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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CITY HALL ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

What Did Koch Know, and When Did He Know It?

Anatomy of a Cover-Up

I’m the perfect route to the downfall of this administration.
— Bess Myerson, New York magazine,
March 30, 1987

In the middle of the afternoon last Friday, Ed Koch slouched in his office chair, with just a cou­ple of cameras to perform for and a handful of print reporters. He’d called a press conference to badger the City Council and the Board of Estimate about the budget, but the reporters wanted one more run through the Myer­son thicket — a complex and mounting series of questions about the mayor’s knowledge of former Cultural Affairs commissioner Bess Myerson’s wrongdoing, which had dominated news coverage at City Hall all week. For the next half-hour, the mayor became a zombie.

“I don’t know,” “I can’t recall,” “I can’t reconstruct that,” were Koch’s answers to question after question. He looked like a man who’d spent the night in an arcade with a pocketful of quarters; a video­game glaze had seized control of him. Having struck out on questions that pushed Koch’s memory about events as far away as 1983, the Voice‘s Wayne Bar­rett asked him to think back to when he first read the Tyler report in early April of this year. Barrett wondered if Koch could recall whether the report’s account of the activities of his close friend and aide Herb Rickman rang a bell with him, sounded like something he’d heard be­fore, or whether it was news to him — the first time he’d ever heard that Rickman had warned both Myerson and Judge Hortense Gabel not to go ahead with the hiring of the judge’s daughter. The mayor paused. The mayor grimaced. The mayor grappled. But nothing came out. He couldn’t remember again.

The mayor’s memory lapses last week were part of a four-year-old stonewall on questions about Bess Myerson. And the stonewall did not end with the confer­ence. Moments after Koch finished, the gray tape recorder that the press office used to record the conference was hurried into a small private office 40 feet from the mayor’s. The office belongs to Herb Rickman, who immediately sat with an assistant, listening to a playback of the mayor’s amnesia.

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Koch cannot be sure that Rickman will decide to match the mayor’s apparent evasions with his own. A former assistant U.S. attorney who voluntarily appeared before Judge Harold Tyler’s commission and the federal grand jury probing Myerson without even retaining an attorney, Rickman has been a sword in Myerson’s gut. If sworn or forced by the press, he might be the same to the mayor. Rick­man knows how many times Koch was warned about Myerson over the past four years and he knows the depths of the mayor’s indifference. Rickman told Tyler a good portion of the truth about Myer­son, but no one, until now, has asked him to spell out his own conversations with Myerson’s stubborn protector, Ed Koch. When Rickman raises his hand for the Ferrick Commission — appointed by Gov­ernor Cuomo to probe the city scandal — ­he may, combined with other evidence of warnings to the mayor, put Koch at the center of a legal firestorm.

The report, news stories over the last week, and Voice interviews suggest the following chronology of cover-up:

1983: FOUR DOORS FROM KOCH 

Around Labor Day in 1983, Herb Rickman, whose office is only four doors down the hall from Koch’s, learned that his longtime close friend, Bess Myerson, had hired the daughter of another friend of his, Hortense Gabel. The hiring deeply disturbed Rickman, who knew that Judge Gabel was then hearing a difficult divorce case involving Myerson’s lover, city sewer contractor Andy Capasso. A week later, the New York Post reported (on Septem­ber 14, 1983) that the Capasso divorce case was heating up and that Myerson and Capasso had “recently been playing coy” about their relationship. This story appeared the same day that Judge Gabel slashed Capasso’s alimony payments by two-thirds. Rickman says he then ar­ranged a meeting with Myerson to warn her about the appearance of impropriety and to urge her not to go through with the Gabel hiring. Later he went to lunch with Judge Gabel and warned her.

But Rickman, who was so troubled he confronted two of his friends face-to-face, has so far maintained that he said noth­ing to the mayor, even though the con­flict of interest involved the possibly ille­gal use of a city job. The mayor also says Rickman divulged nothing to him, noting that it would have been better if Rickman came forward, but insisting that Rickman did nothing wrong. Rickman’s explana­tion for his silence is that Myerson as­sured him that the major decisions in the divorce case had occurred before she hired Sukhreet and that the hiring had been “cleared by City Hall.” These expla­nations temporarily satisfied Rickman, although a City Hall sign-off on the hir­ing — minus the information he had — ­would have been routine. (Of course if Rickman saw the September 14 Post story, he would’ve known that the divorce case was still active after Sukhreet’s hiring.)

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What apparently bothered Rickman was that Myerson’s hiring of the judge’s daughter was a blatant conflict that could attract public attention. His own actions, if they were designed to both help and protect Myerson, suggested a far more subtle approach. Several months before Myerson offered Sukhreet a job, Rick­man began looking for one for her, at the urging of Judge Gabel, whom Rickman had known for years. At a lunch with Sukhreet in May or June 1983, Rickman picked up her resumé. According to Sukhreet, Rickman took it to city eco­nomic development commissioner Larry Kieves, who interviewed her, but did not offer a job. Myerson had simultaneously begun the wooing of Judge Gabel, whose handling of the divorce case had been reported in a March front-page New York Post story that featured a picture of Myerson. During this period, Myerson, Rickman, the judge, and her husband, Dr. Milton Gabel, had dinner at a restaurant. But it is unclear if jobhunter Rickman was acting only out of affection for Judge Gabel or was aware that Myerson was then engaged in what the Tyler report described as a conscious “courtship of the judge.”

The Tyler report says these various contacts culminated in a dinner party at Judge Gabel’s home, attended by about 14 people, on June 17, 1983. Myerson and Rickman attended together. (Rickman, who is gay, and Myerson have been social companions for two decades.) Myerson met Sukhreet for the first time, and the two spent most of the evening chatting. Tyler concluded: “If Myerson was looking for a way to influence Justice Gabel, and we believe she was, it became apparent by the dinner on June 17, if not before, that Ms. Gabel provided the best path to that result.”

Rickman sought a job for Sukhreet while spending several long weekends at Capasso’s Westhampton Beach house, and listening to Myerson and Capasso’s incessant talk about Capasso’s divorce and Judge Gabel. He saw the divorce papers strewn all over the house. With the collapse of his efforts at OED and the pressure of the critical alimony decisions in the divorce case, Myerson took mat­ters into her own hands. Yet when Rick­man learned that Myerson had hired Sukhreet herself — as her own special as­sistant no less — he says he kept his infor­mation to himself. And the mayor now says that’s all right with him.

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OCTOBER 1983: TWO DECEPTIVE LETTERS

On October 18, 1983, the Post re­ported that Myerson’s agency had hired Sukhreet Gabel while Judge Gabel was handling the Capasso case. Herb Rickman was surprised and outraged because the story indirectly attributed the hiring — which he had op­posed — to him. A Myerson spokesperson was quoted as saying that Rickman had tried to get Gabel a job at the Office of Economic Development, but that prob­lems had developed “so her resumé was sent to me.” Rickman told Tyler he an­grily called Myerson and her assistant, correcting the inference that he had something do with the resumé winding up at DCA. But he did not stop there.

Rickman told the press last week that he also informed the mayor the Post sto­ry was incorrect and made it clear that he’d had nothing to do with Sukhreet Gabel’s hiring. During his press confer­ence on Friday, the mayor could not re­call when Rickman told him about the error in the Post story. But sources famil­iar with the facts told the Voice that Rickman went to the mayor about the story “the moment it appeared.”

The timing is important because the day after the story Myerson sent the mayor a letter that responded to the Post piece and falsely contended that “most of what had to be decided” in the divorce case “had already been decided in the first six months, a major part of it in favor of Mrs. Capasso.” On October 21, the mayor answered Myerson’s letter with a brief note of praise, saying Myer­son had done “exactly the right thing in filling an open job with an able person.” The Tyler report has established that Myerson’s description of the hiring pro­cess in her letter to Koch was a wholesale fraud, designed to deceive the mayor.

But the mayor already had two reasons to question the truthfulness of Myerson’s letter. Rickman had just told him that Myerson’s suggestion in the Post story that he’d referred Gabel for the job was false. And the Post story of September 14 established that the divorce case was at such a critical junction after Sukhreet was hired on August 29 that Capasso and Myerson were trying to conceal their own relationship. These facts alone should have prompted Koch to hesitate before enthusiastically endorsing Myerson’s conduct. His own City Hall personnel staff could’ve told him, had they been asked, that Gabel was hired before the vacancy notice was even published, de­stroying the facade of a search concocted in Myerson’s letter.

Tyler concluded that Judge Gabel’s as­sertions that she had not read the Post stories of March and September — which describe her own decisions and link the Capasso divorce to Myerson — were unbe­lievable. Is it believable that the Septem­ber 14 Post piece was missed by Koch, a voracious newspaper reader; Rickman, who had spent much of the summer with the very people named in the story; and the mayor’s chief of staff Diane Coffey, the City Hall liaison to Cultural Affairs who reviewed Myerson’s letter with Koch? At a minimum, this story would’ve alerted them to the falseness of Myer­son’s assertion that the case was virtually over.

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1984: JULY 4 FIREWORKS

The Tyler report indicates that Myerson called Rickman in March 1984 and left a message regarding a state decision to suspend payments on two contracts with Capasso’s company because of apparent violations of law by Capasso in the use of phony minority fronts as subcontractors. By July 1984, Rickman knew enough about an investigation of Capasso’s construc­tion company, Nanco, to warn Koch not to attend a July 4, 1984 party at Capas­so’s Westhampton Beach house. Rickman declined to go himself and called Koch, telling him that he had “heard there was a problem.” Koch, who had been invited by Myerson, said at the press conference last Friday that he went because “there were no indictments.” Ultimately Attorney General Robert Abrams did indict Nanco on these charges.

Rickman’s rejection of the party invita­tion was part of a conscious decision to distance himself from Myerson. Some months back Rickman told New Yorker reporter Andy Logan that he was con­sciously cutting his contacts with Myer­son during this period, gradually ending their social relationship. The Voice has learned that Rickman told the mayor he was disassociating himself from Myerson, although it is unclear precisely when Rickman told him or whether he told the mayor why he was cutting his ties. These discussions, together with Rickman’s call about the party, constituted a second wave of warnings to the mayor.

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1985: THE GIFTS, AND A HIT-AND-RUN DRIVER

In the summer of 1985, Nancy Capas­so’s counsel, Herman Turnow, met with the mayor’s City Hall counsel, Pat Mulhearn. Turnow says he spoke to Mulhearn “about the interrelation­ship of Judge Gabel’s ruling on the alimo­ny and child support to reports that Bess Myerson hired the judge’s daughter.” Mulhearn says they “never discussed the giving of the job to her” or at least that he has “no recollection of that.” Mul­hearn and Turnow agree that they did discuss the propriety of Myerson, a city official, receiving expensive gifts — includ­ing the use of a Palm Beach condo, a company limo, and a Mercedes sports car — from a company with $200 million in city contracts. Mulhearn maintained there was no ethical violation, saying, “After all, they are friends.” Turnow says he discovered in this visit to City Hall a wholly different set of ethical standards than his own.

Mulhearn passed the issue of gifts on to the mayor, but Koch says that Mul­hearn and then corporation counsel Fritz Schwarz told him that acceptance of the gifts was “within ethics guidelines.” At his Friday press conference, the mayor angrily rejected questions by WNBC’s Gabe Pressman, who was pressing him on the appropriateness of these gifts, none of which were listed on Myerson’s finan­cial disclosure statements filed with the city clerk.

When Mulhearn met with Turnow, he was already sitting on another hot potato involving Myerson. Myerson had refused for six months to fire her city chauffeur after the Department of Investigation found that the driver had been involved in a hit-and-run incident while driving Myerson’s city car, that he’d driven Myerson for two and a half years with a suspended license, and that he had improperly been permitted to carry and dis­play Myerson’s city shield when she was not in the car. Myerson had refused to act on a detailed DOI report sent her in February 1985, and DOI had at first en­listed Mulhearn to try to force Myerson to fire the driver. When nothing happened, DOI Commissioner Pat McGinley brought the subject up at a meeting with the mayor, Mulhearn and Deputy Mayor Stan Brezenoff. The mayor reportedly told Brezenoff and Mulhearn: “Take care of it.”

Of course, as the Tyler report fully demonstrated, the driver had intimate knowledge of Myerson’s activities in the Gabel case as well as information about her violations of city law regarding both the gifts and the illegal use of his own services by Myerson. Myerson, who had directed the driver to falsify his mileage reports to the city, was protecting her own accomplice. Despite Mulhearn’s in­volvement, the driver was never fired, but resigned and was placed in a job deliver­ing payrolls for the City University of New York.

By the time the issues of the gifts and the driver were brought to Koch’s atten­tion in 1985, the mayor was wading in Myerson warnings. But he did not ask the city’s Department of Investigations, which was clearly already involved with a serious Myerson matter, to examine the gift issue, nor did be refer it to the Board of Ethics, though on its face the legal question merited more than informal as­surance from in-house counsel that ev­erything was okay.

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1986: THE MAYOR’S McCARTHYITE ATTACK 

After the Manes suicide and the explosion of the city scandal in early 1986, the Daily News published seven investigative articles on Myerson, from May 1 to May 15. Rickman was featured in many of these stories. We know Koch read them closely because on May 2, at a City Hall news conference, he accused the News of “Mc­Carthyism.” (Koch must have meant Mary McCarthy for her brilliant renderings of the decadence of the rich.) It is certainly reasonable to assume that Rick­man, whose photo accompanied the first piece, discussed the articles with Koch.

These stories — written by Marcia Kramer, Marilyn Thompson, and Barbara Ross — revealed that U.S. Attorney Ru­dolph Giuliani was investigating Capasso and “reviewing records of Capasso’s re­cent bitter divorce.” Myerson was quoted as saying, at this late date, that she and Capasso are “friends, that’s all.” These articles demonstrated that the heart of Myerson’s defense for the hiring of Sukh­reet Gabel, contained in the 1983 letter, was fiction. Judge Gabel had, according to the News, “sharply trimmed the ali­mony payments of a businessman linked romantically to Myerson one month after Myerson hired the judge’s daughter.”

At his Friday press conference, Koch could not say why he hadn’t asked Myer­son to explain the discrepancy between the News stories and her assertions in the 1983 letter. He recalled calling her and said she simply referred him back to the 1983 exchange of letters. That was enough for the mayor to reject what was by now a mountain of evidence. He did nothing. (Giuliani told the Voice this week that the investigations of Myerson and Capasso began in his office and were not a referral from DOI. Although DOI was never asked by Koch to investigate Myerson, this week DOI called in for questioning several employees of the Ap­pellate Division, First Department, to try to find out who leaked the Tyler report to us.)

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1987: SEALING THE TRUTH 

Even when Myerson’s decision to take the Fifth Amendment in a federal grand jury appearance was revealed early this year, Koch’s respons was muted. He still proclaimed at a press conference that he had “faith in her integrity” and refused to fire her, although she had hidden this appearance from him. Instead, she agreed to a 90-day suspension while Tyler did his investigation.

Tyler urged Koch not to release the full report to protect witnesses from retalia­tion and safeguard Giuliani’s ongoing probe. But Tyler did not object to revealing the report’s basic conclusions. The mayor’s decision to summarize the report in five simple sentences — one of which was exculpatory — was one more cover-up gesture. As a Times editorial noted last week, “Surely more of Mr. Tyler’s story about Ms. Myerson’s sordid manipula­tion of the judge and her daughter could have been safely revealed.” To keep the report sealed, the mayor’s attorneys had railed on in court that the lives of witnesses would be in jeopardy if it were released. But Giuliani said that after the Voice broke the story last week, “no witnesses needed protection.” Everyone “is fine,” said Giuliani, “there are no problems.”

Why has Koch gone to such great lengths to protect Myerson?

He has attributed it all to friendship. In fact, no public of­ficial is less loyal to his friends than Ed Koch. In his best-selling memoir, Mayor, he wrote about how he reduced his longtime aide and then deputy mayor Ronay Menschel to tears. He has written critically about his loyal special assistant John LoCicero. In fact, inti­mates of Koch say that he has not been personally close to Myerson for years, rarely seeing her socially. It is indeed an irony that though she is widely and accurately credited with having played a piv­otal role in making him mayor, he never mentioned her in Mayor.

The fact is that Koch has protected Myerson because he has long recognized that there is no way that a damaged Myerson wouldn’t also damage him. And perhaps turn on him. The two went to such lengths to manufacture a fictional relationship that Koch is now a captive of it. In the end, the cover-up that has insulated Bess so long was designed to protect the mayor, who was joined to her in the public mind by creative advertising. As that cover-up unravels, so does he. ❖

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THE IMMACULATE DECEPTION 

There is a great irony in the fact that Ed Koch’s gravest crisis comes from his perceived inti­macy with Bess Myerson. The irony goes back to the Immac­ulate Deception of the 1977 campaign for mayor.

During that campaign, Koch and Myerson kissed in Co-op City, hugged in Forest Hills, held hands in a syna­gogue on Rosh Hoshanna, and looked into each other’s eyes in Pelham Park­way. The Koch campaign wanted to convey the idea of a romance to refute the whispering campaign that Koch was gay.

The romance was the invention of the brilliantly cynical David Garth, who was Koch’s chief strategist and media adviser. Once, early in the campaign, Garth told Jack Newfield he had to cancel a meeting with him because he was hav­ing lunch with “the Smith Brothers.”

Newfield asked who were the Smith Brothers.

“Oh, that’s my nickname for Ed and Bess,” Garth replied.

“I don’t get it,” said Newfield.

“Two beards, shmuck,” Garth said. and laughed.

There never was any romance be­tween Koch and Myerson, although they were good friends. It was Myerson who arranged for Koch to meet Garth, and it was Myerson who pressured Garth to mastermind the campaign, in which Koch started with 2 per cent city­-wide recognition.

Gossip columnists began to print items saying that Koch and Myerson might get married after the election, a notion that surely helped Koch with working-class Jewish voters, who might otherwise have voted for Abe Beame or Bella Abzug without considering Koch.

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Late in the campaign, when political reporters started to ask Koch and Myerson about a real romance, they would give coyly clever answers, like, “Anything is possible,” “We may have an announcement after the election,” or, “For now, we’re just good friends.”

In appearances with Myerson, Koch would say to audiences, “Wouldn’t she make a great first lady in Gracie Man­sion?” On television, Koch was asked if be planned to marry Myerson, and he said, “It’s always a possibility, but I don’t want to talk about it. She’s an incredible person, a warm human be­ing that I truly adore.”

Myerson acted like a surrogate wife in the 1977 campaign. She stood next to Koch on the basic campaign post­er — the only time in anyone’s memory that a nonfamily member was used in such a fashion. She made television commercials for Koch, asking, “Have you no character, Mr. Cuomo?”

It was all a charade — a consumer fraud perpetrated by the former con­sumer commissioner. Koch and Myer­son agreed to use each other to create an illusion. Koch needed to win an election and Myerson wanted a politi­cal career. Three years later, Myerson would run for the Senate with the sup­port of Koch and Garth.

But for the past six or seven years, Koch and Myerson have not been really close friends, in the way that Koch is close to Dan Wolf, David Margolis, Leonard Sandler, or Herb Rickman.

As the Myerson scandal unravels, Koch will be paying a price for his fantasy politics of 1977, which the vot­ers believed and now remember.

— W.B., J.N. & T.R.

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BESS’S GABEL VENDETTA

The head of the city’s Human Rights Commission says Bess Myerson demanded that Sukh­reet Gabel be fired from her second city job, a top post at the Commission, which she obtained on the recommenda­tion of her mother, state supreme court judge Hortense Gabel.

At a meeting in Myerson’s Depart­ment of Cultural Affairs office on Au­gust 7, 1984, Myerson urged human rights chairwoman Marcella Maxwell to discharge Gabel without giving any rea­son. “Bess told me I had to fire Sukh­reet,” Maxwell told the Voice. “She didn’t say why, just that I had to. I was so shocked I almost fell off my chair.”

Maxwell had in fact already decided to dismiss Gabel because “she was un­able to relate to people at the agency.” But before telling Sukhreet, she took Judge Gabel — a 20-year friend — to lunch and told her that her daughter would be sacked. “She told me, ‘You can’t do that, she’ll kill herself,’ ” says Maxwell, who agreed to Judge Gabel’s request to let Sukhreet resign.

Myerson’s demand to Maxwell two days later seems puzzling. It may have been one more lurching turn on the roller coaster of affection and rejection to which Myerson subjected Sukhreet. But it came in the midst of increasingly aggressive legal strategies by Capasso’s wife, Nancy, in their divorce case, being handled by Judge Gabel. On July 25, while being deposed by his wife’s formi­dable new attorney, Herman Turnow, Capasso balked at answering questions about his business relationships with city officials — including Myerson.

Less than a week later, on July 31, Nancy Capasso secretly recorded a dra­matic conversation with her husband in which he said she knew enough about his business dealings to put him in jail “for 400-500 years.” Capasso proposed a cash settlement of the case for $1 mil­lion to $2 million; Nancy Capasso coun­tered with $7 million to $8 million. Ca­passo clearly felt a rising desperation as Nancy and her lawyers began closing in on his business dealings, his relation­ship with Myerson — and perhaps Myer­son’s favors for Judge Gabel.

Maxwell’s hiring of Sukhreet came af­ter Judge Gabel, along with many oth­ers, had written the mayor, recommend­ing Maxwell for the Human Rights position. “Hortense told me I’d need someone I knew and trusted,” Maxwell told the Voice. Even though Maxwell barely knew Sukhreet, she took Gabel’s suggestion that she hire her daughter. Ironically, Maxwell had wanted Sukh­reet to serve as an executive assistant, at a lower salary. But no such job exist­ed, and Sukhreet was instead offered the agency’s third-highest job, a $40,000-a-year deputy commissioner­ship — more than double her DCA salary of $19,000.

Myerson displayed her protective side when Maxwell asked her to approve Sukhreet’s release from DCA. Although Myerson had demoted Sukhreet and denigrated her work, Maxwell said when she called Myerson from Judge Gabel’s apartment in June 1984, “Bess was very reluctant to let her leave.”

Myerson may have had good reason to want to keep Sukhreet close by and at the mercy of her fickle attentions. Although Judge Gabel had already sharply reduced Capasso’s child support and alimony payments in September 1983 (following Myerson’s hiring of Sukhreet at DCA), several important motions were pending, and the case was still a ticking time bomb for Capasso.

But Sukhreet’e new job also quickly began to unravel. The only task Gabel seems to have been given on her own was arranging a huge swearing-in bash for Maxwell at City Hall on July 11. Gabel told the Voice she had no further dealings with Maxwell after that. “I sat isolated and alone in my office.” Once Sukhreet began to get the same treat­ment at Human Rights that she had gotten at DCA, Myerson’s attentions re­sumed. “I hadn’t seen Bees for a long time,” said Sukhreet. “I was rather de­pressed. When Marcella started treating me horribly, I showed my work to Bess and she praised it.” When, in early Au­gust, Maxwell told Sukhreet she would be fired, Sukhreet called Myerson, and got a very different reaction than Max­well later received. “Bess was support­ive,” said Sukhreet, “she made nice clucking noises.” Gabel was at a loss to account for Myerson’s demand that she be fired. “Bess is crazy,” she said, “but Marcella is mean and vicious.”

— W.B., J.N. & T.R.

Categories
CITY HALL ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES

Snapshots of Stanley’s City

Phone Log Fixes

The following snapshots of the polit­ical life of the city — some sinister, some bizarre — are taken from the appointment diaries and phone logs of convicted former Bronx Democratic boss Stanley Friedman. The Friedman records, seized by the feds ear­ly last year and released as part of his criminal case, were maintained by Fried­man’s longtime secretary, Rose Mintzer, at Friedman’s East Side law office.

Though they cover only a portion of 1985 and a couple of weeks in January 1986, the logs unveil the machinations of a remarkable range of prominent New Yorkers — from mobsters like Tony Saler­no and Tommy Gambino to publishing giant Si Newhouse and developer king Donald Trump. The sagas of Larry Kir­wan and Carlos Galvis reveal Friedman’s onetime legendary reach into state and city government, even though neither deal was achieved. And the tales of City Councilman Bob Dryfoos and Brooklyn beep Howie Golden’s daughter Michelle are commentaries on their characters, not Friedman’s. Remarkably, there are dozens more vignettes like these left in the Friedman volumes, revealing the dai­ly activities of a quintessential power broker.

