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Big Daddy Kane: The AfraKane King

On Big Daddy Kane’s record cover, three Nubian hand­ maidens in a regal, Greco-Ro­man fantasy tend to the every wish of the Cameoed King. Long Live the Kane (Cold Chillin’) one whispers as she leans over his shoulder, proffering a goblet of Calvin Cooler. Pause, then flip over this bad, blood-filled, basement-party album. Centuries later, Kane plays a game of Trouble in a Brooklyn living room with Mad Money Murf, while the same unnamed virgin looks on. DJ Mister Cee rests, dreaming of another master plan or mix. Dancer/rapper/barber Scoob Lover, dancer Scrap Lover, and a teddy bear chill.

A historically-hushed rift is implied by these two images. Between ancient Afra­kan vivacity—ripped off and up by un­educated Greeks and post-their-Renais­sance Europeans—and modern-day African-American samo-samo lies a chasm of truth, one that opens long ago near the Grand Lodge in Luxor, Egypt. As George G. M. James reveals in Stolen Legacy, as Martin Bernal expounds in Black Athena, and as Kane alludes in the exultant “Word to the Mother (Land),” Luxor is where Socrates saw the words “Man Know Thyself,” then bit ’em, sure that they’d work great as a slogan back home. He was right.

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The rift widens. Much gold around a king’s neck might hint at Luxor’s heyday, at Kane’s revision of the Staple Singers’ warm, wet, free-at-last Utopia (also called “I’ll Take You There”), or of the great Kankan Musa. Tells historian Maulana Karenga, this Malian mansa, or emperor, left on a yearlong pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, taking along 60,000 baggage men, royal secretaries, soldiers, and Black ur­ban professionals. Passing through Cairo with these, 80 to 100 camel loads of gold dust, and a generous attitude, he gave away so much gold that its Egyptian price was depressed for the next 12 years.

Yup. Kane’s fat gold ropes might re­mind you of Mansa Musa from Mali. Then again, they might just remind you that DeBeers/Botha break Black backs with demonic regularity in South African mines. Today, the hoops and dookies are cold sold for a king’s ransom, not given away, in stores with door buzzers and inch-thick glass. So, Big Daddy—where you at? Past, present, or Black to the future? Are you the ruler of old on the album’s front, your toplofty tone most domi­nant in “Long Live the Kane,” or an around-the-­way on the back, endear­ingly dope in “On the Bugged Tip,” lovestruck and longing on “The Day You’re Mine”?

What he is is a point-­blank African-American, complete with the requi­site wish list. Kane supports Minister Farrakhan and the fact of Afrakan historical primacy, though crit­ics still fiending for Public Enemy’s warm jockstraps, Rakim’s glowing brilliance, or acid house probably haven’t noticed. Kane plays the riffs and rifts well (Afra­kan or American? Gold trunk jewelry or Black rule in South Africa? Light skin or dark? B’klyn or anybody else?) over an original music made from scraps of origi­nal music. Five-Percenter self-sufficiency gets with Roy Rogers, Gucci, and Kel­logg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes, and it all comes to a head. In 1988 Blackland, drug dealers are arbiters of taste, and We, descendants of Afrakan kmgs and queens (but lacking diplomatic immunity), are target practice for the 5-O. For Kane, as for James Brown, Hendrix, Coltrane, Beethoven (Black, caucasianized for the record), and other new music makers, here the future of music (dope) meets Black life’s particularly present-day dick­-downs (dog food).

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“I wanna get into my thing!” Kane quoted one June night at the Apollo. “Can I get into my thing? MOVIN’? GROOVIN’?” Then, as Scoob ‘n’ Scrap twisted, shook, and folded their unfailing­ly limbered physiques, the Microphone Lord dropped a brand new bomb and “Set It Off,” popping pailfuls of pentametrical poetry, knotting together metrical foots trochaic and trisyllabic. The crowd searched hard for their minds, hyped by this smooth ‘n’ sweaty show­man’s versificatory variations. If Rakim flows, Chuck D jump-cuts, and KRS ONE conversates, then Kane blurs. He’ll race, as he does on the upcoming, rabid “Wrath of Kane,” or he’ll rhyme like he wrote the lyrics out on a chalkboard, smeared the words with an eraser, then said that. His tone is teeth-sucking, like a brother sounds when he’s about to wax the behind of some recalcitrant bass­kicker. “You don’t want none o’ this!” Kane insists on “Set It Off,” right before one of his velvet-gloved beat-downs—hyperbolic, discombobulating, gentlemanly assaults so swift you don’t realize you’ve been insulted ’til much later (“Get you a nurse … too late! Get you a hearse!”). Nobody’s spared, with “Raw,” muscular rhetoric front to back. “Shut the fuck up,” Kane snorts mock-pissedly on “Mis­ter Cee’s Master Plan” when his DJ gets mike-happy. From “Half-Steppin'”: “I grab the mike and make MCs evapor­ate/The party people say, ‘Damn, that rapper’s great!'” Spoken wistfully over producer Marley Marl’s odd, dreamy, butt-swingin’ groove, the boast comes off as a most sublime mastery of understatement.

Big Daddy Kane, the man who would be king, is, in a way, hip-hop’s most nor­mal, gimmickless artist. That is, if L.L. Cool J was state-of-the-art in 1987, Kane’s the same in ’88. Not to say at all that L. is outta here, y’all, but yo: If he ever takes off the Kangol, there best be a Hi-Lo below.

P.S. Editor Marty Gottlieb & Co. say: “Doesn’t being thanked on the back of Kane’s album affect your critical credibil­ity, Harry?” I’m not a critic. I’m a brother who speaks the people’s truths on their terms, and I’m thanked for that. My credibility? Most intact. ❖

Big Daddy Kane will be at the Apollo November 18.

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

Wild in the Clubs: Sex Makes a Comeback

THREE YEARS AGO, the fabulous 5000 woke up to invites beckoning them to Palladium paja­ma parties (bring your own teddy bear), Area science fiction salutes, and Limelight “Down­town Divas” musical re­vues of cabaret singers and chanteuses singing songs like “Since I Fell for You” and “It’s Only Make Believe.” Today, they’re warmly in­vited to stripathons, fetish balls, “All-­Male Emporiums of Flesh and Fantasy” (with “realistic streetcorner action!”), and Lady Hennessy Brown squirting milk from her capacious ta-tas.

A slight change of mood? Tell me about it. Was it only two years ago that fools in little black dresses started lining up at Nell’s for the privilege of being snubbed by other fools in slightly more expensive little black dresses? Now the air is so charged with sexual shock that Karen Finley’s “Ooh, and I never touch her snatch ’cause she’s my granny”  — so em­barrassing to some in ’85 — is just a narra­tive slice-of-life, about as scandalous as a Shari Lewis and Lambchop routine.

All through the clubs, the air is tingling with a raunchiness that’s exciting as a subliminal force, but can turn creepy at the drop of a trou. The yearning masses who can’t have the sex they want because of AIDS come together at night and com­bust in a mood of horny suggestiveness, releasing all that frustrated energy in the ways that spring to mind through a vod­ka haze.

The club crowd — a young, creative mix of gays and straights with varying degrees of racial and cultural crossover — is start­ing to rebel against repression with little explosions of drunken, guilt-free pleasure. Compared to the wildness of past eras — ­like the revolutionary risk-taking of ’70s hedonism — the current stuff may seem tepid, since it’s usually trapped within late ’80s limitations of health and hygiene. But bubbling out from a funda­mentally traumatized club scene that as­sumed AIDS would end sex forever, it’s a rude reawakening.

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AIDS initially made all sex seem lethal, or at best joyless, and among many gays a kind of trench-warfare mentality set in­ — keep your head down till it’s over. Now that it’s been accepted that AIDS isn’t going to be over any time soon, some sort of sex is inevitably making a comeback. This comeback is fueled by the fact that a lot of straights are — not advisedly — convinced AIDS is staying within certain high-risk groups, so they can have any sex any way. With both safe and unsafe sex on the rise, ’89 promises to be the biggest year for libido in ages.

In this spirit, Rudolf’s new version of Danceteria, probably called Mars, opens this month to cater to unruly energy, and Frank Roccio’s Lift Up Your Skirt and Fly will soon surface as a nouveau plea­sure dome. “The AIDS epidemic really damaged people’s perception of not only sexuality, but sensuality,” Roccio, co­-owner of the World, told the Times re­cently, “and this will be a place where we can express that again, where you can come with your girlfriend or date or with whomever you feel safe.” The skirts are already lifted — it’s takeoff time.

Roccio talks as if AIDS were a thing of the past. But what he says reflects peo­ple’s sense — accurate or not — that the threat seems measurable now and not total. This point of view can be air-head­ed and grossly selfish (what, me worry?), but being “sex-positive” — pro-sex, as long as it’s safe — is something few AIDS activists would oppose (though they might argue with Roccio’s failure to put condom dispensers in the World’s bathrooms). As both straights and gays change their sexual attitudes, they’re fur­ther blurring the lines of gender and pref­erence: all kinds cheer for male and fe­male strippers with typical pansexuality. September’s ACT UP benefit at the World had porn star Robin Byrd present­ing semi-nudes of both sexes even though the audience was predominantly gay. Horniness is a great leveler.

It’s also a big draw. Susanne Bartsch’s Wednesday night club at Bentley’s is a tacky, ’70s disco version of a Berlin caba­ret, with acts like Lady Hennessy Brown; a troupe of obese sadomasochists; or Chi Chi, who blows smoke rings out of her vagina, titillating a crowd that’s always wearing either far too much or far too little. Larry Tee’s Celebrity Club, which took place every Wednesday at the Tun­nel and will probably resume at Mars, had a wet T-shirt contest that invariably resulted in some kind of lynch mob-style sexual assault, often provoked and en­joyed. Dean Johnson’s Rock’n’Roll Fag Bar at the World on Tuesdays not only has those BVD’d go-go boys strutting, posing, and playfully interacting onstage, there’s a new “Testosteroom” for J/O ac­tion if the boys get customers so hot and bothered they need a quick release.

Sometimes these scenes are hot and uninhibited and oh-so-playfully naïve. But there can be darker elements as well — undercurrents of rage and despair. And, whether charming or alarming, what we have here is inchoate rebellion. The return of wildness to the clubs is a reaction against repression.

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In America ’88, practically everyone to the left of Donald Trump feels a little helpless, with Bush’s election seeming to ratify the repression and malign neglect of the last eight years. Whether we drown in acid rain or shrivel under the newly cancerous rays shining through that gap­ing hole in the ozone layer, the boys at the top are too busy playing with $500 million fighter planes to pay much atten­tion to either problem. No one in charge is doing much about AIDS either, though a lot of homophobes are seizing on it as a chance to gay-bash. (Witness the rants of such disparate horse’s asses as radio “personality” Howard Stern, alleged po­litical columnist Patrick Buchanan, and supposed comedian Sam Kinison.)

Faced with the bleakness of the future, Americans seem willing to settle for tem­porary promises and inevitable long-­range dismay. Selling their tomorrows down the river translates into a subterra­nean anxiety that festers more and more scarily as each nightmare comes true. With everything going to hell, an “I’m gonna get mine while I can” mentality has come out in people — and the Repub­lican regime caters to this by promising to institutionalize selfishness, both do­mestically and internationally. In the process, they’ve institutionalized some­thing else — hypocrisy. We’ve had eight years of “Just say no” from people who don’t seem to have said no to anything in their lives (the possibility of putting Dan “Buy it for me, Daddy” Quayle in charge of the so-called war on drugs epitomized this).

It’s in the face of such hypocrisy that frustration has evolved into overt anger. A couple of enthusiastic partiers recently paid tribute to El Morocco — which is courting a younger crowd now, but is still a symbol of old society — by swinging from the chandelier and hurling a heavy, standing ashtray down the stairs. They were tossed out the door just as rudely as they’d flung the ashtray, but they’ll make it back — one of them had a burn-victim mask on and was unrecognizable. Of course, a mild trashing of El Morocco has its metaphorical possibilities — a gesture against elitism, a refusal to be wooed by tradition. But occasionally, things get a lot uglier. Unshaped by any coherent pur­pose (or, sometimes, even the most basic info), rebellion can turn into the thing it’s rebelling against.

THE SCENE NOW is one of club kids who don’t even have a “fuck the rules” men­tality — they don’t know any rules to fuck. Bursting with ignorant energy, willing to try anything in the name of a good time, they traipse around in their BVDs (the girls) or bras (the boys), squirting each other with Silly String, pathologically in search of fun. They manage to combine a youthful, energetic wholesomeness with a jaded sense of decadence, as typified by their major domo, 22-year-old Michael Alig. Alig’s birthday party last April at Tunnel featured a Mickey Mouse “moon­walk” — a giant trampoline-like air mat­tress — on which scores of kids gleefully bounced as if in Disneyland. But one of his other prize events was a Child Por­nography Ring party. He’s a walking par­adox of glad-handing hostility — giving you a big hello as part of his networking agenda, then pulling you down a stairway into a pool that just happens to be there.

Like him, the club kids are defiant, but mostly against whatever stands in the way of a fun evening or some free publici­ty. They’re also largely unconcerned with sexual definition. If many of them are gay, that’s partly for lack of the gay-disco scene young people came out into 10 years ago; today they enter the mixed world of clubs, where eccentricity is king, regardless of gender or sexual leanings. Their mentors are pleasure-seeking, mid­dle-aged entrepreneurs juggling 17-year­-old glamour-babe girlfriends and, when the kids complain about having to pay $5 to get into an AIDS benefit, ultimately deciding it’s wise to “pamper” (i.e., comp) them, because they’re just so “fabulous,” moral flaws and all.

The kids come from everywhere, from Soviet Georgia to Atlanta, Georgia, many living with their parents — or “backers,” as they like to call them — others living in apartments they pay for themselves by throwing parties for other club kids (owners pay fees of $500 to $1200 a night for this). Asked what they want to be when they grow up, they all answer, “Famous,” and they consider clubs cabaret show­cases by which to get there.

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For all the charged-up atmosphere, the kids are more likely to be narcissistic voyeurs and exhibitionists than ’60s-style orgiasts. Wearing Plexiglas hats that an­nounce their names in shiny letters, they’ve been described as being too “fab­ulous” to have sex — even if it weren’t for AIDS, there’s the equally debilitating threat that it might mess their makeup. But voyeurism isn’t messy, and so sex has become a public spectacle, self-consciously devoured by masses who are afraid to join in and not just because of stage fright. A scarce commodity, it’s gone from something people go to clubs to find to something people go to clubs to see. There’s so little sex to go around now, that whenever anyone has the nerve to have it, it makes sense to share it with hundreds.

The club scene is one of girls who­ — when they’re not wearing retro undies, garter belts, and other archaic sexwear that’s a bondage-freak’s delight — lie top­less on tables for photographer Stephan Lupino, who three years ago had to promise his firstborn to get people to strip, but now merely holds up his camera and waits for the C-cups to fly. It’s one of a 40-year-old store clerk succumbing to the club-kid spell, suddenly flouncing around VIP rooms in a Frederick’s of Hollywood G-string with an elephant trunk sprouting from the crotch. It’s one of a boy who recently ran through the World wearing next-to-nothing and screaming, “Look at me.” When a pro­moter approached him with an offer to get paddled onstage for $50, the kid jumped at the chance — a big break!

Meanwhile, the new sobriety continues to be just a hype, at least in clubland. The drug of choice is Ecstasy (MDMA), a euphoric, mild hallucinogen related to the MDA of the ’60s. “Every single person is doing Ecstasy,” says Alig, only a bit hy­perbolically. “The little kids are scraping every penny to find $20 to get it. It’s really aggravating when a club like Blood­bath has to close because all those kids are so cheap, but I see them inside buying eight hits of Ecstasy off whoever.”

The kids don’t do much coke — it’s ex­pensive, and besides, says Alig, “It brings Ecstasy down, so you want to stay away from that evil scourge.” They don’t do crack, either, Alig explains with his typi­cal elegance of thought and expression, “because it’s dirty and gross and only gross Puerto Ricans do it. It’s not fabu­lous. Ecstasy — even the name sounds fabulous. People don’t go around saying, ‘Eew, you’re an Ecstasy addict.’ ” But they do Essence, a new form of Ecstasy that costs two dollars more and is there­fore two dollars more desirable. Someone not on drugs walking into Save the Ro­bots can’t help feeling a bit like the only person not in on the punchline of a gigan­tic, communal joke.

The clubs wisely not only tolerate this sex-and-substance-charged frenzy, they throw events that cater to it. Two clubs have had Ecstasy parties recently, at one of which the kids lined up and demanded the promised goods, screaming “Ex, ex, ex!” like deranged halftime cheerleaders.

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But mostly it’s the libido being catered to with innovative eagerness. Practically every night at the World seems designed to capitalize on unfulfilled sex drives. A dirty dancing contest had a cigarette girl cavorting onstage with three boys be­tween her legs and one shamelessly work­ing the rest of her body. She won. More was being suggested here than actually happened, but occasionally real, caution-­to-the-winds sex breaks out in the middle of the scene anyway, because people real­ly are starved for it.

The club’s Lust party — a Sunday night gay fete which was only supposed to fea­ture two paid strippers posing onstage — ­turned into a wet dream come true as one stripper spontaneously started sucking the other one’s cock during a photo ses­sion in the club office. Within millisec­onds, there was a drooling audience, not to mention a Playguy magazine photogra­pher already in place with full lighting equipment. This was not going to be just a two-character production, though. A feisty, male Anita Baker lookalike promptly got naked and joined in the festivities whether they wanted him to or not, acting like a suckerfish with any­thing he could get his mouth on. A hunched-over guy near the heat of the action, meanwhile, was anxiously scruti­nizing this scene and panting with voy­euristic delight. “Get in there,” someone said jokingly, and, amazingly, he stripped down without so much as a second’s thought and did just that. From then on, you merely had to say “next” to attract a new customer and “timber” to watch an old one tumble. Overwhelmed and over­worked, the Anita Baker guy fell over and passed out, but someone threw a lame blanket over him — he may have been dead for all they knew, but hell, the show must go on.

True, it almost didn’t; it was a panicky moment when all the spontaneous com­bustion was spent and the sofa/stage emptied out, devoid of a second act. But Barnum — or at least Al Goldstein­ — would have been proud as the promoter and company coaxed a couple of pretty boy lovers standing around to start in by promising them free drinks and club star­dom. Another opening, another show.

And such performers they were! Lover one blew lover two, who hid his face with his hand, before all coyness went out the window and he started doing other things with his hand. When he came — outside his partner’s mouth — it got another hand (the crowd applauded). Anita Baker, somehow, was up and (after having apparently peed all over the lamé) getting a blow job in another corner of the room, but few noticed. All eyes were on another climax — a gay activist who was jerking off as the entire room counted down his blast-off, cheering the big moment as if it were the popping of a champagne cork on the stroke of New Year’s. “That was al­ways my fantasy,” he said, on leaving. “I have no regrets.”

Stuff like this, of course, used to hap­pen nightly in discos and in backrooms — ­darkened, pre-health-crisis clubs, where gays forged a new sexuality with commu­nal abandon. At the Mine Shaft in the ’70s, dozens gathered around the infa­mous sling to watch people get fist­fucked. In the balcony of the Saint, they push, push, pushed on the beat into ev­erything the disco song instructed them to. But except for a few hidden bastions of anonymous sex, that scene now exists only in transmogrified form in the safe sex clubs, the gay community’s conscious effort to resolve the need for sex with the need to survive. The rules at such places are the same as in the ’70s, except one­ — keep it safe.

The orgy may have broken the rules­ — whether oral sex is high- or low-risk is the subject of, well, hot debate. No one came in anyone’s mouth, and the big no-­no, unprotected anal sex, didn’t even come close to happening. But someone could probably deliver a sermon on the perils of pre-cum and gingivitis. When the rules break, it’s for any number of reasons: people are uneducated; they don’t buy the rules; they feel invulnera­ble; they feel doomed; they feel the risk is worth it; or the world is going to end anyway (the place, not the club). Ratio­nality and the pleasure principle have little to do with one another. Pushed down, tucked away, sex is popping back in brightly lit public places where it’s not supposed to be happening, out of the sheer force of inevitability; it’s Freud’s return of the repressed.

The Lust party, thrown by promoter Chip Duckett, was the second of a series of Seven Deadly Sin events (Brecht and Weill, anyone?). The series also included Gluttony, at which madcap partiers nib­bled and toyed with hundreds of obscene­ly sweet Sno-Balls, and Greed, at which a thousand dollars in singles was thrown from the balcony to a frantic crowd of money-worshippers. “You want food, sex, and money?” these parties seem to say. “Well, we’ll give them to you — but you’ve got to crawl for them.” Downtowners will eagerly do this as a spoof on Gekko-era greed — plus they need the money.

The Susanne Bartsch approach is less participatory and more esoteric — her au­dience doesn’t squirt milk, her star at­traction does — but it’s still very much a group experience, a shared exercise in pushing the limits. Instead of the straightforward musical talent of a few years ago, Bartsch is proud to present Lady Hennessy Brown with her legs wrapped behind her ears, stroking her thighs and privates with fiery torches (don’t try this at home, kids), and shoot­ing milk out of her tits at the clubbies, as if they were so many hungry kittens. (“A lot of men are offended when I squirt them in the face,” says Hennessy, “but most people love it.”)

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A trained dancer, Brown changed ca­reer course several years ago because “the nightclub crowd wasn’t receptive to the modern dancing technique. I had to make the switch to exotic.” The Bentley’s crowd is very receptive to exotic. Bartsch sets the mood with her blinding array of temporary tattoos, her Bo-Peep-gone­-berserk plethora of extensions, her mad­deningly loud whistle, and her scantily clad young boyfriend Ty Bassett, who’s the ultimate attention-getting accessory. (“When I first met him in Coney Island, I thought, ‘He’s a girl,'” she says, admit­ting she later changed her mind.)

The 37-year-old Swiss miss made the consoling leap into nightlife when she fell out with the backers of her Soho bou­tique — a marble marvel in which she showcased the work of Leigh Bowery, Bodymap, and her other favorite up-and­-coming British designers. Bartsch went from throwing Tuesdays at Savage — a retro disco, mirrored balls and all — to throwing Wednesdays at Bentley’s — a ret­ro disco with mirrored balls and a Bentley — always making a point of excess and exuberance, the opposite of the pseudo­-Victorian constipation that was threaten­ing to stifle New York nightlife. Being cool at Nell’s and M.K. had an all too literal meaning — no sex, please, we’re skittish (even on M.K.’s canopied bed). In Bartsch’s clubs, people are encouraged to scream, dance, rub each other, and make utter idiots of themselves in the pursuit of laughs. (Nell, never one to miss a trend, has lately taken to wearing Bartsch-style bodices and Voguing on tables.)

Regular folk who just happen to have an affinity for form-fitting attire, Bartsch and Bassett, like the club kids, combine wholesome warmth with sleazebag razzle­dazzle. Their employees and customers suit them well. Sequined and boa’d drag queens, oiled bodybuilders, and other col­orful, poised-on-the-brink, painted side­show escapees are the core crowd (and made for a dazzling, but totally redun­dant, Bartsch Halloween party at another sprawling disco, Emerald City). A fun-­loving bunch of young, often foreign de­signers, DJs, fashion victims, and lip-sync artists, they attract a large crowd of colorless but open-minded yups and bridge-and-tunnelers who revel in their manic style. Many of the Bentley’s core crowd are filled with anxiety about their place in the body politic, but even more don’t seem aware that there’s anything to be anxious about. The unaware ones just want to party to the max, seeing that it’s the frantic, fashionable thing to do. The others party harder with the sense that in America ’88, they’re being pushed off the map, and every moment brings them closer to the edge. But as with Bartsch, their trashiness is a surface display; in­stead of doing It, the crowd watches It, cheers It, and wears It, making themselves as sexually extreme-looking as pos­sible, either to-die-for or drop-dead ab­surd.

“I think I’m wholesome,” says Bartsch. “I just love letting go, it’s an important form of relaxation. I loved at the Copa [where Bartsch throws last-Thursday-of-­every-month parties] when Anthony Haden-Guest was go-go dancing forever on the go-go box, and Richard Johnson was dancing all night — he told me he hadn’t danced for 20 years. They let their hair down, and I’m so happy that I’m the place where they can do that.” She’s brought stripping to her clubs, she says, because, “I go to the Gaiety sometimes, and it’s so sleazy — you have to watch some old wanker jerk off, and it’s such a shame. It’s good to take sex out of the sleazy surroundings and put it in a trendy place where it’s also about watching bod­ies, but not for you to have a wank. Of course watching has become more impor­tant because doing has to be much more thought-out now. But that’s not the rea­son I brought stripping. I did it because some of these strippers are just so genius. I admire their courage to take off their clothes and say, ‘Look at my gorgeous cock, or ass.’ It’s an art form.”

