella Ferrara? If you’re dumb, that means Italians don’t like “yoms” much and are willing to fight them on their own physical terms. Blacks know this, and they also know Italians are some cold-blooded motherfuckers (what they didn’t know they saw in the Godfather movies, which were big in the black ghettos), so they stay away. This set of pseudo-facts is so ingrained in the public consciousness, it is no surprise that many of the TV cops — Baretta, Petrocelli, Delvecchio, and Columbo — are some have-been Italians. Who else can be depended on to keep the blacks in their place?

To facilitate this myth-making, the media moguls have imbued Italians with much of the “soul” that used to be the exclusive property of blacks. This is quite clear in the seminal work of revisionist racial theory, Rocky. You’ve got to figure Stallone knew what he was doing, I make him that cynical. He portrays Rocky as a guileless but lovable blue-collar plodder who has an indomitable spirit. The major black characters, the champ and the female TV reporter who interviews Rocky, are both seen as slick, hollow hustlers. Stallone’s attitude toward blacks is similar to that of Americans toward Commies in the fifties: they’re smarter and sneakier than us, so we have to stick together and be pure of heart.

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A White Negro, even a disillusioned White Negro, watching the meat-packing scene in which noble-savage Stallone pleads to the middle-class black reporter, “Just don’t take no cheap shot, please,” is stunned by the manipulation of racial images since the ’60s. It is almost as if whites have been given the message: You don’t have to pretend to like “them” anymore. Now, to whites, blacks are either the faceless unmentionable or just another creep trying to take your job. Either way they are better off forgotten.

Eyeballing all this, Legs’s indifference to spades was more understandable. Legs is a hipster who takes his input from Square sources. If TV tells him Italians are cool, he may adopt their way of saying “fuck you” — a short, blunt blast as opposed to the sultry, many-syllabled “fuck you motherfucker” of the blacks — but he’s not taking the whole thing. Catholics are far too earnest for a hipster like Legs; that’s what he’s trying to get away from.

But blacks have never even entered his mind as a role model. How could he dig jazz when the radio no longer plays jazz? Blacks had essentially been wiped out as a compelling cultural force before Legs ever got a chance to appreciate them.

But the more I dug, the more I realized blacks would have been irrelevant to a ’70s hipster like Legs anyway. The old White Negro looked to the blacks to lead him through a landscape that was in the midst of total change, due to the introduction of the atomic bomb. That was 25 years ago, when the apocalypse was a new idea and truly existed as a meaningful force only in the minds of a few “urban adventurers.” America still operated by pre-atomic rules. Buildings were still made out of bricks; people still read books, ate in real restaurants, and had families.

Now, of course, much of the above is gone. America has adjusted in profound ways to the spectre of the apocalypse. Now we have throwaway television, throwaway burgers, throwaway housing. None of it has the permanency of the pants your mother bought an inch too long so they’d fit next year. The society has caught up to Hiroshima. We are living, as Legs and I learned at the Sleaze Convention, in a fully fleshed-out post-atomic world. Everything we touch, eat, and see has the singe of doom on it. So Legs doesn’t need anyone to tell him secrets; he knows the score in this world as well as anyone. He needs no guide; he’s on his own.

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Orgasm, Where Is the Orgasm?

Today, two years after we waited for Godzilla and I declined the responsibility for making him famous, Legs McNeil is in my kitchen, telling a tape recorder why the teenagers did not take over the world. 1977, Legs says, was a terrible year. Punk almost went broke. John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn battled. Holmstrom claimed Dunn’s grandiose ambitions to make Punk another Rolling Stone within a year overextended the magazine’s meager resources. Legs figured John was the talent and Ged was the business, and in that case you got to go with the talent, but it hurt him to have to make the choice.