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Ties to Fat Tony

Fat Tony Salerno, the boss of the Gen­ovese crime family, who is now doing a century on federal racketeering charges, and Vincent “Fish” Cafora, Sa­lerno’s constant companion who is under indictment with Salerno in a still pending case, apparently visited Friedman on Oc­tober 16, 1985. Salerno had long been a client of Friedman’s senior law partner, Roy Cohn, and a Cohn aide set up the meeting with Friedman the day before, leaving this message: “Tony and Fish coming at 2 on Wednesday to see Cohn and they’d like to see you too.” The entry in Friedman’s appointment diary for 2 p.m. on Wednesday simply says “Cohn.” A notation in the logs a couple of months later lists a phone number for “Fish.” When the Voice called the number and asked for “Fish” Cafora, a man who de­clined to identify himself, said, “He isn’t here anymore.” Law enforcement sources told the Voice that the references are to Salerno and Cafora, who were apparently on a first name basis with Friedman. Reached by the Voice, Friedman refused to answer any questions about his logs.

The indictment pending against Cafora and Salerno, who was recently convicted in the commission case, contains a count against one of their alleged racketeering partners, Milton Rockman, which says that he “misrepresented and concealed” from a federal pretrial agency in the mid­west his reason for three trips to New York while out on bail pending a trial in Kansas City. The indictment says he was meeting with Salerno and other members of the Genovese family “under the guise of consulting” with an attorney, Cohn. The indictment also indicates at least one area of interest where Friedman and Sa­lerno activities overlapped — concrete.

According to the indictment, S&A Concrete and its affiliates, owned by Sa­lerno and other Genovese crime family members, controlled all concrete con­struction contracts in Manhattan exceed­ing $2 million. One of the rigged bids cited in the indictment is a $30 million contract for the just completed conven­tion center. An earlier companion case, brought by State Attorney General Rob­ert Abrams, charged that S&A and an­other concrete company close to Fried­man, Dic Underhill, rigged the convention center bid so that S&A would win it at a price 27 per cent higher than the prebid price estimates.

A Dic Underhill affiliate, S&D, was represented by Friedman and won a $7 million city contract to repair broken parking meters (that contract is now the focus of a federal probe). Two Dic Under­hill principals, Bernard Jereski and Wal­ter Goldstein, appear on Friedman phone logs and appointment diaries half a dozen times. Dic Underhill has given $12,000 to Friedman’s Bronx Democratic commit­tees in recent years, while S&A Concrete gave $1400 to a Friedman committee and Bronx beep Stanley Simon.

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A Cuomo Lease

State Democratic chairman Lawrence Kirwan holds no state government position, but according to Friedman log entries he was in the middle of a 1985 effort to steer a Department of Motor Vehicles office into a building owned by a big donor to the Bronx organization and borough president Stanley Simon.

On November 6, Friedman was called by party secretary Murray Lewinter and urged to call Kirwan “to speak to Motor Vehicle Com’r — would like White Plains Road for Motor Vehicle office.” Lewinter left Kirwan’s Albany telephone number for Friedman. Later that day, and again on the following day, Kirwan, who was handpicked by Governor Cuomo, left messages informing Friedman that the DMV office “will happen” on White Plains Road.

The proposed DMV site, 2078 White Plains Road, is owned by Violet Camac, who, along with her son Howard, donated $2250 to Simon’s 1985 reelection cam­paign and has given $3150 to the Bronx organization since 1982. The Camacs company, Yankee Lumber, also provided material for a rehabilitation of Democrat­ic headquarters on Williamsbridge Road. Howard Camac said that he “mentioned” to Friedman that he was interested in the state lease, but did not ask for help in securing it. Camac’s lawyer, Richard Gugliotta — whom Friedman unsuccess­fully ran for civil court judge three times — said that community opposition eventually led to DMV rejecting the White Plains Road site. “It came as a surprise to Mr. Camac that Larry Kirwan was involved,” Gugliotta said.

Friedman’s datebook shows three meetings with Camac in 1985, two of which included Kathy Zamechansky, the former head of the Bronx Overall Eco­nomic Development Corporation and a key party fundraiser. His phone logs refer to a fourth meeting in November, the day before the series of Kirwan messages re­garding the rental. The records also re­veal that Kirwan met frequently with Friedman, whose Bronx organization was one of the chief contributors to the state party (one notation refers to a $20,000 check Friedman was sending Kirwan’s state committee).

The DMV office was originally sched­uled to be located in Pelham Bay in space owned by a local businessman with no political ties. However, pressure from Si­mon, the late Republican state senator John Calandra, and Congressman Mario Biaggi forced DMV officials to withdraw the site from consideration. The White Plains Road site was the state’s next choice, but this time — despite Kirwan and Friedman’s support for the Camac lease — protests from civic and neighborhood groups led DMV officials to drop the location.

Kirwan did not return numerous Voice phone calls about the deal. DMV officials have now decided to lease space near Fordham Plaza owned by the Metropoli­tan Transit Authority.

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Cohn’s Demise: A Ghoulish Golden Grab

In November 1985 newspaper stories de­tailed the disbarment proceedings against Roy Cohn as well as the late attorney’s battle with what he described as liver cancer, but later was revealed to be AIDS. Since he left city government in 1978, Friedman has been affiliated with Cohn’s law firm, Saxe, Bacon, and Bolan.

As Cohn’s legal and terminal medical problems appeared in the papers, Mi­chelle Golden, the 27-year-old daughter of Brooklyn borough president Howard Golden, began calling Friedman at Saxe, Bacon, and Bolan’s headquarters, a five­-story townhouse at 39 East 68th Street. Michelle Golden, a real estate salesperson with Cushman and Wakefield, left a mes­sage on November 22 stating she was “anxious to carry” the townhouse and wanted to know what was happening with it. “She read that Roy Cohn was sick and that he had some legal problems,” Mortimer Matz, Golden’s spokesman, said. “That’s what real estate people do.”

Golden, who left seven messages about the building and met with Friedman twice, was also interested in helping the firm find new office space if it decided to leave the townhouse, Matz said, adding, “Nothing ever happened.” Golden’s sense that the townhouse may have been on the block appears accurate: property records reveal that the ownership corporation took out a third mortgage — this one for $178,000 — on the townhouse in April 1986 to apparently allow the law firm to stave off bankruptcy. The money was used by the corporation to pay off a legal judgment against Saxe, Bacon, and Bo­lan, which is described in a rider to the mortgage as being unable even to pay its rent.

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Donald’s Deals

One Friedman client who dominates his logs is Donald Trump. Though Trump conceded through a spokes­man that Friedman did represent him on occasion, he contended that Friedman was representing the other side of the deal he and Friedman discussed the most during this time period: Trump’s near acquisition of the air rights over the Parkeast Synagogue at 163 East 67th Street (Koch’s synagogue, and also May­or Beame’s). Friedman was in constant touch with Rabbi Arthur Schneier about the sale and arranged meetings with Trump. A date was set for the closing on this deal, but it conflicted with the major­ity leader election in the city council so it was canceled. A couple of days later the scandal exploded. Trump, who says it was Friedman who approached him and who had no specific plan for the air rights, dropped the deal.

Friedman did represent Trump in ne­gotiations with the state’s Division for Housing and Community Renewal con­cerning Trump’s attempt to empty a rent-stabilized building at 100 Central Park West that he acquired some years ago. Trump says that “Stanley suggested that he might be able to negotiate a set­tlement,” so Trump said that he should go ahead. Friedman then began an ex­traordinary series of at least a dozen calls and meetings with Manny Mirabal, the DHCR deputy commissioner who had a tenant complaint on the building before him. Mirabal is recorded as having at­tended meetings with Friedman at Fried­man’s townhouse office. After initially confirming the conversations with Fried­man, Mirabal ducked a series of follow-up Voice calls pointedly asking about the meetings. In the end, Trump settled with the tenants.

On November 27, 1985, Friedman and then Bronx city planning commissioner Ted Teah, who operated a law practice out of Friedman’s office, attended a meeting at Trump’s office that the logs recorded as involving Trump’s grandiose Lincoln West project. Trump says that the purpose of the meeting was a private presentation to Teah of Trump’s plans for the West Side, which were then before the planning commission. Friedman was clearly given the job of getting the undependable Teah to the meeting, as mes­sages like this one from Trump’s office suggest: “Ted must show on time.” Trump insists that Friedman was not there representing him, but was included because Friedman had represented Francisco Macri, the previous Lincoln West developer who had sold this prime stretch of waterfront land along the West 60s to Trump a year earlier. A spokesperson for the Macri interests said they could not recall if Friedman represented the project.

Suitably enough, Friedman is also list­ed as attending a meeting regarding the Hyatt Hotel with Trump and department store operator Michael Modell of the Mo­dell’s chain. It was Friedman, as deputy mayor, who approved, in the final days of the Beame administration, a series of tax abatements and other benefits that en­abled Trump to build the Hyatt — his first Manhattan deal. Trump contends that Friedman was representing Modell in the meeting, which concerned the store’s sub­-lease in the Hyatt. Modell told the Voice that he’d never retained Friedman but that Friedman was a close friend and that Friedman was helping him in his meeting with Trump. Trump was so friendly with Friedman that he once left a message providing his “direct line to his Aspen room,” and when Friedman’s candidate won the council majority leadership last January, congratulated him, adding, “He is so proud of you: hope the papers do right by you.”

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Helping Gambino’s Buddy

Thomas Gambino, the son of the late mob chief Carlo Gambino and himself a member of organized crime, called Friedman on behalf of Sal Carrera, a friend seeking a real estate broker’s license.

On October 1, Carrera called Friedman and said that “Gambino told him to call” and that he was calling about a package of papers “to go to Albany.” A subse­quent message reveals that the papers concerned a real estate broker’s license for Carrera. Four weeks later, Carrera called again and Friedman’s secretary left the following message: “Sent paperwork to Albany. From Tom. What’s the sta­tus?” Gambino called Friedman on No­vember 8, “re his friend. Also he’ll call Jackie,” Friedman’s wife. The following day, Jackie Friedman, who works in the mayor’s office, left a message reminding her husband about “1) Reservation PR 2) Gambino.” The first message refers to a trip the couple took to Puerto Rico last winter.

Thomas Gambino owns one of the gar­ment district’s largest truckers, Consoli­dated Carriers (his messages to Friedman included Consolidated’s number). While he has no criminal record, Newsday re­ported last September that Gambino was identified by a police detective in federal court testimony as a captain in the Gam­bino crime family. An FBI court affidavit contends that Gambino is a soldier. Car­rera received his broker’s license last Sep­tember through Ketrec Management on East 40th Street, where he was reached last week. Asked about Friedman and Gambino, Carrera said “That’s none of your business” and hung up. Gambino, too, hung up when the Voice called.

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Stanley’s City Council Mole 

Eastside city councilman Bob Dryfoos, who double-crossed the rest of the Manhattan delegation last January and cast the decisive vote that elected the Friedman/Manes-backed Peter Vallone majority leader of the council, made his first appearance on the Friedman logs on October 9. His initial message was wedged in between two from Brooklyn borough president and county leader Howard Golden, who ultimately allied himself with the Manhattan delegation in an attempt to keep the majority leader­ship in Brooklyn (it was the retirement of former leader Tom Cuite, a Brooklyn councilman, that created the vacancy).

Golden’s first message read: “wants to meet with you next week — early part — ­just you and he — when? where?” Since Golden, Friedman, and Manes met regu­larly, this message was probably an at­tempt by Golden to sound out Friedman alone about the possibility of supporting a Brooklyn candidate against the front­runner, Vallone, who as a Queens coun­cilman was Manes’s candidate. Fried­man’s control of the six Bronx votes made him a pivotal player in any contest between Queens and Brooklyn. The very next message that day was from Dryfoos: “Yes — meet — drink coffee here one hour — reorganization of City Council and thereto, before you talk to Howard.” A short while later, Golden called again: “Don’t do anything — OK — Howie Gold­en — talk to him.” Friedman’s diary lists an October 15 lunch with Golden at Friedman’s office and an October 21 meeting with Dryfoos. Neither Golden nor Dryfoos returned Voice calls.

After this initial exchange, several mes­sages suggest a growing relationship be­tween Friedman and Dryfoos. In early November, Dryfoos called while Fried­man was vacationing in Puerto Rico and was given Friedman’s number there. Next he called for Friedman’s mailing address. Then another meeting was set in early December. As the tight race headed for its early January showdown, Dryfoos, who kept attending meetings of the Man­hattan delegation and pledging his sup­port to its candidate (Brooklyn’s Sam Horowitz), became a Friedman mole. On December 27, he called while Friedman was once again vacationing in Puerto Rico, said he “heard some news you should be aware of,” and left Friedman his own vacation number at an upstate hotel. Messages from a Bronx council­-member, June Eisland, indicate that Dry­foos met with them on January 3. On January 8, Dryfoos coolly assured his fel­low Manhattan members, moments be­fore the vote, that he was with them, and then publicly announced his vote for Vallone.

The logs also suggest that Friedman was looking for some last minute insur­ance. Council President Andrew Stein, who had no vote on the matter unless the council members deadlocked, has con­firmed that he met with Friedman and others the night before the vote. Stein insists that the meeting was only to dis­cuss the parliamentary rulings he would make the next day and that he was deter­minedly neutral. But two sources deeply involved in the process told the Voice that Stein told them he preferred Val­lone, and one of them says that the meet­ing with Friedman “might have been” to lock in Stein’s vote in case of a tie. Stein told the Voice that he met with Golden too, but in fact he met only with Golden technicians. Indeed Stein met with tech­nicians from both sides the morning of the vote. Friedman was unlikely to per­sonally attend an emergency meeting with Stein the night before the vote to discuss innocuous parliamentary decisions.

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Si’s Slip is Showing

Roy Cohn’s aide Sue Bell called Fried­man on October 10, 1985 and asked Friedman to try to get “a boatslip for S.I. Newhouse III (known as Sam) begin­ning mid 1986” for Newhouse’s 42-foot yacht, Diver Master. Publishing heir Newhouse, whose family owns Vogue, Glamour, Vanity Fair, The Staten Island Advance, Random House, and dozens of newspapers and cable TV stations across the country, wanted the boat berthed at the city’s only active Manhattan mari­na — at East 23rd Street. Cohn and Ne­whouse’s father were lifelong friends.

A series of subsequent messages indi­cate that Friedman called a top city offi­cial who ran the city’s ferry bureau and asked for help. But the ferry bureau didn’t run the marina; the city’s Depart­ment of Ports & Terminals did. So the ferry chief called Audrey Lasher, P&T’s leasing director, who supervised the city’s sublease with Skyports Inc., the company that operated the marina under an agree­ment with the city. Lasher agreed, ac­cording to the ferry chief, to talk to Sky­ports. Despite what sources say is an “exceedingly long waiting list,” Newhouse got his slip — only one of 27 — at the mari­na. Both Lasher and the ferry chief have since left the city. P&T spokesperson Marcia Reiss said that the agency’s lease with the marina operators does not per­mit the agency “to interfere in the alloca­tion of slips” and that any action taken by Lasher would not be a matter of agen­cy business.

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The Kiss of Death

A 1983 Daily News story reported that the mayor had contacted the four county leaders close to him, including Friedman, to seek their recommendations before appointing a new Ports & Termi­nals commissioner. A two-to-two tie re­sulted in Koch naming Susan Frank, who had not been favored by any of the party bosses. So when Koch began the search for a replacement for Frank after his re-­election in 1985, it was widely assumed that Friedman would once again play a role. A spokesman for Deputy Mayor Alair Townsend, who was overseeing the selection of a new commissioner for the mayor, confirmed that Friedman had called Townsend on behalf of a candi­date: Carlos Galvis, a Princeton graduate who had worked in the Lindsay adminis­tration and for Congressman Les Aspin. The phone logs indicate that Friedman did not know Galvis personally, but was contacted in late December by Robin Farkas, whose family owns Alexander’s. After Farkas talked with Friedman, Gal­vis sent Friedman a résumé.

Galvis told the Voice that both Farkas and two friends of his at the Real Estate Board suggested that he contact Fried­man for help in getting the job. While he declined to say who at the Real Estate Board pointed him in Friedman’s direc­tion, he said they also suggested that he contact Donald Manes. He added that he has known Farkas since the ’60s. Fried­man gave Galvis an appointment, and Galvis went to Friedman’s law office at 11 a.m., January 10, the morning of Ma­nes’s first suicide attempt. Galvis said that Friedman’s secretary mistook him for a senator and ushered him right in, observing that otherwise he might not have been able to see Friedman, who “was having a very busy day.” Galvis saw Friedman for about 20 minutes and re­called that throughout the interview an “unruffled” Friedman was making and receiving calls. Friedman told Galvis that “he was trying to get a car to go see his best friend in Queens, who was in the hospital.” Friedman promised: “I will call on your behalf.”

In late January, when Galvis was told he had not been hired, the city scandal had already exploded and Friedman was at the center of the storm. “Even if I was the best candidate, I had become taint­ed,” he said. “After all this started I felt like crap. I felt like the guy who got nominated for supreme court justice on the day the president got impeached.” But city officials insist that Michael Huerta, who is the now the P&T com­missioner, had already been selected by the time Friedman and Galvis met. Huer­ta was reportedly offered the job on Jan­uary 6 and the city was merely conclud­ing terms with him.

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Mr. Fixit

Friedman’s phone was the political Ac­tion Line. Requests from friends and fellow pols came in regularly for tick­ets to Broadway plays (Cats and The Odd Couple) and the Palladium (from Stanley Simon on behalf of his daughter Suzette, and from Councilwoman June Eisland). Bronx county clerk Leo Levy called ask­ing for four hotel rooms (with dinner and a show) for New Year’s Eve at Trump’s Castle in Atlantic City. Trump’s secre­tary called wanting to know, “Are they heavies at the table?” since it was a “hardship” to give up the rooms. Fried­man eventually informed Levy that he could not swing the rooms. Levy also called on behalf of Norman Goodman, the New York county clerk, asking for four tickets to a Carnegie Hall concert. Friedman also got requests for tickets to Midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral as well as local football games. Jet tickets were no problem, the logs reveal, but Friedman did not have a hook in with the Giants. He could get judges to perform weddings, though.

Lillian Delgado called in September, 1985 asking for help locating an apart­ment for $700 in Manhattan or down­town Brooklyn. Friedman put Delgado, a friend of a friend, in touch with Lew Katz, the owner of the Uncle Charlie’s chain of gay bars and a friend of Roy Cohn’s. Katz, who also helped get Fried­man’s step-daughter a job, was charged last May with stabbing to death a 37- year-old man during an argument, and is currently free on $400,000 bail. Delgado said that Katz did not find her an apart­ment. “I ended up paying a big broker’s fee,” she added.

One deal Friedman was not able to complete — through no fault of his own­ — concerned the securing of hangar space for attorney Richard Friedman’s airplane. Richard Friedman called three times in October, 1985 asking Friedman to “make the case” with officials of the Port Au­thority. Then, on December 9, the search was called off. On that day, Lewinter left the following message: “Richard Fried­man, re: plane storage. Forget it — he crashed plane & was killed.” ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Michael Jackson: Man in the Mirror

Because Afro-Americans have presented challenges to one order or another almost as long as they have been here, fear and contempt have frequently influenced the way black behavior is assessed. The controversy over Michael Jackson is the most recent example, resulting in a good number of jokes, articles in this periodical and others, and even the barely articulate letter by the singer himself that was published in People. Jackson has inspired debate over his cosmetic decisions because the residue of the ’60s black nationalism and the condescension of those who would pity or mock black Americans have met over the issue of his face, his skin tone, his hair.

Since the ’60s, there has been a tendency among a substantial number of Afro-Americans to promulgate a recipe for the model black person. That model has taken many forms, but all of them are based on presumptions of cultural segregation between black and white Americans. The symbols of that purported segregation were supposed to permeate the ways in which black people lived, dressed, wore their hair, ate, thought voted, walked, talked and addressed their African heritage. And though the grip of such nationalism weakened over the years, it continues to influence even those who were lucky enough not to have been adolescents during its period of dominance.

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Greg Tate is clearly one who has been taken in, and his recent article on Jackson illustrates the provincialism inherent in such thinking. Jackson alarms Tate, who sees the singer’s experience under the scalpel as proof of self-hatred. The trouble with Tate’s vision is that it ignores the substance of the American dream and the inevitabilities of a free society. Though no one other than Jackson could know what he seeks, to automatically assume that the pop star’s cosmetic surgery was solely intended to eradicate Negroid features in order to “look white” seems far too simple, ignoring both African and American cultural elements.

Présence Africaine published some 20 years ago a compendium of papers delivered in Senegal at the World Festival of Negro Arts. One of the lecturers made note of the fact that a number of African tribes considered the lighter-skinned the more attractive. This vision of beauty was free of colonial influence and probably had more to do with the quality of exoticism that is as central to magnetism as to repulsion. Further, Jackson could just as easily be opting for the mulatto look–if not that of the Latin lover and dandy–that has resulted from the collusion of gene pools whenever light and dark folk have coupled on the Basin Streets of history. Or he could be taken by the keen noses and “refined” features of Ethiopians?

The fact that Michael Jackson is not only a person of African descent, but is also an American should never be excluded from a discussion of his behavior. The American dream is actually the idea that an identity can be improvised and can function socially if it doesn’t intrude upon the freedom of anyone else. With that freedom comes eccentric behavior as well as the upward mobility resulting from talent, discipline, and good fortune- the downward mobility observed in some of those who inhabit the skid rows of this country because they prefer the world f poverty and alcoholism to the middle-upper-middle-, or upper-class backgrounds they grew up in. As one bum who had obviously seen better days said to a waiter as he was being ushered out of the now defunct Tin Palace for panhandling, “People come from all over the world to be bums on the Bowery. Why should I deny myself the right?”

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Tate should easily understand this since he is from a well-to-do black family in Washington, D.C., but has chose to wear dreadlocks in a hairdo that crosses the Rasta world with that of the Mohawk and, eschewing the conservative dress of his background, looks as often as not like a borderline homeless person. That Tate is a bohemian by choice rather than birth means that he has plotted out an identity he prefers to that of his social origins and has found the costumes that he feels most appropriate for his personal theater piece. Though it is much easier for Tate to get another haircut and change his dress than it would be for Jackson to return to his “African physiognomy,” each reflects the willingness to opt for imagery that repudiates some aspect of the past.

That sense of improvising an identity shouldn’t be thought of as separate from the American–and universal–love of masks. Nor should it be seen as at all separate from the “African retentions” Afro-American cultural nationalists and social anthropologists refer to so frequently. The love of masks, of makeup, and of costumes is often much more than the pursuit of high fashion or the adherence to ritual convention; it is also the expression of that freedom to invent the self and of the literal fun Americans have often gotten from scandalizing expectations.

As Constance Rourke observed and as Albert Murray reminds us in his invaluable The Omni-Americans, those colonial rebels dressed up as Indians for the Boston Tea Party might have enjoyed the masquerade itself as much as they did dumping the cargo in the ocean. Considered within the spectrum of the happy to hostile masquerade that has since evolved, Michael Jackson’s affection for his mirror image veering off from what nature intended places him right in the center of one of the whirlpools of national sensibility. One needs only to look at any book or photographs from the ’60s to see how the connection between protest, politics and the love of masks was most broadly played out–SNCC workers donned overalls; hippies took to long hair and tie-dyed outfits; black nationalists wore Figi haircuts and robes; and self-styled Afro-American revolutionaries put on black berets, black leather jackets, black shirts, pants, and shoes, or appropriated the combat dress of Third World military men. And no one who looks at the various costumes worn today, from dotted, yellow “power ties” to gargoyle pun fashions, should have any problem seeing their connection to the masking inclinations rooted in the joy of assumed identities. That love is still so embedded in the national personality that the people of New Orleans are admired as much for the costumes and false faces of Mardi Gras as for their cuisine and their music. And those of us in New York know how much pleasure the grease paint, sequins, feathers, and satins of the Labor Day parade in Brooklyn bring to spectators and participants.

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As far as further African retentions are concerned, it could easily be argued that Michael Jackson is much more in line with the well-documented argument many primitive African cultures have had with the dictates of nature. Have the people of any other culture so perfectly prefigured plastic surgery or been more willing to accept the pain of traditionally approved mutilation? It is doubtful. In photograph after photograph, Africans are shown wearing plates in their lips to extend them, rings around their necks to lengthen them, plopping red mud in their hair for homemade conks that emulate the manes of lions, filing their teeth, and suffering through the slashes and the rubbed-in ashes that result in spectacular scarification. Whatever one wants to say about “different standards of beauty” and so forth, to conclude that such cultures are at all concerned with “being natural” is to actually reveal one’s refusal to see things as they are.

