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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
From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Punk is Just Another Word for Nothin’ Left to Lose

There is a game called telephone where a word is whispered around a circle from ear to ear; by the time the circuit is completed, a whole new word has emerged. Something similar happened to the reports circling ’round London from the New York rock underground. These reports got the reality of CBGBs all wrong. But distortion works wonders. The New York scene was never as dynamic or as committed a movement as the English fans made it out to be. It was a dream they imitated, not the reality, and in the process they brought that dream to furious life.

A myth took root before the English audiences had seen any of the new bands. From black-and-white photographs, newspaper clippings, and a few import LPs they built up a picture — stylized and — of this thing called punk rock. What they didn’t know then was that punk rock in America never existed. Punk was an attitude, not a movement. As John Holmstrom, the creator of Punk magazine, wrote in an editorial:

“The key word — to me anyway — in the punk definition was ‘A beginner, an inexperienced hand.’ Punk rock — any kid can pick up a guitar and become a rock ‘n’ roll star, despite or because of his lack of ability, talent, intelli­gence, limitations and/or potential, and usually does so out of frustration, hostility, a lot of nerve, and a need for ego fulfillment … It takes a lot of sophistication — or better, none at all — to appreciate punk rock at its best — or worst. (Not much difference.) Punk has become a catchword for a lot of critics to describe N. Y. underground rock, most of which is not punk rock.”

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CBGBs was a warm, sleazy home. Musicians gathered there because they had no record contracts and nowhere else to play. Like families, they would even adopt their band’s names: Debbie Blondie, Tommy Miami, Joey Ramone. And they had a certain heredity in common: The ghosts of the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls hovered in the background. But only the Dictators and the Ramones could truly be described as punk rock.

Although Patti Smith had toured England long before the Ramones arrived in London in July of last year, it was Ramones’ reverberations which were felt on the British scene. Because the myth of punk rock was that it was a cohesive movement, the English fans assumed that other New York bands like Television and Talking Heads were cast in the Ramones mold. Everyone wore black leather jackets and played lightning-fast four-chord rock ‘n’ roll.

I can’t say what went on in the minds of that first London audience, but I suspect that they took the Ramones more seriously than the Ramones took themselves: took them to be bored, sneering, dead-end kids. After all, the image of New York that flickers through television and the movies is of the asphalt jungle. You have only to read the English papers to see that it’s not just rock fans who take their visions of America from Kojak and Taxi Driver. Manhat­tan has a mythology all its own.

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But what the Ramones have done is to take the image of the street punk and streamline it. Their stage act is a brilliant gesture, a single image left printed on the retina. And it’s funny — “Beat On the Brat” is comic book violence, not meant to draw blood. It doesn’t matter whether the Ramones are dead-end kids in real life, because their performance is not realistic. Even if we found out that they’d all been to medical school it wouldn’t invalidate what they do on stage.

This is not true of the English punk bands. Their music is not ironic or conceptualized, and it draws its impact from the fact that the musicians really are deprived, hostile, and unschooled. The worst insult in the English punks’ vocabu­lary is ‘poser.’ These are working-dass kids who know that they’ve been fucked over all their lives, and they resent it when the middle classes ape their style.

The New Wave bands are more passionate, more violent, and more dogmatic than their older American cousins. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of the Clash said in a recent interview in the fanzine Sniffin’ Glue:

Joe: Look, the situation is far too serious for en­joyment, man. Maybe when we’re 55 we can play tubas in the sun … But now!
Mick: I think if you wanna fuckin’ enjoy yourselves you sit in an armchair and watch TV, but if you wanna get actively involved … ’cause rock ‘n’ roll’s about rebellion. Look, I had this out with Bryan James of the Damned and we’re screamin’ at each other for about three hours ’cause he stands for enjoying himself and I stand for change and creativity.

American bands take themselves less seriously, but then they can afford to. The U.S.A. is still a rich country where to be young, white, and on your own is to be privileged. The British New Wave bands emerged from a country which is riddled with class hatred and economically stagnant. Unemployment in Britain has hit teenagers harder than any other group. According to the New Statesman: “The proportion of unemployed under-25s is likely to exceed 35 per cent in the New Year.” This summer thousands of 16-year-olds will leave school and go straight on the dole. The longer they go without work, the longer they go without training, and the less employable they become. Being on the dole means living with your parents and watching the wallpaper fade; $15 to $25 a week doesn’t leave much for entertainment. This isn’t suburban bore­dom — it’s desperation. You can see why Richard Hell’s song “(I Belong to) The Blank Generation” was seized as a new teenage anthem.

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The less you have the more you crave a style that belongs to you and you alone. But the nicest things are all taken. That means you have to make do with the things that nobody else wants. Like ugliness. That’s how the skinhead cult developed in England in the late ’60s. The hippie movement had turned the reigning fashion toward long hair and soft, pretty clothes. The skinheads shaved their heads and wore work shirts, rolled-up trousers, and huge boots — for kicking.

So you’re on the dole. You look around you and what have you got? Ignorance! Violence! Boredem! They’re not much, but they’re all yours. When the Sex Pistols began singing “No Future,” “I’m a Lazy Sod,” “Pretty Vacant,” and “Anarchy in the UK,” it wasn’t social protest so much as a pariah’s celebration. They were obnoxious, sneering little bastards, and they were proud of it. Remember Holmstrom: “A beginner, an inexperienced hand.” The cult of the virtuoso guitarist and the mystique of the recording studios that developed in rock music over the last 10 years left the amateurs behind. The English punk bands may not have hit all the right notes, but they showed the kids how to get their hands back on rock ‘n’ roll.

The Punk Festival at London’s 100 Club last September had the most wildly inexperienced bands getting up to play. Siouxsie and the Banshees were a group of hard-core Sex Pistols fans who joined together for one performance: one chance to grab the stage. The bass player had first picked up an instrument an hour before the gig; the drummer, Sid Vicious, couldn’t use the pedals. They played for half an hour and did one song: It was literally a mixture of “The Lord’s Prayer,” “Deutschland Uber Alles,” and “Twist and Shout.”

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One night at the Marquee Club I listened in on a most violent and outrageous of the New Wave bands. A promotion campaign was duly launched, and on December 4 the Pistols arrived at Thames Television to appear on the Today show. The host, Bill Grundy, had evidently been drinking. The last moments of the interview went like this:

Grundy: Go on, you’ve got another five seconds. Say something outrageous.
Pistol:
You dirty bastard.
Grundy: Go on, again.
Pistol: You dirty fucker! 
Grundy: Whaat a clever boy.
Pistol: What a fucking rotter.

The switchboard was jammed with protests, and the next day the newspapers alerted the nation. Daily Mirror: “THE FILTH AND THE FURY,” The Sun: “WERE THE PISTOLS LOADED? PUNK ROCK GROUP ‘PLIED WITH BOOZE!” The Sunday Times was quietly dismissive: “The irony of Bill Grundy’s interview with the Sex Pistols on Wednesday night has been that it has guaranteed the tour and injected some much-needed national publicity into a rock craze which, because of its marked lack of musical talent, was probably set for a natural death.”

The tour was a financial disaster; 15 of 20 dates were canceled. EMI stopped its promotion drive and ordered its press officers not to mention the name Sex Pistols. Even long-distance, EMI London offices radiated a scarcely suppressed hysteria when the two words were mentioned: I could hear a hand being held over the receiver and whispered conferences in the background before I was given my ration of no comments. In January the Sex Pistols were finally dropped by EMI.

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Well, the Pistols came through. They caused chaos. And it was a vindication for those who thought they’d sold out by signing with a major label. They could not, after all they’d stood for, have smiled sweetly on that television show.

But the effect on the music scene has been devastating. Not only the Sex Pistols, but all the other New Wave bands — the Clash, the Damned, the Vibrators, the Buzzcocks, Eater, Subway Sect — have been banned. No one is touring. There is only one place left in London for them to play, a new club called the Roxy. And this at a time when new bands are mushrooming and they all need venues. If they don’t perform they can’t develop, and English punk will remain a “minor rock craze” that died in embryo.

Ironically, by closing down the concerts the promoters have encouraged the violence that they condemn. Performing was an outlet for aggression — even Sid Vicious toned down once he joined a band. Now the punk rock world has gone into a sickening spin. Like kids on a housing project who mutilate their own buildings, their energy has turned self-destructive. On Christmas Day Caroline Coon and John Ingham, two journalists who have actively promoted the New Wave, held a Christmas party for the bands. Fights broke out, furniture was smashed, doors were torn from hinges.

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I had a letter from my mother in London at the time of the Sex Pistols scandal. I’d call her an impartial observer, as she likes kids but can’t stand rock ‘n’ roll:

“Not only are the punks products of the age-old class war in England — which is a kind of Cold War, chronic rather than acute, and never breaking out into revolution — but their appearance on television has intensified that war, if only temporarily. (Christmas is coming up, so it’s the season of goodwill to all men and even punks). You can’t imagine how venomous the news comment was after the Sex Pistols insulted the nation on television, how much hatred that one appearance stirred up against not only the punk rockers but the young and the poor in general.”

It would be stupid to gloss over the fact that there has been violence at concerts. But stopping the music won’t stop the aggression. Before they became punk rockers, most of the fans were people whose idea of recreation was kicking the shit out of each other at football games. Now they have produced what is, apart from the nexus of avant-gardists centering around Brian Eno, the only exciting development in British rock music in the last three years. If this burns out — over-exposed in the press and stilled in the clubs — what are they supposed to do? Apply to the Royal College of Music? Or should they just practice banging their heads against the wall? ■

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From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Patti Smith: Save This Rock and Roll Hero

Although it’s easy enough to get a contrary impression from one of her triumphant New York appearances, Patti Smith is in trouble. She’s caught in a classic double bind — accused of selling out by her former allies and of not selling by her new ones. Maybe she’s just too famous for her own good. Habitues or the poetry vanguard that provided her initial panache, many or whom mistake her proud press and modest sales for genuine stardom, are sometimes envious and often disdainful of her renown as a poet, since she is not devoted to the craft of poetry and they are. Music-biz pros both in and out or her record company, aware that her second album, Radio Ethiopia, is already bulleting down the charts, are reminded once again that print exposure is the least reliable of promotional tools in an aural medium, not least because the press can be fickle. Somewhere in between are the journalists and critics, who count as former allies and new allies simultaneously, and who can now be heard making either charge, or both.

Cut to Patti Smith on her first gig in the Bottom Line, last December, wearing a T-shirt that says CULT FIGURE. It’s possible to accuse Patti of taking herself too seriously, but you can’t say she doesn’t have a sense of humor about it. She knows that her audience — “my kids,” she calls them, more maternal than you’d figure — has the earmarks of a cult. And she knows that her band can be described as a critics’ band. Patti herself has been a practitioner of rock criticism — “rock writin’,” as she calls it, always having preferred celebration to analysis and analysis to cen­sure — and her first guitarist and lead mentor, Lenny Kaye, made his living that way until less than two years ago. She’s always had critic fans, and these fans have spread the news, so that by now Patti has probably inspired more printed words per record sold than any charted artist in the history of the music — except maybe Dylan or the Stones. Two of her critic fans, Stephen Holden and John Rockwell, even spurred her commercial good fortune. Holden, then working in a&r, tried to sign her in 1974, but before RCA could be persuaded to come up with the few requisite bucks, Clive Davis waded in waving much bigger bucks. This was shortly after Rockwell’s report on Holden’s activities in the Times, which Davis insists had nothing to do with his own timing.

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Although Patti was personally acquainted with more than a few critics, the nationwide journalistic excitement she initially aroused went far beyond cliquishness. Like Bruce Springsteen, she answered a felt need. Nineteen seventy-five was an especially lousy time for up-and-com­ing rock and rollers, at least in the opinion of those who make copy out of them. The insistence of the record companies, booking agencies, and concert promoters on professionalism seemed to have produced a subculture of would-be studio musicians who were willing to apprentice as touring pros just to build up a bankroll and establish themselves in a growing industry. Patti wasn’t like that. She recalled a time when rock and roll was so conducive to mythic fantasies that pretentiousness constituted a threat. Patti had her pretentious side, everybody knew that, but in her it seemed an endearing promise that she would actually attempt something new. Moreover, she had earned her pretensions: what other rock and roller had ever published even one book of poetry without benefit of best-selling LP? Nor was it only critics who felt this way. A rock audience that includes six million purchasers of Frampton Comes Alive!, spins off dissidents by the hundreds of thousands, many of whom are known to read. People were turned on by Patti Smith before they’d seen or heard her. Even in New York, the faithful who had packed into CBGB’s for her shows were only a small fraction of her would-be fans, and elsewhere she was the stuff of dreams.

The problem with this kind of support is that it is soft — it’s not enthusiasm, merely a suspension of the disbelief with which any savvy rock fan must regard the unknown artist. In Patti’s case this openness lasted even after her first album, Horses, came out in October 1975. Patti has always attracted a smattering of sensitive types who are so intrigued by the word “poet” that they pay no heed to its customary modifier, “street”; these poor souls will attend one show and leave early, wincing at the noise. But they don’t count — it’s the informed fence sitters Patti could use. There’s no way to know how many of the almost 200,000 adventurous rock fans who purchased Horses feel equivocal about it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if half of them balanced the unusual lyrics, audacious segues, and simple yet effective vocals and melodies against what is admittedly some very crude-sounding musicianship. These were people who wouldn’t rule out the next LP — a genuine rock poet deserves patience, after all — but wouldn’t rush out for it, either. For although Patti is a genuine rock poet, what she does — her art, let’s call it — is not calculated to appeal to those attracted by such a notion.

Patti is actually far from the first published poet to have turned to popular music in the rock era, and contrast with some of the others will be instructive. Recall with pleasure Leonard Cohen, who for almost a decade has been singing his verses in an all-but-tuneless yet seductive monotone to pop-folk cum European-cabaret backing, or Gil Scott­-Heron, who declaims both poetry and songs over soul-jazz polyrhythms. Apprehend briefly and then banish from your mind Rod Taylor a/k/a Roderick Falconer, who in both his Sensitive and Fascist-cum-Futurist incarnations has attempted to sell his rhymes with the most competent rock musician Los Angeles could afford. Or consider, if you will, Rod McKuen and his numerous strings.

Now let me name three more poet-singers, all of them considerably closer in spirit to Patti Smith — David Meltzer, who is quite obscure, and Ed Sanders and Lou Reed, who are not. All three are distinguished by a salient interest in those innovations of voice and prosody that occupy dedicated poets as opposed to versifiers good or bad; moreover, their alliances are vanguard as opposed to academic. Meltzer, who recorded one mordant, playfully mystagogic LP out of flower-power San Francisco with his group, the Serpent Power, can be found in Donald M. Allen’s seminal Grove anthology, The New American Poetry; Sanders, the versatile avant-gardist who was the focus of the Fugs (a group that featured occasional early performances by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso as well as the permanent contributions of Tuli Kupferberg), was included by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro in Random House’s An Anthology of New York Poets; and Reed, who (unlike Jim Morrison) had appeared in little magazines before rock-legend status made publication a sure thing, has been in Anne Waldman’s Another World anthology. None of them is a major figure in these contexts, although Sanders is certainly very talented. But all of them craft poetry of a very different order of sophistication from Leonard Cohen’s melancholy anapests or Gil Scott-Heron’s Afroprop, however much one may value listening to either.

The instrumental styles over which the first poets I named presided, although as disparate in both content and some quality as their words, share a committed professionalism. Each is molded to the preconceptions of a well-imagined audience, and each in its own way is smooth and predictable, proper accompaniment for the verbal “mes­sage.” In contrast, the music of the avant-gardists strikingly amateurish, with all three bands using what might be described as found drummers — poet Clark Coolidge in the Serpent Power, general-purpose bohemian Ken Weaver in the Fugs, and friend-0f-a-friend fill-in Maureen Tucker in the Velvets. Yet the Fugs never got their rock and roll together because they were satirists, not because they couldn’t play, while the gentle anarchy of the Serpent Power now sounds coherently conceived, almost a folk-rock version of the ominous minimalism that the Velvets created out of their own limitations.

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Like the Fugs and the Serpent Power, the Velvets never hit very big, although like the Fugs they did sell a fair number of albums on sheer notoriety. Yet it seems undeniable to me that they were one of the five great American rock groups of the ’60s. Like Question Mark & the Mysterians and the Dave Clark Five, the Velvets were minimal first of all because their expertise as instrumen­talists was minimal, but their acquaintance with avant-garde ideas — not only Andy Warhol’s aesthetics of opportunism but, for instance, the trance music of La Monte Young, with which John Cale, trained classical musician and amateur rock and roller, was quite familiar — meant they could turn their disabilities to artistic advantage. They created a deadpan, demotic, jaded, oddly sensationalistic music that was primitive both harmonically and rhythmically and all but devoid of flourishes. They were always hard-edged and usually quick, never slow and heavy at the same time. This was music that worked with Reed’s words, not behind them; the two united were the group’s “message.” Eventually it inspired a whole style of minimal American rock, a style that rejects sentimental­ity while embracing a rather thrilling visceral excitement. Patti Smith, a vanguard-allied poet who also appears in Anne Waldman’s anthologies, performs directly and consciously in this tradition.

Because the minimal style is simple — if not in the conception, then at least on the surface that results — the people who play it get hurt when it doesn’t achieve instantaneous popularity. But it’s hardly good old rock and roll. In the era of the Dave Clark Five, a similarly impoverished music sold well, but it sold on a bright, calculated cuteness that the Stooges and the Dolls and even the Ramones have never come near. And unlike the heavy metal kids who are their closest relatives today, minimal groups have always eschewed self-pity and phony melo­drama. They evoke factories, subways, perhaps war­fare — all the essential brutalities of a mechanized exis­tence — in a sharp rather than self-important way; they provide none of the comfort of a staged confrontation in which a proxy teenager, arrayed in the garb and mien of a technocratic immortal, triumphs over his amplifiers. Minimal rock is too narrow to be comforting; it frightens people.

I trust it is obvious that I don’t mean to define “minimal” as strictly as an avant-garde composer like La Monte Young or Philip Corner might, but rather in the traditional sense of “less is more.” In this case, the maxim implies simplicity in an urban context and irony through understatement, all with populist overtones. Good old it’s not, but, though the melodies be spare, the rhythms metro­nomic, the chords repetitive, at its most severe this is still rock and roll, a popular form that is broadly accessible by the standards of a SoHo loft concert. Even those groups that further reduce the Velvets’ ideas — the Ramones, for instance — also tend to soften their cerebral sting, most often with pop touches from the ’60s. One reason Horses, produced by John Cale, was so well received critically­ — and sold so much better than critics’ albums like the first Dolls or Ramones LPs — was that it managed to meld the pop notes with both basic instrumentation (the back-up singing on “Redondo Beach”) and poetic fancies (the revelatory transition from Johnny’s horses to “Land of a Thousand Dances,” or from the sweet young thing humping the parking meter to “Gloria”). But Patti’s and Lenny Kaye’s public pronouncements on rock and roll have always indicated that something rather different was also to be expected.