Hennessy herself is, for all her shock value, supremely wholesome, the very im­age of nourishment. She told me she couldn’t show her mother my column de­scribing her act because the word dick was in another paragraph. The woman­ — a six-foot-one black Amazon goddess — is an endless fount. “I’ve lactated for 19 years,” she claims. “My well never dries up. It diminishes sometimes — like I’m not going to have a full supply to squirt tonight because I’ve been doing doubles [playing two clubs a night]. But I’ve just continued to flow all these years.” The mini-interview comes to an end when Hennessy asks, “Is there pay in this?” “No,” I say, “but it’s a big story.” “It would be even bigger if there was pay in it,” she seethes.

While Bartsch is play-acting as a dress-­up-and-explode club kid, the other sex-­cabaret ringmaster, Alig, is the real deal. Bartsch, for all her surface wildness, is a diplomatic businesswoman who frets whenever she thinks she may have acci­dentally hurt someone’s feelings. But Alig and the kids would be mad if they didn’t offend someone. They bring to the sur­face everything Bartsch is too good-na­tured to acknowledge — anxiety, fear, and hostility. Self-conscious, alienated voy­eurs, their constant freaking-out state cancels out any possible innocence. Let’s face it: with an unsafe-sex guillotine hanging over your head at all times, truly instinctive or childlike behavior isn’t a possibility, no matter how young you are. Sexual repression has fast-forwarded the club kids into adulthood, and they’ve re­sponded by turning it into a three-ring circus of escapist sexual entertainment.

Alig, who got his club start stripping for dollars and went on to throw Dirty Mouth contests, where the filthiest talk­ers won cash prizes, looks fondly back on that Child Pornography Ring party at the old Danceteria (he plans to recreate it at the new one, where he’ll be assistant di­rector). “You’ve seen them around, now you can buy them real cheap,” read the invite, which featured Alig tied up with five kids. “Yes, folks, where else but New York City can you place a price-tag on human beings? These fine, healthy, YOUNG souls will be auctioned off to the highest bidder to do with as you please.” At the party, people were able to buy dates with 16-year-olds with play money, the kids getting $50 from Alig to go through with the dates. “There was noth­ing illegal about it,” he says. “I was pay­ing the kids to go out with somebody else — that’s not prostitution. Of course I got paid by the club for throwing the event.” Alig is a master exploiter, but no more so than Ronald Reagan, whose ad­ministration relentlessly whittled away at various forms of aid to dependent chil­dren (there haven’t been so many home­less kids since the Depression), while cranking up public hysteria over their sexual exploitation. Alig, in his own jaded way, is trying to make fun of hypocrisy rule while desperately trying just to make fun.

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He was also one of the people behind Celebrity Club, which almost always went out of control, to the delight of many. The feeling in the air was always of a bored restlessness that the crowd would take to any extreme for some kicks. One night, Eve Teitelbaum, a poet, asked if she could just step across the stage for a second. They were the sorriest words she’d ever said, as the heat of the mo­ment sparked a pointless cat fight with the emcee, which turned even nastier as Teitelbaum was thrown to her knees and people flung shoes and other sharp things at her while Alig doused her with water. “She deserved it” was the popular consensus as Teitelbaum ran, sobbing, out of the club. “I can’t believe something like this would happen in the civilized world,” she said later, still burned.

The ugliest Celebrity Club came one night during the proverbial wet T-shirt contest — the peak of the evening, during which practically everyone seems willing to show his or her privates at the drop of a fly, and all the energy combust into a big boom. This time, a girl went from being pleasantly exhibitionistic to almost mass-violated. On the sweltering stage, in the glare of disco lights and hundreds of eyes, she started dancing and shimmying to the repetitive throb of house music, encouraged by the salivating crowd. “She was some dumb Jersey girl,” says Alig, “in tapered jeans with feathered, gross, brown hair. She got up onstage and people got carried away — she got carried away, literally. A lot of guys were grabbing at her until it wasn’t fun for her anymore. She started to say, ‘No, no, no’ over and over again. Of course that’s when everybody got interested and joined in. A few guys tried to fuck her in front of everybody. That’s when her boyfriend grabbed her and took her up the stairs naked.” This scene — like something out of The Accused — happened without any supervisor to put up even a feeble “No.” What about Alig? “I watched in horror,” he says. “I ran to get the security guards.” He’s joking. “Actually, I probably helped — not rape her, but push people away so they could get to her.”

On another night, Alig presented a T-­shirt winner with a bottle of cham­pagne — actually someone’s piss (he says it came from the drag duo Fashion Patrol; they say it was his) mixed with soda water for fizz. On yet another dazzling evening, one of the Fashion Patrol laid out a cat food buffet spread that everyone there assumed was paté, because, “There are a lot of illiterate people who will take for granted that they know what they’re eating.” This is the same pair that sang “Teenage Enema Nurse” and enacted the birthing process for their pre-Labor Day party. They’re also known for regularly mock-penetrating themselves with blunt objects, and recently caused quite a scene when they stole a bassinet with a type­writer in it from a street vendor, who ran after them with a chain screaming, “I’m going to get you fuckers.” In an upcoming movie called Strung City, one of them­ — Brandywine — gets chased by an old man wielding a huge wax dildo. “You have to create your own excitement,” explains Brenda A-Go-Go, the other one. “Club-­goers are coming there for a show anyway. I wouldn’t want to go somewhere and not see some sort of decadence — it helps the night go by.”

AMAZINGLY, and not a moment too soon, the clubbies are developing some sense of outrage, if not exactly what you could call a social conscience. What it is, in a historical sense, is nihilism. An edi­torial in the new issue of Project X, a club handout, reflects a kind of hyperreal paranoia that’s both mocking and grimly sincere. Politically, if not grammatically, correct, it laments that “Everything will move backwards very fast from now on, and you, wether you think it’s cool or not, you are going to be envolved.” The edito­rial notes that in the future, “Secret po­licemen, Undercover Agents, CIA min­ions and Neo-Guardian Angels may forcefully O-D undesirable people to in­crease drug-hysteria in the american press.”

Another editorial, by Alig, urges the kids to fight for their right to party and be different. To him, the fight is another act of spitting in the face of authority, done because it’ll help keep the party going. Alig was in the mass of people trying to break down the Christodora Building entrance during the Tompkins Square Park fracas last summer. But though he admits “it was a fun scene,” that’s not the only reason he got in­volved. “I’m all for the freaks,” he ex­plains. “I didn’t like the idea that the rich people were moving in and making the freaks leave. Those are the people who go to my clubs.”

Alig smirks that he wants to throw events at the new Danceteria where he’ll show partiers films of the police harass­ing gays and other minorities, “and then set them free in the streets to do vio­lence.” Though he once threw a party to which only HIV-negative people were in­vited (just his little joke, ha-ha), Alig has recently made noises in the direction of gay activism. It seems he was verbally abused by homophobic cops at a Tunnel raid, an event that startled him into an apotheosis he related to two daily papers.

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“People are so blasé and lazy,” he whines. “They don’t want to go out and pillage and burn police cars anymore.” Nostalgia for a more political time — or just for bigger and better thrills? Can the club kids tell the difference? Only know­ing the new craziness, they imagine that it was even wilder in the past. “That went on at Studio 54, didn’t it?” says Alig, meaning constant stripping and groping. No, dear, it didn’t. The ’70s sensuality was much more affluent and ap­proved, more of an anything-goes-be­cause-it-can than because-it-can’t. People didn’t wear underwear at all then; it just got in the way of the fun. Parts of the decor dropped hydraulically around them; they didn’t have to throw them down stairs. The only milk squirted was into a glass of Kahlua. The champagne was actually champagne.

In the last years of the Weimar Repub­lic, as the Nazis rose to power and a sense of panic and doom spread through the ranks of the socially marginal, a frenzied, anxious hedonism took over as well. To­day, society has its disposables, too, the multiracial, multisexual nonrich, who have no choice but to alternately fight for their lives and to go wild, to party out of control in a pressure cooker of fear and hostility. This mood is being nicely helped along by hate-mongers like Kini­son, who’s not all that different from Joel Grey dancing with the girl in the gorilla suit (yes, I studied at the Liza Minnelli school of German history).

The late-Weimar comparison may be stretching it — among other things, our economic mess is quite different from theirs — but closet alarmists like me are finding it hard to resist some parallels: a deceptive prosperity based on foreign funds; the rise of repression and censor­ship; the proliferation of teen suicides; the ostentatious flaunting of wealth by a handful of people as large numbers spiral toward poverty; the persecution of cer­tain minorities, who take the blame for all sorts of social woes. According to Pe­ter Gay’s Weimar Culture: The Outsider As Insider, the republic was also charac­terized by

excitement, in part from exuberant cre­ativity and experimentation, but much of it was anxiety, fear, a rising sense of doom … It was a precarious glory, a dance on the edge of a volcano. Weimar culture was the creation of outsiders, pro­pelled by history into the inside for a short, dizzying, fragile moment. 

Categories
From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Christmas Music: Reasons to Be Cheerful

Christmas music is the only pop genre that finds Renata Scotto, the Carpenters, the Gospel Keynotes, John Denver, Joan Baez, and the Drifters recording the same material. It’s the only genre that allows the ghosts of pop music past to resurface once a year and sit side-by-side with today’s new Christmas product as tacky reminders of the eternal. But as the music of the only national holiday with any meaning, the tensions it must contain have been heightened by Reagan’s advent. The family and is idealized as it collapses; both charity and greed coexist with interest rates that make either impossible; material abun­dance in a sputtering economy mixes with the subversive poverty of the nativity. Middle America yearns for a traditional national patriotic Christian culture that never existed. The best gifts come from Japan.

But I like Christmas music. I like the schlock and I like the religion. I like sen­timental innocence and I like trancing out on the same standards sung and resung. I’m charmed by pop music when it’s “try­ing to say more,” and I’m moved by the spirit.

The Beach Boys are my favorite group and so their old Christmas album is my favorite. It’s really pretty good — one side of reverential high-pop five-part harmony and one side of effortless low-pop early­-Brian-Wilson goofs. But you might have someone you like better whose version of “White Christmas” you prefer. Who’s to say? It’s hard to make a bad album when you’ve got such great material.

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But not impossible. Although there’s no definitive version of “Silent Night,” that doesn’t mean all versions of “Silent Night” are equally good. Some Christmas music has all the durability of last year’s elec­tronic game or kitchen appliance and all the emotional depth of Christmas at the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, Illinois, with the Ordinary People. It’s a time for celebration, but also for fly-by-­night rip-off quickies. So here, with what I sincerely hope is the right mix of Christian charity and obsessed consumerism, is a guide to some of the season’s better music:

Merle Haggard’s Christmas Present (Capitol). This was the record Willie Nelson was supposed to make and didn’t. While Nelson was breathing life and mean­ing back into pop oldies on Stardust and Over the Rainbow and doing likewise to old white gospel on Family Bible, he re­corded Pretty Paper, an unadorned and largely lackluster collection of chestnuts and carols. I guess it didn’t remind him of any roots. So who would have thought Haggard could be so moving singing “Sil­ver Bells”? But Merle sings the non-coun­try standards with the same cool convic­tion and authority he projects whenever he cares about the material. And reads the lyrics as if they have content, rather than with the middle-of-the-road reverence that defeats Christmas albums by Anne Murray, Emmylou Harris (excepting the bluegrass), the Carpenters, and (almost) Kenny Rogers (who gets high marks for letting his schlocky reach exceed his crossover grasp). Haggard’s other trick is the dispassionate down-but-not-out re­alism of his Christmas hit, “If We Make It Through December.” Christmas music often sentimentalizes poverty (cf. Rogers), but Haggard doesn’t So he earns the right to the sticky sentiments on his other com­positions, and so do we. Lefty Frizzell meets Bing Crosby. Better than both.

Merry Christmas-Feliz Navidad from Freddy Fender (ABC/Dot). One would think that country music, with its fearless corniness and good-hearted pathos, could easily penetrate to the heart of the season the way this album does. But I don’t know another country album as good as this one. One problem is that the season’s pop stan­dards are about cities in the 1940s up north — all that snow, all those violins. An­other is that the religious standards are largely northern mainstream Protestant rather-than Southern gospel. And upscale schlocky reverence is boring, not to men­tion contradictory — Charley Pride’s problem, and Slim Whitman’s too (although Slim gets the so-bad-it’s-good award.) Mickey Gilley comes closest to Freddy at reworking Christmas in a Texas context. But he’s not as crazy as cousin Jerry Lee (or Jimmy Swaggart), and so doesn’t really break through to the cosmic shallowness implied by Christmas at Gilley’s (his up­scale redneck Houston singles bar, site of Urban Cowboy), although it’s a concept worth contemplating.

Maybe it’s Freddy’s bilingual Tex-Mex distance which gives him the edge — a touch of folky authenticity. While we’re at it, let’s pause in the middle of this Anglo-­orgy to mention the large part of NYC celebrating Christmas en Espanol. Two re­cords worth checking out are Willie Colon, Asalto Navideno (salsa) and Felicidades en Navidad y Ana Nuevo con German Rosario (Puerto Rican country music, so to speak). At better record stores everywhere and thanks to Ramon Gonzalez-Sanchez for pointing them out.

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Traditional Christmas Carols, Pete Seeger (Folkways FAS 32311). It takes a Marxist New England WASP to remind us that carols are part of a folk tradition. That they rework Christian and pre-Chris­tian folk imagery about the meaning of life, not the meaning of respectability. The singing and banjo accompaniment here are as offhand as on something like Gazette, Vol II. That is, perfect. Simplicity, tradi­tion, intelligence, a little piety maybe, but no straight laces. These are ideas John Den­ver almost grasps on his two (!) Christmas Albums, but loses when he tries to sing those carols as if he can really hit all the notes on pitch. Sorry John, a little too much virtue, or is it inhibition? (Go out of your way to skip the one with the Muppets, unless someone five years old insists.) Joan Baez veers off for a wild ride with respect­ability on her by now oldie Christmas package. For true believers and sentimen­tal fools only. But Uncle Pete, on this hard-to-find, but in print LP, once again shows them what it’s all about.

Rhythm and Blues Christmas and The Twelve Hits of Christmas (United Artists). Anthologies, anthologies, anthologies. Christmas music has plenty of them, and most are pretty bad. Watch out for the country, soul, and gospels ones in particular. These two are done with care, sometimes hard to find, not discounted much, and really worth buying. After all, isn’t a record that follows Eartha Kitt with Gene Autry what Christmas is all about? The old Motown anthology floating around under various titles is worth a lis­ten, but it’s no way close to these. Ditto recent releases by the Whispers and the Tempts, and older ones from the Su­premes and Stevie Wonder.

The Sinatra Christmas Album (Capitol). Need a last-minute present for Dad? Go ahead, this one’s safe. After all, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is Sinatra’s song and the album is all of a piece. Nat King Cole’s is okay too, but this one has the same appeal as Merle Hag­gard’s — a realistic feel anchoring the sentiment. It’s not my music, but I hear regret and World War II here, and that makes the reassurance it projects more believable. It also makes me hope the record stores place this next to the country-crossing-over-to-­pop adult-contemporary middle-of-the­-road easy-listening Christmas albums, so those unsure middle-aged suburbanites can just reach for the real thing. Which ia not, by the way, any Christmas album with Frank’s face on it. Look for Capitol and “chorus and orchestra conducted by Gordon Jenkins.”

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Phil Spector’s Christmas Album a/k/a A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records. Christmas is schlocky and vulgar. Christmas is American. And Christmas was pre-rock pop until this album made Christmas rock and roll. I hate to admit it, but this does deserve its reputation. It’s exuberant and it holds together. Spector went after the schlock and the corniness and Spector won. And Christmas schlock is heavy. Christmas schlock is big. You can hear Elvis tangle with it, go 12 cuts, and get TKO’d on his Wonderful World of Christ­mas, perhaps the ultimate bad Elvis album. But one cavil amid the auteur ac­colades. The current reissue features Phil or a Phil lookalike in a Santa suit. The original pictured Darlene Love, the Crystals, the Ronettes, and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. Phil’s productions goes after and gets the drama of the schlock but it’s the sincere innocence of the singing that captures and holds the emotion as its core. Leon Russell and Sonny Bono were musicians on these sessions. Can you imagine it with them singing?

The Ventures Christmas Album (Liberty). The endless repetition of the music lends itself both to attempts at recapturing the feeling and to giving up altogether, to just enjoying the surfaces. My favorite in this vein plays a game of starting with a familiar intro riff, like the one from “Memphis” or “Tequila,” and then laying a Christmas classic over that. The poet’s job is to make it new, right? Also noteworthy are the Muzaky wit on Herb Alpert’s Christmas album (A&MJ and the easygoing disco reggae of Joe Gibbs Family Wish You a Merry Rockers Christmas (Joe Gibbs). Also John Fahey’s guitar noodling (Takoma). Notably failures — the Boston Pops, too dramatic this time around, sorry, and Both the Salsoul you-call-this-disco? washed out Christmas Jollies albums (and the 12-inch single). Grace Jones, where are you now that we need you? Or better yet, how about Xmas Bits and Pieces? And nice try but n.g., Kurtis Blow.

Sweet Little Jesus Boy, Mahalia Jack­son (Columbia). All Mahalia Jackson Christmas gospel albums are not this Mahalia Jackson Christmas gospel album. Which, like most of her recorded work, is inexcusably sweetened with strings and pitched toward a taste white folks don’t even have anymore. But it’s a real album, not a spliced-together rip off of gospel out­takes — the singing is great and the message redeemed. Also worth checking out, if not as consistent, are Christmas with the Keynotes (Nashboro), cut when Paul Beasley was still their falsetto, and The Gospel Soul of Christmas (Mistletoe), if just for the Swan Silvertones’ “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

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A Christmas Record (ZE). The cheap shot for a punk/new-waver would be to mock the emptiness of most Christmas sentiment. The real trick is to reinvent the innocence, which this hard-to-believe col­lection of all-new songs does. I like every track, from August Darnell’s somewhat predictable urban-sophisticate “Christ­mas on Riverside Drive” to Was (Not Was)’s unemployed “Christmas Time in the Motor City.” I was charmed by Chris­tina’s we’re-so-jaded “Things Fall Apart” and the Waitresses’ alone-in-the-big-city “Christmas Wrapping.” And (honest, I don’t know him) Davitt Sigerson’s “It’s a Big Country” should be covered by Arlo Guthrie and become a big hit. This record isn’t just interesting — it’s tuneful, it’s America, Christmas, 1981, fantasy and reality, and it’s the perfect gift for anyone from 15 to 40. It’s also only available as an English import, so if you do manage to find it, you’ll have to pay too much. Merry Christmas.

Singles. The only good ones that aren’t on the UA anthologies are the Kinks’ tough ”Father Christmas,” the Eagles’ “Please Come Home for Christmas” (for the cover photo), and “Don Charles Presents the Singing Dogs, directed by Carl Weismann with Instrumental Accomp. Jingle Bells” (RCA), which is a must. Hon-est.

And one last word. Somewhere out there must be a great Jewish record for the season. It is not, however, Barbra Streisand/A Christmas Album, which should be called Barbra Streisand/A Christian Album. “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” okay. But “Ave Maria” and “The Lord’s Prayer”? I don’t get it. Once there was something like Steve and Eydie Wish You Happy Holidays, but evidently no more. I couldn’t find it anywhere. Are you listening, Kinky Friedman? Dave Tarras? Neil Diamond?

Not to worry. The only born-again album to pass my way, On This Christmas Night, exhibited neither the vigor of intolerance nor the power of cultural ascen­dancy just slavish early-’70s soft-rock, a style I’m ordinarily not unsympathetic to. But so far, it seems the tensions that the Reagan worldview laid on Christmas music have invigorated ZE Records and made the born-agains go limp. ❅

Categories
From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Cops Who Kill

You take the M train to Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn to reach the Bushwick-Hylan Housing Project where Kenny Gamble and Ricky Lewis lived until they were shot to death by police from the 83rd pre­cinct early on the morning of Saturday, October 18.

From the el platform you can see the Bushwick-Hylan Houses almost immediately across the street, Borinquen Houses to the left, the Thompkins projects behind them. On a fair day, the sun reflects off the sheet metal that covers the windows of row upon row of abandoned tene­ment houses; there is little else.

It is not a pretty place to live and it is not an easy place to survive, but within the ugly scheme of things Ricky Lewis and Kenny Gamble did all right. Lewis, 24, was the more successful of the two. He had finished night school at Eastern District in Brooklyn, was trained in construction work by Bronx-based Black Eco­nomic Survival, landed a con­struction job on Bushwick Av­enue, and went to work every day. Several years ago his father gave him a 1976 red two-door LTD — the car he was killed in. Ricky Lewis had no criminal record. In fact, everyone in the Bushwick-­Hylan Houses called Lewis “Civ,” short for “Civilize,” because that’s how he was, that was the effect he had on the people around him.

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Kenny Gamble, 18, dropped out of Eastern District high school in 1979, some­thing that is not surprising for black kids in New York City, particularly in poverty-­level communities like Bushwick. What was surprising was that in the fall of 1980 Kenny Gamble dropped back in, intent on graduating. Apparently school was going better for Kenny. In October he brought some school work home to show his moth­er; his grade was 88.

Kenny had been arrested twice, once at 16 for allegedly loitering in the lobby of his aunt’s apartment building at the Thomp­kins project and again at 17 as the result of a scuffle in the subway station at De­lancey Street. At the time of his murder, Kenny Gamble was on three years proba­tion on the second charge.

On Sunday, October 18, The New York Times ran an article headlined, “2 Dead, 2 Hurt, 3 Arrested After Shootout in Brooklyn.” According to the Times story, which carried no byline and quoted only police sources, plainclothes detectives Joseph Esposito and Fred Falcone were driving past The Garage, a social club on Cedar and Evergreen streets, when they heard shots and stopped to investigate. Officers Falcone and Esposito approached a group of young men outside the club, who fired at them with a shotgun. The officers returned fire and the men jumped into a car and sped away, with the officers in pursuit. They were soon joined by two other cops in a patrol car, Michael Cohen and Gaspar Cardi. According to the Times the chase ended 12 blocks later on the corner of Bushwick and McKibbin ave­nues, where the car was forced to a stop and more shots were exchanged. When the shooting stopped, Kenny Gamble and Ricky Lewis were dead. Of the four other occupants of the car, two, Gary Jones and Lemuel Thompson, were wounded, Thompson critically. Miraculously, two others who were in the car, Jackie Thomp­son and Kevin Young, escaped unharmed.

According to the survivors of the shootout on Bushwick and McKibbin and eyewitnesses to the incident, however, something very different than what the police and The New York Times say hap­pened occurred on the morning of October 18.

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Late on the night of Friday, October 17, Ricky Lewis gave 18-year-old Gary Jones a ride to the Bushwick Garage social club on Evergreen Street, about 12 blocks from the Bushwick-Hylan Houses where both lived. Gary was on his way to pick up his 14-year-old sister, Jackie “Black” Thompson was already at the club, having arrived early with his older brother, Lemuel. Also at the club, a recycled garage used as a disco on weekends, were Kevin Young and Kenny Gamble. All six lived in the Bushwick-Hylan projects and knew each other. All were unarmed.

“I was sittin’ outside in Ricky’s car and some guy came out of the club and pulled a gun on another guy,” said Jackie Thompson. He swung at him with the gun, the guy ran and he started chasin’ him and shootin’.”

When the shooting started, everyone in or near the club panicked. Some tried to get back inside, others ran for cover near the building or down the street. In the melee, Kevin Young injured his leg and Lemuel Thompson was shot as he ran to the car. Ricky Lewis offered to take Thompson and Young to Greenpoint Hos­pital. It wasn’t until the car began to pull away that Jackie Thompson and the oth­ers realized that other gunmen had also been firing. They were later identified as plainclothes cops. “They didn’t say any­thing,” says Jackie. “I didn’t even know they were shootin’ at the car until they shot out the back window.” As Ricky Lew­is prepared to pull off, Jackie Thompson, Kevin Young, and Lemuel Thompson were in the back seat. Gary Jones and Kenny Gamble, the last to get in, sat in front. At that moment, the two gunmen ran around the corner and reappeared moments later in an unmarked car. At no time, say Gary, Jackie, and other wit­nesses, did the plainclothesmen identify themselves as cops.

“We went up Evergreen and made a left on Myrtle,” says Jackie, “and they was still shootin’ at us, at the driver’s side. Their driver would pull up beside us and the other guy — he had half his body out the window — was shootin’ at Ricky’s side.”

The six young men crouched down, trying to avoid the bullets hitting the car. Lemuel Thompson, already wounded, curled into a ball in the back seat, along with his brother Jackie and Kevin Young. As the two cars sped up Myrtle, other marked patrol cars joined the chase.

“There was an unmarked car and at least two police cars on Myrtle and more cars were comin’,” says Gary Jones. “There had to be at least nine or 10 cops. See, nobody knew they [the two men in the unmarked car] were police, they didn’t say anything, they just came out and started shootin’.”