That willingness to suffer under the tribal knife is obviously addressed with much greater technical sophistication in the world of plastic surgery. In fact, the so-called self-hatred of black Americans, whenever it does exist, is perhaps no more than a racial variation on the national attitude that has made the beauty industry so successful. In those offices and in those operating rooms where plans are made and carried out that result in millions of dollars in profit, the supposed self-hatred of black Americans has little to do with the wealth earned by plastic surgeons. Far and away, the bulk of their clients are Caucasians in flight from the evidence of age, Caucasians dissatisfied with their profiles, their eyes, their ears, their chins, their necks, their breasts, the fat around their knees, their waists, their thighs, and so forth. Nipped, tucked, carrying implants and vacuumed free of fat, they face their mirrors with glee.

Where there is so much talk about Afro-Americans fawning over the lighter-skinned among them, what is one to make of all the bottle blondes this country contains and all of those who make themselves sometimes look orange by using lotions for counterfeit tans? It is a certainty that if some Negro American genius were to invent a marketable procedure that would result in harmlessly emitting the desired levels of melanin for those Caucasians enthralled by tans so that they could remain as dark as they wished throughout the year, his or her riches would surpass those off Bill Cosby. Would this imaginary genius be exploiting Caucasian self-hatred?

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Then there is the problem some have with Jackson’s apparent softness, his supposed effeminacy. That, too, has a precedent with Afro-American culture itself. The late writer Lionel Mitchell once pointed out that certain black me were bothered about the black church because they were made uncomfortable by those choir directors and pretty-boy lead singers who wore glistening marcelled hair and were obviously homosexual. A friend of Mitchell’s extended the writer’s position by observing that those very gospel songs were just as often masks through which homosexual romance was crooned. “What do you think is going through their minds when the songs talk about being held close to His?” (What a variation on the ways slaves secretly signaled each other through spirituals, planning flight or rebellion!) This is not to say that ever homosexual gospel singer thought of things more secular than spiritual when chirping those songs in which love is felt for and from an almighty He or Him, but it is to say that those who feel Jackson has somehow sold out his masculine duties have not looked as closely at their own tradition as perhaps they should.

There is also the fact that Jackson, both as an androgynous performer and surgical veteran purportedly seeking to look like Diana Ross, has precursors in the minstrel shows of the middle 19th century. It is there that the tradition of the romantic balladeer actually begins, at least as a phenomenon of mass entertainment. As Robert C. Toll observes in Blackening Up, white minstrels became very popular with women because they were able to publicly express tender emotion through the convention of burnt cork and were sometimes able to become national stars for their performances as giddy mulatto beauties. “Female impersonators excited more interest than any other minstrel specialist,” writes Toll. “Men in the audience probably were titillated by the alluring stage characters whom they were momentarily drawn to, and they probably got equal pleasure from mocking and laughing at them….At a time when anxiety about social roles was intense, the female impersonator, who actually changed roles, fascinated the public. As a mode of properly ‘giddy’ femininity, he could reassure men that women were in their places while at the same time showing women how to behave without competing with them. Thus, in some ways, he functioned like the blackface ‘fool’ who educated audiences while also reassuring them that he was their inferior. Neither man nor woman, the female impersonator threatened no one.”

Jackson quite clearly bothers more than a few, from Eddie Murphy to the rappers interviewed by Guy Trebay in the article that accompanied Greg Tate’s. The pit bull of Murphy’s paranoia over pansies has often been unleashed on Jackson and the fact that the rappers were disturbed by Jackson’s persona suggests something other than what it seems. Perhaps what bothers them most is that the singer’s roots in minstrelsy are so different from their own. As Harry Allen revealed not so long ago, more than a few rappers are actually middle-class Negroes acting out their version of a “gangster aesthetic.” Instead of a minstrel mugging, you have counterfeit thugging, more than a tad in line with the faddish cracker sensibility of acting bad to bust the ass of the middle class on the rack of rock and roll.

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Yet the actual sorrow and the pity of the Michael Jackson story is that he has had to carry the cross of an imposed significance far beyond what his music merits. Jackson comes from rhythm and blues, which is itself a dilution of blues, a descent from the profound emotion of America’s first truly adult, secular music. As a pop star, Jackson’s fame and riches have come from the expression of adolescent passion, but he is also the product of an era in which profundity has been forced on music actually intended to function as no more than the soundtrack for teenage romance and the backbeat for the bouts of self-pity young people suffer while assaulted by their hormones. Rock criticism changed all of that, bootlegging the rhetoric of aesthetic evaluation to elevate the symbols of adolescent frenzy and influencing the way pop stars viewed themselves. So when a man’s power is found in an adolescent form, time impinges upon his vitality. If he is sufficiently spooked, he might be moved to invent a world for himself in which all evidence that he was ever born a particular person at a particular time is removed. That removal might itself become the strongest comment upon the inevitable gloom that comes not of having been given too much too soon but of having been convinced that one is important only so long as he or she is not too old. ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

New Jack City Eats Its Young

Motor City Breakdown

I.
BLOOD LIKE WATER

“Yo-yo, where the money at?”

Lenny Higgins, 17 at the time, didn’t usually go to the store with his foster brother James, also 17, but on the night of March 1, 1987, James asked and Lenny obliged. It was 10:30. At Williamson’s Party Store, on Perry Park Boulevard on Detroit’s West Side, they bought sodas and played some games. They left about 10:45. As Lenny tells the story, he and James were approaching their corner of Heckler Street when a hooded figure ran across the street and stopped them in their tracks. Clad in a black jacket and black hooded sweatshirt, Mark Hunter, 24, pulled a .357 Magnum from his pants waist and stuck it in James’s temple.

“Yo-yo, where the money at?”

Three seconds later another figure joined Hunter and put another .357 to Lenny’s head. Lenny had seen this boy around the neighborhood, knew him slightly, but they weren’t friendly: Dashaw Green, 15. Wearing a black, Run-D.M.C.-style “popcorn” leather jacket, hooded black sweatshirt, black jeans, and white laceless Adidas, he echoed his partner:

“Where the money at? Which one a y’all got the money?”

Lenny was confused, scared, angry — but not willing to be a toy hero, a dead toy hero — “Here!” he said, “You can have my money, just don’t shoot me!”

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Lenny gave up his $26, and James handed over $30 or $40. After they took the money, Mark and Dashaw looked at each other, an evil, hungry look, Lenny says. They lowered their guns and pushed Lenny and James backward. Mark raised his gun and fired. Flames spit out the muzzle like and orange and white blur, hitting James in the abdomen. The bullet exited through the spine. James doubled over. Lenny was frozen. Mark and Dashaw ran five or six steps in the opposite direction, but then Dashaw turned around. Mark turned around. Dashaw hesitated for a split second. Maybe he thought, I’m with my boy, and if I don’t shoot, he might think I’m frontin’. He might even shoot me. I can’t let this nigga go scot-free. I gotta shoot him, too. Dashaw and Mark ran up on Lenny, and they fired five shots — all of which hit Lenny because he stood as a shield on James’s left side — and fled into the night. Lenny and James slumped against a neighbor’s fence, not far from their house. Lenny called to one of his friends inside the house.

“Tanisha, come help me! Me and Jimmy just got shot! Come help!”

A puddle of blood formed underneath them, branching off in several directions, before a direct line dripped into the street. Lenny could smell smoke rising from his body where the bullets had dug into his left arm, left side, back, and legs. Thoughts circled in Lenny’s head as if it was a turntable fashioned by a madman—too slow at 45, too fast at 16. Lenny wondered why they didn’t take his gold chain, his sheepskin, or his Filas, or James’s Bally shoes. Just before he heard the chorus of ambulance and police sirens, he whispered to James, his best friend, “Jimmy man, not matter what happens, I love you. We gonna make it. Just take it easy, sit there and rest. We gonna make it.”

Three hours later at Henry Ford Hospital, after the first of many operations, Lenny learned that James had died.

1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit

II.
THE EPIDEMIC

ACCORDING TO official estimates, there are at least two guns for every person in the Detroit metropolitan area. Nearly 65 teenagers 17 or under have been killed this year. Almost 300 have been wounded. The number exceeds last year’s body count of 48, and the wounded are steadily lurching toward the 365 of 1986. Detroit is a city whose horror reaches cinematic proportions, like The Living Dead Wear Kangols and Filas. However you like your chiller theater, Detroit is the worst because it’s real. Unlike New York, where the DMZ begins south of 96th Street, or Baltimore, where guerilla dope wars are confined to eastern and western black districts, Detroit’s violence knows no boundaries. It’s among the high-rise office buildings downtown, the upper-middle-class homes and condos on the West Side, the poverty-worn projects on the East Side. Detroit is like that nightmare where your legs become paralyzed when the monsters are chasing you; you can’t escape.

Statistics, like germs ink-stained and clamped down under a microscope, are neat and tidy from a safe distance. But once you zoom in and focus, you see fascinating, intense, and sometimes ugly details of lives previously ignored. The kids in Detroit are more than data on police bar graphs and newspaper charts, distributed as lunchtime chitchat or after-dinner arguments during the Eyewitness News. The kids in Detroit are suffering from a disease so new, powerful, contagious, and fatal that there’s not even a name for it yet.

Business is booming for funeral homes and florists in Detroit. Funeral home director James Cole said, “It’s pathetic. Just about every day, we get young people who are being killed needlessly. It’s business we shouldn’t have.”

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Emergency-room physicians often wonder if they’ll be able to treat all of the gunshot victims on busy nights. Dr. Cynthia Shelby-Lane of Detroit Receiving estimates her city sees 40 percent of the city’s young, black, male gunshot wound victims. One incident that stuck out in Dr. Shelby-Lane’s mind concerned at 13-year-old boy who was rushed to emergency with a gunshot wound in the chest.

“He was a surgical code one,” the doctor said, “which is a resuscitation victim in a life-or-death situation. Everybody looked at each other and said, ‘Thirteen? How young are the going to get?’ When they reeled him in, he was sitting up, so he wasn’t unconscious. As we started immediate resuscitation — he was breathing on his own and had good blood pressure — we could feel the bullet in the front of his chest. He was in pain but he was a young kid, and after 30 minutes, he asked me, ‘Well, can I play basketball again?’ And we just looked at each other. Obviously, he didn’t have any understanding of what almost happened to him, and, perhaps, how to prevent it from happening to him again. And that’s the biggest problem for me.”

The problem is exacerbated by the juvenile judicial system. Heavy hitters such as Y. Gladys Barsamian, 55, presiding judge of the juvenile division in Wayne County, are beleaguered, belabored, and chastised by Michigan’s legislators, who crave a scapegoat. Judge Barsamian addressed the flaws in Michigan’s juvenile justice process in an interview last year with Free Press reporters David Ashenfelter and Michael G. Wagner: “We have created a generation of children without conscience, without values. So they have no concern about people’s lives. Life is very cheap to them.” Barsamian added, “You’ve got to be able to hold people responsible for their actions, and we’re not able to do that.”

Ron Schigur, deputy chief prosecutor of the juvenile division, also says the system is lacking. “The juvenile laws in Michigan are a joke to these kids,” Schigur said. “We’ve had examples of some kids who just laugh at the cops after committing a crime, and say, ‘Hey my mom will come and get me in the morning.’ They know if they are locked up, that the law says we can only keep them until their 19th birthday. The truth is, whether he spits on the ground or murders his mom, he’s going to do an average of a year.”

III.
BURNT OFFERING

THERE IS ANOTHER FACTOR more important than the impotent laws, though, a factor that anchors uncomfortably in many a Detroiter’s mind. It is the DNA for this mutant strain of teen hood: the 1967 riot. Its ravaging aftermath was presaged — unwittingly, of course — by two different idealists. One’s oratory shook the nation; the other’s rhyme rocked the house. But to simplify things, let’s set it up, as if trying to break the full court press. In the early ’60s, Martin Luther King threw the bounce pass for the fast break: “If you sow the seeds of violence in your struggle, unborn generations will reap the whirlwind of social disintegration.” In 1981, while dodging bullets at a rapper’s convention in the former Harlem World Disco, MC Busy Bee Starsky caught the zeitgeist and slam-dunked it: “I got sperm, that jingo-jangle-jingles …” For me, there’s a photograph that locks the horror of the 1967 riot into a never-ending moment. It depicts a 30-year-old black man, John LeRoy, shot by a national guardsman at a roadblock on Lycaste Street. Lying next to a bloody corpse, LeRoy is barefoot and chest down, bleeding profusely: he looks like he’s treading the concrete, gushing blood outlining the form like an obscene surfboard, trying to escape the thick waves of night that eventually drown him. LeRoy would die three days later. His left index finger is pointing to something, maybe the future, but the look on his face asked the question on everyone’s lips — why?

After the smoke had cleared, after the Da Nang-ing M1s had silenced, after the tanks had rolled away from West Grand boulevard, after the army infantry and paratroopers had left their alleyway bunkers, after 1700 stores had been looted, 412 buildings destroyed, 657 people injured, and 43 killed, the question remains unanswered, and continues to stupefy 20 years later. Not that racial maelstrom was new to Detroit. In Ford: The Men and the Machine, Robert Lacey provides several proof texts confirming that race relations in Detroit have a long history of trouble. There was Dr. Ossian Sweet, a successful gynecologist who, with his brother and nine more blacks, was arrested on the night of September 9, 1925, after firing into a crowd of several hundred whites who were pelting the Sweet home with rocks and debris. Sweet had just moved into the two-story, $18,000 brick dwelling, located in a white, middle-class enclave on the East Side. He met with resistance from the local neighborhood “improvement” association — a front for newly recruited Klan members.

The Klan recognized Sweet as a paradigm of the Southern black who migrated northward — by 1920, the 5000 blacks in Detroit at the turn of the century had grown to 40,000, arriving at a rate of 1000 a month, looking for a better life. They found it with Henry Ford, who hired more blacks (even promoting them to foreman) than any other auto magnate. The burgeoning black middle class of Detroit was one of the first in America. But the Klan wasn’t going to stand for this. Sweet and supporters fought back, wounding one of the crowd and killing a next-door neighbor. After two trials fought by Clarence Darrow, Dr. Sweet and his comrades were acquitted.

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This turmoil was just the beginning. In 1943, the country’s bloodiest race war until that time took place in Detroit. Thirty-four people lost their lives, 25 of them black, and over 1000 were wounded. But the July 1967 “Summer of Love” is the one to beat. It haunts Detroit to this day.

If you failed to inspect the political underbelly of the community during that period, a riot in 1967 Detroit would have seemed outlandish. Riots exploded in places like Newark and Watts, but not Detroit. Impossible. The auto industry was stronger than ever — there were no Yugos or Hyundais to compete with. Detroit was one-third black, and blacks were a substantial portion of the work force in the plants. The black middle class and working class lived side by side, and their combined financial strength wasn’t to be denied. The black bloc elected James Cavanagh as mayor, and his new, very liberal administration elevated several blacks to key government positions. Detroit also had two black congressmen. Whites began their flight to the suburbs.

Berry Gordy’s Motown was the bullhorn for this new black age, and its “Sound of Young America” was heard around the world. Motown was the example of how far my people had come, and how far we could go with hard work, three-part harmony, silk and sequins, and tricky terpsichore. Motown went to the heights because white America loves black people who know their place after assimilation. From 1960 to ‘67, it seemed that Detroit was living the best of times.

“Life in Detroit before the riot,” said Dr. Carl Taylor, “was an absolute paradise.”

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Dr. Taylor, 38, is a professor of criminology at Michigan State University. He is also the president and founder of Centrax Services, Inc., one of the top private security outfits in the world. For 38 years, Taylor has lived and breathed Detroit. He can remember riding downtown to a tailor with his “Uncle Milton” — Milton C. Jenkins, the renowned Detroit street hustler and manager of the Temptations when they were still the Primes — Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson to pick up sharkskin suits for a Motown Revue. He can remember the strong, self-contained high society among blacks in Detroit before the riots. Nellie Watts, a black patron of the arts, would have to turn people away from her crowded ballet and classical recitals. Taylor also remembers the caste-conscious “E-Lites” in attendance: sepia-toned, middle-class darlings in madras shirts, Levis, and Weejuns.

They were nothing like the mocha-colored “Hootie-Hoos,” with their Damon knit shirts, gabardine slacks, and alligator slip-ons. If the E-Lites didn’t leave their coveted West Side dwellings to mix in the Hooties’ East Side wild life, it was okay. Black people in Detroit maintained a perfect balance. That balance was seen on 12th Street, too; whatever the mostly Jewish merchants sold, the blacks bought in record numbers. Twelfth Street was the main vain.

“Twelfth Street was a mecca,” said Taylor. “It was a major business center in the black community. On 12th and Hazelwood, you had Bosky’s Restaurant (owned by the father of Ivan Boesky), which had the best food, especially the ‘bomb’ corned beef sandwiches. You also had drugstores, appliance and furniture stores, pawnshops, you had it all on 12th Street.”

But 12th Street was dismantled during the wee-hours of July 23rd, 1967. Rumbling started in a “blind pig” — a private, after-hours joint that sells unlicensed liquor—that called itself the United Civic League for Community Action. When police busted the place that night, there were nearly 90 people packed inside the tiny bar and grill. All had to be escorted to the police wagons downstairs, which couldn’t hold everybody. A crowd gathered at the entrance as the police led their captives out. The merriment turned ugly. Bricks and rocks were hurled, smashing the back window of one patrol car; Molotovs rocketed through the street. Stores were devoured, as if by locusts.

“I can remember as a teenager sitting on the porch,” Taylor recalled, “watching people pushing shopping carts of TVs and clothes. My neighborhood was a working class atoll on the West Side. And you could see the same sights in middle-class neighborhoods. It was unreal, almost ethereal—like everyone was a contestant on the Wheel of Fortune, and had solved the puzzle.”

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IV.
POPPY: THE GREAT WHITE FATHER

RESURGET CINERBUS. It shall rise from the ashes.

Detroit is a city full of personal billboards, slogans, and mottoes. This particular one was used to revive a dying city. It was partly fulfilled. A spanking new monorail ties some of the major hotels and office buildings downtown together like a concrete dipsy-do, all too symbolic — round and round, going nowhere. The mirrored Renaissance Center — Henry Ford II’s helping hand to Detroit after the devastation — juts out of the ground like a weird urban stalagmite. In the 20 years since the riot the city has lost a third of its people and a larger portion of its jobs. The white merchants on 12th Street and other parts of the city were frightened beyond belief, and decided they could never come back. Not only was this bad for the blacks who patronized these stores, it was bad for the blacks who worked in them — including those who were rioters themselves. With the loss of so many people and jobs and so much finance — and the upswing of crime — the city’s tax base rapidly dwindled. By 1985 it had shrunk to 12.6 percent of Detroit’s three-county metro area, down from 45.6 in 1980. With the move of Hudson’s and others out to the suburban malls, badly needed moneys were siphoned out of the city on a regular basis. Middle-class whites and blacks who did remain found themselves plagued by armed robberies and burglaries. People decided to arm themselves. Handgun sales rose sharply, and the street was flooded with illegal weapons. The city’s homicide rate shot skyward.

What happened? Why didn’t Detroit recover? There’s no solid answer to that question, at least not by conventional logic. Conventional logic doesn’t force the city’s political power to admit that the bounty of the ’80s wasn’t equally distributed. Conventional logic doesn’t scream out that the riot wasn’t why Detroit unraveled: it merely burned away the façade that had hidden Detroit’s invisible society, the forgotten underclass.

In the Detroit Free Press, Barbara Stanton pointed out that 12th Street, along with its bustling stores, hot nightlife, and periphery of black middle-class homes, had in its midst an undeniable ghetto. From West Grand Boulevard to Claremont, there was an enormous number of substandard dwellings, the largest number of unemployed, and the highest crime rate in the city. “The riot was the underclass’s way of getting back,” Taylor said. “It was pure rebellion. It was the underclass’s way of saying, ‘We’re tired of being ignored. Now you’re forced to pay attention.’ This was the guy who didn’t work in the plant, for whatever reason. This was the guy who couldn’t commerce like the working and middle-class blacks who came into 12th Street. This was the guy who was trying to figure out all of the hype going around at the time about how blacks were prospering. Blacks were working — some prospered, like the doctors and lawyers that served the black community when whites refused to — but they weren’t prospering. It was like that line Florence said to George Jefferson on a Jeffersons episode. She said, ‘How come we overcame,’ referring to the civil rights theme song, ‘and nobody told me?’ I guess that’s what the underclass felt. And they took matters into their own hands.”

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Those blacks who believed they overcame, or at least got over, were what made Detroit a Reconstruction dream. Fantasies of affluence in the industrial North came true in sprawling mansions along Boston, Chicago, and Edison boulevards. High auto-industry wages created by a black population — more than a million by the early ‘80s — that needed professional services. Black doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, and businessmen filled the vacuum left by white professionals, who had departed for the suburbs along with their clients. Between 1950 and 1959, over 350,000 whites migrated out of the city. Racism helped create a thriving and powerful and black elite in Detroit. But when the auto industry started its long slide, the black elite’s monopoly on black business began to look like an empty package. Black America’s city of dreams was beginning to feed on itself.

The 1967 riots scarred the urban psyche. As time brought the consequences into painful clarity, blacks realized the insurrection was a painful mistake. The city was becoming a wasteland before their eyes. Many wanted to forget what happened.

A few years after the riots heroin made an appearance in Detroit. Unlike Harlem and Newark, where the drug picked up steam around 1966, heroin was almost an oddity in Detroit until 1970. It was then that Henry Marzette — a black former Detroit cop allegedly jailed during the ’50s on corruption charges — became a top dog in the city’s drug trade. After prison, he was a feared “Gorilla” pimp — one who recruits prostitutes from other pimps by force. But it wasn’t until Marzette noticed the exorbitant profits the Mafia was making from heroin in New York that he decided to get in on the action. Between 1969 and 1970, he took over the trade from a mob family in Detroit and became the city’s biggest heroin financier. Marzette influence extended well beyond the street corner and shooting gallery; during his reign little or no press coverage was given him in the Free Press or The Detroit News.

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After Marzette’s death in the early ’70s, heroin continued to ravage Detroit. Crime surged as addicts fed their monsters. Detroit’s car theft rate became the nation’s highest. Home owners spent tens of thousands turning their houses into iron-barred fortresses. In 1975 gangs like the BKs (Black Killers) and the Errol Flynns appeared on the scene. The Errol Flynns — with their black Borsalinos and weird pumping hand-dance — became infamous during an Average White Band concert where they went on a raping and robbing spree. The situation was so volatile that year that Motown — the soul of black Detroit — moved to Los Angeles. Nelson George, author of the Motown history Where Did Our Love Go?, told me, “I hate to say it, but during that time, Detroit wasn’t conducive for a booming black business.”

With Motown gone and the auto industry in a slump, the scenario in Detroit was beginning to resemble a Greek tragedy. And the city was about to be hit with the deus ex machina — Young Boys Incorporated, or YBI. Not only were they unexpected walk-ons in the second act, they rewrote the script.

In a twisted way YBI took the place of Motown. They were young superstars to street teens, more revered than Michael Jackson and Prince. For older junkies hooked on nostalgia, YBI wrapped the 45s in coin envelopes that contained a feast of memories; “heh-ron” was a stone soul picnic. The origins of YBI are bizarre. Not only were the organizations forefathers — Mark Marshall and Raymond Peoples — well known to police, but their individual crimes prior to YBI were headline news during the mid-’70s. Peoples, a tall and powerful enforcer, was charged with two other men for the 1975 murder of Marian Pyszko. Pyszko, 54, a Polish immigrant and pan washer in a bakery, was dragged from his car one night and beaten with a piece of broken concrete during a rash of racial disturbances. After three trials during which several witnesses developed convenient amnesia, Peoples was acquitted.

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Marshall’s story is a more perverse tale. Marshall was a brilliant student in school. He was the product of a broken middle-class home; his mother, Mary, was a secretary, and his father, Wallace, owned a shoe shop. Marshall grew up in an attractive dwelling in a West Side neighborhood, Russell Woods. Wallace later married Constance Blount; her stepmother, Beatrice Blount, was the widow of the founder of the Great Lakes Life Insurance Co. On August 19, 1974, Marshall’s father, stepmother, her mother, and Beatrice Williams, Beatrice Blount’s nurse, were murdered. Marshall was charged with the knife-and-meat-clever slaying. The police report mentioned traces of semen on the bodies. After two mistrials, all charges were dropped in August 1978. Marshall said after the trial, “Justice has been done after four years. I’m going up north to fish and think.”

Marshall must have pondered long and hard, because it was around this time that he and Peoples began YBI — allegedly with more than $70,000 collected from Marshall’s father’s insurance. Starting from the northwest street corner of Prairie and Puritan, YBI’s tentacles eventually covered Detroit and several counties.