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Sure Patti and Lenny love mid-’60s pop-rock. Patti’s fondness for both Smokey Robinson and Keith Richard is well documented; Lenny’s credits as a record producer include Boston’s poppish Sidewinders and Nuggets, the recently reissued (on Sire) singles compendium that defines the original punk rock of a decade ago at its most anonymous and unabashed. But Lenny also christened heavy-metal music and has been known to say kind things about abstract shit all the way from Led Zeppelin to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, while Patti’s rock writin’ included paeans to Edgar Winter as well as the Stones. Moreover, both have always been enamored of unpunkishly hippie­-sounding notions about rock culture and the rock hero. Patti sometimes seems to prefer Jim Morrison to Bob Dylan and obviously relates to Keith Richard more as someone to look at than someone to listen for — as does Lenny, which is doubly dangerous. It is out of all these buts that Radio Ethiopia — which by comparison to Horses is ponderous, postliterate anarchically communal — proceeds.

Unlike almost all of my colleagues, whose reactions have ranged from liberated hostility to bitter dismay to affectionate tolerance, I am an active fan of Patti’s second album. It’s unfortunate that its one bad cut is its title cut and lasts 11 minutes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I reached a place where I even liked that one. I’ve already gotten there with “Poppies” and “Pissing in a River,” two cuts I originally considered dubious, as I did long ago with some of the more pretentious stuff on Horses. If by bringing in producer Jack Douglas Patti intended to make an Aerosmith record, as some have suggested, then her intentions are irrelevant, as artists’ intentions so often are. Personally, I believe Patti’s smarter than that. She knows the Patti Smith Group (as she now bills herself) isn’t good enough to make an Aerosmith record, and she also knows it’s quite capable of something better. It’s priggish if not stupid to complain that Radio Ethiopia‘s “four chords are not well played” (to quote one reviewer). If they were executed with the precise finesse of an Aerosmith, or a Black Sabbath, or a Chicago blues band, then they would not be well played.

For although there is no such thing as an unkempt heavy metal record — technocratic assurance, control over the amplifiers, is the soul of such music — unkempt rock and roll records have been helping people feel alive for 20 years. When it works, Radio Ethiopia delivers the charge of heavy metal without the depressing predictability; its riff power — based on great ready-made riffs, too — has the human frailty of a band that is still learning to play. “Don’t expect me to be perfect,” Patti warned her full-house cult at the Palladium New Year’s Eve in between her final skirmishes with the sound system. “You never know what our show’s gonna be. But what it will be, even if it’s fucked up” — and she fucked up herself, momentarily, pausing vacantly as she tried to figure out just what to say next — “it’ll be all we got.”

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It went against habit for me to go see Patti that night: I almost never attend concerts when I’m sick, I almost never smoke dope anymore, and I’m superstitious about spending New Year’s Eve in the company of strangers. Nevertheless, there I was at the best concert of the year, nursing a bad cold and a pleasant high and engulfed by Patti’s “kids,” who looked to average out to college age, juniors and seniors rather than freshmen and sophomores. The crowd wasn’t as loose as it might have been, but I liked its mix — a few arty types among the kind of intelligent rock and rollers who almost never come out in force anymore, a sprinkling of gay women among the hetero couples. When Patti came on, these sophisticates rushed the stage like Kiss fans, and eventually two women took off their tops and had to be dissuaded physically from dancing on-stage. I hadn’t seen the like since a Kinks concert in 1973 or so, when such hijinks already were blasts from the past, and the climax was better, the true “My Generation.” It began with Patti wrestling a guitar away from her female roadie, Andi Ostrowe, and ended with Patti — joined, eventually, by Ivan Kral — performing the legendary guitar-smashing ritual that the Who had given up by 1969 or so.

And that was only the ending. Because I’d never seen Patti’s opening acts — Television (ex-lover) and John Cale (ex-producer) — out of a club setting, I assumed they’d have trouble projecting to a big audience, but in fact, the Palladium seemed to theatricalize them. John Cale filled the whole hall with the same set I’d seen him premier at CBGB’s less than two weeks before, not because his band was tighter, although it was, but because his obsessive riffs and yowls assumed dimensions unrealizable in a Bowery bar. And the transformation of Tom Verlaine into Tomi Hendrix is so near completion that the always indecipherable lyrics are now totally subsidiary to the band’s ever denser and keener instrumental work. Both acts indulged in basic arena showmanship moves. In fact, it occurred to me during Billy Ficca’s drum solo and Verlaine’s understated yet inevitably show-offy unaccompanied guitar finale — both of which were boring, naturally — and then again during one of Cale’s showier screaming sessions that if these acts were to open for, let us say, Aerosmith in Louisville, Kentucky, they’d definitely pick up fans. The kids, unable to articulate what was off about them — Cale’s jowls? Verlaine’s wobbly voice? their plan clothes? — would eventually succumb to talent.

Granted, this might have been the dope fantasy of a New York rock critic. But more likely it says something about what can happen to minimal rock — namely increase. Two years ago, Television was an affectless song band of barely discernible instrumental attainments, but Verlaine was always a talented guitarist in there somewhere, and he has evolved into a whiz as rapidly as his band has learned how to rave up. Similarly, Cale is by now a veteran rock multi-instrumentalist, minimal mostly by historical asso­ciation. Both retain the dry, oblique edge of an approach that loses a certain formal interest as it gains in virtuosity, but they may really be ready to go out there; perhaps they will comfort and frighten the heartland with a little more intelligence than has been customary.

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The Patti Smith Group is ready to go out there as well, of course — but they insist on their own terms. When Patti first sought a label two years ago, her monetary ambitions were modest, but she demanded an absolute creative autonomy that new artists almost never get — or even seem to care about — anymore. (The much-bruited $750,000 guarantee, which includes promotional outlay and picked-up options, came almost by accident al the end, I am told, when a hotshot lawyer entered the game.) This unfashion­ably ’60s-ish quirk has meant, for instance, that Patti has run her own ad campaigns; she herself came up with the wonderful line, “3 chord rock merged with the power of the word.” It has also meant that she exercises a producer’s control over her records, no matter who she calls in to advise her. The title cut on Radio Ethiopia, a white-noise ­extravaganza in which Patti yowls incomprehensibly and plays a guitar at Lenny Kaye, who yowls incomprehensibly on his guitar, really isn’t Jack Douglas’s kind of thing.

Actually, I’m a sucker for the idea I perceive in “Radio Ethiopia,” a rock version of the communal amateur avant-gardism encouraged by the likes of jazzman Marion Brown. And it works acceptably on stage, where Lenny’s sheer delight in his own presence gets him and the band through a lot of questionable music. But I’ve never found Marion Brown at all listenable, and l guess I’d rather see the “Radio Ethiopia” idea than play it on my stereo. The same does not go, however, for the other dubious artistic freedom on the LP, the swear words.

Due to what I’ll assume is the merest chance, language was never an issue on Horses, despite its less than oblique references to ass-fucking and the dread parking-meter fetish. But the problem did arise soon enough on the unairable Jive 45 version of “My Generation” (the B side of “Gloria,” it includes the line ‘We don’t want this fucking shit”), and has become almost an obsession of Patti’s with Radio Ethiopia‘s “Pissing in a River.” Mike Klenfner, the “promotion and special projects” veep at Arista who has made Patti a special project indeed, tried to convince her to title it “In the River” and shuffle the words into something like (really) “sipping in a river,” but Patti was adamant. It’s almost as if her accommodations to radio on this LP, for that is how she understands its heavy tendencies, had to be balanced by a blow for free speech, although I seem to recall her protesting about whether “the people” own the radio stations at her moderately disastrous Avery Fisher Hall gig last Match. By that time she was in trouble with WBCN. the key FM station in the key (for Patti) Boston market, after sprinkling a non-bleepable interview with fucks and shits. More recently, Patti willfully tossed a fuck into — of all places — a Harry Chapin Hungerthon on WNEW-FN, and since then has been in trouble there as well, although how officially or pervasively remains in dispute. At the Palladium, we all recieved a flier offering Patti’s side of the story. Its theme: “We Want The Radio And We Want It Now.” Perfect.

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This crusade is clearly an instance of the People’s Park fallacy, in which one’s allies — the members of one’s cult — are confused with “the people.” The people are different from you and me, Patti — there’s more of ’em. Broad-based rock-and-roll alliances (Peter Frampton’s, say) have rarely been of much use for anything as practical as a crusade anyway, but I’m willing (even eager) to suspend my disbelief about that. The larger question is whether Patti can gather such an alliance. She appears to have the makings in New York, but not nationwide; in some former strongholds (San Francisco, for instance) she’s slipping. I think this is primarily because her music is harder to digest than she is prepared to admit; insofar as she can be said to be censored, it is because program directors now regard her as more trouble than she’s worth and are faced with no public outcry to the contrary.

And yet wouldn’t it be wonderful if she stuck at it and won? The swear-words-on-the-radio issue is admittedly not as important as Patti thinks it is, but it’s not “boring” or “trivial” either. The airwaves really ought to belong to “the people,” and the vast preponderance of “the people” who listen to FM stations like WNEW or WBCN would clearly welcome or at least tolerate a degree of linguistic freedom that the FCC, the owners, and the advertisers, all committed to the status quo and least-common-denominator inoffensiveness, now make impossible. To pretend that this bucket in the ocean of our cultural impotence is boring or trivial is to construct one more defense against the challenge that Patti throws down before us all. She dares us not to settle into our lives. She dares us to keep trying for what we want as well as what we need.

Patti’s unawareness that this is not a propitious time to launch such a challenge is of course typical of the trouble she’s in. This is not someone who is long on analysis. She is a utopian romantic whose socioeconomic understanding is so simplistic that she can tell a Hungerthon that rock-and-­roll power will feed Ethiopia (which is probably the main reason she has WNEW pissed off, by the way); she is an autonomous woman with such shameless male identifica­tions that she can cast herself cheerfully as a rapist in one poem and begin another: “female. feel male. Ever since I felt the need to/choose I’d choose male.” Clearly, her line is not calculated to appeal to the politicos and radical feminists who actually live up to her challenge; it can also be counted on to turn off most intelligent, settled adults, by which I mean people pushing Patti’s age — 30. But Patti won’t miss those uptights — she wants kids. Her sense of humanity’s potential is expressed most often in the dreamscape images of heavy rock: sex-and-violence, drugs, apocalypse, space travel. She theorizes that rock and roll is “the highest and most universal form of expression since the lost tongue (time: pre-Babel).” She believes that the “neo-artist” is “the nigger of the universe.” In short, she would appear to be full of shit.

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Well, so did Rimbaud, who, while no longer dominating Patti’s cosmology, continues to exemplify her artist hero, theoretical inadequacies and all. I say artist hero, not artist, to avoid the absurdity of comparing poetry, but Patti’s poetry itself is a place to begin. Both rock critics and poets have been known to put it down. Observers of the world of poetry inform me that some of this censure can be attributed to envy, and I suspect the same of the rock critics. In any case, as a reader who reveres Whitman, Yeats, and Williams and whose tastes in contemporary poetry — at those rare times when he has wanted to read it — have run to Creeley, Wieners, Padgett, Denby, I’ve found most of Patti’s published work likable and some of it remarkable; one poem — “judith,” in Seventh Heaven — strikes me as, well, a great poem, and one great poem is a lot. Still, I’ll go along with the poet who told me he liked her wit and quickness but found her work unfinished. Patti reports that she works hard, tediously hard, on most of what she writes. But if it didn’t seem unfinished at the end, like her rock and roll, then it wouldn’t do what she clearly wants it to do.

In her search for a “universal form of expression,” Patti rejects the whole idea of the avant-garde. She will talk about the way Bobby Neuwirth and Eric Andersen encouraged her to write but never mention Frank O’Hara, who others cite as a major influence on her. Obviously, she doesn’t want to be associated with the avant garde’s limitations. But this in itself is a kind of vanguard position that places her firmly where she belongs — in the camp of anarchists like Jarry or Tzara, as opposed to the unofficial academy of formalists like Gide or Mondrian. Avant-garde anarchists have always been especially fascinated by popular imagery and energy, which they have attempted to harness to both satirical and insurrectionary ends. Patti simply runs as far as she can with the insurrectionary possibility: Her attempt to utilize the popular form authentically is her version of the formal adventurousness which animates all artistic change.

Can I possibly believe that this deliberately barbaric sometime poet and her glorified garage band are worthy of comparison with Rimbaud, Jarry, Tzara, Gide, Mondrian? The short version of my answer is yes. The long version must begin with a reminder that Jarry and Tzara are obviously more relevant than Gide and Mondrian before returning inexorably to Rimbaud. One poet I spoke to posited rather icily that Patti reads Rimbaud in transla­tion. This is more or less the case — but it is also one appropriate way to get to the whole of what Rimbaud created, whether monists of the work of art like it or not. For although her verse may strive (with fair success) for a certain unrefined alchimie du verbe, it is Rimbaud the historical celebrity Patti Smith emulates — the hooligan voyant, the artist as troublemaker. Even the formal similarities — such as Patti’s exploitation of the cruder usages of rock and roll, which disturb elitists much as Rimbaud’s youthful vulgarisms did — are in this mold. For if Patti is clearly not the artist Rimbaud was, she can compete with him as an art hero, at least in contemporary terms. Rimbaud, after all, would appear to have quit poetry not to make up for his season in hell but simply because he couldn’t find an audience in his own time. So far, that has not been a problem for Patti.

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Of course, one understands that even the most attractive art-hero/celebrity must actually produce some art, lest she be mistaken for Zsa Zsa Gabor, and that it is appropriate to scrutinize this art critically. Well, here is one critic who values it highly. Settled, analytic adult that I am, I don’t have much use for its ideational “message,” for the specific shamanisms it espouses — astral projection, Rastafarianism, whatever. But I’m not so settled that I altogether disbelieve in magic — the magic power of words or the mysterious authority of an assembly of nominally unconnected human beings — and I find that at pivotal moments Patti quickens such magic for me.

The secret of her method is her unpredictability. To a degree this is assured by the very ordinary technical accomplishments of her musicians, but even her intermit­tent reliance on shtick and intermittently disastrous tendency to dip into onstage fallow periods help it along by rendering those moments of uncanny inspiration all the more vivid and unmistakable. Actually, her comedic gift is so metaphysical, so protean, that sometimes her musings and one-liners, or even her physical attitudes as she sings, will end up meaning more than whatever big-beat epi­phanies she achieves. But when she’s at her best, the jokes become part of the mix, adding an essential note of real-world irony to the otherworldly possibility. “In addi­tion to all the astral stuff,” she boasts, “I’d do anything for a laugh.” Thus she is forever set apart from the foolish run of rock shaman-politicians, especially Jim Morrison.

Discount Morrison, assign Jimi Hendrix’s musical magic to another category, and declare Patti Smith the first credible rock shaman, the one intelligent hold­out/throwback in a music whose mystics all pretend to have IQs around 90. Because spontaneity is part of the way she conjures, she is essentially a live artist, but through the miracle of phonographic recording conveys a worthy facsimile of what she does in permanent, easy-to-distribute form. I don’t equate these records with Rimbaud’s poetry or Gide’s fiction or Mondrian’s paintings, although without benefit of historical perspective I certainly do value them as much as I do the works of Jarry or Tzara, both of whom survive more as outrageous artistic personages, historical celebrities, than as creators of works of art. Since popular outreach is Patti’s formal adventure, I might value what she does even more if I thought she could be more than a cult figure — and retain her authenticity, which is of course a much more difficult problem. But in a world where cult members can number half a million and mass alliances must be five or 10 times that big, I don’t. If you like, you can believe that her formal failure reflects her incomptence. I think it reflects her ambition, the hard-to-digest ugliness and self-contradiction of what she tries to do.

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Now Patti must live with that shortfall, aim for her half million or 350,000 as if they were worth all her will, and go on. Clearly she’s determined to survive. She works hard; she’s committed to touring although it wears her out; she tries to be punctual and cooperative, with obvious limits on the latter. Significantly, especially for those of us who used to root for the New York Dolls, she seems to have her record company solidly behind her. Bless Clive Davis’s pretensions and hope that the two of them together can play Patti’s long tether out to the end and then cut it cleanly. Patti talks in terms of five years or maybe less. As a retired rock cult figure she’d make a great Zsa Zsa Gabor, only with real books. I can just hear the savants of 1982 dismissing her writing and undervaluing her shtick. But me and the rest of her Cult, we’ll just turn on the tube and get zapped.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Security THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Beautiful Butchers: The Shah Serves Up Caviar and Torture

The proof that torture can look better through a cham­pagne glass and taste better after a mouthful of caviar will be provided next Tues­day by the arrival in the United States of someone who can boast of a most notable achievement: He has made torturers chic. Though Hitler won the ad­miration of half the British upper classes in the 1930s, even he could not make the same boast.

Yet the Shah of Iran, whose own father was so ardent an admirer of the Nazis that he abdicated in 1941, can claim a double distinction: being the bane of the U.S. taxpayers (who paid the bills for his instal­lation on the Peacock Throne and his maintenance thereafter) and being at the same time the toast of the smart set in Washington, New York, Paris, and London. Thus does the Shah differ from Idi Amin or the Em­peror Bokassa, for, though as many pris­oners scream in his torture chambers and face his firing squads, he is socially okay —  and so are his emissaries abroad.

The social success of the Shah in the galaxy of international despots is the end result of a careful campaign, premised on two vital ingredients: snobbery and cash. Barbara Walters was recently able to confide to her ABC audience that, “There aren’t too many kings and queens around these days. Of the handful left, two couples have particular fascination for Americans. England’s own Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. And, for different, reasons, the Shah and Empress of Iran.

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It was not always thus for the House of Pahlavi. The Shah can race a regal an­cestry only to his father, Reza Shah, a fellow of common origins who was hoisted onto the Peacock Throne in the ’20s by the British. Reza Shah’s achievements — apart from looting the Iranian people in a fairly methodical manner — included the intro­duction of torture on a wide scale. Thus, when the present Shah was finally and securely installed on the throne in 1953 with the help of the CIA, he was not particularly well placed to be a truly fashionable mon­arch.

But gradually he inched ahead of his peers, who at that time included such U.S. clients as Battista of Cuba and Trujillo of the Dominican Republic. Neither of those gentlemen ever had truly overweening social ambitions beyond the amassing of huge fortunes and the total control of their dominions. The Shah’s thoughts, however, always soared higher and he yearned to be placed in the national historical pantheon ranging back to the ancient Persian kings.

And in the eyes of international society, at least, he achieved his ambition with the famed coronation at Persepolis in 1967. Virtually every king was there except Kong. In a tented city a goodly proportion of the executives, chiselers, and spongers of western capitalism gathered to marvel and stayed to gorge at a coming-out gala for a regime of unexampled savagery.

Since then the Shah has gone from strength to strength, most notably in the boom days since the oil price hikes of 1973. Tehran is, as they say, the Mecca of every investment banker, industrialist, arms salesman, developer, and straightforward adventurer with a prospectus in one pocket and a bribe in the other.

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Steady accrual of status was expressed through the increasing social success of the Shah’s plenipotentiaries abroad — most not­ably in the career of Ardeshir Zahedi, the present Iranian ambassador in Wash­ington. This Zahedi’s father, General Fuzullah Zahedi, was one of those instrumen­tal in securing the throne for the Shah in 1953. The son himself was once married to the Shah’s daughter. His function in Wash­ington has been that of every ambassador: to lie abroad for his country. Zahedi — as is evidenced in the gossip columns weekly — ­has managed to sell the beautiful people on torture by the simple expedient of throwing large parties, amply furnished with caviar. He mastered, you might say, the political economy of Elizabeth Taylor and realized that one star-studded bash, well-reported in the gossip columns, can do much to offset a couple of Amnesty reports about torture and a few intellectuals detailing exactly how the Shah’s secret police ripped out their fingernails.

