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The Devil and Michael Alig

Busting the King of Club Kids
By William Bastone and Jennifer Gonnerman

In the final deluded days before his arrest, Michad Alig had convinced himself that he could trade Peter Gatien’s scalp for Angel Melendez’s torso. For the 31-year-old club kid, this surely seemed like a fair barter: in the debauched demimonde he once ruled, the only thing worse than being dead is being dull. 

Holed up with his 22-year-old boyfriend in a Toms River, New Jersey, motel, Alig had become the pawn of Drug Enforcement Administration agents Man Germanowski and Bob Gagne, who were using him as an informant to fortify their drug-trafficking case against Gatien, New York’s night­club king. Simultaneously, Alig was the prey of another pair of investigators. 

Working from a secret Soho office — upstairs from an art gallery and just south of Commes des Garçons on Wooster Street — Miguel Rodriguez and Walter Alexander, investigators with the Manhattan district attorney’s office, were preparing to nab Alig for the March murder of Melendez, a nightclub habitué and low-level drug dealer.

Played out against the backdrop of these two competing criminal probes, Alig’s frantic last weeks took on an added urgency, with him mistakenly believing that his DEA cooperation would somehow provide immunity from a homicide charge. This misguided notion probably reflects less on Alig’s grasp of the criminal justice system than it does in the accused killer’s value system.

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As he passed on damaging information about Gatien to the DEA, Alig became more certain that he would never be charged with Melendez’s murder. At one point in October — before Melendez’s body had been ID’d by the city medical examiner — Alig telephoned his friend Rachel Cain and poked fun at the homicide probe. Pretending he was Rodriguez, Alig demanded that Cain immediately come to the D.A.’s office for an interview, she told the Voice Sunday. 

Known as “Screaming Rachel,” Cain is a tireless self-promoter (she kicked off a conversation about Melendez’s murder by plugging a Geraldo appearance and her fledgling record label) who was the first Alig friend to publicly confirm that the club kid had spoken of murdering Melendez. As it turned out, Cain’s version — provided to the Voice in June — dovetailed with details of the bludgeoning and dismemberment that investigators believe occurred in Apartment 3K at the Riverbank West skyscraper on West 43rd Street.

Cain told the Voice that, during two lengthy interviews with Rodriguez, she recounted Alig’s statements about the Melendez killing. Cain’s recitation apparently was used by prosecutors last week to buttress murder charges filed against Alig and Robert Riggs, a 28-year-old club denizen known as “Freeze.”

The felony complaints open by referring to statements made by Alig days after the mid­-March slaying. The account is attributed in the complaints to a D.A.’s informant; Cain conced­ed it was a “possibility” she was the unnamed source. Cain also admitted that, like Alig, she has been cooperating with DEA agents and federal prosecutors in a continuing grand jury probe of drug activity at Gatien’s nightspots. For her help, Cain has received witness fees, per diem allowances, and a small lump-sum payment

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Alig had originally been a target of the DEA’s probe, which began about a year ago and resulted in the May indictment of Gatien and a score of other defendants on drug-trafficking and conspiracy charges. Wiretap affidavits ob­tained by the Voice show that Alig, who has not been charged in the federal case, was suspected of involvement in “various schemes to distribute large amounts” of the hallucinogen Ecstasy. 

Cain apparently was not the only Alig asso­ciate to whom the club kid provided details of Melendez’s death. One Voice source recalled that a “very agitated, very upset” Alig approached him in March and asked, “Do you have a car?” The acquaintance was immediately suspicious, recalling in an interview Saturday that “I knew he didn’t want to take a ride. I know Mike. Mike’s crazy.”

The source said Alig then proceeded to describe how he and Riggs killed Melendez and how “he had a dead body in his apartment” and needed to move it. Days later, in an encounter at the Limelight nightclub, the source said Alig commented, “We got rid of the body.” Despite the charges against Alig, the source added that he was “not a bad person.” Like Cain, a reluctant witness who was doggedly pursued by Rodriguez, the Voice source never thought to contact police about Alig’s confession.

One law enforcement source said that Melendez’s body sat in Alig’s bathtub for several days before the club kid and Riggs dismembered it and stuffed it into a box. They then carried the large package downstairs, flagged down a taxicab, and headed to the Hudson River, where they dumped it. 

In the face of a murder investigation, the reluctance of Alig’s associates to assist probers vexed Rodriguez and others in the D.A.’s office, sources said. From the outset, investigators suspected that Alig’s confession was no hoax, but needed a body before they could contemplate a murder prosecution. Investigators believed they had found Melendez’s body in September when a mutilated corpse was fished out of the water off Manhattan’s northern shore.

But while that body turned out to be just another unidentified casualty, press reports at the time struck a chord with police assigned to Staten Island’s 122nd Precinct. On April 12, Detective Ralph Gengo had responded to a call at Oakwood Beach, a scruffy spit of sand just north of Great Kills Park, where locals fish for flounder and teenagers build fires on the weekend. There, a group of children had stumbled across a box containing a legless body. A subsequent autopsy by Dr. Jonathan Arden of the medical examiner’s office determined that victim had died of asphyxia after being struck three time on the head with a blunt object.

Using dental records, Staten Island police and D.A. investigators in late October identified the corpse as that of Melendez. Investigators broke the news to Melendez’s family, adding that they expected to make arrests in the case during the first week of December. The only suspects were Alig and Riggs.

Police arrested Alig in New Jersey at 3 a.m. last Thursday. They picked up Riggs later that morning and “invited him to come down and answer a few questions.” The 28-year-old could have refused, but instead rode with Rodriguez and Alexander to Wooster Street, where the D.A.’s official corruption unit is headquartered. The Soho office, which has unlisted phone numbers and is not included in a building directory, handles police corruption cases and other sensitive matters.