By 1981, YBI’s employees were 300 strong, all teens and preteens, who were immune to the harsh punishment for drug trafficking. Many law enforcement observers have noted that YBI was run like a military outfit, organized into soldiers (street dealers), lieutenants, and the “A-Team” (enforcement). But YBI was more like a $400 million corporation — that was YBI’s estimated gross in 1981 — not unlike its hometown predecessor General Motors. Salesmen were instructed never to use the product. Milton “Butch” Jones, third man in YBI, would drill his soldiers in “marketing” meetings to “get high on money.” As reinforcement, top salesmen were given expensive perks — gold and diamond jewelry, and goose down leather jackets with fur-trimmed hoods known as “Max Julians.”

“YBI was the first drug organization that I know of to use brand names on their heroin,” said U.S. Attorney Roy Hayes. “They had names like CBS, Rolls Royce, and Coochi Khan. It was a Madison Avenue approach — you can trust our product.”

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When the competition copycatted, YBI undercut them by selling low-grade heroin under a competitor’s name. YBI’s drugs (they were selling $3 plastic packets of crack, back in 1982) were the most coveted in the state. YBI was aware of this, and brazenly began to hand out flyers in the neighborhood that stated brand name, price, day, date, and time of sale. Drugs were distributed using Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, taxi cabs, scooters, and 10-speed bikes. Sales areas were patrolled by members of the A-Team in Laredo and Wrangler jeeps, packing Uzis for warding off rival gangs. Jeeps eventually replaced luxury cars for drug distribution — their four wheel drive insured delivery in snow storms, and made it easy to elude cops by escaping into off-road brush.

YBI made bloody examples of those who crossed them. On May 30, 1984, Rickey Gracey, 26, and three accomplices tried to rob the home of Butch Jones. The attempt was thwarted by Jones’s wife, Portia, who wounded Gracey with a shotgun as the other three escaped. While he hobbled on the front lawn, Portia put in a call to Charles Obey and Spencer Tracy Holloway, members of the A-Team, and driver Andre Williams. When they arrived, according to Williams’ testimony, Portia was outside waiting for them. Gracey apologized and asked them for some water. Obey shot him five times with a .38 automatic. After Gracey had revealed the identity of his partners, Holloway shot him with an Uzi. Fifteen times. Gracey bounced up and down on the grass. Later, his body was found dumped in an alley on the north side.

As successful as YBI was, it suffered some major setbacks that appeared to dismantle the enterprise. In 1982, Mark Marshall went deep underground at the height of YBI’s prominence. In 1983 Butch Jones was sentenced to 12 years in prison, as was Sylvester “Seal” Murray, 30, multimillionaire supplier of YBI and other drug syndicates. Murray was wealthy enough that police investigators found $80,000 cached in a safe — it had been there for two years. Murray had forgotten the combination. In August 1985, Raymond Peoples was found in a car with several slugs in his back.

By 1986, the Detroit Police Department, DEA, FBI, and the Internal Revenue Service was congratulating themselves, saying they finally destroyed YBI. What they forgot was that, although 42 people had been indicted, YBI still had 258 people on the loose. It’s true that prosecutors like Hayes, the late Leonard Gilman, and Gary Felder did a great job of attacking YBI — treating it as a multinational cartel rather than some counterfeit gangsters on a street corner — but Young Boys had grown too big to take down in one sweep. This was proven in August, when a grand jury federal indictment of 26 defendants took place in Detroit. The name of the case is Young Boys II. “Nine of the defendants were previously indicted in connection with the Young Boys case,” said attorney Hayes. “Some of the defendants are a Wayne County deputy sheriff, two attorneys hired by YBI, and Milton ‘Butch’ Jones.” Hayes alleged Jones had continued running YBI from his prison cell in a Texas federal penitentiary.

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V.
NEW JACK CITY: ROLLIN’ JEEPIN’ AND JOCKIN’

STOP THE MADNESS

This is a huge advertisement that looms over Woodward, across the street from Palmer Park. One high-schooler told me that the new jacks “look at it and say ‘Fuck the madness. You can’t stop it, so just roll with it.'” The sign has been reduced to a banal slogan, a doofy punch line among the new jacks and front artists. In Motown a new jack is a calculated novice who enjoys killing you, aside from making a name for himself. His imitator, a front artist, pulls out a snapshot of a “nine” (9mm automatic), expecting you to run for your life. It goes without saying that front artists don’t live long.

HOW DO YOU LIKE ME NOW?

This is a personal billboard in red letters on the black spare tire cover mounted on the rear of a triple-black — black exterior, interior, tinted windows — Mitsubishi Montero jeep. Wide Jefferson Avenue is full of jeeps — a new jack posse circling Detroit like crazy sputniks. In sync, the volumes of each Blaupunkt and Alpine stereo are increased at a red light. On green, Rakim and Eric B. sound the charge, the anthem of a new generation, the opus of a new ruling class, the preview of a new rap on the Friday night master mix.

“I ain’t no joke…”

I rode with a high-schooler downtown to the Afro-American Festival in Hart Plaza. He knew some of the crews, has rolled with some of them in the past. Now he wants out of the neighborhood because he is book smart and street aware. But the street is like a Doberman; it can turn on you.

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Finding a parking space near the Joe Louis Arena, we got out and walked. The July night was hot and humid. Renaissance Center stood tall and indifferent, the pallid moon overhead, and the rivers of people beneath; it cooled in the mirrored panes of its hi-tech narcissism.

The people moved like waves of warm water along the sidewalk cafes of Greektown, Woodward’s shopping district, and deposited into the concrete cavern of Hart Plaza. Packs of new jacks — all between 13 and 19 years old — covered the area in designer sangfroid and $2000 portable cellular phones, just in case another crew wanted to “step off” into Uzi conflict. They resembled Nam platoons on maneuvers in Elephant Valley. Their classy gear consisted of Gucci and Bill Blass jogging suits, Bally and Diadora gym shoes, shiny gold Rolex watches. Some were so bold they wore diamond encrusted Krugerrands necklaces, hung from telephone-cable-thick gold chains. That’s equivalent to Nat Turner fashioning a leather-studded belt out of the same cat-o’-nine-tails used to plow his back. But maybe I’m confusing bravado with ignorance.

The festival was too crowded, the jazz band too weak, and the fish and chips booth downstairs was out of its legendary whiting sandwiches. The high-schooler said there were too many crews walking around.

“Something might jump off,” he told me. I asked him if the crews had names. “Some do,” he told me, “but they’re pretty lightweight. If you’re high-powered, you don’t use a name. After YBI there are no more names. Names attract too much attention. Some use hand signals.” I asked him about one group that holds up both hands and flashes peace signs. The high-schooler said he didn’t know about them. I didn’t press the issue; a school security official said later that it’s the code used by the 20–20s.

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So I know a code; I still don’t have the key to New Jack City. I know its inhabitants come from two groups: deracinated middle-class black teens and their less well-off peers. The deracinated black teen knows that being heir to “a better life” resulted mainly in the castration of desire, their confusion of self (Buppie or B-Boy? As Nelson George has said), and their enlightenment that, in 1987, there is no “better life”. Never knowing what it is to want — and, therefore, never growing up, or growing up with nothing to grow into — is a cruel death. New Jack City offers a suicidal lifestyle on the teens’ own terms.

New Jack City for the economically deprived is a crystalline legacy formed by the cooked-down anarchy of their parents in the 1967 riot. Because of the seared riot consciousness, because of heroin’s flip-flop — killer and money-maker — and crack’s entrepreneurial spirit, outlaw is the law. Teen gangsterism has transformed the teen middle and underclass, the children of the E-Lites and Hootie Hoos, into the Get-Over class.

Rap music is also key in understanding the Get-Over class — I think. My trepidation comes from me blaming the ills of the world on L.L. Cool J and rap music. L.L. and rap music are just reflections of New Jack City. As a matter of fact, L.L., Rakim, Run-D.M.C. and other emcees are prisoners of the hard rock image they have triumphantly sold to their Get-Over peers. Once a new jack, actual or dramatized, emcee or murderer — or victim, like Scott La Rock — always a new jack. Even if L.L. tries to deny the street, as he does when showing his frustration in “The Breakthrough,” spitting out to a fanatical crack admirer, “I should take my gun and shoot you/ in your motherfuckin’ face!” — or Rakim tries shallow defection, saying in the December 1987 Spin, that he used to be “robbin’ and stealin’ and all that shit. Normal everyday shit,” when his rapper voice sounds like he’s still ready, like L.L., to “put that head out” — the new jacks won’t allow it, because rap music is their strong-arm negotiator in the world-at-large. It’s no wonder that the switchboard of Detroit’s ABC affiliate lit up like crazy after the July premiere of the Run-D.M.C. Adidas commercial. This telephone vote of gangster stylists proved that not only do clothes make the new jack, they reinforce his being.

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The Get-Over class in New Jack City understands that gangster style is both form and function. To have gangster style, you have to be “gettin’ paid” — making so much gusto (money) until it’s goofy. Then you can have an acquired taste by means of extortion, the ability to buy panache and aristocracy. But that’s what also unnerves me about the émigré’ of New Jack City, the way he flashes his green card. Whether it’s the kid who goes to Gucci to spend $3000 on a wardrobe displayed no further than the L.L. Cool J show, the crackhouse, or the “projects,” or the kid who comes home to a $200,000 cul de sac and a good night’s sleep after killing a rival crack dealer and two of his crew, and all the while mom and dad are in the den doing their taxes on the PC — it alarms me when the need to “show and prove” is that extreme. That’s how I know the teen bodies in the graves of Detroit and other major cities are not surrogates for racist whites or super-provoking parents. Citizenship in New Jack City comes with a very expensive price tag.

“Yo man,” the high-schooler said to me, “I know this one kid who makes $2000 a day. He’s a beastmaster — an enforcer. He’s a big kid, about six-three 230. He carries an Uzi, but he’s def with his hands, too. He just bought a Wagoneer jeep for $22,000, but he parks it two blocks away from his house so that his parents don’t find out. His family has some status and some money, you know, and they expect him to go to college. But he’s making too much gusto. All the skeezers (sexually active girls) are jockin’ him, too. He asked me one time, ‘Know how to catch a skeeze?’ I said no. He said, ‘You say, “Jeep-jeep-jeep-jeep-jeep …'”

We left the plaza. The throngs of crews grew thicker, like shadows coagulating into a nightmare. The street was drowned in cars and people; a police officer directed traffic. Just then, an old and dimpled Pontiac tapped the rear of a sleek Mercedes 300E. Three white guys — mid-thirties — got out of the Pontiac, and they were drunk. Four new jacks jumped out of the Benz, in multicolored sweatsuits and gold everywhere. Two beastmasters, About six foot six and six foot seven, grabbed all three white guys in choke holds. The cop didn’t move. One slim teen, about five foot eight, walked up to one of the white guys and reached for his stuff. The swelling crowd egged the new jacks on. I just knew the white guys were going to catch a bad decision. The cop didn’t move. I covered my eyes, but then I peaked through my fingers. A traffic jam formed and honking horns snapped the new jack out of his homicidal autism. He and his beastmasters jumped back into the Benz and zoomed off. The white guys coughed, choked, and slugged their way back to the Pontiac. The crowd moved on. The cop twirled his hands and blew his whistle. The high-schooler shrugged like a vet. “That ain’t nothin’,” he said. “I know another kid who was working for this crew on the east side, who said he ‘lost’ $75. Quiet as it’s kept, he tricked on crack, making 51s (a crack and reefer joint). When his lieutenant found out, he and his crew took the kid to the basement, took his shoes off, got some carpenter’s nails, a brick, and hammered his hands and feet into the floor. He was still alive when the cops found him a few hours later.”

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Why has murder become a religious observance on the streets of Detroit? How did crack become demonic sacrament? Why is gettin’ paid equal to deification to the new jacks? Dr. Jorge Fleming, chief psychologist at Southwest Detroit Hospital, says that “a lack of spiritual and moral values, values which the black family has historically instilled in their children, has in the last 30 years or so shifted to a heavy emphasis on materialism. When the plants were going full steam, and both mother and father worked in the plant and brought home a combined salary of $70,000, then the kids got anything they wanted. But when those parents were laid off during the auto slump, and when the money wasn’t coming in, there was no spiritual or loving foundation to fall back on, which caused a breach in the family. And the kids, who were used to getting everything, decided they were going to continue having the good things in life — even if their parents couldn’t provide it for them.”

And what does Mayor Coleman Young say? In office for more than 12 years and a wily politician, he has his pat answers. He said in the Free Press three years ago that the exodus of Hudson’s and other stores has caused the high unemployment.

No one can argue with that. But the consensus is that Mayor Young is more concerned with the gloss of downtown than the young bodies found on side streets and in dumpsters. Mayor Young has transformed himself from a man of the people — the unanimous choice after the riot — to a corporate power broker. If prestige has its privileges, though, it also has its problems.

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Between family ties and corporate loyalties, Coleman Young’s political base is draining away even quicker than the city’s tax income. One teacher told me that the mayor should be on the street in a flak jacket with a squadron of heavily armed police because that’s when the kids will know he’s serious. But he won’t do it, this teacher said.

So the new jacks continue to laugh at the advertisement over Woodward, and “wopp” like crazy. It’s the latest dance, a serpentine hump and jerk, a rhythmic self-dismemberment. They wopp-danced fast and fierce back in March, a few days after Lenny Higgins was shot. The occasion was the Motor City Mixer. Given by Dr. Carl Taylor and a few associates and held at the state fairgrounds, it was Taylor’s opportunity to see Aliens 2 up close.

“We thought that these kids were not given a fair shake in the media,” Taylor said, “and there were no outlets for them to have good clean fun. We also thought that a few bad apples don’t spoil the whole bunch.”

The new jacks came in force: mondo-moda sportswear, cellular phones, nines and .357s, pockets bulging with twenties, fifties, and hundreds. Six bucks at the door, and the cashier had a change problem all night.

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From the time the new jacks hit the parking lot to the time they got inside, no one was armed. The security force was 100 men strong.

But Taylor saw the dark side. “Yeah, we stopped the weapons, but we couldn’t stop the mind-set,” he said. After the crowd of 2400 got off of the floor — the deejay mixed in a machine gun sound effect — the party was jumping. “Throw That Dick,” a mixture of Chicago house and rap, began to play. The place went berserk. Fights broke out. A group of 15 boys circled around three girls and molested them. Another crew of 30 new jacks brutally kicked and beat one boy in a corner. While assorted members of Dr. Taylor’s team broke up the fights, the sexual assaults, and other melees, Taylor ran over and snatched the kid, bloody and bruised, to safety.

“I told him,” Taylor said, “I think you should leave. You are going to wind up getting killed if you don’t get out of here. And he told me, ‘Trick it man, trick it. I ain’t no ho. They just gonna have to kill me, ’cause I ain’t no ho and I ain’t runnin’.’ He was just so determined. I didn’t understand it. That’s when we had to pull the plug.”

Taylor said he didn’t understand the kid, but the next day — when all the kids were saying what a success the party was — his words rang loud and clear. It wasn’t so much what he said, Taylor told me, but what he wore. Remember what I said about clothes and the new jack? Well, here’s the motto paid in full. Aside from the new jack’s black color theme — sweats, trench coat, and Ellesse gym shoes — the kid had a black cap with a white stencil that said, Shoot me. I’m already dead.

1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit

1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit
1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit
1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit
1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit
1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit
1987 Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper about gun violence in Detroit
Categories
From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

The Mayor Who Didn’t Want To Know

The Mayor Who Didn’t Want To Know — And the Whistleblowers Who Tried To Alert Him 

Perhaps the fairest way to judge the competence, integ­rity, and character of a government is how it responds when credible information about misconduct is brought to its attention. Any adminis­tration can suffer a scandal, because the susceptibility to temptation has been part of human na­ture since the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Any of us can be fooled or betrayed by a subordinate. Even Rudy Giuliani had to prosecute one of his own assistants who had become corrupt.

The fundamental question about the Koch administration is no longer why the mayor gave power to so many crooks, but exactly what happened years ago when whistleblowers, law enforcement investiga­tors, and private citizens first tried to warn him of questionable contracts and commissioners who smelled of graft. Nothing reveals the heart of the Koch administration better than its treatment of these prophetic individuals who discov­ered clues to criminal or unethical prac­tices, spoke out, and were punished or crushed for their idealism and honesty.

Over the past month I have interviewed a dozen people, including a former high city official who was fired while investigat­ing former transportation commissioner Anthony Ameruso; a city contract manag­er who was demoted for trying to audit a suspicious boondoggle; a woman harassed out of the taxi industry after she went on TV to call for an investigation of the Taxi and Limousine Commission chairman Jay Turoff; a cable TV businessman who went bankrupt after refusing to pay a bribe to Donald Manes; and three former prosecu­tors who were prevented from setting up a sting operation to catch Manes in 1982.

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These people provided new evidence of just how serious and broad an effort was made between 1982 and 1985 to warn Mayor Koch of corruption within his ad­ministration. Together, they paint a pic­ture of a mayor and an administration willfully indifferent to vital informa­tion — almost Reaganesque in not want­ing to know.

(These are not the witnesses discov­ered by the Martin Commission, who vol­unteered significant leads in 1982 about corruption in the Parking Violations Bu­reau — and were ignored. Those highly credible whistleblowers included a police officer and James Rose, the PVB comptroller.)

Gordon Haesloop, the former city dep­uty investigations commissioner, was ordered to stop a productive investigation into transportation commissioner Am­eruso in early 1985 and then was fired a few weeks later. Department of Environ­mental Protection whistleblower Edward Nicastro, a contract manager, suffered a demotion, harassment, was almost fired, and then was reassigned to the equivalent of a gulag — a garage in Queens — by a Friedman crony after seeking permission to audit a Friedman client.

To understand more fully the political, bureaucratic, psychological, and moral context of these five stories of rejected early warnings, it is useful to first summarize some recent history. It is helpful to recall all the signals and messages that the highly popular mayor was sending at the time to his commissioners, to the political culture, to the opinion makers, and to those seeking city contracts.

• To become mayor in 1977, Koch reached an accommodation with Brook­lyn Democratic Party leader Meade Esposito. In his second book, Politics, Koch explained that part of his deal was that Esposito, whom Koch knew to be a friend of racketeers, must keep his per­sonal backing a secret. Koch wrote: “We made it clear that one thing we didn’t want him [Esposito] to do was endorse me in any public way … he agreed to pull strings very discreetly … I must say he has always been very helpful to me.”

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In return for this covert institutional and financial backing, Koch gave Espo­sito hundreds of jobs for clubhouse hacks exempt from civil service merit exams. He also gave Esposito at least two com­missioners: Jay Turoff and Anthony Ameruso. The Ameruso appointment was the very first message Koch sent to all of us, even before he was sworn in. Esposito wanted Ameruso, his personal protege, who had been the mediocre highways commissioner in the Beame administra­tion, to be promoted to transportation commissioner by Koch. When an independent screening panel of transit ex­perts, including Sally Goodgold, Joel Harnett, and Theodore Kheel, recom­mended six other people and found Ameruso unqualified, Koch immediately dissolved and denounced the screening panel and named Ameruso, saying, “I be­lieve he will prove that my judgement is right.” (Ameruso is now under indict­ment for perjury by Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau.)

• In 1985, the mayor’s own Depart­ment of Investigations released a report that concluded that Staten Island bor­ough president Ralph Lamberti had vio­lated the conflict-of-interest provisions of the City Charter, and had committed five misdemeanors. The next day Koch held a press conference, endorsed Lamberti for reelection, and called him an “honest man” and “a partner.”

• Koch gave Donald Manes and Stan­ley Friedman control over hundreds of patronage jobs and let them convert low-­visibility city agencies into clubhouse fiefdoms. As a favor to Manes, Koch ap­pointed Geoffrey Lindenauer deputy commissioner of the Parking Violations Bureau in July 1980, despite Linden­auer’s lack of qualifications and sordid past as a phony sex therapist. Koch al­lowed Manes to control the bidding pro­cess for cable television in Queens — an abdication that created backroom deals and an opportunity for extortion.

• Koch gave Friedman the Citisource contract for hand-held computers that was worth $2 million to Friedman. He appointed Friedman’s law partner, Ted Teah, to the City Planning Commission; he named Friedman crony Paul Victor to the Conciliation and Appeals Board; he authorized $15 million in city contracts to groups under the control of poverty blimp Ramon Velez; and he named Fred Carfora deputy commissioner of the De­partment of Environmental Protection, in which position Carfora demoted and then tried to fire whistleblower Edward Nicastro.

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Koch hired Friedman’s wife, Jackie, for a City Hall job exempt from civil service requirements and invited Friedman to be one of a dozen guests at his private swearing-in on’New Year’s Eve of 1985 — a signal of intimacy that city contractors surely noticed.

When publisher/gadfly Jim Smith questioned Koch at the City Club in Oc­tober 1984 about the legalities of Fried­man’s assetless company getting the prof­itable no-bid hand-held computer contract, Koch insulted Smith, defended Friedman, and said: “How dare you say those terrible things about him … It’s so easy to libel people.”

Ambition drove Koch to make a deal with a steep price. The political structure kept its bargain. It gave Koch a working majority on the Board of Estimate and loyalty on election day. And Koch gave the clubhouse system patronage and con­tracts. Koch got what he wanted: power, a stage, celebrity. And the rulers of the system got what they wanted: wealth and power.

For eight years, almost everyone was satisfied — the buyer, the seller, the pub­lic, the media. Just by doing their jobs, the whistleblowers were a threat to this sordid compact against the public interest.

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EDWARD NICASTRO WAS THE DIREC­TOR of procurement and contract manager for the Department of En­vironmental Protection in 1984. He was everything the public, and the mayor, could want a city employee with a responsible job to be. He was a graduate of St. John’s University and the Universi­ty of Bridgeport Law School. He was an expert at modernizing and administering contracts. He had a profound sense of civic virtue, partially rooted in his desire to repay a debt of gratitude fo the city that sheltered his father from Sicily.

Nicastro had been given the highest possible job ratings by his supervisors, and about 30 employees worked under his supervision. His staff had saved the city hundreds of thousands of dollars when it discovered padded bills and underweighted deliveries from asphalt contractors. He was also a true believer in Ed Koch as an honest, independent mayor; Nicastro’s wife had been a full-time worker in Koch’s victorious 1977 campaign for mayor, and she knew Koch personally.

Early in 1984, Nicastro became suspi­cious of waste and bid-rigging in the con­struction of City Water Tunnel Number Three, being built between Manhattan and Queens, which, has now become the focus of a major investigation by U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani. All Nicastro knew in 1984 was that there were mil­lions of dollars in cost overruns, apparent collusion in the bidding by two consor­tiums, and that no independent audits were being conducted, because his office was being excluded from the review pro­cess. He could see that there was no ac­countability for the bids and contracts on the biggest project ever done by the DEP.

Motivated more by a conscientious concern for cost-effective management than by any dramatic thoughts of a con­spiracy, Nicastro politely expressed his concerns to his two immediate superiors in March 1984. They were deputy com­missioners Jeffrey Sommer and Fred Carfora. He told them his office should be analyzing the water tunnel bidding procedures and billing practices and that the exemption of such contracts from re­view was a direct violation of city rules. He warned Sommer and Carfora that the absence of accountability could lead to corruption.

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Carfora assured Nicastro that he would get his oversight authority by the end of the fiscal year, in June 1984. When this did not occur as promised, Nicastro car­ried his warnings to the Department of Investigations in October 1984, when Patrick McGinley was commissioner.

“DOI was polite, but they never did anything,” Nicastro says now. “Four or five months after I went to them, I called them up to find what was happening with the investigation. That’s when they told me the the case had already been closed.”

Nicastro was aware that Sommer and Carfora were both clubhouse appointees loyal to Bronx Democratic boss Stanley Friedman. He knew Sommer had worked for Friedman when Friedman was deputy mayor, and he had heard that Carfora’s mother had been a Bronx district leader, and that Carfora had gotten his job through the party organization. And as someone experienced in politics himself, Nicastro was aware of Friedman’s power to control jobs and contracts in the Koch administration.

What he did not know until much later was that Friedman was also the lawyer who was being paid a six-figure fee to represent a consortium of companions with 90 per cent of the contracts to build Water Tunnel Number Three. And that one of Friedman’s clients he had wanted to audit had already paid almost $5 mil­lion in fines for bid-rigging outside of New York.

Nicastro is a self-described “tough Si­cilian,” and he did not back off from his position that the water tunnel needed to be audited, since it already had $31 mil­lion in cost overruns, and was 20 years behind schedule.

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That’s when the attempt to crush Ni­castro began. His job performance ratings mysteriously began to decline from “out­standing” to “marginal.” In October 1984, deputy commissioner Carfora tried to fire him, falsely claiming that Nicastro had submitted fraudulent time sheets. At that point, Nicastro told the DOI he was being  fired because he was a “whistleblower,” and Carfora put his request to fire Nicas­tro on hold. In November, Carfora trans­ferred Nicastro to the agency’s gulag — a garage in Maspeth, in a dead-end job as purchasing agent in which he didn’t begin to utilize his skills.