Zahedi threw the parties and in they came. Henry Kissinger, Nancy Kissinger, Senator Ed Brooke, Elizabeth Taylor danc­ing wildly with Senator Ed Brooke, Marion Javits, paid by the Iranians for the pleasure of her PR. William Rogen, John Murphy, John Lindsay, Barbara Walters, Walter Cronkite, Julian Goodman, Gregory and Veronique Peck, Phyllis and Bob Evans, the Baroness Stackelberg, Mrs. Drew Pearson, Page Lee Hufty, Polly Bergen, Buffy Cafritz, Sandra McElwaine, Diane von Furstenberg, David Frost, Mr. and Mrs. Tom Braden, Mrs. Frank Ikard, Diana Vreeland, Andy Warhol, Yolanda Fox, even Birch Bayh. On and on the list of names goes, and on and on the parties go too: the political crowd, the Hollywood crowd, the art crowd, and the straight tacky crowd.

How do they like the parties and their host? Here’s a fairly representative series of remarks from Mrs. Bill Cafritz, wife of a Washington builder. “Every adjective in the book has been used to describe Ar­deshir,” she confided to The Voice‘s Jan Albert a few months back. “He’s a warm, marvelous host, expert with food and wines. He’s not just an ordinary host. His centerpieces are famous. He’s had glass globes with flowers coming out of them. For Andy Warhol’s party, he had hearts with Campbell soup cans. All his parties, in every detail, from food to music to guests to decor are highly imaginative. He makes every guest feel that he is intent and interested in them. An invitation from Ardeshir is something to be cherished. He invites all the glamour people — Polly Ber­gen and Diana Vreeland came to the Warhol party.”

Mrs. Cafritz was then asked how she felt about the matter of torture in Iran, and whether she had asked Zahedi about it. “He’s not anti-American,” she replied. “At almost all of his parties he makes after­ dinner speeches toasting the friendship of Iran and America. He is a good friend of America’s. Besides, these reports are exaggerated. There are open lines of communication between our countries and the Shah is our friend. It’s not for me to make judgments. They should be made at a higher level. Everyone just has the best to say about him.”

To a similar sort of query from Jan Albert, Mrs. Frank Ikard (wife of the head of the American Petroleum Institute) stressed the beauties of Zahedi’s charac­ter — “the most kind, warm-hearted man, the friendliest and most outgoing” — while taking a balanced view on the matter of torture. “I have never been interested in international news,” she said. adding that she was the kind of person who felt we should “clean things up in our own back yard first. Besides, if you had a brother who was a black sheep I wouldn’t hold it against you. These reports are largely youthful mutterings. Anyway, Ardeshir’s house is not the place to find out such things.” She added that her son, a reporter in Iran for the Tehran Journal, had never mentioned such subjects to her.

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And so it goes — from Elizabeth Taylor through fascist chic’s recording angel, Andy Warhol, with his Polaroid and his tape recorder.

Would they all go to a similar sort of bash, hosted by Amin’s Washington envoy? Probably not, for reasons of taste. And of course there is the fact that the Iranians are, as you might say, sophisticated — and not even Arabs at that: the children of Xerxes rather than Ham.

If the Shah’s regime were not so repul­sive, there would be something pathetic about his pronounced social ambitions and desire to make his palace a haven for the rich, the famous, and the beautiful. Not so long ago it was the turn of Farrah Faw­cett-Majors to rest up in the shadow of the Peacock Throne. In his arriviste dreams, said one journalist long in Tehran, the Shah probably thought a double-barrelled name was a sure emblem of ancient and distinguished social lineage.

The bloom is going off the rose. Despite Zahedi’s greatest efforts and the precipi­tate rush to his parties by the beautiful people, there is general recognition that the Shah’s regime is not an emblem of liberty. The U.S. will continue to sell him arms. American universities will go on taking his money, socialites will go on drinking his champagne and eating his caviar. Money always talks, but it will have to do so amid increasing clamor about one of the most savage regimes of the 20th century. ■

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How Rich is the Shah?

The present inhabitant of the Peacock Throne has attained the dream of every rich person around the world: he has funneled his assets into a private founda­tion whose proceedings are secret and whose operations are beyond scrutiny. The Pahlavi Foundation, now 19 years old, is thought to have assets of more than $1 billion and is a combined charitable foundation and family trust fund. The Shah is its chief officer and selects all board members. The income is tax-free and can be drawn only the Shah’s family.

The Shah’s father (a former army sergeant who seized the throne under the aegis of the British in 1926) laid the basis for the Pahlavi family’s wealth by simply stealing it. He confiscated vast estates which he designated as crown lands. His son later sold off some of this land and began to invest in industrial and financial enter­prises: the cement industry (which the Shah virtually controls); sugar-processing installations; insurance and banking businesses; assembly plants; hotels; computer equipment marketing, and the like. The Shah is thus not only the leader of his country; he is also its chief stockholder.

In addition, the national budget provides expenses for the imperial court, plus $1 billion for a revolving discretionary fund. Prudently mindful of the possibility of exile one day, the Shah is also thought to have over $1 billion banked abroad.

As the Pahlavi Foundation’s chief officer, the Shah is entitled to 25 percent of the income of the foundation. He has stipulated that he is not accepting this money. His son and heir will become entitled to the 25 percent take, which as Eric Pace of The New York Times pointed out last year in a report on the foundation — could run into tens of millions of dollars annually.

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New Yorkers who desire an immediate sense of the Shah’s financial status can proceed to the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street where a 36-story building for the tax-exempt Pahlavi Foun­dation of New York is being erected. The Pahlavi Foundation of New York was created by the Pahlavi Foundation of Iran in 1973. The nominal charitable purpose of the New York outfit is to provide funds for Iranian students going to American universities. In an article on the U.S. founda­tion published last fall, Ann Crittenden reported in The New York Times that, “Two individuals close to these early arrangements say that from the first, howev­er, the acquisition [of the site] was con­sidered solely as an investment for the Iranian foundation and as a showcase site for offices of Iranian companies and government agencies in New York City — such as the Iranian consulate, the National Iranian Oil Company, the Bank Melli, and various tourist offices. One man who was intimately involved and who asked not to be identified, laughed when asked if the scholarship program was ever discussed: “It’s egregious,” he said,”with all of the problems New York City has, for an immensely wealthy foreign outfit to come in and receive a tax exemption at almost the same moment when the same government has just created an oil crisis.’ ”

Vitally concerned with the establishment of the tax-exempt foundation here were several well-known local faces: one was William Rogers, former secretary of state under Nixon and partner in the law firm of Rogers and Wells. Rogers set up the foun­dation and its address is currently at his law office. Also involved was Representative John Murphy of Staten Island, a frequent visitor to Iran. He, along with Rogers, is on the board of the foundation and has acknowledged his involvement in its business affairs, particularly in the construction contracting for the Fifth Ave­nue building. And indeed, helping out one would-be contractor — John Tishman of Tishman Realty and Construction Company — was former Mayor John Lindsay. The architect is John Warnacke. Another adviser to the Pahlavi Foundation is former Assistant Treasury Secretary James A. Reed. He told Crittenden that foundation officials in Tehran had said they would not go ahead with the New York operation unless they were able to get tax-exempt status. Thus, American tax­payers help finance an operation designed to further the Shah’s personal and political interests abroad. Even Amin hasn’t the gall to demand these kinds of favors. ■

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The Iranian National Pastime: Torture

“The torture on the second day of my arrest consisted of seventy-five blows with a plaited wire whip at the soles of my feet. I was whipped on my hands as well, and the head torturer took the small finger of my left hand and broke it, saying he was going to break my fingers one by one, each day. Then I was told that if I didn’t confess my wife and thirteen-year-old daughter would be raped in front of my eyes. All this time I was being beaten from head to toe.

“Then a pistol was held at my temple by the head torturer, Dr. Azudi, and he prepared to shoot. In fact, the sound of the shooting came and I fainted. When I opened my eyes, I was being interrogated by someone called Dr. Rezvan. The interrogation, combined with psychological torture and sometimes additional beating, went on for 102 days until I was let out…

” … There were also all sizes of whips hanging from nails on the walls. Electric prods stood on little stools. The nail-pluck­ing instrument stood on the far side. I could only recognize these devices upon later remembrance and through the description of others, as well as by personal experience. The gallows stood on the other side. They hang you upside down and then someone beats you with a club on your legs, or uses the electric prod on your chest or your genitals, or they lower you down, pull your pants up and one of them tries to rape you while you’re still hanging upside down …

” … This is what happens to a prisoner of the first importance. First, he is beaten by several torturers at once, with sticks and clubs. If he doesn’t confess, he is hanged upside down and beaten; if this doesn’t work, he is raped; and if he still shows signs of resistance, he is given electric shock which turns him into a howling dog; and if he is still obstinate, his nails and sometimes all his teeth are pulled out, and in certain exceptional cases, a hot iron rod is put into one side of the face to force its way to the other side, burning the entire mouth and the tongue. A young man was killed in this way. At other times he is thrown down on his stomach on the iron bed and boiling water is pumped into his rectum by an enema.

“Other types of torture are used which have never been heard of in other despotic systems. A heavy weight is hung from the testicles of the prisoner, maiming him in only a few minutes. Even the strongest prisoners are crippled in this way. In the case of the woman, the electric baton is moved over the naked body with the power increased on the breasts and the interstices of the vagina. I have heard women screaming and laughing hysterically, shouting, ‘Don’t do it, I’ll tell you.’ Rape is also a common practice. Thirteen-year-old girls have been raped in order to betray their parents, brothers or relatives.” Reza Bahareni was finally freed from the Shah’s prisons in 1974 under international pres­sure. His descriptions come from his book, God’s Shadow and from an article by him published in The New York Review of Books on October 28, 1976. Other state­ments attributed to Bahareni in this issue of The Voice are taken from the same article. ■

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Some Facts at a Glance 

• “The Shah of Iran,” said Martin Ennals in the introduction to Amnesty International’s Annual Report for 1974-5, “retains his benevolent image despite the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief.” The total number of political prisoners for 1975, stated the report, “has been reported at times throughout the year to be anything from 25,000 to 100,000.”

• Thousands of people have been executed over the last 23 years. According to Bahareni, more than 300,000 people have been in and out of jail in the last 20 years.

• Ninety-five percent of the press is controlled by two families taking their orders from the Shah and the police.

• There is only one political party — the Resurgence Party — whose membership is compulsory for the entire adult popula­tion.

• The vast bulk of the population is desperately poor, undernourished, and un­educated. In Quri-Chai, the northern slums of Tabriz, there is only one school for 100,000 children.

• There are 34 million people in Iran. Only half are Persian; the rest are Azar­baijanis, Kurds, Arabs and Baluchis, along with Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. The Shah considers all Iranians to be Aryan, who must learn one language, Persian. He is attempting to purge the Persian language of all Arab and Turkish elements, thus proscribing 40 percent of the vocabulary. The Shah himself speaks Persian badly, faring better in French and English. ■

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Why the US Backs the Shah

The reason the Shah is where he is today is because the U.S. government put him there.

By 1949, the Middle East was perceived by American foreign policy planners as perhaps the most critical area in the world in the contest between the U.S. and the Soviets. As George McGhee, then assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, recently recalled in congressional testi­mony: “The governments in the area were very unstable. We had no security pact covering this area. The Soviets had threat­ened Greece, Turkey, and Iran. As a result of the very strong position taken by President Truman we were able to dislodge the Soviets from northern Iran, where they had demanded an oil concession. Although we had already bolstered Greece and Turkey through the Greek-Turkish aid program, both were still in a precarious state. The Arab states were hostile to us because of our involvement in Israeli affairs.”

McGhee pointed out, “At this time the principal threat to the Middle East lay in the possibility of nationalist leaders mov­ing to upset regimes which were relatively inept and corrupt, and not attuned to the modern world. There was also always in the background the reaction in the Arab states to what happened elsewhere. For example, had there been a Communist seizure in Iran, we would have expected a similar threat in the Arab states.” And, of course, underlying American concern for the politics of the region was the business of oil, which McGhee described as “the jackpot of world oil. To have American companies owning the concession there was a great advantage for our country.”

It was against this background that Iran’s nationalist premier, Mohammed Mossadegh, sought to increase the country’s participation in the affairs of the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Co.

When the British refused to meet his demands, Mossadegh nationalized the company. The seizure reverberated throughout the Middle East. In Saudi Ara­bia the finance minister threatened to shut down the Aramco concession if more money was not forthcoming.

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Both Aramco officials and the U.S. State Department, acting independently, con­cluded — as McGhee later put it — that a “big move had to be made.” Thereupon, the Middle East underwent political con­vulsions which eventually were felt within the U.S. itself. First, this country did a secret deal with Saudi Arabia that allowed Aramco to take a tax break, offsetting its royalty payments to Saudi Arabia against U.S. taxes. The net effect of this was a subsidy, continuing to this day, of Saudi Arabia and the oil companies by the U.S. taxpayer.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department, quite independently of other branches of government, began to press actively two grand jury investigations, attacking the international petroleum cartel. These in­vestigations followed publication of a lengthy report by the Federal Trade Com­mission, which spelled out the details of the cartel’s operations. When Dean Acheson, then secretary of state, found out about the Justice Department probe, he opposed it vigorously, on the grounds that the results of such an investigation “will probably be to cause a decrease in political stability in the region [Middle East].” Acheson’s view eventually prevailed and President Tru­man himself downgraded the inquiry from a criminal to a civil proceeding, on national security grounds.

Eisenhower, taking office at the start of 1953, held to the same line. By the middle of 1953 Allen Dulles, head of the CIA, turned up in Switzerland for meetings with Loy Henderson, the ambassador to Iran, and with the sister of the present Shah. Soon after, American intelligence agents — not­ably Kermit Roosevelt — appeared in Te­hran. The Shah dismissed Mossadegh, who paid no attention and remained in office. The Shah left the country. On August 18, units of off-duty police and soldiers joined mobs in overthrowing Mossadegh. The Shah returned from exile and, thus aided by the CIA and Iranian associates, took charge of the country.

Two months after the Shah was restored to power, Herbert Hoover, Jr., set to work reorganizing the Iranian oil industry. Hoover soon persuaded major American oil companies to join in a consortium that would exploit Iran’s oil: In part, they agreed with the plan because of the down­grading of the Justice Department’s cartel case. Eisenhower’s attorney general formally sanctioned the new deal, ruling that the proposed consortium would not, in itself, constitute an unreasonable restraint of trade. The cartel was never brought to trial and instead members of the consor­tium signed a participants’ agreement which had the effect of sanctioning the cartel and indeed making it an instrument of cold war policy.

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Hence it is no academic exercise to regard the Shah not only as a U.S.-­sponsored oppressor of his own people but of the American people as well. His role has been to help maintain the international oil cartel, with the resulting bogus shortages, price hikes, and penalties attaching to the present international system of oil extrac­tion and distribution.

Oil, of course, forms the basis for American interest in Iran. But in the last 25 years the game has changed somewhat from its original primitive terms. Now, in order to get the oil, the American government has to pay off the Shah in other ways. As part of the U.S.’s policy to maintain the Shah and his repressive apparatus, it was necessary to train and supply a police force and army for him. The tastes of the army have grown more profligate over the years.

In 1972, the U.S. was sending the Iranians a half-billion dollars worth of military armaments. In the current fiscal year the U.S. is sending $5.3 billion worth of weap­ons. This is paid for by Americans in the form of higher prices for petroleum products, and in aid. The long-term scheme for Iran is a vast process of industrialization, with American companies forming joint ventures with Iranian companies, leading toward the establishment of industries such as aluminum, steel, and a whole variety of mining exploration. The idea in this is not to make life any better for the Iranian people, but to achieve savings in manufac­ture, due to the plentiful and immediate supply of energy (natural gas).

The Shah, always a client of the United States, visits Washington next week (until the postponement of his trip, President Carter was to have dropped in on Tehran for lunch later in the month in the course of his grand tour). As Henry Kissinger remarked, the interests of the United States and Iran coincide, and Zbigniew Brzezin­ski, Carter’s security adviser, agrees. Iran is one of those impending powers, argues Brzezinski, to which the U.S. may pay court. Other nations on the Carter schedule included Venezuela, Brazil, and Ni­geria. For all the talk about human rights, the Carter administration has been careful not to offend Iran. The king of torturers will be received with decorousness and respect, even though any honest toast at the White House banquet would demand silence and sorrow for the thousands who have died for opposing a regime built in blood. ■

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Law Enforcement in Iran

Every tyranny needs an efficient secret police force and Iran can boast of one of the most awesome in recent world history —  namely, the infamous SAVAK.

The Sazamane Ettella’at va Amniyate Keshvar (State Security and Intelligence Organization) was set up in 1956 with the help of the American CIA and, according to some reports, Israeli intelligence. The Shah himself has claimed that SAVAK has about 3000 people. Other estimates put the number at more than 60,000 and beyond that to an army of agents and informants amounting to hundreds of thousands. SAVAK, controlled by the Shah, is now run by General Hossein Fardust, a former classmate of the Shah, described by him as “a special friend.”

SAVAK is not only the cutting edge of oppression and torture in Iran, but operates on a worldwide scale as well. Documented cases of its activities in Europe and the United States have received much publicity — including espionage and harassment of Iranian students working abroad and of political exiles. Agents of SAVAK have been dispatched abroad with missions of assassination.

This army of spies and torturers should have a special meaning for American citizens. As exiled writer Reza Bahareni put it: “Imagine a more tyrannical and primi­tive George III being crowned 6000 miles away by the very descendants of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin with money raised by the American taxpayer. The CIA re-created the monarchy, built up the SAVAK and trained all its prominent members, and stood by the Shah and his secret police as their powerful ally. Iran became the police state it is now.” Ba­hareni did not mention that as a final expression of courtesy Richard Nixon sent former CIA head Richard Helms to be the American ambassador in Tehran. ■

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Welcoming Committees 

Already, law enforcement officials In Washington are worried about reception committees for the Shah when he arrives next Tuesday. It is possible that as many as 20,000 demonstrators will converge from around the country for the two-day visit. A compromise supervised by the Secret Service and the National Park Service has stipulated that on Tuesday pro-Shah demonstrators will be allowed to congre­gate nearer the White House. Anti-Shah Iranian students will be given the prime spot on Wednesday, when he leaves.

According to Iranian students in the U.S. opposed to the Shah, SAVAK agents have been carefully building up for the Shah’s visit, offering individuals from all over the U.S. up to $300 to travel to Washington to demonstrate their loyalty. Iranian students in the New School’s political economy division have stated that they have been approached and offered bus fare to Washington, if they join the pro-Shah group. Anti-Shah demonstrations will also be held in San Francisco. The Shah will be staying in Blair House. No demonstrators will be allowed within 500 feet of the building.

Anti-Shah Iranian students in the United States have not only been harassed by SAVAK agents, but also by college administrations and U. S. police. Darioush Bayandor, adviser to Iran’s ex-prime min­ister Hoveida, has been quoted as saying that “SAVAK has agents outside Iranian borders to detect subversive elements and their links with other countries that might be against Iran and to penetrate the ranks of students and make sure their organizations are not used to harm Iran.” Iranian student groups at American colleges around the country have protested the interference of college administrations and police in their meetings, demonstrations, and finally their private conversations.

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At Emporia College in Kansas, a group of Iranian students were told that they would be arrested if they picketed in the presence of an Iranian government representative at a cultural day on campus. The official pretext was that the students were not an officially recognized organization. They had made repeated applications and were denied approval.