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“After we got up Myrtle and made a right on Bushwick,” continues Jackie, “another car bumped us off on Bushwick and McKibbin and we hit the johnnypump and stopped, but the cops kept firing.” Ricky Lewis’s car had come to a stop in front of the RC Supermarket at Bushwick and McKibbin, across the street from P.S. 147, the elementary school all six had attended.

“Before Civ crashed he said get down and everybody got down. Lemuel was saying, ‘Don’t get out of the car.’ The cops got out of their cars and kept firin’. I don’t know how many shots were fired because I kept my head down; I just heard a lot of shots.”

“I could hear them still shootin’ at the car,” recalls Gary Jones.”Half my body was still in the car — my legs were stuck —  and the upper half of my body was layin’ out on the sidewalk. That’s when I got hit.

“I was layin’ on the sidewalk and I looked up and saw the police comin’. They was runnin’ and firin’ away at the car. I just seen a big clump of smoke, I could see the fire jumping out the barrels, oh, man. They was stepping through the smoke and kept on firing. I didn’t expect to live. I thought they were killing everybody in the car.

“The police laughed and said, ‘They all dead,’ ” remembers Gary Jones. “I was bleedin’ from the head and one cop said, ‘This one’s dead’ and stepped on my face and then started draggin’ me out of the car. Hey, after the car bumped us I was gonna get out and put my hands up, but they was shootin’ so bad, even after I got hit in the front seat.”

Gary Jones and Jackie Thompson esti­mate that after the car hit the john­nypump and stopped the cops continued to fire at the car for at least 30 seconds, maybe a minute and a half. This was when Ricky Lewis’s head was blown open in the driver’s seat. Lemuel Thompson thinks he was hit at least once, maybe twice, in addition to the wound near his spine that he had received outside the social club. And Kenny Gamble had disappeared.

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Gloria Yournet, who lives with her husband and three daughters across from the RC Supermarket in the Borinquen Houses, saw what happened to Gamble.

Sometime around 12:30 on the morning of the shooting, Gloria’s girlfriend, sitting in her living room window smoking a cigarette, called her to “come, look out here,” gesturing out the window. “All of a sudden there was a red car coming down Bushwick,” says Gloria Yournet, hugging her arms around her as if she is cold. “There was a squad car behind the red one and an unmarked car next to it. As they were approaching McKibbin, the squad car drove onto the sidewalk by the school and the unmarked car continued to chase the red car. By that time there was a second squad car behind the red car. As the red car approached Bushwick and McKibbin, one guy jumped out with his hands up in the air. All of a sudden the cops started shooting at him, and he fell. Around five cops jumped on him, hand­cuffed him, then started kicking him all over.”

A neighbor of Gloria Yournet also saw what happened to Kenny Gamble. “I woke up around 12:40 and saw a whole lot of cops beating up on one dude,” says the woman, who was afraid of what the police might do if her name were used. Like Gloria Yournet, her apartment in the Borinquen Houses faces Bushwick and McKibbin. “There were more than 10 of them. They picked him up and hit him against the car and the ground, then they threw him in the car.” She stares out the window as if she can still see it happening. “I guess he was beaten on his head or something. They was kicking, punching, beating him with nightsticks. I heard a lot of people screaming.”

Cary Ann Stewart has lived in Bushwick-Hylan Houses for 21 years. She and her husband, who works for the Tran­sit Authority, have raised 11 children there, including eight sons. She is a tall, brown skinned, fast talking woman, still attractive after bearing so many children. As we talk, she moves around the stove and sink in the kitchen, a cigarette dangl­ing from her mouth, casually making lunch or coffee or giving instructions in an off-hand way to the children who come and go, kissing her husband a warm good­bye as he leaves for work. On the morning of October 18, Mrs. Stewart was looking out the window of her first floor apartment facing Bushwick Avenue. Earlier that evening, she had an argument with her 15-year-old son because she had refused to give him money to go to the Garage. From her window she saw a car speed past, going up Bushwick toward Greenpoint Hospital, followed by a police car. As the police car passed Moore Street, another police car appeared from the opposite direction.

“Then all I could hear was shooting, 25 or 30 shots. Police cars started coming from every direction, then there was more shooting.”

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Because Mrs. Stewart is the sort of woman who gets involved, because she has lived in the community for 21 years and knows just about everyone, and because she has sons and was afraid maybe one of them was in trouble, she pulled on her raincoat and slippers and walked down to Bushwick and McKibbin to see what was going on.

“I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, that’s Ricky Lewis’s car.’ I saw three boys laying on the ground, hands cuffed behind them, laying on their stomachs. I walked over and looked at each one of them, Kevin Young, Gary Jones and Lemuel Thomp­son, and I said to the police, ‘You got the nerve to have handcuffs on him [Lemuel] and he’s shot.’ And the way he was shot­ — the bullet had ripped away his clothes, you could see the hole in him.” She shakes her head rapidly.

“The cop said, ‘Lady, get away from here, you don’t know him.’ I said. ‘What do you mean? These are our boys! What have you done to our children?’ The cop said, ‘This is my fuckin’ job, I did what I had to.’

“There was blood everywhere. The seat of the car had been torn out and there was even blood under it,” she says in disbelief. “You could see the way the car was shot up that a lot of shots had been fired. The way it looked, that cop must have pulled out his gun right then and there and shot into that car.

“They were fine boys, beautiful chil­dren,” says Mrs. Stewart of Ricky Lewis and Kenny Gamble. “I don’t have any­thing bad to say about any of those young fellows.”

For the police of the 83rd Precinct who were involved in the shooting, Mrs. Stew­art and many others in Bushwick have nothing but a building rage. “They don’t go cruising around in now white neighbor­hoods, standing and waiting for something to happen, so why was they up there [at the club] anyway, that’s what I want to know?” she asks. “They were out looking for trouble, going into black neighbor­hoods and doing this nonsense. These boys were like mine, I seen them grow up, that’s what makes me so angry about the whole thing.”‘

=◆=

The events of the night of October 18 still haunt the people who witnessed them. For Gloria Yournet there is a recurring dream. “I dream about it almost every night,” she says bitterly, hugging her three small daughters to her as she looks down at the junction of Bushwick and McKib­bin. “Sometimes it’s my brother who jumps out of the car with his hands up, sometimes my husband or someone else I know, And then the cops just kill him, BANG, BANG, BANG!”

For Yournet’s neighbor down the hall, the horror is that of not believing her own eyes. “I seen dudes being messed with, you know, beat up by cops before,” she says, “but never anything like that. It was like something on TV, like it wasn’t real.” But this time it was and she knows it. Nothing can erase the image of 10 cops beating an already wounded Kenny Gamble to his death.

By the time the shooting stopped on Bushwick and McKibbin, Ricky Lewis, Lemuel Thompson, and Kenny Gamble were at least critically wounded. Lewis may already have been dead. Gamble, who eyewitnesses say jumped out of the car with his hands up in surrender, was beaten for several minutes and then thrown into the back of the unmarked police car, which then drove off. Police have yet to explain why the car made a U­-turn and took Kenny Gamble to Wycoff Hospital, a 15-minute ride, when Green­point, the neighborhood hospital, was only six blocks away. (Gamble was pronounced dead at four o’clock the morning of Octo­ber 18.) This remains one of the many peculiarities of the case.

Gary Jones, Kevin Young, Lemuel Thompson, and Jackie Thompson, the four men who survived the fusillade, insist that no one in the car had a shotgun or weapon of any kind. This is supported by eyewitnesses, who say they saw no guns or gunfire coming either from Lewis’s car or any of the men in the car at any time. “The people in the car didn’t have no weapons whatsoever,” Gloria Yournet says angrily. “The detective who went through the car didn’t find anything. Then all of a sudden he held up a shotgun, but the way he did it was funny because it didn’t come out of the red car. I know that because before he went into the red car he had the shotgun in his hand.” Drawing a breath, Yournet shakes her head in disgust, “he went to the back seat of the unmarked car and came out with a shotgun, then he went to the trunk and came out with something like a suitcase. He put the gun in there and he brought the suitcase to a blue-and-white police car that was park­ing and put it in the car. What they did with it after that I do not know,” she says.

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According to Gary Jones, Kevin Young, and Jackie Thompson, following the shooting they were taken to the 83rd Pre­cinct and held for nearly 24 hours. During this period they were threatened with ar­rest on a variety of charges, including assault with intent to kill a police officer, reckless driving, and resisting arrest. In actuality, none of the three was charged with anything, either that day or subse­quently.

The only person charged with any crime who was in Ricky Lewis’s car the night of October 18 is Lemuel Thompson, who was critically wounded during the police attack. On October 20, while still in the hospital, Thompson was charged with the murder in Queens last August 21 of Yat Yeung Lam during an attempted robbery of a Chinese restaurant. (A grand jury recently began hearing evidence in the case.) Thompson, his friends, and his fam­ily insist that he is not guilty of this crime. They say that the police are trying to justify killing Ricky Lewis and Kenny Gamble by saying they were in pursuit of a murderer. Like Jackie, Lemuel’s younger brother says, “The police didn’t know nothing about nobody in Queens until a day after they shot my brother up.”

Since the arrest of Lemuel Thompson, who recently was released from Rikers Island on $25,000 bail, and the release of Jones, Young, and Jackie Thompson, the police have been silent concerning the events on Bushwick and McKibbin. Re­peated calls to the 83rd Precinct fail to elicit answers to the most basic questions: Are there any charges against anyone ex­cept Lemuel Thompson? Where are the guns the youths allegedly fired at the police officers? What happened to the shotgun that, according to the police and The New York Times, was supposedly found at the Garage after the shooting but which Gloria Yournet says she saw a plainclothes police officer take from his car on Bushwick and McKibbin? Where are Kenny Gamble’s clothes and personal effects?

All calls to the 83rd are referred to the public information office at the NYPD and all calls there are referred to the office of Brooklyn D.A., Eugene Gold. There, Rhonda Nager, director of public information, ends all inquiries by saying, “The D.A.’s office is unable to discuss a pending investigation. I can tell you it [the investigation] involves all aspects of the incident, including wrongdoing on the part of anybody,” says Nager. When reminded of the dismal record in the city of New York and nationally involving criminal prosecution of white police officers, Nager acknowledges, with a note of apology, “There are cases in which we have ob­tained indictments and prosecuted cases and the jury has acquitted. It is not always within the power of the prosecution to do what’s right.” Nager concedes that resi­dents of black and Hispanic communities “have some legitimate complaints.”

=◆=

Twenty-four-year-old Vernon Lawrence lives in the Bushwick-Hylan Houses, grew up with Ricky Lewis, knew the five young men in the car. Lawrence is a suc­cess story in Bushwick. He graduated from Baruch College with a degree in account­ing and hopes to continue on to business school. Like Ricky Lewis, he has a good job, a nice car, goes to work every day. Lawrence and Lewis were partners, “like brothers,” is what the people who knew them say, and maybe it was only chance or luck that Vernon wasn’t in the car with Ricky on October 18.

“My mother woke me up, she was screaming, ‘I heard Ricky was shot!’ I went downstairs and saw an ambulance pulling off. There must have been 30 police cars. When I got there the police were congratulating themselves: ‘Good shooting,’ singing, ‘Another One Bites the Dust,’ and laughing,” says Lawrence, “They told one lady, ‘You don’t care about these niggers, why don’t you get out of here?’ They didn’t know everybody out there knew them. People kept telling them, ‘Leave the boys alone, why are you kicking them, why are you hurting them?’ The cops’ response was, ‘Suck my white, prick.’ A cop walked up to Gary Jones and said, ‘Goddamn, I thought I blew your head off.’ ”

Since October 18 Lawrence, in addition to working full-time at Upper Harlem Medical Associates, has worked full-time, organizing the community to protest the killing of Ricky and Kenny and the shoot­ing of the two other men. On the Sunday after the killings Lawrence and about 7o others marched in protest to the 83rd Precinct to demand information from the police. The officers at the 83rd responded by throwing eggs on the demonstrators from a second floor window.

While the mood in Bushwick runs the gamut from disbelief to despair to rage, it is characterized by a unity of outrage and a commitment to struggle until some sort of justice is done. Under Lawrence’s lead­ership, community residents have held at least two community-wide meetings a week to discuss the killings, collect evidence, and plan strategy. The strategy focuses on methods to insure that Kenny and Ricky’s killers are brought to justice and to guarantee that in the future com­munity residents are protected from those who are supposed to protect them — the police.

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On December 24, a Brooklyn grand jury, after hearing evidence concerning the events of October 18, indicted Thompson with two counts of attempted murder of a police officer in the first degree and one count of illegal weapons possession — the shotgun police say they recovered at the social club. Still, several critical questions remain unanswered: What about Gloria Yournet’s testimony that the gun did not come from Lewis’s car but from the trunk of the unmarked police car? If, as the indictment alleges, Thompson shot at the plainclothes officers outside the Garage and then dropped the shotgun, why did the police chase the car for 12 blocks, blasting away at a suspect with no weapon? Why didn’t the police officers identify themselves?

After initial reports quoting the police as saying they either “heard shots” or were fired upon by “a group of youths,” the grand jury indicted Lemuel Thompson for these acts. How the D.A. was able to identify Thompson as the one who fired the shots at the club — something the po­lice themselves could not do — also remains a mystery.

The evidence and eyewitness testimony compiled by this writer clearly do not support the indictment of Lemuel Thompson. Instead, the testimony raises serious questions as to the conduct of the four officers from the 83rd Precinct — Esposito, Cohen, Cardi, and Falcone — who were centrally involved in the shooting.

As the case now stands, the police killed Gamble and Lewis allegedly in the chase to capture Lemuel Thompson. Ac­cording to the police version of events, that Ricky and Kenny lost their lives was simply a matter of tough luck; they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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Community residents have called on the U.S. Attorney to begin a federal in­vestigation. As yet, there has been no response. For now, the people of Bushwick wait, caught between a rock and a hard place as they ask the systems that sanc­tion the police department to investigate the conduct of some of its officers. While their mood is not one of optimism it is also not one of despair — yet. Instead, it is the limbo of waiting and hoping so familiar to black people. “If this were happening in any other ethnic community in the city there would be an outcry by your government of­ficials,” says Vernon Mason, the 34-year-­old graduate of Morehouse College and Columbia Law School who is representing the families of the deceased. “We have heard very little from the mayor when these killings occur, we have not heard any outcry from the local churches except in the black communities across the board. We have not had any response from syn­agogues, rabbis, the Council of Churches, from ministers throughout the city,” con­tinues Mason, who as general counsel to the National Conference of Black Law­yers, an organization of progressive black attorneys, is familiar with these cases. “There has been no response. We have requested that the Justice Department investigate after all these killings, and there has been no response.”

“It might be a surprise to me because it’s my son,” says Kenny Gamble’s moth­er. A school aide for eight years, the last three at Sarah J. Hale High School in Brooklyn, Mrs. Gamble looks almost like a teenager herself. Her husband, Walter, has been a mail carrier with the post office for 11 years. “But it’s just like Luis Baez [killed in August 1979 by Brooklyn police after they were summoned by his mother whom the mentally ill Baez was menacing with a pair of scissors.] Do you mean the police couldn’t just wrestle him down? Just like Elizabeth Magnum, who wanted to stay, in her house. Next thing you know, she’s dead [killed by Brooklyn police in August 1979, after they had been called to her house to assist in carrying out an eviction order]. To this day no cops have come to me to notify me that my child is dead. Because they know they was wrong.” Mr. and Mrs. Gamble were told by a doctor at Wycoff Hospital that their son had “expired,” and that was all. Since Kenny’s death, the Gambles have received three bills from Wycoff Hospital addressed to “The Late Kenneth Gamble.” That is the extent of any official communication.

“What we intend to do is to bring a wrongful death action along with an action charging civil rights violations on behalf of the families of Ricky Lewis and Kenny Gamble,” explains Vernon Mason. “We intend to bring these actions in federal court and we intend to sue the police officers who did the shooting.” Mason and the NCBL are also representing the ten ­apartments were ransacked and who were threatened in predawn raid by FBI agents allegedly searching for the “soul of the Black Liberation Army,” Assata Shakur. Mason plans to file a federal civil rights suit in this case also.

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Whatever the outcome of the suit in behalf of the Lewis and Gamble families, “I think we will see more and more of these types of incidents, not only in New York but all over the country,” says Reverend Calvin O. Butts, executive minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and a political activist.

“My greatest fear is this: Given the election of Ronald Reagan and the kind of attitude in the city with his coming into the presidency, groups like the Ku Klux Klan or groups similar to them, like the New York Police Department, will feel, more so than ever before, that it is open season on black folks. I believe in non­violence,” Reverend Butts says with a soft smile. “But the question is, who is the violence being brought against? We must defend ourselves, because the police are not protecting us, they’re shooting us.”

Long before genocide becomes official policy it is an attitude that manifests itself in seemingly random violence toward members of a specific racial, cultural, or political group. Incidents of violence against black people in the United States have reached epidemic proportions. When the police department — which is supposed to stop these crimes — is in fact implicated in them, genocide as official policy against black Americans cannot be far behind.

Peter Funches, Nicholas Benilla, Em­ery Robinson, Louis Rodriguez, Elizabeth Magnum, James McRee, Herbert John­son, Darryl Walker, John Davis Jr., Wil­liam Harper, Curtis Garvey, Jay Parker, Abdul Hadi, Sonny Evans, Edwin Quin­ones, Michael Furse, Luis Baez, and now Ricky Lewis and Kenny Gamble are just a few of those who have been killed by police in New York City since June 1979. Almost all were males, all were black or Hispanic, all were shot under highly questionable circumstances. No police officer has been convicted for any one of these murders. ❖

Many thanks to Dave Walker of the Black United Front’s Police Brutality In­vestigation Unit, without whom this arti­cle could not have been written. 

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Joseph Campbell, Myth Master

By the time he died last October at 83, he was a little prone to rhapsodies and exhortations. Like a modern Emerson, he let the boldness of his voice drown out the subtlety of his words, sang the praises of the cosmic round too loftily for the tragic sense to bear. He spoke on “human potential” at Esalen and pub­lished books with titles like Myths To Live By and The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. A documentary termed his life “A Hero’s Journey.” And he was eulogized finally as a sort of guru to celebrity, a shaman whose ideas inspired Watership Down and Star Wars

At his best, though, Joseph Campbell was merely one of the greatest popu­lar writers on mythology who ever lived. His effect on modern narratives may not be as central as Jesse L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance; her review of the Holy Grail legend as a record of fertility rites served as a subtext for “The Waste Land” and a virtual plot outline for The Sun Also Rises. But Campbell’s scope is far wider, and his prose approaches liter­ature on its own. 

In fact, Campbell is tough to place among his colleagues. His name does not carry the weight of Sir James Frazer: the Golden Bough remains seminal in its en­cyclopedic comparison of myths and ritu­als. But Frazer skirted the controversial links between ancient rites and Chris­tianity and so, as Robert Graves said, “was able to keep his beautiful rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge, until his death …” Graves, on the other hand, leans too heavily on historical explana­tions in The White Goddess and Greek Myths. Each myth to him was the trace of some ancient conquest or migration, and behind them all he saw the con­quered, suppressed but recalcitrant God­dess figure whom, not to put too fine a point on it, he worshipped like a crazy man. Belief also underlies the works of Mircea Eliade, which Campbell consid­ered the scholarly counterpart of his more popular writings. For Eliade, like Campbell, the body of human mythology makes up a metaphysic. But Eliade, un­like Campbell, thought faith in that metaphysic — faith in God, that is — was our only bulwark against despair. 

Which is exactly what makes Campbell so fine, so different. In his best stuff, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces and much of the four-volume Masks of God, he never sinks beneath the powerful spell of his subject; he balks at scuttling no belief in his search for a synthesis of them all. Nor does he argue that the synthesis refers to any extrinsic truth. You get all your favorite gods for free, and no evangelist will call. As a result, these books take on a mythic quality themselves — they produce, at times, the liberating effects they describe. Maybe this places Campbell not with the philos­ophers of myth, and certainly not with scientists like Claude Levi-Strauss, but with the authors of “campus classics”: creators of Self-Help Books for the Real­ly Smart like Alan Watts, Ernest Becker, and Norman O. Brown. But Campbell goes beyond them because he does not, as they do, create a closed system of belief. Reading his books, rather, is like putting your hand out in the dark to find a door­way where you thought there was a wall. They offer, in their moment at least, free­dom not only from faith but from faith-lessness, a third way of thinking for those who will neither kneel down nor be shallow. 

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Campbell’s life, on the surface any­way, seems something other, if not less, than a hero’s journey. Born in New York City in 1904, the son of a hosiery importer and his wife, he was raised a Roman Catholic. His annual visit to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show inspired an interest in Indian culture, and his studies inevitably turned up the fact that the themes of Catholic dogma recur in Indian lore and other legends around the world. Pursuing his interests at Dart­mouth and then Columbia, Campbell won a traveling fellowship to Paris and Mu­nich in the late 1920s. There, he discov­ered the new world of Joyce and Mann, Picasso, Freud, and Jung — and found that it too was based firmly on the old world of myth and legend. He returned to the States just as the market crashed and spent the next few years jobless, wander­ing and, most of all, reading. By 1934, however, he was teaching literature at Sarah Lawrence, where he would stay for the next 38 years. In that time, he be­came moderately famous as an author and editor of books on myth and religion. His mind, even then, was clearly focused on the spiritual — at least one student compared him to a swami. But after his retirement from teaching in 1972, he be­came more completely a preacher on the uses of mythology in the modern world, rejecting the title of guru yet abdicating any claims to scholarly disinterest. At the end, not only George Lucas and Richard Adams, but the Rolling Stones, John Barth, and Denis Johnson could be counted among those whose work was affected by his. 

It sounds like a nice life. Even, as he used to say, a “serendipity.” But it’s pos­sible Donald Newlove got just a tad car­ried away when he wrote in a 1977 Es­quire piece: “His right eye is a falling blossom, his left a fading ember, his way of seeing is the way of genius, of art, of the world’s eye wrapped in a smile of madness. He weighs suns and shadows. He has a will of steel that works titanic labors. He is not mad. He is mad. His cosmic vision lives in two views of the world at once and is beyond duality … ” His office hours are on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. 

This is not to say that Campbell’s in­sights were less than transcendent, (They would have to be, peering through a fall­ing blossom and a fading ember.) It’s just that the origins and nature of that tran­scendence have been misplaced — and were misplaced even, perhaps especially, by Campbell himself. The Power of Myth illustrates this. The book is edited from a series of interviews Moyers did in 1985 and ’86 at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch and at the Museum of Natural History; some of these talks will be broadcast in a six-part series on PBS starting May 18. The intelligence and ob­vious decency of the two participants make the book likable enough; Camp­bell’s seemingly bottomless erudition sometimes makes it fascinating. But there can be no mistake: Campbell had by this time followed the path of his study into dogma. It’s a good dogma, as dogmas go, a sort of spiritual humanism, but the limitations and stagnation of such doc­trinal thinking are obvious in pontifical exchanges like this: 

Moyers: What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology? 

Campbell: What we’ve got on our hands. If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any ritu­als, read The New York Times

Moyers: And you’d find? 

Campbell: The news of the day, includ­ing destructive and violent acts by young people who don’t know how to behave in a civilized society. 

Those young people! Bring back Torque­mada with his powerful mythology, his rituals, his civilized society — and, oh yeah, those hot pincers, too. 

Such flashes of stodginess show up even in earlier lectures. In 1970, for instance, Campbell scolded “those sociolog­ical geniuses that are, these days, swarm­ing on our activated campuses” because they’d sneered, heaven help us, at the first moon walk. And when, over the years, he mixed these bits of jingoism with a doctrine that seemed to offer en­lightenment without social disruption, he began to become a magnet for the furrow-­browed magi of our more genteel media. The wages of fame is banality.

As a result, it now appears that Camp­bell will be remembered as one of those lovable, harmless philosophers who shake their heads at human madness while re­affirming the “civilized society” that pro­duces it and was produced by it. This is a blessed shame, because it undercuts the power and complexity of the man’s great — sometimes visionary — books. And if the vision of those books congealed over time into priestcraft, if their author, among the first to interpret Finnegans Wake, was interpreted at the last by Jabba the Hut, it only goes to prove a portion of Campbell’s own thesis: “There must always remain … from the stand­point of normal waking consciousness, a certain baffling inconsistency between the wisdom brought forth from the deep, and the prudence usually found to be brought from the transcendent deep be­comes quickly rationalized into nonenti­ty, and the need becomes great for anoth­er hero to refresh the word.” 

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That need “to refresh the word,” to revitalize the vehicle of mythic transmission, seems to me the im­plied core of Campbell’s great work. Like Freud, he is far more interesting when viewed not as a guru but as a literary critic: one who tells his tale by giving other tales new life. From this angle, Campbell was a sort of reconstructionist, dedicated to narrative not only as a method of journeying beyond narrative, but also as the place to which silence ceaselessly returns. He was willing to sub­mit to all that narrative implies — causal­ity, authority, and the duality of speaker and listener — but only so that causality would be extinguished, authority re­placed, and the listener metamorphosed into the teller in a round that never ends. Such an outlook, more practically, trans­forms the systems that threaten to crush us into an egress, a way out. The church that makes lapsed Catholics quail, the government that incites revolutionaries, the vagaries of parents and the false stratagems of art are not swept away here, but used as works, as stories that transport us to a place where they cease to exert their power. 

