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Orthodox in New York: A Journey Through the Year 5738 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

=✡︎= 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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=✡︎= 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

=✡︎=

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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=✡︎=

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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=✡︎= 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

=✡︎=

It was nearly Passover, and Rabbi Singer was reminiscing. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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=✡︎=

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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=✡︎= 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

=✡︎= 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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His two sons were in the crowd, watching. 

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

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

Then he was killed. 

It was 8 o’clock in the morning. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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=✡︎=

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

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

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Legs McNeil: Teenage Hipster in the Modern World

Cool in an Uncool World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Teengenerate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Legs McNeil and the Obsolescence of the White Negro Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Orgasm, Where Is the Orgasm?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The anguish Legs McNeil suffered being the “Resident Punk” of a movement he had come to hate — no man knows. But he did the only thing he felt he could do: He threw himself headlong into the job as a protest. He drank more, offered more diatribes about the foul influence of faggots, and directed manifestos at the invading British. Weeks went by “out of control.” The drinking ravaged his already beleaguered liver. He slept at a different frumpy “groupie’s” house every night. Their names he did not remember. In his haggard look and dedication to the task at hand, Legs reminded one of the lead character in Diary of a Country Priest. One time, while a French reporter was asking him to compare the Three Stooges with Laurel and Hardy, Legs spewed forth a three-foot curtain of blood and phlegm.

From everywhere, uncool people who didn’t get the joke besieged him. Once, a burly idiot from Ohio wielding a pearl­handled switchblade came into CBGB looking to dethrone Legs as “Resident Punk.” Legs had to hide in Phebe’s among the off-off Broadway failures. It appeared that Legs would soon fulfill John Holmstrom’s blithe and oft-repeated prophecy: “Legs has to die young. Look at his eyes. Can’t you see it? That’s what makes him so romantic.”

One week Legs’s older brother, a hot-dog ski pro who Legs always thought was as cool as James Bond, came to town. The brother took one look at Legs and asked Holmstrom, “What’s wrong with my brother?” John, who had been trying to get Legs to eat something for weeks, said, “I don’t know, I think he’s going crazy.” The brother said something had to be done. According to Legs, “One minute I was upstairs, drinking. They called me down. An hour later I was on my way to the nuthouse. It happened just like that. They didn’t commit me. I signed the papers myself. But they said it wouldn’t be too good for me if I didn’t. After all, I knew they could get everyone in this city as a character witness against me.”

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Legs was in the bughouse only for a month or so, but that was long enough for his roommate to kill himself. Every day the doctors dragged Legs to “creative” encounter sessions. He could hardly keep from cracking up every time one of the fright-wig ladies in the white smocks read their poems, usually about “the beauty of fucking nature or how they wanted to kill their mothers.” Legs read no poems, but the doctors loved him. “They really thought I was an interesting case,” Legs says. “They wanted to keep me there forever. They said I had a unique outlook on life. They kept poking me, wanting to know why I thought everything was so funny.”

Legs signed himself out. Staying there wouldn’t have done anybody any good, he says. The doctors didn’t understand a word he was saying. Actually, the shrinks should have saved their breath. Big Norman said 20 years ago a “psychopath” hipster makes a bad mental patient because he is “ordinately ambitious — too ambitious ever to trade his warped brilliant conception of his possible victories in life for the grim if peaceful attrition of the analyst’s couch.” Big Norm, of course, knows what Legs’s problem is: He ain’t come.

Norm says, “Orgasm is his [the hipster’s] therapy.” And it takes a hipster from the ’60s, whose orgasm did come, over and over for three Tantric years, to dig the sadness of Legs’s coital interruptus. Who knows why Legs’s brand of punk failed to sustain itself as a meaningful hipster force? Probably the punk-hipster vision was too intellectual for most modern teenagers to relate to. Instead of offering the solid psychology of broadside rebellion against parents, legs advocated the elusive psychopathy of dealing with the fearsome swell of Modern America by celebrating it. This is a difficult and ultimately unhappy way to think. Especially for someone as bright as Legs. For him, saying Modern America is great is just more of the joke. But it’s hard to keep laughing when you walk into a supermarket and hear the clerk singing “You Deserve a Break Today” and you know that the McDonald’s jingle is the only song in the whole world he knows the lyrics to.

That’s why I guess I didn’t want the responsibility for making Legs famous. I must have sensed defeat back on the dock waiting for Godzilla. But if Legs and his buddies are the direct descendants of me and my pre-hippie friends, we can sympathize with the bad hand the Bowery Boys drew. They really should have had the spades to show the way. They really were born too late.

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Now Legs is “Resident Punk” in name only. These days Punk comes out infrequently at best, and Legs is talking about moving on. So many things have changed in two years, Legs says with a beer-sodden nostalgia you expect from someone who carried the hippie coffin down Haight Street. “l don’t even want to be famous anymore,” Legs says. “I mean, being famous is neat and all, but I wasn’t making no money. It’s dumb to be famous without something to show for it. That’s why I hate People magazine. Those people are famous for doing stupid things. Now I only want to be famous for doing cool things. That’s what I want to do, cool things.”

Legs’s current cool thing is a band, Shrapnel. He manages them and is their “spiritual leader.” The association began when Legs was in the bughouse. The Shrapnels, five teenage rock and rollers from Red Bank, New Jersey, then calling themselves the Hard Attacks, had read Legs’s “famous persons” interviews and found them intense. They also liked the time they saw Legs pass out in CBGB’s after making still another speech about teenagers taking over the world. They called Legs every day he was in the hospital, begging him to take them on. Legs thought about it for a while, asking the kids pertinent questions like, “If you had all the money in the world, what 10 movies would you make?” They described 10 war films full of fire, destruction, and Armageddon, all of it done in Frank Frazetta style with Venus Paradise color.

Legs recognized the modernistic values in such thinking. He decided that a “war band” was just what New York rock and roll needed. Living in New York was sort of like that anyway, he thought. Everywhere are contending platoons of ethnic groups, looking to aggrandize territory and goods. The fucking Bowery already looked like a B-52ed Nam village. Besides, war expressed Legs’s frame of mind. His cool was under attack from Brits on one side, the dumb CBGB kids on another, and the snotty “punk as art” Soho creeps on the other. The time had come for the true American teenager to stand up. Legs read that Dali said war was “a heightened state of awareness.” If that’s what the moribund punk hipster scene needed to fight miasma like disco, so be it.

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Now, after a few months of woodshedding with Legs, Shrapnel may be the only rock and roll band outwardly advocating World War III. They appear onstage wearing army fatigues and carrying models of M-16s. They use sandbags, cardboard tanks, and mock incendiary bombs as props. They sing songs entitled “Get the World,” “Girls and Guns,” “Special Forces Boy,” and “Cro-Magnum Man.” Their lyrics include stuff like, “I’m fresh from a Vietnam hangover / I got nothing to do / So I’m going to a Texas tower / and rain bullets down on you/ down on you.” Their lead singer, who was 10 years old during the Tet Offensive and looks Like a suckling-pig version of Legs, yells “Hey, you, asshole creep, I bet you were against the war,” and drinks out of a canteen.

Clearly, this is an idea with limited commercial possibilities. How do you hype this band? “Hey, kids, get with Sgt. Rock Rock!” or “Listen to the Curtis Le May Sound!” What do you say about a band whose most melodic song is called “Combat Love”? It is almost as if the Vietnam War is another of the ’60s things Legs feels deprived of. But it’s consistent with his hipster view. The group’s best song, “After the Battle,” which Legs wrote, tells the story of a soldier who gets lost from his platoon in the middle of a firestorm. “Guys,” he screams. “Where are you? Are you out there? Littlejohn, Kinch, Kowalski, anybody?” Kinch and Littlejohn and Kowalski, of course, were members of the platoon on Combat, the television show. It’s just like Legs to call out for pop­-culture characters when he’s lost in the Modern World.

Perhaps only the apocalypse itself can be Legs’s orgasm. But Shrapnel makes him happy, that’s good enough for me. We’ve always been kindred spirits, two white boys trying to be cool. And no matter how seemingly disgusting Legs gets, I prefer to see him poetically: the man who tried to be hip in an unhip time. Besides, it’s kind of funny to watch Legs and the Shrapnels in the band’s one-room apartment on St. Mark’s Place. The kids sit around in their dog tags, reading Soldier of Fortune magazine and singing “Hey, hey, we’re the Shrapnels … We like to Shrapnel around.” Legs says, “I like these kids because they’re real teenagers. The way teenagers should be. They’re normal, they like to read comics, watch television, and get drunk. Being with them makes me feel cool. I kind of look out for them.”

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Legs McNeil as a daddy, the mind boggles. But there is a certain tenderness in the way Legs gives his kids advice on how to be cool. The other day he was telling his guitar player, “Don’t go out with Catholic girls. They never fuck you until a year after they get out of Catholic school. I know.” Legs also takes the Shrapnels up to Connecticut, where they play “army” together in the swamps around Legs’s mother’s house. They split into two squads and fight to take the bridge over the Farmington Canal. Legs says, “My guys are good. They are so fucking good. They’ll wait in a bush for two hours. I’d put my guys up against an A-team Green Beret outfit any day.”

Personally, I like this image of an aging Legs McNeil playing army with his teenage kids. I see him sneaking around the edge of a brick wall, lying low in the tall reeds fertilized by the bodies of so many other soldiers before him. Then he bursts out into the line of murderous enemy fire, his toy gun waving, his high-pitched voice screaming “budda­-budda-budda” like some wild, degenerate manically cool Holden Caulfield. ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Laughin’ Louis Armstrong

It was quite a long time before I discovered that Louis Armstrong was a genius. In fact, it was quite a while before I knew what to make of him at all. Born in 1945, I grew up with television. That meant growing up on Louis Armstrong, who was a favored guest on talk and variety shows and could be seen as everything from star to supporting actor or cameo performer in films from the thirties and forties. All I knew was that he was the most unusual of all the celebrated personalities who guested on television. He was a man whose size changed from sleek to proverbial butterball in the many films I saw, celebrated or imitated by every comedian at loss for an impersonation. I found him very mysterious.

Armstrong’s sound, his manner, his facial expressions, all added up, for me, to some kind of secret language with which he consumed, reshaped, and reiterated songs, words, and music. Music I had become familiar with through radio, or television time, would dissolve in gravel, mugging, and a forward-leaning slight or broad trembling of the body which was physicalization of a vibrato. As he reared back while singing, say, “St. James Infirmary,” the width of his smile was heroic, yet it was more closely related to a grimace or the shadow world of irony and ambiguity than was suggested by the clapping of the audience or by the laughing of my mother as he would make an aside that held sentimentality or self-pity up for mockery, underlining it all with a handkerchief descending across his face, an open-armed gesture, or the motion of his head from side to side.

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Unlike my mother, my father didn’t find Armstrong charming or amusing; he found him despicable. My old man had been baptized in Lunceford, Ellington, and bebop. He considered Armstrong an embarrassment, a return to an unpleasant identity, or a man who had allowed white people to impose a ridiculous mask on him. In short, an Uncle Tom. But for all my old man’s fervor, I wasn’t going for it. Though I had no idea what was actually going on, I found Armstrong still mysterious.

But it wasn’t until I saw Armstrong in a film with Danny Kaye about the white cornetist Red Nichols that I got a glimpse of the master behind the mask. Nichols goes uptown to hear “the new bugler” play in Harlem. Drunk and laughing, he interrupts Armstrong (who is playing himself) as he gloriously trumpets the blues, and tells him that he is not as great as his father, the senior Nichols, who plays in the Midwest. With a gravity and confidence, a contempt and actuality that is rarely heard from Armstrong in any film when he is not performing musically, he replies, “If he ain’t Gabriel, he’s in trouble.”

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Nothing else Armstrong says or does in the film other than play is that authoritative, but that was enough. It prepared me for the photographs of Armstrong from the twenties with King Oliver or Fletcher Henderson. There we see an arrogant, surly young man who seemed to think himself handsome and was not to be fucked with. In Jazz Masters of the 1930’s, trumpeter Rex Stewart remembers Armstrong as a man who arrived in the North wearing a box-back suit, a cap cocked to the side, and some high-topped shoes, all of which were emblematic of a street tough. Armstrong himself has written of knife fights he witnessed, of women who sold their bodies for his benefit, and women who threatened him with knives — one eventually stabbed him in the shoulder. He also spoke of the many gangsters for whom he worked and the shootings he witnessed. At times, he carried two pistols himself.

In many ways, the genial persona Armstrong cultivated in the thirties was the result of advice from his manager, Joe Glaser. Glaser encouraged Armstrong to mug and sing, and many thought of the great brassman as no more than his lapdog. But one musician claims to have opened Armstrong’s dressing room door one evening to find him holding a knife to Glaser’s throat, saying, “I can’t prove it, but if I find out you’ve stolen one dime from me, I’ll cut your goddam throat.” Another says Armstrong knocked trombonist Jack Teagarden out cold one evening backstage for getting too familiar. He then calmly went onstage to grin broadly and speak through his teeth, saying, “Thank you very much, ladies, gen’mens. Our first number this evening is dedicated to our trombonist brother Jack Teagarden, who won’t be playing this show with us, and it’s called — ‘When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.”‘ And of course, very little is ever said about how strongly Armstrong spoke out about President Eisenhower’s indecisive­ness at Little Rock, and the fact that the next string of gigs he played was so bereft of audiences, artillery shells could’ve sailed through the rooms and harmed no one. Then there was the irony of his yucking it up on screen with white stars who never invited him to their houses. All of those things made Armstrong more than a little tough. No man of his background born in 1900 who was a professional musician for fifty years could even aspire to being a square, a lame, or a chump. The pressure flushed all punks.

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A recent RCA reissue on Bluebird, Young Louis Armstrong 1932-1933 (AXM2-5519), is invaluable to this discussion, just as it is musically invaluable. The double album contains material from a period most critics find lacking in artistic greatness, which is absurd. Not only does this recording contain some of the finest trumpet playing ever documented, it very clearly shows how influential Armstrong was on singers as different as Bing Crosby, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Dean Martin. The emotional range of the work is exemplary and the variety of things Armstrong does with the horn often startles. Without a doubt, Armstrong was the greatest trumpet player of the century — the most powerful, the most touching, the most varied.

One performance,”Laughin’ Louie,” perfectly expresses the enigma of the great musician. It opens with a trite theme that collapses into a burlesque of sad jokes and buffoonery from both Armstrong and his band members. The music starts back up and, again, breaks into laughter, Armstrong and the band bantering back and forth. Then, out of nowhere, the trumpeter decides to play something from his New Orleans past. First, he sputters some individual notes; then there is a lovely passage, then more laughter before he quiets the band down for “the beautiful part.” Armstrong then plays in unaccompanied melody. Its rich tone conveys a chilling pathos and achieves a transcendence in the upper register that summons the cleansing agony of the greatest spirituals. The band drops a chord under him and it is over. The feeling one is left with is of great mystery. ❖

Categories
Equality From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Gay Rights: Forget It

I go through life’s little traumas. My book isn’t in Brentano’s window, so I get de­pressed. A playwright I met in San Francisco uses me, but can’t stay the night. Copy is cut, so that the original point of my story is lost. I don’t know whether or not to tell someone I love that I love him. Then Guyana happens. Then Moscone and Harvey Milk are assas­sinated. Then the gay-rights bill fails again at City Council. And everything that’s big seems inconsequential. I go to glamorous parties and wonder why I’m there. I taxi to a screening of The Deer Hunter and walk out when a deer is shot. I make a fish stew and can’t eat it. The avocado I bought last week is rotting in the fruit bowl. This month life is frightening, and death too real. Here are some thoughts on gay rights, politics, and life.

There was yet another City Council hear­ing November 29. The idea this time was to get the full council to decide whether it should vote as a body on Intro 384, the bill which would legally protect gays from being discriminated against in employment, public accommodations, and housing. On Novem­ber 8, Intro 384 lost in the General Welfare Committee by a vote of 6 to 3.

Little advance notice of the hearing had been given. The night before, the Daily News ran a short story in which gay lobbyist Allen Roskoff stated that he was certain of 18 discharge votes and “quite hopeful” that four more would be secured. “Quite hopeful” in city council jargon means “forget it.”

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Hopelessness permeated the air even be­ifore the hearings began. The usual rah-rah gay-rights supporters were missing. No more than 15 (the tiniest number ever) cluttered the balcony, while about 30 assorted “normal” types were there to applaud the opposition.

Key sponsor Carol Bellamy overlorded the proceedings. Clearly playing favorites, Coun­cil President Bellamy pounded her gravel, made final crisp judgments, and jutted her jaw in the best Smiling Jack tradition whenever the minority seemed most out of favor. She ran a tight, mean show.

Challenge time began when a councilman spotted a photographer in the hearing room and demanded that he be thrown out. Bella­my didn’t buy. Then Michael DeMarco of the Bronx told her that she was ruling against the house protocol. Bellamy ordered him to shut up. “If you persist, I’ll have a sergeant-­at-arms remove you from the chamber,” she hissed. House majority leader, Tom Cuite (long the leading opponent of gay rights) en­tered the picture and recited parliamentary procedure. It was clear to the blind what was taking place: the debate was not about cam­eras, but old thinking versus new, censorship versus opennness, anti-gay forces versus pro­-gay. Censorship won: 28 votes to toss the photographer out, 12 to allow him to stay.

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Councilman Leon Katz of Brooklyn, with no understanding of the gay-rights issue, claimed that “we can’t enact legislature ad­vocating homosexual conduct as acceptable and as the desirable correct way.” Katz­ — along with many of his colleagues — was un­able to differentiate between doing it and be­ing it. The act defined the issue.

Throughout the endless debate that fol­lowed, mini-melodramas took place offstage. Tom Cuite put his arm around Councilman Fred Samuel, and led him, buddy-like, out of the chamber. Later, when it came time to vote, Samuel, a sponsor of the bill, voted no. What was said — or offered to Samuel — is a mystery that undoubtedly will be solved in the weeks to come. Also a mystery: why Koch wasn’t there to lead a few councilmen to his inner office for a game of friendly per­suasion. Instead, an aide distributed paper­back copies of Laura Z. Hobson’s Consenting Adults as a meaningful gift from the mayor to the council. He’d have done better with Scru­ples.

In all fairness, several 384 supporters spoke quite elegantly. Manhattan Council­man-at-large Henry Stern claimed that if the bill was to be voted down, City Hall would be in backwater, that the private sector was ahead of the public sector. He added that a “no” vote would be a reflection on the city council. Brooklyn Councilman-at-large Rob­ert Steingut offered that he was not con­cerned with millions, but with a handful of people who have no redress to a legislative body. Manhattan Councilwoman Jane Trichter hit the nail on the head when she claimed that “what is operating here is a fear of that which is different.”

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That which is always the same, was pro­vided by Bronx Councilwoman Aileen Ryan, whom Murray Kempton called “a most un­movable, hard, dumb woman.”