Ninety-two students in Houston, marching in front of the French Consulate at the end of 1976 to protest the expulsion of some Iranian nationals from Paris, were arrest­ed and beaten up by local police. Many witnesses have testified to the fact that the demonstration was orderly and peaceful and that the attack by police was unprovoked.

At San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, students were forbidden to form a club by school officials who insisted that tapes of any meetings held in their native tongue be made and handed over to the administration for review. If held in Eng­lish, a school representative was to be present. This harassment culminated in several students being arrested for conversing in Persian over lunch. A teacher approached them and reminded them that it was against the rules to hold meetings in “a foreign language.” Police arrived and charged students with resisting arrest and menacing police and school authorities. In this and other in­stances, the police passed the names of Iranian student transgressors along to the Iranian consulate, and received letters of congratulation on a job well done and thanks from Zahedi. ■

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Tom Wolfe and Optimism: He Blew It

My deepest impulses are optimistic, an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect. In college and for some time afterward, my education was dominated by modernist thinkers and artists who taught me that the supreme imperative was courage to face the awful truth, to scorn the soft-minded optimism of religious and sec­ular romantics as well as the corrupt optimism of governments, advertisers, and mechanistic or manipulative revolution­aries. I learned that lesson well (though it came too late to wholly supplant certain critical opposing influences, like comic books and rock and roll).

Yet the modernists’ once-subversive re­fusal to be gulled or lulled has long since degenerated into a ritual despair at least as corrupt, soft-minded, and cowardly — not to say smug — as the false cheer it replaced. The terms of the dialectic have reversed: now the subversive task is to affirm an authentic post-modernist optimism that gives full weight to existent horror and possible (or probable) apocalyptic disas­ter, yet insists — credibly — that we can, well, overcome. The catch is that you have to be an optimist (an American?) in the first place not to dismiss such a project as insane.

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A subtheme of ’60s utopianism was the attempt — often muddled, at times self-negating — to arrive at some sort of honest optimism. This concern was also implicit in the anti-utopian sensibility first self-consciously articulated by the pop artists. Pop sensibility — loosely defined as the selective appreciation of whatever is vital and ex­pressive in mass culture — did more than simply suggest that life in a rich, capitalist, consumption-obsessed society had its pleasures; the crucial claim was that those pleasures had some connection with genu­ine human feelings, needs, and values and were not — as both conservative and radical modernists assumed — mere alienated dis­traction. Pessimists like Herbert Marcuse argued that advanced capitalism destroyed the autonomous self and with it the possi­bility of authentic pleasure, let alone hap­piness; pop implied a more sanguine view of the self as guerrilla, forever infiltrating territory officially controlled by the enemy, continually finding new ways to evade and even exploit the material and psychic obstacles that the social system continually erected. I shared this view; I doubted that either Marx or Freud would quarrel with the proposition that a human being who had the urge to build a castle, and found that the only material available was shit, would soon learn how to build shit castles — and how to use the unique properties of shit to advantage. Pop was about the ways in which the spirit of the people invaded the man’s technology: restrict us to three chords, a backbeat, and two minutes of air time, and we’ll give you — rock and roll.

The pop stance was honest up to a point. But its commitment to making the most of the existing reality excluded painful or dangerous questions about systemic change. Not that pop optimism was devoid of political content: it was by definition populist (while modernist pessimism was, at least in part, an aristocratic vote of no-confidence in the lower orders), and it gleefully offended upper bourgeois pieties about art, taste, and the evils of consu­merism. Nor did the pop sensibility deny or defend the various forms of oppression that at once hedged our pleasures and made them possible; its very celebration of human resilience implied an awareness of such barriers to fulfillment. But it took that tension for granted. The price of pop optimism was a deeper fatalism; in a way Andy Warhol’s silk-screened electric chair was more chilling than anything in One Dimensional Man. Those of us who were unwilling to pay that price looked for ways to integrate the pop impulse with political and cultural radicals and with the parallel experience of the immanence of the spirit — best described as religious — that had become a mass phenomenon because of a technological achievement called LSD. Yet pop remained central, if only because mass culture was the bloodstream in which other influences had to circulate if they were to have much effect.

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I had no more than an inkling of the importance of all this when, in the fer­menting mid-’60s, I first came across The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. The book — particularly the title piece and the one on Las Vegas, neither of which I’d read in their original Esquire incarnations — made a strong impression on me. Tom Wolfe had pulled off the remark­able feat of not only describing but em­bodying pop consciousness — an essentially aliterate phenomenon — in print. The ba­roque extravagance of his prose mirrored the cultural styles he was writing about; his narrative voice captured the single­-minded vision, the manic enthusiasm, the confident, idiosyncratic genius of their inventors. He even played around with his own mass art, journalism, borrowing not only from fiction but from advertising and pulp jargon. His introduction laid out as­sumptions that had already begun to affect my view of the world: “Here was this incredible combination of form plus money in a place nobody ever thought about finding it… Suddenly classes of people whose styles of life had been practically invisible had the money to build monu­ments to their own styles… Stock car racing, custom cars and, for that matter, the jerk, the monkey, rock music — still seem beneath serious consideration, still the preserve of ratty people with ratty hair and dermatitis… Yet all these rancid people are creating new styles all the time and changing the life of the whole country in ways that nobody even bothers to record, much less analyze… The new sensibili­ty — Baby baby baby where did our love go? — the new world, submerged so long, invisible and now arising, slippy, shitty, electric — Super, Scuba-man! — out of the vinyl deeps.”

Tom Wolfe THE PAINTED WORD review in the Village Voice

In comparison, Wolfe’s second collection, The Pump House Gang, fell curiously flat. It was full of repetitious variations on the proliferation-of-styles theme, which in 1968 was no longer either new or neglected, and Wolfe’s enthusiasm seemed forced, his rhetorical devices mechanical, as if he himself were bored with it all. Most of the pieces had been written two or three years earlier, and the gap showed. A lot had happened to overshadow, or at least com­plicate, all that churning of the vinyl deeps — the Vietnam escalation, black power, the burgeoning of radical and bohe­mian dissidence. Wolfe was not unaware of those events; on the contrary, he devoted a page of introduction to defensive ridicule of intellectuals’ avidity for disaster: “War! Poverty! Insurrection! Alienation! O Four Horsemen, you have not deserted us entirely. The game can go on.” He recalled that during a symposium on the ’60s, a few years ago, the other panelists had been so obsessed with gloomy maunderings that he had been moved to protest. “ ‘What are you talking about?’ I said. ‘We’re in the middle of a… Happiness Explosion!’ ” Elsewhere in the introduction Wolfe an­nounced the imminent spontaneous demise of the class structure, already accomplished in New York.

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Though I did not expect incisive radical analysis from Tom Wolfe, any more than I expected it from Mick Jagger, I did think a touch of the Stones’ — or even the Beat­les’ — irony was in order. By indulging in mindless yea-saying, Wolfe betrayed the tension at the core of pop, converting it to a more sophisticated version of the tradi­tional American booster mentality, whose purpose was, as it had always been, cosmetic. It was this betrayal, I suspected, that made The Pump House Gang so lifeless. There was some truth in Wolfe’s complaint; intellectuals did have an emo­tional investment in apocalypse, for reasons that rightly offended his populism. But it was hard to take seriously a populism that willfully ignored certain discomfiting facts. Such as that the ratty-haired, der­matitic kids whose creativity Wolfe so admired, and who populated the lower ranks of the class structure he so jauntily pronounced dead, were providing most of the bodies for the war.

Still, the book contained one piece that confounded all these judgments — “The Pump House Gang,” Wolfe’s account of the La Jolla surfers who hung out and hung loose on the beach, creating a hedonistic subculture based on physical perfection, daring, contempt for the straight life, mystical rapport with the ocean, above all youth and a horror of age. The story paid Wolfe’s usual loving attention to surface minutiae, but it also had an underside. There was the mysterioso Pacific, which had somehow drowned this fantastic surfer, who should have been… im­mune; there was the ineluctable aging process, which would sooner or later con­sign the Pump House Gang to the cruel obsolescence they themselves had decreed. The piece made me shiver; it hovered on the edge of a metaphorical wave that suggested both the danger and the lure of the American ride. It also suggested that Wolfe was basically too talented and too honest to practice the complacency he preached.

That suggestion was justified, and then some, by The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I think Acid Test is a great book, certainly the best to come out of the ’60s. Again Wolfe uses his reportorial gifts to get down a sensibility based largely on a revolt against the supremacy of worlds. But there is something more: Acid Test is about the whole sticky problem of optimism, of how to pursue the elusive synthesis. What makes the book so powerful — and so brave — is the way Wolfe allowed the Pranksters’ vision to challenge and stretch his own. Ken Kesey and his friends created a wondrous new style, rooted in American history, myth, technology, and popular culture, but their aim was not only aesthet­ic — it was messianic. If Wolfe’s pop sym­pathies were engaged by the style, his anti-utopianism must have been equally offended by the aim. Yet the two could not be separated, for they were complementa­ry aspects of a central unifying impulse to live out and spread the psychedelic experi­ence. If Wolfe was really to do his job — report accurately on what the Pranksters’ trip was about — he could not take them seriously on one level, dismiss them as silly hippies on another. Like everyone else, he had in some sense to choose: was he on the bus or off?

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For Wolfe, getting on did not mean taking acid — apparently he did not — or abdicating his particular role in the Pranksters’ movie, which was to be a reporter. Acid Test always keeps the proper critical dis­tance; it carefully documents the Pranksters’ confusions, fuck-ups, and ultimate failure. But Wolfe does not hold himself aloof from the pain of that failure. From his first meeting with Kesey at the beginning of the book to the “WE BLEW IT!” litany at the end, he never shirks the recognition that there was a real chance to blow.

Wolfe has never risked or achieved so much since; in the ’70s his writing has increasingly reflected and served the decade’s characteristic failures of imagina­tion and will. On its own terms, Wolfe’s first ’70s book, Radical Chic and Mau-Mau­ing the Flak-Catchers, is successful, even brilliant; his demolition of rich liberals and of the charades that so often pass for left-wing politics in this country is maliciously accurate and irresistibly funny. Yet the terms themselves represent a retreat from the complex blend of identification and objectivity that informs the best of his earlier work to a more conventional stance as critic of manners and mores. And the pieces are a moral retreat as well. Like the Pump House Gang introduction, they offer specific truths in the service of a larger lie. Their underlying assumption is that politi­cal action is inherently ridiculous and irrelevant, nothing more than a ritual designed — like, say, a demolition derby — to meet the psychological needs of its partici­pants. But while Wolfe has always regard­ed demolition derbies and most other American rituals with tolerance if not positive fondness, the very idea of social conscience pisses him off, and he takes a mean-spirited pleasure in discrediting it.

In his most recent work, Wolfe’s wit has declined as his crankiness has increased. The Painted Word parlays a slight and dubious thesis into a long and boring polemic. And Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, Wolfe’s latest and weakest anthology, hits a note of asperity that suggests nothing so much as the curmud­geonly irritation of an old Tory. The title piece is a heavy-handed, son-of-radical­-chic exposé of that ungrateful wretch, the rich West Side writer who finances his rich West Side existence with jeremiads about repression and recession. “The Intelligent Co-Ed’s Guide to America,” a frankly conservative attack on radical intellec­tuals cum defense of American democra­cy, could have been lifted, minus a few exclamation points, from the pages of Commentary.

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Then there is “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” in which Wolfe attempts to graft his standard happiness-­is-postwar-prosperity number to a report on the popularity of various therapeutic/sexual/religious invitations to self-fulfill­ment. The result has an oddly schi­zophrenic quality. On the one hand, the current preoccupation with “me” is a product of leisure and money, hence to be applauded as further evidence against the disaster mongers. On the other hand, it is not lower-class kids who show up at Esalen and EST but West Side writers who are bored with Martha’s Vineyard, and anyway, all that silly self-absorption all that psychic muckraking what is it, really, but a form of internal disaster mongering? Wolfe does not try to reconcile these opposing trains of thought; he just scatters cheap shots in all directions and ends up saying less about middle-class narcissism than any random Feiffer cartoon.

The one memorable piece in Mauve Gloves is “The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie,” a day-in-the-life account of Navy bomber pilots flying missions over North Vietnam. Wolfe’s greatest strength is his ability to write from inside his subjects, even when they are inarticulate, and since that skill requires empathy rather than spleen he has always written best about people he admires. He admires the bomber pilots. They are prototypical American heroes not eccentric offshoots of the genre, like Kesey, but the real thing: men who do much and say little, who master rather than submit to machines, who test their skills to the limit, keep their cool in the face of death, and enjoy a mystical confrontation with the universe denied or­dinary mortals.

A few years ago, Wolfe wrote about the same brand of heroism in his Rolling Stone series on the Apollo 17 astronauts. But astronauts are one thing, bomber pilots quite another. The real suspense of “The Truest Sport” is not whether Dowd and Flint will make it back from their deadly trip over Haiphong harbor, but whether Wolfe can compel his readers — most of whom, he knows, are inclined to regard Vietnam bomber pilots as war criminals — ­to see these men as complex human beings who are in certain ways admirable, more admirable perhaps than you or I. Improb­ably, he succeeds, at least with me. “The Truest Sport” is an impressive tour de force. It has, however, one rather disturbing flaw: the Vietnamese are as invisible to Wolfe as they were to the pilots.

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What bothers me is not that Wolfe didn’t write an antiwar tract but that the issue of whether the war was right or wrong, the bombings necessary or criminal, is not even an implicit issue in the piece. What matters to Wolfe is that he prefers the pilots’ stoic style to that of whiny, bad-sport peaceniks who never put their lives on the line but whose influence on the conduct of the war — particularly the restrictions placed on bombing raids made the pilots’ task more difficult and dangerous. I wish I could believe that Wolfe’s use of the sport­ing metaphor (it is one of the pilots who compares the bombing missions to jousting) is at least a bit ironic. But I’m afraid the truth is that Wolfe simply refuses to entertain the possibility that there are times when style is beside the point.

The continuing inability of someone as intelligent and perceptive as Tom Wolfe to confront unpleasant political realities in any serious way — even to admit that, like it or not, they exist — strikes me as not just obtuse but neurotic. It comes, I think, from Wolfe’s failure to resolve the contradiction between his populist faith in human possi­bility and his essentially conservative political instincts. The cultural excitement of the ’60s allowed Wolfe to avoid facing that conflict; it was possible then to nourish the illusion that politics didn’t matter, that the real action was elsewhere. For all the prominence of political movements, it was the idea of cultural revolution — whether in its right-wing (pop) or left-wing (psychedelic) versions — that dominated the ’60s imagination; Kesey was anti-political, in his way a classic American individualist, and Wolfe loved the way the Pranksters’ anarchism befuddled the straight left. But the times changed, abruptly and rudely exposing the fragility of that idea — and of the prosperity on which it had depended. Cultural revolution had been a side-effect of expanding American empire; thanks to the Vietnamese, the expansive days were over. The vaunted post-scarcity economy, which would make all that nasty conflict between classes academic, had failed to arrive; if you believed the projections of ecologists, it never would. And in the absence of a political spark, the happiness explosion was fizzling out.

Deprived of cultural fireworks to celebrate, Wolfe diverted his energy to attack­ing the left — to, as it were, killing the bearer of bad news. But the repressed always returns. At this point Wolfe’s op­timism, such as it is, denies rather than affirms; the voice he raises against his archenemies, the disaster mongers, is the strident, defensive, I’m-all-right-Jack voice of official rationalization. It is, in fact, a negative voice worthy of the archenemies themselves. It is, one might say, the sound of the… old sensibili­ty… once again having the last whine. For the time being.

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A Report From the Bowery: The Boys in the Bottle

The stomach cramps hit at four in the morning, twisting Bubba out of his sleep. At age 27, Bubba needs a drink every two hours. It was his fourth Good Friday on the Bowery and as he lay in a cubicle at the Prince Hotel Bubba knew that he had slept too long. Unless he got a drink convulsions would soon follow the cramps. Bubba rolled onto the floor and groped for the quart of wine he had bought the night before. He took one taste and flung the bottle against the door. The bartender had sold him water.

Bubba stuffed a sock in his mouth to keep his tongue away from his chattering teeth and stumbled toward the lobby. Groans and cries from other cubicles echoed in the dark hallway. Bubba crossed the lobby to a six-foot window. He pulled the sock out of his mouth and wiped the soot off a few inches of the glass. Vinnie the bootlegger was across the street, in front of the Salvation Army mission. Every morning between 4 and 8, Vinnie stands on the Bowery and sells wine to men who need a drink to keep “well” until the bars open. Vinnie charges $1.25 a pint. Bubba only had 11 cents. He turned away from the window and walked toward the 11 men scattered among the rows of wooden seats that fill the lobby.

“I got 27 cents. Anybody want to go in for a pint'” Bubba asked. Nobody answered. The Social Security checks that support the old men had come eight days before. The catering businesses and temporary-labor companies that hire the younger men had been closed since the beginning of Passover. At 4 a.m., there are no cars or pedestrians on the street to panhandle.

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“This early on a holiday at this time of the month, you’re the richest man in the Prince,” an old bum at the back of the lobby said.

Rube walked into the room wearing a towel around his waist and carrying a paper bag. A pair of BVDs were tangled in the joint of his artificial leg.

“I told them this new leg was too compli­cated,” Rube said as he sat down. Bubba bent over and freed the underwear from the plastic limb.

“Here,” Rube said, pulling a pint of Jack Daniels out of the paper bag. “I owe you from the hospital.” Bubba and Rube had been in the detoxification ward at Bern­stein Institute together. During their first night on the ward, Bubba had produced a smuggled bottle of vodka.

“The nurses never would have found out if you hadn’t fallen out of your wheelchair,” Bubba said as he took a pull from the bottle. Bubba’s cramps subsided a half-pint later.

He borrowed a pencil and drew the outline of an airplane on a week-old copy of the Daily News. Five years ago, Bubba welded patches of titanium on Strategic Air Command bombers for a contractor at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Peri­odically, Air Force technicians checked the welds with an X-ray machine. In February of 1972, Bubba was summoned to his boss’s office. The first thing he noticed was a stack of X-ray film .

“I can take you missing three Mondays in a row,” Bubba remembers the boss saying. “But I can’t take the kind of work you’ve been doing. Look at these X-rays. If we’d let those welds go through, it’d be raining B-52s from here to California.” Bubba took a bus to New York the next day. He signed up for welfare and started drinking at uptown bars. He went for two weeks with­out a bath and was bounced by 23 separate uptown bartenders. It took the more tolerant Greenwich Village saloonkeepers six weeks to bar him. At the end of what he still calls “a record-breaking drunk,” Bubba was on the Bowery.

“It’s the lieutenant,” a man standing by the window shouted. Bubba and three other bums jumped from their seats and ran out to the street. A policeman was frisking Vinnie. The bums rummaged the pile of garbage in front of the mission and looted the bootlegger’s stash.

“Have a good Good Friday,” the policeman said over his shoulder as the bums crossed back to the Prince.

“We call that cop the lieutenant,” Bubba explained. “Whenever he busts a bootleg­ger, he gives the wine to the bums. He’s the only real Christian on the Bowery.” Over the next hour, Bubba killed two pints of wine. The Roadhouse bar opened at 8, and, when Bubba walked in at 8:05, Pete and Harold were already halfway through a quart of white port. Bubba shuffled through the quarter-inch of sawdust that covered the tile floor.