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, written with Henry Morton Robinson, sets the tone of Campbell’s dialogue with world literature. Still a standard textbook 44 years after its publication, the Key identifies Joyce’s use of generic mythic themes. The protagonist’s tumble from a ladder is linked with the Fall; the many faces of Shem and Shaun are pegged to the recurring Brother Battle; the wake becomes a comic rehearsal of Resurrec­tion; and the riverrun which begins and ends the book is seen as the cycle of the One Mother, who is the life of everything that lives and the death of everything that dies. With these themes as guides, the Key proceeds to distill Joyce’s “root language” into something approaching English, and his massive “dreamwork” into something approaching a linear table of creation, manifold life, dissolution, and promised rebirth. 

This is actually kind of a wicked trick: it joins together what Joyce had torn asunder. Finnegans Wake, after all, oper­ates by dismantling itself. Its referential neologisms smudge the borders between the text and all that is not the text. Virtually no word among the book’s many thousands can be read in a single contextual sense; all evoke a series of connected words and ideas which, as the end of the novel suggests, arise from and fall into a unity of silence. This tech­nique, as the author of “Usylessly” brings into focus the accidental nature of the writer’s role. If all words unite finally into one, why are we reading these words? Why Finnegans Wake with all its difficulties and not Dr. No or Peanuts? Or Star Wars? As in the New Testament, the storyteller has to answer the ques­tion: “By what authority doest thou these things?” Joyce, though a fine gentleman in his own right to be sure, had not quite the recourse of his predecessor. 

Campbell and Robinson believed, how­ever, that Joyce had not abandoned his claims on the reader but simply reestab­lished the seat of narrative authority in the collective unconscious. The universal mythic themes enumerated in the Key are worked together throughout the Wake into a recurring dream of the Jung­ian all-mind, an ever-repeating complex of stories that Joyce terms the “mono­myth.” That story-without-end provides its own authority to the teller because, as actual dreams speak the underknowledge of the individual, the monomyth speaks in the hidden voice of us all. 

So an artist like Joyce, as seen in the Key, takes on the heroic role embraced by Stephen Dedalus when he said, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the real­ity of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated con­science of my race.” That is, he must plunge into the collective unconscious as it is temporarily incarnate in himself and his own life, experience the essence of the monomyth, and retell it afresh, giving his own accidental shape — “a local habita­tion and a name” — to the unchanging human story. 

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The Hero With a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949, is an attempt to decipher that “one shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story.” It is Campbell at his peak, the book people cite when they say Campbell “changed their lives,” and many of its interpreta­tions form the underpinning of the Campbellian spiritual approach. I find this irritating: it seems to me the book delivers its kick not with its mythic con­tent, but with its literary method. Camp­bell does not simply analyze the universal tale of the hero-task, he retells it, reforges it, as it were, in the smithy of his soul. To illustrate the unity of diverse tales, he patches together myths from all over the world. Where the voyages of Odysseus or Jason leave off, the descent into Hell of the Sumerian goddess lnanna takes up only to give way to the reawakening of Kamar al-Zaman in the Arabian Nights or the resurrection of Jesus. “We do not particularly care whether [they] ever ac­tually lived,” Campbell writes of these characters. “Their stories are what con­cern us … ” 

The outline of those stories, which are one story, is simple. First, the hero is called to adventure. If he accepts the call, he encounters a protective figure, usually an old man or woman, who supplies him with charms and instructions. “With the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him,” the hero overcomes the guardian of a threshold and moves into “the regions of the unknown” which are “free fields for the projection of uncon­scious content.” Here, “incestuous libido and patricidal destrudo are … reflected back against the individual and his soci­ety in forms suggesting threats of vio­lence and … dangerous delight.” 

These regions, however, are also the womb of the hero’s rebirth. Because now, “the hero, whether god or goddess, man or woman, the figure in a myth or the dreamer of a dream, discovers and assim­ilates his opposite (his own unsuspected self) … One by one the resistances are broken. He must put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty and life and bow or submit to the absolutely intolerable. Then he finds that he and his opposite are not of differing species, but one flesh.” 

If he is fortunate, these trials prepare the hero’s consciousness for the ultimate adventure. This could be his atonement with the Great Father or his own apothe­osis; sex with the mother of all things or with an immortal god. Then, if the hero I chooses to accept the challenge of return — have constructed the sort of — critique he had in Hero, literature studying litera­ture. But even he confessed that Hero had been a uniquely vital moment in his work, and that Masks was more of an ”intellectual stunt.” In Creative Mytholo­gy, we are given only a stolid uncovering of the ”norms of myth” as Campbell finds them almost exclusively in Western writings. 

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From Hero to Creative Mythology, Campbell has shown the history of the monomyth to be the monomyth itself: the story of the human race moving from its sterile unity with a mother-envi­ronment, traveling into the realm of threats of violence and dangerous delight, ultimately to reach the threshold of the holy of holies — where perceiver and envi­ronment meet again — where we must try to embrace the other and bring back the boon … which is a retelling of the mono­myth. In this madness of reflection upon reflection, Campbell saw the best vision of the oversoul, the “controlled and in­tended statements of certain spiritual principles” of mankind. But what if the method to the madness lies not in our relationship to eternity, but in our rela­tionship to the structure of narrative it­self? Because once it is seen that every story, even the history of stories, is a mirror on a mirror, we next begin to question whether it is the form of the story that keeps imposing itself upon the content. That is, we begin to ask: does a narrative, simply by virtue of being a narrative, mold its accidental contents into the One Great Narrative? 

John Barth did a comic turn with this Chinese box version of storytelling in his 1972 novel Chimera, which is an extension of Campbell’s ideas. In it, he writes of the “recycled” hero: “‘Loosed at last from mortal speech, he turned into writ­ten words: … letters afloat between two worlds, forever betraying … the man they forever represent.” Likewise, a few years earlier, Jacques Derrida had discov­ered in Plato the idea of the word as the son of the speaker; the spoken word re­mains close to the father, retaining his living power; the written word is the or­phan or parricide who, as Plato writes, “always needs its parent to come to its aid.” Again, in the Gospel According to John, Jesus is depicted as the Logos emitted by the father God, sent to plant his own logos, his parables, like secJs. Which brings us in a circle back to Barth, whose characters like to talk as if ”writ­ing and reading, or telling and listening, were literally making love.” 

The mythic narrative begins to look a lot like the hero it describes. Once this myth grows sterile and codified in the mind of the true believer, it travels from him into the hearing of the faithless. Overcoming the resistance there, it meets with and embraces its opposite, the si­lence of illumination, and so refreshes the wasteland of the mind in which it lives once again. Small wonder all stories are the same, when the simple process of telling stories shapes the contents in the mold of itself. 

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To go further: “The first thing that confronts us in studying verbal structures is that they are arranged sequentially, and have to be read or listened to in time,” writes Northrop Frye in The Great Code. He goes on to say that myth means ”first of all, mythos, plot, narrative, or in general the sequential or­dering of words. As all verbal structures have some kind of sequence … all verbal structures are mythical in this primary sense.” 

In light of this, Campbell’s work con­tinues into places where Campbell him­self did not go. In his conversation with Moyers, he laments our “demytholo­gized” world (with its wayward youth) and seeks a new universal mythology: “The eye of reason, not of my national­ity; the eye of reason, not of my religious community; the eye of reason, not of my linguistic community.” But this is a myth that misses the point. The universal myth is already with us: Language is myth, and any communication in time partakes of the mythic nature Campbell described so well. 

This accounts for our sense that the more things change, the more they stay the same, our sense of what might be called inclusion — an infuriating realization that our history, our ideas, our very method of thought trap us within them­selves. Inclusion is at work, for instance, when Freud uses objections to his theory to prove his theory. It is inclusion when radical opponents of a system can only work change insofar as they shed their radical values and are absorbed into the system, or overturn the system and take on its oppressive nature. Each approach to the structure, each new dogma, is found finally to be bankrupt, because it is never more than a retelling of the same old story. Each attempt to isolate the story — as Roland Barthes did, for instance, in Mythologies — reiterates the story — as Barthes did with his holy trin­ity of signifier, signified, and sign. Inclu­sion, it seems clear, is an aspect of narrative thought because the method of narrative shapes all contents to its own form. 

Another way to represent that method is as a succession of authorities. The voice of authority implants itself in the listener, a new authority is born in the listener and so overturns the original voice. In short, narrative can be seen as an emanation of the complexes we think of as patriarchal. The sequential ordering of words, linear thought, mythic thought is a “patriarchal” endeavor. It is, after all, a patriarchal system that depends on a verbal or written lineage in conferring power over life and death. 

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These sexual images are only images, of course. Our flesh imposes the meta­phors of duality, even when we’ve learned not to impose the metaphors on our flesh. Following along with them, though, it is possible to find an alternative form of communication that, having what we consider “feminine” or yin features, has been largely devalued in the West. In Zen, it is called I shin den shin, meaning “from my soul to your soul,” i.e. word­lessly. It is central to a way of life in which, as the Tao te ching puts it, “those who know speak not.” A ”fixed world of fixed duties, roles, and possibilities,” stagnant and enraging as it may be, does create a society in which actions speak louder than words. This is the communi­cation of direct transmission, as life is communicated from mother to child. 

But as Campbell demonstrated, that silence, insofar as it partakes of life, ceaselessly returns to narrative thought just as narrative thought is always jour­neying toward silence. Whether the movement represents the motion of hero and cosmos, or lover and lover, or body and womb, or the mind and itself — and who’s to say which is the most pro­found? — every story can lead us to a sense of something beyond words, and from that sense we bring new symbols with which we may tell the story again. 

Campbell saw revelation and societal good in some of the moments when story and silence merge, but all that can really be said with certainty is that the conjunc­tion gives us pleasure, like sex, in and of itself. That, stripped of all other mean­ing, may be ”all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Whenever we speak, we tell stories — stories that sound like myths, stories that sound like scientific theories, stories that sound like religions, stories that sound like interpretations of all the stories ever told. When these sto­ries are well received, we experience a silent sense of pleasure, which satisfies us till we need to hear the tales once more. 

To imprison this pleasure in moral law is to lose a bit of paradise through the knowledge of good and evil. As with sex, our judgment need only attend to the different levels and qualities of physical and emotional satisfaction. By this stan­dard, Joseph Campbell, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, in the greatness of his prime, was a master mythmaker, a giver of bliss. 

And for that, more than anything else, may the Force be with him. ❖

Categories
From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Are You Ready For Rapping?

Ronnie Ron is a real
Smart smarty
Yesterday he gave

A death preview party
But I didn’t wanna go
Coulda got upset

So I cut
Cut
Cut him off
like a tee vee set

Are you “ready for this?” inquire the Funky Four Plus One in “That’s the Joint:” Are you ready for rapping? Many people are, heralding this counter­-polyrhythmic poetic litany as an art form, the “new wave” in black music. Others see it as an ugly fad, disgusting nigger music coming from those wretched “boxes,” aggravated aural assault/vandalism. It’s like the graffiti dilemma — is it art, or is it a nuisance? I think it’s an art form, but maybe I’m biased, because I come from the land of DJ Hollywood (the undisputed champeen of all rappers), Eddie Cheeba (“The Peoples Choice / the award winning voice / Eddie / Cheeba / Cheeba / Chee­-Chee-Chee-Cheeba”), and of course, Kurtis Blow (he’s on the go), to name a few. To paraphrase Kurtis Blowski, “A place called Harlem is my home.”

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Are you ready for this? Well I just can’t miss, a with a beat like this. The beat­ — the beatbeat — the fonky beat is the key to rapping. And that’s what turns a lot of white and black listeners off. The beat is a product of the street and all of its raw, primal, and instinctive energy. These transcontinental urban griots echo the de­spair, pain, and anger of the South Bronx and Harlem (the world’s two major rap centers), which a lot of the cool-jerk white liberals and b.s. black bourgeoisie don’t want to hear. Rapping reminds them that everything is not cool and correct on the home front, like punk rock in England and reggae in the Caribbean. In fact, the “toasting” records of the West Indies are reminiscent of American rap.

The James Brown D.T.P.R.s (dance/trance psychorhythms) of rapping were a welcome change, a disco deterrent from the psychoid Giorgio Moroder os­cillator/squelch wavelengths and the mechanized hustle, the ’70s version of Or­wellian Dancestand. This musical re­vitalization grew from the basements and parks and spread to rec centers and ballrooms, including the Renaissance at 118th Street and Seventh Avenue, the meeting place of the Harlem Renaissance several decades earlier. At the “Renny” (closed down because of gunpoint rob­beries by gangs known as stick-up kids and rampant angel dust usage), you could hear kids, some as young a 11 and 12, “mixing” (playing two records simultaneously, or in sequence, while miscegenating similar rhythm tracks from each record), or rapping over certain D.T.P.R. sections of “Good Times,” or spinning (a mixing technique of repeating a certain word or phrase on a particular record by retarding the movement of the turntable manually) Captain Sky’s soop-soop “Super Sporm.” Some of those pre-teenage deejays got so innovative on “Sporm” that they would create rhythms out of the scratchy noise of the vinyl near the label of the record. In essence, they made the turntable “talk.”

What a lot of the rap dissidents don’t realize is how difficult it is to rap to the beat. Even though Blondie’s “Rapture” is a hit, Debbie Harry’s execution is awkward: her syncopations off and her cadence out of time. Rapping requires the kind of adroit skill you see when little black girls perform the “Double Dutch” maneuver in jump-rope. The bass, percussion, and drums act as rotating rope rhythms while the rapper waits for the right time to jump, to move in and out of the groove on time and on the measure. If call and response aren’t exact the rap is a failure, so the groove has to be repetitive, precise steady, as on MFSB’s “Love Is the Message”, or the standard, Chic’s “Good Times.” On “Good Times” Bernard’s bass provides an anchor, a rock against which the emcee (who usually takes on the duty or rapping while the deejay “spins” the records, the most noted exception being D.J. Hollywood, the Il Padrone of rappers, who did both, expounded on themes of monetary security (“makin’ cold curren­cy”), sexual endurance (“I’ll lay ya right back on a steady pace”), and egotism (“the best emcee’s at the top of the pile”).

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Rap records have flooded the market ever since the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” D.J. Hollywood had “Shock Shock the House” on Epic, but it was a letdown to his thousands of fans, including myself. Hollywood seems to be laying low for the time being, but when and if he does make a comeback, everyone will have to take notice. ”The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow­zoski (a word/name nonsense game up­town), an eloquent, absurdist double-en­tendre rap dealing with bad luck, made him an international star. I didn’t like it when it first came out (preferred “Rappin’ Blow”), but the B. F. Skinner-type oper­ant rotation of the major radio stations had me programmed to intone: “And-­these-are-the-breaks.” The Sugarhill Gang’s latest offering, “8th Wonder” is interesting, with Big Bank Hank (a DJ Hollywood Memorex) and Wonder Mike cooling out in the background to let Mas­ter Gee “go off” with a fast and aggressive rap.

These rappers do the job, but they’re just specks in the powerful cyclone created by the two best crews in the world: the Funky-Four Plus One and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. After debuting with “Rock the House,” on Enjoy, the Funky Four came up with a minor master­piece called “That’s the Joint.” The bassline is heavy, accented from time to time with submachinegun riffs, while the five emcees’ rubbery polyrhythmic tradeoffs at the break help funk up the atmosphere. Sharock, the lone (1) female of the group, phrases with almost clinical authority, especially on “I got money/and-I-can-jerk.” Kevvy Kev is the apex, as he incants a mesmerizing rap about various emcees, basketball-dribbling phonetics and syllable fractions in his easy slur while the other emcees counterpoint against the double-time cadence of “Rock the house/rock rock the house.”

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But the most creative crew of all is Flash and the Furious Five, because they rap in unison, flawlessly. “Freedom,” on Sugarhill, is a monster jam highlighted by clockwork call-and-response and Cow­boy’s rap at the finale over finger snaps ­— that’s right, no music, just finger snaps. But their first release, “Superrappin,” also on Enjoy, is the classic rap record. They manipulate space and time to create symmetrical vocal patterns that envelope the groove; at one point they rap so fast that it’s hard to understand what they’re saying. All the emcees — Mr. Ness, Raheem, Kid Creole, Flash (even better­-known as a mixer than a rapper), and Cowboy, who rides the groove like his self­-styled “buckaroo of the bugaloo” — have great moments, but it’s Melly Mel who turns the record inside out. His speedy rap near the climax describes the vicious life cycle of a street hood. The story isn’t just exciting, it’s ingenious; his capsulized account of a brutal fate recalls what Jean Toomer did in Cane, condensing a life into a paragraph. This high-powered literary device is what will make “Superrappin” last. It should also be an example to rap­pers who limit themselves thematically to money, sex, and narcissism, because the audience will tire of the repetition. What rap records need to do if they are to have any longevity is to expand in content end direction. Rapping can be used to entertain and educate — “edu-tainment,” as the late Eddie Jefferson said. It could also be used to Reveal, like this:

The GRANDMASTER
Is cuttin faster
Listen to his spinnin sound
As the circle goes round n round
And His line goes on n on

Leadin to the break a dawn
Two figures that become as one
Known as “The Shape of Things to Come”
And you know that, Right?

(All quotes from “Real Rap,” by Barry B­elski and the Omniscient One)

Categories
CRIME ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Death Comes Out

It always starts with a phone call. This one comes on election night from a detective in Chelsea’s 10th Precinct. Some gay man got knifed to death in the early morning hours in his West 21st Street apartment. His roommate was knifed too, but managed to escape. The room­mate’s in the intensive care unit at St. Vincent’s. It seems they had picked up two guys at a gay bar and gone home and smoked. One of the pickups pulled a gun and said, “Lay on the floor, face down, you motherfuckers.” A bloody battle ensued. Could I come to headquarters and dis­cuss the case? They’d fill me in on details.

At 7 p.m. I’m at the precinct. Under an Etan Patz Missing poster, one of those bulky Irish detectives, the kind Edmund O’Brien played in ’50s movies, asks if I’d visit the local bars with them. They want to distribute “feeler” notices, which begin “There was a homicide and fel. assault of two (2) gay members of our community.” What the cops know so far is the pickup look place at a new semileather bar on Eighth Avenue, the Rawhide, half a block from the victim’s apartment and just around the corner from the precinct. At 11 p.m. the night before, George Alvarez, 32, went to the Rawhide, drank, played pin­ball, and struck up a conversation with two young men who claimed to be visitors from out of town. They needed a place to stay the night. There was no reason for George to doubt their story; they appeared clean-cut and well-mannered. Besides, George thought the shorter of the two was real hot. He suggested they adjourn to the Pike where he was suppsed to meet his roommate.

At the Spike on West Street, George’s roommate, Jay Utterback, 35, played pin­ball with the taller man while George and the short one drank and talked. About 2:30, the quartet headed for George and Jay’s four-room fourth-floor apartment. Grass came out. Sex was discussed. The out-of-towners insisted that they all bed together or they wouldn’t bed at all. George and Jay decided they didn’t want it that way; they suddenly wanted to call the whole thing off. The guests, however, refused to leave. They continued smoking grass in the living room.

At 3:30, the taller man went to the john. When he came out, he waved a pistol and ordered his hosts to fall to the floor. Neither realized the gun was a toy. What followed happened so quickly there was no time to know whether robbery was the motive. In a spontaneous flash of bravery, George jumped up. He pounced at the shorter of the two, who slashed at him with a knife. George struggled to the door. He ran down the stairs — his assailant behind him, cutting him several times — and finally out into the street. Dressed only in slacks, shoeless and shirtless, he ran to the Rawhide, where he collapsed. “Get to my apartment,” he muttered. “My roommate is still there.”

When the cops arrived at 231 West 21st Street, they found Jay Utterback in the hallway outside the apartment. He had been stabbed six times: in his face, head, body. Jay wasn’t as lucky as George. He was dead.

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Early election night. Shifts are about to switch at the Rawhide. The day bartender is counting his change. The three detec­tives working the case seem as indigenous to the bar as Rollerena would be at the Policeman’s Ball. They stride in, politely place their conspicuous frames in an in­ conspicuous corner, and decline drinks. One of them pulls out photos of Alvarez and Utterback.

“This one seems familiar,” offers the bartender, pointing at the shot of Alvarez, “except his mustache and beard is gone.”

“Was he here last night?”

“I told the detectives who were here last night everything.”

At the Spike, one of the co-owners is somewhat friendlier. Although there may have been 80 to 85 people at his bar last night, he thinks he’d have noticed anyone unusual. Unusual at the Spike is under 30 and attractive — and not sporting leather.

“We showed The Great Catherine last night,” the co-owner said, “but the movie was over by 12:30. Look, I wasn’t really working. I was a customer. Bruce, Tony, and Ed were on. But this one’s face, I recognize.”

The co-owner says sure, he’ll tack up the notice of the killing, and he’ll keep his ears open.

“Can you tell me your full name and age so I can fill in this form?” asks a cop.

“About 40.”

“You don’t know your age?”

“42.”

To play it safe, the cops pull the same routine at the Eagle’s Nest and the Glory Hole. In each spot, the managers are veritable pussycats, offering every ounce of cooperation they can muster. The Glory Hole guy does a spot check of his member­ship list. It is too early in the evening to view that unique pleasure concept in oper­ation — there are many things you can do with a hole in the wall — but the officers are fascinated by the layout. They manage to convey, however, that they’re not here to do moral numbers. They just want the facts, ma’am. In turn, there is a “thank Jesus, it’s not me” sigh of relief from the dockstrip personnel, along with an in­satiable curiosity about details, especially sexual details. To them, the names are different, but it’s a variation on an old theme, and they’ll do anything they can to help.

Riding in the back of a police car, you become aware that murder can be ev­eryday work, like selling shoes or styling hair. For the cops, this day is unique only because it’s election day. The radio is turned up. Carter has won two states. Reagan’s winning everything else.

We drop off one of the detectives at the precinct and drive toward the Alvarez­-Utterback block. Across the street from their house, we enter a building where each bell is rung and each tenant grilled. “No, we didn’t hear anything,” is the refrain repeated in each apartment except one, where the melody goes, “It’s so noisy all the time, I don’t know whether I did or didn’t.” What’s unusual about Chelsea is that the neighborhood doesn’t change from block to block, it changes from build­ing to building. We head toward London Terrace to check out a separate case. Somebody’s penthouse apartment he’s been burglar­ized for the 12th time in 11 months. “We thought you’d get o kick out of this one,” says the driver. “This guy has had a Doberman Pinscher, barbed wire, you name it, and they still break in.”

When we get there, the color television, one of the few pieces of furniture left, is blazing and the middle-aged robbery victim is packing his clothes, declaring, “I’ve had it. I’m selling what’s left. I’m getting out.” He and the detectives are on a first­-name basis, and they discuss just how the perpetrator entered — as they have many times before. “If I had the money, I’d put up a fuckin’ execution fence, so that they’d touch it and die,” says the pen­thouse dweller. “Ssh,” says his friend from in front of the TV. “I think Carter’s con­ceding.”

Everything stops. We move close to the television and watch Carter give his speech. “History in the making,” says a cop. “I can’t believe it’s happening,” says the penthouse dweller.

“What? Reagan?” asks the cop.

“No. My fuckin’ robbery.”

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News of murder spreads faster than hanky codes in New York gay circles. It doesn’t matter that the papers didn’t re­port the Chelsea murders. All week, the phone rings.

“This killing is just part of a pattern,” says Jay Watkins of the Chelsea Gay As­sociation. The group installed a Violence Hot Line five months ago. In the past two months, they’ve averaged 10 calls a week. Most incidents involve ripoffs, beatings, or rape done with knives, pistols, pipes, baseball bats, or beer bottles. People work­ing with the organization often return to the scene of the crime with the victim and will act as a conduit between victim and police.

With the gentrification of Chelsea came trouble. Gay witchhunts abound, especial­ly in the area around the Ninth Avenue housing projects. There have been un­provoked attacks on gay males by bands of white teenagers, with robbery almost an afterthought.

Since 1977, Chelsea Gay Association has been meeting with the 10th Precinct to discuss community relations, but the meetings became less frequent and stopped altogether several months ago. As a result of the Utterback killing, they’ll start up again on a biweekly basis in December.

Another call at 3 a.m., from a stranger who seems drunk and wants to know ev­erything I know about the murder because he knew Jay. He finishes by saying he voted for Carter; he feels there’ll be an increase in violence toward gays with Reagan in office.

Yet another call, from an employee of Time-Life who lives in the building next to George and Jay’s. At 3:45 a.m. on election day he was awakened by shouts for help from the street. By the time he got to the window, he could see someone running and gripping himself around the waist. The runner looked as if he had been either cut or shot.