Ryan wailed, “I am proud that the General Welfare Committee has bent over backwards to give fair hearings … In the name of family and stability, defeat this motion to dis­charge.”

Vincent Riccio of Brooklyn offered good cause for the city to do away with the council completely. “I was told City Council was an easy job,” he complained, “but I spend all my days going to committee meetings.” He proceded to attack the gay community with a viciousness indigenous to tyrants who build support out of hate. From the balcony came hissing, but the sound was like rhumba mu­sic to Riccio’s ears. He took little square steps with his feet when the hissings broke into boos.

“I believe New York should have a refe­rendum,” he continued. “If this bill passes, I shall make such a move.” Apparently he was unaware that a different kind of referendum is being discussed in top gay political circles. One which would allow the voters next year to decide whether the City Council should be abolished. Only 50,000 signatures are needed to get it going.

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Riccio concluded his tirade by noting that he had received letters calling him dirty names “because I represent family and reli­gion.” Since reporter feedback was prohibit­ed, I could not tell the councilman that he does not represent my own father and mother, who are originally from Brooklyn, or Morty Manford’s father and mother from Queens, or Vito Russo’s parents from Man­hattan. The Bells, the Manfords, and the Russos happen to love their children. They also happen to be supportive of their beliefs.

But it wouldn’t have mattered if Oscar Wilde’s mother served as the councilwoman from Staten Island. The bill was doomed. Fi­nal vote: 16 for, 26 against — the most re­sounding defeat for gay rights in New York since the bill was first introduced in 1971, approximately seven hearings ago.

The brainchildren who decided to rehash the vote this time are as much to blame as the councilpeople who voted against it. They include members of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights and the New York Political Action Council (NYPAC), who met with In­tro 384 supporters, such as Bellamy, Jane Trichter, Tony Olivieri, Carol Greitzer, and Henry Stern. All of them knew it would lose, for not only were they dealing with the bill, they were suggesting a change in council procedure. Change is the last thing the mori­bund council would consider. The gay-rights politicos, then, are to be faulted for inflicting further psychological damage to the collec­tive gay psyche. According to NYPAC’s Nick Bollman, “We did it to get the votes on record. The major defeat was when Intro 384 went down a couple of weeks before.”

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So now we have a record, and what are we to do with it? Send Kool-Aid popsicles to Ai­leen Ryan and Vincent Riccio? And petunias to Henry Stern?

Threatening, boycotting, educating is not the way to get power from political assholes. Money and favors are. If offered a house in Quogue or a judgeship in Queens, there is no doubt in my mind that several zealot anti-gay gnomes would suddenly open their hearts, if not their homes, and allow the gay vote to tiptoe in.

The morning after Proposition 6 was de­feated — a victory that was more a vote against witchhunts than one for gay rights — I appeared on the Mid-Morning Show in L.A. John Briggs called the TV station. The sena­tor, in the best Douglas MacArthur tradi­tion, swore he and his forces would return. He attributed his loss to the fact that the pro-­gay forces had a million-dollar kitty for ad­vertising while the Briggs guys had a small fraction of that amount. The host asked him if politics was a matter of money, and, in his roundabout way, Briggs admitted it was.

Why gay people insist on being part of this corruption is something I just have come to analyze. Why should our anger erupt because of a defeat that came about through lack of funds or poor advertising or dumb planning? None of this has anything to do with who we are.

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The gay-rights bill should be a matter of common decency, not one of political ma­neuverings — from either side.

In Manhattan, Koch doesn’t have the clout to buy off the handful of bigots who claim to represent their constituents, while those gay millionaires and denizens of fashion and high society who own sage brush homes in the Pines wouldn’t think of contributing to “the cause.” I no longer blame them. Gay politics is not the way.

Perhaps it once was. Once there was hope. Once gay power was a joyous cry in this town. Then the thrust toward radicalism died. The stuffed-shirt gay politico appeared. Lethargy set in. Anger followed the Bryant defeat. Sorrow follows Milk.

For gay people the war is on, but the way to fight is not through politics. The way is through pleasure. So when things get tough, my advice to readers is don’t run to the Task Force. Forget about City Hall. Go to Christo­pher Street. And handle matters your own way. ♦

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March for Mass

About 250 women and men congregat­ed at Sheridan Square in the rain last Sunday night to form a candlelight procession mourning the death of Harvey Milk. They marched through the West Village to Metropolitan Duane Metho­dist Church, punctuating the quiet night with shouts of “enough shit,” the new gay slogan.

In many ways, the march was similar to the candlelight vigil that followed the Snake Pit raid in March 1970. At that time, a young immigrant, Diego Vinales, fearful of deportation, jumped from a po­lice station window, only to be impaled on a picket fence. Many of the same acti­vists who anended the Vinales vigil were present at the Milk procession, including Jim Owles, first president of the Gay Ac­tivists Alliance, and Craig Rodwell, own­er of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Book­shop.

Rodwell, who knew Milk from the ear­ly ’60s, spoke at the church. He said, “Harvey was an atheist, and I also think he will forgive us for meeting here tonight.” Rodwell suggested that gun con­trol be added to the list of gay issues. Trish Williams, a lesbian folksinger, sang, “You’ve pushed us back/you’ve pushed us back/but you will push us back no more.” The congregation sang along with Williams, as if it were a hymn.

— A.B.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Seven Ways of Looking at Bob Dylan’s ‘Renaldo & Clara’

He Speaks Good English and He Invites You Up into His Room

Gone with the Idiot Wind
By Karen Durbin

A few years ago, a friend of mine found himself, to his shy delight, having a drink with Bob Dylan. Dylan allowed as how he’d like to get around more but felt hampered by his superstardom and didn’t know what to do about it.

“Make yourself more accessible,” said my friend. “Perform more, be more pub­lic. Mystery and elusiveness feed the adu­lation. Being available will defuse it.” Dylan has pursued that advice with a vengeance. First he started touring again, and that was great. Then, last year, he treated us to a nasty divorce case, and that was not so great (although headlines like BOB DYLAN’S WIFE SAYS HE BEAT HER do tend to take the edge off the old hero-worship). Now, he’s delivered the coup de grace in his de-adulation campaign, Renaldo & Clara.

For a hard-core fan, the first couple of hours of Renaldo & Clara are mild fun. The last couple are excruciating. It isn’t just that the movie is bad, or even that it’s long. The problem lies elsewhere, pointed up by a late scene in which Dylan and Allen Ginsberg ask a group of children about God. “Does he have teeth?” asks Ginsberg. “Yes!” shout the children. “Does he play a guitar?” asks Dylan. “No!” they yell.

You’re glad someone finally told him. I don’t know how many moments there are in Renaldo & Clara that invite the viewer, with no humor at all, to associate Bob Dylan with Jesus Christ, but one would have been more than enough. It’s what you might call a theme. There’s also a scene where Joan Baez and Sara Dylan wrangle at great length over Dylan’s affections. Finally, he looks at each woman and asks, with the ponderous innocence of a dull-wit­ted child, “Do you mean do I love her like I love you?” Dylan never answers the ques­tion; there’s no need to. What with the Jesus images piling up, and the women looking anxiously on, and the long, slow shot toward the end when the camera lingers for what feels like five minutes but is doubtless only two or three on the weary figure of the artist resting after a perform­ance — it has become smotheringly obvious that Dylan could love no one like he loves himself.

Renaldo & Clara is not, as it first seems, an artsy-fartsy muddle about Truth, God, and Identity. It’s a monster movie starring Dylan’s ego. A great pul­sating mass of self-love comes welling up off the screen like The Blob, rolling and swelling across the rug, pushing against the walls, engulfing the rows in front of you. By the last 20 minutes, it’s up to your neck and it’s still growing. Help, you think, this has got to stop, the movie will end, Dylan will make a joke, he can’t possibly be serious about thismrriphbllghspfffttt… ■

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Caveats and Cavities
By Richard Goldstein

Renaldo & Clara is by no means a successful film, but it contains enough that is arresting to justify about three of its four hours. Though Dylan the auteur has gone to embarrassing lengths to avoid producing a “musical,” it is unquestionably the onstage moments, close-up and through richly fil­tered light, which carry you through the poorly mounted and clumsily improvised “fictional” interludes.

Much of what is good about this film has to do with the attitude of its photographers toward the landscapes (and stagescapes) through which the performers and their audiences move. We have passed the age of Leacock-Pennebaker, in which the camera focuses sharply and often sentimentally upon audience reactions which were especially extreme. In Renaldo & Clara, the audience is sometimes bored, most often delighted, but always well within the bounds of moderation. There is no lighting of matches in any balcony, and one might assume that if there were, Dylan the director would have excised it from the final cut as surely as Pennebaker clipped the yawns. For the aim here is to suggest a populistic framework for the rock experi­ence — much as the decision to use only simple rhythms and chords, for many punk musicians, stems from a desire to create music anyone can play. It’s been Dylan’s contention (since Nashville Skyline) that rock is American pop music which ought to be accessible to great numbers and varie­ties of American people. With this film, he suggests that the contradictions between image and reality which have plagued him throughout much of his work can be recon­ciled by the audience through its reinforce­ment of an artist’s style. The mask and make-up he wears through much of the film struck me as an attempt to tell the audi­ence: don’t look for me, I’m yours.

But there is another aspect of Renaldo & Clara that I found quite powerful, even though its execution stupified me. The people in this movie, who made such gripping music in the ’60s, no longer exist as a cultural force. They are phantoms who continue to live and work, and therefore must face the painful process of separating their craft from its erstwhile public aspira­tions. That the hipster-folkie milieu which merged with Anglo-blues to create what was later called “progressive rock” no longer feeds the mainstream of popular music means that its practitioners are free to recover their identities. And their identi­ties are every bit as quirky as Dylan presumes them to be. They are vulnerable, insufferable, deceitful, indulgent, and terr­ibly regional — more so now that their hold on the American dreamlife is so tenuous. These are troubadors in a frayed America, and they make music in a tradition as arcane as delta blues.

Go see Renaldo & Clara because the people in it really are like that. Talk or neck through its indulgences. There are moments in Altman which are almost as insufferable, and moments in this film which are as moving as anything you’re likely to experience in a rock-concert film. If nothing else, you come away with a profound sense of how agile Dylan’s phras­ing is, how powerfully he connects with his material, and how bad his teeth are. Any tycoon with caveats and cavities — there’s hope for him. ■

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Tangled Up In Gray
By Mark Jacobson

I wish Bob Dylan died. Then Channel 5 would piece together an instant documen­tary on his life and times, the way they did Hubert, Chaplin, and Adolf Hitler. Just the immutable facts. Seeing all those immut­able facts about Elvis made his dying worthwhile. What a sum-up. You don’t get much gray, but like the reporter in Citizen Kane found out, gray doesn’t necessarily amount to shit.

Of course, you couldn’t expect facts from Dylan, and who wanted them? After the intermission of Renaldo & Clara, I was cruising along. The first half of the film ended with a nifty allusion to the beau­tifully incomprehensible Belle de Jour, a nice touch. Renaldo & Clara hadn’t amounted to shit, just a collage of charmingly old-fashioned Mailer-Rip Torn-type incantations of ’60s obsessions. Still I de­fended it in the lobby, happy to be satisfied that nothing was revealed.

Unfortunately, Renaldo & Clara goes on for three or four more weeks, and although it doesn’t get any more specific, the following are painfully revealed: all Indians and Hadassah ladies are fat, Allen Ginsberg is completely insipid, Bob Dylan is the skinniest Jew living, Rubin Carter was a bore and probably killed those people, Dylan had a perfectly good reason to beat Sara (she being as whiny a hippie as any Gibran quoter), Dylan is totally bored of all his songs or else he wouldn’t up-tempo “black is the color, none is the number,” Dylan’s concept of matched cuts would get him a B at NYU film school, and after 20 years I still hate Joan Baez.

As for anything new or revealing about Bob Dylan, it didn’t come clear. Halfway through Renaldo & Clara, I was screaming for Westbrook Van Pegler. Or Jack Webb. I am sick and tired of vagueness in Bob Dylan. What is he afriad of? Four hours is a long time for nothing to be revealed. Just a succession of mystic-cryptic elusive ladies in the night and somber young men.

Maybe there is nothing to reveal. Where does this Malibu-dwelling record-industry macher get off making a film three times as long as Citizen Kane and then bleating in the production notes about Americans being too spoiled to sit still for art? A guy who only made one good record in eight years can’t expect everything to be taken on faith forever. Goddamn, the only audible line Dylan speaks in the film is “Volks­wagen bus.”

I write off Renaldo & Clara as rich kid’s vanity project. But of course I could be wrong. Missing the gray. So I called up A.J. Weberman to check it out. A.J., as any Dylanologist knows, was the Minister of Information of the Dylan Liberation Front. Reached at his Bleecker Street townhouse, A.J. (now a well-known assassinologist) said, “I  can’t talk about D. He just sued my ass for the second time. Folkways Records released the Weberman-Dylan phone tapes. D is suing me. The schmuck. Any­way, I haven’t seen the picture. I couldn’t comment yet. I’ve got to see it 10 times on video cassette. Even then, I might not be able to talk. I’m sure it’s all symbolism. D is the greatest symbolist of the modern age. To understand his movie would take 10 years of serious study.” ■

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I, Dylanus
By James Wolcott

Somewhere in I, Claudius, our stammer­ing hero tells Caligula, “My happiness comes from c-c-contemplating your h-hap­piness.” So it must be for the cast of Bob Dylan’s Renaldo & Clara. Bob Neuwirth frisks after Dylan like a spaniel panting for scraps of encouragement. Joan Baez car­ries an offering of a single red rose when she visits him; Helena Kallianiotes, the rancorous hitchhiker of Five Easy Pieces, leans on his shoulder dreamily, exultantly. Nearly everyone in the movie is vying for the role of sorceror’s apprentice, but since there is no sorcery here — Dylan’s singing is a hoarse scrawl; his acting pouty and dim — all we see is shamelessness, self-deception, and unmasked envy. So many reputations are sunk by Renaldo & Clara that it’s like watching the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

Among the shipwrecked victims: Sara Dylan, Rubin Carter, Ronee Blakley. For years, Sara Dylan has been the Dark Lady of the counterculture: exotic, aloof, a sen­suous blur. In the shadows is where she should have stayed. Like Marilyn Monroe in All About Eve, Sara D. is a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts; every word, every gesture, is tinny and coarse. When she runs her hand lovingly through Dylan’s celestial curls, you want to look away — it’s like watching a hooker stroke her john.

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The film’s boho colonialism is symbo­lized by the brawny figure of “Hurricane” Carter. Even though Carter is touted as a Promethean martyr, he’s photographed from the back in unflattering close-ups: His head looms across the screen like an angry black planet. His prison press conference is intercut with Harlem man-on-the-street in­terviews, which are in tum interrupted by blasts of “Hurricane.” We’re given insultingly little information about Carter’s case so that another message can be tele­graphed: That no one knows or cares more about the black man’s plight than Bob Dylan.

For me, the movie’s sorriest casualty is Ronee Blakley. A number of people I know speak scornfully of her, suggesting that she gets what she deserves in Renaldo & Clara. Can’t agree. Even if she was a pain-in-the-ass prima donna on the tour — which isn’t clear, since her only sin here is dawdling at the make-up mirror — Dylan shouldn’t have sabotaged her solo by prefacing it with an ugly improvisational scene involving a foul-mouthed lout. Her performance of “Need a New Sun Rising” is the only sensational moment in the film, and Dylan damn near wrecks it.

The spitefulness of Renaldo & Clara — the revenge of an artist on his groupies — might be tolerable if the film had a hateful energy. But it doesn’t. It’s droopy and disconnected, like a fuckless porno. What’s sobering about this four-hour, purgatorial home movie is that Bob Dylan truly be­lieves he’s sired a work of art. Hieronymo’s mad againe. ■

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Fight the Document
By Tom Allen

With a guitar, he’s a philosopher; with a harmonica, he’s a poet; with film, he’s a Kleenex dispenser. Or is Bob Dylan in 1978 only a tissue-paper shadow of himself in music also? His obscure objects of banality in Renaldo & Clara are begging for a negative reaction. I know that the film transformed this distant admirer into an immediate cynic. The mix of one hour of standard, professionally recorded concert footage and three hours of fey, ama­teurishly familial posing induces such an acute mental and sensory underload that my system fights to reassert itself. Anyone who just sits there and takes this outrage politely is crazy. The Rocky Horror Show groupies at the Waverly have the right idea. Now they can take along two changes of costumes four hours before the midnight show and outtalk and outact anyone on the screen in Renaldo & Clara. After all, not all of us have the outlet of Jonathan Cott in Rolling Stone to lob metaphysical love pats at Dylan in his guise as benevolent, despotic guru.

There’s more ego showing in Renaldo & Clara than purpose. Bob Dylan as performing star, as Indian savior, and as black messiah are all reverently worshiped in the straight passages; but when you think about the overwhelming warped side, there is very little hint about what Dylan finds erotic, dramatic, cinematic, and, above all humorous. He shot four times the footage of The Battle of Chile to give birth to this parody of the freaked-out, pot­-shredded mindlessness of the post-Kerouac survival in which symbols obtain where you find them and in which the backstage amateurs of the Rolling Thunder Revue are pitilessly exposed to the camera without material or direction. The only sane act of self-preservation about Renaldo & Clara is that no film album will be on sale. Now critics can’t advise you to stay home and listen to the record. ■

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Movie from Big Pink
By Terry Curtis Fox

Renaldo & Clara is not as cute as the cover painting for Music From Big Pink, but it is a good image to keep in mind. In essence, this is the stuff of five films: a concert film (but one that does not, sur­prisingly, capture the feel of the Rolling Thunder concert I saw), a backstage docu­mentary, a melodrama by Sam Shepard (mainly scuttled but kind of interesting), a political documentary about Rubin Carter reminiscent The Murder of Fred Hampton (which was made by Howard Alk, cameraman and editor on this film), and a bit of Dylan’s old mask/myth-making, an extension of the poem which used to grow from concert program to concert program in the early days.

Everyone makes Dylan movies in their head: the narrative force, romantic pas­sion (here revealed as woman-as-­ephemeral-object, something better heard than seen), and simple life-identification of the songs make it inevitable. So perhaps it was inevitable that Dylan would try for film himself. But when a director truly committed to rock wants to make a rock film (viz. Scorsese), he can slap the real stuff on the soundtrack; Dylan, on the other hand, is in the position of an Alan Rudolph or Agnes Varda, filmmakers who wanted to control their own scores and ended up with bad music. Like Norman Mailer and the Maidstone fiasco, Dylan abandoned the structure of a language he did know for one over which he has merely rudimentary control. ■

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A Solipsist Is Born
By J. Hoberman

As Bob Dylan is an authentic sacred monster and his new film is in large part a self-dramatization, Renaldo & Clara evokes such exercises in superstar behav­iorism as Al Jolson’s reenactment of his life in The Jazz Singer, Chaplin casting himself as Hitler or M. Verdoux, Norman Mailer’s Beyond the Law, and Barbra Streisand’s A Star Is Born. Although the promising notion of using Ronnie Hawkins in the role of “Bob Dylan” gets lost early on in the shuffle, Renaldo & Clara — even more elaborately than his previous Eat the Doc­ument — plays with the idea of Dylan’s public self as a fictional character.