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“Have a drink on Medicaid,” Harold said, beckoning from the back of the saloon. Eight weeks ago, 24-year-old Harold had been a patient at an upstate mental hospital. As part of an economy drive the hospital classified him as “stable” and offered him $25 and a Medi­caid card if he would sign himself out. Since then, Harold and his 54-year-old partner, Pete, have been visiting hospitals and clinics throughout the city seeking prescriptions. On Thursday, the pair ob­tained scripts from St. Luke’s Hospital, Roosevelt Hospital, and Veterans Hospital for Elavil, Tuenol, and Valium. That night, they sold the pills on 14th Street for $200. Bubba elbowed his way past the 20 men standing at the bar and grabbed a glass.

Pete took a head of lettuce from under his overcoat and tossed it onto the table. A half hour later, Bubba reached out and squeezed the lettuce.

“It’s lettuce,” Pete said. “I told Harold that he was so smoked on pills that he couldn’t do anything. He told me that he could still buy a head of lettuce. Well, here it is.”

“Jesus,” Bubba said. “I’ve been sitting here all this time thinking that it was a hallucination.”

A fight erupted at the far corner of the bar.

“You’re too ugly to be in here,” Johnny, a former schoolteacher from White Plains, screamed at Liam. Liam’s face had been severely burned in a fire three years ago.

“And you can’t teach anybody anything,” Liam shouted, raising his fists. A one-eyed man named Arthur pushed the two men apart.

“That’s some crew,” Bubba said. “Johnny’s down here because he got caught playing with one of his students. Liam’s here because he got his face burned up and he thinks he’s too ugly to live with regular people. And Arthur, he lost his eye after it got infected by A-200.” A-200 is a delousing agent.

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Harold pulled three dollars out of his pocket and went to the bar for another quart. Red stumbled into the saloon, his bare feet bloodied by the glass that litters the Bowery sidewalks.

“She stoled my shoes,” Red mumbled as he collapsed into a chair. Red had met a 24-year-old woman from Puerto Rico the night before.

“I don’t have any place to stay,” the woman had said when the bar closed.

“I don’t either,” Red had answered.

“I don’t have any money,” the woman had said.

“Well, I sure don’t,” Red had said. “I’m just going over to the empty building and sleep under the stairwell.”

“Can I sleep with you?” the girl had asked. Red woke up without his shoes.

“I need something to calm my nerves,” Pete said. “I’m going to get some more pills.” He left the bar and walked three blocks to visit a doctor on Bleecker Street. The doctor’s “office” was equipped with a desk, a chair, a stack of Medicaid forms, and a prescription pad. He handed the doctor his Medicaid card. The doctor wrote down that he had just given Pete a complete physical, four X-rays, a blood test, a urine-sugar test, and a test for venereal disease.

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“I’ll take 300 Valium,” Pete said after signing the form. On the way back to the bar, Pete met Victor the Driver. Until last month, Victor visited the Bowery only once a week. Every Saturday, he parked his car in front of the Roadhouse and paid bums to fetch quarts of wine. Occasionally, he would invite Pete into the car to discuss women and skeet shooting. On the last Saturday in March, Victor climbed on top of his car and announced that he was holding an auction. A wino named Jumbo got the car for three bottles of port. Victor hasn’t left the Bow­ery since.

“You look tense,'” Pete said to Victor. “How about a few of these.” Pete poured 25 Valium into Victor’s cupped hands. He gobbled the pills and walked into the bar with blue chunks of Valium stuck to his beard and mustache.

“Am I good for credit?” Victor asked. The bartender pulled a thick blue ledger from under the bar and ran his finger down a long list of names. The men listed in the book have their Social Security and pension checks mailed to the saloon. On the first and third Wednesday of every month, the owner calls out the names on the checks. After the men endorse the checks, the owner deducts the bar bills and gives the men the remainder.

“Sorry, Victor,” the bartender said. “You already drank the next check.”

“I did not,” Victor said, pulling a crum­pled piece of paper out of his pocket. “I wrote down each wine and the schoolteacher over there added it up. I only drank $43. My check is for $87.”

“You got some kind of nerve, calling me a liar,” the bartender said, leaping the bar.

“You shouldn’t cheat people,” Victor said. The bartender pushed Victor to the floor and picked up a stool.

“Maybe this will settle the account,” he said, crashing one of the legs of the stool into Victor’s mouth. The bartender picked him up by the collar and shoved him out the door.

“You don’t see much of that,” Bubba said. “Everybody knows that these guys cheat. They always get an extra $40 or $50. But nobody says anything. Everybody down here’s got their hand in somebody else’s pocket. The only honest person I know is Betty. She used to own a bar down here. She wouldn’t steal a dime. She went bankrupt.” Bubba slugged back half a glass of wine and pointed to a gray-haired man and a burly youth sitting at a nearby table.

“Those two are supposed to be best friends,” Bubba said. “The old guy’s buy­ing the drinks for the young guy because he’s a fag. Three-quarters of the guys down here are fags. You don’t see a lot of women in here. So the old guy’s trying to pick the kid up. The kid is just taking the drinks and seeing if he’s going to have a chance to rob him.” The older man handed the youth a five-dollar bill and staggered over to the toilet. The youth went to the bar and returned with a bottle of wine.

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“The kid isn’t going to give him any change,” Bubba said as the old man returned to the table. “He knows that the fella’s forgotten about it. Now, notice that the old man’s missing one of his socks? That means that he took the rest of the money out of his shoe when he was in the toilet and was too drunk to put his sock back on. The kid’ll see that and know that it’s time for him to make his move. The kid saw the old fella take the five out of his left jacket pocket. You can bet that’s where the money from the shoe is now.” The old man leaned forward and vomited on the floor. The youth patted him on the back with his left hand. Then his right hand flashed into the old man’s jacket pocket.

“That,” Bubba said, “is how Social Security benefits get to young people on the Bowery. The young down here live off the old. If the kid hadn’t gotten the money that way, he would have waited till night and then hit the guy in the head. The old-timers are scared all the time. A lot of these young kids get twisted on pills and like to hurt people. We call them jackrollers.”

A tall man in his twenties threw open the door and walked the length of the bar, asking for change.

“Take a walk,” Pete said to the man. “We don’t want you here.” The man glared at Pete and left.

“The guy’s a jackroller,” Pete said. “Something’s got to be done about him.” Something was. The jackroller was beaten to death later that night.

Pete and Harold drained their glasses and left. Ten-Day Red came in with two quarts and sat next to Bubba. Ten-Day owns a dairy farm in upstate New York. Once a year, he comes down to the Bowery with $2000, At the end of 10 days, he gets deloused at the municipal shelter for men on East Third Street and goes back home.

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“It’s only been four days, and I’m down to 90 cents,” Ten-Day said to Bubba. “I don’t know what happened to it.”

“It can get expensive living on the Bowery,” Bubba said. “We’ll drink these, and then we’ll panhandle.” Twenty min­utes later, they were in the middle of the Bowery, hitting cars for change.

“Please, young sir,” Bubba said to a man in a Corvette with a Queens College sticker.

“A nickel, a dime, or a quarter to help us get an Easter jug.” The driver shook his head and rolled up his window.

“Most young guys and all hippies are terrible,” Bubba said to Ten-Day. “The only people worse are the Chinese and the pimps.”

“Please, young lady,” Bubba said to a middle-aged woman in a battered Ford. “I am here with a smile to ask you to help us get an Easter jug. Just a dime with a smile, or a quarter with a frown.” The woman smiled and gave him 50 cents. He moved on to a couple in a Cadillac. The Cadillac’s electric locks clicked down. The driver brandished a sawed-off baseball bat. Bubba approached a truck driver.

“Wish I could get out and join you for a drink,” the trucker laughed, tossing a quarter.

“Unless you get them at the beginning or the end of the day, working people are the best,” Bubba told Ten-Day. “In the morn­ings and evenings they hate you because they’re going to or coming from work. Any other time, they understand a guy on the skid.”

Ten-Day walked up to two men in a Pontiac. The car changed lanes and roared away.

“You got it all wrong,” Bubba said. “Never walk up to a car with your hands in your pockets. And always smile. Other­wise, people get afraid.”

Ten-Day took his hands out of his pockets, put on a smile, and sauntered over to a Cadillac. The driver handed Ten-Day a penny.

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“Your generosity overwhelms me,” Ten-­Day said. The driver produced a .32 calibre automatic.

“Maybe this will overwhelm you, too,” the driver growled. Ten-Day ran back into the bar. Bubba came in an hour later. Red was sitting at a back table with Jimmy.

“I would have stayed out longer,” Bubba said, pouring $7.43 onto the table, “but the rag men came out. I don’t like them. I used to do the rag, but then I learned that people are going to give you what they’re going to give you, whether you wipe the windows or not. You taught me that, right Jimmy?” Jimmy raised his glass and smiled. Jimmy had been Bubba’s “professor” when he first hit the Bowery. He taught Bubba how to panhandle, avoid jackrollers, and frus­trate pickpockets. Jimmy can’t remember who his “professor” was. Jimmy has been on the Bowery for 39 years. Six other men drew chairs up to the table and helped drink Bubba’s change.

“I can’t hold onto money,” Bubba said. “A guy needs a drink, I got to buy him a drink.” At 3 p.m., Bubba went back to the street to panhandle. As he left, two of the bums at the table grabbed for the half-inch of wine in Bubba’s glass. The larger of the two men smashed a bottle into the other bum’s face. The smaller man fell to the floor, screaming.

“It never used to be this way,” Jimmy said, shaking his head. “It just used to be regular bums. You had a bottle under your coat and you slept in hallways. Now you got the young guys and the pills. They go crazy, and they make everybody else crazy.”

Bubba made two dollars in half an hour. He quit when a policeman in a squad car handed him a dollar bill.

“The police are the most compassionate people on the Bowery,” Bubba said. “Now I got enough to pay in for the night.” On the way to the Prince Hotel, Bubba hit a woman pushing twin girls in a perambula­tor for a final 15 cents.

Bubba could hear the shouting from the entrance to the hotel. An elderly black man was standing at the chain-link door at the top of the stairs. A caseworker at the municipal shelter had told him that his “Muni Ticket” was good for any flophouse on the Bowery.

“Get lost, nigger,” the manager shouted at the black man, pointing to a cardboard placard taped to the wall. “The sign says ROOMS FULL.” Bubba walked up to the gate.

“Keep the nigger out,” the manager said as he buzzed Bubba in. Bubba slid $2.25 through the through the six-inch opening in the wall and brass bars surrounding the manager and grabbed his receipt.

“You must be new around here,” Bubba said as he walked past the black man. “Around here, ‘no rooms’ means no niggers and no spics.”

“You want some pink lady?” the black man said, offering a can of Sterno. “I only drank a little bit. Twenty cents.” Bubba he shook his head.

“You just get disgusted,” Bubba said to his friend, Robert, as he walked away from the hotel. “I’ve been to 20 detox centers. I keep trying to get out of here. But they dry you out and throw you back in. You’re like a dry sponge. You just soak up more wine.”

“Let’s go up to Al’s,” Robert said. “Willie’s across the street at the Providence. He’s got my coat and he’s sitting on $500.” Ten years ago, Willie had been an organist at Radio City Music Hall. He was fired when he started mixing Wagner, Beethoven, and white port. On his last day at the organ, he rolled up the rubber mat at the entrance to the theatre and carted it down to the Bowery. Willie’s favorite saloon still boasts the largest welcome mat of any gin mill in the city.

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Robert had gotten work through a temporary labor pool the previous Thursday hauling steel. As they passed Delancey Street, Robert ducked into a liquor store to cash a $20 labor paycheck.

“This is the only place you can cash the check,” Robert explained as he waited for the clerk. “You go to the labor pool and pay 10 per cent of what the job is. You want $20 a day, you give them two dollars. Then when you’re done, you got to come here. The labor-pool people own the liquor store. You got to buy something when you cash the check.” The man behind the counter took the check and handed Robert $14 and a four-ounce bottle of brandy.

“Tell Hanson that he’s behind a payment,” the clerk said. The clerk is also the local loan shark. Recently, a reporter a daily newspaper interviewed him for the workingman’s view of the Bowery.

“You wouldn’t believe all the rip-offs around here,” the clerk said.

“Tell Hanson that I’m going to twist his prick if he doesn’t cough,” he said as Robert pocketed the money.

Bubba was staggering by the time they reached Al’s. He didn’t touch the glass of wine an elderly homosexual poured for him. Bubba was sick. He did not need a drink. He needed food. Bubba had not eaten in four days. Brushing the silk lapels of his secondhand tuxedo, the homosexual prattled about silverware. Bubba fought to keep his head off the table and finally vomited thin stream of clear bile splashed onto floor.

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“You can’t do that in here,” Robert said, slamming his fist onto the table. “Go into the bathroom.”

Robert leaned back and explained his theory about the Bowery’s social strata. “Delancey Street is an invisible border. Bubba hangs out in the Roadhouse. You can do anything up there. You spit up on the floor here, you’re out. The Bowery’s divided into three social groups. You got the blacks up by Houston Street. Then you get the panhandlers and lunatics. Then, below Delancey, you got the minority of bums that work the labor companies and the caterers.”

“Out,” the bartender growled as Bubba returned from the bathroom. Bubba stumbled back up the Bowery. A block beyond Delancey, he ran into Rosemary. Last ­February, Rosemary had found him asleep in her hallway. Bubba had awakened with a pillow under his head. She gave him a glass of wine and told him that he could continue to sleep outside her door if he agreed to sweep the stairway. Then, in March, one of Bubba’s friends defecated in the hallway.

“It’s a holy day, and if you didn’t have such dirty friends, I would take you back,” Rosemary said. “You look bad, Bubba.”

“The Italians around here were always kind until the jackrollers and the wild ones started to come in,” Bubba said as he slid into a chair in the Roadhouse. The nausea passed, and, by nightfall, Bubba was drinking port again. By 8 o’clock, he was out panhandling.

“You don’t look like you belong on the Bowery,” a man in a station wagon said to Bubba.

“Why don’t you let us adopt you?” a woman sitting next to the man said.

“Not even for money,” Bubba said.

“At night, you get couples coming down,” he said as the car drove away. “You get gays. You get lonely women. They all want to pick up a young bum. They think they can just give him a shower and do whatever they want with him. One time a guy came back with brands on his ass.”

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By midnight, Bubba was in the Road­house with $11 in his pocket. Jimmy was standing on a chair with 16 hours of drinking behind him.

“I’m Mrs. Wallace’s boy, Jimmy,” he exulted. “And I’d rather drink wine here than be governor of Arkansas.”

“Shut up and sit down,” the bartender shouted.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I played marbles in Brooklyn?” Jimmy asked. The saloon closed at 2. Jimmy went up to the dormitory above the bar to sleep. Bubba and Big Bill went on to the Follies Saloon.

Sitting at a side table, Bubba watched the bartender shortchange the men who or­dered bottles and pick the pockets of the men who fell asleep. Big Bill shot pool for an hour and a half. He failed to sink a single ball. By 4, Bubba was lying in a cubicle at the Prince Hotel with a quart of wine under his cot, hallucinating B-52s.

He was sick again at 6. It took the entire quart of port to quiet the muscle spasms that gripped his chest, stomach, and legs. At 8, he was across the street at the Roadhouse. Jimmy came down from the dormitory.

“I was real scared,” Jimmy said. “I was lying up there and I ached in my arms and my legs and my stomach. I got to stop drinking. Yesterday was Good Friday and I’m going to die by Easter.”

Robert took Jimmy into the bathroom for a shave. “I had to use six blades,” Robert an­nounced as he came out of the bathroom. “But look what I did for Jimmy.”

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“Robert doesn’t care about Jimmy,” Bubba said to a newcomer. “He’s just always got to be the big brother. He’s always breaking up fights and settling arguments between old men. He’s got to be where he’s the strongest. Outside, he’d just be another weakling. Everybody’s got a fantasy that they let loose down here. And it’s hard not to fall into it and never come out.”

“I’m sick,” Jimmy moaned. “That Fri­day wasn’t so good.”

“I’m sick, too,” Bubba said. “I’m going to the holy mountain. They’ll let me in now. It’s been a year.” “Holy Mountain” is the detoxification camp at Graymoor, run by the Franciscans in Garrison, New York. Bubba had enrolled in the 21-day program a year ago. On his way through town to the camp, he spotted three saloons and a liquor store. The following morning, he stole a set of monk’s robes and stood outside the church that adjoins the camp, asking the local citizens for “alms for alcoholics.” He had $65 in his cup when the camp officials spotted him. Bubba was back on the Bow­ery the next day.

Bubba gave Jimmy a hug and left.

At 3:50 Saturday afternoon, Bubba boarded a train at Grand Central Station bound for Graymoor.

“The young and the old,” the bartender said back at the Roadhouse. “I’ve been down here 43 years. We always get a crop of new ones after a war. If there isn’t a war, what else is there for a lot of young fellas to do?” The bartender carried a case of eggs into the kitchen. On Easter morning, each bum at the Roadhouse receives a colored Easter egg and a glass of wine.

 

Categories
From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Transit Uncategorized

Why We Hate the Subways

Alexander Cockburn Reports From Underground on the Humiliation of the People

My experience of subways goes back to when I was two. The Germans were bombing London and my parents would hurry me down onto the platform of the St. John’s Wood underground station. It was one of the deepest in London. We would squat there with the other middle-class inhabitants of St. John’s Wood until the all-clear sounded.

The Germans were unlucky in a way. If St. John’s Wood underground had in any way resembled most of the subway stations in New York, it seems to me beyond doubt that Londoners would have given up within the week, and called on Churchill to sue for peace.

It should be stated bluntly that traveling on the New York subway system is now one of the more frightful experiences Western civilization has to offer on a regular basis. The experience is not only intolerable. It is also a daily advertisement for the brutish sensibilities and shallow brainpans of the people who now control the city. Let me begin autobiographically.

My own sufferings are relatively modest compared to most members of that 86 per cent of the work force who use mass transit in this city. Many of them travel far greater distances at far greater expense in conditions of more prolonged horror.

I descend to the platform at 96th street on the Eighth Avenue line. Quick reconnais­sance establishes the fact that feral youth is taking the day off or has simply got bored waiting for the AA, the B, or the CC, and has moved across to the Broadway line to molest people there.

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A shattering roar presages the arrival of the A train. It gathers speed as it shoots through the station. People double up in pain as they cover their ears. The torture is magnified by the thunder of a northbound A train moving with equal speed on the upper level. Minutes pass. Finally an AA draws timidly into the station. The car that comes to rest opposite me has no lights. At least I think it has no lights, although this is hard to establish through the grime and pictorial effects achieved by a particularly conscientious graffiti team. I run rapidly for a lighted carriage. So do several other peo­ple. We surge toward a door, only half of which opens. There is a desperate struggle to squeeze through the narrow aperture. For a fatal second I hesitate before elbowing an elderly woman aside. She struggles through the closing half door into the car — already crammed, although it is 10:30 in the morning. My hand is wedged in the door. At last I wrench it free and the AA moves triumphantly away.