The neighbor went downstairs. In the entranceway of the building next door he saw blood all over the walls and floors. The super told him he had seen a man in a white T-shirt running toward Seventh Av­enue. (The doorman at the corner building of Seventh and 21st also saw the man. Later, a T-shirt with blood stains was found on the street. It’s been sent to the police lab for tests.)

Nick Yanni, host of Tomorrow’s Tele­vision Tonight on cable, calls, too. Jay Utterback was his announcer and floor manager. On the night of his murder, Jay had appeared on the show for a brief moment along with special guests Dina Merrill, Doug Ireland, Bob Weiner, and Quentin Crisp. Jay went directly from the show to the Spike.

“Jay was a smart and steady person,” reports Yanni, “certainly not flaky. He brought guests in and out, signaled cues, announced station breaks.

“His friend George had been to the TV studio twice. I never could warm up to him. None of the people from our show who knew George liked him. They seemed incongruous as a couple. They weren’t from the same background or culture. George struck me as a hot-headed individ­ual.”

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St. Vincent’s Hospital. So easy to get in. All you do is tell the receptionist you want a pass. The cops should be protecting George. The only protection on the fourth· noor is a bevy of night nurses, armed with thermometers.

George isn’t in his room. He’s slouched in a chair in the corridor, wearing a blue nightgown. One arm is in a board-sling, and his complexion is sallow. He volun­teers to show me his wounds. I graciously decline. There are six stab wounds in all, the most serious in his stomach, the deepest in his arm. His stomach wound is infected, and he’s afraid he may have to stay in the hospital another week.

Can George remember the names of the men he met election eve?

“Every time you meet people, they give you names,” he replies. “I wasn’t worried about them. I thought they were lovers. They weren’t dressed crazy either, like in leather or cowboy hats. The little one wore a white shirt with a black design and ordinary slacks. He wore a chain around his neck with an astrological sign. I don’t know what sign. What I remember most were his eyes. They were light brown, almost yellow, like cats’. I’ll never forget his eyes.”

George and Jay had been lovers for six years. They met in Puerto Rico, and George came to New York to live with Jay. The first two years were great but the sexual magic lessened in the third. They came to an arrangement. Every so often, each would have his night out. Sometimes they’d bring home a third party, and once before they’d brought home a third and a fourth. No big deal; if it happened, it happened.

George is a social worker. He earns very little. Apart from his sister, he has no family in New York. He’s petrified about going back to the apartment while the killers are on the loose. But he can’t afford another place. And he doesn’t know any­one who’ll take him in.

During the visit, George shows no par­ticular emotion when Jay’s name comes up. If there are tears to be shed they’re shed privately. If there is guilt to be faced, it won’t be with a visitor. The signs of regret are invisible.

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Propriety is the prevailing emotion at the memorial service for Jay Utterback at the Ethical Culture Center on Central Park West. Most of the guests are Show­time TV employees, bright, white, straight young men and women who knew the straight face of Jay — a face so well main­tained that they didn’t bother to look for another.

Some of them speak at the podium. They reminisce about his enthusiasm, his laughter. They tell how “shocked and angered” they are by his death, how they are “still too numb to feel the loss.” They ask, “Why did this happen? How did it happen? There is no rational ex­planation.” They bow their heads and pray.

A pianist plays “Tomorrow” and the bright young men and women touch each other’s arms, smile wistfully, and say, “Jay would have wanted it this way.” They leave the center and head toward the RT. One of them, Debbie Copeland, joins me for coffee at the YMHA cafeteria.

“I’ve been so depressed,” she whispers. “Jay was my friend. I attended his funeral in Bellvernon, Pennsylvania. It’s real Deer Hunter country.”

“Jay went to public school there, then Ohio State University. He was a lieuten­ant in Okinawa. He operated a disco, I think, in Puerto Rico. That’s where he met George.

“I wouldn’t say that Jay and George were lovers. I don’t know what I’d call them. Roommates? That’s the term Jay used. Jay chose discretion. He was a real ladies’ man.”

Ladies’ man?

“Well, he was dapper and dressed im­peccably. Socially, he had inner grace.”

Was Debbie in love with him?

“Everyone loved Jay as a friend. Noth­ing more. Nothing physical. I think inside we all knew about his relationship with George. George would go to company parties. Jay would introduce him by name: ‘This is my friend,’ he’d say, or ‘This is my roommate.’ We’d never whis­per anything behind his back. It’s im­polite. Everyone at Showtime loved him too much to embarrass him.”

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Back at the precinct, November 10. Detective Michael Churchill, who’s been working exclusively on the case, reports some progress.

On October 26, a Rutherford, New Jersey man met two strangers at Boot Hill,, gay bar at Amsterdam and 75th. They said they were from out of town and needed, place to stay for the night. He drove them back to New Jersey, where they smoked and drank until one of them excused himself to go to the bathroom. When he came out, he brandished a gun and snarled, “This is a robbery. We’re not joking. Lay down on that bed.” The second man had a hunting knife.

They proceeded to tie up their victim with telephone cord and neckties. Then they cleaned him out completely.

They took inconsequential items like salt and pepper shakers, thermal underwear, socks, the light from a fish tank, and a pair of Adidas sneakers, as well as an overcoat, suits, cameras, a Clairol hair. dryer, a Panasonic tape recorder, and a Sears color TV. Everything was piled into the victim’s 1980 black Toyota, New Jer­sey license plate 844-LXE, in which they made their getaway.

Later the victim described his attackers to the police.

The little one called himself Tony. He was white, between 18 and 23, five foot five, 115 to 120 pounds. His hair was black, complexion light, eyes almost yellow, lips sensuously thick, nose too small for the rest of his face. He had the face of a little girl.

The bigger one was called Michael. He was about five foot ten, 150 pounds, 20 to 25 years of age, sported a little mustache, looked Italian. Both had New York ac­cents.

They fit the description of Jay Ut­terback’s murderers.

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Early Thursday morning, November 20. The phone rings. It’s Chuck Ortleb, publisher of Christopher Street. A mad­man opened fire at the patrons of the Ramrod, he says. One man dead. Another dying. Several more in the hospital.

God, they could be people I know. We all hang out there.

It could have been me.

That night, Chuck and I meet at Sher­idan Square. We’ve met there many times before to march with love on Gay Pride Day and with anger each time our civil rights bill is defeated. Tonight we meet in sadness.

The Chelsea Gay Association is there. The Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights. But most of us—  about 1000 in all — are individuals who have heard the news, heard it too many times before, but never so blatant and violent as this time. The gunman, Ronald Crumpley, has told po­lice the reason for his shooting spree: “I just don’t like faggots.”

We hold lighted candles and march west on Christopher. The mood is somber. A man beats slowly on a drum. “Gay life isn’t cheap,” yells a marcher. The cry is picked up. “Gay life isn’t cheap.” Until it’s a roar.

We pass Ty’s. “Out of the bars and into the streets.” We stop at Trilogy. Patrons leave their drinks and join the procession.

Near West Street, we see a long trail of blood on the pavement — a vivid reminder of the massacre. A sign at Badlands says the bar is closed to honor the dead. We reach the Ramrod. The street is cordoned off. Dozens of bunches of daisies — blue, white, and yellow — are clustered in front of a window splattered with bullet holes the size of oranges. Mourners place their candles on the doorstep.

A man makes a speech. “There are now two dead,” he says, “and we can’t go on with life as usual when our brothers have been murdered … We have elected to office the new moral majority who preach bigotry. Things won’t get better: it’s going to get worse.”

The speaker asks for two minutes’ silent prayer.

And then the shout erupts again. “Gay life isn’t cheap.” Louder. Fists in the air. “Gay life isn’t cheap.”

At the Chelsea precinct the search for Jay Utterback’s killers goes on. ❖

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SETTING IT STRAIGHT

The evening after the Ramrod killings, Edward Thulman, a 21-year-old self-described hustler, showed up at the Post declaring he had been Ronald Crumpley’s lover. Thulman claimed the massacre took place because he wouldn’t go out with Crumley anymore — “He had gotten too crazy.” Their liaison, he said, had taken place at a fleabag hotel on Eighth  at 48th Street during a six-month period. The Post quoted Lieutenant John Yuknes, chief detective on the case: “We have no reason to believe Thulman’s not telling the truth. His story appears to stand up.” Reached by phone before press time, Yuknes insisted that the Post used only half his statement. “I told them we had no reason to believe that Thulman’s telling the truth either. Nothing has popped up yet to connect these two guys.”

Yuknes asked Thulman why he went to the Post before going to the police.

“Because they’d pay me.” Thulman said the Post paid him $100.

When told of the accusation, Steve Dunleavy, managing editor at the Post said that aside from $20 which the Post paid for taxis, no money was given Edward Thulman.

Jiog Wentz, doorman at the Ramrod, and Vernon Kroenig, organist at St. Joseph’s Church, were killed in the spray of bullets which hit the Ramrod. Richard Huff, Rene Matute, and Tom Ron are in fair condition at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Olaf Gravesen is in satisfactory condition at St. Vincent’s.

A fund is being started to aid the sur­vivors of the shootings. Contributions may c§ be sent to The November 19th Fund, care of Washington Square Methodist Church, 135 West 48th Street, New York, NY 0 10012. Approximately 1000 people at­tended a memorial service at the church.

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CRIME ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Priest and The Mob

CHRISTMAS EVE MASS has just ended at St. Athanasius Church in the South Bronx. Three little girls in angel costumes and a trio of pa­rishioners dressed as the three wise men stream outside into a cool mist blowing on Tiffany Street. Inside, the 80-year-old church is glow­ing in the warm light of hundreds of red and white candles. To the left of the altar, churchgoers gather around Father Louis Gigante and ex­change holiday greetings.

For many families in the Hunts Point community, the 56-year-old Gigante is a saint. He has been credited with single­handedly halting an urban death march by rescuing sections of the South Bronx from arsonists and abandonment. In the last 10 years, the South East Bronx Com­munity Organization, a not-for-profit housing group founded by the Catholic priest and politician, has developed al­most 2000 new or renovated housing units for low-income families in the area and hundreds more are in the works. Gi­gante and SEBCO — of which he is presi­dent and chairman — have helped resur­rect a neighborhood where garbage­-strewn lots once stood.

As Gigante later guides his gray Cadil­lac down Southern Boulevard and out of the South Bronx, his parishioners return to the housing projects that surround St. Athanasius. While the priest, known to all as “Father G.,” once was a fixture at the church, these days church members usually see Gigante only on the Sundays he says mass. He spends less and less time at St. Athanasius and, in fact, no longer lives in its rectory. It is unclear where Gigante actually resides, but neigh­bors say he does not live in either of the Manhattan apartments he owns, and his upstate home is almost a four-hour drive from the Bronx. Where once the streets of the South Bronx were Gigante’s backyard, they now seem to interest him purely in terms of their profit potential. The housing built for his hard-pressed Latino parish may be Gigante’s public legacy, but it is not the selfless contribution of a saint.

A four-month Voice investigation of Gigante and SEBCO has revealed that the priest and his publicly financed developments have been a $50 million opportunity for the Mafia. The homes that Gigante’s parishioners live in — senior citizen projects, one- and two-family houses, large and small apartment buildings — have been built, to a large extent, by companies owned by or affiliated with top-ranking members of the Genovese or­ganized crime family. For years, Gigante has been close to the leadership of the crime syndicate, a relationship that has a distinctly personal side to it: the Geno­vese gang includes Father Gigante’s brothers Mario and Ralph, and is now run by the priest’s eccentric older broth­er, Vincent “The Chin” Gigante.

In the course of the investigation, the Voice examined thousands of documents concerning SEBCO from city, state, and federal agencies and conducted inter­views with numerous law enforcement officials, public officials, and friends of the priest. Other documents obtained by the Voice revealed that in addition to con­tracts for SEBCO developments, mob-­connected contractors have received more than $80 million in other city, state, and federal contracts over the past six years.

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At the same time that Father Gigante’s operations have been profiting these mob-tied construction companies, the priest has enriched himself. Gigante’s business transactions appear to be laced with instances of fraud, conflict of inter­est, misrepresentation, and misuse of public funds. SEBCO has been used to make him a wealthy man.

These revelations about Gigante and SEBCO come at a time when Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau and the state’s Organized Crime Task Force, headed by Ronald Goldstock, are in the midst of a broad investigation into labor racketeering in the construction industry. The probe, which has already resulted in the indictment of Gambino boss John Gotti, is also targeting three of Father Gigante’s close associates, including his chief assistant.

Father Gigante’s considerable sway over construction in the Bronx, an indus­try long controlled by the Genovese synd­icate, first came to the attention of prosecutors by way of wiretapped phone conversations. Building contractors have been overheard discussing Bronx construction projects — which have nothing to do with SEBCO — that still “have to be cleared by Father.”

Gigante declined to be interviewed for his story, stating, “There’s no reason to talk to you. I don’t deem it important to talk to you about SEBCO.” While he has ever denied his personal relationships with Mafia figures — he has attended their birthday parties and conducted their funeral masses — Gigante has said on numerous occasions that he is not “involved” with organized crime. The priest has claimed that his brothers are not Mafia members, that his family has been persecuted by law enforcement offic­ials because of an “Italian stereotype,” and that, in fact, the Mafia does not actually exist. While his three brothers are listed on FBI intelligence reports as Genovese members, Father Gigante is not considered to be a member or an “asso­ciate” of the Genovese organization or, for that matter, of any of the city’s four other crime families.

While the specter of organized crime has hung over Louis Gigante for 30 years, it has never impeded his rise to power in New York. By force of will — and with a little help from his clerical collar — Gi­gante has been able to brush aside ques­tions about his “connections.” He has been a player in city affairs since the late ’60s and probably now has more clout than at any other time in his career. A favorite with city and federal housing of­ficials, the priest currently has about $70 million worth of construction projects in the pipeline for SEBCO. Cardinal John O’Connor refers to him as the Catholic Church’s “master builder,” and city poli­ticians — including Ed Koch and other prominent figures — have sought his ad­vice and support.

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THE PRIEST AND THE HOOD

GROWING UP on the lower West Side, Louis and Vincent Gigante, from early on, took different career tracks.

The Gigante boys’ parents immigrated in 1921. Salvatore worked as a watch­maker and Yolanda sewed garments in a factory, often taking home work at night. The couple, like many other Italian im­migrants in lower Manhattan, had to raise their children in the midst of orga­nized crime. But Salvatore Gigante made it a point to steer clear of the amico nostra. The same, however, could not be said for Vincent and two other sons.

Of the five Gigante boys, Louis, the youngest, was the star. A good student, he first made his mark playing basketball, beginning at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx and then at George­town University, which he attended on an athletic scholarship. Though known for his tenacious defense, Louis had a good outside shot and once scored 24 points against George Washington University. After graduation, Gigante entered St. Jo­seph’s Seminary in Yonkers. He was or­dained a priest in 1959 at the age of 27.

While Louis Gigante was excelling on the court, Vincent Gigante was often in one: His arrest record dates back to his teens. Vincent’s sport of choice was box­ing. His manager was Thomas (Tommy Ryan) Eboli, a well-known local hoodlum. Though not a bad puncher, Vincent didn’t have his little brother’s defensive prowess — he had a glass jaw, which, the legend goes, earned him the nickname “The Chin.” (Years later, after Eboli was rubbed out on a Brooklyn street in 1972, Chin Gigante immediately took over Eboli’s vast bookmaking operations. Fa­ther Gigante performed the mobster’s fu­neral mass.)

Vincent was best known in the mid-­’50s as the bodyguard and chauffeur for then-rising mafioso Vito Genovese. Chin Gigante first made headlines in 1957, when he was arrested for the shooting of underworld boss Frank Costello. Gigante, then 29, was eventually acquitted of at­tempted murder charges after Costello refused to identify his assailant. (Costello did, however, heed the warning and step aside, allowing Genovese to replace him on the Mafia’s ruling “commission.” Lat­er that year, Genovese consolidated pow­er and became “boss of all bosses” by ordering the barbershop rubout of Albert Anastasia, chief executioner for Murder, Inc.)

In 1960, both Chin Gigante and Geno­vese were sent to prison following their convictions on narcotics conspiracy charges. At this time, police records listed two other Gigante brothers, Mario and Ralph, as Genovese crime family mem­bers who were suspected of involvement in illegal gambling and loan-sharking activities.

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After being ordained, Louis Gigante was assigned to a parish in Puerto Rico, where he lived for two years — and learned to speak Spanish — before moving into St. James Church on the Lower East Side. It was at St. James that Gigante earned the reputation of a “ghetto priest.” A World Telegram headline once exclaimed that his “Good Works Atone for Brother Who Went Wrong.” Father Gigante’s image as a hard-knocks priest — like the film heroes played by Pat O’Brien — began to appear in the papers: the Journal American reported in 1961 that Louis single-handedly prevented a rumble between 200 “wild-eyed youths who seemed eager for combat” outside the Catherine Street projects.

In 1962, Louis Gigante was assigned to St. Athanasius Church in Hunts Point, a crumbling South Bronx neighborhood. It was the deterioration that brought Gi­gante into Bronx politics, primarily through the fight for funding of various antipoverty programs. His main oppo­nent was Ramon Velez, whom he once labeled a “poverty pimp” and “communi­ty eater.”

The priest lost his first bid for elective office in 1970, when Herman Badillo beat him, Velez, and Peter Vallone, for the seat in the 21st Congressional District. Gi­gante’s election-day poll watchers includ­ed the sister and the son of Mafia boss Joe Colombo, whom the priest knew through his involvement with the Italian American Civil Rights League. Minutes after Colombo was shot during a 1971 league rally at Columbus Circle, Gigante calmed the crowd and began leading it in prayer.

In 1973, Father Gigante ran for City Council and scored a 107-vote victory over William Del Toro. But except for his surprising support of the gay rights bill, Gigante’s four years on the council were undistinguished. While the priest never enjoyed the legislative end of politics, he loved the clubhouse aspect of it: patron­age, brokering deals, and making judges. At a Harvard University lecture he once revealed his goal: “I’m in politics to be­come a political boss, and I want to be a boss to get the power.”

Father Gigante closed out his council term in 1977. Not long after, he served a week in the Queens House of Detention for refusing to answer grand jury ques­tions about conversations he had with Genovese soldier James “Jimmy Nap” Napoli back in 1974 while the mobster was imprisoned at Rikers. Prosecutors believed that Gigante was either trying to use his political pull to get the gambling kingpin special privileges or that he may have been carrying messages for Napoli. Gigante cited his “priest’s privilege” not to repeat the private conversations.

Upon his release from jail, Father Gi­gante told supporters that his family was not involved in organized crime and that the Mafia did not exist.

Soon after, Gigante began his new ca­reer as a developer of low-income hous­ing. The priest’s new power base — with its attendant discretionary power over millions of dollars in construction con­tracts — would bring him even closer to the Genovese hierarchy and his brother Vincent, whom he was even then describ­ing as “mentally incompetent.”

1989 Village Voice article by William Bastone on Father Gigante and his brother the mobster Vincent

THE “CHIN”

LIKE HIS BROTHER THE PRIEST, Chin Gigante may now be at the height of his power.

Chin Gigante, 60, goes to work each day at the Triangle Social Club at 208 Sullivan Street. It is from this storefront, and another at 229 Sullivan, that, law enforcement officials say, Gigante directs the operations of the Genovese family.

Gigante became head of the crime syn­dicate, according to police and FBI rec­ords, after Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, the previous boss, was convicted in 1986 on federal racketeering charges. Until that time, Gigante was listed as the fam­ily’s “underboss,” though a former Geno­vese soldier has recently testified that Gigante actually became boss in 1981, after Salerno suffered a stroke.

Gigante gives the impression that he is crazy. Two weeks ago, with the tempera­ture at 35 degrees, Gigante, accompanied by two bodyguards, was seen walking on Sullivan Street in a royal blue hooded bathrobe and striped pajama pants. Once, when Gigante was sought for questioning by the FBI, an agent found him hiding in the shower of his mother’s apartment. He was naked and standing under the run­ning water. He was not wet, however: the umbrella he held over his head kept him dry. Intercepted conversations, some in­volving former Brooklyn boss Meade Esposito, also revealed that Genovese as­sociates had a strange code name for Gi­gante. Whenever they wanted to talk about the Genovese boss without using his name, they referred to him as “Aunt Julia.”

While law enforcement sources believe Gigante does have some mental prob­lems — he enters an upstate sanatorium for “annual tune-ups” — they believe he acts nuts to raise doubts about his con­trol of the family. Secret wiretaps have captured a lucid Gigante discussing fam­ily business with his associates. Despite his act, sources say, Gigante is in full control of the Genovese family and, as such, personally gets a cut of all activities of the brugad (see sidebar, “Is ‘Chin’ Sane?” below).

Chin Gigante lives in an $800,000 East Side townhouse with Olympia Esposito, his longtime companion, and three of his children. The Genovese boss, who some law enforcement officials believe is more powerful than John Gotti, does not share the Gambino boss’s flair: Gigante will not be seen wearing white linen raincoats or drinking at P. J. Clarke’s. He does not eat in restaurants, and his principal clothing accessory — besides his bathrobe — is the ratty fisherman’s cap he wears shading a face battered by boxing. He will never be mistaken for the “Dapper Don.”

In fact, there is no love lost between the country’s two most powerful mob­sters: Louis “Bobby” Manna (a/k/a “The Thin Man”), Gigante’s consigliere, is un­der indictment in New Jersey for conspir­ing to murder Gotti and his brother Gene, a Gambino captain. Law enforce­ment sources say that a planned hit on the Gotti brothers could never happen without Gigante’s approval, but prosecu­tors have been unable to develop evidence to link the Genovese boss to the murder conspiracy.

More importantly, what distinguishes Gigante from Gotti and the chiefs of the other three city crime families is that, since becoming a power in the Genovese organization, Gigante has been able to escape any Mafia-connected criminal prosecution.

Gigante usually avoids telephone con­versations — they might be bugged — and carries out business from behind a layer of crime family members. He has success­fully insulated himself from direct in­volvement in the family’s criminal enter­prises, principally by limiting his conversations to only a few associates close to him. These talks never occur inside the Triangle, where a sign warns, “Don’t talk in here. The FBI is listening to you.” Chin Gigante’s important con­versations are saved for walks around the same Greenwich Village streets where he and his brother Louis were raised.

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SEBCO AND THE WISEGUYS

LABOR RACKETEERING has been de­scribed by one law enforcement official as “graduate school” for Mafia members. While most low-level Genovese family members are involved in mob staples like hijacking, loan-sharking, gambling, and prostitution, the control of labor unions and construction companies has usually been the province of the Genovese hierar­chy. This is mainly because of the com­plexity of some deals, as well as the enormous profit potential of these enterprises.

The high-profit stakes were never bet­ter revealed than in testimony and evi­dence introduced during a federal racke­teering trial last year, which showed that Genovese leaders masterminded a scheme to rig bids on every city concrete contract worth more than $2 million. Through kickbacks and hidden interests in concrete companies, family leaders made millions in a scheme that involved the fixing of more than $130 million worth of these contracts. Investigators believe that the crime family has also operated similar “clubs” in various other ends of the construction industry.

Thanks to its control of unions dealing with plasterers, laborers, truckers, car­penters, and other workers, the Genovese gang has often been able to dictate which construction companies will get certain jobs. “Our real power, our real strength, came from the unions,” former Genovese soldier Vincent “Fish” Cafaro testified last year. “With the unions behind us, we could make or break the construction industry … ”

SENATOR SAM NUNN: What about subcontractors?

VINCENT CAFARO: Well, now there’s some contractors is usually around wise­guys, so you get the plumber, he is look­ing fo the job …

NUNN: So the wiseguy helps control the subcontractor?

CAFARO: Yes. Yes.

NUNN: In other words they help the con­tractor get the job?

CAFARO: Then there is a subcontractor — ­if you got, let us say a plumber with you, or an electrician, or a carpenter, or the drywalls, you go to the contractor, you tell him, listen, give him this job, whatev­er. And that is how you get him.

NUNN: Do the wiseguys get money back from the subcontractor by helping them get the job?

CAFARO: Yes. Yes.

NUNN: So basically they are controlling everything from one end to the other.

CAFARO: Top to bottom.

NUNN: Top to bottom?

CAFARO: Sure.

Cafaro’s testimony before the U.S. Senate subcommittee on investigations, chaired by Senator Sam Nunn, April 29, 1988.

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SEBCO’S SILENT PARTNER

TOP TO BOTTOM, SEBCO developments show the hand of the Genovese crime family. Under Father Gigante’s leader­ship, SEBCO has permitted organized crime onto jobs, from the demolition of rotting tenements to the construction of walls to the installation and maintenance of elevators. At the center of the mob’s decade-long involvement with Father Gi­gante is Vincent DiNapoli, the Genovese family’s construction specialist, who has, for years, directed a network of construc­tion companies and businessmen tied to the mob. DiNapoli, who is now impris­oned, and Steven Crea, his protege and heir apparent, have been pivotal in the syndicate’s relationship with Father Gi­gante and SEBCO since 1979, when it first became deeply involved in low-in­come housing construction.