The film’s four hours are shot through with masks and religious icons appropriate to the condition of American stardom, but Dylan may be more baffled by his aura than the rest of us. Do we love him for his music or his personality? If, in the film, Dylan’s onstage presence is characterized by intelligence and passion, his offstage persona (Renaldo) exudes a narcissistic passivity which finally turns embarrassing in the lengthy sequence wherein Joan Baez and Sara Dylan compete for his affections; while scenes like the one in which he dotes on the consternation caused by his com­missioning some unauthorized filming in the lobby of the CBS building as he is en route to see his producer recalls the aging punkery of Frank Sinatra in Ocean’s 11.

The Rolling Thunder stage performances for which many people will see the film are often wonderful, but their focused energy is, all but missing from the film as a whole. Renaldo & Clara is almost petulant in its demand to be taken seriously as film, and as such a good deal of it is dreadful. Like its star-auteur, seen in his dressing room even as he is heard singing on stage, the film is everywhere at once — juxtaposing Brooklyn cowboys with real Indians, interviewing the Manon 125 Street and filming revivalists by the Stock Exchange, laying flowers on Kerouac’s grave and flashing Ginsberg’s ass — in a frantic bid for significance. It’s as though John Cassavetes had run amok in a half-baked Robbe-Grillet treatment of Nashville. Considering the reported 25 to 1 shooting ratio and the sycophancy which attaches itself to stardom, the film’s lack of perspective is unsurprising.

Perhaps Dylan wishes to confront the world with the confusion that fertilizes his art, but what one comes away with is a sense of his solipsism. It would be easier to praise Renaldo & Clara‘s modest but real achievements — the ethereal mise-en-scene of a New England “sporting house” run by an 80-year-old Italian lady with a green mandolin, the expert scene-stealing Baez carries over from Don’t Look Back, a witty evocation of life at the Cafe Wha? circa 1960 by a pinball-playing ex-folkie, the film’s effective punchline, and its associative editing style (a vast improvement over Eat the Document) — were the whole enterprise not so grossly inflated. ■

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From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Yankee Ball At Its Best

Contesting the Fix of Time and Space

In Los Angeles, movie stars gather at Chavez Ra­vine and click their smiles across acres of major-league turf. Dodger Stadium, host to this flash of white and green, also offers the common grace of traditional baseball drama.

Fronting for anything is a tough act in southern California; a World Series that starts here must follow legends that open with cavalry traveling by illusion and arriving by limousine.

“Nothing,” responds a friend, “has ever been real here.”

To the manner born, this year’s Dodger team approached the Series warmed by the shine of Hollywood gospel. First-base coach Jim Gilliam died two days before the opener, and, in its grief, Los Angeles gave his name as a spirit of temporary visitation, offering these October Games to his memory.

But sport is of this world and speaks primarily to moving flesh. Baseball is for the living. Music should be played for de­parting souls, tears shed, and poetry spoken. Dedicating ballgames to the dead asks too much of too few. October ball simply fea­tures world-class human muscle contesting the fix of time and space.

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Here was a championship for the latter day: New York and Los Angeles, High John the Conqueror meeting Aimee Semple McPherson. Because there are few vibrations that can embrace both coasts; Laid Back and Uptight, Beauty and the Beast of Cities, or Sun Beyond Cement. An abstract, up-tempo rivalry. Strained relations between Coney Is­land and the San Andreas Fault… the Apple and L.A.

Somewhere below tons of news copy and miles of instant replay, Captain Davey Lopes of the Dodgers stepped up to the plate. Maybe this exceptional sorrow is always in his eyes. Tonight, however, he’s made it clear he wants to live higher and stronger for the friend and mentor he affectionately called the Devil… Jim Gilliam, who replaced immortal Jackie Robinson at second base in old Ebbetts Field.

Lopes, star-looking but unemployed by lo­cal movie moguls, a man with the most heroic moustache in the game, bops two hom­ers into a night of sad remembrance.

He leads his team and wins. Cheers thun­der for the Yankee loss. In America, people sometimes hope New York will die before the close of the century. And so the spectre of another Yankee Frankenstein rising from the ash of urban blight is enough to turn stom­achs from Shawnee Mission to Walla Walla. Citizens who have sent such men as Proxmire and Brooke to the Senate can hardly be ex­pected to welcome news of a Yankee Five-Year Plan for kicking ass.

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On those first warm nights in Los Angeles, Davey Lopes played out the craze of affec­tion, and with a deeply bruised soul. Some­thing grand was necessary, something wholly honorable, to the extent the cameras would allow. To leave Jim Gilliam nothing but ashes might exact this quotation from Ameri­can playwright Bill Gunn: So far you’re just one of the play people. Don’t try and get real tonight…

Before the teams left Los Angeles, earlier than the superb moment when young Welch, a Dodger who can throw fire, brought death on Reggie Jackson with a second-game fast­ball in the top of the ninth, the word was Glove: Graig Nettles. Like a doughboy aris­tocrat near the Marne River shouting, They Shall Not Pass, Yank third-baseman Nettles got down. His body in full extension toward the foul line, he actually reached, in one in­stance, part of the way into left field to snatch a ball back from its flight, a play memorable enough to join, for sheer brilliance, George Foster’s flawless peg to home plate in the 1975 World Series against the Red Sox in Boston, when Foster cut down Denny Doyle trying to score the winning run. Few throws from the outfield have created more excite­ment.

In the second of the Games at Dodger Sta­dium, Nettles clearly established that he had taken away a vital portion of the field for the right-handed pull hitter, which was to say most of the Los Angeles team. He speared line drives, gobbled up screamers headed for the left-field corner and extra bases, and double-played the Dodgers into bad health.

A cold sweat seemed to settle early in L.A.’s dugout. Of course, there was the rea­sonable assumption that Nettles might not continue to matter that much. The Yankees, demanding more allegiance from an overworked miracle, fell two games down to the West Coast. With blessings from Big Dodger in the sky, Tom Lasorda, manager and loyal subject for all seasons, flew his team east for the march on Yankee Stadium.

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Bronx Bomber pursuit of a second con­secutive world championship had already gone through waters where sharks were counted as victims. And for one whole por­tion of a fractured season, Bob Lemon was called to turn plowshares back into swords.

As mentor to some incorrigible athletic no­bility, Lemon wisely chose to play himself in the new adventure… he was what he is — a quiet, knowledgeable figure from the scram­bled world of out-of-work baseball managers loafing for one more shot.

There were many arias being sung in the emotionally volatile Yankee clubhouse. Bob Lemon came, shrugged away these improvi­sational shuffles, and played through.

Bob Lemon decided from the beginning to make a most important contribution to a troubled team by simply acting his age. Billy Martin, in contrast, had never understood that a man can’t be young in the company of the young unless he’s actually young himself.

Lemon is not, and knows it. He has been in this game for more years than any of his players have been alive. Calm, alert, he has the reflexes of a wise, aging Good Time Char­lie playing poker and the Blues while learn­ing from both that winning is about being able to lose, too, but mainly about showing up in either case.

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Managing the Yankees has long been a job men would willingly die to have. To succeed in the Bronx ball yard is perceived as The Max… but ask Yogi… interview Bill Virdon.

Lemon stroked the man called Jackson into sitting down from right field to be the designated hitter. Grumbling, threatening again to quit, Reggie became the most magnificent DH October had ever seen.

In Mickey Rivers, America has a man who certifies the premise: There are answers in the universe we simply shouldn’t question. He is part Charlie Chaplin and part Charlie Parker, a mix of energy and relaxation that quickens the senses. In the third Game of the Series — Dodgers vs. Ron Guidry — Rivers hunches at the plate like a question mark, then sacrifices, a maneuver that brings to baseball its one truly beatific symbol.

This bunt by Rivers is moving well when Los Angeles catcher Steve Yeager grabs it, cocks his arm to throw, then, mysteriously hesitates — pausing in his night’s occupation to create still another cryptic Series footnote — while Mickey beats it out.

Why? cry the West Coast fans.

And they are premature in rolling their eyes toward heaven. The real nightmare is still forming up ahead. And since when have there been explanations?

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Bill Russell may or may not know of Jelly Roll Morton, the American musician and oc­casional genius who died, chrism trickling down his chest, in a certainty he’d been cursed by demons punishing him for an offense committed in another life.… What does it matter? When you’re done you’re done. Wild pitches? Missing the cutoff man? (Steve Garvey, it is reported, throws a base­ball with considerable reluctance, and he’s the interior cutoff man for Los Angeles. If he doesn’t make the good toss, those clouds per­ceived by pessimists, floating over the Ra­vine… are real.)

Russell shakes. Ron Cey backs away from grounders like some timid mailman from a macho German shepherd.

New York was once home to a popular evangelist named George Baker. More widely known as Father Divine, be was a solid base­ball fan during New York’s glory days of the 1930s and ’40s. One of Baker/Divine’s ritual extravagances involved staring with eyes ablaze at a congregation of his advocates and demanding:

DO YOU SEE THE MYSTERY!!!

It wasn’t so much a question as it became an order. Divine must have adored the Yankees because they were winners, as he was, and overcame parades of obstacles on the way to achieving dreams. Some said George Bak­er could see things others cannot — how to be­come Father Divine, for example.

The dream established in the Yankee col­lective, though clouded periodically with misleading clues, was a simple term of victo­ry. They chose to win. And, with a masterful use of their late schedule, the Yanks tracked down the front-running Red Sox, beat them four straight in their own yard at Fenway, then refused to panic when they (the Yanks) were stomped on the final day of the season by the dismal Cleveland Indians. Like a gifted horseplayer who does not lose when it is absolutely necessary for him to win, the Yan­kees played their greatest ball when nothing else would do (witness Lou Piniella’s bare-hand pickup of a ball about to pass him in the sun of right field in Boston; it was, to that point, the defensive magic of the year).

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As the Yankee victories clustered in The City, an impressive illustration emerged, and it should always remain in the mind’s eye. If pitching is the game’s heart, and homers ­under-pressure form its guts, then baseball’s character is determined in the deathless rou­tine of fielding plays. The Series is always tense, and for so many reasons. Seldom is there much margin for error. The Dodgers lived in that margin.

Shortstop Bill Russell had double-play balls crawling along his arms like runaway cottonmouth snakes. When the truth was apparent, of the trouble the Dodgers were in, they reacted like men who’ve seen the lights all vanish on the freeway, leaving them to grope their way to hopelessness and back. In the grip of Divine’s resolute mystery, Los Angeles went stumbling after an answer — a haven, perhaps — where baseball would again encourage the logic of sweat and righteous living, the honest work of true believers.

The Yankees believe in nothing. Yet it was not Chris Chambliss or Jim Spencer waving So Long to ground balls trotting near first base, bidding them godspeed into right field… that was Steve Garvey, impotent at the plate, tight out on the diamond. Ron Cey seemed at a point ready, at least, to quit. And Davey Lopes, as well, began conceding base hits as they left Yankee bats, in a sort of laissez-faire assumption that diving after baseballs is a way of paying them too much homage.

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But Graig Nettles was diving. And Brian Doyle. Bucky Dent achieved nirvana by sec­ond base. Lou (as in Boo) went crashing into walls like a man who was anxious but unwel­come at some exclusive, catered affair. Thur­man Munson, with his throwing arm hanging like a canned ham, rose up to throw on run­ners he had no business throwing out, and said later it was:

Because I wanted to…

The Bombers played sonatas on the Yan­kee Stadium grass.

The Dodgers needn’t be perceived, inci­dentally, as recruits who disgraced their uniforms but only as men who failed. They may, in fact, be fortunate, living in a country where millions never complete the tasks assigned them, drifting instead between medi­ocrity and indifference, all the days of their time.

Pitcher Don Sutton of the Dodgers, who would lose the final, devastating ballgame at Los Angeles, brought a measure of reflection to the work when he told a reporter that he felt no exceptional pressure on him as he went out to face the Yankees.

“Try feeding six kids in America on a small paycheck,” said Sutton. “That’s pressure.”

Ball, said a one-time city mystic, is just ball, that’s all. But ABC, then NBC, and all the TV news departments in between have reminded us again just how easily the nation­al trigger can be pulled with jingles and the­matics, morose vulgarity and aging boyish charm. The World Series has always been sold without apology. If you don’t like the product, you can always turn it off. But how many of us have never been drawn back into those golden afternoons when we could shag fly balls three hours at a clip and swing evenly at curves for another two?

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The memory clings to closets and attics all over this country, where dry leather presses, glove against abandoned spikes, and Louis­ville Sluggers lean quietly against the back walls, having seen no combat in a decade.

Sportscasters know how to remind if not inspire us; they are ghost vocalists through the walls of the night to tell us the game should never be confined to the simpler forms of personal recollection when there’s a fortune to be made.

The stars can be paid and their legends re­plenished beyond the century if everyone re­members the rules. Nobody gets hurt if we all embrace the concept of regulation. As in: Rule 7.09 (f), the Official Baseball Rules, which states in part that any player just put out (Reggie Jackson) then impeding any fol­lowing play on another runner shall cause that subsequent runner (Lou Piniella) to be declared out for the interference of his teammate (Reggie Jackson, one more time).

And Munson does not score in the crucial fourth game, when the Yankees win in the bottom of the ninth on Piniella’s clutch sin­gle. The larger rule, of course, is that the forces will always let the drama flow the way it wants to go. Piniella went to right field on young Welch, the Billy Budd of the Series, and the Mojo went along for the ride.

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When they tied it, the Yankees had, in fact, won the Series. Visions of the Juggernaut lunged through Beverly Hills, where bets on the Games had been made with those chumps in the New York offices.…

How? wept the movie stars, canceling Game 7 box seats. When it ended, the rough­cut shows, the Dodger left-fielder, Dusty Baker, was daring Brian (Who?) Doyle to hit a ball over his head. When it came to performing their respective jobs of that moment, Doyle did, Dusty didn’t. And, at Yankee Stadium, young Welch threw a blazing fastball sailing over his catcher’s head… shortly after the rain delay… and a swirl of dust rose in a shadowy column around second base. Later, the winning run would score from there.

What remains to be remembered is not just Reggie’s agonized reaction to striking out with two men on, two out in an electrifying ballgame, but instead Reggie’s talk with Lou Piniella later, in the fourth game. Jackson could have said, simply, The time is here.

And Lou clotheslined a single to win, 4-3. Before that, the Yankees had trailed, 3-0.

The World Series also details how difficult baseball is to play, and how dangerous, or at least how passionately disposed to reveal itself in the deepest heat.

The Dodgers were simply not up to it this time. But, nonetheless, back in Los Angeles, the stars were smiling for the team’s return. Glitter fades, though, when an infielder reputedly as quick as Bill Russell is nailed stealing second base by a catcher who can scarcely lift his throwing arm.

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Then, it’s time to be scared.

In the sixth game it seemed obvious from the outset that the Dodgers couldn’t take care. Even Lopes’s homering immediately off Catfish Hunter didn’t carry with it the sound of supremacy in full gallop. Though they went ahead 2-0, it was the Dodgers who were always behind. Until, finally, the freeway was jammed with disappointment riding away early, leaving tears along the dash­boards.

(The boxer Jack Jefferson, in Howard Sackler’s play and film The Great White Hope, demands of a humble group of Ne­groes outside a prizefight arena, just what difference it will make in their lives if he, Jefferson, wins the crown, the heavyweight championship of the world…)

Pride, fading slowly to dust, is all the poor seem to get. Those shimmering lights at the banquet, we are told, will not gleam into the bleachers.

The commons need to hear tickertape fall­ing on a ball team in precisely the same way they needed to hear the contents of Caesar’s will. Huge Rich Gossage was sending flame at the Dodger bats when all of it ended. He was cheered on lower Broadway, riding the slowest Manhattan flatbed. Catfish was in a distant stream, rod and line for his glove. Nettles remained in Los Angeles; it’s his home. Roy White, too. And the mysterious flight of Mickey Rivers was clearly into Flori­da. The wind scattered like the players.

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Someone watching the final outs by Sony, aware of the tension simply draining away, said: It’s back to the old days, the clock just turned around, back to my father’s mouth being tight with anger for days because the Dodgers never seemed to beat the Yanks.

Of course, they were Brooklyn then, a uni­verse away from Hollywood, and of course the moods in the nation were vastly different. When Johnny Podres threw to Elston How­ard, who grounded to Pee Wee Reese, whose peg to Gil Hodges beat Howard by several steps, 1955 Brooklyn swept into space and history, in a time recalled today in city folk­lore. Yet, in those days, there wasn’t Don Sutton either, leaving however small a re­minder that ball, after all, is just ball, saying it aloud so that 500 years from now some an­cient-history buff will know that our pressure was in the coal mines, and in the guns that stacked up in our streets. The pressure is on us all to say why we have no answers. Ball is aspirin, too. And none of us should ever be allowed to forget we soothe ourselves at the expense of duties too staggering for calculation. We owe the world something, if for no other reason than we have so much. If we owe ourselves anything, let it be the making of some literate equation out of why the Yan­kees total payroll might feed hunger in the states of Mississippi and Idaho, for instance. So that once some moral sense can be made of the entries in the record book which may suggest, by that time, Reggie’s ability, before taxes, to purchase the school system in Coral Gables for a small down payment in cash.

Maybe, at last, the real part is in the eyes of Davey Lopes. In one of the sports maga­zines he can be seen looking toward a place on the playing field that has anchored Lasor­da’s fury. But Lopes is looking deeper, way past the grass and the sculptured ground of Yankee Stadium, beyond the umpire’s myopic call on Jackson’s interference. In Lopes there is the grimmest observation, and his eyes are the message:

We are not going to win…

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After that proud start before the folk in the neighborhood, the Dodgers were blitzed in four. And, along the way to losing their World Series, the Los Angeles players left behind them 140 regular-season fielding er­rors. They’d won the pennant, curiously enough, when Phillies’ centerfielder Gary Maddox, steady as they come, dropped a soft line drive in his own park that eventually lead to the Dodgers’ winning run.

The players come home to score. They skip parades and wait for the money to be di­vided. In Boston, in Philly, out in Kansas City, too, their losses are slowly wearing off. They all looked into the fire (the same four teams made the playoffs again this year, not the greatest index around for the current state of the Bigs), but couldn’t hang on.