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As D.A. representatives pressed him for de­tails of Melendez’s disappearance, Riggs — who did not ask for a lawyer — surprised investigators by admitting his and Alig’s role in the murder. Along with a written confession, Riggs was videotaped describing the killing, the hacking off of Melendez’s legs, and the disposal of the body. In contrast, when Alig was arrested, probers were not allowed to question him about the killing since Alig had previously hired an attorney. That retainer was made in connec­tion with Alig’s cooperation with the DEA and Brooklyn federal prosecutors. 

When a Voice reporter visited Riggs Saturday at Rikers Island, he was dressed in a slate gray, short-sleeved jumpsuit with Velcro closures up the front. He wore slip-on sandals and white tube socks. Gone were the high-top Nikes, blue and green parachute pants, and shimmery parka he wore the prior day at his arraignment. Riggs refused to discuss his role in the Melendez murder, speaking only about his journey to New York from Florida 10 years ago to work as a milliner. Riggs added that he had recently been designing stage props and costumes for movies and Broadway productions. 

Alig declined Sunday to see a Voice reporter who tried to visit him at Rikers’s Anna M. Kross Center, where Riggs is also housed. While being arraigned Friday afternoon, Alig fidgeted nervously, bit his nails, and scanned the courtroom for familiar faces. As he stood in the dock, with his striped boxers peeking out from the back of his baggy, khaki-colored pants, Alig seemed to be reeling. 

He had spent the prior few months trying to salvage his career in the face of whispers that he was a murderer. At times, to escape the scrutiny and the rumors, he would head to the Garden State to be with 22-year-old Brian McCauley who sells Tommy Hilfiger clothing at the Toms River Macy’s. For Alig, the sleepy town surely must have been a comedown. It was inhabited by tunnel people, who, along with their bridge counterparts, filled up Gatien’s clubs on many of the nights Alig promoted parties. They were the ones who paid at the door and were never palmed a drink ticket. 

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Closeted in the Riverwatch Inn & Irish Pub, a few doors down from the Catholic Charities office, Alig left his room only for trips across the street to the 7-Eleven. With his canary yellow hair and effeminate manner, he quickly caught the eye of the locals. “Oh, it’s the fag!” clerk Robin Simone laughed Saturday when asked about Alig. “He was always patting his boyfriend’s butt. I thought they were gonna get it on right in here.” The Riverwatch owner also had a wisecrack ready, claiming that Alig and his young companion had stayed in “Room 69” at the 50-room motel. 

The slurs were ugly, but it was hard to feel sorry for Alig since he was the one quoted in October’s Details magazine calling Melendez a “scum-of-the-earth drug dealer,” virtually implying he got what was coming to him. But this slight was no surprise. Alig sat at the center of a firmament of cynical, low-rent “stars” whose lives usually revolved around drug use and other assorted excesses.

Until his arrest last week, Alig’s life had been filled with flashes from a camera strobe, disco balls, and spotlights. But as he was driven away from the Riverwatch early Thursday, he was illuminated by only the whirling cherry top on a Dover Township police cruiser. As the cop car headed down Water Street, the last glimpse of neon Michael Alig may see came from a Budweiser sign in the shape of a shamrock, hanging in the window of a musty Jersey dive. 

Additional reporting by J.A. Lobbia and Thomas Goetz

Inside Alig’s Brain: Drugs, Genius, Pedophilia
By Frank Owen

Add prostituting an underage runaway and having sex with minors to Michael Alig’s grow­ing list of alleged criminal activities. In the wake of the arrest of the former king of the club kids for the murder of drug dealer Angel Melendez, a disturbing portrait of Alig as a predatory pedophile and sometime pimp is beginning to emerge. 

According to close friends — both current and former — in 1991 Alig dressed a homeless 12-year-old boy in drag (to look like Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby) and took him to Edel­weiss, a notorious hustler joint then located on West 29th Street. Here the boy sold his backside to get food and drug money for him­self and Alig. “A menace to young boys” is how one former confidant describes Alig. Others, however, insist that any sexual activity was entirely consensual, albeit thoroughly illegal. “Michael was getting sex and money, these boys were getting the time of their young lives,” says one of Alig’s pals.

Previously, according to the same people, Alig had visited Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, where he photographed and took phone numbers from a string of East German hustlers whom he attempted to sell as houseboys to rich New York patrons. “The scheme never really got off the ground,” says one insider. “Michaell was too disorganized.”

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Alig has made a habit of flaunting the law. Whether walking through the lobby of his posh apartment building holding a crack pipe, or doing drugs in public while helping the DEA build its drug conspiracy case against his former boss Peter Gatien, or boasting to friends about murdering Melendez, Alig has long felt the rules governing the rest of society don’t apply to him. He’s so brazen he even repeated the story of the 12-year-old and the East German houseboys to numerous friends on many occasions.

Alig has openly admitted that he’s a pedophile, and used to keep a stack of kiddie porn maga­zines in his apartment. Before his arrest, he was usually seen with a posse of young boys in tow. According to writer Stephen Saban, who lives down the hall from Alig’s former pad, “He [Alig] was giving young boys [the date rape drug] Rohypnol so he could have sex with them. I would see young kids coming to his apartment all the time.” 

Not that these young hustlers and run­aways were angels, insists Saban. If Alig was an exploiter — “a get-over queen,” in Saban’s phrase — he also allowed himself to be exploit­ed. “Inevitably Michael would be so fucked up he could hardly walk, so these kids would prop him up and walk him out into the street and get into a cab with him so that they could get into the clubs for free.” 

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How did the energetic upstart who single-handedly launched his own youth sub­culture in the ’80s turn into the messed­-up sociopath and accused murderer of today? How did the twisted creativity of the original club-kid scene tip over into outright evil? 