On November 15, 1985, Nicastro sent a registered letter to Koch, with a copy to deputy mayor Stanley Brezenoff, explain­ing in detail what was being done to him, and repeating his “concern about DEP’s contract procedures, which violate City Charter rules as well as controller’s directives.”

Nicastro’s letter to Koch reminded him: “Your Mayoral Memorandum of May 2, 1984, clearly states that all retal­iatory actions [against whistleblowers] are to be investigated.”

On November 22, Nicastro received a reply from Dean Silverberg, then deputy counsel to the mayor, saying: “I have forwarded your materials to the Depart­ment of Investigations for their review of your concerns.”

Nicastro was now in the realm of Kaf­ka, where faceless bureaucrats toyed with his future. On December 2, 1985, he was informed that his salary was being re­duced by $1000 retroactively to the previ­ous August. At the same time, other man­agers in DEP were getting $4000 raises. Nicastro was told that this punishment had been authorized by Joe DeVincenzo, the mayoral assistant officially in charge of “salaries and job classifications” but unofficially the patronage liaison to the Democratic county leaders, including Friedman.

Nicastro was in despair working in the Maspeth garage for less money, and con­stantly trying to explain to his coworkers that he was right and his bosses were wrong.

He went through a trauma that scars many whistleblowers forever. David Durk and Frank Serpico went through the same kind of experience when they were trying to expose police corruption in the late 1960s and no one was listening. In retrospect, people like Durk, Serpico, and Nicastro might look like steadfast heroes. But they pay a large psychic price in fear, anger, and depression before they are ab­solved by history. And sometimes by a movie.

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During 1985, Nicastro was drinking a lot and coming home after his two young children went to sleep. There were severe strains on his marriage.

“I was very unhappy and I felt like my life was coming apart,” he recalls now. “I became a different person. I was in a rage all the time. I thought I was being fol­lowed and I worried about my family’s safety.”

On December 2, 1985 — the day his sal­ary was cut — Nicastro’s wife, Alice Horo­witz, feeling that all other options were exhausted, wrote a personal letter to Koch. It began:

“Back in 1977 during your first mayor­al campaign, if you recall, I was your advance person. I advanced you all over the entire city and became a dedicated follower of yours; I believed in your policies.”

Alice Horowitz-Nicastro’s letter then went on to inform the mayor of her hus­band’s fate as a whistleblower: his de­grading demotion for trying to save the public money and alert his supervisors to potential fraud and bid-rigging. The let­ter ended with a personal appeal to the man she admired and had helped elect:

“Ed, is this the way a man is rewarded for his honesty and dedication? My hus­band loves working for the city. In his years with the Department of Environ­mental Protection he has saved the city hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, because of his honesty.

“This constant harassment has not only taken a monetary toll on him, but a mental and physical toll on him and the rest of us, including my children, who are too young to understand why their daddy is always so angry.

“Please, Ed, please help me. It has tak­en me a very long time to write this letter. I really hoped it would not get to this, but the survival of my family de­pends on it.

“Thank you for your precious time.”

On December 17, 1985, Alice Horowitz­-Nicastro got an impersonal, one-para­graph letter back from Dean Silverberg. It said:

“Your December 2nd letter has been referred to me. I anticipate that your husband will be contacted shortly by the Department of Investigation.”

On March 24, 1986 — 10 days after the suicide of Donald Manes, with a new moral climate in the media, and in the city — Edward Nicastro’s story was told in Newsday by reporter Leonard Levitt. The article was accompanied by a lengthy, well-documented exposé of the cost overruns and collusive bidding prac­tices on Water Tunnel Number Three.

In July 1986, after a thorough review by a new investigations commissioner­ — Kenneth Conboy — Carfora was demoted for unlawfully harassing and trying to fire Nicastro, and making false charges against him. His salary was cut from $71,000 to $60,000. Carfora resigned rather than accept this mild sanction.

Today Edward Nicastro has a dull job in DEP that has nothing to do with his proven career expertise: monitoring con­tracts, a skill the Koch administration would seem to need.

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GORDON HAESLOOP WENT TO WORK for the city Department of Inves­tigations in 1979 as general coun­sel. From May 1981 until the spring of 1985 he was the depart­ment’s deputy commisioner. Like most able investigators, he has a stubborn, in­dependent temperament. He supervised five or six staff attorneys and several detectives. He had been in charge of the undercover project that led to the convic­tion of Brooklyn city councilman Louis Olmedo.

In February 1985, Haesloop was con­ducting a multifaceted investigation of transportation commissioner Anthony Ameruso. DOI had a sworn deposition from a Transportation Department em­ployee, given in September 1984, charg­ing that Ameruso had taken “envelopes stuffed with cash” and that he had per­formed “special [parking] favors for Ma­fia restaurants.” A city contractor had complained to DOI that Ameruso was harassing his armored car company and showing favoritism in awarding parking meter collection contracts to a competi­tor, which had no gun permits or insur­ance and had organized crime ties. There were also several allegations that Amer­uso was secretly living outside the city, in violation of Section 3 of the Public Offi­cers Law, even though he had given City Hall a Brooklyn phone number at which to reach him in case of emergencies.

Moreover, by the winter of 1985, Haes­loop was convinced that PVB was mis­managed and probably corrupt, and since PVB was part of Ameruso’s responsibility as transportation commissioner, he sus­pected that Ameruso might become part of the PVB inquiry as well. One reason Haesloop felt something was rotten at PVB was quite personal. He had received a dunning letter from Bernard Sandow’s collection agency, demanding $2000 for parking tickets he had paid a long time before.

So, approximately in February 1985, Haesloop assigned DOI detectives to begin a surveillance of Ameruso, primarily to develop evidence of his violation of the residency law. Haesloop recalled:

“Such types of surveillance usually last for about two weeks. With Ameruso, after three or four days of tailing him, we es­tablished that he lived on Roslyn, Long Island. Each morning his son would drive him along the service road to the city line at Queens. At that point Ameruso would get into his waiting city car, and his city driver would take him to work. This fact by itself could have warranted his being fired by the mayor.”

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Haesloop continued:

“Next I wanted to install a pen register on Ameruso’s Brooklyn phone — a device that does not require a court order or a search warrant — that would track phone calls and prove if he had a Call Forward­ing device on the Brooklyn number to his Long Island home. Pen registers were a routine investigative tool in the office. We had installed about 15 of them — some in noncriminal investigations — over five years … [DOI senior staff attorney] Su­san Ross and I together told Commis­sioner McGinley that Ameruso was vio­lating the residency rule and that I wanted to install the pen register. But McGinley ordered me not to use it and ordered me to terminate the surveillance. He never gave me a reason. McGinley fired me about four weeks later.”

(McGinley has denied he was told Ameruso was living outside the city, but Susan Ross has verified that McGinley was informed of that fact. A third former DOI official has also confirmed Haes­loop’s recollections.)

When I asked Haesloop why he didn’t go directly to the mayor when the investi­gation was halted, he replied:

“There was a general perception in city government that Ameruso was favored and protected at City Hall. On top of that, I felt that Koch fired deputies who went to him to complain about their  bosses …

“In June 1985, after I was fired and just before I left the office, I did speak to McGinley. I asked him to tell the mayor that something fundamental was wrong with PVB and the Department of Trans­portation, and that Ameruso was a po­tential embarrassment to the mayor. McGinley didn’t say if he would commu­nicate that message for me …

“The separate PVB investigation was in my mind. I couldn’t understand how the mayor, even at that point, wasn’t doing more to hold Ameruso accountable for all the embarrassing problems at PVB. The city was losing millions of dol­lars on the percentages the collection agencies were keeping on their con­tracts — 40 per cent on some. The place was badly mismanaged. I just sensed that Ameruso was protected, and I would be perceived as disloyal.”

I asked Haesloop, who is now in pri­vate practice, if he had been upset about being dismissed by McGinley.

“No, I was happy to go. I was fed up arresting some poor inspector for taking $100 just before he became eligible for his pension. I felt demoralized that I could only go after the small fish. I was frus­trated I couldn’t investigate a full com­missioner like Ameruso. If I couldn’t pur­sue an Ameruso case, then I didn’t want to work there anymore.”

The mayor’s durable faith in Ameruso was indeed extraordinary. Even when Ameruso resigned in January 1986, after the PVB corruption was becoming known, Koch said at Ameruso’s farewell press conference: “He’s impeccable. I rec­ommend him without reservation.”

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BARBARA MEYERS GREW UP IN THE East New York section of Brook­lyn and graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1959. During the 1960s, she was a nurse and a self-described “hippie antiwar marcher.” By 1975, after working in the shipping industry for a few years, she was contemplating a career change and decid­ed to drive a taxi while doing her thinking.

Meyers found she enjoyed driving a cab. “I loved the variety of experience, the sense of freedom, the interaction with other people, the sense of adventure,” she says. By 1976, she had borrowed money, purchased two taxi medallions for $23,000 each, and started running the Silver Eagle Cab Company. Gradually, Meyers became a reformer within the taxi industry, a vocal defender of her rights, and a critic of the taxi commission.

On April 7, 1982, Barbara Meyers par­ticipated in a taping of the Eyewitness News Conference on ABC-TV, with re­porter Milton Lewis and Richard Smith, who had authored a report for the mayor on the taxi industry. The show was to be aired on Sunday, April 10, 1982.

During the taping, Meyers charged that the taxi commission was “corrupt,” and that the giving out of 100 free taxi medallions for a diesel fuel experiment was “a fraud.” (The number of medal­lions had been frozen at 11,700 since the 1930s.) She also criticized Mayor Koch and Taxi and Limousine Commission chairman Jay Throff in harsh terms.

“I did it because I needed help,” Mey­ers says now. “I was looking for the pow­er of the press to help me clean up the industry. I didn’t have the specific evi­dence to prove a criminal case, but I knew something was rotten, and I knew where to look … I remember when I said the word ‘corruption,’ the moderator [Lewis] interrupted me and asked if I realized what I was saying. I told him I did.”

The day after the taping — two days before the show went on the air — Barbara Meyers was called by Ronald Russo, deputy commissioner of the Department of Investigations.

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“He approached me in a very hostile way,” Meyers says. He tried to intimidate me and make me feel like I was the prob­lem. He said that what I said about Tur­off at the taping was inflamatory. He said I’d better come down to his office, and if I didn’t that he would subpoena me. I felt like I was the criminal and Throff was the whistleblower.”

On April 14, 1982, four days after her criticism of Turoff was on television, Meyers was the victim of Taxi and Lim­ousine Commission harassment.

“Three TLC inspectors stopped my cab, ripped the medallion off my hood, and gave me three tickets for no reason,” Meyers told me. “I won my appeal against the tickets, but I lost a few days of work. I felt it was an obvious reprisal. I also started to get threatening phone calls at home saying I knew what happens to rats.”

On May 6, 1982, Meyers testified for two hours under oath to the Department of Investigations, with a stenographer present. She made a clear case for further investigation of the way the 100 medal­lions were given to a few favored fleets on the basis of the fraudulent diesel experiment.

She said: “There are 100 medallions in the street earning enormous amounts of money, amounting to millions, in a very favored way for the operator of those medallions … I want to know why, why not me? I would be happy to participate in an experiment of that nature … How were they chosen? What arrangements?”

(What Meyers didn’t know at that point was that the 100 medallions were awarded to the Research Cab Corpora­tion, and other companies owned by Donald Sherman and represented by Stanley Friedman as a lawyer-lobbyist.)

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Meyers risked her career by going on television and giving a deposition to the Department of Investigations. As a re­ward, her attorney received a letter from investigations commissioner McGinley, dated August 2, 1982, scolding Meyers. The letter said:

“Ms. Meyers presents herself to the public as a highly responsible taxi-owner operator … In view of this, I consider her deliberate and public use of terms like ‘corruption’ and ‘corrupt’ to have been unhelpful to say the least.”

McGinley now claims he did not write this letter, that it was written for him by his former first deputy commissioner, Ronald Russo. But Russo told me:

“McGinley is not telling the truth. I did not write that letter. I left the Depart­ment of Investigations on July 9, 1982. I opened my private practice on July 12, 1982. I was not there in August. McGinley is looking for scapegoats.” Russo refused to comment on the record about his conversation with Meyers.

On April 10, 1986, the State Investiga­tions Commission (SIC) held a public hearing on corruption at the TLC. It was four years to the day that Barbara Mey­ers had gone on ABC television urging the world to notice the diesel-medallion hoax. The hearing began with SIC chair­man David Trager making a formal statement:

“Our investigation has led us to the firm conclusion that the diesel test pro­gram was, from its inception, a fraud designed to provide medallions worth more than $3.7 million per year to Re­search Cab … Former TLC chairman Jay Turoff played a central role in exe­cuting this scheme … He acted to con­ceal, steal, or destroy records of the TLC relating to medallions issued to Research Cab. He personally directed that 123 me­dallions — 23 more than authorized — be issued to Research Cab.”

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During the April 10 hearing, Robert Mackasek, the inspector general for the TLC, testified. He admitted that after Meyers made her original charges on tele­vision, his entire investigation consisted of asking his boss, Jay Turoff, if they were true. Turoff had said the charges were rubbish. Mackasek also conceded that Turoff helped arrange for him to received a $71,000 loan from the HYFIN credit union — a loan cosigned by Turoff.

Finally, Mackasek admitted that he had gone to Stanley Friedman’s law of­fices, and tipped Friedman that his cli­ent — Research Cab — was under investi­gation by the SIC. Mackasek testified that Turoff — who set up the meeting­ — and Research Cab Corporation president Donald Sherman were also present when he told Friedman everything he knew of the investigation.

One of the last questions the State Investigations Commission asked Macka­sek was whether he was active in politics. He said that in 1985, when he was in private practice, Turoff had called him, and in response he had raised money for Koch from taxi industry companies, and lined up cabs to transport pro-Koch vot­ers to the polls on election day.

Unwittingly, Barbara Meyers had chal­lenged the nexus of power in New York City in 1982. She was shining a light into the eye of the tiger. Jay Turoff owed his job to Meade Esposito. Turoff was per­forming significant money-making favors for Stanley Friedman’s clients. And Tur­off was raising substantial sums of cam­paign money for the mayor from the in­dustry he was supposed to be regulating.

Turoff’s trial on felony bribery and fraud charges begins February 17 in fed­eral court.

Barbara Meyers is now out of the taxi business. She has written a book for children on how to deal with the death of a pet, and runs a car service that trans­ports pets that are sick.

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IN THE LAST FEW MONTHS, THREE Queens power brokers have been in­dicted on charges involving manipula­tion of the cable television franchise in Queens: administrative judge Fran­cis Smith, realtor John Zaccaro, and po­litical consultant Mike Nussbaum. All three were charged with acting in concert with Donald Manes to extort bribes from bidders seeking to wire Queens for cable. In addition, U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani is now in the final stages of his investiga­tion into the Bronx cable TV franchise, where the targets of the grand jury in­clude Stanley Friedman, Ramon Velez, Frank Lugovinia, and Tod Tuah.

Queens businessman Al Simon had been trying to warn the proper authori­ties since at least 1981 that the way the city was awarding cable TV franchises was a process designed to be corrupt, because it was secretive, immune to mer­it, and controlled by Manes in Queens and Stanley Friedman in the Bronx. But the mayor insisted the system was “fair and open,” and nobody paid much notice to Al Simon, even when his company, Ortho-Vision, went bankrupt in 1983. He was treated as just another civic crank.

Al Simon, now 54, grew up in Wil­liamsburg, dropped out of high school, went into the army, and then attended the NYU School of Commerce at night for six years.

He became a kind of cable television visionary, and first applied to the city for a cable franchise back in 1972. In 1977, Simon’s company submitted a bid for the Queens franchise, but lost out to the Knickerbocker Communications Corpo­ration, a subsidiary of Time Inc. with power broker lawyers, publicists, and consultants. Simon filed a taxpayer’s suit that alleged Knickerbocker’s franchise was illegal because the contract differed materially from its petition for the con­tract. Simon won his lawsuit, and the franchise was withdrawn.

In 1981, the fight was on to wire Queens. Cable was a hot, futuristic indus­try, with everyone thinking gigantic prof­its were inevitable. Simon, viewed as an outsider and maverick entrepreneur, was competing against corporate giants like Warner-Amex, which was paying power­broker lawyer Sid Davidoff more than $150,000 in legal fees. Simon wrote up proposals, went to community planning boards, and convinced several of them to pass resolutions supporting his native Queens company. But Davidoff was Don­ald Manes’s best friend. He could walk into Boro Hall and act like he was co­-borough president. The corporate chair­man of Warner’s was Steve Ross, another friend of the borough president’s.

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In October 1981, Simon says he was visited by Mike Nussbaum, a political consultant who had managed most of Donald Manes’s campaigns and was one of the four or five people closest to Ma­nes. Nussbaum reportedly asked Simon for a $250,000 cash bribe. He said he was relaying a message from Manes through Manes’s deputy, Richard Rubin. He as­sured Simon that if the money was paid, he would get a portion of the Queens market.

“I told him no,” Simon says. “I thought I could win it on my own, on the merits. I never realized that when I wouldn’t pay off, they would freeze me out completely, and force me out of business.

“I was naïve. I never believed Koch would let Manes control the whole deci­sion. There were two years of public hearings, hundreds of meetings, docu­ments, minutes, records, and I never thought Manes by himself could wipe me out because I wouldn’t commit a crime. But Koch let it happen that way.”

(Simon finally told the bribe story to a Queens grand jury last year and Nuss­baum is now under indictment.)

1987 Village Voice by Jack Newfield article on ways Mayor Koch silenced whistle-blowers

In 1982, with the bidding process still going on, and Simon still thinking he would get fair treatment in an open pro­cess, he was asked to fill out a questionnaire by the city’s Department of Investi­gations. In a cover letter accompanying his completed questionnaire, Simon wrote a subtle request for a serious inves­tigation into the bidding process:

“It is interesting to note,” he wrote to commissioner Stanley Lupkin, “that the mandate from the Board of Estimate is limited to a background review of the applicants, and does not request a review of the process by which these applicants were targeted. Especially in light of a number of unanswered questions regard­ing the results to date.”

Simon never received a reply to his letter, which was dated February 12, 1982.

When asked why he didn’t report the Nussbaum-Manes extortion attempt at that point, Simon says: “I was afraid. I was also naïve. I thought I could get the franchise on my own. I lived in Queens. I had been in the cable television business since 1963. A couple of planning boards had voted for me. I had the necessary financial resources. I kept thinking I would get something on the merits … ”

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In 1983, the Board of Estimate, at the direction of Manes, divided the Queens market, with Warner-Amex getting all the best middle-class and and upper-mid­dle-class neighborhoods as part of its prize franchise. And Al Simon’s company went broke. He gave interviews pointing out the conflict of interest between Ma­nes and Davidoff, but few stories were written.

On October 8, 1984, Simon filed a law­suit against Manes, Warner-Amex, and the rest of the Board of Estimate. Al Simon’s legal papers were a cry of, “Stop, Thief.” They said:

“The office of borough president [Ma­nes] was an active participant along with defendant [city franchise director] Mor­ris Tarshis in perpetuating on the public the fraud that the cable franchise selec­tion and negotiation process was based on the merits … Tarshis and the bor­ough president’s office knew that the po­litical process was more important than all the paper and all the promises and all the public hearings. Both acted to pre­serve the political process and to subvert the public hearing and the airing of the contracts. They wanted to reassert politi­cal control over the granting of lucrative franchises in the City of New York …

“Public hearings were held on the irrel­evant proposals, but the contract itself was kept from the local community boards … Defendants Tarshis and the borough president were determined that the only meaningful negotiation process should be the one they personally con­ducted. The office of borough president selected the cable companies that were targeted for negotiations. The decision was rubber-stamped by the mayor, comp­troller, and City Council president.”

When the lawyers at the city corpora­tion counsel’s office, and the lawyers at City Hall, read the blunt claim of civic fraud in Simon’s brief, they did not start an investigation and they did not contact Al Simon. They went into court and op­posed Simon’s lawsuit. Simon wants to reopen the bidding in Queens, and the Koch administration, despite three in­dictments, is opposing that effort in liti­gation now pending before the Appellate Division, First Department.

Steve Kramer, who is representing the city against Simon’s suit, says: “Simon is a disgruntled bidder. This was a com­pletely open process.”

But Al Simon remembers the extortion attempt: “Nussbaum wouldn’t talk in my office. So we walked around the block of my office in Astoria, down Thirty-Sev­enth Avenue and up 32nd Street. Nuss­baum said Donald wanted $250,000 up front. I would have to have it in an at­taché case, or there might be a Swiss bank account involved. He said the mon­ey would guarantee me the franchise. He said the message was coming from Ri­chie, who was speaking for Donald.”

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IN MARCH 1982, HERB RYAN WAS A member of the city’s Taxi and Limou­sine Commission. He had been an aide to Donald Manes and president of Manes’s home political club, named after Adlai Stevenson. He had been appointed to the taxi commission on Ma­nes’s recommendation.

On March 12, 1982, Ryan took a bribe from the legendary undercover detective Eddie Gruskin, who was posing as a crooked car service dealer. The payoff was made in a parked car, and was audiotaped and videotaped by law-enforcement agents. During the transaction with Gruskin, Ryan said: “I want to introduce you to Donald. I want you to get to know Manes because he is running for mayor.”

(At that point Koch was running for governor with Manes’s backing and was the favorite to defeat Mario Cuomo in the primary. If Koch had won, Manes would have run for mayor.)

On March 20, 1982, Ryan took a sec­ond bribe from Gruskin in a meeting that was also recorded. Ryan was a small fish caught in a wide net. The prosecutors wanted the higher-ups.

In late March there was a meeting be­tween United States attorney Edward  Korman (now a federal judge); Stanley Lupkin, the city’s commissioner of inves­tigations; and Tom Puccio, then the chief of the organized crime strike force. All three agreed that Ryan might lead them to Manes in a brief period. Law enforce­ment agencies only had suspicions about Manes at the time, although evidence in­troduced at Stanley Friedman’s trial in New Haven showed that Manes had been extorting bribes since at least 1979 and was a thoroughly corrupt public official in 1982.

Korman, Lupkin, and Puccio agreed that Ryan should either be reappointed by the mayor or kept in a holdover posi­tion for a brief period so that the under­cover agent could get a face-to-face meet­ing with Ryan’s mentor, Donald Manes.

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Lupkin presented this unanimous rec­ommendation by three law enforcement officials to Mayor Koch in early April. He informed the mayor that Manes had been named on the undercover tape. But the mayor terminated the investigation by refusing to allow Ryan to remain in a holdover position, in which he already had been serving since January 31. Koch insisted that Ryan be arrested at once.  (In April 1982, Koch was running for governor against Mario Cuomo and Ma­nes was supporting Koch even though Cuomo was a native son of Queens.)

In February 1986, as the Manes scandal was unraveling, NBC-TV reporter John Miller played on the air a portion of the undercover videotape of Ryan taking the bribe and boasting of his ties to Ma­nes. The next day Lupkin, now a lawyer in private practice, told reporters he was “disappointed” that Koch had refused to permit the sting to proceed. He said he had argued with the major that Ryan should be kept in place.

At first, Koch responded by claiming to reporters that no one had ever told him that Manes’s name had come up, or that Manes was in any way considered a po­tential target of the investigation. The next day he improved his recollection and conceded that he had been informed by Lupkin that Manes’s name had been used by Ryan on the tape.

Herb Ryan never cooperated with prosecutors. He was arrested, pleaded guilty, and served four months of a lenient, six­-month sentence, imposed on him by U.S. district judge Mark Costintino.

After Ryan got out of prison, he re­mained close to Manes. Manes’s phone logs, placed in evidence in New Haven, showed that Ryan left 57 phone messages for Manes during 1984 and 1985.

If Ed Koch had really wanted to know if the immense trust he placed in Donald Manes was justified, he would not have aborted the Herb Ryan sting, and he would not have overruled three law enforcement professionals.

ED KOCH IS THE MAN WHO ACTED naive out of cynicism. He is the man who chose to gaze into a mirror instead of out the window. He is the man who didn’t want to know. ■

 

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A Fierce Attachment

A Mother and Daughter, Living Their Lives

I’m eight years old. My mother and I come out of our apartment onto the second­-floor landing. Mrs. Drucker is standing in the open doorway of the apartment next door, smoking a cigarette. My mother locks the door and says to her, “What are you doing here?” Mrs. Drucker jerks her head backward toward her own apart­ment. “He wants to lay me. I told him he’s gotta take a shower before he can touch me.” I know that “he” is her hus­band. “He” is always the husband. “Why? He’s so dirty?” my mother says. “He feels dirty to me,” Mrs. Drucker says. “Drucker, you’re a whore,” my mothers says. Mrs. Drucker shrugs her shoulder. “I can’t ride the subway,” she says. In the Bronx, ride the subway was a euphemism for going to work.