And again, except for the Yankees and New York, there seems to have been nothing seen…

The cost of bearing witness would seem to be connected to the pain described by poet Melvin Van Peebles in regard to those who have to: Trick by the pound to buy that ounce.…

Maybe more. Once, the power of the Yan­kees eased sores in New York’s condition. But not anymore. The city streets are more and more filled with the lost. Below the lights of the Yankee party, the fun for victors, New York has become the Dodgers on the other side of all the ditties and singsong where the city is a loved one serenaded by disorder.

When the rookie Jim Beattie had struck Los Angeles dumb in the fifth game, a crowd of several thousand pedestrians went up the long hill away from the Yankee Stadium, above the Harlem River, bordering the site where the Polo Grounds used to stand.

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Uptown.

A Blood, young and savaged by wine, called out in a voice like a tuba from his perch by the side of the street:

Yo, how’d they do?

And several folks in a row answered, as of­ten as he asked: The Yanks won, man, they’ re gonna do it!

Wine offered a smile without teeth, scars on his face, and said:

Made you happy, hunh? Made you happy?

And then his tuba laughter thundered back down across the bridge to McCombs’ Dam Park, right by the Stadium, across the Latin Quarter established there on the hand­ball courts, and just went rattling, it would seem, right on up to the Concourse. Toward a city gritting its teeth…

Maybe, that is, it echoed that far…

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From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Ishmael Reed on Muhammad Ali

Ishmael Reed on Muhammad Ali: “You Really Didn’t Know How Great I Was”

In the films Mandingo and Drum former World Boxing Association Heavyweight Champion Ken Norton plays a slave boxer, his flesh handled by people who have such intense feelings for him they wish to stab him or boil him in a pot. The women want to ball him, and the men want to do battle with him; some people want to do both.

The Heavyweight Champion of the World is, most of all, a grand hunk of flesh, capable of devastating physical destruction when instructed by a brain, or a group of brains. I’m not saying he’s stupid. He may be brilliant, but even his brilliance is used to praise his flesh.

The Heavyweight Championship of the World is a sex show, a fashion show, scene of intrigue between different religions, politics, classes; a gathering of stars, ex-stars, their hangers-on, and hangers-on assistants.

It’s part Mardi Gras, with New Orleans jazz providing the background for the main event while the embattled Be-boppers, led by former Sonny Rollins’s sideman Earl Turbington, hold forth in one of the restaurants facing the Hilton’s French Garden bar.

Driving into town on Route 61 past the authentic Cajun music and food joints, motels with imitation French-styled balconies, car lots, heading on Canal Street toward Decatur, I heard Dick Gregory on the car radio. A saint of the prime flesh movement, he was naming “Carlos,” a New Orleans man, as a conspirator in JFK’s assassination. Gregory was one of Ali’s advisors, though an insider told me that Ali didn’t pay attention to Gregory’s nutritions.

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Hotel Bienville, named for Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, the founder of New Orleans, was located in a red-light district of the French Quarter. Nearby were two Greek restaurants and some small-­time players’ bars. I checked in, changed, and then followed the huge Hilton H the way you’d follow a holy asteroid: the sign resembled a blue star on the New Orleans skyline. The Hilton is located on a 23.3-acre, $250 million international river center. It has 1200 rooms, five restaurants, three lounges, parking lots for 3550 cars, tennis courts, and rises to 30 stories above the street. It was designed by Newhous & Taylor, architects.

Entering the press hospitality room I was greeted by Sybil Arum, a Japanese-Korean woman who got me a drink and in­troduced me to her husband, Bob Arum. They both were dressed casually; she was wearing proletariat pigtails and lat­er someone said she was the best-looking woman in the hotel. Arum was seated next to Leslie Bonanno, a burly, wavy-haired sheriff who is heavyweight Jerry Celestine’s manager. Arum was confident that Spinks was going to win the fight. He had great admiration for Ali but it was his theory that “elements of deterioration” had set in during Ali’s “exile” from 1967–1970. I was introduced to an ex-UPI reporter who followed Ali’s career during those years and we were about to head upstairs to the bar when Mike Rossman’s family arrived, wearing MIKE ROSSMAN T-shirts. They told me they were bringing in three planeloads to witness Rossman’s fight with Victor Galindez for the WBA Light Heavyweight Championship of the World.

 

The man from UPI talked like Jimmy Stewart and didn’t want his name used. He had that glint in his eye, the glint I’d see in the eyes of the other Ali disciples — Norman Mailer, Budd Schulberg, and George Plimpton. The Ali glint belong­ing to the true believer. Once, when Ali was banned and a black promoter from Charleston offered him an exhibition fight which was to be held on a dirt track, the UPI man and a reporter from the Detroit Free Press were the only ones there to cover it. The city council voted against the exhibition bout and it was cancelled. At 3 o’clock the afternoon of the fight they came to tell Ali there’d be no fight. Ali took it philo­sophically, got into a car, and headed for the airport wearing the same suit he’d worn for two years.

The punishment and cruelty visited upon Ali during those three years for refusing to step forward at the induction cen­ter have become part of the Ali legend. It seemed that the whole nation wanted to spit in his face, or skin The Grand Flesh. Not only, to them, was he a draft-dodger but he was also a member of a misunderstood religion which the media had hyped into a monstrous black conspiracy. The Muslims were different from many of the other black organizations of the time. They had rhetoric but they also accomplished things. They had built a multi-million-dollar business from their Mom and Pop stores and newspaper sales. They were “The Bad Nigger, The Smart Nigger, The Hard Nigger, and The Uppity Nigger” epitomized by one organization. Ali had to pay a heavy price for his religion and for his politics. My favorite story from that period occurred when an imprisoned Ali was ordered to serve breakfast to prisoners on Death Row. One prisoner looked up and said, “My God, I must be in Heaven, the Heavyweight Champion of the World is serv­ing me breakfast.”

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The man from UPI remembered an argument that broke out in the press room in Madison Square Garden the first time Ali fought Frazier for the heavyweight championship. They didn’t know what to call him. They decided, finally, to call him Ali if he won the fight, and Clay if he lost.

There was a flurry in the lobby. Some of Spinks’s people began showing up. Tourists were standing on the second floor balcony staring down at the scene. Shortly, Spinks came in. With that black crest he resembled a black silk shirt–wear­ing iguana. I approached the gathering with my brand new Realistic tape recorder I’d bought at Berkeley’s Radio Shack. Spinks’s bodyguards made a scene. They demanded that I turn the tape recorder off. Later I understood why. A Playboy writer using a tape recorder had betrayed Spinks’s confidence by writing that Spinks had smoked some grass.

Because I was standing with Leroy Diggs, Spinks’s spar­ring partner and bodyguard, a tourist came up and asked for my autograph. It was that way the entire week. People signing each other’s autographs; photographers snapping pic­tures of other photographers.

The next afternoon, people from Ali’s camp began to show up in the French Garden Bar, a stunning environment light­ed by sun rays which poured through a skylight above: Ali’s brother, Rachaman Ali, his freckled-faced mother whom Ali calls “Bird,” and his father, wearing a checkered sport-jacket and white hat. Bundini arrived and judging from his ringside antics I thought he’d have an expansive sense of humor. He didn’t. He was wearing a white leisure suit. Bundini always wanted to be an actor, someone told me later.

In the evening, Mayor Ernest N. Morial, New Orleans’s “Black” Mayor, who’d be considered white in most parts of the world, gave a reception at the Fairmont Hotel honoring Ali and Spinks. I walked into the lobby toward a big room on the first floor. There was a commotion behind the door. The first man to exit was Ali. I was standing face to face with a $100 million industry which included everything from candy bars to a forthcoming automobile capable of traveling across the desert. He was huge and awesome-looking, but not the “Abysmal Brute” Jack London had pined after.

“Hi Champ,” I said. I shook hands with the black man they let beat up Superman.

He was followed by his wife, Veronica (“Veronica belongs to me,” he said later). A procession trailed the couple to the upstairs ballroom, the whole scene illuminated by the photographers’ flashbulbs. I fell in behind them. When we reached the top of the escalator I heard a loud exchange between him and a figure who was coming down. It was Joe Frazier.

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Slave power allowed Southern women to spend hours at the mirror costuming, preening, and painting their faces. There was an eerie ad for Georgia Life Insurance on a billboard, a picture of a child done in the kind of oils Rod Serling used to introduce Night Gallery. She was dressed in a Victorian outfit, and heavily made up. The caption read: “What about her?” The Southern woman was supposed to be this life-sized doll who occasionally produced a fake aristocrat while the old man went about impregnating the countryside. In the French Quarter you can buy any kind of doll you want. Black. White. I bought a black doll which turned inside out became a white doll (no jokes, please).

Some of my very talented female-writer friends have jammed up the media with their woeful tales regarding the black male’s proclivity toward the Macaroni style. It took me some serious reflection to reckon with the truth in this. But if black males were that — if Emmett Till was a rogue as a dema­gogic feminist, so hard up for a victim, as claimed — then they certainly had a great teacher.

The doll style of the women in this ballroom, in their syn­thetic fabrics, bloused and belted-in at the waist, showed that even though the institution was razed, certain habits of the old South have endured. The women were what we used to call “Beautiful,” and the men were youthful and virile-look­ing. Attractive and adorned bodies gathered to witness the most wonderful body in the world. A flesh ball. The Mayor was standing behind Ali’s people, beaming. Don Hubbard, a local promoter, told me that the fight would bring the city $20 million in revenue, bigger than the Mardi Gras.

Ali has so much control over his body he can turn the juice on and off. In contrast to the sombre and downcast-looking fighter I’d seen emerge from the downstairs room, with whom I was alone for about 15 seconds, the upstairs Ali be­gan to shuffle up and down the stage, jabbing at invisible op­ponents, dancing, all the while speaking rapidly. He doesn’t have the brittle, dry irony of Archie Moore or the eloquent Victorian style of the bookish Jack Johnson, but he is more effective because he speaks to Americans in American im­ages mostly derived from comic books, television, and folklore. To be a good black poet of the sixties meant capturing the rhythms of Ali, and Malcolm X, on the page. His opponents were “Mummies” and “Vampires”; he was “The Man from Shock.” In one press conference he dis­cussed The Six Million Dollar Man. His prose is derived from the trickster world of Bugs Bunny and Mad magazine. The world of Creature Features.

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“I don’t know what to say,” he said as the press conference began. “Where’s the champ? If he stays out of jail, I’ll get his tail.” Ali referred to Spinks as a “nigger” then caught him­self to explain that “niggers can say niggers, but white folks can’t,” which is as good an answer as any to the man running for office in Alabama who requested that he have the same right to say “nigger” as “the Jews” and “the niggers.”

Ali’s style was a far cry from the nearly catatonic humility of Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson, but then, these are differ­ent times. Can you imagine the uproar if Louis had come up with, “No Nazi Ever Called Me Nigger”?

When the question-and-answer period came, I had my hand up and Ali pointed to “the young man over there.” I was on his side after that.

“Mr. Ali, do you plan to run for Congress as The Nation magazine has suggested?”

“No, I plan to run for vice-president, that way the president won’t get shot.” He called himself the “Savior of Boxing,” and predicted that he’d punch Spinks out of the ring. “Spinks,” he said, “will become the first spook satellite.” He flirted with the ladies and praised his body.

Dick Gregory followed Ali with some familiar jokes about Spinks’s arrest for driving without a license and possessing $1.98 worth of cocaine (St. Louis cocaine). Gregory strongly believes that the coke was planted on Spinks. “Why did they alert the press before he was brought into the station?”

I asked Gregory to repeat what he’d said on the radio, that the killers of JFK resided in New Orleans. I figured that since the Mayor and the police were on the stage the con­spirators would be arrested immediately. The laughter van­ished. The Mayor and Ali stood silently. Dick Gregory refused to discuss it.

During the broadcast he urged black-Italian cooperation. “If the Mafia is so big,” he said, “why won’t Henry Ford in­vite it to his next garden party?”

After Ali left, Gregory came over to the bar where I was standing. The black waiters, dressed in black bowties and green satinish jackets, weren’t serving beer nor wine, so I asked for what Gregory was drinking. Vodka and orange juice. UMMMMMM.

A long table covered with white linen held hors d’oeuvres under silver tops which resembled Kaiser helmets. The South knows how to lay out the dog when it wants to. Chopin on the piano stand. Silver layed out in case somebody’s com­ing for supper.

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I got a plate, returned to my seat, and found myself being choked to death from behind. It was Hunter Thompson. Choking people, I learned later, was his way of showing affection. He was wearing dark glasses and looked like he’d just stepped off a space ship. They’re filming his life and the crew was coming to New Orleans with his two lawyers.

The DeJan’s Olympia band began to second line about the floor playing some old music. They were led by this lithe flesh wearing a top hat and tails, symbolizing what to some may be a spirit imported from Haiti. The carrying of the um­brella may be an African retention. I fell in behind the band and began doing the second line around the room with them. Few joined in. As we made it about the door, Spinks ap­peared. His eyes seemed to roll about his head. He was wear­ing a droll grin. He seemed very very happy. He took the umbrella from the band’s major domo and second lined to­ward the stage. He stood and signed autographs for a while.

I went back to the press hospitality room and met some old-timers, some trainers and some boxing buffs.

Like there was Sam Taub. As Irving of Top Rank tells it, “Sam Taub was 92 on September 10. He was born on Mott Street on the Lower East Side and was working as an office boy when he got a job through The New York Times with The Morning Telegraph, a magazine similar to The Police Gazette. He worked many years for Bat Masterson, a lawman who came west to be a fight official and sportswriter. It was Sam who found Masterson dead at his desk of a heart attack. I was looking through the record books and I found out that Mas­terson was the timekeeper for the Sullivan-Corbett fight which was held in New Orleans, September 7, 1892.

“Sam did the first radio broadcast from Madison Square Garden, in the 1920s, and the first telecast of a bout from Madison Square Garden in 1939. For many years Sam broad­cast for Adam’s hats and Gem razor. He had a popular show on WHN called The Hour of Champions. Never took a quar­ter from anybody. Never put the shake on anybody.

“During the last riot at the Garden he climbed to a chair to call the rioters ‘hooligans,’ and had to be carried away by the police, bodily.

“Sam Taub told me about the time Jack Johnson worked at the 42nd Street Library and was obsessed with these sand­wiches which they were selling four or five in a bag. Taub went out and bought some for Johnson. And when Sugar Ray appeared on the Hour of Champions for the first time, I said, ‘Now you watch this fellow; he’s going to be the champ one day.’ ”

As I approached Taub to be introduced he was threatening a man who could have been 40 years younger than himself with, “Take a walk, buddy!” The man moved on.

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Thursday, hundreds of people were pushing into the Grand Ballroom for the official weigh-in ceremo­nies. Bright, unnatural lights from the television. Total confusion. People were standing on chairs, craning their necks to see celebrities. It was 10:55 when Angelo Dun­dee arrived. He looks like a mild-mannered math teacher in a boys’ high school. Jimmy Ellis, who has a teenager’s bright face, strode in with Ali’s brother, Rachaman, whom I mistakenly called Rudolph Valentino Clay. He could have been, standing against the pillar in the French Garden Bar, as I had seen him earlier, dressed in a white suit.

The platform which held the scales was so full of the press that it began to reel. Arum threatened to cancel the press conference. I spotted Don King, followed by Ali, toothpick in mouth, and Veronica. A man next to me said, “Ali is the best-known person in the world.” Ali weighed in at 221 pounds, Spinks 201. I was tempted to bid.

After the weigh-in I asked former Light Heavyweight Champion of the World, Jose Torres, to assess Ali’s chances. Torres was pessimistic. He’d seen Ali work out and he didn’t like his color. “Too grey.” He thought Ali’s eyes were “dead,” and that he was bored. “Ali no longer enjoys fighting and despises training,” Torres said. “I want Ali to win for nostalgic reasons.” He liked Spinks. “The more criti­cism he gets the more I like him,” Torres said. Leroy Diggs, Spinks’s bodyguard and sparring partner, standing behind Torres, said that Spinks looked real good.

Up front, Emile Bruneau, a wizened wild turkey, the head of the Louisiana Boxing Commission was holding a press conference. Somebody asked him if he had voted to strip Ali of the crown in 1967 when he was sitting on the World Box­ing Association. The Commissioner told the reporter to leave or “go to a cemetery.”

Another person asked if there would be a dope test follow­ing the fight. It seemed that Ali’s corner had complained about a mysterious bottle given to Spinks between the rounds of the last fight. Whatever was in it seemed to give Spinks ex­tra vigor. He asked the Commissioner what kind of water would be allowed in the corners. The Commissioner an­swered, “Aqua water.”

I saw Don King’s famous crown poking above the crowd of bodies, moving and mashing against each other. King was blandly praising Ali but at the same time voiced hope that he would retire. He said that Ali was the most identifiable man in the world. “Strong on the inside as well as the outside.” He praised Larry Holmes, “the other champion,” in a short speech dotted with words like “cognizant.” The most fre­quent adjective people use in talking about King is “flamboy­ant.”

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I went up to the second floor to inquire about my creden­tials. A white-haired Norman Mailer was standing in the middle of the room. I had met him in 1962 at Stefan’s and had gone to a couple of his parties. Gone were the pug breaks and the frantic fast-talking. He seemed at peace. We exchanged greetings.

Albert C. Barnes, writing in The New Negro, in 1925, ex­tolled Primitivism in Negro Art: “It is a sound art because it comes from a primitive nature upon which a white man’s education has never been harnessed.” He said it reflected “…aspirations and joys during a long period of acute oppression and distress.” Man in distress was existential man. Mailer popularized this idea with his “White Negro.” To be Negro was to be hip. Jack Kerouac studied Negro Art, and for his dedication Bird did a tune called Kerouac. What Mailer and Kerouac failed to realize was that the average black would have thrown Bird out of his home, or giggled at his music, or charged him with not combing his hair. It was hard enough to be a Negro, but to be that and Bird too was real hard. In Managing Mailer, Joe Flaherty writes about the free­loader blacks Mailer surrounded himself with — hustlers who turned Mailer sour on blacks in general. Kerouac and Mailer tried. As they grew older their intellectual position regarding blacks became more obtuse than right. As obtuse as their prose styles.

Reading The Fight again, on the way down, I realized that what I had mistaken for racism in Mailer’s writing was actu­ally frustration — frustration that he couldn’t play the dozens with Bundini and them; frustration that he couldn’t be black. Maybe one day the genetic engineers in their castles rocking from lightning will invent an identity delicatessen where one can obtain identity as easily as buying a new flavored yogurt.

It’s kind of sad. The trench-coated verbal and physical scrapper I used to trade jokes with at Pana Grady’s salons in the Dakota. His benign eyes indicated that he realized he could never really become a “Wise Primitive,” and this had brought tranquility, like the look that comes over the face of the werewolf who finally realizes his agony is over.

I asked Mailer who was going to win? He gave me one of those answers for which he has a patent. “Ali. He’s worked the death out.” So had Mailer.