Alig’s nightclub career began in the early ’80s, when — fresh from South Bend, Indiana — the 18-year-old started working at Danceteria as a bus boy. People remember him from those days as a nerdy but cute gay boy conventionally attired in blue jeans and white T-shirt who didn’t look old enough to be in the club in the first place. The green hair and extravagant out­fits would come later. 

The club kids were widely ridiculed as brattish outsiders by older trendies when they first appeared. The original Details magazine dis­missed Alig and his crew as “little boys in bean­ies.” Yet Alig ended up revitalizing Downtown (first at Danceteria and the Tunnel, later at Club USA and Disco 2000) at a time when the rapidly aging scene was in desperate need of an injection of young blood. 

“Michael’s genius was in recognizing that the only thing separating the fabulous person from the non fabulous person was somebody’s saying so,” says writer-filmmaker Fenton Bailey, who caught the novice Alig how to throw par­ties. “He saw that he didn’t need to work his way into the established elite of Downtown nightlife. Instead, he gathered around him a whole bunch of friends, inspired them, and transformed them visually, and created his own scene of which he was the king. Like Andy Warhol, he realized that stardom was nothing more than a fantastic act of self-invention.” 

Michael not only reinvented himself, he also made over his friends. Before he met Alig, the self-styled “Superstar DJ” Keoki was a hum­ble flight attendant at TWA. The same thing happened to Robert Riggs, who has confessed to participating with Alig in the murder of Angel. Riggs, whose nom de disco is “Freeze,” was a high-­end hat designer who dressed conservatively before falling under Alig’s charismatic spell.

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Alig had shown perverse tendencies from an early age. While other kids were content with watching horror and slasher movies, the 15-year-old Alig ordered hardcore snuff movies through the mail. But in the early ’90s, his perversity started to slip over into outright depravity as the glitzy drag queens and fashion victims that provided him with his initial following were replaced by a younger, rougher, druggier crowd. His parties became less creative and increasingly sordid. Witness the “Emergency Room” and gore parties that were so characteristic of the last days of Disco 2000. His character changed completely under the influ­ence of so many drugs — especially heroin, which he started using in the early ’90s. Alig took on the traits of a manic depressive, euphoric one minute, suicidal the next. It was also at this time that he caught hepatitis and a large tumor appeared on his upper spine — the result of years of indiscriminate drug use. He got sicker and sicker in every way — physically, emotionally, and mentally. 

“His life, especially in the last two years, has been a suicide mission,” says Gatien publicist Ron Allen, a childhood friend of Alig’s. “Even before he was arrested, he talked about suicide constantly. Everybody I know thinks Michael will take his own life rather than serve out a long jail term. Up to now, he’s always had a way out — whether another pill to pop or another party to promote. He’s cornered; I fear death is his only way out.” 

Another friend isn’t so sure: “Michael is too much of a narcissist to take his own life.” 

He may get some help, though: on Monday he was reportedly severely beaten in jail by four other inmates. ❖ 

The View From Clubland
By Michael Musto

The Michael Alig arrest hasn’t had much impact on nightlife, as it turns out, because nothing can stop a party in motion, because a lot of clubbies don’t read, and mainly because the effects of Alig’s plight had set in way before the handcuffs snapped shut.

Most club crawlers I talked to in the wake of the arrest either had no idea of recent events or were so plugged in to the situation that they barely flinched, but either way it wasn’t intruding on whatever nightly rituals are left to be scraped up in the Giuliani era. Last Friday at Twilo, where club kids use to mix liberally with the civilian crowd, the long line of revelers waiting to get in was inordinately low on vinyl, fake fur, and war paint. “The Alig situation has already had its effect for a while, and that’s why we’re seeing the crowd we’re seeing,” said doorperson Kate Harwood. “It’s a lot less colorful. Not that I was a fan of the club kid scene, because it was getting nasty already. We knew there were too many drug combinations going on.” Her co-doorperson, Lincoln Palsgrove III, agreed: Alig’s kids haven’t been a potent night force for some time. “Michael was trying to achieve Sodom and Gomorrah,” he said, “but it became too decadent and there was no glamour to it anymore. There was no sense of responsibility like at studio 54.”

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Over at Peter Gatien’s Tunnel, where Alig once ruled, the medium-sparkly crowd seemed oblivious to current events, though in the bathroom, a leggy, blond drag queen named Eva Love did appear mildly alarmed. “Its going to be a wake-up call on the  scene,” she said, defiantly downing a swig of Poland Spring water — a far cry from the Ecstasy-Special K combos of the Alig era. Outside, a door guard was emitting even more sobering tones. “The papers keep running that picture of Michael with Peter Gatien,” he lamented, and I understood the concern. Gatien — who’s being investigated for alleged drug trafficking at his nightspots — doesn’t want any lingering connection with the troubled club kid, even though they were bound at the hip-cool-trendoid for years. In fact, Gatien’s publicist took pains to remind me last week that the murder happened after Peter dumped Alig — though my calendar seems to note that the firing and the ru­mors all surfaced in the same few weeks.

As the breaking blind item I ran in April becomes an eye-opening reality, everyone’s putting in his two cents (except the folks at Mi­rage, where Michael threw his most recent par­ties; when I called for comment, they simply laughed hysterically). Cornered at a restaurant, club staple JoJo Americo choked on  his sand­wich, then declared, “Give him the chair!” But drag performer Lady Bunny said, “Michael al­ways gave me the feeling that he was looking out for me,” though she then claimed he did once slip her a beverage she later learned was tinged with his urine — “when he had hepatitis.”