Vincent DiNapoli, 51, is an accom­plished fixer and a three-time felon. He was sentenced last year to 24 years in jail for his role in the concrete conspiracy. Though a prior conviction should have barred DiNapoli from receiving munici­pal contracts, two drywall companies that state investigators say are controlled by the mobster have secured more than $16 million worth of SEBCO contracts, as well as more than $60-million in munici­pal contracts since 1980.

The two firms — Inner City Drywall and Cambridge Drywall — were both founded by DiNapoli in 1978. Though he had no prior experience in drywall — the construction of interior walls in build­ings — DiNapoli’s companies secured more than $25 million in federally fi­nanced contracts during their first three years in business. Most of these contracts were on projects financed by the federal Department of Housing and Urban De­velopment.

SEBCO has provided Cambridge with more than $6 million in drywall and car­pentry work since 1980, records reviewed by the Voice reveal. The firm has also received contracts worth more than $15 million from other governmental agen­cies — including the New York City Hous­ing Authority and the federally financed Newport City development in New Jer­sey. Investigators believe that DiNapoli’s stature in the Genovese family allowed him to get most of these lucrative con­tracts — including the SEBCO jobs­ — without any competitive bidding. Inner City and Cambridge came onto jobs as subcontractors. Normally devel­opers hire a “general contractor” to man­age the construction site and to hire sub­contractors — the building trade’s specialists — who handle various facets of the construction project, from pouring concrete foundations to planting trees. At the city, state, and federal levels, general contractors doing government work are routinely subjected to nominal back­ground checks, but subcontractors rarely are scrutinized. In fact, many of the gov­ernmental agencies contacted by the Voice have no idea which subcontrac­tors — the companies actually building publicly financed projects — are working, or have worked, for them.

Following DiNapoli’s 1981 indictment, HUD officials placed him and his firms on what the agency calls its “debarment” list (see sidebar, “Federal Fraud”). But Cambridge and Inner City were removed from the list of ineligible contractors only a few months later when DiNapoli pre­sented documents showing that he had apparently sold his shares in the firms. Since their reinstatement, Inner City and Cambridge have each received dozens of federal housing and other municipal con­tracts, including every major SEBCO drywall contract during the last eight years. Drywall work is usually the largest subcontract awarded in rehabilitation projects. A report released by the state Orga­nized Crime Task Force in 1988 conclud­ed that DiNapoli “has long controlled” the two firms. The Voice has also devel­oped information that DiNapoli never di­vested himself of the drywall business.

In the midst of his 18-month racke­teering trial, DiNapoli held meetings in bis Pelham Manor home regarding construction business, according to law en­forcement sources. In fact, one of these meetings was taking place when the Voice visited DiNapoli’s home in November 1987. Automobiles in the driveway were registered to a Manhattan plasterers lo­cal; Bronx union boss and Genovese asso­ciate Louis Moscatiello; and attorney Vincent Velella, the father of State Sena­tor Guy Velella.

Until last summer, Cambridge Drywall operated out of a storefront at 2242 First Avenue, a building owned by Vincent “Fish” Cafaro; FBI surveillance has shown that various members of the Gen­ovese family regularly used Cambridge’s office as a meeting place. The firm has also operated from 2368 Westchester Ave­nue in the Bronx, a building owned by DiNapoli and three associates. In addi­tion, city records reveal that Cambridge has owned a pair of private homes on Kenilworth Place in the Bronx that have been the residences of Cafaro and Car­mine Della Cava, another powerful Geno­vese soldier.

HUD records indicate that DiNapoli’s interest in Cambridge was reportedly bought out by Larry Wecker for $900,000 in May 1981. An affidavit signed by Wecker in June 1981 states DiNapoli “maintains no control and exercises no influence” over the firm. The sale was not an arms-length transaction, however. FBI sources say that Wecker, 48, is considered an “associate” of the Genovese family and that he regularly visited DiNapoli at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecti­cut. The subcontractor and his wife live in an East Side co-op and own a $400,000 home on the edge of a golf course in Plantation, Florida. Wecker did not re­spond to a dozen messages left with his answering service.

SEBCO also gave over $1 million in subcontracts to another company linked to DiNapoli, Three Star Drywall. The company’s owner, Arthur Felcon, who has two criminal convictions, was a defense witness during DiNapoli’s 1982 trial. When pressed by prosecutors about Di­Napoli’s role in the drywall industry, Fel­con clammed up: “I don’t ask anybody who’s associated with anybody.” Felcon could not be reached for comment.

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TRANSFER OF POWER

DINAPOLI’S LEGAL PROBLEMS over the past five years have made a rising star of Steven Crea, 41, a longtime DiNapoli friend and business partner, who is listed in FBI records as a “made” member of the Genovese family. Crea now plays an important role for the syndicate in vari­ous aspects of the construction industry, which, according to law enforcement sources, has gotten Crea closely involved with Father Gigante and the SEBCO developments.

Crea is described by investigators as a “money man.” He grew up on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx surrounded by wise­guys, and now lives in a sprawling home just across the street from DiNapoli. Crea is the godfather of DiNapoli’s daughter Deborah, and he arranged her engage­ment and wedding parties while her fa­ther was in prison.

Following DiNapoli’s jailing in 1983, FBI records reveal, Crea was designated by Chin Gigante to “assume Vincent DiNapoli’s former role” in the construc­tion “rehab” industry. Federal prison re­cords show that Crea visited DiNapoli more than 35 times in the first 16 months of DiNapoli’s incarceration in Danbury, and investigators believe that these meetings concerned the duo’s joint real estate and construction investments.

Crea’s federal tax returns from 1979 to 1983 reveal that he drew salaries each year from both DiNapoli drywall firms: Cambridge — a total of $170,000 from ’79 to ’83 — and Inner City — $86,468 in 1982 and $67,032 in 1983. According to federal prosecutors, Crea is believed to still own stock in both firms, though Cambridge recently went bankrupt, with creditors claiming more than $4.5 million in un­paid debts.

Vincent DiNapoli reported selling his 40 per cent interest in Inner City Drywall in April 1981, according to an affidavit signed by Antonio Rodrigues, the compa­ny’s president. But as with Cambridge Drywall and Larry Wecker, investigators say, DiNapoli’s influence over Inner City and Rodrigues has never really abated. Rodrigues did not return Voice calls to his New Rochelle office.

The ongoing relationship between DiNapoli and Inner City is apparent in some of their real estate transactions and other business dealings. Though Inner City is headquartered in New Rochelle, the firm often conducts business out of a DiNapoli-owned storefront at 1237 Castle Hill Avenue in the Bronx. The site is also home to the DiNapoli printing and waste-hauling businesses. In April 1985, Inner City gave a real estate company owned by Vincent DiNapoli and Crea a $450,000 mortgage on a Bronx property that was purchased three years earlier for only $15,000. And last July, Inner City transferred ownership of a 1976 white Cadillac Eldorado to Crea’s 17-year-old son.

Father Gigante too can be counted among Steven Crea’s business associates and personal friends. In 1985, after Crea was convicted of conspiracy in connec­tion with a plot to kill a Bronx man who Crea believed had assaulted his wife, Fa­ther Gigante wrote a personal appeal for leniency to the sentencing judge, calling Crea a “special friend” who once helped him fight the “onslaughts of crime and housing deterioration” in the South Bronx. (Crea’s conviction was overturned in 1987.) A 1982 FBI affidavit stated that Gigante’s crime-fighting friend was sus­pected of “loansharking, gambling, and narcotics activities.”

Inner City has grown over the past 10 years into one of the metropolitan area’s chief drywall contractors, according to an industry source. The company and its subsidiaries have received more than $10 million in SEBCO contracts since 1980, and the firm has secured at least $40 million in other municipal contracts. This total includes a $19 million joint venture with developer Samuel Pompa for the New York City Housing Author­ity, as well as more than $10 million in current work with the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development. While some of the contracts were award­ed on a low-bid basis, many others are were subcontracts that involved no competitive bidding.

But Steven Crea’s new clout in the Genovese gang and SEBCO-tied con­struction has a downside: he has recently come under intense scrutiny by state and federal law enforcement agencies.

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CLOSE TO HOME

PART OF THE Morgenthau-Goldstock probe, according to investigative sources, is focusing on Crea; Mario Tolisano, Fa­ther Gigante’s right-hand man at SEBCO; and union leader Louis Mosca­tiello, in connection with various labor racketeering offenses. As part of the probe, prosecutors have subpoenaed SEBCO’s financial records for the past three years. A special 11-month grand jury has been empaneled, and indict­ments are expected within the next few months.

Sources have told the Voice that the investigation, which has involved the ex­tensive use of wiretaps, has centered, in part, on Tolisano’s role as the link between a “club” of contractors and Mosca­tiello, in the “covering” of construction jobs. This process, once a Vincent DiNa­poli specialty, results in contractors being allowed to illegally hire cheaper, non­union laborers for projects that are sup­posed to “go union.”

Tolisano is a protege of Father Gigante, and over the last 10 years the 39-year-old has been instrumental in planning and developing every SEBCO housing project. Tolisano last year ran his friend Philip Foglia’s unsuccessful campaign for Bronx district attorney, an effort partially fi­nanced by SEBCO contractors and supported by Father Gigante (see sidebar, “Pols and the Mob”). Foglia’s father, a former police detective, has been head of SEBCO’s security division since 1981.

The Voice spoke briefly with Tolisano last month and gave him an outline of areas to be discussed in an interview. Tolisano said that he would confer with Father Gigante and call back, but never did so. Ten subsequent calls placed to Tolisano’s office also went unreturned.

In addition, investigators are examin­ing Moscatiello’s role as a “broker” be­tween this club of contractors and officials from other unions. As president of Local 530 of the plasterers union, Mosca­tiello, 51, was paid $64,000 in 1987. He is very close to Vincent DiNapoli and Fa­ther Gigante, both of whom supported his unsuccessful 1982 bid for City Coun­cil. Father Gigante has referred to Mosca­tiello as “the most honest man I know.” According to labor investigators, Local 530 was formed with DiNapoli’s assis­tance and has served as a “sweetheart” local for contractors, paying workers less and offering fewer benefits.

[In addition to Gigante and Tolisano, the Voice attempted to question four oth­er SEBCO officials. Father William Smith, SEBCO’s secretary and a 10-year board member, declined to be inter­viewed, claiming, “I stopped giving inter­views in 1971.” Board member Vincent Molinari also refused to talk to the Voice. The other board members, who share a Manhattan apartment, did not respond to messages left at their residence.]

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FOR “THE BOYS”

THE 1982 LABOR RACKETEERING CASE involving Father Gigante’s friend Vincent DiNapoli exposed some of the inner workings of the subcontracting under­world. In this instance, DiNapoli and Theodore Maritas, then president of the District Council of Carpenters, conspired to rig a bid for Petina Associates — a long­time major contractor for SEBCO and the New York City Housing Authority, with more than $35 million in municipal contracts. In addition, one of the firms that prosecutors charged had conspired with DiNapoli and Maritas to submit in­flated bids was controlled by builder Sid­ney Silverstein, who is currently handling more than $22 million in SEBCO jobs and $30 million in other city housing projects.

After his first trial ended in a hung jury in 1982, Vincent DiNapoli pleaded guilty to labor racketeering charges in Brooklyn federal court. One of the specific counts of the indictment for which DiNapoli ad­mitted guilt involved an amazing shake­down of a small building contractor. The outline of the conspiracy was secretly re­corded and videotaped by the FBI in Maritas’s Manhattan office.

On the tape, Maritas and DiNapoli ex­plained to the contractor that he had stumbled into their plan to fix a $5.5 million contract for Petina to perform renovations on a group of Chelsea brown­stones. Maritas told the small business­man that he and DiNapoli had “set up” the owner of the brownstones with inflat­ed bids so that “a certain guy got the job.” Maritas then explained to the con­tractor that “everybody had been in on it, and you come along, innocently, okay, and come in a million less than the low bidder … You’re in the middle of a big ball game, my friend.” Maritas then add­ed, “If you were just some guy we didn’t know … you would have problems. … We’d go for your eyeballs.”

DiNapoli chimed in that various “con­nected” individuals were involved in the scheme and that the job had been “regis­tered.” DiNapoli eventually gave the con­tractor the choice of either taking $100,000 to get off the job or going back to the owner of the brownstones and re­questing an additional $100,000 for “the boys.” But before the contractor returned with an answer, the undercover investiga­tion was terminated, and charges were brought against Maritas, DiNapoli, and five others.

With the exception of Maritas, every defendant in the DiNapoli racketeering case pleaded guilty. Maritas’s first trial ended in a hung jury. But in March 1982, before he could be retried on the federal charges, the labor leader disappeared. Maritas’s wallet was later found floating near the Throgs Neck Bridge. Investiga­tors believe he was the victim of a Geno­vese-sanctioned hit.

Petina Associates, the contractor who would have gotten the rigged bid, is con­trolled by Peter DeGennaro, a neighbor of Crea and DiNapoli in Pelham Manor. Since 1982, the firm has received $19.6 million in contracts from the New York City Housing Authority for the construc­tion and rehabbing of public housing. The company has done more than $6 million worth of work for SEBCO over the past eight years. An additional $8 million has been earned by DeGennaro’s company from city agencies such as the Police Department and Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Father Gigante had lined up Petina to do a $7 million small-homes project in 1984, but when SEBCO encountered problems securing bank financing, DeGennaro was forced to back out of the deal.

Petina and Vincent DiNapoli have a real sweetheart association. DiNapoli was once so involved with Petina’s opera­tions, records show, that he would per­sonally pick up bid specifications for the company from general contractors. And up until last year, the DiNapoli family’s carting company shared a Bronx office with Petina Associates at 1821 Mahan Avenue. DeGennaro did not return Voice phone calls.

Deed records reveal that in April 1980 Petina Associates purchased a house at 1446 Roosevelt Place in Pelham Manor for $150,000. Eleven months later, Petina sold the home to DiNapoli’s wife, daugh­ter, and mother-in-law for the bargain price of $126,000, which represents a $24,000 loss — an unusual Westchester County real estate deal. At the time of the sale to the DiNapolis, real estate re­cords show, Petina gave the family a $99,065 mortgage, which carried a 6 per cent annual interest rate. The mortgage was another incredible gift, since prevail­ing rates at the time were 13.91 per cent, according to Federal Home Loan Bank Board records. The house, now occupied by DiNapoli’s daughter, is currently worth $700,000.

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PROBLEM SOLVER

ONE OF THE SEBCO PALS implicated in the DiNapoli-Maritas case is currently Father Gigante’s developer of choice: Sid­ney Silverstein is now serving as general contractor on three current SEBCO proj­ects. These development contracts are worth a total of $22 million, according to city records. Two of the contracts are for the construction of small homes ($10 mil­lion and $4 million), and the other proj­ect is an $8 million, 90-unit senior citizen development, cosponsored by St. Barna­bus Hospital. In addition, Silverstein’s firm may also be in line to build SEBCO’s largest project to date, a $19.1 million small homes project. The project, dubbed St. Mary’s Park, will consist of 113 two­-family homes on 144th and 145th streets, bounded by Willis and Brook avenues, south of SEBCO’s normal hub.

Since 1981, Silverstein has operated under the name Sparrow Construction, of which he is chairman. In addition to his work with HPD and HUD, Silverstein has also gotten contracts from the state Urban Development Corporation and the New York City Housing Authority — in spite of past investigations of his busi­ness dealings, including possible forgery in connection with a federally funded Brooklyn housing project.

Testimony in the DiNapoli-Maritas case revealed that Silverstein submitted an inflated bid of $6.4 million in an attempt to help secure the contract — fixed for Petina Associates. In an outgrowth of the Maritas-DiNapoli case, Silverstein’s company and a host of other construction firms were targeted in 1983 by a joint FBI-IRS-Department of Labor probe in­vestigating allegations of drywall bid-rig­ging. While two companies were eventu­ally convicted of federal crimes, Silverstein and his firm were not charged.

In addition to his ties to DiNapoli, Silverstein also has a close association with Steven Crea, a relationship that investigators working on the Morgenthau-­Goldstock probe are examining.

In a 1985 letter to Crea’s sentencing judge, a Bronx priest wrote about the mobster’s efforts to rehabilitate the Belmont section of the Bronx. “He has been instrumental personally and through the Sparrow Construction in rehabilitating more than 100 units of housing,” wrote Reverend Mario Zicarelli. When the Voice phoned the priest about the Crea letter, he said could not remember any details and hung up.

Asked during a Voice interview to de­scribe his relationship with Crea, Silver­stein initially responded, “Who is he?” But after the Voice told the developer that it had documents that linked Crea to Sparrow Construction, Silverstein admit­ted that he employs Crea as a “labor consultant” who “helps mainly with problems in the various communities and with the church groups. He takes care of whatever problems come up.” Asked what types of problems arose with “church groups,” Silverstein said: “At the moment I can’t really tell you.” When the Voice told Silverstein it had information that Crea was paid more than “six fig­ures,” he responded, “Yes, that’s correct.” At that point, Silverstein said he did not want to answer any more questions and would consult with his attorney. He did not return subsequent calls.

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RISING PROFITS

SEBCO’S “TOP TO BOTTOM” subcon­tracting network once also included Cur­tis Lifts, Ltd., an elevator company that paid Crea $67,500 in 1983 according to his tax return for that year. The firm’s Bronx address — 3743 White Plains Road — also happened to be the offices of Sid Silverstein’s Sparrow Construction, but it is unclear who owned the company. (When asked about Curtis Lifts, Silver­stein said he had “no comment.”) The company was apparently sold sometime in 1985 or 1986.

Curtis Lifts, nonetheless, was a large SEBCO subcontractor, with more than $5 million in contracts. The company, which was incorporated in 1980 by Crea’s attorney Paul Victor, stopped getting SEBCO contracts soon after it was sold to the Flynn-Hill elevator company.

While it may not be clear who was installing SEBCO’s elevators, it is clear what firm services many of them: Al-An Elevator Maintenance, which is owned by Vincent DiNapoli’s brother Anthony, and Allie Salerno, who prosecutors contend is the nephew of Anthony “Fat Tony” Sa­lerno. (Attorneys for the DiNapoli broth­ers have denied this charge, contending at Allie Salerno has never even met “Fat Tony.”) The firm’s contracts with SEBCO have totaled more than $250,000. Taped conversations introduced as evi­dence in DiNapoli’s last federal trial show that Vincent DiNapoli often tried to round up business for his brother’s com­pany. Furthermore, Al-An operates out of a property owned by Vincent DiNapoli and Steven Crea.

BIG HAULS

IF SEBCO WANTS GARBAGE CARTED from a project site, it often turns to yet another DiNapoli family concern Crest­wood Carting, which specializes in haul­ing construction debris. The firm has re­ceived about $1 million in SEBCO contracts — usually for taking away the remains of demolished tenements. Crest­wood is currently doing work for SEBCO at a building project on Fox Street spon­sored by the Archdiocese of New York.

City records show that the sole owner of Crestwood is DiNapoli family relative Joseph Brancaccio. The firm has recently employed both Louis and Vincent DiNa­poli as well as their sister, who is the company’s bookkeeper. Federal prosecu­tors contend that Crestwood Carting was a direct beneficiary of the DiNapoli brothers’ concrete industry scheme, since the firm received carting contracts for many of the construction sites involved in the bid-rigging operation.

The carting industry has long been dominated by the Mafia. Genovese mem­bers like Louis DiNapoli — Vincent’s younger brother — and Matthew “Matty the Horse” Ianniello have held financial interests in a number of carting firms.

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WIRED

RALPH ARRED, THE CHAIRMAN of the Yonkers Democratic Party, can often be seen holding court at a back table in Pagliaccio’s restaurant on Bronx River Road in Yonkers. Arred, a Cuban immi­grant who shortened his name from Arre­dondo, grew up with Steve Crea and re­mains very close to him. And he too has a spot at the SEBCO trough.

Arred owns an electrical contracting company that has received $10 million in SEBCO contracts in addition to $20 mil­lion from governmental agencies. The Yonkers political boss has received nu­merous SEBCO contracts over the past three years despite the fact that his firm declared bankruptcy in early 1986 and is currently “on the verge of collapsing,” according to an attorney representing its creditors.

Arred is “of great interest” says one source on the Morgenthau-Goldstock team, but the pol is not currently a target of the investigation. A state law enforcement source, however, told the Voice that investigators from the United States At­torney’s Office in Manhattan have opened a separate probe of Arred. The Yonkers boss told the Voice that he was not surprised that he was being probed. “I’m a political leader, I expect it. But I don’t give a fuck. It’s not the first time that they’ve investigated me.”

According to state board of elections reports examined by the Voice, a main source of funds for Arred’s Yonkers Dem­ocratic Party has been organized crime. The party has received substantial cam­paign contributions from corporations owned or controlled by Crea and/or Vin­cent DiNapoli.

Arred operates his contracting firm out of a building at 4443 Third Avenue in the Bronx. He shares this warehouse space with other prime SEBCO subcontrac­tors, Nicholas and Anthony Russo. (The brothers Russo are also close friends of Crea.) The Russo companies, which in­clude a large metal contracting company and a painting business, have done a total of $8 million in business with SEBCO and have received additional municipal contracts totaling at least $12 million.

Until he sold it last October, Nicholas Russo was listed in State Liquor Author­ity records as the owner of Pagliaccio’s. According to a 1982 FBI affidavit, Crea had a “financial interest” in the Italian restaurant. The two-story building that houses the restaurant and Crea’s office is owned by a relative of Crea’s employed by him.

Like Arred, Nicholas Russo, 45, wrote to the judge on behalf of Crea in 1985. Stating that he had known him for 25 years, Russo referred to Crea as someone who “does not shy away” from helping his community, particularly senior citi­zens. Arred’s bankruptcy filings show that his firm owes $280,000 to Nicholas Russo, and the electrical contractor said he is negotiating with Russo for an addi­tional $500,000 loan.

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MEADE AND MARIO

WHEN CONTRACTS HAVE BEEN doled out, Father Gigante has not forgotten his friends in politics. Records show that SEBCO has given business to the law firm of Mario Biaggi and the insurance brokerage of Meade Esposito, another pair of felons. The priest is an old friend of Biaggi and Esposito (long tied to a number of Genovese family hoods), and once called the former Brooklyn Demo­cratic boss, “one of the finest leaders in the country.” Federal housing records show that Esposito and Biaggi each pulled down more than $200,000 in fees from SEBCO developments.

Another Gigante crony earning money from SEBCO is Ely Colon, a former member of the not-for-profit’s board of directors. In his spare time, Colon serves as the principal broker for SEBCO’s pur­chase of couches, tables, chairs, and other furnishings. Colon told the Voice that he works full-time for HPD and operates his furniture company from his Bronx apart­ment. Individual SEBCO orders placed through Colon have totaled about $200,000 over the past two years. Colon said that SEBCO uses him to purchase furniture because “I have all the catalogs to order from.” Asked to provide a list of his clients, Colon struggled to come up with the name of one other customer.

NO VOW OF POVERTY

If You Can’t Trust Father Gigante, Who Can You Trust?
— A sign that hung for years on the side of the Bruckner Boulevard business headquarters of Genovese soldier William “Billy the Butcher” Masselli

THE VOICE’S INVESTIGATION showed that not only has “Father G.” been busy steering construction jobs to his mob pals, but he made money himself. As he is quick to point out, he never took a vow of poverty. While many of his parishioners live be­low the poverty line, records show that Gigante definitely does not. He owns two Manhattan co-ops and a home in upstate New York. The priest has also enter­tained friends in a swank San Juan con­dominium that he told them he owned. Gigante owns six automobiles and at least six pieces of Bronx real estate.

The priest once told a friend, “People may think I do this for free, but that’s their problem.” Gigante described himself last year as a “non-order” priest and, as such, says he does not have to adhere to the strict financial limitations of orders such as the Jesuits. SEBCO records re­veal that the company paid the priest $85,576 in 1987, and, in ’88 paid him $44,088 for part-time work. But the Voice has found that Father Gigante was un­doubtedly able to supplement his income thanks to a number of side ventures that are blatant conflicts of interest.

After a federally financed housing proj­ect is constructed, the only remaining source of continuing income comes from the management of the property. Gigante quickly realized this once he got in the business, and formed a management arm for SEBCO in 1979. Gigante, records show, now personally owns the real estate company, SEBCO Management, that provides those services to most of the SEBCO developments. According to financial records, the management compa­ny has a gross income of more than $450,000 annually. The board of directors of SEBCO — the parent company­ — which Gigante chairs, is responsible for picking which realty firms will manage its properties. It should come as no surprise that the priest’s company has gotten ev­ery SEBCO contract.

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In fact, the management of SEBCO properties is so important to Gigante that he broke with his long-time principal developer, Jerome Chatzky, after the builder refused to turn over management of certain projects to the priest, sources said.