I think laterally. The sun is shining and I decide to walk across to Broadway and take a train from 96th Street. Twenty minutes later I am aboard the 7th Avenue express, along with the other 500 people in the same car. Rather than make the safe play and ride through to 14th Street. I make the daring gamble to transfer to the BMT at Times Square, thus arriving at Union Square within easy walking distance of The Village Voice. This is a gamble: if I stay on the CC I will — in the fullness of time — arrive at West 4th Street and then have a slightly longer walk to The Voice. I dismount at 42nd Street and start walking toward the BMT. As I near the platform I can hear the arrival of a train. I hasten. I plunge down the ramp. Foiled again. The shortened train is many yards away, in the middle of the platform. Ahead of me a senior citizen is also lumbering along. Just as we arrive the doors slam and the train moves triumphantly away.

Long minutes pass. I make several calls on one of the phones thoughtfully supplied by the authorities to take the edge off delays. The Transit Authority begins to play with us, as a cat toys with a mouse. First a remote voice announces that there is a delay of “up to 10 minutes.” Then, after only eight minutes, we hear the roar of a train. It enters the station, rattles through it, and out the other end. It is empty.

After 15 minutes I devise another plan. I will take the shuttle to Grand Central, transfer to the Lexington Avenue IRT, and in this manner arrive at Union Square. I will omit any account of the long hours required to consummate my strategy. At Grand Central I have a choice between either the express or the local. I choose the express. Somewhere near 32nd Street it has to stop for a rest. The local shoots past. Finally, at 11:20 I arrive at Union Square. By now I am very highly motivated. I will work very hard so that I can make enough money to always travel by taxi, and so that I can pay for a good lawyer to defend me after I have kidnapped the senior member of the MTA and murdered them by throwing them onto the third rail.

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Economics of the Cattle Car

New Yorkers now travel to work on a mass-transit system that would cause a revolution in any Third World country. The subway system — and the bus system — rep­resents daily humiliation of the working class and, indeed, of the middle class, straight out of the 19th century. And, of course, the reason disposers of this system of torture feel quite secure is that the victims have no option, no means of escape. The victims have to go to work, ergo the means will be provided to get them there and to get them home. To fulfill this simple function of ferrying the work force from one end of town to the other the system actually works quite well, if by “well” is meant submitting people to suffocating discomfort, great expense, and — increasingly — great danger.

But a subway and bus system is also nominally there for the use of people who wish to go shopping in different parts of the city; who wish to visit museums on week­ends; who wish to go to midtown in the evening to have a good time. It is on this aspect of mass transit that the authorities (i.e., the thieves and incompetents who run the MTA) have declared unremitting war. Their aim: to make the trains filthy enough, rare enough, dangerous enough, expensive enough so that no one without the requirement of actually getting to work would dream of boarding them. This simple aim naturally has the desired effect of further bankrupting not only the transit system but also the city, since the shoppers sensibly stick to their own neighborhoods.

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Here’s how the system works. Back in 1948 the subway fare was five cents, and two billion people rode on the subways every year. Now the fare is 50 cents and a billion people ride on it every year. This is the problem to which the capitalist mind has addressed itself. Its answer? First of all, create something called the “self-sustaining” fare. This means the responsibility of the subway system is to pay for itself. Almost nothing else in the United States pays for itself, but a mass-transit system actually used by large numbers of people is not allowed this privilege.

But since the “self-sustaining” fare is not sufficient, the following strategy is adopted. Services are cut to economize and the fare is hiked. The result, of course, is a further drop in riders on mass transit and a further increase in the use of private cars. Traffic gets heavier and hence slows up the traffic. Buses are slowed too, so even more people shift to cars. In a short while the bus, subway, or commuter rail lines are again faced with the necessity of increasing the fare or decreasing service. And the wretched people condemned to use mass transit not only have to endure mounting horrors as services are cut and fares raised; they also have to pay more taxes, along with higher prices to help retailers, merchants, and other suppliers pay higher taxes to support the highways and other improvements that bring in more and more cars, thereby slashing further the dwindling revenues of mass-transit lines, and forcing new rises. The end logic of this is that the Transit Authority will charge people $1 a ride to travel in cattle cars.

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Criminal Figures

It is late at night. I am planning an exploratory trip on the subway. The station is nearly deserted and I feel trepidation. I try to soothe myself with the reflections of Mr. Jacques Nevard, director of public affairs of the Transit Authority. He’s a slippery fellow, this Nevard. Earlier in the day my colleague Jan Albert has been trying to get some facts and figures about crime out of him. Nevard is disinclined to provide much information. “When we give reporters the figures on crime in the subway,” he says airily, “they usually go away and don’t do a story because there is practically no story there. Rape and homi­cide is so low, there’s practically no story.”

I wish Nevard were standing beside me now. He could remind me again that there were only five rapes and five homicides on the subway in 1976. He could add that in the same year 2971 bags were snatched (and two women dragged under the trains), and he could conclude with the bracing infor­mation that 145 passengers endured feloni­ous assaults.

And in fact, according to Nevard, I am traveling at a particularly safe time (1 a.m.). “We have a much more useful patrol now,” he tells Jan proudly. “We discovered that half of our force were out on patrol between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. There are a lot less out during those hours now. They may be the high crime times in the street, but we’ve discovered that the high crime time in the subway is between noon and 8 p.m. The peak is 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. All the nuts are together in the subway then.”

Nevard has one further boast: The “beat the fare” program, geared up to stop people using slugs or sneaking through the turnstiles, actually led to the arrest of one person on his way to rob a bank and another wanted for arrest in another state.

The one thing Nevard never bothered to mention was the fact that major crimes against passengers in the first six weeks of this year increased 39 per cent over the same period last year. As a matter of fact the acting head of the Transit Authority, Harold Fisher, did have a comment here. He said the battle against crime in the subways is a “never-ending war against animals.” Considering his life’s work appears to have been to turn everyone riding the subway into an animal, it would seem he has only himself to blame.

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Menace to Life

Thus encouraged, I make my usual run to the shorter train and fall into conversation with another late-night traveler. He complains about the closing of booths. He is right to complain. On January 12 the TA launched a program to reduce operating hours at 57 booths in 52 stations. They are also going to close 23 part-time booths and alter the opening schedules of others. My new acquaintance points out that now that the 96th Street entrance on the Broadway line is closed at night, he will have to walk four more blocks each day, have four times as much chance of being mugged, and will have the added joy of watching the newsstand at 96th Street go bankrupt. Neighborhood groups are demonstrating at this station every Wednesday evening at 8:30 to try to keep the gates open.

I comfort my companion by reading the press release of the TA on these matters. “In most cases the passengers who now use the affected booths will be able to minimize possible inconvenience by buying more than one ride at a time and thus reducing the number of times they need the services of change-booth personnel.” My compan­ion begins to look at me strangely. I continue to read: “Many banks sell tokens in packages, and more and more New Yorkers pick up a week’s supply when they cash their paychecks. In addition bills up to $10 are now accepted at station change booths [presumably to ready people for a $10 fare], and a growing number of subway riders avoid delay by buying a week’s supply of tokens when they find lines the shortest.”

I round off my lecture by informing my companion that he is traveling at a partic­ularly safe time. He is unconvinced, plainly regards me as a dangerous lunatic, and dismounts at the next station. He is right to detect lunacy. People correctly fear the subway because they perceive it as a locus of crime. It is no use telling them that a man on his way to rob a bank (and thus presumably no menace to passengers) was arrested for not buying a token. Would you let your grandmother travel on the subway at night alone, even at the safe hour of 1 a.m.? Do you know where your grandmother is, come to think of it?

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The Villainous Car 

My train roars on, lurching dangerously. I stop trying to work out my statistical chances of being mutilated and start to contemplate the likelihood of my being killed in a smash. These chances, for all subway riders, are increasing every day.

The reason, of course, is lack of proper maintenance, both of the cars and of the track. The Committee for Better Transit has been monitoring 1200 cars. Eighty per cent of them have defects: The doors do not open, the lights do not work, fire extinguishers are missing, the air conditioning and heating do not function. And of course the cars get filthier and filthier.

Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union tells us that so far as car maintenance is concerned, “overall safety levels are being maintained.” The TWU does not offer similar comfort so far as the track or “way” is concerned. In such areas as light signals, lighting, ventilation, tracks, drain­age, and electrical items, “maintenance in almost every area is being deferred due to the lack of personnel and funds.” And Local 100 concludes, “There is a very serious potential of a major disaster.”

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It stands to reason that there is serious potential for a major disaster. For exam­ple, the inspection of overhead structures such as those in the Bronx has been drastically reduced. Bolts will fall off and kill people. In 1973 parts of the overhead ventilation duct on the Flushing line col­lapsed on a train, killed someone, and injured others. With the TA laying off “invisible personnel” this is just as likely to happen now.

Another peril is the lack of drainage. Water rots away the ties or makes them like sponges. With the track no longer secure, derailments become more likely every day. And as garbage mounts up the chances of a fire augment, too. Since people smoke with increasing blatancy on the system, the probability that the piles of garbage will suddenly go up in flames and suffocate riders to death becomes more real each day.

In sum, what has happened is that pre­ventive maintenance has gone out the window. Sooner or later, people are going to die or be injured as a result. The TWU is very clear about it: “The MTA promised to improve their maintenance in this area [overhead structures], but the fact is that we have at this date less inspections than we did in 1975. Our union states for the record that unless conditions change, a major disaster could occur at any time.”

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Sadism and Sabotage 

The next day I travel to work by a mode of conveyance profiting greatly from the sabotage of the mass-transit system, to wit, the taxi. We slowly grind our way downtown through the rush hour, adding our own mite of carbon monoxide to the morning air. I study a pamphlet put out by the Citizens for Clean Air. They inform me that the motorist in Manhattan wastes $144.3 million annually as his share of the costs of congestion. Taxis and buses waste respectively $49.3 million and $19.8 million as their share. The cost of congestion in New York is at least $650 million a year.

More figures: The New York metropoli­tan region spends $37 billion on mobility­ — the movement of goods and people. A mere 6 per cent of this ($2.2 billion) goes for public transit. The social cost of delivering bus service is 22 cents per passenger mile; less than 10 cents per passenger mile for subways (15 cents if you include the $3 billion capitalization and rehabilitation program); for cars it’s 60 cents per vehicle mile.

Just 13 per cent of the people going to Manhattan each day travel by private car. And yet these motorists are the people getting cover subsidies. If the motorist were required to bear the allocated costs of congestion, traffic accidents, and air pollu­tion he would have to pay an additional cost of 34.9 cents a mile traveled in Manhattan. And if the street and highway costs were also billed to him he would pay an additional 60.9 cents a mile traveled in Manhattan, not counting tolls and running charges. This is the equivalent of increasing the cost of gas by a tax of $7.31 a gallon, if he were to reimburse the social costs and subsi­dies.

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But, of course, the bigwigs travel by car. The people who have fouled up the transit system travel by car. Governor Carey travels by car, Mayor Beame travels by car, on those occasions he dares to go out. And so, instead of resurrecting the subway system, they tolerated the fare hike to 50 cents and decided to give $1.1 billion to the insane folly of Westway, which will benefit just 3 per cent of people commuting to Manhattan.

What happened when the fare went to 50 cents — in the decision under cover of dark­ness described in this issue by Jack New­field? Bus and subway ridership was reduced by about 10 per cent. Auto and taxi travel increased by 16 per cent. Carbon monoxide levels increased by another 15 to 20 per cent over the 20 per cent increase since mid-1972. Congestion increased, fur­ther bankrupting the city. Traffic accidents increased — by a possible 20,000 a year. As many as 400,000 discretionary trips (shopping, pleasure, and personal business) will simply not be made. Added subsidies to schoolchildren and the elderly will cost the city another $25 million. The added auto and taxi travel will increase gas consumption in the city by more than 28 million gallons.

Just to sum it up: To produce a net increase in transit revenues of $110 million, the fare hike has cost the city — directly and indirectly — about $300 million annually. They destroyed the city in order to save it.

And further horrors lie in store. A total of 725 buses in all the boroughs will be cut by the end of June. The consequent overcrowding and interminable delays are not hard to imagine. The subway system will continue to rot.

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What has happened to mass transit is symbolic of what has happened to the city. Cruelty and stupidity have struck at the people who can respond least. The city is rendered meaner and uglier.

And what should happen? Elementary, my dear MTA executive. Restore services, clean up the subways and maintain them properly, link the subways with the com­muter rails, develop existing facilities instead of planning berserkly expensive new lines, transfer the highway subsidies to mass transit, roll back the fare, get New York its rightful share of federal and state money, carve some of the fat off middle­-class backsides riding in their automobiles, make mass transit a pleasure to ride on instead of a voyage through hell. Once — ­seemingly an eon ago — people argued for free mass transit and a general tax to pay for it. How nostalgic such schemes seem now, when nirvana is what we had six months ago. But something had better be done soon, before the transit system is entirely destroyed, or before people come up out of the stations with railroad ties in their hands and march on City Hall and the Transit Authority with intent to kill their torturers or — worse still — make them ride the subway all the time.

Categories
From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Blackout 1977: Conned Again

God Gets a Bum Rap

Despite Con Ed’s claims in the wake of the blackout that only an “act of God” breached the elaborate sys­tem of defenses it had mounted fol­lowing the great failure of 1965, in fact, a crucial link in its supply system broke down in September of last year. And, astoundingly, Con Ed had no intention of repairing it until May of 1978, 10 months from now.

Officials at both the Public Service Commission and at Public Service Electric & Gas Co. — the big New Jersey utility that exchanges Elec­tricity with Con Ed — have admitted that, had this line been in operation, large amounts of electricity could have flowed into New York during the height of the crisis.

In his press conference last week, Charles Luce, chairman of Con Ed, made no mention of this line, nor indeed have other company officials. Maps issued by the company appear to depict the bro­ken-down line as if it were in operating condition.

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The line in question is a 345-kilovolt (kv) stretch of cable running from the Hudson terminal of the Public Service Electric & Gas Co. across the bottom of Manhattan to the Farragut station of Con Ed in Brooklyn. At this point electricity generated in New Jersey could have been switched in massive quantities back to central Manhattan, across Brooklyn, up through Queens, and indeed could have surged powerfully through the entire Con Ed system.

The transmission cable was taken out of service on September 4, 1976, because of a failure in a phase-angle regulator, which modulates the flow of elec­tricity. Con Ed, apparently, had no standby equip­ment and did not repair the regulator because it saw no pressing need for the line. A spokesman for the New York Public Service Commission, the state regulatory agency that oversees Con Ed’s operations, pointed out that Con Ed was selling less electricity than anticipated and hence, did not push forward with the repairs.

The broken-down 345-kv line seems to have been a lynchpin of Con Ed’s system. Modern electric supply networks depend on a system for exchanging power with other utilities in a series of regional grids. In the case of Con Ed, power is, of course, to a major extent, generated by the company itself. But it is also extremely dependent on interchanges with other power grids that can feed it electricity in times of need. Thus, Con Ed can look to the Northeast, where the New England power pool can help out. And it can turn to the north, for assistance from the New York power pool.

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But, perhaps most important, it can turn south to the so-called PJM interchange for a potentially huge surplus of electricity. This is a pool made up of the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. In the past it has been difficult for private utility systems, such as Con Ed, to hook into the mass power blocs — the huge TVA system, the western public cooperatives, etc. — that are available in other parts of the United States. Big public systems have a hard time meshing into the private utility networks because the latter have not had transmission lines big enough to carry the electricity. It is rather like a turnpike suddenly meeting a bridle path, with a corresponding paralysis at the meeting point.

One of the results of the 1965 blackout was a consensus by state and federal government and the private utilities to see what could be done to boost capacity and better coordinate interchanges among the regional power pools and their member utilities. It should be pointed out that subsequent reforms were largely voluntary efforts undertaken by the companies. While the Federal Power Commission, which under the law regulates interstate whole­sale shipment of power, could set standards for interconnections and power pools, it has preferred to work on a voluntary basis with the private companies. It encouraged them to form advisory committees, which have laid out general plans for improvement and which the FPC endorses as a virtual national policy.

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All in the Family

Over the past 10 years these reforms and guidelines have been bundled together and put out as a National Power Survey. But the informal, ad hoc nature of the proceedings, left largely in the hands of private industry, has made it impossible to tell how effective the post-1965 operation has been.

Last week’s blackout starkly exposed the apparent nonchalance of the Federal Power Commission, the state Public Ser­vice Commission, and Con Ed itself in devising a truly crisis-proof system.

Consider the Con Ed system. In essence, the company operates a transmission loop. Power from New England and the New York power pool can surge down through Millwood in Westchester, where it is joined by power produced by Con Ed’s Indian Point plant. In addition, two lines — one 500-kv and the other 345-kv — can send electricity out of the PJM pool into a substation at Ramapo on the New York­–New Jersey border, and hence to the Con Ed main line at Buchanan. This, then, is the main highway for electricity, whether purchased from outside or produced by Con Ed, and it pours straight down into the main Con Ed service area that culminates in the huge New York market.

Obviously, this is only part of the system since a cutoff of supply would leave the city helpless. So there is a bottom to the loop, consisting of two transmission lines. One of these is a 230-kv cable that attaches the PJM system to New York via Linden­-Goethals (Staten Island) Brooklyn and then into the rest of the system. The second point at which the loop is closed is the previously mentioned 345-kv line between New Jersey and Brooklyn.

What happened last week was that the “act of God” — lightning — effectively closed the northern corridor. Since the 345-kv had been broken down and unre­paired since September 1976 — and since the company’s generating facilities could not be brought on stream fast enough — the pressure to supply the loop fell largely on the Linden-Goethals line. In effect, this cable became the lifeline to the PJM pool. For a time, the Long Island Lighting Company was also able to put electricity into the city through Jamaica. But the Lilco system was no match for the occasion, especially since it is interconnected to power in the Northeast through a relatively small cable under Long Island Sound.

Consequently, Lilco shut down supplies to New York at 9:25 p.m., and, four minutes later, the phase-angle regulator at Con Ed’s end of the Linden-Goethals link broke. Almost at once “Big Allis” at Ravenswood shut itself down to avoid burning out under the load.

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If Only…

According to officials at the Public Ser­vice Electric & Gas Co., there was a possibility that, had the 345-kv line been in service to help out the hard-pressed 230-kv cable, things might have gone differently. Mr. Wei Shing Ku, transmission-planning engineer with the New Jersey utility, told us, “If we had had the two ties in service and if they did not trip during the power surge, it is possible you could have alleviated the blackout.”

The question for the various investiga­tions now under way is why the Federal Power Commission did not insist on an adequate interchange system.

The same question can be more severely posed to the Public Service Commission, which appears to have behaved in a lethargic manner. And, finally, shopowners and the citizenry of New York City will no doubt be questioning this faulty interchange sys­tem in litigation against Con Ed. Indeed, Con Ed ratepayers might legitimately ask why this line, paid for with their money, has been allowed to be out of commission for so long. They may very well also ask whether their money, which went to con­struct the Astoria 6 and Indian Point 3 power plants (taken over by the Power Authority of the State of New York) might not have better been spent on a really strong interchange system to guard against catastrophe and other acts of God.

As for Con Ed: It is too easy, in the manner of much press comment, to dismiss the utility as a hapless victim of a cabal of incompetent engineers. The fact is that, since the 1965 blackout, this company has time and again vigorously opposed efforts within the federal government to establish a national network of regional power grids to cope with supply and de­mand in an efficient way.