The most typical debate had the aforementioned flack telling club observer Stephen Sa­ban, “It’s horrible what drugs did to Michael,” and Saban replying, “But it’s not the drugs. I’ve known millions of drug users who’ve never killed anyone.” Let alone cut off their legs. Alas, the Giulianis of the world would probably love us to think that nightlife is exclusively populated with druggies and killers, and that the two are inexorably intertwined. He doesn’t go out as much as I do. As longtime promoter Susanne Bartsch told me, “This has nothing to do with nightlife. [Michael’s condition] was a pattern of not liking yourself. Going to a club is not a drug addiction.” And a drug addiction can’t create barbaric impulses that aren’t there. This is an isolated incident, like the hideous eradication of Eigil Vesti after he was picked up at a club in the ’80s. The Angel saga doesn’t convince me that all club impresarios are treacherous any more than O.J. makes me run from athletes faster than I already do.

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My take on Alig was always that he was brilliant, but a potential wreck waiting to happen, that his sense of fun too often hinged on pro­voking people in ways that made them uncom­fortable and angry. At a club, he’d grab you and pull you down a stairway and into a pool. He’d stand there with a friend and openly make fun of you. But you’d forgive him because he threw wickedly amusing, exuberantly envelope­-pushing parties — because the tinge of danger could take on a liberating edge — and he could be warm and effusive too. “Michael’s a human being like everybody else,” says Kenny Kenny, Michael’s old drag doorman. “Nobody’s all good or all bad.”

The way Alig shook up bourgeois notions was a welcome kick in the butt, until he’d go too far and I’d have to start apologizing for knowing him. In an ’88 Voice cover story, I described some of his bigger outrages, like the party he threw to which only HIV-negatives were invit­ed — his idea of a joke — or his Child Pornography Ring soiree, at which people used play money to buy dates with 16-year-olds, Alig pay­ing the kids real cash to go through with it. Alig couldn’t praise the mood-altering drug Ecstasy enough, but typically told me about crack, “It’s dirty and gross and only gross Puerto Ricans do it.” And when he started getting in touch with late-’80s activism, Alig’s ideology was, “People arc so blasé and lazy. They don’t want to go out and pillage and bum police cars anymore.” I bet he’d like to burn some police cars now.

You can chart the progression from ’86 Area to ’96 Mirage, but it was still the same Alig — except that every time he developed more presence on the scene, he’d lose touch with a few more behavioral boundaries. One of his ex-sidekicks, James St. James, recently moved to L.A. as a result of all the goings-on. “I love Michael dearly, but I can’t be around any of this,” St. James told me last week. “It’s totally destroyed my entire view of what we were doing. I thought the club kid movement was about breaking the rules and seeing how far you could push things. Now I realize that isn’t a good thing because absolute power corrupts absolutely. He had too much and thought he could get away with anything, which is not to say that he’s guilty or innocent. But it’s to say that he could get away with murder if he wanted to.”

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On the scene, club kids can’t get away with much of anything anymore. Ex-Gatien em­ployee Steve Lewis is opening a club called Life that Kenny Kenny, who’ll do the door, said will play host to an older, more modely crowd. And over at B Bar (formerly Bowery Bar), which al­ready has that crowd, the disgraced Alig is obvi­ously no longer swinging in with friends for lav­ish dinners. Did he used to pay? “Probably not too frequently — maybe in little pieces,” co-owner Eric Goode said, then philosophically added, “Life is certainly stranger than fiction.”

It’s especially bizarre if you believe the new hearsay filtering in: that Alig skipped town at one point because he was afraid Gatien would get him; that an ex of Alig’s was privy to the crime; that a girl who drove Alig cross-country after the murder could be in trouble for aiding and abetting; that Alig’s been going through withdrawal at Rikers and will be moved to a nicer joint because he’s the star witness in the case against Gatien; and that a prominent TV personality is paying Alig’s bail and legal fees. Also, though confessed cohort Robert “Freeze” Riggs (who’s suddenly a noted hat designer in the press) told the cops that Angel owed Alig rent, I hear the dealer didn’t officially live with Alig at all, he just frequently stayed over.

Amid the daisy chain of finger-pointing — Riggs ratting on Alig ratting on Gatien — speculation is so frenzied that some feel Michael may even be enjoying his public-enemy status be­cause it’s his most famous achievement yet (there are people on the scene who’d apparently kill for publicity). That’s doubtful, but in any case, the intrigue to come promises to be the sickest, most elaborate Alig party ever. Gushes St. James, “The trial will be absolutely beauti­ful, with [club regular] Amanda LaPore in a big hat and all the drag queens parading. It’ll be a fabulous image.” ❖

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COMEDY ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Eddie Izzard: Comedy Makeover

“Last time I was New York it was 1987,” recalls come­dian Eddie Izzard, speaking via mobile phone from Stockholm, the current stop on the world tour of his solo show, Definite Article. “I gave a little performance down in Washington Square Park. I stood up and told the crowd I was from London, and people started shouting, ‘So what!’ I made about 25, 30 dollars — not bad, but I saw what a New York audience is capable of.”

History is unlikely to repeat itself when Izzard makes his official New York debut this week at P.S. 122. Times have changed for the mild-man­nered, transvestite stand-up, whose surreal stream of droll observation has sold out two runs in the West End and won him a loyal international follow­ing. “We were a big hit in Reykjavik,” he declares with a contained astonishment. “Holland was completely indifferent to me. Though Tilburg was great. Loads of students. Young, hip, they really tuned in.”

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Just an ordinary bloke with penchant for glitzy cross-dressing and rumpled ironies, Izzard is himself a contradiction in comic terms. His doughy, pal-of-mine countenance and mumbling vulnerability belie his agile wit and fire engine-red nail polish. That he recently came out on British TV as an honest to goodness transvestite only means that he might show up on stage in a breathtaking crushed velvet orange number by Jean Paul Gaultier. No “my girdle’s killing me” jokes have slipped into his act. He remains steadfastly con­tent dwelling on the reasons pears refuse to ripen or the bad luck of the Corinthians to get Paul as a pen pal.