A second company, Tiffany Mainte­nance, provides services — from painting hallways to repairing roofs — for about 1000 SEBCO apartments. Tiffany does more than $200,000 a year in business with the SEBCO organization. The firm was incorporated in April 1985 and was listed as a personal asset of Gigante’s on a June 1986 city disclosure report. On subsequent report, filed in May 1987, it appears that the entry for Tiffany Maintenance had been whited out. A Gigante disclosure filed in June 1988 also fails to list Tiffany Maintenance as an asset. Who owns the firm today is unclear, but Tiffany continues to be headquartered in a SEBCO project on Southern Boulevard, and when nobody is in its office, the company’s phones are forwarded to SEBCO Management.

In various filings with city and federal housing agencies, SEBCO and Gigante have not been forthcoming about the priest’s insider trading. In the thousands of documents filed by SEBCO with the federal housing department, the group never discloses that SEBCO Manage­ment is owned by Father Gigante, and that, at the very least, Tiffany Maintene­nce has also been — and may still be­ — an asset of the priest’s. In applications filed with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1987 and 1988, SEBCO refers to itself as the “par­ent company” of SEBCO Management. SEBCO also refers to Tiffany Mainte­nance as its “affiliate.” Since Gigante did not change the management company’s name, it appears the firm is still owned by the not-for-profit simply because it still carries the “SEBCO” moniker.

Records indicate that SEBCO Manage­ment was sold to Gigante sometime in 1986 for roughly $75,000, with no money down. Since then, it appears, the priest has paid SEBCO $35,000 toward the full purchase price. SEBCO’s records do not explain how the $75,000 sales price was established, if there were other potential buyers, what the company’s market value was, and if the sale had SEBCO board approval. Documents filed with the state Division of Housing and Community Re­newal reveal that after SEBCO sold its management operation to Gigante, the group received a $60,000 state housing preservation contract that was earm­arked, in part, to “market SEBCO Management” by preparing a brochure about the company, compiling a list of “potential clients,” and then sending the brochures out in a “bulk mailing.” This appears to be a misuse of state funds to enhance a private business.

Along with the various SEBCO pro­jects, Gigante’s management company has branched out, securing contracts with three separate federally funded Bronx ousing projects. It is not known whether these contracts were secured as a result of SEBCO’s state-funded “marketing” effort.

An even more intriguing transaction involved a second company that was once owned by SEBCO, but which also found its way into Gigante’s private portfolio.

This firm, the SEBCO Housing Devel­opment Company, Inc., was formed in November 1982 and had its name changed to SEBCO Realty in February 1985. (Like the management firm, most city and federal housing officials continue to believe the company is owned by Gi­gante’s not-for-profit organization.) In a June 1986 city disclosure form, Gigante listed SEBCO Realty as an asset wholly owned by him. Nowhere in any SEBCO tax returns or financial documents is the sale of this asset fully explained with re­gard to market value, purchase price, or approval by SEBCO’s board of directors. This lack of disclosure is critical since the SEBCO Housing Development Company stood to profit from a lucrative 1985 housing development deal.

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City records show that, initially, SEBCO (the parent company) was sched­uled to receive a $593,750 fee for its role as cosponsor of a publicly financed pro­ject on Kelly Street. However, days be­fore “closing” the deal, SEBCO informed city housing officials that it was being replaced as sponsor by the SEBCO Hous­ing Development Corporation, which SEBCO described as a wholly owned sub­sidiary. While city officials were surprised at this last-minute switch, they nonethe­less approved the project. The substitu­tion, in effect, meant that the SEBCO subsidiary — and not the parent compa­ny — was now in line to receive the $593,750 sponsor’s fee.

According to a schedule of payments, the subsidiary was to get its share over five years, beginning with $91,250 in 1984 and followed with payments of $147,500 in 1985, $85,000 in 1986, and $90,000 in 1987, 1988, and 1989.

Using this formula, the firm — in its new incarnation as SEBCO Realty — had at least $270,000 in cash receivables when Gigante took it over. It is not known how much — if any — of the previously dis­bursed $323,750 in fees was on hand when Gigante got the company.

The only other assets that can be traced to the SEBCO Housing Develop­ment Company/SESCO Realty are four South Bronx buildings — with a combined total of 177 apartments — that were pur­chased from the city in January 1984 for $50,000 in unpaid bills. It seems that Gigante has been involved in more self­-dealing: this time, he apparently has used city and state funds to spruce up the four buildings he owns.

Part of the $60,000 state housing preservation grant was earmarked for renova­tions to the four rent-stabilized  buildings, though Gigante them himself. In addition, development fees earned by SEBCO itself in connection with the group’s sponsorship of two federal pro­jects have recently been used to pay for new windows and doors, light fixtures, an intercom system, roof repairs, and paint jobs in the four buildings. City records list the work being done on properties ”currently owned and managed by SEBCO.” Department of Housing Preser­vation and Development records show the four rent-stabilized buildings have a total of 657 housing code violations.

Of course, SEBCO — the parent compa­ny — neither owns nor manages any of the four buildings. The “SEBCO” firm that manages the properties as well as the “SEBCO” company that holds title to the buildings are both privately owned by the priest. On a June 1988 city disclosure Gigante listed the four buildings as per­sonal assets, a fact that has escaped city housing officials.

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FATHER G’S HIDEAWAY

WHILE GIGANTE’S BUSINESS DEALINGS may be tainted, his recent action on be­half of a convicted Genovese associate is a true illustration of the priest’s character.

Morris Levy, the president of Roulette Records, has been a long-time source of ready cash for the Genovese family, par­ticularly Chin Gigante and his live-in companion, Olympia Esposito. According to a 1985 FBI affidavit, Levy money was also “funnelled” to Father Gigante in the form of a gift of a piece of upstate prop­erty and a low-interest mortgage.

The property, located on the edge of Levy’s sprawling horse farm in the town of Ghent, was given to Father Gigante in August 1979 with an accompanying $32,000 mortgage at 5 per cent interest. At the time, prevailing rates were be­tween 10 and 11 per cent. In addition to the house loan, records show that Levy also gave the priest a $15,000 “business loan” in 1981.

When the Voice first tried to question Gigante about the 1979 transaction in April 1988 (when the FBI affidavit was made public), he did not return phone calls. He finally told his tale just before Levy was sentenced last year on federal extortion charges.

On September 20, 1988, Gigante wrote to Stanley Brotman, the federal judge sentencing Levy, and termed the FBI’s account of the house deal “a bold lie” Gigante claimed that Levy actually do­nated the land to Gigante so that the pair could build a home for one of the priest’s former secretaries.

In his letter, Gigante explained that he uses a “large part” of his earnings “to take care of my dear friend and loyal assistant” Erma Cava. The priest’s for­mer secretary, 55, who is partially para­lyzed and confined to a wheelchair, has had a SEBCO senior citizens project named after her, Gigante went on to state that since 1980, Cava “has been living full-time at the farm” and that there she is cared for by “another of my secretar­ies,” who Gigante claimed he also sup­ports. The spacious ranch-style home, which sits on about an acre of land, fea­tures a sun room, two-car garage, and a backyard that slopes down to a large pond.

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“Morris and I visit frequently and I often bring children from the parish to visit and spend time in the country. Erma is still paralyzed on her right side, but we see continued improvement. She is even beginning to speak although she is aphasic,” Gigante wrote. He concluded: “I  am not involved with organized crime and it is an insult to mischaracterize Morris’ kindnesses to me and others as the funneling of money to organized crime. I believe Morris’ greatest contribution was the idea to build a home for Erma … an unfortunate pe·rson who might have been forgotten without us.” While appearing heartfelt, Gigante’s letter borders on total fiction.

Not only is the deed, mortgage, and phone at the property in the name of Louis Gigante, when the Voice visited the home last year, two cars registered to the priest were in the driveway, but nobody was home. In addition, Department of Motor Vehicle records show that the priest currently registers his Cadillac from the Ghent address as well as three cars owned by his real estate manage­ment firm. When a neighbor was asked if he knew where the “Gigante house” was, he immediately pointed it out.

In addition, SEBCO records for 1986, 1987, and 1988 list Erma Cava’s home address as 520 Second Avenue in Man­hattan. Cava’s address turns up on the SEBCO records because the woman, who Father Gigante described in his letter as brain-impaired and barely able to talk, sits on SEBCO’s five-person board of directors.

Cava lives with Migdalia Morales, a SEBCO board member and former Gi­gante secretary, in apartment 8-8 in the Phipps Houses development on Second Avenue in Manhattan. A fellow Phipps resident immediately recognized Cava’s name, said “she’s in a wheelchair,” and added that the woman has lived in the building for “at least eight years and maybe more.”

Though the priest claims to support her, Cava had enough pocket change to donate $1000 last March to the campaign of Phil Foglia, a Gigante-backed candi­date for Bronx district attorney, accord­ing to Board of Elections campaign dis­closure statements. These election records also list Cava’s address as 520 Second Avenue. Morales donated $1000 to Foglia on the same day; her address is also listed on election records as 520 Sec­ond Avenue, Apartment 8-B.

AT THE 9:30 A.M. MASS on Sunday, De­cember 4, Father Gigante is at the altar at St. Athanasius talking about sin. The priest explains that if one is to be saved, one must acknowledge and take responsibility for his sins. He then decries the crime and violence in our society and how “we have allowed it to invade all our neighborhoods. We have accepted the violence. We have accepted the crime and the drugs. This violence against our peo­ple happens every day on the streets out­side this very church.”

Since the days he studied at St. Jo­seph’s Seminary, Louis Gigante has also accepted crime and violence-and the men involved in these criminal attacks on the community. The priest’s relationship with the mob is not innuendo: it clearly has been one of long-time cooperation with hoodlums.

Father Louis Gigante is not just a troubling anomaly. More than any prosecutor or parolee in this city, the priest sits at the crossroad of good and evil, happy to live off both sides of the street. ❖

IS CHIN SANE?

FATHER LOUIS GIGANTE recently began legal proceedings to have a conservator appointed to handle the affairs of his brother, Vin­cent “The Chin” Gigante, the Voice has learned. Legal papers state that the Genovese boss is “unable to manage his personal affairs by reason of mental illness.” The FBI, on the other hand, has long contended that Chin Gigante runs the crime family.

On February 16, the priest-repre­sented by attorney Barry Slotnick’s law firm-requested that state su­preme court judge Jacqueline Silber­man name a conservator for his broth­er. Silberman told the Voice that she has appointed attorney Peter Wtlson to represent Chin Gigante lllld said the lawyer is to submit a report to her on March 14 regarding Gigante’s mental state. Silberman said the report­ which will address whether a conser­vator is warranted-will include inter­views with Gigante’s doctor, Eugene D’Adamo.

In most cases, conservators are appointed for individuals-often elderly or mentally infirm-who cannot take care of their business and personal matters. While family members say that Chin Gigante is mentally ·ill, this action will be the first public review of those contentions. Law enforcement officials have previously voiced their concern that Gigante-given his bi­zarre behavior-might be able to easi­ly mount an insanity defense if he were to face any future criminal charges.

Father Gigante’s legal maneuver comes at a time when Gambino boss John Gatti reportedly has put out a contract on Chin Gigante. The Daily News reported Monday that the FBI recently advised the priest and his brother Mario, a Genovese soldier, of the alleged Gambino plot. While secu­rity around Chin Gigante is tight on Sullivan Street, the Genovese boss ap­pears to be guarded only by his chauf­feur Vito Palmieri when he is picked up at his East Side home. — W.B. & EDWARD BORGES

POLS AND THE MOB

LOCAL POLITICIANS have been on the receiving end of campaign contributions from members of the Genovese crime family, campaign records show. Politicians and committees receiving mob money include:

  •  State Senator Guy Velella, a Bronx Republican, has gotten tholl88nds of dollars in Genovese-tainted contribu­tions since 1986. Velella’s campaign committee -has received donations from two companies owned by the family of Genovese soldier Vincent DiNapoli ($600); a Genovese-connect­ed bricltlayers local ($200 ); and mob­linked labor leader Louis Moscatiello ($ 100). Larger donations were sent in 1987 to the Velella-chaired Bronx Re­publican committee by firms linked to DiNapoli and fellow Genovese mem­ber Steven Crea: Cambridge Drywall ($750); Inner City Drywall ($750); V.L.J. Construction Corp. ($750); Al­An Elevator Maintenance ($750); and DiNapoli’s wife ($1500).
    Velella told the ¾>ice he was not sure who solicited contnbutions from the DiNapolia, but that one posaibility was Moscatiello-head of plasterers Local 530-who has helped with fundraising.
  • The Genovese hand can al80 be seen in donations to the Yonkers Demo­cratic party, Again, the money comes principally through firms tied to DiNapoli and Crea. The Voice has sin­gled out 19 Genovese-linked contribu­tions, totaling $5150, that chairman Ralph Arred’s committee has received since July 1984. Firms donating in­clude Crea’s road paving and real es­tate development companies and two drywall companies tied to DiNapoli and Crea.
    Arred said he did not know how mob firms ended up donating to the · party. “I have a mailing list with 2200 names. Whoever gives me names, I put them on the list.”
  • Before his election to Congress last fall, Eliot Engel, a former Bronx as­semblyman, got donations from Mos­catiello, Crestwood Carting-the DiNapoli family garbage company­and Molat Homes, a firm that gave its address as the New Rochelle home of Vmcent DiNapoli’s brother Joseph, a convicted heroin trafficker.
  • Last year’s campaign by Philip fog­lia for Bronx district attorney ‘got $1000 from the District Council of Carpenters, which state investigators say is involved in “racketeering.” Vm­cent Tolentino, Local 530’s secretary and a Moscatiello business partner, donated $150; and a real estate part­ner of Crea and Vincent DiNapoli’s gave $500. Foglia al80 received more than a dozen donations-for a total of about $6000-from companies receiv­ing SEBCO contracts. — W.B.

DECEIVING THE FEDS
Vincent DiNapoli’s Two Dirty Deeds

FOLLOWING HIS INDICTMENT on labor racketeering charges in April 1981, Vincent DiNapoli was declared persona non grata by the federal housing department

Officials at the Department of Hous­ing and Urban Development placed the Genovese soldier on their list of ineligi­ble contractors pending the resolution of charges brought against DiNapoli. A letter from the agency dated April 16, 1981, informed DiNapoli that he was “suspended from participation in HUD programs.” Following DiNapoli’s guilty plea in latr 1982, HUD issued a “final determination” barring DiNapoli-for an indefinite period of time-from any partic,pution with the housing agency. DiNapoli still is on HUD’s debarment. list.

This ruling, however, did not deter DiNapoli or Father Gigante.

The Voice has discovered that, in vi­olation of federal regulations, DiNapoli secretly invested $305,000 in two HUD projects, including a $6 million SEBCO renovation. Both DiNapoli investments were in projects financed under “Sec­tion 8,'” a federal program popular with investors because of its lucrative tax shelter benefits.

Unbeknownst to HUD or city hous­ing officials, DiNapoli-with Gigante·s help-secretly invested $110,000 in a real estate limited partnership that. was approved by HUD to renovate two rot­ting buildings on Faile Street in the South Bronx. As part of the HUD package, the federal agency guaranteed a $4.5 million mortgage granted to the limited partnership, Faile Street Associates.

When the housing project. called Al­dus I, was being reviewed by HUD and the city’s Department of Housing Pres­ervation and Development, Father Gi­gante’s organization submitted docu­ments to both agencies listing SEBCO and the Renata Construction Company as 50-50 partners in the deal. Renata is owned by builder Samuel Pompa.

Following HUD and HPD background investigations, which include a check of federal debarment lists, as well as an examination of the project’s cor­porate papers, both housing agencies signed off on the deal. Shortly there­after, the realty partnership received final authorization from HUD to begin renovation on 96 apartments.

It was at this time-with the project safely approved-that Gigante secretly brought Genovese family operatives into the deal, including Vincent and Joseph DiNapoli-two convicted fel­ons-and their brother Louis. Joseph DiNapoli was convicted in 1974 of con­spiracy to distribute heroin and was sentenced to 20 years in jail.

Other new partners investing $110,000 apiece included Genovese family member Steven Crea, and four executives of Inner City Drywall, a company tied to Crea and Vincent DiNapoli. The amendment effectively transferred control of the partner­ship-and ownership of the housing de­velopment itself-from SEBCO and Pompa to the DiNapoli crew.

Gigante surely knew that if either city or federal housing officials were apprised of the DiNapolis’ role in the Faile Street project, the renovation would never have been approved. And SEBCO would have lost more than $100,000 in sponsorship fees. In fact, while all 10 partnership agreements were signed and notarized in December 1982, Gigante and Pompa didn’t get around to actually filing the corporate amendment with the Bronx county clerk’s office until May 1984-eight months aft.er renovations were com­pleted on the Faile Street properties.

The 1982 agreements with DiNapoli and the other new “limited” partners called for a $5000 payment up front, with the $105,000 balance to be paid over three years (1983, ’84, and ’85). In return, the new investors would each receive 9.9 per cent of the partnership’s profits. This percentage apparently was carefully calculated to avoid an HPD rule that requires sponsors to disclose the names of any individual holding 10 per cent or more of its stock. But dis• closure still should have been made since city rules also require family members holding stock in aggregate of 10 per cent to file disclosure forms. The DiNapoli brothers purchased 29.7 per cent of Faile Street Associates, which holds the deed to the two five-story buildings.

Marylea Byrd, an assistant counsel in HUD’s Washington office, told the Voice that DiNapoli’s debarment pre­cluded, from the day of his suspension in April 1981, his being “involved in any way with a HUD deal. This in­cludes being a subcontractor as well as being the recipient of a HUD-insured mortgage.” Byrd said that debarred in­dividuals “are certainly not supposed to be limited partners in any HUD-in­ sured ventures.”

THE DRY RUN for DiNapoli’s Faile Street gambit apparently was the mob­ster”s July 1981 investment of $195,000 in a limited partnership developing a 50-unit HUD project on Saint Mark’s Avenue in Brooklyn. DiNapoli had al­ready been suspended for three months when he purchased a 14.83 per cent interest in the project. As with Faile Street, the Brooklyn limited partner­ship-Rochester Associates-also re­ceived a multimillion mortgage guaran­teed by HUD. And as with Faile Street, city and federal housing officials were never informed of the corporate switch.

Joining DiNapoli in this limited partnership, according to corporate pa­pers, were his daughter Deborah, then only 19 years old ($65,000 for a 4.945 per cent interest), Crea ($130,000/9.89 per cent), Inner City Drywall president Antonio Rodrigues ($130,000/9.89 per cent), and Genovese associate Robert DeFilippis ($130,000/9.89 per cent). DeFilippis is currently facing federal extortion and conspiracy charges in New Jersey.

On a financial disclosure statement filed last year with the U.S. Parole Of­fice, Louis DiNapoli also reported hav­ing a $109,500 stake in Rochester Asso­ciates, but his partnership interest is not reflected on any of the group’s cor­porate papers. — W.B.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Travels With a Geechee Girl

Where is Frogmore?

For years I’d been hearing Vertamae talk about her trips back home to the Sea Island region of South Carolina — particularly Frogmore, on St. Helena Island. Vertamae Grosvenor is a writer and one of the actresses in Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust. But she is also a collector of tall tales, so any story she tells always has these wacky little twists like how there really is no Frogmore but people could always send a letter there and have it delivered. People on St. Helena Island still live in areas known by their old plantation names: Fripp, Wallace, Frogmore. That is to say, there is no downtown Frogmore, not even a village of Frogmore. A couple of years ago well-­heeled newcomers to the island decided they liked the name and had the govern­ment set up a Frogmore post office. Nev­er mind that the post office was not in Frogmore. (As we went to press it was announced that the post office was re­named St. Helena,)

Things are never what they seem in the Low Country and folks there will often just say “uh hmmm” when you ask a question because they know the answer may be too complicated for you. You being what some Gullah call a “fa come here.” And because things can get very compli­cated, without a sense of humor you will never find Frogmore, or anything else.

It’s like the Frogmore stew I read about in The New York Times — a wonderful­-sounding jambalaya of shrimp, corn, and sausage. Well, everybody makes a differ­ent stew, but if you ask them is it Frog­more stew you’ll get a “uh hmm” because that’s simpler than explaining. That’s why I went. I wanted to see what I might see, or not see — know what I mean?

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My first destination on the way to the Sea Islands was Charleston, where Vertamae invited me to a book party. What could be more Charlestonian than a party for two cookbook authors at a shop that car­ries only books about food? John Taylor, proprietor of Hoppin’ John’s, at 30 Pinckney Street across from the old open-air market, was throwing a party to celebrate the reissue of Vertamae’s Vi­bration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl and Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking. The food alone was worth the ride: Smithfield Ham and biscuits with homemade mustard, pickled okra, south­ern-style Irish soda bread, and Mexican watermelon. Verta informed me that the occasion was probably historic, no doubt Charleston’s first integrated book party. In any case, it was a fitting introduction to South Carolina, everyone at the party being at least an amateur culinary an­thropologist. They knew a lot about what I call “roots food,” dog bread, hoppin’ john, shad roe with hominy, bride’s bis­cuits, and cabbage pudding.

Several hours later the cooks sent me to a nouveau French eatery overlooking the market and the Confederacy muse­um. The food, arranged on ’50s floral upholstery tablecloths, looked like it was designed by a magazine stylist, but it was quite good. The owner, a portly white man with a David Mamet crew cut, asked me where I was headed on my Carolina visit. “The Low Country,” I answered, adding that I like to go to church when I come South, just to hear the music. He pointed to a burly young black man in the kitchen and advised me to go to his cook’s wife’s family’s church on St. John, and warned me that if I didn’t know what I was doing I wouldn’t see the real Gullah people.

“You have to know where to go. I sug­gest you go to Edisto.” It seemed he’d been raised by a woman from nearby Edisto Island. “Edisto is where I go and I can tell you they are not like the Gullah some will take you to meet.” What did he mean? “All I can tell you is they’re real, they’re just very very real.”

A preacher I know from the hill coun­try in South Carolina had already told me that everybody has “their” Gullah people, especially white folks, but I still couldn’t believe my ears, I told Verta about it and she laughed. “You know,” she said, “when I hear white folks say that I al­ways wonder how they got to be experts and I didn’t because you know I was raised by black folks too!”

Gullah folk have by now become part of the tourist promise in South Carolina, right along with house-and-garden tours and the ramparts of Fort Sumter. Gul­lahs, real or otherwise, are a society and culture that have always been remote and mysterious and, ever since the Civil War, threatened with extinction. I suppose it makes people feel better about slavery to be able to point to “real” Gullahs still surviving, but it’s a sign of how bad things really are.

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South Carolinians are kind of nutty, especially when it comes to antiquity. And they know people find them weird, so they have developed a self-deprecating humor as a kind of polite apology for their obsessions. Like the black woman in her seventies who told me how much Charleston had changed but laughed and said that that wasn’t really true because the most venerable women’s bridge club still judges members by who their grand­mother was.

Then there was my friend John Taylor, who implored me with a devilish grin to stay in Charleston one more night. “Oh, you have to see this,” he said, “you have to.” It was a concert of the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals, Taylor told me the society is a group of elderly whites who miss the strains of the old plantation songs, and so took to singing them them­selves. My God, I thought, they must be 115 years old. I didn’t go.

Preservation at that level is a lot hard­er to come by in the Low Country. When you ask folks, for instance, what indigo looked like, and how it was produced, no one can tell you. I couldn’t find a soul who’d ever seen any, yet thousands of people in South Carolina, mostly slaves, once cultivated this member of the pea family that was used to make indigo blue dye. Much of the history of these Ameri­cans has blown off into the Atlantic wa­ters like this curious little Indian plant that wore out so many lives.

Yet the low-lying countryside south of Charleston seems to look very much like a young black woman described it in the 1860s. Charlotte L. Forten, a young abolitionist and teacher, came to South Carolina during the Civil War to teach blacks who had been freed by the Union capture of Port Royal and the Sea Islands. Forten lived on St. Helena and taught at the Penn School, which is still there near Frog­more. She visited the Frogmore and Fripp plantations just after the owners had fled the island. Forten was the first black teacher to come to the area, and her diary of the period became the first journal by an African-American woman ever published. She was enraptured by the lush vegetation of the Sea Islands, the casino berries, magnolia, jasmine, narcis­sus and daffodils, and the “solemn almost funereal” look of live oaks draped in moss.

To get to the islands today the road takes you through Beaufort, on Port Roy­al Island. From there you can cross bridges to Ladies Island, St. Helena, Par­ris Island, or even further south to Hilton Head Island, which is where Verta and I were going. Verta’s navigation style is pure Yamassee. “Yup, this looks like where we turn, lemme see, yeah, turn here. You know, the police in this area are known for terrorizing folks. Oh. You see this up here, the place I was born is back up in there.”

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Stopping at a roadside stand I thought I would get some homegrown peanuts. I was handed a soaking wet bag of soaking wet peanuts. Verta laughed. “Chile, ain’t you never had boiled peanuts?” I have now, and I’m here to tell you they taste like crunchy black-eyed peas.