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The black entrepreneur is caught in a bizarre crossfire. On one hand, black intellectuals view him as a sellout to the system, even though many of them have bank accounts which help sustain the system. The 1960s social and cultural programs brought prosperity to some and with this prosperity came the guilt feelings ex­perienced by other aspiring immigrants toward the “brothers left behind.” The black entrepreneur is expected to kickback his gains to them, “the sub-proletariat.” In Oakland, the Black Panthers, joined by white children of the prosperous middle class, picketed black merchants.

He also has to struggle against the banks and creditors who grudgingly lend him money, and against the myth of black ineptitude. He has to struggle against blacks who seem to try their damnedest to prove the myth.

He knows that if he gets too big they’ll axe him down to size.

Don Hubbard, the 38-year-old president of Louisiana Sports, sat on the arm of a couch in the second-floor lobby of the Hilton. He was confident, proud, cocky even. He blamed Top Rank for the disorderly weigh-in ceremonies which had just taken place. “Only people with gold passes should have been admitted.”

The Vegas fight between Spinks and Ali was the first fight he’d attended; the first time he’d heard the “moans and groans” of the sport.

Hubbard had met Butch Lewis, Top Rank’s former vice-­president, at the fight and invited him down to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. He proposed to Lewis that New Orleans would be a good scene for a rematch between Ali and Spinks. Lewis scoffed at the suggestion, reminding Hubbard that Hubbard had never promoted a fight before and there was some strong competition, including Anheuser-Busch, groups from Las Vegas, Casino owners in South Africa, and a Miami group led by Chris Dundee, Angelo’s brother.

“Spinks agreed to come to New Orleans for the YMCA and didn’t show. The Mayor’s limousines, police escort and everything, were waiting for Leon Spinks. I looked at the 5 o’clock news and Spinks was in Detroit. My wife had cooked dinner and was mad enough to jump on Spinks.

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“Butch Lewis came down to save face, and raised the money for the YMCA. I started needling Butch because there was a rumor that the fight was going to South Africa. How the hell can Ali stage his last fight in South Africa? Top Rank got a whole barrage of protests from the Urban League and others, and I kept bugging Butch.

“Butch called one evening and said, ‘Don, you’re bugging the hell out of me. I’m coming to New Orleans at 11:30. From that time you have 48 hours to raise $3 million.’ ”

Hubbard said he met with the Mayor to get his blessings, obtained a letter of credit for $350,000, and kept $2,500,000 in escrow. At the time I talked to Lewis, which was about 12 o’clock on the Thursday before the fight, the $3,000,000 in­vestment had been returned. Hubbard’s partners were Sher­man Copelin, a black, and two Italians, Jake DiMaggio and Phillip Ciaccio. Hubbard said he didn’t know whether to call the Italians white because some Italians are white and some are Italian.

“The boxing crowd spends more money than the football crowd,” he claimed. “When the Super Bowl fans come, it’s with clubs on chartered buses, but the fight crowd arrives in Rolls Royces, Mercedes, private planes.”

Back in the press room I ran into Harold Conrad who’d promoted the Liston-Patterson fights and traveled to 22 states seeking a license for Ali to fight during his three and a half years’ exile. He said that if Ali won, the only fighter he’d get money for fighting would be Larry Holmes. I had just seen Holmes encounter Angelo Dundee in the hall. Dundee had said to Holmes, “My kid thinks you’re the ugliest and biggest man she’s ever seen.”

Conrad was completing a novel called A Rare Bird Indeed, which he says will be the story of a newspaperman of the 1930s and 1940s, the end of a great era when you could get a table at Lindy’s and Reubens at 5 a.m. and everybody knew Winchell, and nightclub openings were as big as Broadway openings. Conrad, tanned and wearing a plaid sports jacket, slacks, and a shiny, thin mustache could have been a Runyon character. He had worked for Damon Runyon, a “strange man from Kansas City who didn’t have many friends and liked to be left alone.” Humphrey Bogart played Conrad in The Harder They Fall, his last role.

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My friend Sam Skinner, from San Francisco’s Channel 44, and I posed for a gag picture with Larry Holmes, WBC Heavyweight Champion and one of the brightest students of the Ali style. Holmes wanted to know where the women were. A young hostess told me that the demand for women was incessant from the Spinks people. They bragged about all the “ladies” they had coming down from St. Louis.

Skinner introduced me to a black-haired, short, and tough-looking man, Richie Giachetti, Holmes’s trainer. I asked him how Holmes had made Ken Norton look so bad.

“I studied the Norton film. He can’t back up, he’s vulner­able to uppercuts, straight right hands; when he throws a left hook he telegraphs it; his overhand right is only effective on the ropes; he can’t throw it in, the middle of the ring because he drags his foot.

“So the way you fight Norton is to stay in the middle of the ring and fight, and jab — jabs nullify him better than anything else. You neutralize a slugger with jabs, you back him off, you fluster him.”

How would Spinks fare against Ali? “Spinks is still an amateur. In football you go through high school to college and then to the pros. Spinks went through high school — but he hasn’t had enough fights to have gone through college.

“Spinks makes a lot of mistakes, but at the same time he’s fighting an old fighter like when Marciano went up against Louis. Spinks would not get the recognition because he will have defeated an old man, a man who contributed so much to boxing, a living legend. Spinks has nothing to gain and ev­erything to lose by defeating Ali.”

How should Ali fight Spinks? “Go out and rake the first round, don’t give up anything, stay away from the ropes and fight in the middle of the ring; Spinks’s best attack is a com­bo left hook followed by a right hand. Ali should sidestep I him, throw short left jabs, counterpunch him, and there will t be no contest.

“I’m for Ali. Got to go with Ali. But if it goes over 10 rounds, Spinks will win the fight.”

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Spirit City had become keyed up for the fight. Boys and girls in red stetsons and fringed jackets were bused to the Hilton to provide a marching band. The town was heavy into Disco. Hilton employees, dressed in black skirts, pants, and white blouses, tossed black and white balloons in the alley next to the Hilton as they second lined to a Jazz band. There was a fireworks display over this New Orleans sun temple. On the second floor, celebrities moved through the English bar, or sat on the sofas. Souvenirs of the fight were on sale all over the French Quarter. They ranged from cheap and ex­pensive dolls and T-shirts, to the $100 official fight poster boy LeRoy Neiman, on sale at the Bienville Exchange, where the Louisiana equestrian crowd brunches on Saturdays. Even in the airport there were waitresses dressed in glossy boxing shorts, and wearing Ali and Spinks training jerseys. The fight coincided with the Hilton’s first anniversary and so it got real goopy. Baron Hilton, the son of “the man who bought the Waldorf,” was greeted with a kingly reception as he walked into the lobby with a woman who wore a fur coat, even though it was about 90 degrees outside. The humidity was making life miserable. There was a huge cake near the French Bar, about 15 feet high, blue and white in color. Two chefs were standing next to it. I asked how many pounds of flour went into the making of the cake. They said that it wasn’t edible.

I had dinner Thursday night with Hughes Rudd, whose appearance in experimental anthologies alongside Barthelme and Barth is a well-kept secret. CBS’s eye should be replaced with a peabrain for removing Rudd from the CBS Morning News. We all got up at 6:30 so as not to miss those long ram­bling anecdotes of his which were about as close to writing fiction as television will ever approach. We ate and went through a couple of bottles of Pouilly-Fuisse in Winston’s Room, on the second floor of the Hilton. It was done up in the style of early Frank Lloyd Wright and included some touches of chinoiserie, which became popular in the twenties when the missionaries were looting China.

Rudd talked about an incident during World War II when they sent him up in an airplane that was worth less than the crate it was shipped in. He said some things about the “TV Industry” which led me to think that it ought to be sunk be­neath the ocean in cans so that it won’t disturb mankind for maybe 200 years.

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On the day of the fight you couldn’t touch anything without getting a shock, so high was the tension. The night before I made a bet with a Reuters reporter that Ali would KO Spinks in three rounds. I over­heard Angelo Dundee telling someone, “The Champ’s going to do a number on Spinks.”

In the morning Jose Fuentes and Jane Senno took me up to Luis Sarria, the man some people referred to as “the mysteri­ous Cuban.” He was eating breakfast alone, gazing from time to time at the barges and sightseeing boats on the brown Mis­sissippi, or watching the cartoons on television. I’d met him Wednesday night, and watched him as he stood on the periphery of the crowd, hardly speaking, contemplative, studi­ous. He was the calmest man in the whole place. I must have asked him a hundred times whether he thought Ali would win; Jose or Jane would translate to Spanish, and he’d usual­ly nod his head. Jose showed me a photo he’d taken of Sarria, “laying hands” on Ali’s face. Sarria’s face was black and his features were ancient, like those of the people who came over on the first boats.

We went to Ali’s private suite, room 1729, only to learn that he was living in a private home in West Lakeside. He was inaccessible to all but TV media stars. Television had put up $5 million for fight coverage. There were some men sit­ting about the suite, silent, not talking. I was reminded of the time I was snowed in one Seattle night with the Cecil Taylor group only to hear a tape of the three-hour concert I’d just left. Nobody said a word. Bundini filed in with Pat Paterson and some others, then filed out again. It was like a religious cult. The night before an insider had praised Ali as Christ, Abraham, Moses. But what influence would he have on international politics in the future? The newspapers were begin­ning to say that he was naive about the Soviet Union. Others were saying that his entourage was protecting him from the world and that he was “easily deceived.”

We went to Pat Paterson’s room. He is the permanent bodyguard Mayor Richard Daley had assigned to Ali. My eyes were blinded by a cluster of blazing trophies laying on a dresser, glittering like idols to the sun. I had read that there’s a crunch in the dressing room after the fight and asked Pater­son, who was wearing a green leisure suit, my chances of get­ting in. He said I’d have to take my chances like everybody else.

The packed press bus headed for the Superdome at 4 o’clock. I felt sorry for the working press. I thought about the newspapers they worked for. The cities they had to re­turn to. I was standing next to Ed Cannon, a Muslim reporter who was wearing a sweater which read: THERE IS NO GOD GREATER THAN ALLAH. That night he was hassled on the floor by a “famous movie star.” The Superdome resembled a giant concrete jaw jutting out at the end of the street. Soon we were inside the jaw. New Orleans chauvinists say that the Super­dome is so big you can put the Astrodome inside and still have 60 feet around. A Muslim reporter wrote an article describing it as “a white elephant.” The seats were of red and blue hues and extended to the roof of the building. Strobe lights blinked on and off. Processions of flag bearers headed up and down the aisle.

One blue flag carried the letters MORON. Nobody will be­lieve me. I asked Nick Browne of the Soho News, who was sitting next to me, to examine the flag through his binoculars and sure enough it said MORON. After the chaotic weigh-in there had been a threat to call out the National Guard. Fist­fights broke out on the floor during the bouts.

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I decided to take my roving press pass and rove about the floor. Spinks’s cars, all white, were on the main floor near the dressing room. I went to Ali’s dressing room and was stopped at the door by two whites. I moved through the people on the main floor who were gawking at the celebrities entering to take their seats at ringside. People were putting on a fashion show and hardly paying attention to the bouts. Three black women dressed to the hilt in 1940s costumes walked up and down. One was wearing a gold-sequined dress the color of her hair and skin. There was a group of men who made a ring about another man. Nobody was paying any attention to them. I walked up to see Chip Carter standing in the center of the ring.

“Who’s going to win the fight?” I asked.

“Ali,” he said.

“What about Spinks?”

“He’s good, too.”

“You’re really a politician.”

“I hope so.”

I made my way down the aisle toward ringside, past the guards who were sending people back. Up close I could see an ugly, dark-red wound about the eye of Victor Galindez, who was defeated by Mike Rossman for the WBA Light Heavyweight Championship. This was real blood, and some of it had sprayed on the referee’s shirt. Somebody in the front row yelled, “Get out of the way!” and I spun around and flashed on the people at ringside. It resembled one of Dadaist Lil Picard’s Beauty Shop satires she used to do in the sixties art galleries. I saw no eyes, noses, nor mouths but what ap­peared to be blank faces smeared with pancake make-up which seemed unnaturally dry under the lights. My mind flashed back to the Norton films, the eager and richly fed faces, despising his body but at the same time lusting after it.

I started back toward the press box which was way up in the balcony, nearly touching the ceiling. As I moved toward the elevator, Veronica Ali was entering the Superdome, pro­tected by bodyguards. From upstairs, the fighters in the ring looked like dolls. So I watched some of the fight on one of four giant TV screens suspended from the ceiling. All during the preliminary fights, even the championship fights, people were entering and exiting. “They don’t care about this crowd,” somebody said. “What they care about is television.” More than 200 million people were watching.

Nick Brown’s remarks were more interesting than the preliminary bouts. It was the kind of grim, deadpan, jaded humor you hear traded across the bar at the Club 55. When Featherweight Champion of the World Danny (Little Red) Lopez knocked out Juan Malvarez, Brown said, “I can understand ethnicity in boxing, but a guy who’s part Irish, part Amerindian, and part Chicano is taking it too far.”

When Rossman came on to the strains of “Hava Nagila,” he quipped: “Four thousand years of history and only one song.”

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As the main event approached, fistfights began to re­ally break out; “over bets” I was told. About six rows of state troopers spilled over one another just to stop two guys. It was like a rowdy 1890s audience which used to hurl liquor bottles at the actors, or mercilessly heckle politicians on the stump.

Edy Williams, 37-23-37, a “raven-haired” woman, jumped into the middle of the ring after the Rossman fight and took her clothes off, revealing flesh the color of the hotdogs they were serving in the press room and a few shades lighter than the red ring ropes.

Describing herself as a “Naturalist from California,” she said, “If Muhammad Ali can use his body to be a success in the ring, why can’t I?” One newspaper described her show as “the most exciting event of the evening.” Many were using their flesh for success outside the ring as well; it seemed that every whore and player from the Mississippi Valley and points beyond was there.

Rocky Stallone, Joe Frazier, and Larry Holmes had en­tered the ring, Holmes receiving a few boos, but fewer than the Governor of Louisiana received when he was introduced. Isaac Hayes did a Disco version of “America the Beautiful,” and Joe Frazier sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” grimac­ing as if in pain. Somebody seated beneath me said, “I ain’t gonna stand.” When Ali entered he was alternately lifted and buried by the crowd. His party seemed to sway from side to side and as they moved him down the aisle, the crowds pressed in for a souvenir of The Greatest’s flesh. Spinks looked like the kind of guy who’d say, “Motherfucker, kiss my ass” as they put the handcuffs on him.

After one round a few state troopers gave Ali a standing ovation. His left jabs worried Spinks silly, and Spinks looked like a brawler, engaged in a St. Louis street fight, the most vicious east of the Mississippi. His trainer, George Benton, left his corner during the fight, in frustration at the amateurs Spinks had at ringside yelling to him “wiggle, Leon, wiggle.” Arguments broke out among them over who should give Spinks advice. Spinks was 25, lacked craftsmanship, was a sensational head-hunter. I remember a trainer at an exhibition fight heading with Spinks to go for the opponent’s body. Ali had followed the advice Archie Moore had given to an Old Man in the Ring: “You hone whatever skills you have left.”

A reporter from the Washington Evening Star told me that it was Ali’s most serious fight in three years. At the end of the 15th round there was no doubt in my mind that Ali had won, and so I headed for the dressing room without hearing the de­cision. Veronica Ali, Jayne Kennedy, members of the family, boxing people, and show business personalities were watch­ing a small TV set. The decision was announced. Stallone en­tered, and John Travolta was standing off to the side chatting with some people. I asked Liza Minelli, who was standing in front of me, wearing a red dress, what she thought of the fight. She thought it was “sensational.”

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As soon as Ali left the ring, the crowd began swaying and moving like a papier mache dragon, moving through the in­terview room to the dressing room. When Ali finally entered it was impossible to gain entrance unless you were a celebrity or an important member of the Champ’s entourage. “Make way for Wyatt Earp,” they said when Hugh O’Brien walked by. I spotted some of the old timers I’d met on Wednesday evening. I wanted to hear what the craftsmen had to say.

James Dudley is black, grey-haired, and looks like a classical American trainer, old style. Suspenders and glasses, starchy white shirt, a smile that makes his eyes shine. James Dudley managed Gene Smith and Holly Mimms. When I approached him he was being congratulated. His new fighter, welterweight Johnny Gant, had won a shot at the title.

“Ali made him miss a lot,” Dudley told me. “Spinks tried to weave and bob and weave and bob but wasn’t able to do anything. Any time Ali’s left hand is working he’s unbeat­able, and his left hand was jabbing and hooking. Ali hit him with anything he wanted to hit him with.

“Spinks comes straight to you and any man who’ll come straight to you you hit him. You move from side to side and hit him with a right hand, hit him with hooks, hit him with anything you want to hit him with.”

I asked Dudley when he thought Ali had the fight won.

“In the 10th round, because I’d given Spinks only three.”

“What was Spinks’s biggest mistake?”

“Taking the fight,” he chuckled. “Ali,” he continued, “lost the last fight because he stayed on the ropes and gave away six rounds.”

“How would Ali do against Larry Holmes?”

“I think he’s serious about retiring. He’s done everything you can do in the fight business. There ain’t nothin’ else you can do.”

“How would Ali rate against Joe Louis?”

“Ali has the style that always gave Louis trouble. Any box­er who could move gave Louis trouble and Ali is the fastest heavyweight of all time.”

Louis, I thought, might have had a harder punch. Judging from his films, his KO victims take a longer time to rise than Ali’s.

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Congratulations were going all around as well-wishers en­tered the dressing room area. Rachaman was standing in the middle of the room chanting Muslim phrases. He kept repeating in English, “He said he’s from the world of shock.” Ali had told the inner circle that he would surprise everybody and that he was from the world of shock. I decided that the silence among his aides that afternoon was not due to sullen­ness but gloom. Ali had to cheer them up.

I caught up with Dick Gregory. Gregory said he was sur­prised that the fight had gone as long as it did. “It was a les­son for the world, a health and body lesson. If you take the physical body God has given you and purify it, there’s noth­ing that the body won’t do for you. Anything made by the universal force won’t get old. That’s what it was; with the right mineral balance and combination of nutrients you can make it.” I overheard one of the trainers remark, “He did 6000 calisthenics. 6000. No athlete has ever done that.”

New studies had come out which indicated that we know less about aging than we thought. Senility was being seen as a social, not physical, phenomenon. The idea of waning intellectual powers among the elderly was under challenge. George Balanchine, the dancer, had a body which put many a teenager’s to shame. I remembered a story from an old box­ing magazine, about someone running into the retired Jack Johnson. He was eager to fight Louis and bothered Louis so he was banned from the Brown Bomber’s training camp. The story revealed that Johnson knew of Louis’s weakness — ­dropping his left after a lead — before Schmeling spotted it on film. How would a retired Johnson have made out against Joe Louis?