Izzard remains unfazed by the As­sault-and-Battery school of comedy. His is a peculiarly unthreatening, one is tempted to say fraternal, presence; aggression — sexuality for that matter­ — has been successfully sublimated into his refamiliarizing way of seeing. Guilty of anthropomorphism, literal-minded wordplay, and the occasional burst of vivid mime, Izzard turns us on through the curious turns of his wry, inventive mind. Non sequiturs with a faint unconscious ping replace the more customary wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am punch lines. Influenced by Billy Connolly and Monty Python at home, Izzard remains slightly awed by contemporary Ameri­can comic prowess. “Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Whoopie Goldberg, the early days of Saturday Night Live — this is the tradition I look to in my work.” He’d very much like to make forays in­to big-screen acting. He’ll soon appear in Christopher Hampton’s The Secret Agent, and has already won acclaim for his stage performances in The Cryptogram and Edward II. “I’m trying to give myself time to ease into more serious acting,” Izzard says. “When you do a lot of comedy you get com­edy baggage. Everyone expects you to crack jokes no matter what and so you can lose credibility as a dramatic actor.”

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But if being a stand-up comic is an impediment to getting plum dra­matic roles, many are talking about how Izzard’s recent acting experience has done wonders for his comedy. The critics have remarked on his increased confidence and heightened sense of theatricality; a few have even observed a new swagger to his stage walk. Of course there are those who chalk up the new attitude to his ward­robe overhaul. Before his newfound freedom as a declared cross-dresser, he would stumble on stage in whatever he happened to be wearing — blue jeans, a nondescript blazer, a beige polyester shirt with tails hanging out. “Someone once described my appearance as a wash of denim,” he says with a laugh. “I used to look, well, slobby. Now I can wear what­ever I want. I know I don’t look like a woman when I wear makeup. I just hope I look like I’m part of this planet.” ❖

Categories
EQUALITY ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Black Boomers Wax Nostalgic for the Days of Jim Crow

Dangerous Dreams

Of course the Nazis’ genocidal regime was terrible, and it’s really good that it was defeated. Bad as it was, though, it certainly brought the Jews together. They were a united, mutually supportive community in the camps in a way that they haven’t been since; they experienced a commonality that transcended class, gender, and other differences. It’s ironic and a bit sad that Hitler’s defeat came at the price of sacrificing the basis for that sense of community. So we should pause to celebrate and perhaps mourn the passage of that world of Jewish to­getherness, lost with the liberation of the death camps.

Sounds outrageous, doesn’t it? Of course, no one in their right mind would propose such a view seriously. Yet it isn’t so different from what has lately become a conventional narrative about black Americans and the regime of racial segregation that prevailed in much of this country for most of this century. The Third Reich was a sui generis horror: a state resting on systematic mass murder as a central goal and organizational principle is a nightmare of almost unimaginable proportion. But as Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wipperman detail in The Racial State 1933-1945, the conceptual foundation of that all-too-real nightmare is a commitment to racial ideology as the lens through which to make sense of and to order social life.

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From that perspective the difference between Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South is one of degree rather than kind, a matter of having the impetus and capacity to follow the ideology to its logical conclusion. Noting that the Holocaust is a species within a larger genus in no way diminishes it as an un­paralleled event. My point, rather, is to highlight why current nostalgia for the organic community black Americans supposedly lost with the success of the civil rights movement is so frighteningly shortsighted and dangerous.

That nostalgia is everywhere — in every major newspaper and excuse for a news magazine at the supermarket checkout line, in the classroom, in the bar, across the dinner table, in cultural criticism, in foundation boardrooms and policy papers, on the talk show circuit. Political left, right, and center embrace it equally, and it’s the staple hope of a burgeoning black memoir industry. Henry Louis Gates’s Colored People is a reflection on the idyllic world of his Jim Crow youth in West Virginia, a yearning for a prelapsarian black communal order. Harold Cruse’s Plural but Equal, dresses this nostalgia up as social theory; arguing that it was mistaken for blacks to have fought to overturn the Jim Crow system precisely because its defeat unraveled community life. William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged also trades on the Decline From Segregation narrative, though he ducks its implications by discussing only northern cities. Wilson conjures up images of a 1940s Harlem where people could pass hot summer nights sleeping safely on fire escapes, in contrast to the chaotic heart of darkness created when desegregation allowed the black middl class to escape inner-city ghettos, leaving the poor without stable institutions and  role models for upward mobility.

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This sort of nostalgic theory is dangerous on two counts: it falsifies the black past, and it serves reactionary and frankly racist interests in the present. Clifton Taulbert’s Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored (originally published by a small press but reissued by Penguin), and television actor-director Tim Reid’s current feature-film adaptation of it, provide a good template tor examining both problems. The inspirational memoir is this Once Upon a Time When We Were Segregated and Happy tale’s natural home, where the cheery tone of personal triumph wash brightly over the backdrop of codified racial subordination. Once Upon a Time recalls Taulbert’s first 17 years, spent in the Mississippi Delta town of Glen Allan.

Taulbert’s story is particularly resonant for me. He and I are about the same age, we graduated from high school
the same month. I don’t know his hometown, and I doubt that I know the Delta region as intimately as he. I do know it, though, and my experiences of it roughly coincide in time with his. My father’s family comes partly from that area, but on the other side of the river and therefore across the state line. Not that state lines mean much down there, in that zone of transhumance that laps across the northeast corner of Louisiana, southeast corner of Arkansas, and northwest Mississippi. Eudora, Arkansas, the town from which that branch of our family emanatcs, is eight miles from the Louisiana line and 30 miles from Greenville, Mississippi. As it was for Taulbert’s Glen Allan, Greenville is Eudora’s re­gional city where air travelers and mall shoppers go, and it seems to be about equidistant from the two towns.