I lived in that tenement between the ages of six and 21. There were 20 apartments, four to a floor, and all I remember is a building full of women. I hardly re­member the men at all. They were every­where, of course — husbands, fathers, brothers — but I remember only the women. And I re­member them all crude like Mrs. Drucker or fierce like my mother. They never spoke as though they knew who they were, understood the bargain they had struck with life, but they often acted as though they knew. Shrewd, volatile, unlettered, they performed on a Dreiserian scale. There would be years of apparent calm, then suddenly an outbreak of panic and wildness: two or three lives scarred (perhaps ruined), and the turmoil would subside. Once again: sullen quiet, erotic torpor, the ordinariness of daily denial. And I — the girl growing in their midst, being made in their image — I absorbed them as I would chloroform on a cloth laid against my face. It has taken me 30 years to understand how much of them I understood.

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My mother and I are out walking. I ask if she remembers the women in that building in the Bronx. “Of course,” she replies. I tell her I’ve always thought sexual rage was what made them so crazy. “Absolutely,” she says without breaking her stride. “Remember Drucker? She used to say if she didn’t smoke a cigarette while she was having intercourse with her husband she’d throw herself out the window. And Zimmerman, on the other side of us? They married her off to him when she was 16, she hated his guts, she used to say if he’d get killed on the job it would be a mitzvah.” My mother stops walking. Her voice drops in awe of her own memory; “He actually used to take her by physical force,” she says. “Would pick her up in the middle of the living room floor and carry her off to the bed.” She stares into the middle distance for a moment. Then she says to me: “The European men. They were animals. Just plain animals.” She starts walking again. “Once Zimmerman locked him out of the house. He rang our bell. He could hardly look at me. He asked if he could use our fire escape window. I didn’t speak one word to him. He walked through the house and climbed out the window.” My mother laughs. “That fire escape window, it did some business! Remember Cessa upstairs? Oh no, you couldn’t remember her, she only lived there one year after we moved in, then the Russians were in that apartment. Cessa and I were friendly. It’s so strange, when I come to think of it. We hardly knew each other, any of us, sometimes we didn’t talk to each other at all. But we lived on top of one another, were in and out of each other’s houses. Every­body knew everything in no time at all. A few months in the building and the women were, well, intimate.

“This Cessa. She was a beautiful young woman, mar­ried only a few years. She didn’t love her husband. She didn’t hate him, either. He was a nice man, actually. What can I tell you, she didn’t love him, she used to go out every day, I think she had a lover somewhere. Anyway, she had long black hair down to her ass. One day she cut it off. She wanted to be modern. Her husband didn’t say anything to her but her father came into the house, took one look and gave her a slap across the face she saw her grandmother from the next world. Then he instructed her husband to lock her in the house for a month. She used to come down the fire escape into my window and out of my door. Every afternoon for a month. One day she comes back and we’re having coffee in the kitchen. I say to her, ‘Cessa, tell your father this is America, Cessa, America. You’re a free woman.’ She looks at me and she says to me, ‘What do you mean tell my father this is America? He was born in Brooklyn.’ ”

My relationship with my mother is not good, and as our lives accumulate it often seems to wors­en. We are locked into a narrow channel of acquaintance, intense and binding. For years at a time there is an exhaustion, a kind of soften­ing, between us. Then the rage comes up again, hot and clear, erotic in its power to compel attention. These days it is bad between us. My mother’s way of “dealing” with the bad times is to accuse me loudly and publicly of the truth. Whenever she sees me she says, “You hate me. I know you hate me.” I’ll be visiting her and she’ll say to anyone who happens to be in the room — a neighbor, a friend, my brother, one of my nieces — “She hates me. What she has against me I don’t know, but she hates me.” She is equally capable of stopping a stranger on the street when we’re out walking and saying, “This is my daughter. She hates me.” Then she’ll turn to me and plead, “What did I do to you you should hate me so?” I never answer. I know she’s burning and I’m glad to let her burn. Why not? I’m burning, too.

But we walk the streets of New York together endless­ly. We both live in lower Manhattan now, our apart­ments a mile apart, and we visit best by walking. My mother is an urban peasant and I am my mother’s daughter. The city is our natural element. We each have daily adventures with bus drivers, bag ladies, ticket takers, and street crazies. Walking brings out the best in us. I am 45 now and my mother is 77. Her body is strong and healthy. She traverses the island easily with me. We don’t love each other on these walks, often we are raging at each other, but we walk anyway.

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The apartment was a five-room flat, with all the rooms opening out onto each other. The kitchen window faced an alley in back of the building. There were no trees or bushes or grasses of any kind in the alley — only concrete, wire fencing, and wooden poles. Yet I remember the alley as a place of clear light and sweet air, suffused, somehow, with a perpetual smell of summery green.

The alley caught the morning sun (our kitchen was radiant before noon), and it was a shared ritual among the women that laundry was done early on a washboard in the sink and hung out to dry in the sun. Crisscrossing the alley, from first floor to fifth, were perhaps 50 clotheslines strung out on tall wooden poles planted in the concrete ground. Each apartment had its own line stretching out among 10 others on the pole. The wash from each line often interfered with the free flap of the wash on the line above or below, and the sight of a woman yanking hard at a clothesline, trying to shake her wash free from an indiscriminate tangle of sheets and trousers, was common. While she was pulling at the line she might also be calling, “Berth-a-a. Berth-a-a. Ya home, Bertha?” Friends were scattered throughout the buildings on the alley, and called to each other all during the day to make various arrangements (“What time ya taking Harvey to the doctor?” Or, “Got sugar in the house? I’ll send Marilyn over.” Or, “Meetcha on the corner in ten minutes”). So much stir and animation! The clear air, the unshadowed light, the women calling to each other, the sounds of their voices mixed with the smell of clothes drying in the sun, all that texture and color swaying in open space. I leaned out the kitchen window with a sense of expectancy I can still taste in my mouth, and that taste is colored a tender and brilliant green.

For me, the excitement in the apartment was located in the kitchen and the life outside its window. It was a true excitement: it grew out of contradiction. Here in the kitchen I did my homework and kept my mother company, watched her prepare and execute her day. Here, I learned she had the skill and vitality to do her work well but that she disliked it, and set no store by it. She taught me nothing. I never learned how to cook, clean, or iron clothes. She was a boringly competent cook, a furiously fast housecleaner, a demonic washerwoman.

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Still, she and I occupied the kitchen fully. Although my mother never seemed to be listening to what went on in the alley, she missed nothing. She heard every voice, every motion of the clothesline, every flap of the sheets, registered each call and communication. We laughed together over this one’s broken English, that one’s loud­mouthed indiscretion, a screech here, a fabulous curse there. Her running commentary on the life outside the window was my first taste of the fruits of intelligence: she knew how to convert gossip into knowledge. She would hear a voice go up one octave and observe: “She had a fight with her husband this morning.” Or it would go down an octave and “Her kid’s sick.” Or she’d catch a fast exchange and diagnose a cooling friendship. This skill of hers excited me. Life seemed fuller, richer, more interesting when she was making sense of the human activity in the alley. I felt a live connection, then, be­tween us and the world outside the window.

The kitchen, the window, the alley. It was the atmo­sphere in which she was rooted, the background against which she stood outlined. Here she was smart, funny, and energetic, could exercise authority and have impact. But she felt contempt for her environment. “Women, yech!” she’d say. “Clotheslines and gossip,” she’d say. She knew there was another world — the world — and sometimes she thought she wanted that world. Bad. She’d stop dead in the middle of a task, staring for long minutes at a time at the sink, the floor, the stove. But where? how? what?

So this was her condition: here in the kitchen she knew who she was, here in the kitchen she was restless and bored, here in the kitchen she functioned admirably, here in the kitchen she despised what she did. She would become angry over “the emptiness of a woman’s life,” as she called it, then laugh with a delight I can still hear when she analyzed some complicated bit of business going on in the alley. Passive in the morning, rebellious in the afternoon, she was made and unmade daily. She fastened hungrily on the only substance available to her, became affectionate toward her own animation, then felt like a collaborator. How could she not be devoted to a life of such intense division? And how could I not be devoted to her devotion?

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We’re walking up Fifth Avenue. It’s a bad day for me. I’m feeling fat and lonely, trapped in my lousy life. I know I should be home working, and that I’m here playing the dutiful daughter only to avoid the desk. The anxiety is so great I’m walking with a stomach ache. My mother, as always, knows she can do nothing for me, but my unhappiness makes her nervous. She is talking, talking at tedious, obfuscating length, about a cousin of mine who is con­sidering divorce.

As we near the library, an Eastern religionist (shaved head, translucent skin, a bag of bones wrapped in faded pink gauze) darts at us, a copy of his leader’s writing extended in his hand. My mother keeps talking while the creature in gauze flaps around us, his spiel a steady buzz in the air, competing for my attention. At last, she feels interrupted. She turns to him. “What is it?” she says. “What do you want from me? Tell me.” He tells her. She hears him out. Then she straightens her shoulders, draws herself up to her full five feet two inches, and announces: “Young man, I am a Jew and a socialist. I think that’s more than enough for one lifetime, don’t you?” The pink-gowned boy-man is charmed, and for a moment bemused. “My parents are Jews,” he confides, “but they certainly aren’t socialists.” My mother stares at him, shakes her head, grasps my arm firmly in her fingers, and marches me off up the avenue.

“Can you believe this?” she says. “A nice Jewish boy shaves his head and babbles in the street. A world full of crazies. Divorce everywhere, and if not divorce this. What a generation you all are!”

“Don’t start, Ma,” I say. “I don’t want to hear that bullshit again.”

“Bullshit here, bullshit there,” she says, “it’s still true. Whatever else we did, we didn’t fall apart in the streets like you’re all doing. We had order, quiet, dignity. Fam­ilies stayed together, and people lived decent lives.”

“That’s a crock. They didn’t lead decent lives, they lived hidden lives. You’re not going to tell me people were happier then, are you?”

“No,” she capitulates instantly. “I’m not saying that.”

“Well, what are you saying?”

She frowns and stops talking. Searches around in her head to find out what she is saying. Ah, she’s got it. Triumphant, accusing, she says, “The unhappiness is so alive today.”

Her words startle and gratify me. I feel pleasure when she says a true or a clever thing. I come close to loving her. “That’s the first step, Ma,” I say softly. “The unhappiness has to be made alive before anything can happen.”

She stops in front of the library. She doesn’t want to hear what I’m saying, but she’s excited by the exchange. Her faded brown eyes, dark and brilliant in my child­hood, brighten as the meaning of her words and mine penetrates her thought. Her cheeks flush and her pud­ding soft face hardens wonderfully with new definition. She looks beautiful to me. I know from experience she will remember this afternoon as a deeply pleasurable one. I also know she will not be able to tell anyone why it has been pleasurable. She enjoys thinking, only she doesn’t know it. She has never known it.

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A year after my mother told Mrs. Drucker she was a whore, the Druckers moved out of the building and Nettie Levine moved into their apartment. I have no memory of the Druckers moving out or of Nettie moving in. People and all their belongings seemed to evaporate out of an apartment, and others simply to take their place. How early I absorbed the circumstantial nature of most attachments. After all, what difference did it really make if we called the next-­door neighbor Roseman or Drucker or Zimmerman? It mattered only that there was a next-door neighbor. Nettie, however, would make a difference.

I was running down the stairs after school, rushing to get out on the street, when we collided in the darkened hallway. The brown paper bags in her arms went flying in all directions. We each said “Oh!” and stepped back, I against the staircase railing, she against the paint-blis­tered wall. I bent blushing to help her retrieve the bags scattered across the landing and saw that she had bright red hair piled high on her head in a pompadour and streaming down her back and over her shoulders. Her features were narrow and pointed (the eyes almond­-shaped, the mouth and nose thin and sharp), and her shoulders were wide but she was slim. She reminded me of pictures of Greta Garbo. My heart began to pound. I had never before seen a beautiful woman.

“Don’t worry about the packages,” she said to me. “Go out and play. The sun is shining. You mustn’t waste it here in the dark. Go, go.” Her English was accented, like the English of the other women in the building, but her voice was soft, almost musical, and her words took me by surprise. My mother had never urged me not to lose pleasure, even if it was only the pleasure of the sunny street. I ran down the staircase, excited. I knew she was the new neighbor.

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Everything about Nettie proved to be impossible. She was a gentile married to a Jew like no Jew we had ever known. Her husband was a Merchant Marine, away at sea most of the time. (“Impossible,” my mother had said, “what Jew would work voluntarily on a ship?”) Alone and apparently free to live wherever she chose, Nettie had chosen to live among working-class Jews who offered her neither goods nor charity. A woman whose sexy good looks brought her darting glances of envy and curiosity, she seemed to value inordinately the life of every respectable dowd. She praised my mother lavishly for her housewifely skills — her ability to make small wages go far, always have the house smelling nice and the children content to be at home — as though these skills were a treasure, some precious dowry that had been denied her, and symbolized a life from which she had been shut out. My mother — secretly as amazed as everyone else by Nettie’s allure — would look thoughtful­ly at her when she tried (often vaguely, incoherently) to speak of the differences between them, and would say to her, “But you’re a wife now. You’ll learn these things. It’s nothing. There’s nothing to learn.” Nettie’s face would then flush painfully, and she’d shake her head. My mother didn’t understand, and she couldn’t explain.

Rick Levine returned to New York two months after Nettie had moved into the building. She was wildly proud of her tall, dark, bearded seaman — showing him off in the street to the teenagers she had made friends with, dragging him in to meet us, making him go to the grocery store with her. An illumination settled on her skin. Her green almond eyes were speckled with light. A new grace touched her movements: the way she walked, moved her hands, smoothed back her hair. There was suddenly about her an aristocracy of physical being. Her beauty deepened. She was untouchable.

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I saw the change in her, and was magnetized. I would wake up in the morning and wonder if I was going to run into her in the hall that day. If I didn’t I’d find an excuse to ring her bell. It wasn’t that I wanted to see her with Rick: his was a sullen beauty, glum and lumpish, and there was nothing happening between them that inter­ested me. It was her I wanted to see, only her. And I wanted to touch her. My hand was always threatening to shoot away from my body out toward her face, her arm, her side. I yearned toward her. She radiated a kind of promise I couldn’t stay away from, I wanted … I want­ed … I didn’t know what I wanted.

But the elation was short-lived: hers and mine. One morning, a week after Rick’s return, my mother ran into Nettie as they were both leaving the house. Nettie turned away from her.

“What’s wrong?” my mother demanded. “Turn around. Let me see your face.” Nettie turned toward her slowly. A tremendous blue-black splotch surrounded her half-closed right eye.

“Oh my God,” my mother breathed reverently.

“He didn’t mean it,” Nettie pleaded. “It was a mis­take. He wanted to go to the bar to see his friends. I wouldn’t let him. It took a long time before he hit me.”

After that she looked again as she had before he came home. Two weeks later Rick Levine was gone again. He swore to his clinging wife that this would be his last trip. When he came home in April, he said, he would find a good job in the city and they would at long last settle down. She believed that he meant it this time, and finally she let him pull her arms from around his neck. Six weeks after he had sailed, she discovered she was pregnant. Late in the third month of his absence, she received a telegram informing her that Rick had been shot to death during a quarrel in a bar in port some­where on the Baltic Sea. His body was being shipped back to New York, and the insurance was in question.

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Nettie became intertwined in the dailiness of our life so quickly it was hard for me to remember what our days had been like before she lived next door. She’d slip in for coffee late in the morning, then again in the afternoon, and seemed to have supper with us three nights a week. Soon I felt free to walk into her house at any hour, and my brother was being consulted daily about Rick’s insurance.

“It’s a pity on her,” my mother kept saying. “A widow. Pregnant, poor, abandoned.”

Actually, her unexpected widowhood made Nettie safely pathetic and safely other. It was as though she had been trying, long before her husband died, to let my mother know that she was disenfranchised in a way Mama could never be, perched only temporarily on a landscape Mama was entrenched in, and when Rick obligingly got himself killed this deeper truth became apparent. My mother could now sustain Nettie’s beauty without becoming unbalanced, and Nettie could help herself to Mama’s respectability without being humbled. The compact was made without a word between them. We got beautiful Nettie in the kitchen every day, and Nettie got my mother’s protection in the building. When Mrs. Zimmerman rang our bell to inquire snidely after the shiksa my mother cut her off sharply, telling her she was busy and had no time to talk nonsense. After that no one in the building gossiped about Nettie in front of any of us.

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My mother’s loyalty, once engaged, was unswerving. Loyalty, however, did not prevent her from judging Nettie, it only made her voice her reservations in a manner more indirect than the one to which she was accustomed. She would sit in the kitchen with her sister, my aunt Sarah, who lived four blocks away, discussing the men who had begun to appear, one after another, at Nettie’s door in the weeks following Rick’s death. These men were his shipmates, coming to offer condolences. There was, my mother said archly, something strange about the way these men visited. And Nettie herself acted strangely with them. Perhaps that was what was most troubling: the odd mannerisms Nettie seemed to adopt in the presence of the men. My mother and my aunt exchanged “glances.”

“What do you mean?” I would ask loudly. “What’s wrong with the way she acts? There’s nothing wrong with the way she acts. Why are you talking like this?” They would become silent then, both of them, neither answering me nor talking again that day about Nettie, at least not while I was in the room.

One Saturday morning I walked into Nettie’s house without knocking (her door was always closed but never locked). Her little kitchen table was propped against the wall beside the front door — her foyer was smaller than ours, you fell into the kitchen — and people seated at the table were quickly “caught” by anyone who entered without warning. That morning I saw a tall thin man with straw-colored hair sitting at the kitchen table. Opposite him sat Nettie, her head bent toward the cotton print tablecloth I loved (we had shiny boring oilcloth on our table). Her arm was stretched out, her hand lying quietly on the table. The man’s hand, large and with great bony knuckles on it, covered hers. He was gazing at her bent head. I came flying through the door, a bundle of nine-year-old intrusive motion. She jumped in her seat, and her head came up swiftly. In her eyes was an expression I would see many times in the years ahead but was seeing that day for the first time, and although I didn’t have the language to name it, I had the sentience to feel jarred by it. She was calculating the impression this scene was making on me.

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It rained earlier in the day and now at one in the afternoon, for a minute and a half, New York is washed clean. The streets glitter in the pale spring sunlight. Cars radiate dust-free happiness. Storefront windows sparkle mindlessly. Even people look made anew.

We’re walking down Eighth Avenue into the Village. At the corner of Eighth and Greenwich is a White Tower hamburger joint where a group of derelicts in permanent residence entertains visiting out-of-towners from 14th Street, Chelsea, even the Bowery. This after­noon the party on this corner, often raucous, is definite­ly on the gloomy side, untouched by weather renewal. As we pass the restaurant doors, however, one gentleman detaches from the group, takes two or three uncertain steps, and bars our way. He stands, swaying, before us. He is black, somewhere between 25 and 60. His face is cut and swollen, the eyelids three-quarters shut. His shoes are two sizes too large, the feet inside them bare. So is his chest, visible beneath a grimy tweed coat that swings open whenever he moves. This creature con­fronts us, puts out his hand palm up, and speaks.

“Can you ladies let me have a thousand dollars for a martini?” he inquires.

My mother looks directly into his face. “I know we’re in an inflation,” she says, “but a thousand dollars for a martini?”

His mouth drops. It’s the first time in God knows how long that a mark has acknowledged his existence. “You’re beautiful,” he burbles at her. “Beautiful.”

“Look on him,” she says to me in Yiddish. “Just look on him.”

He turns his bleary eyelids in my direction. “Whad­she-say?” he demands.

“She said you’re breaking her heart,” I tell him.

“She-say-that?” His eyes nearly open. “She-say-that?”

I nod. He whirls at her. “Take me home and make love to me,” he croons, and right there in the street, in the middle of the day, he begins to bay at the moon. “I need you,” he howls at my mother and doubles over, his fist in his stomach. “I need you.”

She nods at him. “I need too,” she says dryly. “Fortu­nately or unfortunately, it is not you I need.” And she propels me around the now motionless derelict. Para­lyzed by recognition, he will no longer bar our progress down the street.

We cross Abingdon Square. The gentrified West Vil­lage closes around us, makes us not peaceful but quiet. We walk through block after block of antique stores, gourmet shops, boutiques, not speaking. But for how long can my mother and I not speak?

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“So I’m reading the biography you gave me,” she says. I look at her, puzzled, and then I remember. “Oh!” I smile in wide delight. “Are you enjoying it?”

“Listen,” she begins. The smile drops off my face and my stomach contracts. That “listen” means she is about to trash the book I gave her to read. She is going to say, “What. What’s here? What’s here that I don’t already know? I lived through it. I know it all. What can this writer tell me that I don’t already know? Nothing. To you it’s interesting, but to me? How can this be interest­ing to me?” On and on she’ll go, the way she does when she thinks she doesn’t understand something and she’s scared.

The book I had given her to read was a biography of Josephine Herbst, a ’30s writer, a stubborn willful raging woman grabbing at politics and love and writing, in there punching until the last minute. “Listen,” my mother says now in the patronizing tone she thinks conciliatory. “Maybe this is interesting to you, but not to me. I lived through all this. I know it all. What can I learn from this? Nothing. To you it’s inter­esting. Not to me.” Invariably, when she speaks so, my head fills with blood and before the sentences have stopped pouring from her mouth, I am lashing out at her. “You’re an ignoramus, you know nothing, only a know-nothing talks the way you do.” On and on I’ll go, thoroughly ruining the afternoon.

However, in the past year an odd circumstance has begun to obtain. On occasion, my head fails to fill with blood. I become irritated but remain calm. Not falling into a rage, I do not make a holocaust of the afternoon. Today, it appears, one of those moments is upon us. I turn to my mother, throw my left arm around her still solid back, place my right hand on her upper arm, and say, “Ma, if this book is not interesting to you, that’s fine. You can say that.” She looks coyly at me, eyes large, head half-turned; now she’s interested. “But don’t say it has nothing to teach you. That there’s nothing here. That’s unworthy of you, and of the book, and of me. You demean us all when you say that.” Listen to me. Such wisdom. And all of it gained 10 minutes ago.

Silence. Long silence. We walk another block. Silence. She’s looking off into that middle distance. I take my lead from her, matching my steps to hers. I do not speak, do not press her. Another silent block. “That Josephine Herbst,” my mother says. “She certainly car­ried on, didn’t she?”

Relieved and happy, I hug her. “She didn’t know what she was doing either, Ma, but yes, she carried on.” “I’m jealous,” my mother blurts at me. “I’m jealous she lived her life I didn’t live mine.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”723543″ /]

Mama and Nettie quarreled, and I entered City College. In feeling memory these events carry equal weight: Both inaugurated open conflict, both drove a wedge between me and the un­knowing self, both were experienced as subver­sive and war-like in character. Certainly the conflict between Nettie and my mother seemed a strategic plan to surround and conquer. Incoherent as the war was, shot through with rage and deceit, its aims apparently confused and always denied, it never lost sight of the enemy: the intelligent heart of the girl who if not  bonded to one would be lost to both. City College, as well, seemed no less concerned with laying siege to the ignorant mind if not the intelligent heart. Benign in in­tent, only a passport to the promised land, City of course was the real invader. It did more violence to the emotions than either Mama or Nettie could have dreamed possible, divided me from them both, provoked and nourished an un­shared life inside the head that became a piece of treason. I lived among my people but I was no longer one of them.

I think this was true for most of us at City College. We still used the subways, still returned to the neighborhood each night, talked to our high school friends, and went to sleep in our own beds. But secretly we had begun to live in a world inside our heads where we read talked thought in a way that separated us from our parents. We had been initiated, had learned the difference between hidden and expressed thought. This made us subversives in our own homes.

As thousands before me have said: “For us it was City College or nothing.” I enjoyed the solidarity those words in­voked but rejected the implied depriva­tion. At City College I sat talking in a basement cafeteria until 10 or 11 at night with half a dozen others who also never wanted to go home to Brooklyn or the Bronx, and here in the cafeteria my edu­cation took root. Here I learned that Faulkner was America, Dickens was poli­tics, Marx was sex, Jane Austen the idea of culture, that I came from a ghetto and D.H. Lawrence was a visionary. Here my love of literature named itself, and amazement over the life of the mind blos­somed. I discovered that people were transformed by ideas, and that intellectu­al conversation was immensely erotic.