But then there was something unique about Ali. Bob Arum had put his finger on it. He argued that “elements of deterioration” had set in during Ali’s layoff, just as they had to Louis during his army stint, and Jack Johnson after his ex­ile abroad. But then Arum spoke of Ali’s regenerative capa­cities. He said he’d seen three Alis — the Alis of the Supreme Court victory, the victory over Frazier, and the defeat of George Foreman — and that Muhammad might win if he had a fourth Ali in him. That night in the Superdome we’d seen the fourth Ali.

He had his skills, he had his personality, and he had the will. What else did he have at ringside? Spinks’s trainer, George Benton, mentioned a “mystical force guiding Ali’s life.…” After the Zaire fight, George Foreman’s corner complained that Foreman didn’t fight the fight that had been planned. That he seemed distracted. After Spinks lost he said that his “mind wasn’t on the fight.” Was an incredible amount of “other” energy in Ali’s corner? His devotion to Allah is well known.

Bob Arum said that Dick Gregory told him to call home because his son had had an accident. Arum called and it was true. Was Dick Gregory laying more than physical protection on the Champion. Did Dick Gregory have “second sights”?

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A Miami customs official said that with the immigration laws as they are now, half of South America­ will be here in the next few years. On my last trip to New York I noticed storefronts to the goddess of the sea, Ye­manya, were springing up around the West 90s. Among the people who came were the Cubans who hold Santaria cere­monies in their Miami apartments. The Cubans brought their cults. This Cuban, Luis Sarria, was protected by Chan­go, the perfect loa of boxing, the warrior-god of fire, thun­der, and lightning.

It was a “mystical” night. The Superdome audience had watched a man turn the clock back, a rare event. I noticed pigeons inside, encircling the Superdome, flying above the heads of the crowd.

Spinks’s six-door white Lincoln Continental was brought up by a bald man, wearing dark glasses and an earring, named Mr. T. Leon was surrounded by a few people including his brother Michael. Spinks waved at some people who stood on a balcony. Nobody waved back.

Somebody announced that Ali was holding a press confer­ence upstairs. He was seated, flanked by Veronica and Jayne Kennedy, the actress who resembles her so much that they could be sisters.

“I’mmona hold it six months. I’m going to go all over the world. Do you know what I did? I was great in defeat. Can you imagine how great I am now? Can you imagine how many movies, how many commercials I will get? I was great when I lost fights. I got eight months I can hold my title… mannnnnn. See how big I am? Can you imagine what will happen if I walk down the street in any city?

“My thing was to dance, come right out and start moving, win the first, win the second, win the third, get away from the ropes, dance, do everything I know how to do. Get my body in shape so that it could do what my brains tell me. The fight’s almost over, if you lose eight rounds, you lose the whole fight — so after I won about 10 rounds, naturally, the opponent gets frustrated. He can’t win unless he knocks me out, and I get more confident.”

“He cut out that rope-a-dope bullshit,” one old timer said to me.

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“Do you know I danced 15 rounds with a 25-year-old boy? I’m 36 years old? Man, do you realize how great I am now? The doctor checked my temperature and my blood, and took it to the hospital, and told Dick Gregory what I needed. Do you know how my stamina was up? Do you know what he told me to do?

“Take honey and ice cream 30 minutes before the fight. Half a pint of ice cream and five or six spoonfuls of real hon­ey. My doctor told me to eat ice cream and honey. He gave me a big hunk of honey and melted ice cream. I didn’t get tired. Did you see me explode all during the fight? I said, go!

“Spinks is a gentleman; he held my hand up. Spinks will beat Larry Holmes. Spinks will be champion again. He’s go­ing to be the second man to regain it twice. He’ll have to do a lot to do it three times. But Spinks will be champion again. He’s young, he’s in good shape, he’s going to fight Larry Holmes and be the champ.

“I’m the three-time champion. I’m the only man to win it three times. The greatest champion of all time.”

“Of all time,” chorused his assistants.

“Of all time. Was I pretty?”

“You was pretty,” said a man in the audience.

“Was I moving? Was I fighting? Was I sticking? Was I a Master?”

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“In eight months I’ll let you know, I’ll either retire or fight. Hold it eight months. Why give it back as hard as I worked? I’m getting old. Somebody is going to get me. I’m lucky I came back. See, I had you thinking I was washed up. You thought I was washed up. You really didn’t know how great I was. You didn’t know I just didn’t train for the first fight. You thought I had trained and that was my best. Wasn’t I much better this time than the first time? I’m older. I’m seven months older. Wasn’t it a total difference?

“Mannnnn. Mannnnnnnnnnnn. Mannnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Mannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. I was the best in this fight, let me tell you. I was training six months. My legs were running, I was chopping trees, running hills, watching my food. I said I cannot go out a loser, Jack Johnson went out a loser. Sugar Ray went out a loser. Joe Louis went out a loser. Of all the great fighters only Marciano and Tunney — two white ones­ — went out winners and everybody’s talking about how great Marciano was, and how great Tunney was.

“I said, some black man has got to be smart enough to get by all these people. I got to be that black man who gets out on top. I went training early. I put all my tools together. I tricked you. I was separated from my wife, all my friends. Mannnnnn. Mannnnnnn.” (Audience, including urbane, so­phisticated sports writers: “Mannnnnnn.”) “Man, I got ready a book coming out for all school children. I hang up my robes, hang up my crown, and my trunks. A Champion Forever. A champion forever. A champion forever. Mannnnnnnn.”

A reporter asked Ali did he think we’d hear from George Foreman again.

“You’ll hear of George Foreman no more. I don’t think he’ll ever come back. Spinks will win the title. Spinks is not finished. He just couldn’t beat me. He’ll beat Larry Holmes (takes a swig of Welch’s grape juice).

“I have an announcement. Kris Kristofferson and Marlon Brando have just signed to make my movie, Freedom Road. We have a $6 million budget. Couple of more questions then I gotta celebrate. Mannnnnn, you come over to the Hilton and we gonna ball. Mannnnnn. My victory party. All y’all playboys come on over.”

Trainer James Dudley said Ali won because “class will tell.” Ali’s camp did everything according to script down to even the right kind of music. In the first fight with Spinks he was introduced with a movement from a Brahms symphony. In the second fight, “The Saints Go Marchin’ In.” Spinks’s entrance was accompanied by the macho “Marine Hymn” which boasts of an illegal invasion of Mexico. So the people were joking about Spinks’s style. A friend of mine predicted that Spinks would win the fight if he weren’t arrested be­tween leaving his dressing room and entering the ring. Ali made a joke at the Mayor’s reception about Spinks still owing a thousand dollars on his $500 suit. Not only did Spinks lose the fight but they had trouble backing his huge white car out of the Superdome.

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The political, cultural, and entertainment establish­ments were rooting for Ali. His victory would be seen as another sign of sixtomania now sweeping the country, because even though some of his most heroic fights occurred in the seventies, he would still remind us of the turbulent decade, of Muslims, Malcom X, Rap Brown, The Great Society, LBJ, Vietnam, General Hershey, dashi­kis, afros, Black Power, MLK, RFK. He represented the New Black of the 1960s, who was the successor to the New Negro of the 1920s, glamorous, sophisticated, intelligent, in­ternational, and militant.

The stars were for Ali, but the busboys were for Spinks. They said he lost because he was “too wild.” His critics claimed that he drank in “New Orleans dives,” where the stateside Palestinians hangout — the people the establishment has told to get lost. The people who’ve been shunted off to the cities’ ruins where they live next to abandoned buildings.

They could identify with Spinks. If they put handcuffs on him for a traffic offense, then they do the same thing to them. If he was tricked into signing for a longer period in the armed forces than he thought, the same thing happens to them. For seven months, he was “The People’s Champ.”

Ali and his party left the stadium, with people lined up on each side to say farewell to the champion. The night before, the streets were empty, but now they were crowded, remind­ing one of the excitement among the night crowds in Ameri­can cities during the 1930s and 1940s, or when the exposi­tions were held in St. Louis and Washington. The black players’ bars were filling up. The traffic was bumper to bumper. Hundreds were milling about outside of the Hilton, or standing body-to-body. In the French Quarter, many more moved down Bourbon Street as the sounds of B.B. King and Louis Armstrong came from the restaurants and bars. Every 36-year-old had a smile.

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After returning home I learned that Butch Lewis had been fired from Top Rank for, according to Arum, taking a $200,000 kickback from Louisiana Sports. Don Hubbard told me that a press conference had been called by Ali, who had remained an extra day, to blast two officers of Louisiana Sports, Jake DiMaggio and Philip Ciaccio, for filing suit against the black partners, Hubbard and Copelin. Ali was joined by Joe Frazier and Michael and Leon Spinks. They wanted to show support for Butch Lewis.

Ali said that those who control boxing believed that “the black man’s role in the sport should be limited to boxing and carrying the bucket while the white men count the money.”

He said that if he heard anymore about a suit against Cope­lin and Hubbard he’d go see President Carter about the mat­ter or bring it up during his world tour. “I don’t know all the details of this suit,” he said, “but I know this is a racist suit.”

I called Arum. He said that Ali had apologized to him for the press conference. He’d talked to Ali the night before and accused Copelin, Hubbard, and Lewis of “steaming Ali up” so bad that Ali “got intemperate.”

“Ali is contrite,” Arum said. “Jesus, when they steam him up they almost make him drunk on rhetoric. Everybody in Chicago is concerned. Herbert Muhammad leapt to my defense. Hubbard, Copelin, and Lewis concocted the press conference to attack me, but Ali thought they were attacking the other guys [DiMaggio and Ciaccio]. Ali was ill-used and is going to say so today. I talked to Muhammad last night.”

“Why did Spinks lose?”

“I thought Spinks was going to win based on his having George Benton as trainer,” Arum said. “He lost because he received no guidance from his corner. None.”

I asked about the quote attributed to him by Newsweek that Spinks was “drunk every night.” Sports Illustrated re­peated the claim.

“I didn’t see him every night, but every time I saw him he was drunk. A young fighter can drink and abuse himself and not affect his conditioning, but it has a mental effect. Spinks has great raw talent. His wife Nova reputedly has joined the Muslims. If he joins the Muslims they will straighten him out. If he goes on like he is now, forget about him ever fighting again. His life will end up being a personal disaster.”

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Arum said he’d fired Butch Lewis because “I found out he was working a scam on me amounting to $200,000.” It had been reported that Lewis received the amount as a kickback from the fight in the form of letters of credit. I thought it in­credible that Ali didn’t know the contractual details of the “Battle of New Orleans” and asked Arum why he thought this was the case.

“He’s easily deceived,” Arum said. Would Arum promote another Ali fight? He said that he’d do nothing to encourage Ali to fight again. There was a rumor making the rounds, the source of which was said to be Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s for­mer doctor, whose book Fight Doctor annoyed Ali. The ru­mor was repeated in Newsweek and New York magazine, whispering that Ali is showing the symptoms of brain dam­age. I taped a press conference that Ali gave after a grueling 15 rounds in the ring with a 26-year-old man and detected not one bit of slurring, or lapse in his usual comical bril­liance. In fact, he could have been a Bible-toting Kentucky evangelist on the stump; the audience in the room belonged to him. They were spellbound by his oratory. Had he com­manded they would have permitted him to walk out of the room on their backs.

DiMaggio and Ciaccio sued Hubbard and Copelin later withdrew the suit saying it was the result of a misunderstand­ing. The “internal problems,” Hubbard said, “had been resolved. We don’t want to spread our dirty linen all over the nation.” But according to a report on Thursday, September 28, from Oakland radio station KDIA, the linen would be spread, and scavengers would dine. A grand jury was going to look into the promotion of the Spinks-Ali fight.

Ali apologized just as Arum said he would. He termed his press conference “unfortunate”:

“Certain people whom I regarded as my friends gave me a distorted version of events which so enraged me that I made unthinkable, angry remarks. I never met Mr. Ciaccio or Mr. DiMaggio and hold no personal animosity. Even if they are wrong I should not have called them a name, particularly a name which offends a whole nation of people.”

DiMaggio had threatened Ali with a $10 million libel suit unless he returned to New Orleans to “apologize” for the remarks Ali made against him.

In defending Arum, Herbert Muhammad said, “He came to me with a contract to guarantee Ali 3 million, 250,000 for training expense, and 250,000 for any other sources of ex­penses, and Butch Lewis came to me working for Top Rank, and Arum’s a white man. And Lewis is a white man. And Top Rank is a white organization, so I think Ali was not that informed.”

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Toward the end of his extraordinary press conference, Ali had indicated that “blue-eyed Jesuses” and “Tarzan, King of the Jungle” were on his mind, which reminds us of Tarzan’s Anglo origin and that in many black churches, Jesus resem­bles Basil Rathbone. This brings us to Ali’s last challenge: The Anglo-Saxon Curse on black Heavyweight Champions.

The “white hope” legend was born in the mythic Pacific White Republic of California with its Anglo Saxon ruling capital, the city by the golden gate. Early California poetry boasts of how the Anglo Saxons were destined to conquer and rule California and become its supreme race. Jack London was the lingering myth’s chief philosopher and fantasist and, for London and others, when Jack Johnson defeated Jim Jefferies, the claim of Anglo Saxon superiority received a se­vere setback. They went scrambling about to find someone to break Jack Johnson. Finally, as a historian observed, the white hope appeared in the form of legislation: The Mann Act.

The pride blacks felt in Johnson’s victory led them to cele­brate. They were lynched for “boasting.” Other victims were accused of “strutting about.” FRENZIED NEGROES EXASPERATE THE WHITES, screamed headlines in the London Daily Express, July 6, 1910.

A curse seemed to be laid that, thereafter, black cham­pions would retire in defeat: “the good ones,” like Joe Louis and Ezzard Charles, suffering as much as the “bad guys,” Sonny Liston, possibly killed. If he’s a historian as I believe he is, Ali will retire, undefeated. If he’s a “businessman,” as he said at his press conference, he’ll fight Larry Holmes for “the other” championship and the phantom woman who attends his fights, her chauffeur-driven car outside the stadium, will be there at rightside, awaiting Ali’s destruction. She won’t be the only one.

Categories
From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

Stranger in Harlem, Part One: Where the Prisoners Come From

“It is a miracle that the American black people have remained a peaceful people, while catching all the centuries of hell that they have caught, here in the white man’s heaven!”
The Autobiography of Malcolm X 

Sometimes, when I feel the world is passing me by, I wonder whatever could have possessed me to take this job, cov­ering crime. But when I look at the pho­tograph on this page, the same photo­graph which laughs up at me from my desk, I know it was because I wanted to meet some new people.

The picture shows me and Nicky Barnes and Nicky’s lawyer, Dave Breit­bart, standing outside the federal court­house in Foley Square on the day before Nicky got convicted for running a crimi­nal enterprise to sell heroin. That’s Nicky in the middle with the knotted belt, Dave with the open trenchcoat, and I’m the one in the yachting slicker. That thing in my hand is an admiral’s cap, which I picked up in some army surplus store when I was cultivating the Samuel Eliot Morison look. During the trial, somebody told me that admiral’s caps were all the rage in Har­lem, and I kept hoping that Nicky would comment favorably on mine, but he never did. I do recall, however, that Dave said something like, “Why don’t you take off that stupid hat?” just before Fred McDarrah snapped the picture.

The camera doesn’t lie. That’s a white up­per-middle-class Harvard educated journalist you see, tickled pink to be standing beside the world’s most famous drug dealer. The smile on my face says: Look how far I’ve come from my overprivileged beginnings. But look again at the background and it’s clear I hadn’t gone anywhere at all; I was still at the courthouse, homeground. I had been a courthouse reporter for a year, and this pic­ture captures the high point of my encounter with criminality.

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I didn’t know then that I would spend a good part of the next 11 months — most of the year 1978 — riding around with homicide de­tectives, looking at Harlem. This series is about the things I saw there, and it hasn’t been easy to write. I had taken taxis through Harlem on the way to the airport, read about it, seen it on the news, lived a few miles away from it most of my life. I assumed I knew something about it. But when I actually made myself look at Harlem, what I saw was so bizarre that, even with the help of those homicide detectives, I found it bewildering — another country, another planet. It came to me as a great relief when a black homicide detective, who had grown up in Queens, told me that when he first started working in Har­lem, it gave him culture shock. He just couldn’t believe the degradation.

The last time I thought about culture shock with any frequency was 10 years ago, the summer of ’68, when I was being trained to teach English in Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer. My instructors used to talk about culture shock as if it were some kind of un­pleasant but unavoidable therapy — shakes you up, wakes you up. They warned us that we’d feel uncomfortable and out of place in a country which had never heard of the Protes­tant ethic, and they were right, at least in my case — I didn’t like the politics, the food, the gauntlet of grotesque, aggressive beggars I had to run every day on my way to school. There were so many things I didn’t like that I came home after a year — but that year, in re­trospect, was maybe the most wonderful of my life; it certainly kept me awake. And ever since then, I’ve sought out stories that would put me in the same state of perkiness without the loneliness and the fear — stories that were different from my own experience.

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I covered rock and roll for a while, and some of those rock stars were different all right, but most of them weren’t as different as they looked. And then I turned to polit­ics — Nixon’s last campaign, Ervin hearings, Mitchell-Stans trial, Watergate trial, CIA hearings, Jerry Ford’s Washington. But by the end of that sequence there wasn’t much mystery left in the government for me or for anybody else, and no shocks either. So I came home to New York City to reconnoiter and figure out what to do next.

That’s when I started playing squash with an old friend from Harvard who had recently become a criminal lawyer. He told me tales of the Criminal Courts Building on Centre Street, where all Manhattan’s violent crimes are tried — real-life stories with dialogue by Dashiell Hammett and plots by James M. Cain. As the weeks went by, and his life be­came increasingly entangled in that world, he confided that he felt scared, isolated, and un­sure of himself. To me it all sounded great — a little nest of culture shock right in my own home town, a foreign land I could commute to on the subway. And I wouldn’t have to be on my own. It would be a perfect arrangement for both of us — he would get company, and I would get an intimate source — someone to show me the ropes. In due time, I presented myself to The Village Voice, outlined my plan to the editor, and got myself hired as courthouse reporter.

The very next week, my friend announced that he was leaving town. He explained that his practice just wasn’t giving him enough satisfaction, although he was winning cases. “Even when a lawyer succeeds,” he said gloomily, “he just gets his client back into the Despair. Like a fireman who saves your house and ruins everything inside it.” He thought it would be a good time for him to take a long trip.

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Right. But what about me? What was I go­ing to do down in that courthouse with no one to tell me what was going on? My friend was all compassion, and one afternoon he gave me a crash course on the New York City criminal justice system: judges, D.A.’s office, detectives, Legal Aid, clerks, court officers, pimp lawyers, the works. When he got done, he looked me straight in the eye, lowered his voice dramatically and said: “Now write this down and underline it — NEVER UNDERESTI­MATE THESE GUYS!! They’re better trained than we are.”