Taulbert’s book and Reid’s film differ sig­nificantly and interestingly, but in ways that to­gether flesh out the components of a shared ide­ology. Reid mutes black Glen Allan’s status hierarchy, while Taulbert notes it matter-of-factly, exulting in his family’s elevated position. Reid’s vision so stresses fastidious morality that he goes our of his way to link the mildest devia­tion with mortification, even inventing a vignette in which the beloved great-aunt Ma Ponk makes a onetime visit to a hooch show only to pay by being absent from her mother’s deathbed. In Reid’s telling, elders counsel picnicking children not to drag an American flag on the ground because colored boys are dy­ing in Korea to defend that flag. Taulbert recalls a quite different admo­nition: “Boy, don’t you know if white folks see you messing with this here flag like this, they subject to kill you?” Poppa, the great-grandfather patriarch, is much more prominent in the movie than the book, as Reid responds to the yearning for patriarchal order that suffuses this new Up From Slavery narrative. Simi­larly, Reid reinvents Ma Ponk as a culinary won­der, while Taulbert says she was so little a cook that she relied on “plain store-bougbt
cake and chicken fried by my mother” for her contribution to the big church function. Here, also, art imposes ideological order on a messy world.

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Both Reid and Taulbert mistake the apparent simplicity of childhood for the simplicity of a social order, an elision that feeds aging black boomers’ wistfulness about lost-youth and innocence. It’s propelled by a naive trope of modernization that presume our world to be constantly increasing in complexity and divisiveness, contrasting it to a comfortingly static past. This vision authenticates itself by dipping into a common reservoir of experience. The scene in which the neighborhood gathers to view the Joe Louis-Rocky Marciano fight stimulated a Pavlovian recollection of my own experience of the fight in a different part of the country. We were at my uncle’s house, my younger cousin and I were playing on the floor in front of the sofa, and I recall my father’s lament that this would be our only memory of seeing Joe fight.

Some stimuli are generic: the first day of school, the doting (female) relative who dresses you like a geek for your own good, the excite­ment of little outings with an adored grandpar­ent, the pleasures of running around with schoolyard pals. Some are more racially specific: first encounters with Jim Crow etiquette, truck-loads of black people headed to the cotton fields, witnessing adults assert their contingent dignity in small encounters with whites. Instructively, though, it is only Reid who suggests these as­sertions. Taulbert recounts no such incidents; it was the Mississippi Delta, after all, and his folks weren’t the sort to make waves.

Memory is a great liar. Sure, you’re con­vinced that the strawberry floats tasted better then, but remember how much smaller your old room seemed the first time you returned in adulthood? The house didn’t shrink, did it? Of course life was simpler then; we were kids, and its complexities were lost on us. Of course the world seems in retrospect to have been nurturing; as kids, being nurtured was our job de­scription. Or rather, it was for some of us.

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Although it has attained a nearly universal status in black public discourse, this nostalgic narrative is in crucial ways a class vision. My father used to say that the story of the lion hunt would be a different tale if the lion had a typewriter. And that prompts an insight in­to the pervasive romanticism about segregated black schools: those who recall the Jim Crow schools so fondly are those who most likely were nurtured and catered to in them. Think about it. Who goes on to publish well-marketed memoirs or otherwise speak into the public microphone besides those marked early for success, those who have been encouraged and attended to? And who, by and large, are they but the children of community notable and elites? Are we certain that the recollections of universally nurturing black schools don’t generalize synecdochically from personal experience, which comes, after all, via the limited perspective of a child?

At any age, privilege tends to be recollected in the tranquil­ity of oblivion, with no recogni­tion that others weren’t comparably entitled. Think of the class reunion in which former in-group members are genuinely shocked to learn what a radically different place the school had been for the outsiders. An exam­ple from a context not too unlike Taulbert’s is suggestive. My mother taught for a time at a small Baton Rouge school run by an order of black nuns who came from the same social network and many of the same families as the students. As an outsider, she saw clearly how family standing influenced judgments about students. Expressions of good will and encouragement, assessment of talents, and allocation of awards and special opportunities — the concrete stuff of nurturance — were as likely as not shaped by personal attachments or vendettas and per­ceptions of family status. This pattern of invidi­ous treatment was part of normal life,  requiring neither justification nor explanation even when it extended to extraordinary interventions: “Let’s just change a couple of these numbers so that the Patin girl can be valedictorian. She’s such a love­ly girl and comes from such a nice family.”

Of course, this kind of behavior is hardly re­stricted to the world of Jim Crow. It’s really an intraracial manifestation of the sort of class-based quotidian injustice that assumes racialized forms in integrated environments. Black people are neither more nor less capable of pettiness and class prejudice than anyone else. Race is just not an active category in the calculus of judgment in an all-black context, and black students, therefore, don’t get the short end of the stick simply be­cause they’re black. However, the harsh facts of segregation mitigate that benefit. Skin tone, family connections, and even more arbitrary considerations all created fissures in the phan­tom unity of the pre-civil rights black commu­nity, just as they do today. And a situation de­fined by woefully inadequate resources breeds unfairness; there’s not enough of anything to go around, so arbitrary criteria become necessary.

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The white supremacist system made teach­ing one of the few avenues available tor middle-­class employment, increasing the likelihood that individual teachers were there by default and suffering with frustrated ambitions. The demoral­izing effect of those limitations combined with the reality of “second-class citizenship” to sup­port a communitarian excuse for an internal pecking order: we can wink at abstract principles of fairness in the community because it’s just us, and those elevated notions don’t really apply to dealings among the folk; we all know how it is. In these circumstances what can we expect to be the lot of the unattractive, timid, slightly slow, or sullen child of poody regarded sharecroppers? What would her memories be of the Golden Age of segregation? We can find dues by sitting in classrooms or listening to teachers in today’s underfunded inner-city schools.