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We never stopped talking. Perhaps be­cause we did very little else (restricted by sexual fear and working-class economics, we didn’t go to the theater and we didn’t make love), but certainly we talked so much because most of us had been read­ing in bottled-up silence from the age of six on and City College was our great release. It was not from the faculty that City drew its reputation for intellectual goodness, it was from its students, it was from us. Not that we were intellectually distinguished, we weren’t, but our hungry energy vitalized the place. The idea of intellectual life burned in us. While we pursued ideas we felt known, to ourselves and each other. The world made sense, there was ground beneath the feet, a place in the universe to stand. City Col­lege made conscious in me inner cohesion as a first value.

I think my mother was very quickly of two minds about me and City, although she had wanted me to go to school, no question about that, had been energized by the determination that I do so. “Where is it written that a working-class widow’s daughter should go to college?” one of my uncles said to her, drinking coffee at our kitchen table on a Saturday morning in my senior year in high school.

“Here it is written,” she replied, tap­ping the table hard with her middle fin­ger. “Right here it is written. The girl goes to college.”

“But why? What do you think will come of it?”

“I don’t know. I only know she’s clever, she deserves an education, and she’s go­ing to get one. This is America. The girls are not cows in the field only waiting for a bull to mate with.” I stared at her. Where had that come from?

The moment was filled with conflict and bravado. She felt the words she spoke but she did not mean them. She didn’t even know what she meant by an education. When she discovered that upon graduation I wasn’t a teacher, she acted as though she’d been swindled. In her mind a girl child went in one door marked college and came out another marked teacher.

“You mean you’re not a teacher?” she said to me, eyes widening as her two strong hands held my diploma down on the kitchen table.

“No,” I said.

“What have you been doing there all these years?” she asked quietly.

“Reading novels,” I replied.

She marveled silently at my chutzpah.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719109″ /]

But it wasn’t really a matter of what I could or could not do with the degree. We were people who knew how to stay alive, she never doubted I would find a way. No, what drove her, and divided us, was me thinking. She hadn’t understood that going to school meant I would start thinking: coherently and out loud. She was taken by violent surprise. My sentences got longer within a month of those first classes. Longer, more complicated, formed by words whose meaning she did not always know. I had never before spo­ken a word she didn’t know. Or made a sentence whose logic she couldn’t follow. Or attempted an opinion that grew out of an abstraction. It made her crazy. Her face began to take on a look of animal cunning when I started a sentence that could not possibly be concluded before three clauses hit the air. Cunning sparked anger, anger flamed into rage. “What are you talking about?” she would shout at me. “What are you talking about? Speak English, please! We all understand En­glish in this house. Speak it!”

Her response stunned me. I didn’t get it. Wasn’t she pleased that I could say something she didn’t understand? Wasn’t that what it was all about? I was the advance guard. I was going to take her into the new world. All she had to do was adore what I was becoming, and here she was refusing. I’d speak my new sentences, and she would turn on me as though I’d performed a vile act right there at the kitchen table.

She, of course, was as confused as I. She didn’t know why she was angry, and if she’d been told she was angry she would have denied it, would have found a way to persuade both herself and any interested listener that she was proud I was in school, only why did I have to be such a show-off? Was that what going to college was all about?

[related_posts post_id_1=”719221″ /]

I was 17, she was 50. I had not yet come into my own as a qualifying bellig­erent but I was a respectable contender and she, naturally, was at the top of her game. The lines were drawn, and we did not fail one another. Each of us rose repeatedly to the bait the other one tossed out. Our storms shook the apart­ment: paint blistered on the wall, lino­leum cracked on the floor, glass shivered in the window frame. We barely kept our hands off one another, and more than once we approached disaster.

One Saturday afternoon she was lying on the couch. I was reading in a nearby chair. Idly she asked: “What are you reading?” Idly I replied: “A comparative history of the idea of love over the last 300 years.” She looked at me for a mo­ment. “That’s ridiculous,” she said slow­ly. “Love is love. It’s the same every­where, all the time. What’s to compare?” “That’s absolutely not true,” I shot back. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s only an idea, Ma. That’s all love is. Just an idea. You think it’s a function of the mysterious immutable be­ing, but it’s not! There is, in fact, no such thing as the mysterious immutable be­ing … ” Her legs were off the couch so fast I didn’t see them go down. She made fists of her hands, closed her eyes tight, and howled, “I’ll kill yew-w-w! Snake in my bosom, I’ll kill you. How dare you talk to me that way?” And then she was com­ing at me. She was small and chunky. So was I. But I had 30 years on her. I was out of the chair faster than her arm could make contact and running, running through the apartment, racing for the bathroom, the only room with a lock on it. The top half of the bathroom door was a panel of frosted glass. She arrived just as I turned the lock, and couldn’t put the brakes on. She drove her fist through the glass, reaching for me. Blood, screams, shattered glass on both sides of the door. I thought that afternoon: One of us is going to die of this attachment. ■

This article is an excerpt from Fierce Attachments, a memoir by Vivian Gornick that will be published later this month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 

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

Black Metropolis: Industry and the Kingdom of God

Not of this World

Think of it as a factory town.

As you approach Brooklyn on the Man­hattan Bridge from Outside (from Manhat­tan, from anywhere), buildings bearing com­pany names, sometimes not, line the exit ramp. Terminally gray, active or inactive, the buildings lie in the shadow of a structure, perhaps factory, floating like an island on an island: the Watchtower.

If you forget to pretend you aren’t home and bother to ask, there are any number of things a Jehovah’s Witness can tell you: traveling from door to door is but one of their missions as witness to Jehovah’s word; The Watchtower (“An­nouncing Jehovah’s Kingdom”) and Awake! are biweekly publications with a combined circulation of 22 million world­wide; Jehovah is God’s “real” name; Ar­mageddon is upon us; Jehovah has, in His Kingdom here on earth, a warehouse that contains a printing press and a sup­ply of food; the administrative offices of the World Headquarters (including video display) are located at the foot of Brook­lyn Heights; Charles Taze Russell of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, began publishing Zion’s Watchtower in 1879 based on a “non-denominational” reading of the Bi­ble; any contribution would be appreciated.

In image and text the Witnesses’ pam­phlets parallel, almost exactly, the im­pression received strolling through the World Headquarters, its grounds or dor­mitories. It is a world of hyperrealistic but muted color; words so banal in their insistence on rhetoric as expression that they glide off the page, past the ear, and remain difficult to decipher; and faces, primarily white, that respond to the Out­side visitor with the forced good cheer reserved for those who inhabit a world that is not their own.

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The custodians in the main building of the World Headquarters go about the business of wiping off any publicly used surface — the receiver on a telephone, a water fountain, doorknobs — silently, me­thodically. They dress in much the same manner as their coworkers (skirts below the knee for the women; crew cuts, suits and ties for the men) but wear pink plas­tic gloves as a safeguard against “what others might bring in.” Sometimes, as they work, they will exchange greetings with other Witnesses, but mostly their dedication to the work at hand is com­plete. Which may explain the complete lack of reference to any surface being touched. It might also explain one’s reluc­tance to touch any surface.

“In Heaven there is no class. Heaven is made up of only 144,000 members of Je­hovah’s Kingdom. They get to go because they’ve been anointed,” said Bob Balzer, a spokesman at the World Headquarters. Balzer has been with the organization since 1939. He has the appearance of one who’s been cut from the space surround­ing him. His tidy features, white skin, and smooth complexion are fixed and un­troubled by expression. “Everything we preach or witness to is the literal truth as recorded in the Bible. We carry out the law as Jehovah has set it down.” Among the rules Jehovah has not set down but which make, as one Witness said, “the organization run smoother,” is the meth­od by which volunteers are chosen to live in a section of the Kingdom established at World Headquarters, the living space called Bethel. As Balzer explained, appli­cants are screened by a “traveling over­seer” who reviews their homes, families, and commitment to living a “righteous life.”

Although there has been an increase in the number of Witnesses who live at Bethel, due, in part, to the rise in the number of Witnesses skilled enough to take part in the publishing and produc­tion side of the industry, the various con­gregations still gather together “at the morning prayer and breakfast meeting,” Balzer told me. “Video cameras monitor us and allow us to see the other congrega­tions within the complex. There is no one person that officiates. We do, however, have a governing body made up of, oh, 13 people. The racial mix? I believe there are several Polish people.” Balzer blinked his eyes twice. On the table before him were several issues of The Watchtower and Awake! He turned to an issue of Awake! containing a feature entitled “Us­ing Your Head — The African Way!” The article was accompanied by photographs of African “youngsters” and, pre­sumably, adults, “toting” loads on their heads. “We are growing,” Bob Balzer said. “In Africa alone there are 10,000 Witnesses.” He nudged the magazines across the table. “You should enjoy your visit with the congregation in Crown Heights. It’s one of our largest.”

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

On the face of it the Kingdom Hall on Montgomery Street in Crown Heights does not feature any of the visual lures that most other houses of worship in that neigh­borhood do. It does not boast neon, slo­gans, or size as a means of attracting an audience. It is set apart, on a side street, from the large West Indian community that began to edge its way down Nos­trand Avenue in the ’60s. The children of that generation of immigrants are now dread — praise Jah, blast reggae, sell Rasta wear, and pretend to have no un­derstanding of the Seventh-Day Advent­ists or Jehovah’s Witnesses, even though relatives might have embraced one or the other. On the surface Crown Heights is a community at odds with its own faiths as well as the dominant neighborhood faith, Hasidism. The synagogue, located on Eastern Parkway just a stone’s throw from the Kingdom, looms larger than all the crosses and billboards, reggae and botanicas. It’s bigger than them all.

In case it’s hard to believe just their witness, Witnesses will reinforce their take on the way things are lived on the Outside by quoting, accurately, a surpris­ing amount of scripture, often listing chapter and verse. Such knowledge is their anchor in the world; it reinforces them. So to see emblazoned across the wall of the main meeting hall “As for me and my household, we shall serve Jeho­vah,” is to be made conscious of a com­munity in search of not only a language of belief but a system of support.

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“Without Jehovah it is like living without Life,” said the young minister to his congregation. “Let us sing praises to Jehovah.”

The congregation rose and began to sing as if the tune were familiar but they didn’t quite know the hymn’s words. Faces the color of volcanic ash, faces the color of bleached dark stone, filled the hall. The congregation was dressed in the same manner as their “brothers and sis­ters at the Headquarters,” but in fabrics less finely woven if woven at all. The hair, too, was cut to similar length and style but made brilliant by hair condi­tioners or tonics.

After the singing was over a young, attractive woman with a West Indian accent named Esther passed her hymn book along to me. Following our exchange of greetings, she said that she’d been a Witness for three years and had come to Jehovah when she learned that, as a Wit­ness, one never dies.

“You know how it is,” she said. “You come to this country and work and thing and everyone dies. Your relatives, they work and die. It’s sad. Jehovah promises you eternal life. In Revelation, chapter 21, verses 3 and 4, it says that.” Esther smiled; her smile was the essence of vulnerability.

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Sitting there, one’s own conception of what “black religion” is supposed to mean (tambourines, white head rags, “spirit”) was dispelled by the unremitting “respectability” with which both ministers and congregation conducted themselves. The image of the traditional call­-and-response in a Baptist church, for instance, where an “Amen!” from the minister may prompt the same from the congregation seemed — in this Bible question and answer group where micro­phones amplified well thought-out answers and control colored the primary intonation — like a literary contrivance, an aspect more of one’s sense of theater than of what was actually taking place. And the notion of the church as a place Outside, away from the white world, where the drama of sociopolitical repres­sion could be acted out or spoken in “tongues,” is not a part of the Witnesses’ explicit agenda. When asked by a young minister what “pioneering” (i.e., leadership) qualities were most prized in a Wit­ness someone said, “A pioneer is not lazy. None of us is lazy here.” And again, when an announcement was made that the $300 a month raised by the congregation to build other Kingdom Halls was much appreciated by the society, there was a round of applause that indicated less a spirit of charity than achievement, gain. “Did you know,” minister Len Hall said to me following the service, “that we are capable of building a ball for our people in two days? We like to serve where the need is greater.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”719253″ /]

Solomon Leary is a quiet, soft-spo­ken man whose dress shirt, on the evening we met, was frayed at the collar but immaculate. His wife, Gwen, is large in stature and has a wide, expressive mouth; together they look like a Thurber caricature of the domineering wife and submissive hus­band. Gwen doesn’t work, but Solomon does. He’s up at six and goes out into the world in his role as a bindery printer. Most nights, he doesn’t get home from the hall until 10. The Learys have raised three boys, all of whom are Witnesses.

“If I didn’t want to talk to you I wouldn’t,” Gwen said. “My husband didn’t feel comfortable about it but I wanted to because I wanted to wipe away all the lies they tell about us in the papers.”

Gwen has been a Witness for many years, since just after she and Solomon came north from North Carolina. “Just a town in North Carolina. Yes, I went to church there, but it was all lies. And the way the people behaved! Carrying on about the Trinity and blood and all that stuff. None of it is true. If you really want to serve Jehovah you serve Jehovah. You don’t want to make a molehill out of a mountain.”

When Gwen speaks, Solomon is apt to sit quietly, underlining her points with references from the Bible. When he does speak it is with the authority of one who has had to wait out someone else’s words for many years. “I saw you speaking with Brother Hall,” he said, referring to a conversation in which Hall told me that he had been among the eight black witnesses sent to Plant City, Florida in 1956 to establish a congregation. Although there was no such thing as integration at the time, it didn’t matter. He had gotten the job done, even if some of the white Wit­nesses were racists. “But that was years ago, when it was a law,” he told me. “That’s right,” Solomon said. ”One of the things that being a Witness is about is getting rid of that animal attitude to be a racist. None of us are racists now because Jehovah has come into our lives.”

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For some time Jehovah’s Witnesses have felt that Armageddeon was upon us, a time in which God would rid the world of all those who did not live by his word. Gwen had a number of ideas about how that would take place, chief among them being AIDS. The world that produces such inexplicable tragedy is one that cannot include her family or any of Jeho­vah’s chosen. Like Esther, Gwen believes that she will live forever. And one of the methods used to insure that is by staying away from the world. “That is not our world, it’s theirs. We have nothing to do with it.”

Although Solomon and two of their sons work, they keep their distance from coworkers by thinking about Jehovah most of the time. At lunch they read His Word. As isolated in their insular world as someone speaking in tongues, the Learys practice the values of assimilation: work, for the night is coming. “Working is a necessity,” Gwen said. “We all realize that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are a part of it. We keep our distance because they don’t know what we know. I just heard a story about a Witness, a young man, who quit his job because of the way they talked about women, the nasty pictures they would show. That’s the kind of strength we have.”

The Learys have sent their children to public schools, but don’t feel the damage was bad enough to prevent them from choosing to become Witnesses. “We do not influence our children to become Wit­nesses here,” Gwen said. “How are chil­dren treated if they do not want to join? They are outside the fold. Jehovah is looking for sheep and if the sheep leave the fold no one knows what becomes of them, do they? And what about you? Do you know what’s become of you?” ■­

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

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

Black Metropolis: In Search of the Underclass

Give Me Your Poorest

On a recent Saturday afternoon I took a walk northeast from City Hall in search of fish in a barrel: a poor black family in a housing pre­dicament. In particular one crowded into an apartment with anoth­er family. The Times pegged the nomadic or the doubling-up the “couch people,” rightly citing their travails as an invisible and fluid homelessness. The stories of these women living on the Lower East Side suggests that these sojourns, housing compromises, are part of the everyday. Doubling-up has several faces, each as familiar as a next-door neighbor’s, or the one in the mirror.

There is that pioneer trap where you have a landmark in mind, head out for it, don’t find it, and are flung into being lost. After many blocks I look it. There’s a youngish black woman coming toward me on Henry Street with a child on a trike. Approaching her is like asking someone to dance — no matter how innocent the exchange there’s a subtext. I want her to be in dire straits yet be able to speak about it at length.

“Excuse me, do you know where the community centers are around here?”

“Not any that are open. What are you looking for?”

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It all comes out. The entreaty, the em­barrassed distancing words that sound like lying: Do you know any people that are doubling up — sharing apartments too small, in danger of being found out? My it’s-hard-to-get-people-in-that-kind-of-­situation-to-talk spiel. She looks up as she helps her son pull his trike up the curb. “Everyone’s doubled up … Me and him, we live with my mother.” And thus our time in the park begins.

Slowly — her son has decided to unlearn the peddling motion — we walk over to a small playground. On the way we chat about his mint trike, his new Nikes. “He wears out a pair every few weeks.”

Todd is two and a half and about that tall; his head’s pretty much shaven, with a filament part. He’s big-eyed and com­prehending. We sit down on a bench. He comes within inches of her. “Swings,” he says, squinting a little in the sun.

“I’m going to talk to this lady. We’ll play on the swings when I’m finished.” He goes off, but he does not get on the swings.

“There’s nearly nothing else you could do unless you move out of New York. I went to school. After I came back I moved in with my mom … for financial reasons. It’s hard to find an apartment, and even if you do, they tell you you make too much for Section 8 housing or it’s a co-op. The place I’m at now has a waiting list of 10 years.”

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

Even though she’s not the perfect sub­ject of abjection, she tells me a little of how her living situation works. Her mother pays the rent, and Michelle buys groceries, pays the phone. ”He [meaning Todd] costs a lot,” she says. “My mother, we get along well, but not everyone gets along with their mother.

“I went to Skidmore. I was in HEOP. So I didn’t have to put out any money. I got a degree in government.” The more efficiently she answers the clearer it is she’s not the person I’m looking for. All that self-reflective speech betrays what Michelle calls “her peace of mind,” her confidence — admittedly sometimes wa­vering — that at 26 she is waiting out a difficult period.

“I’d say 90 per cent of the people you see out here are living with their parents. If they’re 18 and have a child, the chances of getting out are nil.” She comes dangerously close to describing what sounds like her situation — young, black, with a child.

“Education is the bottom line where black people getting ahead is concerned.” She’s a legal assistant, working for the city, reading leases, telling landlords to correct code violations in day-care cen­ters. Before that she worked at Xerox.

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Occasionally she lapses into silence. She looks thoughtfully toward Todd, who is playing some 20 yards away, and then away toward Water Street. Pensively: “The neighborhood’s changing over. Buildings on Grand are becoming Section 8 housing, the people who live there now but don’t qualify, their rents are raised sky high.” She points down a walkway to a gutted building where plywood boards block out the windows. “That’s going to be a co-op, I think some Chinese people bought it. Now they double up, to save and buy.”

Michelle’s mother has lived in her building on Water Street for 22 years. She owns her two-bedroom apartment. She and her husband moved there from Har­lem. “My father’s a retired fireman. He studied with Countee … Countee Cullen. He studied French, he named me because he loved French. My grandmother owned a candy store in Harlem, but I think they sold it.”

Todd returns to the bench, fixes his eyes on his mother’s, puts a small hand on her knee, and says, “Swings?” Mi­chelle answers, “Not yet.” Much of Mi­chelle’s concern centers on Todd. “Day care is so expensive. I pay over $300 a month in day care for a private nursery. The reason I put him into that is because I’ve heard things about public nurseries and feel more comfortable in that situation, but it costs … Well now he says his ABCs instead of popping his head to the disco beat.” We laugh. “There’s plenty of time for that later.”

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Todd runs off toward a white man in his thirties whose daughter may be a year older than Todd. This is 10 minutes after she talked about instilling suspicion of strangers in children only to be stuck convincing them that it is okay to get on a school bus. She looks to the playground swing set, eyes the man, then says, “Well, he looks like he can push a swing.” A smile supplants the concern, and by way of a seeming non sequitur she goes on, “I was thinking the other day I better start reading the Bible.”

Her free association is not without its undercurrent of concern. “A lot of people around here going off the deep end with all these epidemics going around, like the crack epidemic. Jesse Jackson was on the TV the other day, and said he’d been going to high schools telling kids that not doing drugs and alcohol should be the norm. He made a good point, talking about Martin Luther King. When Rosa Parks was about to sit in the front of the bus, she called King up, if he’d been spaced-out he wouldn’t have been able to answer that call. His point was if you’re spaced out you can’t help yourself or any­body.” She brings it on home: “That’s the hard thing about growing up around here, because you see people you grew up with going this way and that. On drugs going this way,” she gestures down and for the first time looks a little low.

And where is she going? “I think I’ll move out of the city. Well, a lot of people I know that are my age are relocating to the South. If I were 26 years old, 15 years ago I wouldn’t have the same problems.” As I walk by Todd he looks at me, then toward his mother, expectantly.

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The next day I retrace my path past the Pueblo Nuevo development, back behind the Hamilton Fish swimming pool. I head into the courtyard of Masaryk Towers, a light tan co-op development between Co­lumbia and Rivington.

The development is jimmied between two darker colored city housing projects, six 20-story buildings to the north of the Williamsburg Bridge. You can see the slats of the bridge frame momentarily the motion of cars traveling into Manhattan. I sit next to two large, smooth-skinned women on a brightly painted bench. My wait for an in is punctuated by the clack of plastic baseball bats against Wiffle balls, of bike gears shifting.

In the courtyard there is a great deal of Sunday afternoon activity. A Hispanic man has joined the two women. A security guard passes again. A little guy pops a fly then pulls decidedly at his shorts. A Monopoly $20 lies face up in the scrubs, blown from somewhere. At 5:30 the flag, the American flag, is lowered and folded by the security guards. I am not in the right place. The two women and man leave. I get up. On the corner of a bench is a black woman in her fifties, sitting alone.

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“This place is a mess. When I moved here in 1968 it was very nice and brand new, supposed to be middle-income hous­ing, and it was very middle-income be­cause they screened you and everything. Everything’s going to hell.” The ground rules are clear: she will not tell me her name. No not at all. “Etta” is wearing a green pantsuit with a print top, the print the reverse of her pants’. She is wearing sensible sneakers. Do people double up here? I ask her for the second time. The first time she stared the question down; now she hesitates. “If they are, they’re keeping it to themselves. If you got some­one staying in there with you, you better keep your mouth shut.” She paused. “Well, there was a lady on my floor and they were about to throw her out. So we signed a petition and wrote letters to keep her here. She’s here so far. But she couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat not knowing if she’d be thrown out. That’s why you can’t lift a finger to help folks, as soon as they get mad they go tell on you.” She goes on to talk about other things she considers newsworthy: the death of friends, the death of both her babies, muggings, and a suicide in the complex. Occasionally she interrupts herself to point out each of her neighbors as they come in or head out. Though her reminiscences are sometimes painful she accents many of them with a laugh, head thrown back. “If I died in my apartment they would know. I keep an eye on my neighbors. They would notice.”

Etta is about the same age as Mi­chelle’s mother and has lived in the co-op nearly as long, moving here from “the projects,” with her husband, who’s since passed away. “It was multiracial, when we moved here. Sulzberger Rolfe man­aged it. They are the best landlords in the New York state. When this place started to go to pits was when they threw Sulz­berger Rolfe out.”

I fish for her opinions. “Well it seems that many people double up because rents are so high, or because they are trying to avoid becoming homeless.”

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“Yeah, but you can’t bring these home­less people into the house because they’ll have you out on the street. I read in the newspaper where this lady was trying to be kind and brought a homeless woman into the house and when she was sleeping stabbed her, she was only trying to be kind, that’s homeless for you. But the way they keep raising rents, that’s what throws a whole lot of people out. These rents aren’t stabilized. No, they’re fixing to go up. No, there are a whole lot of problems. When you want to come home in the evening and relax, not have no headaches — this place is a headache.” She quiets. “But you know what? When we did this we thought we were getting away from the stuff we had to face in the projects, but hell it looks like we jumped from the frying pan into the fire.” It’s getting dark and I turn off the tape re­corder to leave. “Yeah that woman took in roomers because her husband’s old and smokes a lot, so she can’t leave him alone. Well, I wrote letters.”

From this bench the complex looks a little more worn. She’s looking out to­ward the security booth. “Oh yeah, this is a melting pot, always been, but it looks like the better class of people are leaving.

“Here comes my longtime neighbor. Hi.” She’s says confidingly, “I have to keep an eye on them because sometime they sneak away.”

Around the block from Etta’s co-op in Hamilton Fish Park Alice and her sister, Felicia, are just hanging with a man and his girlfriend. The girlfriend’s two sons are off to the side of the bench climbing up along the fence then dropping back down. It isn’t clear till much later that the two young boys are part of the group. In front of Felicia a dark blue stroller reclines, the baby quiet and sleeping.

“Do you live around here? I’m looking for people who are doubling up in apartments.”

“Ooh,” Alice looks up. “I could sure tell you about that.”