That’s how I began my daily trips to Cen­tre Street — feeling very much alone and over­awed by my new surroundings. Riding the subway to the Canal Street stop, I’d tell my­self, this is what you wanted, just try to enjoy the weirdness. But I barely understood what people were talking about. Sitting on a stool in Henry’s Courthouse Lunchroom, where the batty waitresses called me “dear” and Al the speed-demon chef fired off a dazzling smile as he served up grits, I would listen hard to conversations, trying to pick up the dialects of crime.

It was a lot different from any federal courthouse I’d ever spent time in. The two arraignments parts were always packed with whispering relatives, bawling children, and grumbling cops — you could never hear what was going on at the bench. The cops wore blue jeans, fatigue jackets, and hunting shirts with their police shields hanging from their necks on silver chains; some looked like Hell’s Angels, some like Vietnam vets, some like hoods. Harried Legal Aid lawyers disap­peared into the pens to interview prisoners; while the dauntless clerks kept barking out names and numbers.

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In the big, front lobby it always felt like night, despite the harsh amber glare of the mercury lights, and night creatures hung about, conferring in conspiratorial tones. Court officers were constantly confiscating knives, shivs, machetes. Once I saw two court officers trundle a flailing wino into the freight elevator and calm him down by smashing his head against the steel wall. Pasty-looking whores stumbled around on four-inch heels, while their lawyers leaned against the columns and leered at each oth­er’s jokes, and pimps in neon-colored clothes sprawled on the round, deserted information desk. At the far end of the lobby stood John, the blind newsie, glowering behind his coun­ter, the ultimate judge. He heard much and told nothing.

Like a new minister in town, I had great hopes of meeting everybody, especially the poor and downtrodden. In my first article, I wrote: “For persons who are not of the Street but wish to know what the Street is up to, the Criminal Courts Building is the only place to go.” By “the Street,” I basically meant hus­tlers and perpetrators of violent crime. I did have a vague desire to meet these people, but as it turned out, I interviewed only one prisoner at any length during my entire first year in the courthouse. The truth was, I was afraid of defendants and didn’t know what to say to them.

Starting out, I clung to the few practicing Marxists still left in Legal Aid, loud, tough refugees from the ’60s, dogged in their belief that every prisoner was a political prisoner. But I am gregarious by nature and people down there were friendly. After a while, it was Legal Aid in one ear, probation officer in the other, lunch with a judge in Forlini’s; I’d shoot the breeze in the pressroom with Mike Pearl (dean of the courthouse reporters), and finish up over drinks at Doyle’s with some court officers. Manfully, I tackled the obvi­ous topics — arraignments, plea bargaining, picking judges — but it was much more fun to try and catch the little life cycles of the court­house. Gossip flew fast and thick: this judge crazy, that one drunk, D.A.’s squad has a good investigation going. I got lost on side­tracks for weeks and months, holding up the great tradition that courthouse news is enter­tainment.

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And yet, something kept telling me that I was only skimming the surface, I was missing the point, maybe I needed some philosoph­ical underpinnings. In the second week of July, I enrolled in a seminar on “radical criminology” at NYU. The lectures, deliv­ered by a British sociologist in fluent socio­logical gobbledygook, were opaque. As I pe­rused the assigned reading, however, a quote from Friedrich Engels caught my eye. “If the influences demoralizing to the working­ man act more powerfully than usual,” he wrote, “he becomes an offender as certainly as water abandons the fluid for the vaporous state at 80 degrees Reaumur.” That night, July 13, 1977, the lights went out, and thou­sands of people turned into steam.

The next day I saw the courthouse as I’d never seen it before.

There was no ventilation, the sun glared through the grimy courtroom windows, and by noon the whole place felt like the inside of an exhaust pipe. Court officers ran around with walkie-talkies, reporting conditions to the administrative judge, who sat in his steamy aerie, chomping on his cigar and re­ceiving the reports with pride and frustration. His courthouse was rarin’ to go; every Legal Aid and A.D.A. and judge stood at his sta­tion, ready to work all day and night if neces­sary to give the alleged looters justice. But the law decreed that no judge could set bail without the defendant’s criminal record, and the FAX machine, which held all such re­cords, could not disgorge them without elec­tricity. So the finest hour of the courthouse had to be postposed indefinitely while the looters sat in the system like so many kidney stones.

Eventually, around 7:30 that evening, the lights came back on and the arraignments be­gan. The first defendant, a black woman, was remanded to jail. Her woman friend in the audience cast a long malevolent look around the courtroom — at D.A. Morgenthau, at Judge Torres, at all of us. “All you whiteys,” she screamed. “I ain’t seen no whitey prisoners come through here.” And she was still screaming when the court officers dragged her out.

She had a point. No one could deny that the prisoners came from Harlem. I had watched them being unloaded from city buses, shackled like chain gangs. Scores of them were crammed into the basement pens, where the temperature hovered around 120 degrees. A cop who went down there came back horrified. “It’s the Black Hole of Calcutta,” he said. Later, I went for a brief tour of the Tombs, five minutes or less, but I didn’t get over it for days. The cellblock reeked of shit and disinfectant, the air was hard to breathe, and the floor was littered with balogna sandwiches which no one could eat. I stood across from 20 black men, mostly young, who reached out their arms to me, not angry, not hostile, just trying to get my attention so I would make phone calls for them. A big guy in red track shorts asked me to go uptown and find his two-year-old son. The whole experience was so overwhelming that I didn’t realize how upset I was. When I got home and called my editor to tell her what I had seen all day, I started crying and couldn’t stop.

The next day I tried to write a piece saying that the blackout was just as much the work of Nemesis as any other black riot, a perfect expression of black demoralization. It all seemed fairly simple to me: Harlem was infi­nitely worse off in 1977 than it had been in the decade of the long hot summers; there was less running water, less heat in the win­ter, fewer jobs, and much more crime. Five hours out of a decade wasn’t much, but it was all the opportunity that knocked. White power went off, black power surged on. It seemed to me that locking up those looters made about as much sense as locking up the Johnstown flood. They were a natural force, like the electricity which had failed, and there was something stupid about trying to judge a natural force.

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When I arrived at The Voice and showed a rough draft of these sentiments to my editor, she seemed to think I was losing my grip. And one of my best friends in the office, who comes from a working-class background, denounced the looters with a furious animosity that shocked me. “But look how they’ve been treated,” I kept arguing, “But look at how they acted,” he argued back, and we kept going around in circles like that until I began to feel like a bleeding heart. What did I know anyway from having spent five min­utes in a cellblock? This wasn’t South Africa, after all. These people hadn’t been attacked, they were the ones who had run amok. And I had to admit that they had been treated with greater leniency in Manhattan than they would have been anywhere else in the world. I went back home, struggled with the article for another two weeks, and finally emerged with a report that focused on the mechanics of putting out a riot. Then I went for a vaca­tion in the mountains.

By the time I got back in September, the courthouse had its face back on again, just as if nothing had happened. The marble floor of the lobby had been waxed and buffed to a high shine by the new Wildcat crew. (The old Wildcat crew had been let go after stealing most of the building’s electric typewrit­ers.) I went around checking in with my friends — everyone from judges to court offic­ers to law secretaries — and they seemed to as­sume that I was now a part of the courthouse, like them. This was flattering but also unset­tling, because I knew I was only a tourist. I was free to pick my shots and get out when­ever I’d had enough, while most of the peo­ple I’d been writing about had a serious com­mitment to the place and its ongoing drama. Centre Street had every ethnic group and race and class, except for the upper class, and they were all constantly forced to deal with each other. This meant that there was no way for anyone, white or black, who worked in the criminal-justice system to avoid facing the major problem of the city, which was that a large group of Southern black tenant farm­ers had settled here under extremely adverse conditions and had not made it and were not going to make it. They had no share in the material success of the money-obsessed city, and they had turned into one of the angriest and most hopeless proletariats that any city had ever seen. No matter who you were, if you worked in the courthouse you had to confront the anger of the blacks who made up 65 per cent of the defendants there — you had to confront it constantly, day after day, which was not pleasant. There were people in the courthouse who simply couldn’t stand blacks — from judges who thought niggers were hardly worth wasting a trial on, to court officers who yearned to shoot some “yams.” There were also judges, court officers, law­yers, A.D.A.s who had enormous sensitivity to black culture and there were those who thought they did, but didn’t.

What made me feel ashamed as I returned to the courthouse, supposedly as part of the family, was that I had never even tried to know the blacks on the arraignments benches, the blacks in the holding pens, the blacks at the defense tables; the black pimps and prostitutes in the lobby; the black moth­ers and sisters and girlfriends and the close­-cropped Muslim men and veiled Muslim women who sat sullenly through the trials. To have avoided getting to know these peo­ple struck me as a definite symptom of ra­cism. And I didn’t much want to think about that. Nor did I wish to make the effort.

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So I made a deal with my editor. I would cover one last crime story, the trial of Nicky Barnes at the federal courthouse, and then I would be free to do something else entirely. I couldn’t imagine how to go about approaching Nicky Barnes for an interview, so I decid­ed I would just go down and listen to the tes­timony — a grim few weeks, and then it would be over.

But when I got down to Foley Square, it wasn’t exactly as I’d expected. Sitting in that third-floor courtroom was something like sit­ting in a Harlem nightclub that didn’t have its liquor license yet. Compared to Centre Street, the federal courthouse was the Ritz­ — the well of the courtroom was carpeted and furnished with comfortable armchairs. The 15 defendants were by and large an attractive bunch. They were all young, slim, and clean cut (except for Fat Stevie Monsanto, who was fat and dirty), and, in their spotless tube socks and bright new Pro-Keds, they looked like an unbeaten college basketball team. Guy Fisher, who was supposed to be Nicky’s most treasured lieutenant and a very tough customer, wore cashmere sweaters and shiny loafers and looked like the 1959 valedictorian at Howard University.

If the evidence proved anything, it was that they were into some very expensive kinds of hedonism. What you heard on the DEA tapes were people with exotic nick­names like Jazz, Wop, and Radio rapping on coke till five in the morning at clubs like Bubba Jean’s and Hubba Hubba (although mainly you heard the jukebox blaring in the background). They drove around all night in Mercedes-Benzes, with the radio pumping out disco. (And the evidence was nothing. Later I heard the full stories. They had yachts. They had fleets of Mercedes. They did mountains of coke, and even some angel dust. They went out with movie stars. They had regular Friday night orgies. And, of course, they did stay up all night, partying and doing business — some of them couldn’t remember what a morning looked like.)

They all acted incredibly cool, considering the predicament they were in. There was one tall, skinny defendant named Bat (because his ears stuck out) Saunders. He was alleged to be one of Guy Fisher’s street captains. One day, Bat drove his brand-new Lincoln Conti­nental into the courthouse parking lot just as the jury bus pulled up. The whole defense ta­ble had a good laugh over that — “Just your luck, man” — but it didn’t seem to faze Bat. While the jury was out deliberating, he drew up a hilarious parody of the prosecution’s conspiracy chart, assigning nicknames to everyone on the government team. He stood in front of the jury box and gave a ringing summation against the U.S. Attorney, whom he dubbed “Micky Mouse” and denounced as “the ringleader.” Even the U.S. Attorney had to laugh. Bat was so lucky, he got acquitted.

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Nobody in the federal courthouse could re­member a narcotics conspiracy where at least one of the members hadn’t turned state’s evi­dence, but in this group there wasn’t one rat. Most of the defendants did, in fact, belong to Nicky Barnes’s drug crew, which had the reputation of being the best, though not the biggest, that Harlem had ever seen. Others, however, had been dragged into the “con­spiracy” apparently at random. Stevie Baker and Fat Stevie Monsanto ran a drug opera­tion separate from Nicky’s and almost as large. Petey Rollock was a small independent dealer whom the others had never heard of, but who did manage to become a member of the conspiracy in the course of the trial. J.J. Johnson was a numbers operator who sold coke to Nicky’s people as a kind of sideline, because he liked being part of their scene. But all of these people had respect for Nicky, and when their hour of testing arrived, they achieved total solidarity under a total leader.

Nicky sat in an armchair slightly apart from the rest, always wearing the same corn­flower blue suit with leather elbow patches. Even in repose — and he dozed through much of the trial — he had the ferocious energy of a working monarch. Loyal subjects came to pay their respects, and he always received them graciously; even two old junkies with boxing-glove hands and a transvestite he had known in prison. Everyone who saw him was struck by his effortless authority. Murray Kempton called attention to “that great brow, swollen to bursting with the power to command,” while I myself felt that his force resided in his bullish neck, hulking back, and bulging arms. Whatever it was, and wherever it came from, everyone seemed to feel it and defer to it.

Even the Establishment had been forced to recognize his power and deal with it, a lavish compliment of sorts. The New York Times had deferred to Nicky by making him the first black drug dealer to adorn the cover of their Sunday magazine. The president of the United States had deferred to Nicky by or­dering the attorney general to give him “spe­cial attention,” and the U.S. Attorney de­ferred by taking personal charge of the case. And Nicky’s lawyer, Dave Breitbart, de­ferred by wanting so badly to be Nicky’s friend.

Dave Breitbart was a brown belt in karate and a black belt in ju-jitsu and had a close physical resemblance to portraits of Napole­on in his middle years. Nicky wasn’t just Dave’s biggest client, I think Dave genuinely adored him as a friend. They saw each other socially, went to Regine’s together, and Dave even attended the famous birthday party Nicky threw for himself at the Time-Life Building — a party where the DEA made movies of the arriving guests. Dave was flat­tered to be one of the few white people Nicky liked and trusted; it made him feel hip, cool, and macho, and he called attention to the fact by nicknaming himself “Mighty Whitey.” Dave’s defense of Nicky was more than a job, it was a crusade, and he never tired of vilifyi­ng the prosecution’s case. “Does it make you want to throw up,” he would demand, pointing to some example of injustice. “Can you hold your lunch down?”

When the trial had gone on for about three weeks, I wrote a column mocking the prose­cution’s case, drawing my conclusions partly from ignorance and partly from Breitbart. I had missed the U.S. Attorney’s most pre­sentable witness, a woman who sold Nicky’s organization vast amounts of mannite for cut­ting heroin. I didn’t find out until much later that Breitbart’s cross-examination had so lit­tle damaged this witness that when he sat down, one of his partners was heard to mut­ter, “From here on in, we’re all just jerking ourselves off.”

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Of course, Dave was thrilled with the piece. “You called it right down the middle,” he said. As a reward, he introduced me to Nicky.

“God bless you,” were Nicky’s first words to me, with a warm handshake — but that must have been how he greeted white people he didn’t like, because Dave said something like, “No, no, no, this is the guy who wrote that great article in The Voice.” After that, things were cordial between Nicky and me, nods and handshakes every day.

The main thing that hampered our com­munication was the strain of pretending that he wasn’t in the drug business. But he had a nice, sly sense of humor, which put me at my ease. “I’m a flower child,” he said one day with a grin. “Only thing is, they associate me with the wrong flower — the poppy.” He always maintained that the way to solve the drug problem was to legalize heroin. We had many pleasant chats, sticking to subjects like his youth on 116th Street, his days in a gang called the Turks, his thoughts on black histo­ry. I gave him a copy of a book I wrote and assured him he didn’t have to read it, a piece of false humility I favor for such presenta­tions. Nicky took it wrong. “Oh, we read in Harlem,” he said, “even if you don’t think we do.” But he accepted the book.

A few days later, he called me to one side and led me down the hall to a bench where we could talk undisturbed. “I’ll tell you the truth,” he said. “There’s one main thing that interests me.” He rubbed his fingers together as if they held a crisp bill between them. He was thinking of doing a book, and he wanted to know what the profits would be like.

“I’ll be frank with you,” I said. “I don’t think it would make you the kind of money that you’re used to.”

I would be lying if I said I didn’t like Nicky, didn’t feel charmed by the attention he paid to me, wasn’t sorry when I heard he’d gotten life. (I still have certain reserva­tions about the prosecution’s case and so apparently does the Second Circuit, which has been deliberating the appeal for nearly six months, an extraordinary length of time.)

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Nicky’s conviction ended a fantasy that had been drifting around the back of my mind during the trial. It would sometimes occur to me that our little talks were just an ice-breaking prelude to the longer conversations we would have after he got acquitted; Dave would drive me uptown in his Mer­cedes; Nicky and Mighty Whitey would show me all the hidden magic of Harlem — ­Bubba Jean’s, The Hubba Hubba, Small’s Paradise, the old ballrooms, voodoo, jazz, the fabulous underworld which lay beneath the ruins. When that fantasy was blown away, all that was left was a kind of confu­sion. Nicky remained my touchstone to Har­lem, the only Harlem personage I really knew, but I couldn’t make up my mind who Nicky was, how much I ought to like him and how severely I ought to judge him. How much of Nicky’s crime was Nicky’s fault, and how much of it was — well, somebody else’s.

I had sat with Murray Kempton through much of the trial, a real joy, and when it was over he wrote a line that haunted me for months: “Nicky Barnes is a great man, and to say that is not to dispute Acton’s conclusion that all great men are bad men.” I puz­zled over that thought for a long time and finally concluded that if Nicky were great, it was in the same sense that Gatsby was — trag­ic in a slightly ridiculous way. Nicky was far more ruthless than Gatsby and much less of a romantic, but both men had tried to crash the club of capitalism, and both were doomed to fail. Heroin was to Nicky what bootleg was to Gatsby. He gave enormous parties, wore splendid clothes, and was rumored to have killed a man — many men, in fact. And if I had a problem understanding Nicky Barnes, not to mention judging him, because of race, it can’t have been so much worse than the difficulty Nick Carraway had in judging his neighbor Jay Gatsby because of class — and it stemmed from the same dis­tortion in vision. My father taught me pretty much the same thing Carraway’s father taught him: “Whenever you feel like criticiz­ing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.”

How much could Nicky be blamed for what he was and how much did you have to blame the phenomenon of racism? The only people really qualified to answer that were the ones who lived where Nicky came from and conducted his business. I suppose that’s why I spent the next 11 months at Sixth Homicide, the homicide zone for Harlem.

One afternoon when I was talking to a group of black detectives who had lived all their lives in Harlem, one of them, a man of enormous restraint, settled my doubts about Nicky Barnes: “If I’d ever have had the opportunity,” he said, “I’d have killed Nicky Barnes for what he did to my people.” ■

This is the first story in a series on Harlem:

Stranger in Harlem Part Two: Sixth Homicide

Stranger in Harlem, Part Three: A Harlem Dude

Stranger in Harlem, Part Four: Willy and the Sneaker People

Stranger in Harlem, Part Five: Postscript 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Those Wild and Crazy Cult Movies

John Carpenter’s Halloween bids fair to become the cult discovery of 1978. Audiences have been heard screaming at its horrifying climaxes. The initial release, scheduling, and publicity have been catchpenny sensational, as if the distributors were content to sell tickets exclusively to the retard­ed ghouls and zombies they could pick off the streets. Most reviewers have ignored the movie altogether, and yet Tom Allen’s knowledgeable rave in The Voice set off proper dialectical sparks with Archer Winsten’s heartfelt pan in the New York Post. A cult movie, almost by definition, must be both admired and despised, and Halloween has already passed that test.