We passed the village where Recon­struction congressman Robert Smalls was born a slave. Forten met him when he was running a little general store in the area and notes that he was giving it up to join the Union army. Once in Beaufort on Port Royal, we detoured through the one street “downtown.” Beaufort seems basi­cally unchanged from how it must have looked 30 or 40 or maybe 100 years ago as you drive along the waterfront and look at the old mansions, some quite decrepit. Signs placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy pay tribute to those lonely confederates defeated by the Union troops who captured the island. Forten ran into Harriet Tubman there. “The General,” as they called her even then, was running an eating house in down­town Beaufort.

After driving around some hairpin turns on roads that had ravines where there should have been shoulders, we crossed the Broad River in late after­noon. Frankly I hoped Hilton Head would come up before darkness did, be­cause the cypress swamps were very close by the road. A sharp burning smell blew through the windows and soon we came upon bonfires burning in a scrubby patch of trees. It was an odor I knew but it woke me up like a sudden change of sea­son. Some 20 black men were throwing heaps of wood on the fires, which had grown as tall as they were. They were clearing ground to build a baseball field for the kids. Sparks flew 20 feet into the air.

I was sort of wondering where we were and noted down the name of the Barn­well Clinic across the road so I could locate the spot again. We had already changed road numbers four times, and I felt a deep need for landmarks. On the blacktop road again, the edges of lush golf courses started to crop up, along with a few resort signs alerting us we were near Hilton Head, golf course to the world.

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Another bridge let us onto Hilton Head Island and a post office was our landmark. The turnoff for Spanish Wells was a donut shop, then we were back to “this looks like it.” Spanish Wells is “the 15 per cent,” I heard — the 15 per cent of Hilton Head that is not developed, or where the black folks live. Over shrimp and rice that tasted like cook-up from Trinidad, Verta and Emma Campbell, a teacher in Beaufort, told me a few reasons why so many folks have over the years come down to Beaufort from Washington, Philadelphia, and Harlem, looking for real folk.

Verta: In the ’30s you know, even now if you look in the back of the Amsterdam News, if you check those spiritualists it’ll say “just back from Beaufort, S.C.” I mean, that meant something … Out of state cars be coming here all the time.

Emma: Seriously, they come by here all the time.

Verta: Asking about him, yeah.

Emma: Asking for directions to get to Dr. Buzzard’s house.

“There’s Dr. Eagle, Dr. Crow, Dr. Buz­zard.” Verta was talking. “Then there was Dr. Stringleg. He was up there around Yamassee. This is a true story. My grandmother went to Dr. Stringleg when my father was on the chain gang. They called him Dr. Stringleg because he had a funny leg and he put a string on it.” She demonstrated how he walked by pull­ing his leg on the string. She saw I didn’t believe her even if I was laughing. “It’s true.” All Verta’s stories are true­ — mostly.

“OK. Dr. Eagle, Dr. Crow. You get your name from the animal from which you get your power. Dr. Buzzard got his name ’cause they say his magic was so-0-0-0 good, so powerful, he could make a pot boil without fire. He used to have the buzzards rowing his boat and a crow for the pilot. That’s how bad he was. And you could be on Hilton Head Island, see him get on a boat and go to St. Helena and when you got to St. Helena, Dr. Buz­zard was there to pull the boat in.”

Back in the ’20s and ’30s, Dr. Buzzard was hounded by Sheriff McTeer. “He in­herited the job from his father,” said Verta. “Being sheriff runs in the family,” said Emma. Poor Mr. McTeer, it seems, grew up on a plantation and became in­trigued with the old black people who were root workers, particularly Dr. Buz­zard, whom he knew to be the greatest root worker. “He tried to get him,” said Verta. “He became obsessed with getting Dr. Buzzard. He wanted to put him in jail. He tried to use a law against pre­scribing people medicine orally.

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“So one time Sheriff McTeer had this guy who was a petty burglar in the sta­tion house and something fell out of his pocket. Now each root doctor got their little special gris-gris, you could tell. OK, the thing fell out and he recognized it as belonging to Dr. Buzzard. He said, ‘Buzzy give you that?’ and the guy said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I tell you what I’m a do. I’m a let you off but I’m a go get Buzzy and you got to tell me that Buzzy was the one to give it to you.’ The guy said all right. So they went and brought Dr. Buzzard back down there to the sheriff’s office and he said, ‘Now, I got this guy here and I’m gonna arrest you Buzzy, ’cause you gave him medicine orally.’ And he says to the guy, ‘Where did you get it?’ and the guy went to speak and start foaming at the mouth and passed out.

“Dr. Buzzard and them would go and chew roots in the court. That’s the thing. They’d be in the courtroom. People would pay money to have a root doctor sit and chew the root. And you would know this person is supposed to get 15 years and the judge would say ‘case dis­missed,’ not even knowing what he was doing, ‘six months,’ whatever. Sheriff McTeer tried to keep Dr. Buzzard from comin’ to court but he couldn’t prove nothin’, I mean, what could you prove?”

Dr. Buzzard became the wealthiest man on St. Helena and went down in Sea Island history, partly be­cause of his good friend Sam Doyle. Doyle, who lived all of his life on St. Helena and went to the Penn School, painted the island history. He died several years ago having become one of the best-known folk artists in the country. His work is still sold in New York, as well as in Frogmore, and he has been documented by a number of art historians. Sam Doyle painted Dr. Buzzard and other root doctors, friends like “Ramblin’ Rose” and “Miss Full Back” (she was full in the back), as well as historic events and supernatural occurrences.

“The paintings Sam Doyle did were a history of the island,” said Verta. “When you walked in his yard, that was his gal­lery, all the paintings were out. Like the ‘Hurricane of 1893.’ One of the first pic­tures you saw was a picture of a baby in a tree, under the Spanish moss. All that moss and a little baby. And the story was, after the hurricane people heard this baby crying and the baby was in the tree. And the descendents of that baby are on St. Helena’s. People said it was a miracle.”

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Emma told me about when some folks tried to sell “Miss Try Me” at an auction. “We went to it. Nobody would buy it. They were even embarrassed. See, he named his paintings for characters and people on the island. ‘Try Me’ was a lady with big hips like this and she used to walk around the island saying ‘try me.’ ”

“Plus,” said Verta, “he would paint a painting over. That used to upset the art dealers. ‘Cause he’d say, ‘Oh, I sold a lot of “Miss Try Me,”‘ and he’d do another one because his idea was to keep all the paintings so he could tell the history. There’d be a picture of Sherman, the undertaker — Sam said he was the first man to own a car on St. Helena.”

And he painted the local haints too, like Whooping Boy, said to be the spirit of a beheaded slave buried to protect treasure. “Not Whoopin, Woopin’, Woop­in’ boy!” Verta whoops. I still couldn’t say it. “No. Hoopin’. He’s on St. Helena. Sam Doyle heard him make the last whoop, he don’t come out no more, Mr. Doyle said, ‘since the automobile area.’ ”

Verta maintains that all this is part of an Africanness that may have preceded slavery in the region. That is, she likes to tell folk that the Gullah, who originally spoke a language they called Ngulla, were from Angola and that in prehistory — you know, when the continents were all at­tached — what is now South Carolina was joined to what is now Angola. Fascinat­ing, I thought. “But were there people around then?” Verta just shrugged her shoulders.

I checked this out and there’s just this one little problem. It seems that when the continents were attached what is now South Carolina was next to what is now Mauritania, which would mean the Gullahs originally spoke Berber or Tuareg or some such thing. Those Africans too make a beautiful blue dye. ■

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FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

Julie Dash Films Gullah Country

FAVORITE DAUGHTERS

Gullah country, more commonly known as the Georgia Sea Islands, starts off the coastline of Beaufort County, South Carolina, and stretches south into Georgia. The islands are connected to the mainland by bridges of recent vintage; locals refer to the whole region as the Low Country. To get there from here you must be driven 50 miles from the Savannah airport, perhaps by a retired gentleman from Buffalo who affably shares news of his upcom­ing trip to Minneapolis for cancer treatment. So much for smalltalk. Kick back, enjoy the ride and the countryside: winding blacktop flanked by high-rise forests, ranch houses, trailer homes, and the occasional dog or possum come out from under some semi’s wheels to lump up the road, organic sculpture from the Francis Bacon school. Peculiar to the region’s foliage are nifty, atmo­spheric ornaments: drooping spools of Spanish moss and spiky palmettos. Half­way to our destination, the Royal Frog­more Inn, my compañera asks me what I notice first when I visit a new place and I say the houses. Beulah Joe says she looks at the dirt and wonders what the differ­ence between us means. I tell her it means I’m a house Negro and she’s a field Negro and she laughs, well, we already knew that.

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The Royal Frogmore is a motel on the island of St. Helena. The black people who populate St. Helena and most of the other islands off the Georgia and South Carolina coasts are known as Gullah or Geechees. People who don’t know any better think Gullah people talk funny. Those in the know realize that Gullah is a bona fide dialect and are confident in the scholarly thesis that ‘Gullah’ is a contrac­tion of ‘Angola.’

But me and Beulah Joe aren’t here to gaze upon the Gullah. We’re here to see black independent filmmaker Julie Dash go into intensive labor on her feature-in­-utero, Daughters of the Dust, a turn-of­-the-century tale about a fictional Gullah family. Dash has three other films to her credit: Four Women, a choreopoem based on the Nina Simone song of the same name; Diary of an African Nun, from the Alice Walker short story; and Illusions, a 34-minute original starring Lonette McKee as a black woman exec passing for white at a Hollywood studio during the wartime ’40s. The latter has received standing ovations from Amy Taubin, J. Hoberman, and the dean of black inde­pendent film crits, Clyde Taylor.

Daughters is Dash’s most ambitious project to date on several counts, not least for being shot on 35mm color stock, which costs $365 per two-minute reel. Dash’s financing for the two-week shoot comes from several grants — $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, $5000 from the Appleshop Southeast Re­gional Fellowship, $9000 from the Geor­gia Endowment for the Humanities, $16,000 from the Fulton County Arts Council. By the end of her Beaufort stay, Dash says, she’ll be worrying over how she and husband/cinematographer A. J. Fielder are going to pay their rent and phone bills. Dash’s plan after initial shooting is to edit a trailer on video then seek out investors and more grants. As independent film financing schemes go, it’s as sound as any.

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Dash’s personal demeanor suggests both dreamy-eyed fabulist and fo­cused professional. Her attitude on the set is casual but only be­cause her preproduction work is meticulous, worked out in fine detail on the Toshiba PC she’s installed in her Royal Frogmore office. Day charts detail­ing the entire two-week shoot drape the walls with information on costume changes, locations, camera angles, and special effects. She considers herself more a technical director than an actor’s director, and very little dialogue goes on between her and the actors on the set. Dialogue with the crew is also at a minimum. Once Dash sets up her shots and sound and camera get rolling, the action plays until the takes sync with her vision. Her mood on the shoot is chill maximus.

Dash’s eyes, spunky and alert eyes, per­petually gleam. They are set in a doeish face that maternal weight-gain has left somewhat stout. On location the director wears pearl-drop earrings and coral lip­stick, jeans, a fisherman’s cap decorated by a Palestinian Film Institute pin, and a Venezia sweatshirt. The island’s kamika­ze gnats and mosquitoes dive over her Reebok hightops, leaving her legs and ankles a spotted red.

The production’s budget crunch will have Dash pull triple-duty as wardrobe mistress, makeup artist, and director. In this she’s not alone: Her coproducer Ber­nard Nicolas functions as troubleshooter, fogmachine operator, and soundman. Art director Kerry Marshall will take time away from building a graveyard, Eli’s blacksmith shop, and an indigo process­ing plant to play a bit part as a Muslim bowing toward Mecca from the beach. First assistant cameraman Will Hudson will step from behind the camera to por­tray a slave in a flashback scene.

Set in 1902, Daughters focuses on a Gullah family whose young adults are preparing for a mass exodus north and a junking of their Gullah heritage in their diaspora to industrialized America. An acknowledged point of departure for Dash’s script is the work of Toni Morri­son, particularly evident in Dash’s han­dling of Gullah women’s communal infrastructure. The leading characters are, with one exception, female. There is the wizened, snuff-chomping matriarch Great Mother Palmer, an African born in captivity who fears the young people’s connection to the ancestors will be severed by urbanization and Christian con­version. Opposing her is Hagar — an edu­cated convert, brashly sarcastic toward Great Mother Palmer’s “hoodoo” reli­gion. Yella Mary has recently returned from a life of surrogate mothering and prostitution in Cuba. Eula is young, preg­nant, and victim of a rape by a white man. Her husband Eli, the community blacksmith, suspects the baby ain’t his. Dash’s personal favorite among her dra­matis personae is The Unborn Child, a spritely five-year-old vision of Eula and Eli’s progeny who romps unseen on the margins of key scenes.

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There are several dream sequences in the scenario. Ancestral spirits visit the living to chase away their inner de­mons — an Africanist switch on conven­tional film use of both phantasms and psychoanalysis. While the offscreen rape would play as melodramatic fodder in a David Wolper postbellum potboiler, Dash uses it symbolically to probe black wom­en’s wombs — investigating their powers of regeneration and the psychic scars left by forced miscegenation. Like Morrison’s novels, the script for Daughters is a testi­mony to the secret celebrations and packed-away sorrows of African-Ameri­can women.

Dash was raised in the Queensridge projects but her daddy was a Gee­chee. Dash’s mother used to tell her, if you think your father talks funny you should hear some of his backwoods cousins. Dash remembers her daddy as a fancy dan who loved ballroom dancing. One day he brought a bucket of crabs home and set them loose on the living room floor (the Gullah being re­nowned for their shrimp and crab fish­ing). Dash smiles at the memory of climbing over the furniture, screaming with delight.

Dash’s uncle Julien was a jazz saxo­phonist who wrote the swing hit “Tuxedo Junction” for Erskine Hawkins’s band and made Super-8 and 16mm films of his life on the road. Her uncle Roger, who resides in Los Angeles, has been an in­dustrial film producer for 15 years. Nei­ther of these relations, Dash says, played any role in her decision to become a film­maker 17 years ago. That she attributes to the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Dash went to meet a girlfriend and found herself seduced by the 16mm hardware floating around a cinematography class her homegirl was taking. The equipment had been donated after the riots, part of the era’s gliberal program to quell the rage of Harlem youth. A few years later the gear would be reclaimed by its do­-good donors. Dash recalls the teaching method as hands-on and the esthetic as verité.

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Dash remembers her childhood as one spent reading and daydreaming. Day­dreaming has always gotten her into trouble. In third grade she wrote a story about the sun and the moon which her teacher brandished before the class as an example of something called plagiarism. Dash’s mother straightened that teacher out, like she straightened out a meddle­some churchgoer who complained during a Bear Mountain voyage about Dash staring into the water on a cruise. Dash was daydreaming, a frequent pastime to spare herself from condescending adult conversation. The busybody advised psychiatric help for Dash. Dash’s mother told the woman who really needed help.

Mom could relate: she was a daydream­er too. She often told her daughters how as a child she believed she was a princess who’d been shanghaied to North Caroli­na. Dash recently had her astrologer do a reading for Mom. He divined she’d been a princess in a past life. Dash’s mother also used to drape shower curtains depicting a beach or Parisian cafe scene over a door and photograph herself and her daugh­ters playacting in bathing suits. Record­ing this material I glimmer the pleasures it might bring — for some Lacanian film theorist. Dash says she continues to day­dream and often returns to several that play in her mind like ongoing miniseries, some of which she hopes will one day become films.

The movies Dash remembers best from her youth are West Side Story and Gold­finger, but less as theatrical events than Hollywood product appropriated for neighborhood recreation. There were days when the basketball court would fill up with kids reenacting the Jets-Sharks opera. Dialogue from the Bond film became stock for oblique retorts to teachers and school administrators. “I want scenes like those in my films — the kind you never see in Hollywood movies about black urban youth.”

California dreaming brought Dash to Los Angeles upon her graduation from CCNY’s film program in 1974. One rea­son Dash headed West was to escape the tyranny of political documentary film­making then favored on the East Coast. The concept for her first film, Four Women, was rejected by the brothers at the Studio Museum for being irrelevant to the struggle. The project undertaken in its place would show righteous bloods providing victuals to the starving masses.

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In L.A., Dash became one of the youn­gest fellows in American Film Insti­tute history, a fact that provoked more trepidation than pride. “I was surrounded by all of these people who’d done features, had worked in the industry. I felt out of my depth.” In this period she was also introduced to black independents Larry Clarke and Charles Burnett, who’d been classmates at UCLA with Haile Gerima of Bush Mama fame. Clarke was working on his visionary jazz drama Passing Through; Dash helped with the sound. Burnett had by that time produced his short The Horse and the epochal Killer of Sheep — first-prize win­ner at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival­ — which filmmaker Reggie Hudlin rightly appraises as “black independent cinema’s Invisible Man.”

Dash’s first major project at UCLA was an adaptation of Alice Walker’s story “Diary of an African Nun,” a Bressonian exercise in angst and austerity with spooky black-and-white visuals. The au­thor’s response to the film still smarts for Dash. “I struck a print for her out of courtesy and she sent me a 10-page cri­tique. I wanted to tell her, lady don’t you know I’m only a student?”

Dash wound up making her AFI gradu­ate project, Illusions, at UCLA because the powers that be at Greystoke Mansion disapproved of a scene depicting film-recording technology not possible in the ’40s, when the film takes place. Once again Dash was daydreaming up against a brick wall. “They tell you film is a “fanta­sy medium where you can do anything you want and then say you can’t make a film because some technology wasn’t in­vented yet. They make films about black people that have nothing to do with reali­ty all the time.”

Illusions stirs up a racial identity quag­mire by way of Lanette Mckee’s wanna­bee character, Mignon. The film also frames interlocking takes on racism, sex­ism, patriarchal warmongering, and the exploitation of black musical artists by the white entertainment industry. Illu­sions is unique in black independent cine­ma for its period setting, specially con­structed sets, film-within-film action, white chorus line and mostly white cast. First reactions to the film were disheartening for Dash. At a black film festival in London the pan-ethnic screening board thought it had been sent to them by mis­take. Until she met the festival’s director a year later, Dash couldn’t figure why the film was the only one in the festival not reviewed.

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The scenes shot for this round of pro­duction involve four of the principal characters in Daughters of the Dust­ — Eula, Yella Mary, Eli, and The Unborn Child. Alva Rogers, who has the Eula role, is a friend of mine from New York. She’s got a supporting role in Spike Lee’s School Daze and works with the black women’s performance cartel, Rodeo Cal­donia. Rogers is also a “new music” vo­calist who’s done work with Butch Morris and Elliot Sharp. She performs her own music at downtown spaces — sung incantations on race and gender derived from texts by black women writers. Alva is black like Miles Davis, as beautiful and photogenic as the maestro was at 26. Her skin is black in the way that made Bud Powell say to Miles, I wish I was as black as you.

Barbara-O was the lead in black director Haile Gerima’s gritty, epochal Bush Mama, but has also done episodic television — Lou Grant, Laverne and Shirley, and even Wonder Woman, where she played “high-queen of the interplanetary council.” She left acting in 1980 to study filmmaking; Daughters is one of only two roles she’s taken in seven years. Though her fallen-woman character is called Yella Mary, she’s more orange than ochre, with Cherokee high cheekbones, deep-set suc­cubus eyes, and a posture more erect than a Trump tower. She gets into character by leaving her door open at night draped with yellow mosquito netting, awaiting, says she, her lovers.

For this round of shooting Alva and Barbara-O will play their dialogue scenes at a location called Ibo Landing in the script. Slaveships anchored there, and legend has it that a chained group of Ibos once walked down the planks, surveyed the situation, and turned around to walk across the water. There are many St. Helena sites that will serve as “Ibo Landings” during the filming. This scene will take place on the Black People’s Beach, passed which common can property never be of sold St. but Helena’s only blacks, down generation to generation.

This Ibo Landing is a meadow whose centerpiece is a monstrous tree that looks like a thrashing giant buried upside down to the chest. Behind it is a sunken bayou with junked kitchen appliances the crew will have to move — stove, sink, and cabi­nets — followed by yellow marshes and then the shell-strewn beach. As water­front properties go, the Black People’s Beach isn’t much to look at, more Tarzanland than sunbather’s paradise for lack of landclearing funds.

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In character, Barbara-O mounts the tree to lay back on a sturdy limb in full lady-of-leisure regalia: a white waist­length coat, white high-heeled boots with hooksnaps, a gold nose-ring, green con­tacts, and a floor-length lace-shouldered number dripping with petticoats. Her shoulder bag is big and embroidered, her hat is a bonnet on its way to becoming a fedora with veil. For hours on end Barba­ra-O manages to maintain a stallion’s carriage in a chaise-longue recline. I surmise yoga has given this bush mama a truss-rod spine. At one point she leans forward from the waist like a lever topped by a wig and jaw definition Iman would die for. The surprise of the shoot is the debut of Alva’s and Barbara-O’s vari­ations on Gullah dialect. Alva’s is mutant mimicry: a soft singsong, via the moun­tains of Norway and the hills of Jamaica. Imagine Liv Ullman coming out of the mouth like a Rasta jah-jah girl. There’s a mocking stridency to Barbara-O’s accent that makes it less about music than a bitchin’ screen femme fatale attitude. The haughty lilt of the Caribbean is there, sure, but hers is really more like some Lauren Bacall-goes-to-the-Low­-Country stuff. Fierce. At this point I real­ize Daughters of the Dust has the poten­tial to be something we’ve never really seen on the screen before: a black “wom­en’s picture” — not quite in the grand George Cukor tradition, but close enough to be kin. There’s certainly enough atti­tude on the prowl up in here to give the comparison anchorage.

True to the pattern of Dash’s other projects, Daughters has already gone up against two funding agen­cies, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National En­dowment for the Humanities. At CPB the project ran afoul of a black woman exec who told Dash her script was too mystical and suggested she write some­thing geared toward white midwestern­ers. At NEH the project was rejected, says a letter from the powers that be, for not being written in the Gullah brogue on the one hand, and for being “an intellec­tual exercise” beyond primetime compre­hension on the other. Dash believes what’s really operating here is a fear of black people making political statements grounded in an autochthonous reading of black culture. “The image of the black revolutionary was neutralized through caricature during the blaxploitation era. He was made to seem weak and a phony. Now there exists a fear of black people using our culture to make statements in code. It’s the modern variation on the fear that led slaveholders to take our drums away.” Though the NEH letter applauds Dash’s research and the en­dorsements of her script by respected Gullah scholars, it tries to claim that the film’s symbolic elements are purely flights of her fancy. What Dash has come up against here is the arrogance of someone else’s ignorance — an arrogance forti­fied by what appears to be the common belief that blacks’ self-knowledge is like no knowledge at all.

Knowing that racism is behind the in­stitutions’ failure to support her does nothing to insure that Dash will have dollar one to complete Daughters this spring. But Dash, a veteran of black inde­pendent film’s long march, doesn’t know how to be despondent. “I just read Spike’s book on the making of She’s Gotta Have It, and after all he went through to finish his film, I know we’re going to finish this one.” ❖

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UPLIFT THE RACE
Black Independents’ Coming Attractions 

Yes, Virginia, there is a black in­dependent cinema beyond the genius of Spike Lee and the pound-wise, penny-ante-foolishness and ingenuity of Robert Townsend. You want more dap on it, you are required to read Thomas Cripps’s informative if problematic Slow Fade to Black, wait for Clyde Taylor’s poststructuralist tome on the subject, and by all means to join the Black Filmmaker Foundation. The BFF — 80 Eighth Avenue, suite 1704, NYC, 10011, 924-1198 — has a rental archive of work by nearly 100 black independents, and screens films every month by up-and-coming directors. Had you, for example, been a member two years ago you could have seen She’s Gotta Have It damn near right out the lab.

Five black independent filmmakers were working on Daughters of the Dust. A. J. Fielder has produced a short experimental work, Super 8 transferred to video, and has plans to begin shooting this summer a feature of Joycean intertextuality about his Howard years called Jahamas on Su­per 8, to be transferred to video. First assistant Will Hudson has completed two short video features, Rootman and Winter, that have a gutbucket phan­tasmagoric look. Drama adviser Leroy McDonald, a colleague of Dash’s at AFI, has done a short feature based on the infamous Tuskegee experiments and has another in the works about Olympic gold medalist Tommy Smith, who, with John Carlos, gave the black power salute at the ’68 games and wrecked his sports career as a result. Barbara-O is editing a documentary about black homeless men, and pro­ducer Bernard Nicolas has completed a documentary on his Haitian emigré family. Other names to watch out for are Reggie Hudlin, whose The Kold Waves is on the boards for production by New World this summer; Ellen Sumter, another Howard grad, with two 16mm short features to her credit; Brooklyn’s own Ayoka Chenzira; and Neema Barnette, whose work you may have peeped on two early Frank’s Place episodes. All coming to a theater near you in your lifetime we desper­ately hope. ■