“Would you? I don’t have to use your names.”

During this time the man has been standing with his foot on the bench, ciga­rette in hand. “Doubling up,” he says, kind of mulling it over. “Yeah, I know about that.”

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Alice then says a little more evasively, “Maybe you could go ask other people in the park. I definitely want to talk to you, but could you go away for 10 minutes, just walk around? If nobody else talks to you then come back.” We compromise and I go sit on a bench near the Pitt Street entrance to the park and wait.

A few minutes later Felicia, who’s wear­ing sponge curlers and a bright yellow T­-shirt, comes over to me. “My sister wants to know if you have a number where she can reach you. She’s a little upset right now. She gave this woman some money for Pampers and milk — they don’t give them to you in hotels like they do in shelters — and the woman hasn’t come back. That was at one o’clock.” With my luck they think I’m a narc.

Felicia sits down and tells me that right now she’s at the Third Street shelter, but that she’s moving. A bird shits on my foot. “Shit.” “What happened?” She half laughs. “It’s supposed to be good luck.” Maybe it’s a sign that they will talk. It becomes evident that this is something of a family reunion, a touching base. “I only see my sister so often because we’re moved around. Sometimes I don’t see her for months and I don’t know where she is. It would be different if we had the same case, but we don’t. We’re split up. Tomorrow I’m moving to a hotel in Brooklyn.” She mentions her nine-­month-old baby son — who’s recently had pneumonia — and she talks about how she hates air-conditioning. She gets the phone number and takes a slow walk back to the bench down on the other end of the area, stopping for a drink at the fountain.

Alice never comes over to the bench, though she calls the next day for infor­mation on housing. ■

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Black Metropolis: Upholding Sugar Hill’s Radical Tradition

The BUP Nationalists

Before moving to New York in late 1982 I re­ceived two prescient pieces of advice on hooking up a crib, a squat, a hovel if you lucky, here in the Scrap­ple. The first was that venerable Manhattan riff “It helps to know somebody.” The second pearl was more arcane and requires an anec­dote: an environmental-artist friend up from Atlanta says he landed on Central Park West proper (just so you know we ain’t talking about those buppy projects across 96th Street) by vibing on CPW as the only neighborhood that could house him and his wife in the manner they were accustomed to. In effect my man had mojoed his way onto CPW, and I took his lore to heart when I could finally afford to discriminate between boroughs and pull-out beds, between rent-stabilized buildings and sleeping bags on floors where friends had set out the welcome mat. But while my friend sought door­men and oft-swept streets, I put my mojo to work on squatting me down in Wash­ington Heights.

My reasoning was simple: That was where I’d found my kind of party people. We’re talking about that 25-to-35-year-­old posse of race-conscious black profes­sionals and community organizers whose politics are Pan-Afrikanist (if not just pro-black) and whose idea of culture with a capital K is Fela, Funkadelic, and later for all the black conservative bullshit. They all went to Howard, Columbia, or City College together and came up ho­meys in Harlem, the Bronx, or do-or-die Bed-Stuy. These folk work in black youth programs or the music or information economies. They sculpt their dreads according to that peculiar interface of fashion, religion, and dogma, the new black aesthetic. They learned to Latin before they learned to reggae and are au courant enough to know the difference between the Wop, the Snake, and the Pee-wee Herman.

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Washington Heights is also a Domini­can colony, with the bulk of small-busi­ness ownership split between that coun­try’s immigrants and Asians. The sound of merengue from bodegas and record shops on Broadway between 135th and 165th reduces even L.L. Cool J to a whimper along certain stretches of the Heights. My Washington Heights, though, is the 500th-block of Edgecombe Avenue, formerly known as Sugar Hill. It’s populated by a melange of race-con­scious bohemians and buppies, black working-class and middle-income fam­ilies, brownstone owners, by Americans, Jamaicans, and Dominicans. The tourist books recommend the Morris-Jumel mansion and the Sylvan Terrace compound. I recommend Town Foods, Wilson’s salmon cakes and grits, and the Amazonian overgrowth and outback rock formations that we on Edgecombe have in place of your nosy neighbors across the street.

The mojo that got me my apartment was my embrace of the milieu. The who­-ya-know was Flip. Flip and I go back to the yard at Howard, where he first dug me blowing John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders on a ghetto blaster and I dug him carting a trumpet case to the School of Communications. Flip favored black berets like Diz was still bebop’s most styl­ish response to the Left Bank. Our post­graduation dream was to waltz up to Miles’s former 77th Street asylum with the Moorish architecture and become court biographers to the Prince of Darkness. Flip graduated the year after I got there and I wouldn’t see him again for seven years, but the bond had been made. Our shared passion for black music had made us cutbuddies for life.

Flip has integrated more of black cul­ture’s oppositional modes into his being than most folk can even intellectualize. We’re talking a regular churchgoer who embraces Rasta consciousness, a serious trumpet student who revels in what Har­ry Allen would call hip-hop dopidity, a Greek letter man (Alpha) with Pan-Afri­kanist politics, a career buppy with no desire to own a Mercedes-Benz, a former atomic dog who counts black lesbians among his best friends, a Black Rock Coalition cofounder and Washington Heights Area Policy Board member, a devoted family man who’d still like to be a full-time musician. Where does one Flip begin and another end? Don’t even try it: The man is a continuous loop. The only way to describe the flip side of Flip is as a Mobius strip. The Flip who empathizes with why Rastas no check fe politicians is at one with the brother who’ll tell you he feels it’s his responsibility to vote in ev­ery election because “cats like Medgar Evers got blown away so we could pull those levers, man. I’d vote on a new ordi­nance for dog catcher if they mailed me a notice. Guess it’s my southern upbringing.”

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Flip is the nouveau black culture’s ver­sion of a model citizen, a radical-bup par­agon if you will. Flip is a sales rep for a major black monthly and lives with his Jamaican wife, Patricia, a registered nurse, and her five-year-old son, Alex, from a previous marriage at 555 Edge­combe Avenue, that stately white brick plum of Sugar Hill architecture. Among former tenants the building can boast Paul Robeson, Joe Louis, and any num­ber of Cotton Club chorines. Among its present distinguished residents are Andy Kirk Sr., the swing bandleader whose orchestra launched the careers of Mary Lou Williams and Fats Navarro, and Flip’s next-door neighbor, Clarence Holte, a black pioneer on Madison Avenue who in 1952 began a 20-year career as a market­ing executive with Batten, Barton, Dur­stine & Osborn. Holte is also owner of one of the largest private collections of books about blacks in the world — a portion of which is now the Clarence L. Holte Collection of Africana housed at Kashim Ibrahim Library, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria — and an au­thor of scholarly articles on such unlikely topics as “The Black Presence in Pre­-Revolutionary Russia.”

As 555 has long been home to such race-conscious and culturally hip black professional family men, Flip is obviously about upholding the tradition. His per­sonal history begins in Norfolk, Virginia, where he was born an only child into a two-parent situation. The nuclear unit moved to Harlem when baby was one and the South Bronx when he was four before settling into the Bridge Apartments in Washington Heights, a predominantly Irish and Jewish neighborhoods fast on its way to becoming black and Latino. They lived there until Flip’s parents divorced in 1969. He reminisces about his old neighborhood as a place where mom and dad were on a first-name basis with the winos who “looked out for you until your parents came home from work.” Flip was raised in what black folk call a Southern household, meaning “our house was more disciplined than others in the neighbor­hood and rudeness to older people was not tolerated.”

Flip’s mother worked as a receptionist for Zebra, one of the first black ad agen­cies; his father was a security guard in a juvenile home before becoming a U.S. marshal. Shortly before the divorce he moved the family back to Virginia, where he was one of the first black marshals in the state’s history. After the split Flip’s mother moved to Virginia Beach, where busing provided him his first exposure to American racism’s classic vernacular­ — “Virginia Beach was lily-white except for this one little black neighborhood where my grandparents lived. Blacks bought their own property, built their own houses, and weren’t thinking about integrating with white folks.

“There was a chain separating the black neighborhood from the white and the iro­ny was the houses on the black side were better. We were shipped off to these pre­viously all-white schools and the white cats would jack us up the wall talking about what they were going to do to coons, niggers, and jungle bunnies and the only time I’d ever seen that was in In the Heat of the Night. All I could think of was how I wished some of my boys from the Black Spades were with me.”

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Midterm Flip’s mother trekked cross­-country to the San Diego area, where he became the only black student in a La Mesa junior high school. There he experi­enced more alienation than racism, ex­cept for epithets hurled his way by surf­ers and a dark-skinned Mexican student who “taught me something about the dif­ferences between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans when he got mad once and called me a nigger.”

Flip doesn’t recall his parents talking much about race issues except when they had trouble finding housing. Flip’s moth­er moved back to Virginia Beach after a year in San Diego and married an Annap­olis realtor. This unit became, in the lit­any of Flip’s first-black-to episodes, the first black family in a formerly all-white ward, but they experienced no hostility. Things were different at Annapolis High, where forced integration and the black consciousness movement had even politi­cized Flip’s varsity basketball team, the first all-black team at the 75 per cent white school, and probably the last to paint “red, black, and green liberation flags on our white Converse sneakers.”

Flip chose Howard after visiting the campus and being overwhelmed by its progressive black cultural environment and “all these beautiful black women who were friendly and didn’t seem to have attitudes.” While he regrets not pressing himself more academically he feels he got a decent education there and, more im­portant, “stopped thinking of blackness only in terms of being a black American. I came to understand that being of Afri­can descent meant that you were part of a worldwide black community.”

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After graduation Flip found that his media arts degree didn’t mean diddly-­squat to local broadcasters. Frustrated, he took his first job in sales at Balti­more’s black newspaper, the Afro-Ameri­can. When an uncle told him IBM in New York was hiring, he landed a job on Wall Street selling office equipment. Flip de­scribes his introduction into white corpo­rate America as an awakening in terms of both assimilation and alienation. “You had to act ‘white,’ dress conservatively, and shave. I didn’t even know how to dress for the corporate setting. My uncle had to say look, this is what it is: no more pink and green shirts and wearing your handkerchief all fly out the pocket. You’re not dressing for the disco, you’re dressing for this job.” Flip lasted two years with the multinational, “and when I quit my father thought I had lost my mind giving up all that security.” Flip went to work for the aforementioned uncle, who had his own sales firm and repped a black monthly newspaper insert. For Flip the decision was partly ideological, as he felt black families should work in business together as whites always had — though another virtue of sales and advertising was that “it wasn’t monotonous, and it meant I got paid to do something I could always do well, which is talk.”

In 1984, Flip’s uncle turned the busi­ness over to him to pursue a new venture in the northwest. Shortly thereafter the company’s major client tried to replace Flip with one of its own executives, and he resigned. Soon he went to work for the monthly that employs him now. He sees his work as having political content at least to the extent that he’s “always having to justify the existence of a unique black marketplace and legitimize the buy­ing power of the black consumer.” Flip says some marketers play a numbers game to prove blacks couldn’t possibly afford their products or try to pretend their products aren’t big sellers among blacks even when research proves other­wise. This he attributes to the racist atti­tude that since blacks already buy the product why go out of your way to appeal to them? “We’re the invisible people to corporate America and they only think of us when it’s useful to them.” Flip doesn’t get into politics too deeply on the job, but every now and then does manage to get a broadside in edgewise. “I was having a tough time with this guy at one of the multinationals who kept saying he didn’t think blacks were familiar with his company. Finally I said, sure blacks know about your company and how you offed that cat down in Chile. Man, you should have seen his face turn red.”

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At 555, Flip is active in his tenants group, which prodded him to join the Washington Heights Area Policy Board “because people felt we needed English-­speaking representation on the board. It’s primarily Dominican and that communi­ty has its agenda and problems, particularly around the issue of undocumented residents.” Flip thinks of Washington Heights and Harlem as the last frontier for white developers and a kind of last stand for black/Latino New Yorkers who want to build a beneficent community and future. The owner of 555 is a black who’d like to keep the building predomi­nantly black. Flip hopes this inspires the other tenants of 555 to have greater con­cern for the upkeep and upgrading of the building.

Flip and Pat met three years ago at a mutual friend’s birthday party. She spent her first 14 years in Kingston, oldest fe­male in a family of six children. Her father was a tailor in Jamaica who did farm work in Florida for several seasons before migrating to New York for piecework at a Dupont textile factory. When that plant moved, be became a cab driver. Her mother was a housewife in Jamaica, became a nurses’s aide in the States and now works as a medical secretary. Pat spent her adolescence in the Bronx, where her parents now own a home near the Westchester border, attended City College, and works at the Bronx’s Ein­stein Hospital, in the Cardiac care unit. Patricia beams levelheadedness, speaks in a lilting Jamaican lisp, and carries herself with a radiantly self-possessed el­egance that would come off haughty in a lesser Nightingale. Although she dreams of returning to the stage-acting and Afri­can dancing she had to abandon after high school, careerwise her goal is to su­pervise a public health clinic. Like Flip, she’s less interested in the corporate lad­der (hospital-administration version) than in using her job to create financial independence for her family. Her field is no less racist than any other and she laments for qualified friends who’ve pur­sued positions and suffered rejection time and again.

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Flip and Pat’s home is decorated with her antique furniture and modern Turk­ish rugs, his jazz, reggae, and Brazilian record collection, coon art ads, and (by way of the Studio Museum and the Schomburg) Romare Bearden posters and Jacob Lawrence paintings. Unlike Flip, Pat is not partial to Washington Heights or 555 as the ideal place to raise a family and looks forward to seeing changes in the neighborhood. She prefers Riverside below 125th, Convent Avenue or Hamilton Terrace. The population over in the crack district, the 150s be­tween Amsterdam and Broadway, she sees as “dangerous and devastated people with no culture and no respect for any­body else’s.” Sometimes she wishes they could be “dissected” from the area and “placed in an intensive rehabilitation center.” Her son now attends a private preschool in the Bronx. She’s investigat­ing the multiracial Barbara Taylor School on 160th Street for first grade because it stresses putting children in touch with their culture. At one point her son came home from school believing that Flip and Pat were white, that because he was darker than them he was black and there­fore bad. They realized they’d better start reinforcing his blackness. “Now if you ask him what be is, he’ll tell you he’s an African or an African-American. At his preschool he’s not taught about black he­roes, he gets his ideas about himself from cartoons and the toys he plays with and other kids at school. The school he goes to will be important in shaping his ideas about himself because he’s going to spend more of his life there than with us.”

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

Not long ago Flip introduced me to a neighbor of his named Playthel Benjamin who had read my writ­ing on black music and was inter­ested in my reading his. I had seen him around the neighborhood, a bearish, bullheaded brother in a Stetson hat toss­ing a foam football in front of 555 with his son or taking son and daughter to the playground. In our brief first meeting Playthel delivered an abridged version of an essay about Charlie Parker, Albert Einstein, the nature of genius, and the fraudulence of abstract expressionism as an extension of “the great tradition of Western painting.” As it turns out, this is the kind of thing Playthel has spent his adult life doing for pleasure. Filling the gaps in between is one of the more varied and remarkable lives you’ll ever encoun­ter. In the course of 46 years Playthel’s been a merchant marine, a top-security combat defense officer guarding the Stra­tegic Air Command’s Arctic Circle nucle­ar bomber base, developer of the Minor­ity History Motivation Program for Opportunity Industrial Centers, a profes­sor of history at U. Mass., bandleader and percussionist for Jean Carn, publicist for Michael Spinks, and almost-promoter for the Leonard-Hagler bout derailed by Sugar’s detached retina in 1982. Present­ly Playthel is a working member of the Master Painters and Plasterers, a partner in a Brooklyn real estate management and development company, and director of education for Harlem Fightback, the action-oriented coalition of black and Latin blue collar workers known for shut­ting down construction sites where con­tractors refuse to meet affirmative action requirements. Playthel is a longtime stu­dent if not scholar of both African and Marxist-Leninist history who admits to having once been a Stalinist and a Maoist and who now describes himself as a “worker-intellectual, cosmopolite, and democratic socialist.”

Playthel’s generation of bebop-loving black activist-intellectuals (typified by people such as Paul Carter Harrison, A. B. Spellman, Larry Neal, Michael Thelwell) are the ones who brought their civil rights and black power backgrounds to the Ivy League 15 or 20 years ago. Boasting a dual interest in activism and theory, they brought scholarship to the black consciousness movement and grap­pled mightily with the conundrum of making an American socialist revolution from a black nationalist base. In contrast with Flip’s (and my) generation, they had a clear sense of continuity with the black leftists of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. They didn’t limit questions of culture, identity, and politics to a close circle of friends, always considering their relationship to the black working class and later the so­-called underclass. In reflecting upon that generation’s accomplishments I always realize how much homework my contem­poraries must do to progress beyond be­ing bups with a hip sense of community and self. As admirable as it might be for the times, it’s not much of a moral or radical platform to stand on — or to fight and organize from. Playthel is a man of ideas, a family man, and a man of the people.

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This is after all someone who left the university to take up a trade because he felt himself “in danger of becoming one of these comfortably bourgeois black in­tellectuals.” So instead he’s become a comfortably bourgeois worker-cosmopo­lite. The walls of his airy five-room apartment have gold trim, but he did the painstaking work of putting it there. There is an extremely modest library dominated by black historical tomes. Af­rican masks adorn the living room and a Benin bronze sits on a Greek pedestal by the front window. On a glass coffee table there is a jade plant and a sepia portrait of Stetsoned and stogie-smoking Playthel set in an ancient braided bamboo frame. As I enter the radio is tuned to a classical station, another of Playthel’s lifelong pas­sions — “there is no Slav who loves Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto more than I or no German who derives more pleasure in Beethoven’s Appassionata.”

Out of his broad social experience, Playthel offers reminiscences about ev­erything from hanging out with Harold Cruse while he was writing The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual to the business savvy of prostitutes in Saskatchewan. An eclectic freethinker who doesn’t play fa­vorites, Playthel is as likely to proclaim his ace boon Stanley Crouch “a gifted writer and critic but a novice when it comes to political discussion” as take on leftist slavery-historian Eugene Geno­vese’s praise for the ethics of the antebellum Southern gentleman. Not long ago, Playthel had a train-station debate with Harvard’s touted black neo-con, Glenn Loury. There he harangued the rotund “pootbutt professor for his uninformed and sophomoric notions about affirma­tive action for women and blacks in the building trades. I cited three affirmative-­action cases now in court and the man hadn’t heard of any of them. Finally he said, ‘Enough, enough, how can you ex­pect me to have this information at this time of night.’ I said, ‘Sir, it’s late for me as well, and I’ve probably had a much harder day than you. Do you think I’ve been standing here preparing for this en­counter’? He turned then and literally ran, trotting, away from me.”

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Interestingly enough, Playthel’s spa­cious apartment in 555 — where he lives with his wife, June, and his twin children, Makeda and Samori — once housed Paul Robeson, a fact Playthel didn’t discover until after he’d moved in. That sort of coincidence, extraordinary to you or me, is routine for Playthel, as you realize once he begins reciting the tall tale of his life. Playthel is a natural storyteller whose primary yarns digress into secondary tales where autobiography, family histo­ry, and major historical figures and events converge. A typical Playthel anec­dote, like the story of why he dropped out of Florida A&M in 1959, begins with him getting arrested in one of the first South­ern sit-ins, dovetails into disillusionment with black academia in the face of white power, details how he joined the air force a patriotic American, became “a SAC-­trained killer,” and left a pacifist, nucle­ar-age nihilist, and black nationalist.

Following these yarns Playthel an­nounced plans to use his Arctic background to apply for a North Pole expedi­tion led by a former Playthel student who now teaches at Harvard. Case you’re shal­low in basic black history, Matthew Hen­son was the African-American member of Admiral Peary’s expedition who many believe was robbed of recognition as the true discoverer of the North Pole. Point­ing to a magazine article debunking Pea­ry, Playthel says the expedition will use dog sleds and honor Henson by planting an African-American flag on the Pole, “reclaiming the legacy stolen by this motherfucker here Peary.”

Playthel looks upon himself as “the consequence of the two major cultural traditions among black Americans, those E. Franklin Frazier [author of Black Bourgeoisie, among other milestones in black sociology] defined as the ‘colored genteel’ tradition and the ‘black peasant’ tradition.” Playthel was born in Philadel­phia, but grew up in St. Augustine, Flori­da. His father was a descendant of slaves who worked as a welder by day and a barber by night while attending Temple University, and “had two children and his own house before he was 25.” His mother was the descendant of free blacks and mulattoes. One of his maternal grandmother’s brothers owned a fleet of limousines in Harlem in the ’30s chauf­feuring rich whites, another was a pimp who “threw a cracker off a bridge in Florida, had to get out of town, came up here, dressed himself like an Indian ma­haraja with a turban and a beard, started hanging out in places like the Stork Club, and ended up pulling this millionaire white woman. He spent all her money and used to drive Duesenbergs.” Playthel is a self-educated man, a process begun with fervor while he was in the air force. There a race-conscious black officer gave him a copy of J. A. Rogers’s One Hun­dred Facts about the Negro — with Com­plete Proof. Rogers’s frequent citing of the Schomburg led Playthel to that insti­tution. In this period he also came under mentorship of Revolutionary Action Movement founder Max Stanford, Queen Mother Moore, and an entire coterie of older black Marxists who’d left the CPUSA because it abandoned its Black Belt Nation program, during ’50s re­forms. To them he owes his theoretical undergirding.

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“Here’s a pedagogy I believe a black person who is interested in becoming a critical thinker should study. They should study the regular humanities cur­riculum simultaneously with an Afrocen­tric perspective on our position in history and the world, read that simultaneously with John Hope Franklin, Benjamin Quarles, Ivan Van Sertima, Lerone Ben­nett, Walter Rodney, Franklin Snowden’s Blacks in Antiquity about blacks in Gre­co-Roman civilization, and of course W.E.B. Du Bois is an absolute must. They should read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and the major thinkers of those revolu­tions that grew out of those traditions in the Third World — Nkrumah, Fanon, Ca­bral. But then we also need to read George Padmore’s Pan-Afrikanism or Communism, and various of his other 12 works, Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, and the works of C. L. James, the most orginal radical thinker of the 20th century in my opinion. And they should read the work of black American radical thinkers, like Manning Marable’s How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, and James Boggs’s The Ameri­can Revolution, Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook, Racism & the Class Struggle: Further Pages from a Black Worker’s Notebook, and Revolution & Evolution in the Twentieth Century, written with his wife, Grace Lee Boggs. Boggs is one of the most original American economic thinkers out here and that rarity among leftist thinkers, an actual worker. He was an assembly-floor worker in the automobile industry who went through the party experience. He’s writ­ing about capitalism from the perspective of a worker in one of the major modern capitalist industries. He was the first that I know among American radical thinkers to talk about the role of technology in changing the relationship between class­es, the first to talk about the conse­quences of the cybernation of the American economy, the first to talk about structural unemployment, about a class rendered obsolete by technology. He was the first to see that contrary to the classic Marxist model that saw conflict emerging between the working class and the ruling class that the major conflict was going to emerge between the employed and the unemployed.”

From his own position as a worker­-intellectual in New York’s building trades, Playthel has seen first-hand the necessity for affirmative action programs — and, he emphasizes, activist-advocacy groups like Harlem Fightback — to insure that work­ing-class blacks, Latins, and women are given equal employment opportunities. “You have these black neo-cons running around now talking this bullshit about how teenage pregnancy is the cause of our economic condition. Our economic position in this country is the result of our being denied full participation in the economic system. For you to be black and employed you have to be either an intel­lectual, a professional, or in the public sector. The black working class is up against a world of exclusion in the build­ing trades. The American worker is a highly skilled individual and that ac­counts for why so many buildings can go up in New York with so few disasters. But this doesn’t require genius. Any ordinary person, any of these young brothers out here could learn these trades. I’ve talked to Irish and Greek immigrants who came here and didn’t know any trades and got in the union. I’ve had foremen who were so illiterate they could barely fill out their paysheets who are making $40,000 a year, own stocks and bonds, and are putting children through college. Even with affir­mative action you need a Harlem Fight­back to get blacks on construction sites and people want to talk about how our young people don’t want to work.”

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Playthel told me all his adult life he’d been consumed by three questions: Where did we come from, how did we get in the mess we’re in now, and how do we get out of it? The latter is the question he expects to be grappling with, along with the rest of us, for the rest of his life. And if you got to grapple with that mutha, 555 ain’t a bad ebony tower to be holding court from. The building lost its doorman and awning a few years ago and, no, Washington Heights isn’t what it used to be — but with people like Flip, Patricia, and Playthel up here now, no one can say the modern black condition suffers in silence up on Sugar Hill. ■

Research assistance by: Crystal Weston  

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"