Class ideology, in fact, permeates and drives the current nostalgia. While it reflects a generic sentimentality about lost innocence, it is also black boomers’ racially distinctive variant of a historically specific class yearning, one that ap­pears among their white counterparts as wistful attachment to a mythical Victorian or Edwar­dian era, the collective dream on which PBS and the specialized home-improvement industry thrive. In both cases, it’s about the wish for a world that is simpler and more settled to be sure, but simpler and settled in ways that clarify and consolidate the status of the upper middle class as the social orders presumptive center. The vision — equally false as history in both col­or codings — is of an organic, face-to-face community in which everyone has a role, status markers arc clear, and convivial, automatic deference and noblesse oblige are the social or­ganism’s lifeblood, the substance of its mutual regard.

Among whites this typically trans­lates into images of a close-knit world of little shops where one is known and served cheer­fully by contented proprietors and their energetic employees, where one is recognized naturally as the center of the community, the embodiment of its best values and aspirations, its pivotal consumer. The black vision is more folkish in its mythology, but no less aestheticized. Where white Fairfield County yuppies imagine themselves in a sleek Merchant-Ivory fantasy of a fin de siecle drawing room, their black neighbors shoehorn themselves into a colorful down-home juke joint sprung to life from the canvases of Varnette Honeywood or Ernie Barnes. The black vision includes as well being respected as a role model and natural leader of the race. Nostalgia for the Jim Crow black world, particularly when it masquerades as social science, keys its imagery of the Fall to the putative loss of petite bourgeois authority in the bantustan — for instance, in William Julius Wilson’s prat­tle about the middle class as a force for moral or­der and propriety among the poor. In a concocted scene in Reid’s film, Poppa confronts the impov­erished tenant farmer whose son has sired a child out of wedlock. When the father refuses any obligation to the young mother and baby, citing his inability to add two hungry mouths to his household, Poppa tells him sternly, “Having nothing don’t mean you don’t know what’s right.”

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Taulbert is serenely candid about the class stratification of his cherished “place where people nurtured and protected and enjoyed each other.” He establishes at the very beginning of his book that he is descended from black planters and recounts with loving pride how his elderly aunt showed him the records that verified their once-exalted status. His mother’s family lost the plantation but retained elevated status in black Glen Allan. Poppa was “a well-known and respected Baptist preacher who was looked to for his wisdom and in many instances served as a go-between for the coloreds when problems arose involving the whites,” and Taulbert points out that they owned “a large rambling house with separate bedrooms, a formal dining and living room with two screened-in sun rooms.” He notes that Ma Ponk “always made it a point to talk with Miss Lottie because she was among the upper-class coloreds” and insisted on riding the train because she felt that “only the poor coloreds rode the bus”

None of this is unusual. Memoirists who pine for the lost community of Jim Crow tend to have middle-class parents, who typically strove to insulate their offspring from the regime’s demeaning and dangerous realities, es­pecially from contact with whites. Except in New Orleans, I can’t recall having more than a couple of interactions with whites of any age in the South (not counting priests and nuns) until I was in high school. It is less commonly recalled that petite bourgeois  parents worked equally hard to shield their kids from black social inferi­ors. The leveling effects of discrimination made the latter more difficult, but this dedicated to class insularity found ways to adapt. The Jack and Jill clubs (from which, thankfully, my parents’ politics saved me) existed to provide an ­explicitly class-conscious local and national social network for the black bourgeoisie’s children in the same way that fraternities and sororities, the Links, the Girl Friends, the Boulé, and other such organizations did for adults. And only mid­dle-class children who were protected from its social and institutional realities — or those who didn’t live it at all — could remember the segre­gated world so fondly, as a naive, communitarian metaphor. When it came time for Taulbert to negotiate the regime as an adult, he left, telling us only that “Glen Allan could not make my dreams come true.” He never confronts the fact that what he knew and recalls as a warm, nurturing world was compensatory, an artifact of a hideously unjust social order that brutalized lives and crushed aspirations.

Although its wrongheadedness may seem merely misguided, this class-inflected nostalgia plays a decidedly sinister role in contemporary politics. Not only does it rest on sentimental notions of family that sanitize gender inequality, it naturalizes current class privilege by projecting it fantastically backward in time. PBS subscribers imagine their earlier lives in genteel domestic settings, not sweatshops or stockyards, and Afro-centrics don’t envision themselves as less than, say, the pharaoh’s majordomo or attaché. The black memoir strain goes one better: it draws the dots connecting present and past privilege and lauds the continuity as race pride. The ubiqui­tous grandmother in these narratives may have been a strong-proud-black-woman-race-leader-­and-closeted-lesbian, but she was first of all a member in good standing of the Talented Tenth. The message is clear: our very bloodline is elite. We’re just as authentically bourgeois — in our distinctively black way — as our white counter­parts, and we’re the race’s natural aristocracy. Gates tells us of his maternal family’s place in the local social order: “The Colemans were the first colored to own guns and hunt on white land, the first to become Eagle Scouts, the first to go to college, the first to own property.”