Also, the CBGB rock scene had disintegrated before Legs’s eyes. Many of the first-generation bands, the ones Legs thought spoke for him — Talking Heads, Ramones, Blondie, and the Dictators — got recording contracts and went away on tour. Legs was all for that. Hipster punks knew that the popular culture created them. And they were determined to do something — anything — to make their mark on it. The bands, Legs and Holmstrom figured, were the best bet to express “teenage” obsessions. The media never seems to outgrow its need for rock and roll. Sooner or later, Legs thought, the punk bands had to become the next big thing.

But once Joey Ramone and Chris Stein went out of town, Legs had no one to discuss Jerry Paris with. His fellow hipsters were disappearing. Everyone cool seemed to be. Who else but Handsome Dick Manitoba would go around blustering about how he could break Buddy (Nature Boy) Rogers’s figure-four leg vine and then get himself flattened by a drag queen like Wayne County? What a punk. But now he wasn’t around. The punk bands were diving into the nexus of the popular culture they worshiped like the sun, hardly ever to bubble up above the Hot Hundred again.

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Those who came to replace them were a drag. Legs hated the British punks. They came humorless, snarling the same anti-establishment rant of the Animals a dozen years before. Don’t things ever change in England, Legs wondered. The youth is always discontented. They always hate the government and punch each other about soccer. Rockers aren’t supposed to care about sports, especially soccer. The Brits also brought bleached hair and a pile of punk paraphernalia. Legs saw what was happening. Punk was becoming a movement of mindless followers. Anyone who stuck a safety pin in his nose could be a punk.

This offended Legs’s hipster nature. He never really quite decided whether he wanted punk to turn into a ’60s-style movement or not. But now he’d be sitting with Joey Ramone, and some Westchester kid would come and say, “Hey, you’re Joey Ramone. Hey, I’m a punk, too. I got a band. We cut up our cocks onstage.” Then Joey would make with his Martian reflex and say, “Why do you do that?” The kid would say, “Because I’m a punk.” And Legs would know that Hip cannot be a movement. Because if Hip is a movement and everyone’s the same, that’s not cool. Like Big Norman said so long ago, ” … and, indeed, it is essential to dig the most, for if you do dig, you lose your superiority over the Square, and you are less likely to be cool … ”

Legs understood coolness isn’t something that comes easy. His cool had been achieved through spiritual agony, which led him to the basic precepts about how to be hip in post­atomic America. The Brits’ egalitarianism was all wrong. First of all, they knew nothing about America. They didn’t watch the same shows, they ate weird things. And in their knee-jerk rebellion they offered a bunch of asshole kids who did nothing to try to deal with their existential place in the universe a chance to be as cool as Legs. Now Legs says, “I hate this punk thing these days. The kids at CBGB aren’t cool. They don’t have any opinions about anything. They just sit around saying, This place sucks,’ This place is beat.’ They all smoke pot and wear stupid clothes. It’s just like the fucking hippies. Just like them.”

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The anguish Legs McNeil suffered being the “Resident Punk” of a movement he had come to hate — no man knows. But he did the only thing he felt he could do: He threw himself headlong into the job as a protest. He drank more, offered more diatribes about the foul influence of faggots, and directed manifestos at the invading British. Weeks went by “out of control.” The drinking ravaged his already beleaguered liver. He slept at a different frumpy “groupie’s” house every night. Their names he did not remember. In his haggard look and dedication to the task at hand, Legs reminded one of the lead character in Diary of a Country Priest. One time, while a French reporter was asking him to compare the Three Stooges with Laurel and Hardy, Legs spewed forth a three-foot curtain of blood and phlegm.

From everywhere, uncool people who didn’t get the joke besieged him. Once, a burly idiot from Ohio wielding a pearl­handled switchblade came into CBGB looking to dethrone Legs as “Resident Punk.” Legs had to hide in Phebe’s among the off-off Broadway failures. It appeared that Legs would soon fulfill John Holmstrom’s blithe and oft-repeated prophecy: “Legs has to die young. Look at his eyes. Can’t you see it? That’s what makes him so romantic.”