Indeed, at first glance Allen and Winsten seem to be re­viewing different films, but a closer inspection of their cri­tiques indicates that they are simply responding to different aspects of the same work: Allen, the formalist-mythological; and Winsten, the humanist-realist. Hence, whereas Allen was responding to the fluid camera movements reminiscent of Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Winsten was questioning the common sense of the female protagonist in her encounters with the indefatigable bogey man. Only time will tell if Halloween will become a popular classic on the revival and midnight cir­cuits, or merely an esoteric legend more written about than seen. It could go either way, particularly with today’s hap­hazard distribution and exhibition practices. Actually, the commercial fate of many cult candidates depends more on the persistence of exhibitors than the persuasiveness of critics.

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David Rosenbaum described the cult phenomenon very perceptively in the Boston Phoenix of August 19, 1975. After confessing that he himself had paid 10 visits to The Harder They Come, he named such other cult films of the decade as Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, Harold and Maude, The King of Hearts, A Thousand Clowns, Morgan!, “or, for the freakier set,” El Topo, Performance, Night of the Living Dead and Pink Flamingos. Boston has of course been a hotbed for what Rosenbaum describes as “cinematic recidi­vism,” a process by which moviegoers are turned into “movie-followers” by returning to see the same film for the second, third, and nth times. The same process applies to Star Wars and Grease, but these do not qualify as cult films.

As Rosenbaum notes, “a sense of mystery and proprietor­ship is essential to cultishness.” He then excludes from this category the Marx Brothers, Casablanca, Hitchcock films, Citizen Kane and all the popular classics of the screen. These have been too enthusiastically received by both the critics and the general public. By contrast, most cult films have been panned to a fare-thee-well. Rosenbaum proceeds to define the cultishly appealing aspects of the films on his list as irrationality and nonconformity. The “plots” all require a sustained suspension of disbelief, and the almost invariably whimsical protagonists are invariably on the “good” side in the Manichean struggles between life and death, peace and war, love and hate, justice and injustice, equality and ine­quality, naturalness and plasticity, liberation and repression. Other characteristics of the cult scene, according to Rosen­baum, are “low-brow literary seriousness,” rock music, calculating grossness, and the euphoric atmosphere of drug con­sumption.

Rosenbaum concluded his 1975 meditations with a tenta­tive prophecy: “Maybe writers cannot create cult films, but I can’t resist dropping a hint. Claude Lelouch’s And Now My Love was panned by Penelope Gilliatt. It had a modest run in Boston: But last month, on a Tuesday night, it sold out at a dollar theater in Newton. Some of my friends have seen it more than once. I’ve seen it twice. It’s about love.”

Although And Now My Love pops up every now and then at the Carnegie Hall, Bleecker Street, or Thalia circuits, the cult film that has really taken off since Rosenbaum’s article is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I suppose that one would say it is about shifting sexual roles. By now the audience is even bigger news than the film itself. A recent NBC series on the subject of after-midnight screenings of cult movies spent much of its time leering at the bizarre costumes, most into transvestism, of some of the proud repeaters in the audience. What interests me about the interplay between the flick and its followers is the degree to which familiarity has bred contempt among the cognoscenti. They act out the most banal scenes with a distracting, even gross literalism. When they throw real rice at the screen during the wedding scene, the seem to pass very perceptibly from appreciation to aggression. They would not do this if they were one-on-one with the spectacle. It is only through a collective bravado that they usurp the magic of the medium. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is no longer a movie protected by a meditative barrier but merely a pretext for rowdy rites of initiation into some vaguely subversive subculture. How the NBC network nabobs must quiver with titillation to hear little boys and little girls from the audience singing one of the show’s more rous­ing numbers, and stuttering over that terrible term, “trans­sexual.”

In their own way, the after-midnight ceremonies attend­ing many cult movies provide admittance criteria by forcing the participants to make whoopee into the wee hours of the morning. Most movie reviewers are relatively dull nine-to-five types, and even the more mature swingers who can endure all the witty conversation at Elaine’s till the dawn’s ugly light are unlikely to relish the arrested adoles­cent atmosphere of the post-midnight movie mavens. Yet at this point it is possible that The Rocky Horror Picture Show can interest a much wider audience than heretofore, simply because it seems to have struck some rebellious spark in young people. There are certainly enough talented people in it with enough flashy confidence to pass the time for the curi­ous moviegoer as well as the committed movie-follower. But like many of the recent crop of post-midnight cult movies The Rocky Horror Picture Show seems more like a dead end to the relatively serious film historian. It is unlikely to “influ­ence” anything, or to represent any particular stage in the de­velopment of an artist, a theme, a movement, or a genre.

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It is therefore not a cult film in the sense I considered Al­fred Hitchcock’s Psycho a cult film, when I defended it as se­rious art in my very first review in The Voice on August 1, 1960. That I entitled one of my collections of critiques Confessions of a Cultist was intended as a reflection of my closer relation to seminal works like Psycho than to terminal works like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Perhaps “cultist” is an overstatement of my critical role. Perhaps today’s “cul­tism” is tomorrow’s classicism. History offers us many confusing clues on the subject.

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may or may not have been the first cult movie when it traipsed over to these shores from Germa­ny back in 1921. To the extent that it was a horror flick, Cali­gari fully qualified for cult interest. Also, it was not widely popular, it lacked love interest in the normal sense, and it was not encumbered by big-name Hollywood stars. On the other hand, its expressionist settings reeked of the snobbery of high art, and there is little evidence that the “kids” of the ’20s went wild over this humorlessly Germanic contortion. The critics, as always, were mixed, but the fact that Caligari has been given such a prominent place in the official film his­tories suggests that its academic credentials diminish its claims as a cult item.

The Val Lewton horror classics at RKO in the ’40s, by contrast, have never fully escaped from the “sleeper” catego­ry. And the defiantly perverse tone in the late James Agee’s critical prose championing these low-budget thrillers sug­gests a Times-Square-underground resistance to the critical establishment of that era represented most conspicuously by Bosley Crowther of The New York Times. Indeed, there was a time when movies with titles such as Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man and The Body Snatcher were automatically labeled low-grade trash, sight unseen. Many such productions were to be found on the lower half of double-bills, and thus the reverse snobbery of preferring the second feature to the top attraction came into play.

Cultists worshipping in the catacombs of word-of-mouth often exchanged impressions of unexpectedly brilliant or poignant B pictures. But there was relatively little apprecia­tion in print of these underfinanced masterpieces. With any­where from 400 to 600 releases a year jostling reviewers for attention, it was easy to ignore the uncharted realms of schlock. People nowadays may think of the 1933 King Kong as a cult movie, but it happened to open at the Radio City Music Hall — and not at midnight, either. Not that Kong was ever seriously considered for an Oscar. Fun was fun, but officially “good” movies tended to be relatively stuffy and sanctimonious and star-laden.

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One can go back to the very beginnings of cinema to trace the split between flicks that were really enjoyed, and fillums that were merely endorsed. There were pre–World War I rowdies who preferred Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties to Sarah Bernhardt’s noble fretting and strutting on the stage-­bound screen. And soon there were intellectuals to rational­ize the preferences of the rowdies with analyses of Sennett’s kinetic qualities. When Luis Buñuel was writing film criti­cism in the late ’20s, he indicated that he preferred the cine­ma of Buster Keaton to the cinema of Emil Jannings. And this was a daring judgment even for a certified surrealist.

Almost all cultism, be it seminal or terminal, requires an attitude of critical defiance. In embracing the post-midnight outrages of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, its followers im­plicitly or explicitly reject the relative conventionality of most pre-midnight film fare. The big difference between seminal and terminal cultism, however, is that the former tries to de­velop a sense of historical continuity whereas the latter revels in the orgasmic uniqueness of the particular occasion. Semi­nal cultism involves evaluation as well as elucidation. The good must still be sifted from the bad in the realm of aesthet­ics. Terminal cultism eventually degenerates into mindlessly uncritical incantation as the distance diminishes between the dozing sensibility of the viewer and the illusory inevitability of the spectacle. The terminal cultist stops thinking in the name of today’s total absorption.

The critical cultivation of cult movies through the ’50s and ’60s spawned such categorical labels as pop, camp, noir, schlock, and sleaze. Unlike the condemnatory term “kitsch,” which assumed a high-art plateau from which one looked down on mass culture, the newer labels could be positive, negative or neutral. More important, there was an assumption in these labels that the subject was being studied in depth. To talk about schlock you had to immerse yourself in the output of the fleapits. And if you sat through a hundred or a thousand schlock movies you would eventually discover a few schlock classics. The dominant trend of film criticism and film scholarship since the late ’50s has been more ency­clopedic than exclusionary. The sociological critics who ruled the roost from the ’20s through the mid-’50s acknowledged the existence of a great many movies as relevant to their stud­ies. But once the cinesociologists had extrapolated the perti­nent social messages from their material they were no longer interested in most of these movies as art objects. They certainly did not counsel preservation of prints on any massive scale. Instead, they provided visions of an ideologically cor­rect cinema of the future. In the meantime, the archives could preserve Potemkin, and Mother, and The Bicycle Thief, and Grand Illusion, and Citizen Kane, and a Chaplin here and a Keaton there, and maybe a Griffith and a Dreyer, and not too much else.

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Within the past quarter-century, however, a new genera­tion of film critics have translated their mania for movies into very elaborate analytical methodologies. The Cahiers group were of course the most famous practitioners of the art of critical alchemy in finding gold in what had been designated by the culture at large as dross. But they were merely the most conspicuous of the revisionists, and not the sole au­thorities on revisionist criticism. What happened in one country after another was the discovery of pleasurable movie­going experiences that could not be accommodated within any existing critical doctrine. “Trash,” snorted the cultural establishment at such cult movies as The Searchers, Touch of Evil, Vertigo and Rio Bravo. Ford, Welles, Hitchcock, and Hawks no longer require a very strenuous defense against the short-sighted snobbery of the trash-criers. The battle-lines have shifted from the relatively respectable realms of westerns, policiers and psychological suspense thrillers to what were once considered the pestholes of poverty row. Roger Corman has been widely acclaimed as the Val Lewton of the ’60s and ’70s.

In the November-December issue of Film Comment, Todd McCarthy writes appreciatively and perceptively of Michael Miller for his direction of Jackson County Jail and Outside Chance, and Robin Wood continues in that same issue his en­thusiastic exegesis of Larry Cohen’s It Lives Again. These are obviously not the instances of the kind of rationalized cronyism one encounters in the slick pages of The New York­er, but, rather, genuinely cultish responses to completely unexpected moviegoing epiphanies. Like many of us, McCarthy and Wood discovered so much more in Jackson County Jail and It Lives Again than they had been led to ex­pect that they began tracking down the hitherto obscure careers of Michael Miller and Larry Cohen. This search led into the dark regions of hardcore porn (Miller’s Teen-Age Fantasies) and giddy socio-sexual satire (Cohen’s Bone). Such venturesome scholarship keeps us all on our toes by demon­strating that we never really know where talent is going to pop up next, and that we must keep an open mind at every screening. Too often, reviewers seem to be hypnotized by the sheer size of the hype in determining what is “important.” Cultish curiosity is therefore the best antidote to the indus­try’s front-running smugness.

Not that all cult favorites necessarily deserve to become classics. Quite the contrary, cultism must be debated as rig­orously as classicism. Still, it is a good rule of thumb for any­one seriously interested in the medium to check out another person’s enthusiasms. Don’t wait for a critical consensus to form around a film before you deign to see it. Rush off on your own, and maybe you can start your own cult. There is something magical and miraculous about movie-making that confounds all our expectations, positive and negative. And these are exciting times for movie cultists in that the lifting of censorship makes it possible for low-budget productions to be extraordinarily audacious at least on the level of content. The higher-than-ever costs of big-deal productions tend to make them more conservative and more conformist in the treatment of reality. The raucous sensationalism and sca­brousness of most schlock and sleaze is not an adequate substitute for the timidity of the “big pictures,” but at the very least there is a margin of dissent in toppling the taboos of “commercial” movie-making.

Like most of my co-religionists, I became a cultist when I found that the conventional criticism of my time failed to ad­dress itself to my profoundest pleasures. There was even a time when I was dismissed at screening rooms as an Ingmar Bergman freak. This was the period of Illicit Interlude, Moni­ka, The Naked Night, The Seventh Seal and Smiles of a Sum­mer Night, but Bosley Crowther had not yet given his benediction to Bergman, and that was all that mattered to the publicists around town. And who is to say that part of my pleasure in Bergman was not unabashedly erotic, and that Maj-Britt Nilsson, Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, and Eva Dahlbeck were not amatory axioms of the cinema? In­deed, I saw my first Bergman movies in houses now dedicated exclusively to hardcore pornography. There is now and always has been much more to Bergman than the artiness now associated with his graduation to the Bloomingdale’s Belt. To the cultist a movie is a movie is a movie, and one never knows in what soil a cinematic flower will bloom.

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The 25 Most Memorable Cult Films

The Big Heat. Fritz Lang, 1953. Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame in a Wagnerian policier, complete with scalding coffee.

Bigger Than Life. Nicholas Ray, 1956. James Mason takes cortisone and terrorizes his family with his megalomania.

Black Angel. Roy William Neill, 1946. Peter Lorre supplies the ratty elegance while Dan Duryea sacrifices himself to save June Vincent’s husband from the electric chair.

Detour. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945. Tom Neal picks up Ann Savage, a tough, vicious hitchhiker who makes him rue the day.

Forbidden Planet. Fred M. Wilcox, 1956. Remake of the Tempest, with Walter Pidgeon as a Freudian Prospero trying to fight off his Calibanish unconscious.

Forty Guns. Samuel Fuller, 1957. Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan in the most phallic western ever made.

Gun Crazy. Joseph H. Lewis, 1949. The precursor of Bon­nie and Clyde, with Peggy Cummins and John Dall.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Don Siegel, 1956. A classic fable of paranoia, in which Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter try to escape an alien race of pods who absorb people and look like you and me.

I Walked With a Zombie. Jacques Tourneur, 1943. Frances Dee does indeed walk with a zombie to a calyp­so beat in this most surprisingly graceful of all the Val Lewton horror films.

Kiss Me Deadly. Robert Aldrich, 1955. Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer follows the Spillane ethos to a new destination: atomic Armageddon.

Night of the Living Dead. George A. Romero, 1968. The very clumsiness of the acting adds to the horror of this cannibalistic zombie adventure.

Once Upon a Time in the West. Serge Leone, 1969. Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, and Jason Robards meet their destinies in an elaborately orchestrated gunfight.

The Pitfall. Andre de Toth, 1948. Dick Powell sends Li­zabeth Scott up the river and tries to repair his marriage to Jane Wyatt in one of the sorriest endings in Holly­wood history.

Ride the High Country. Sam Peckinpah, 1962. Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott fight their last gunfight against punks who represent the new West.

Rio Bravo. Howard Hawks, 1959. John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson and Walter Brennan become axioms for the French critics in this almost absurdist western which might have been titled, “Waiting for the Marshal.”

Ruby Gentry. King Vidor, 1953. Jennifer Jones and Charleston Heston are caught in the wild sensuality of sin and redemption.

The Searchers. John Ford, 1956. A new generation of di­rectors has been inspired by John Wayne’s vengeful quest for a lost niece in Comanche country.

Seven Men From Now. Budd Boetticher, 1956. Randolph Scott and a hanging tree in an allegorical western that moved Andre Bazin to admiration.

The Shanghai Gesture. Joseph Von Sternberg, 1941. Gene Tierney and Victor Mature exude the laid-back decadence of the drug scene long before Hollywood could acknowledge it.

Silver Lode. Allan Dwan, 1954. An astonishing anti­-McCarthyism western with a confrontation between John Payne and Dan Duryea.

Summer Storm. Douglas Sirk, 1944. George Sanders and Linda Darnell drifting to their destruction in the best Hollywood adaptation of a Chekhov story.

Touch of Evil. Orson Welles, 1958. Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, and Marlene Dietrich are meshed in an atmosphere larger than life: corruption.

The Uninvited. Lewis Allen, 1944. The Casablanca of Hollywood ghost movies, with Gail Russell as intended victim.

Vertigo. Alfred Hitchcock, 1958. James Stewart enraptured by Kim Novak in a definitive study of romantic obsession.

Wicked Woman. Russell Rouse, 1954. My own all-time schlock favorite, particularly when pig-like Percy Hel­ton is running his slobbering lips up the arm of wonder­fully lurid Beverly Michaels.

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Harvey Milk: Homophobic Homicide

“We know what killed Harvey Milk,” said a young man in a bomber jacket at 18th and Castro, the center of gay San Francisco. “It was just plain, old-fashioned homophobia.”

That was the feeling in the gay community when it learned that the nation’s only openly gay city official had been shot dead, allegedly by the city’s most anti-gay official.

Harvey Milk was no ordinary supervisor to his constituents in the Castro area. During his years as a camera shop owner on Castro Street, the democrat from Woodmere, Long Island, became known as the gay communi­ty’s unofficial mayor. Early races for supervi­sor in 1973 and 1975 proved unsuccessful, but Milk gathered strong grass-roots support among unionists and other minority group members to win a landslide victory last year.

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He was an outspoken leader of the Board of Supervisors’ most liberal members. That made him the political nemesis of the board’s most outspoken conservative, Dan White. Milk was a Jewish, former Wall Street broker, fond of describing himself as a “left winger, a street person.” White represented a heavily blue-collar district and was proud of his background as a member of the San Francisco police and fire departments. In March, White was the only member of the Board of Supervisors to vote against the city’s broad gay civil rights ordinance. In October, he cast the only vote against closing Polk Street for the city’s annual Halloween party.

San Francisco’s gays shed few tears when White resigned from the board for financial reasons on November 10. When he decided to withdraw his resignation days later, Milk was among many liberals who successfully urged Mayor Moscone not to re-appoint White to the seat. Moscone was to announce the new supervisor just minutes after his final meeting with White. After allegedly shooting Moscone in his office, White went to the supervisors’ offices, where he allegedly shot Milk.

Though the acting mayor, Diane Fein­stein, will undoubtedly appoint another gay supervisor from the Castro area, it will be hard to find a politico with the substantial support outside the gay community that Milk had cultivated. Knots of stunned and somber people gathered around sold-out newsstands to look at the extra editions that described the shootings. Said one young man bitterly, “You just can’t do a thing like this without somebody doing something back.” ■