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Set Against Reform 

In the mid-1960s, when interchange, or “reliability” legislation was before Congress, staff aides working on the bill recall that Con Ed opposed it on grounds that it would impede the company from doing what was needed. This same legislation, fortuitously, is emerging this week from the house commerce committee. Con Ed officials cheerfully told us on Monday that the bill “wouldn’t affect us,” because Con Ed was “solidly interconnected.” The spokesman went on to declare the company was opposed to the legislation because, as he put it, reliability was tied to rates, and in that case, the state regulatory commis­sions do the most “efficient” job. In a roundabout way he was echoing what all private utilities have said since the early part of this century. They do not want federal intervention in their areas where they have worked out comfortable relationships with state bodies.

What Is Needed Now

It is almost a waste of time to investigate the rusted, archaic structure of Con Ed with a view to ever putting it in reasonable running order. The basic problem is to reduce the consumption of electricity and at the same time, wherever possible, move toward the introduction of alternative en­ergy sources. These alternatives — and here we are thinking mainly of solar, small-­scale hydro, and wind — should be taken up through a decentralized scheme, imple­mented in the City of New York neighborhood by neighborhood. It is hard to believe, no matter how much goodwill the officials of Con Ed might have, that they can run a profit-oriented company based on reduced sales. And reduced sales is precisely what is needed.

We are not talking about reducing the supply of electricity to poor people or small businessmen or, indeed, to middle-class residential users. We are talking rather about cutting back consumption by the huge office buildings, which are the real gluttons of electricity in this city.

The best thing for New York would be for the city council to initiate a study on the feasibility of taking over Con Ed. As events in San Francisco have shown, it is not necessary to purchase all parts of the system outright. Those features of the Con Ed apparatus that are of use to the citizen­ry can be leased for some period of time.

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A new public organization needs to be set up to design and implement an energy system for the city. This would involve phased introduction of solar and wind energy. As the City of Hartford now illustrates, it is quite possible to create munici­pal organizations that put unemployed peo­ple to work in the construction, installation, and maintenance of all sorts of solar plants, and in the introduction of insulation.

Overall, New York should increasingly be looking toward an energy system that employs a strengthened electrical-inter­change grid to back up alternative means of energy production. There will always be people — even in the midst of a blackout — ­who declare such proposals to be rankly utopian. Even as they despise the future (which is, for anyone looking around the U.S., not so far distant) they should contemplate what the current policy portends: increased means of electrical production, both within the Con Ed area of operation and within the region as a whole. Such means will include nuclear power and reintroduction of coal-fired electricity gen­eration, with attendant pollution. It also will undoubtedly result in the development of offshore oil and gas, with concomitant processing industries onshore.

Filth at sea will be married to filth on land. Where maps from the National Insti­tutes of Health now show eruption of cancers of all sorts in the refining and chemical industrial areas of New Jersey, similar charts for the last quarter of the century will surely reflect the spread of this disease from New Jersey’s cancer alley all around New York and the North­east.

The blackout revealed the city to be at a crossroads in energy policy and at a politi­cally apt time.

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Let the Candidates Speak

Every mayoral candidate should be compelled to set forth a coherent energy program for the future of the city. Energy has far greater importance than many of the issues on which candidates have been quick to take positions. A reasonable cam­paign plank should begin with a program of public takeover of Con Ed and include a detailed plan for introducing alternate en­ergy. Such an energy policy should contain a general outline of what the candidate sees as the future industrial base of the city. The provision of such an energy policy would be a speedy way of assessing just how pro­gressive each candidate is in areas of vital concern to the city’s future.

 

Categories
From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Blackout 1977: Here Comes the Neighborhood

BROOKLYN, WEDNESDAY, JULY 13 — The lights have been out for five minutes.

The people on Brooklyn’s Broad­way are going shopping.

Nineteen-year-old Jamar Jackson takes his second slug of pineapple soda as he watches his friend Bobby Stamps put his fist through the plate­-glass window of Al-Bert’s Men’s Wear. Stamps reaches his bleeding hand past the shattered glass and grabs two shirts. An empty bottle of Wild Irish Rose crashes through another window. Now comes a brick. Hands are everywhere, stripping mannequins, grabbing shirts.

Jackson’s heart is pounding. He snatches a pair of brown corduroy pants. He realizes how easy it is. A gun barks. Jamar runs onto the sidewalk and bumps into a man holding a .32 caliber automatic over his head. The man squeezes off five more shots. The muzzle flash lights up a gang of kids pulling on the grate covering the next store.

“They’re hittin’ Busches’s Jewelry,” somebody screams. More glass shatters. Jamar hears a stampede racing toward him in the darkness. Bodies press against him and carry him down the street.

Edwin Velez’s television has been dead for 10 minutes. His girlfriend screams at him for not paying the Con Ed bill. Jumping off his tattered sofa, Edwin leans out his window. The entire neighborhood is dark. He hears glass breaking on Broadway, a half-block up Gates Avenue.

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Edwin races into the hallway on the top floor of the four-story walk-up. Neighbors are pushing and shouting in the stifling darkness.

“They’re goin’ in the stores,” a woman yells. Edwin is knocked halfway down a flight of stairs by a sweat-soaked, 300-pound woman.

“Get out of my fuckin’ way,” the woman bellows as she tramples Edwin. “I’m goin’ to get me something before these greedy niggers take it all.” Edwin drags his 10-year-old cousin Cesar from the build­ing’s vestibule. On Gates Avenue, the stampede toward Broadway is on.

“Come on, man,” Edwin tells Cesar. “It’s a riot.”

“That’s when they come in and shoot you,” Cesar says, pulling back into the vestibule.

“No, it’s when you take what you want from the stores,” Edwin says.

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From the west, thousands pour out of a 630-acre slum called Bushwick. The area was first settled by the Dutch West India Company in 1660. The first blacks in Bush­wick were slaves on the Dutch tobacco plantations. The Germans replaced the Dutch and were, in turn, squeezed out by the Irish. Then came the Poles and the Italians.

Today, there are no Dutch, Germans, Irish, Poles, or Italians. Today there are 225,000 blacks and Puerto Ricans living in 42,000 dwelling units: One quarter of these units have been classified by the City Planning Commission as “badly deteriorated,” Bushwick High School, originally designed for an enrollment of 2000, has 3000 students. An average of 400 drop out each year.

From the east, thousands converge on Broadway from Bedford Stuyvesant.

Until 1940, Bed-Stuy was a middle-class enclave. But Harlem was bursting with immigrants from the South. Drawn by jobs at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and inspired by Duke Ellington’s hit “Take the A Train,” an avalanche of poor blacks poured into Bed-Stuy via subway. After 25 years of blockbusting and redlining, Bed-Stuy was declared “the heart of the largest ghetto in America” by the Housing and Urban De­velopment Administration.

On both sides of Broadway, unemploy­ment hovers around 80 per cent. Half the families live on less than $4000 a year. Forty per cent are on welfare. The infant mortality rate is the highest in the city. In 1967 the City Planning Commission report­ed that the area “…urgently needs almost every type of community facility and service — housing, schools, health ser­vices, parks, supervised recreational activities, language classes, low-interest loans for home owners and businesses, social services, cultural activities, libraries, more job opportunities and learn­ing programs, and improved sanitation and police protection. Assistance must be pro­vided quickly.”

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***

It is 10 years later, and the people on Broadway are assisting themselves.

Edwin and Cesar dash up to Broadway. Four men wrench a parking meter out of the concrete and batter the door of a jewelry store. On the third blow, the door blasts open. A crowd gathers. Edwin and Cesar are pushed into the store. A man with a baseball bat attacks the display cases. Broken glass sprays through the flashlight beams. A shard slices Edwin’s cheek. Holding his shirttail to his face, Edwin feels around the dark floor. He finds two watch cases and slips them into his pocket.

The incoming tide of looters pushes Edwin and Cesar farther into the store. It is pitch black and the heat is suffocating. Somebody has a transistor radio.

“There’s a party atmosphere in Manhattan,” a WINS newscaster says on the radio. Police sirens drown out the radio and probing beams of red light cut through the darkness. The tide turns and Edwin is carried toward the front of the store.

“God, don’t shoot,” a woman screams. Edwin steps on a leg as he scrambles for the exit. One cop beats a steady, sharp tattoo on the sidewalk with his riot stick. Three other cops simply watch the looters flee. On Gates Avenue, Edwin, breathing hard, opens the watch cases. They are empty.

“Shit, man,” Edwin says. “All that for nothing. I was scared in there. My heart was doing a heavy tango.”

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Twelve-year-old Harry Brown stands outside the Everready Furniture Store. He is holding two notebooks he has just swiped from a stationery store. Across the street, a mob storms the Shoe Box. A year ago, Harry went into the Shoe Box to buy a pair of Pro-Keds. The shoes cost $12.82. Harry had $12.80.

“You don’t get the shoes ’til you have the full amount,” the white storekeeper had told Harry.

“I’m glad they’re doing this,” Harry said Wednesday night as the mob carted out the Shoe Box’s inventory.

By now, Bobby Stamps has 200 pair of dungarees, seven leather jackets, and dozens of shirts, all from Al-Bert’s Men’s Wear. Nothing is left in the clothes store. Stamps races a stolen panel truck down Broadway to a luxury-item store called Time Credit.

A sign behind the accordion gates reads: COME IN. YOUR CREDIT IS GOOD WITH US. Bobby wraps a chain around the gates and hooks it to his truck’s bumper. He pops the clutch and the truck jumps forward 30 feet. The accordion gates follow. Bobby heaves a garbage pail through the plate-glass window. Sixteen minutes later, he has five color television sets, two air conditioners, and a rack of wristwatches piled into his truck. Bobby stops to help an elderly man load a sofa onto the roof of a station wagon and races home.

“Plug them in and see if they work,” Bobby’s mother says as her son carts in the booty. Of course, there is no electricity.

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***

Against all of this, Captain James Wynne of the 81st Precinct has only 22 men at his command. The station house’s emergency generator kicks on moments after the lights go out. The first reports of looting come 10 minutes later. The dispatcher shouts that, along with the phones, the main radios are dead. The hand-sets will only receive.

Wynne orders the men in the station house into patrol cars and barks one simple command: “Stop the looters.”

Wynne is in the lead car when the first cops hit Broadway. He and three other cops jump out in front of Time Credit. One last looter brushes past Wynne with a vacuum cleaner. The mob has moved up Broadway to another store. Wynne follows.

“We must have been outnumbered 70, maybe 80-to-1,” a cop from the 81st Precinct says later. “And that was after reinforcements were brought in. I don’t know how the hell nobody got killed. It must have been the magic of the blue.”

The luxury items disappear into tenements. Now, the shoe stores topple. Sneakers and high-heeled shoes litter the avenue. A young black kid races past two white cops with a paper bag full of shoes.

“Look, there goes a shoe-shine,” one of the cop says. The other cop laughs. Youths swarm into the bike shops and ride away on the inventory. In the gloom, someone offers a $200 Peugeot 10-speed for $40. Duos zip from store to store on stolen Mopeds, one kid driving, the other holding the swag.

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A young black kid named Maurice Stone stands on the avenue with a new shirt, new jeans, and new sneakers.

“I wish I could get me some bikes,” Stone says. “I been in a lot of stores, but I mostly got clothes. Most of the bikes is gone. I got a watch, but it don’t work I don’t think, so maybe I’m gonna sell it.”

The cops start to make the first collars. Two cops tackle a six-foot black man as he comes out of J. Michael’s furniture store and drag him to a patrol car. Another cop grabs a teenager by her hair and pulls her toward the same car.

Two television sets, 11 pairs of Puma sneakers, and a sofa richer, 28-year-old Walter Bean ambles through the front window of the corner Key Food. Bean starts filling a shopping cart with meat.

“Fuck the whole thing,” a tall man at the back of the store shouts. A match flares, but goes out. Another one sputters and also goes out.

“Anybody got any matches?” the tall man shouts. A middle-aged Puerto Rican woman stumbles back into the darkness. She hands matches to the tall-man, but they drop to the floor. The tall man and the Puerto Rican woman are now down on their knees searching for the matches. The tall man finds them and kicks more papers into a pile he’s already made against a back wall. The fire spreads and the smoke is soon rolling across the ceiling and curling up the side of the three-story building.

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“Burn, baby, burn,” the arsonist shouts, silhouetted against the orange glow of the flames. It isn’t until the next day that anybody realizes 100 local part- and full-­time jobs have also “burned baby, burned.”

Walter Bean escapes, pushing a shopping cart laden with chicken fryers, bacon, and ground chuck. The chicken fryers are marked $1.08 a pound. The bacon is tagged $1.60 a pound. The ground chuck is going for $1.49. At Sloan’s on Sheridan Square in the West Village, the fryers go for 89 cents a pound, bacon for $1.35 a pound, and ground chuck for $1.39 a pound. Tonight, for the first time, Key Food is underselling Sloan’s.

Fire trucks scream out of Engine Com­pany 222’s station on Reid Street. By 4 a.m., there are fires raging on Broadway. There are not enough firemen to handle them. They head first for the buildings where people live. The El running above the avenue traps the smoke and blocks the moonlight. The only light is from the shooting flames.

As the engines pour water into the blaze in Key Food, Dean Zule, 22, is in an alleyway on Green Street starting a barbe­cue. A neighbor brings down a can of lighter fluid and an armload of steaks. Zule turns the steaks with a screwdriver his brother stole from a hardware store. He raises his right hand, which is covered with a grimy, blood-stained bandage.

“The new sign is the fist with a towel wrapped around it,” Zule says. “That’s the power salute. This time it was flashlights, not guns. All power to the looters. Shit, I cut myself because I didn’t have no towel.” Zule spits a steak with the screwdriver, gnaws on the suet, and breaks into a big, greasy grin. The sun is rising over Bushwick.

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THURSDAY, JULY 14

Slats of sun lance through the tracks of the rusting El. Shards of plate glass glisten in the street. Debris is strewn along the sidewalks and gutters. Yawning policemen loiter on street corners, watching black children dressed in short pants and new sneakers scavenge in the litter. A dog with mange tears at a sooty steak in front of Key Food. A police helicopter cuts through the smoke that billows up from the burning buildings. Along a 34-block stretch, from Myrtle to Stone Street, store after store has been ripped open. Gates have been wrested from their runners. Cellar boards have been pried loose from their concrete foundations. Most of the saloons, liquor stores, fast-food joints, and storefront churches have not been touched.

Thousands of people are still in the streets. Music blares from new tape decks and transistor radios. Batteries are going for two dollars apiece. One man dances a soft shoe with a mannequin. More cops in riot gear troop onto the avenue. In small knots, people mutter that many of the cops are not wearing badges or nameplates. This, the people say, is the first sign that the beatings and shootings are about to begin. One cop from the 83rd Precinct, badge number 15101, is asked why he wears no nameplate.

“Because we lost them,” he answers. Another cop, standing in front of the Reid Avenue station house, brandishes a table leg as a weapon.

“I don’t fucking feel like wearing no badge,” he says. A heavyset cop, badge number 29065, races toward a dozen kids who are trying to match odd sneakers. His baton cracks a shin bone and the kids scatter. His nameplate is covered by a black elastic band.

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Six kids sit on a rooftop, their legs dangling four stories above a team of firemen fighting a store blaze. A stream of water hits a 20-foot bed of embers. Dense smoke drives away the kids.

Twenty-seven fires are burning on Broadway. Great streams of water pour in the street from the fire sites, forming large black ponds at the blocked-up sewers. One exhausted fireman named Tommy O’Rourke stands shin-deep in a pond of water. A mannequin’s arm floats next to O’Rourke’s legs. He gulps from a glass of ice water. Black mucous runs from his nose. His teeth are creviced with soot. Sweat cuts through the black grime cover­ing his face. His eyes are bloodshot. When he spits, his phlegm is black.

“It’s a motherfucker,” O’Rourke gasps. “When you’re fighting a fire, been up all night, maybe 18 hours now, and you know the prick that lit this job is across the street laughing at you and probably torching another joint.”

As the afternoon deepens, thousands more crowd onto the avenue. The power is back on. A J train thunders overhead. The looters cheer and then invade Vim’s shoe store near Linden Boulevard. One woman sits on a burned-out car and measures her foot with a shoe-size ruler. A wedge of police move in on the store. Most of the looters flee. Some stay and exchange taunts with the police. Most of the cops edge away, their hands on their sidearms, their nervous eyes checking the rooftops for snipers. One cop rushes forward and clubs a Puerto Rican man with a bat. The other police pull the cop away from a fast-growing crowd.

“These motherfucking cops are pounding us,” the Puerto Rican man says. “They ask no questions and they just beat your moth­erfucking head. They want static, mother­fucker, they get static.”

A black man with blood seeping from under his hair walks to the front door of the 81st Precinct.

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“I want to talk to your boss,” the man tells a cop stationed at the door. “One of your boys hit me upside my head just because I was carrying a pipe.”

“What were you carrying a pipe for?” the cop asks.

“Shit, man,” the complainant says.”Just ’cause you carry a pipe doesn’t mean you’re gonna use it.”

Then the power dies again. The stop ­lights are out. Tires screech. Horns blare. Police sirens wail. Shouting matches break ­out. The sound of breaking glass picks up.

A squad of Savage Skulls appears, flying their war colors, carrying longer sticks than the cops.

“God is giving the poor people their bread today,” a gang member named Smokey says. “The poor people only want the same things the cops have. TVs, nice furniture, shit like that. And food. People have to eat. The cops are lucky they don’t want blood. But before this is over there might be some blood anyway.”

“The cops started this shit, man,” Blue Eyes, the supreme president of the 14th Regiment of the Bushwick Division of the Savage Skulls, says. “They’re taking things off looters, my people, and putting it in their cars and takin’ it home to their houses, man. One cop broke a little girl’s hip. The cops are handling it all wrong. They beating up black and Puerto Rican people. The cops should be in the stores. If there was a cop in a store, nobody is gonna go in there and risk getting killed for a pair of sneakers.” Blue Eyes points across the street. Two cops in riot gear are guarding a burned-out Key Food. A hundred yards down the street, people are leaving a grocery store with six-packs of warm beer.

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“I went to some of the precincts,” Blue Eyes says. “I told some of the brass there that they doin’ it wrong. I know some of the brass. I been on TV shows with ’em. You know what they told me? They told me to kiss their ass. Well, if that’s what they want, we’ll handle this shit. We had 82 guys here this morning. I’m thinkin’ of calling in all the gangs and handling this thing right. We have a right to protect our community against police brutality and shit. We might finish this thing off completely, man, tonight.”

And now, the night is here and there are no lights. Bands of youths rove the avenue toting two-foot flashlights, baseball bats, iron pipes, two-by-fours, and even hammers. The police wander aimlessly up and down the street. Every 20 minutes a caravan of eight patrol cars crawls down Broadway. The looting pauses as the cars pass, then continues. People talk in low tones. There is too much tension to shout.

Seventy-five looters have been arrested and packed into the pens at the Reid Street station. In the booking room, stolen goods are piled head high.

“What do they expect us to do with all this shit?” one cop asks another

“Who the fuck cares?” the other answers. “We’ll just shovel it into barrels and send it down to the Property Clerk’s office. Let them figure it out. The entire garage outside is already filled. This is just the overflow.”

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A third cop is in the rear of the precinct taking inventory. After 24 hours on the street, he was ordered back to the station, and handed a clipboard and a stack of forms.

“Where the fuck is that other Quasar TV?” he says to another cop. “How the fuck should I know?” the second cop says. “I only dealt with Zeniths.”

“I feel like a fucking stock boy,” says the first.

“A stock boy with a gun,” says the second.