One week Legs’s older brother, a hot-dog ski pro who Legs always thought was as cool as James Bond, came to town. The brother took one look at Legs and asked Holmstrom, “What’s wrong with my brother?” John, who had been trying to get Legs to eat something for weeks, said, “I don’t know, I think he’s going crazy.” The brother said something had to be done. According to Legs, “One minute I was upstairs, drinking. They called me down. An hour later I was on my way to the nuthouse. It happened just like that. They didn’t commit me. I signed the papers myself. But they said it wouldn’t be too good for me if I didn’t. After all, I knew they could get everyone in this city as a character witness against me.”

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Legs was in the bughouse only for a month or so, but that was long enough for his roommate to kill himself. Every day the doctors dragged Legs to “creative” encounter sessions. He could hardly keep from cracking up every time one of the fright-wig ladies in the white smocks read their poems, usually about “the beauty of fucking nature or how they wanted to kill their mothers.” Legs read no poems, but the doctors loved him. “They really thought I was an interesting case,” Legs says. “They wanted to keep me there forever. They said I had a unique outlook on life. They kept poking me, wanting to know why I thought everything was so funny.”

Legs signed himself out. Staying there wouldn’t have done anybody any good, he says. The doctors didn’t understand a word he was saying. Actually, the shrinks should have saved their breath. Big Norman said 20 years ago a “psychopath” hipster makes a bad mental patient because he is “ordinately ambitious — too ambitious ever to trade his warped brilliant conception of his possible victories in life for the grim if peaceful attrition of the analyst’s couch.” Big Norm, of course, knows what Legs’s problem is: He ain’t come.

Norm says, “Orgasm is his [the hipster’s] therapy.” And it takes a hipster from the ’60s, whose orgasm did come, over and over for three Tantric years, to dig the sadness of Legs’s coital interruptus. Who knows why Legs’s brand of punk failed to sustain itself as a meaningful hipster force? Probably the punk-hipster vision was too intellectual for most modern teenagers to relate to. Instead of offering the solid psychology of broadside rebellion against parents, legs advocated the elusive psychopathy of dealing with the fearsome swell of Modern America by celebrating it. This is a difficult and ultimately unhappy way to think. Especially for someone as bright as Legs. For him, saying Modern America is great is just more of the joke. But it’s hard to keep laughing when you walk into a supermarket and hear the clerk singing “You Deserve a Break Today” and you know that the McDonald’s jingle is the only song in the whole world he knows the lyrics to.

That’s why I guess I didn’t want the responsibility for making Legs famous. I must have sensed defeat back on the dock waiting for Godzilla. But if Legs and his buddies are the direct descendants of me and my pre-hippie friends, we can sympathize with the bad hand the Bowery Boys drew. They really should have had the spades to show the way. They really were born too late.

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Now Legs is “Resident Punk” in name only. These days Punk comes out infrequently at best, and Legs is talking about moving on. So many things have changed in two years, Legs says with a beer-sodden nostalgia you expect from someone who carried the hippie coffin down Haight Street. “l don’t even want to be famous anymore,” Legs says. “I mean, being famous is neat and all, but I wasn’t making no money. It’s dumb to be famous without something to show for it. That’s why I hate People magazine. Those people are famous for doing stupid things. Now I only want to be famous for doing cool things. That’s what I want to do, cool things.”

Legs’s current cool thing is a band, Shrapnel. He manages them and is their “spiritual leader.” The association began when Legs was in the bughouse. The Shrapnels, five teenage rock and rollers from Red Bank, New Jersey, then calling themselves the Hard Attacks, had read Legs’s “famous persons” interviews and found them intense. They also liked the time they saw Legs pass out in CBGB’s after making still another speech about teenagers taking over the world. They called Legs every day he was in the hospital, begging him to take them on. Legs thought about it for a while, asking the kids pertinent questions like, “If you had all the money in the world, what 10 movies would you make?” They described 10 war films full of fire, destruction, and Armageddon, all of it done in Frank Frazetta style with Venus Paradise color.