“Fuck you,” says the cop with clip­board. “Now where is that other Quasar?” He is asked how many television sets were brought in. He answers, turning into a salesman. “You interested in a floor model or a portable?” Turning back into a cop, he says, “I honestly don’t know. I have one here, a Quasar, I can’t even find. It might be buried under that mountain of shit.”

He points to the mountain of shit. It includes: paper towels, frozen pizzas, baby clothes, Kotex, Pampers, jackets, lounge chairs, mattresses, couches, lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, dishes, silverware, and hundreds of other items.

A detective walks up to the cop.

“I heard you need a hand,” the detective says, offering the cop a mannequin’s hand.

Over at the desk, a sergeant points to a porcelain statue of Stan Laurel.

“Can you imagine going to jail for steal­ing that?” the sergeant asks. “This is another fine mess Stan Laurel has gotten somebody into.”

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At the other end of the room, a half-dozen civilians huddle on plastic chairs. They’ve come to the precinct for safety.

“I’m spending the night right here,” one of the civilians, Teddy Eve, says. “I’m scared. It’s the apocalypse out there. If this gets worse, I’m moving back to Barbados. There’s no money in Barbados, but they don’t have no apocalypse down there.”

“I was terrified something would happen to me,” a West Indian woman sitting on the next chair says. “It’s horrible, just horri­ble. It’s all been destroyed.” A minister from Bed-Stuy stands in the doorway. Earlier in the day, Mayor Beame had put out a call for all religious leaders to cruise their neighborhoods to “restore the calm.”

“I went out there,” the minister says. “But they all too busy stealin’.”

The power comes on at 9:30. Thirty-seven officers sit in the muster room, waiting for the next caravan run. Black cops stay in tight knots. They only join the white cops at 9:50, when it’s time for another sweep. Donning helmets and swinging sticks, the cops jump into the row of squad cars.

By the time the cops hit Broadway, the crowds have moved away from the ave­nue’s streetlights and dispersed into the dark side streets.

“There’s nothing left to steal that’s worth getting shot over,” a middle-aged black man says as he walks down Putnam Street. “And I know that if this goes on much longer, the cops will be shooting.”

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Arson is now the main event. On the corner of Somers and Stone Avenue, a five-story warehouse is blazing out of control. The first alarm had come in at 5:30 p.m. By 6 it had reached five alarms. It is now 10:30 and the blaze is still out of control. A super-pumper has been brought in. Crowds from Broadway move in to watch the show. Seven firemen have already been injured.

The fire jumps 50 feet across the street. Three other buildings and two cars catch fire. The factory’s cornice crumbles, crushing a fire chief’s van.

Miguel Perez, 20, who lives in the last ­remaining house on the block, watches the blaze. He claims he saw a man light the fire.

“This cop hit a tall, skinny, colored guy when he caught him looting the warehouse,” Perez says. “There was stereos, TVs, clothes — that kind of stuff. So this guy gets mad because the cop hit him. He comes back later with two red gasoline cans and pours them into the building. He lit that gas up. Then he soaked some of the other buildings with the gasoline.” Part of the factory collapses, sending columns of sparks 100 feet into the night sky.

“I gotta make sure this guy don’t torch my place, man,” Perez continues. “I’m telling you, I know this guy’s face. I’ve seen him in the neighborhood. Me and my two brothers are gonna fuck this guy up good. Maybe I’ll kill him. I haven’t decided yet. He had a big wide Afro. I’d like to burn it off.”

Tonight is the night of the fire union election. Michael Maye has lost to Richard Vizzini. Neither of them has come out to Bushwick. So far, neither has Beame or Fire Commissioner O’Hagan. Deputy Chief Tortoriello has — since the lights went out.

“Nah, they ain’t been out here,” Tortoriello says. “They’re in Manhattan somewhere. That’s the big time. This is only Brooklyn.” He chuckles and returns to the fire.

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FRIDAY, JULY 15

The fire burns through the night. At daybreak Michael Perez is still standing watch. He says he will not go to sleep until he is sure the arson and rampage are finished. As the warehouse continues to smolder, people start to reappear on Broadway.

“It looks like Sherman marched through here on his way to Atlanta,” says one morning stroller.

Those stores that were not hit are opening for business. Paul Alexander, the manager of National Shoes near Linden Boulevard explains that, although his store went untouched, business is bad.

“There has been no business today,” he says. “There won’t be for a long time. Everybody around here has new shoes.”

Up the street, Eddy Mizihi sits in a cream-colored Plymouth outside of what was once his clothing store.

“I might open it again,” Mizihi says, “if Mayor Beame gives me money. If not… what am I going to do?”

Ahmed Muharran stands in front of his grocery at 1385 Broadway. He hasn’t slept in 48 hours. From the moment of the blackout until this morning, he stood in the doorway to his shop with a double-barreled shotgun. Right now he’s open for business, but he keeps a police baton in his hand.

“Look, you have to protect yourself,” Ahmed says, keeping his eye on a 12-year-­old standing near the potato-chip rack. “I told them when they tried coming in they were going to get hurt. They went away and robbed somebody else. Maybe tonight I’ll sleep. We’ll see.”

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Outside Ahmed’s store, Rodney Wash­ington and Wallace H. Jones are discussing the situation.

“This Con Edison makes me laugh,” Washington says. “They blaming the whole goddamned thing on some act of God. Now how can they say that when Con Edison is God?”

“I don’t give a damn who’s to blame,” says Jones. “What I want to know is where the fuck was the Civil Defense? The Civil Defense is supposed to help the police. I know, because me, Wallace H. Jones of 710 Bushwick Avenue, was in the Civil Defense for 11 years. The Civil Defense is supposed to be here when the bomb drop. Well, the bomb done dropped.”

Jones, who became a building contractor after he retired from the Civil Defense, walks into Al-Bert’s Mens Wear next door to Ahmed’s grocery store.

“You need some repair work in here?” Jones asks Maurice Phillips, the owner of Al-Bert’s. Phillips looks around his store. The windows are smashed. The bare shelves are splintered.

“Maybe,” Phillips says, laughing. Phil­lips first came into the store 11 years ago to buy a pair of pants on a layaway plan. A salesman told Phillips that the store needed a stock boy. For the next four years, Phillips stacked shirts and pants for $95 a week, an exceptional wage for black workers on Broadway. In 1970, Phillips took out a Small Business Administration loan and bought out the white owners of the shop. Phillips started to experience what he calls the “pitfalls for black businessmen.” Factories sent him inferior merchandise and refused to give refunds on damaged clothing. In 1974, Phillips grossed $274,000, but not a single bank would extend him a loan. Two years ago, the store’s basement flooded, destroying $70,000 worth of cloth­ing. According to Phillips, the landlord, Broadway Realty, Inc., refused to accept responsibility for the damage and shortly thereafter, raised the rent. Phillips was hit by a spate of break-ins and hired the Holmes Protection Agency to watch his store. For $387 a month, Holmes promised to call Phillips the moment the burglar alarm went off. Last year, Holmes twice let the alarm ring for more than nine hours. Phillips was cleaned out both times. At the same time, the Chemical Bank was sitting on a $15,000 installment of Phillips’s second $60,000 SBA loan.

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“You’re a turkey,” an officer at Chemi­cal recently told Phillips. “You’re headed for bankruptcy. We’ve been telling you that for a year.”

“Then why aren’t I bankrupt?” Phillips asked. “You refuse to give me any working capital and I’m still in business.”

“I was looted before the riot,” Phillips says. “The people were looted, too. You have to look at the total economic condition, the frame of mind of the people. I’m more angry at Chemical Bank than I am at the people. Window shoppers finally got a chance to fulfill their desires and not just live with the bare necessities. Everybody stepped into the television commercials for a few hours and took what they wanted.”

As Phillips talks, the mayor and an entourage drive past the store in two air-conditioned buses. When the buses stop farther up the block, the mayor and 50 reporters and cameramen exit onto Broad­way. Fire engines are parked at crazy angles along the streets. Smoke still wafts from some of the ruins. A hydrant is gushing on the corner. The stream of water runs swiftly along the curb, carrying assorted debris — cancelled checks, price tags, pages from ledgers, mail orders, the scribbled paperwork of small businesses. Beame, with the help of an aide, hops over the stream and starts talking to news­men.

“Jobs, jobs, jobs, how about some jobs,” a group of black kids on the other side of the street chant.

“He’s here to discuss foreign aid,” one reporter jokes. Exactly 11,360 feet of news film is shot of the mayor as he walks through the devastation. The mayor directs an aide to expedite emergency housing for a woman burned out of her apartment. The woman kisses the mayor’s hand.

“What’s all this?” a black youth asks a friend.

“They making a commercial,” the friend answers.

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Mayoral candidate Bella Abzug is also in the area. At the 81st Precinct, she exam­ines the loot piled in the building’s garage. Dressed in a sporty summer dress, Abzug says she still stands behind the right of policemen and firemen to strike.

“What if they went on strike during something like this?” she is asked.

“They wouldn’t,” she answers.

“What would you do if you were mayor?”

“Mobilize the community organizations and get them into the streets.”

After Abzug leaves, Gary Jenkins, a local resident says: “The community was mobi­lized. They were all out lootin’.” Jenkins grabs a shopping cart and pushes it down the street.

“Going shopping?” Jenkins is asked.

“No,” Jenkins says, “I already been.” Ron Shiffman, director of the Pratt Institute’s urban planning center, is also in the neighborhood.

“This whole thing about giving out Small Business Administration loans to mer­chants who lost their businesses is a sham,” Shiffman says. “There isn’t the structure for giving out the loans. The mayor is playing politics with people’s lives. It’s an ugly thing to see all this looting, for sure. But the people who live in Bed-Stuy and Bushwick have had their lives looted for years.”

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Shiffman comes from the Bed-Stuy tradition inspired by Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s. Speaking at a community meeting in Bed-Stuy in 1966, Kennedy talked about the future that arrived on Wednesday:

“If this community can become an ave­nue of opportunity then others will take heart… but if this community fails, then others will falter and a noble dream of equality and dignity will fail with it.”

As night fails on Broadway, only the people who live here everyday remain.

Bobby Stamps is hawking $36 French-cut jeans on a street corner for $8 a pair. Jamar Jackson is with him, wearing a gold Aries necklace. Jackson is an Aquarius.

“I wish there would be a blackout every night,” Stamps says. “Shit, I’d be a mil­lionaire.”

On the roofs of the Bushwick housing projects off Fulton Street, a huge clearance sale is under way. Hundreds of tenants examine piles of televisions, stereos, appli­ances, and shotguns. A 15-year-old is handing out complimentary cassettes with each tape recorder. Most of the merchan­dise is going for less than 10 per cent of retail value.

Along the avenue, the bars are doing their usual business. Music and drunks float out of Beulah’s Goodtimers, the Uto­pian Lounge, and Jukes Lounge. A transit cop is ticketing a battered Chevy parked at a bus stop. Groups of Puerto Ricans sit around card tables on milk boxes and play dominoes. Salsa blares from a new tape deck. The stores along Broadway are either shuttered or gutted. There is already graf­fiti on some of the plywood covering the broken windows. In yellow spray paint, someone has written: DETROIT.

Blue Eyes and Smokey of the Savage Skulls stroll down the street.

“I’m glad it cooled out last night,” Blue Eyes says. “The police kept cool and it worked out. It’s better that way. Maybe the cops will try to understand the street peo­ple.”

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Inside the 81st Precinct, Captain Wynne is ready to go home. He looks exhausted, but agrees to answer some questions.

“Did you expect the looting?” he is asked.

“You expect what you get,” Wynne says. “But I’m not surprised.”

“Do you expect any more trouble?”

“Not if we keep the lights on.”

“Why weren’t the cops wearing badges and nameplates?”

“I wasn’t looking at cops.”

“Have there been any arrests for violent crimes in the past three days?”

“No.”

Behind Wynne, there is a bulletin board with a dozen pictures pinned to it. WANTED FOR MURDER, a sign above the picture reads. Last year, there were 23 murders, 50 reported rapes, and 1100 armed robberies in the 81st Precinct.

“It was a bitch,” a desk sergeant says after Wynne leaves. “But at least nobody got hurt bad. You’ll see the violence start up again, though. Now that the party’s over, it’ll get back to the nitty gritty. We’ll have a stiff by morning.” The sergeant goes back to his bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Dropping In on the Grateful Dead

I tried to roll a joint before walking over to the Palladium to see the Grateful Dead for the first time in four years last Friday, but ended up asking my wife to do it. I’d never mastered the knack, even when I was in practice, and this would be the third or fourth time I’d smoked my own grass in — hmm — about four years. All of these instances, I should add, have taken place since I made a buy in honor of Graham Parker’s Palladium appearance last De­cember. Turn on, tune in, drop in.

I am, or have been, a certified Grateful Dead freak; I don’t know how many Dead concerts I’ve attended, but it has to be more than 25, which for this record addict is a record. What’s more, I never made a conscious decision to lay off. In fact, the last time I’d seen them, at Nassau Coli­seum shortly after Pigpen’s death in March, 1973, I couldn’t tear myself away from “Sugar Magnolia” and go write my review, while the time before — Roo­sevelt Stadium in July, 1972 — I had left with some relief (and no deadline) during the same song. Yet somehow I never got back. I continued to admire the staunch commu­nalism of Jerry Garcia’s countercultural values, but their spaced-out myopia of these values became harder and harder to take as history got harsher and harsher. A parallel spaceyness was increasingly ap­parent in records I struggled — and eventu­ally failed — to find praiseworthy. With Pigpen’s r&b pulled out by the roots, the Dead’s music was defined by Bob Weir’s strained rockabilly when it touched earth at all. What a combination — a ’60s nostalgia trip in the attenuated country-rock mode of the middle ’70s. So what if they ran their own record company? I was better off savoring my memories.

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It was basically to check out these memories that I went to the Palladium. Anti-psychedelic propaganda notwith­standing, Dead heads tend to be quite bright. But it should go without saying that the group inspires (and attracts) enlightened hipness rather than analytic acumen or musical savvy, which means that most of my acquaintances remain decidedly unconverted. When the Dead applied for State Department assistance on an Asian tour last fall, I found it impossible to locate cuts on either of two relatively strong albums that would convince a panel of open-minded jazz and folk professionals that the band was worthy. In that skeptical context, Jon Landau’s old charges about “absence of a lead singer with a competent voice” and “no drive” became quite vivid. I went home and put on Live/Dead, once one of my favorite records; it sounded aimless. Even Workingman’s Dead, their best-made LP, lacked punch. I began to wonder whether my former fanaticism was based on anything more substantial than good dope, and misconstrued vibes.

When we arrived at the Palladium at 8:30, punctual by Dead standards, the music had already begun, and the vibes were unmistakable — hair was shorter, but the eyes had that old glow. The music sounded good, too; even skeptics find something nice to say about Garcia’s gui­tar, and he was ringing through the smoke as we took our seats. The tune — from Blues for Allah, their worst, most recent, and biggest-selling studio LP — was predictably desultory. But when a Dead jam climaxes properly, Garcia’s keen lines transfigure the surrounding babble into a strain of polyrhythmic rhapsody not ordinarily encountered at the Palladium or anywhere else. I was aware, as this climax recurred three times in the course of the song, that I was being subjected to the Dead’s basic tension-and-release trick, but that didn’t make me enjoy it less. Unfortunately, nothing exhilarating occurred during “New, New Minglewood Blues” — or the always long-winded “Tennessee Jed.” In fact, I was quite bored, and not in the spirit of friendly rumination I used to love them for eliciting — I was worrying how long they’d play. Not until Garcia’s opening solo on a Donna Godchaux feature did anything interesting catch my ear. I decid­ed to toke up immediately. And immedi­ately the concert got better.

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But I swear that it really did get better. In any case, cheers and whistles from the audience increased in loudness and number, and mine were among them even though the effect of the dope was not to bring me into the music but to put me more attentively outside it. I noticed with some disapproval, for instance, that the ripple effect I’d always admired in Garcia’s playing was achieved, at least this time, by an improvisationally elementary device: He was running triplets up and down the scale, four at a time, so that when he merely held a single note for two beats the contrast was arresting almost by definition. Soon, I also noticed, however, that into all this repetition he was sneaking a few very attractive melodies. Then, for the final raveup, he suddenly attacked the guitar with a bluesish (almost Jamesian) slash that made all that rippling melody seem a diversion in subliminal retrospect. We’d been set up, and we loved it.

Joints were shared by strangers during the half-time intermission, a rite now rare enough at concerts to be newsworthy. But although the dope continued for the rest of the show, it was the two numbers that opened the second set — Gary Davis’s “Samson and Delilah” and a long, slow “Sugaree” — that were the high point. Only “California,” which sounds like their first groundbreaking new song in at least five years, and Garcia’s transmutation into Chuck Berry on the flaccid (and too well­-received) finale, “Around and Around,” really turned me on. But when the cheering stopped it was 12:45. My wife and I would both have sworn it was an hour earlier.

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In other words, although this was not (for me) a great Dead concert — great Dead concerts finish in total abandon — it kept me occupied the way nobody’s concerts do anymore, not for two hours, much less four. Appropriately, my number one occupation was figuring out just what the Dead are and have been. Clearly, not your textbook Great Rock and Roll Band. They do lack drive; even at the climaxes they roll rather than rock. Their good drummer, Mickey Hart, is into jazz rhythms, and their ordi­nary drummer, Bill Kreutzmann, has never had the chops to push the band, although since Phil Lash plays bass strictly for lyrical input and harmonic guidance, pushing the band would be uphill work for Steve Gadd or Keith Moon.

More complex is the issue of vocal competence. By their own standards, the Dead learned to sing — to project their voices — around 1969. Their equipment has never been overwhelming; even Bob Weir, the loudest, has always wavered slightly. But insofar as they are incompetent, it is not as singers, but as lead singers — they project voice but not character. They do add the appropriate emotional color to the words and notes, of course — weary plain­tiveness, happy energy, whatever — but the color is there for musical rather than dramatic reasons; even when Weir shouts out “One More Saturday Night,” to choose the most far-fetched example available, there is something slightly detached about his ebullience. This deadpan quality is much more apparent in a typical perform­ance by Garcia or Donna Godchaux (who has moved from pianist’s wife to backup chick to part-timer in good standing); it often makes Weir’s own “El Paso” seem oddly off. By instinct or design the Dead refuse to provide the easy psychological referents that most people (including me) seek in vocal music. What’s left is the music itself. Performing personas­ — Weir’s callowness, which becomes ever harder to tolerate as he passes 30, or Garcia’s beneficence — are inescapable for musicians on view for dozens and even hundreds of individual spectator-hours. But even these tend to merge into the Dead’s version of the ultimate reality.

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The source of this vocal anti-stance is clearly the affectless singing of bluegrass and string-band music. But it makes for surprising alliances. Yes and Cleo Laine, for instance, use the voice for emotional rather than musical effect. The Dead distinguish themselves from such showoffs by their vaunted modesty. Garcia (not to mention Mickey Hart and Keith Godchaux) is not averse to letting us enjoy his techni­cal virtuosity, but always in the service of the larger pattern; in their own way, the Dead are as anti-virtuosic as the Ramones. This in turn suggests other alliances. ­Television, say, or Eno, who in his con­siderably more abstract way also exploits rock and roll usages to build patterns that move back and forth between the reflective and the ecstatic. To me, such connections are instinctively right. They add an enlightening dimension to the Dead’s status as musty avatars of the counterculture. This can’t mean that all those déclassé longhairs were actually as avant-garde as they thought they were, can it? The thought of finding out is enough to make me take up smoking again.