Legs recognized the modernistic values in such thinking. He decided that a “war band” was just what New York rock and roll needed. Living in New York was sort of like that anyway, he thought. Everywhere are contending platoons of ethnic groups, looking to aggrandize territory and goods. The fucking Bowery already looked like a B-52ed Nam village. Besides, war expressed Legs’s frame of mind. His cool was under attack from Brits on one side, the dumb CBGB kids on another, and the snotty “punk as art” Soho creeps on the other. The time had come for the true American teenager to stand up. Legs read that Dali said war was “a heightened state of awareness.” If that’s what the moribund punk hipster scene needed to fight miasma like disco, so be it.

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Now, after a few months of woodshedding with Legs, Shrapnel may be the only rock and roll band outwardly advocating World War III. They appear onstage wearing army fatigues and carrying models of M-16s. They use sandbags, cardboard tanks, and mock incendiary bombs as props. They sing songs entitled “Get the World,” “Girls and Guns,” “Special Forces Boy,” and “Cro-Magnum Man.” Their lyrics include stuff like, “I’m fresh from a Vietnam hangover / I got nothing to do / So I’m going to a Texas tower / and rain bullets down on you/ down on you.” Their lead singer, who was 10 years old during the Tet Offensive and looks Like a suckling-pig version of Legs, yells “Hey, you, asshole creep, I bet you were against the war,” and drinks out of a canteen.

Clearly, this is an idea with limited commercial possibilities. How do you hype this band? “Hey, kids, get with Sgt. Rock Rock!” or “Listen to the Curtis Le May Sound!” What do you say about a band whose most melodic song is called “Combat Love”? It is almost as if the Vietnam War is another of the ’60s things Legs feels deprived of. But it’s consistent with his hipster view. The group’s best song, “After the Battle,” which Legs wrote, tells the story of a soldier who gets lost from his platoon in the middle of a firestorm. “Guys,” he screams. “Where are you? Are you out there? Littlejohn, Kinch, Kowalski, anybody?” Kinch and Littlejohn and Kowalski, of course, were members of the platoon on Combat, the television show. It’s just like Legs to call out for pop­-culture characters when he’s lost in the Modern World.

Perhaps only the apocalypse itself can be Legs’s orgasm. But Shrapnel makes him happy, that’s good enough for me. We’ve always been kindred spirits, two white boys trying to be cool. And no matter how seemingly disgusting Legs gets, I prefer to see him poetically: the man who tried to be hip in an unhip time. Besides, it’s kind of funny to watch Legs and the Shrapnels in the band’s one-room apartment on St. Mark’s Place. The kids sit around in their dog tags, reading Soldier of Fortune magazine and singing “Hey, hey, we’re the Shrapnels … We like to Shrapnel around.” Legs says, “I like these kids because they’re real teenagers. The way teenagers should be. They’re normal, they like to read comics, watch television, and get drunk. Being with them makes me feel cool. I kind of look out for them.”

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Legs McNeil as a daddy, the mind boggles. But there is a certain tenderness in the way Legs gives his kids advice on how to be cool. The other day he was telling his guitar player, “Don’t go out with Catholic girls. They never fuck you until a year after they get out of Catholic school. I know.” Legs also takes the Shrapnels up to Connecticut, where they play “army” together in the swamps around Legs’s mother’s house. They split into two squads and fight to take the bridge over the Farmington Canal. Legs says, “My guys are good. They are so fucking good. They’ll wait in a bush for two hours. I’d put my guys up against an A-team Green Beret outfit any day.”

Personally, I like this image of an aging Legs McNeil playing army with his teenage kids. I see him sneaking around the edge of a brick wall, lying low in the tall reeds fertilized by the bodies of so many other soldiers before him. Then he bursts out into the line of murderous enemy fire, his toy gun waving, his high-pitched voice screaming “budda­-budda-budda” like some wild, degenerate manically cool Holden Caulfield. ❖