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This bias comes through in another of Reid’s inventions. He has the good folk of Glen Allan decide to stand up to the white supremacist order, not for their citizenship rights or to chal­lenge discrimination, lynching, or their ex­ploitation in the cotton economy. In his vision, they assert themselves in defense of Taulbert’s Uncle Cleve, the ice man supposedly being dri­ven our of business unfairly by a big white firm from Greenville. Reid’s townsfolk refuse to work the cotton fields in protest, noting Cleve’s — and thus black entrepreneurialism’s — paramount symbolic importance to the entire black popula­tion; they cared more about his welfare than their own. (Taulbert says of his uncle, by the way, “Surely if my Uncle Cleve were alive today, he’d find a reason to be a black Republican.” And the author himself is no leftist; he chortles at enforcement of child labor laws and expresses re­lief that his parents, despite tough times, were able to avoid becoming part of the welfare “sys­tem.”) This is an absurdly self-serving image of petite bourgeois grandeur. I’ve filed it in my collection of Perverse Appropriations of Popular In­surgency, right next to that of a student who told me a few years ago that the ultimate goal of the civil rights movement was to make sure she could attend Yale and then go on to work at Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs. Sadly, this perversion capturcs the moment of bourgeois triumphalism in black political life.

An insidious slippage between I and We drives black communitarian rhetoric and makes possible the bizarre claim that intraracial stratifi­cation is benign because it’s organic. This view has no room for class tension or contradictions, because it disconnects class from position and role in the reproduction of the social system. Pop­pa “mediated” with the whites; he didn’t occupy a managerial niche in the Jim Crow order. A family friend was a labor contractor for the white planters and acquired rental property originally built to house interned Japanese Americans dur­ing World War II. Taulbert never imagines that these business endeavors might have put him at odds with some of Glen Allan’s black residents, or muses about the irony of a black man profit­ing from internment. Such ruminations aren’t consonant with this narrative’s objectives.

The point of the nostalgia narrative is that that are no internal tensions; there is no significant differentiation. Perhaps this yearning for a seamless black world partly reflects status anxiety within the current black middle class, an anxiety that can take several overlapping and even contradictory forms. It could express the famous guilt that middle-class blacks supposedly experience about the growing black poverty that con­trasts with their success — though I’ve never seen a case of it in anyone over undergraduate age that wasn’t a backhanded form of self-congratu­lation. It could also reflect just the opposite. Lev­eling the black experience also levels racial oppression and thereby equates the middle-class experience of racism (“I couldn’t get a cab,” “I got stopped by the cops on Metro-North,” “My col­leagues don’t respect me,” “I can’t get a promo­tion”) with me borderline genocidal regime tightening around the inner-city poor. One of­ten hears the lament: we suffer too. And the communitarian idyll can be emotional solace for those middle-class blacks who work and live in racially integrated environments, a dreamworld respite from racialized tension — the necessary, constant anticipation of affront that permeates their daily reality. An analogue is 1960s black cultural nationalism, which was largely the product of black students on white college campuses.

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No matter what emotional needs it addresses, though, this communitarian nostalgia propounds a political message that what an in­creasingly fractured black “community” needs is to entrust itself to the loving care of its “natural” leadership. Some middle-class blacks opposed the Jim Crow order because it limited their op­tions, constrained their career and social opportunities, and didn’t make appropriate class dis­tinctions among blacks. This criticism isn’t necessarily hinged to a broader egalitarian social vision. Therefore as the rightward thrust of na­tional politics and the realities of the glass ceiling imperil possibilities for absorption — on black and proud terms to he sure — into the mainstream elite, a latter-day accommodationism can seem consistent and attractive. Like Milton’s Lucifer, many middle-class blacks are finding it more desirable to reign in the bantustan than to be dissed outside, especially now that the basic accomplishments of the 1964 and 1965 civil rights legislation — guaranteeing the rudiments of equal citizenship — seem solidly established. This impulse supports an accommodationism that trades on the rhetoric of racial difference to assign the petite bourgeoisie a tutorial, agenda-­setting position vis-a-vis the rest of the race. The Nurturing Black Community, therefore, re­hearses an elitist communitarianism of lengthy pedigree (shared, for example by Booker T. Washington and the young Du Bois), and it secures a functional role for a separate-but-equal black middle class: official management and administration of inequality. This includes, besides role modeling and running the institutions of public authority, directing public policy — in the form of “community revitalization” — to clear away suitable enclaves for the occupancy and consumption needs of the new uplifters.

A friend of mine remarked years ago, as we observed the rise of the first stratum of black public officials, that they generally presume that all that stuff about due process, participation, citizenship rights, equality, justice, and the rest stops at the entrance to the: bantustan. We didn’t realize at the time that formalist democracy goes against the grain of the communitarian ideology on which black leadership grounds itself. Nor did we recognize that this antidemocratic impulse rests on a solid pragmatic foundation. After all, you don’t want a lot of discussion among people if your job is to herd them into camps, do you? ❖

1996 Village Voice article about Jim Crow attitudes

1996 Village Voice article about Jim Crow attitudes

1996 Village Voice article about Jim Crow attitudes

1996 Village Voice article about Jim Crow attitudes

Categories
From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The New Yankees: A Town and a Team Reborn

The New Yankees: A Town and a Team Reborn
October 29, 1996

Court Street in Brooklyn. A day of dazzling October sunshine. The lunch hour. I dodge a flying column of Court Street lawyers, their presence staining the air with felonies, their gray faces crumpled into fists by the freshness of the day. I hear the name Derek Jeter and my heart thumps: has the young Yankee shortstop been indicted? Clusters of young women are pouring out of office buildings, lighting cigarettes, hurrying off to coffee shops. More names vibrate through the air: Joe Torre. Darryl. Jimmy Key. A man with a West Indian accent helps a young woman to hurry along with her cart, which is heavy with hand-wrapped packages of candies and nuts. She is wearing a Yankee button. A Pakistani in a Yankee hat peddles children’s books, and another man sells books and pamphlets about negritude. Merengue music blares from one store. Luis Miguel sings from another. Three Hasidim hurry by, gesturing excitedly, and I hear one name in the rush of talk: Bernie Williams. Rap music drowns the verbs. And I’m looking at lacquered wooden plaques bearing maps of various Caribbean islands, destined for the walls of Brooklyn, when a guy across the street bellows: “T-shirts, get ya Yankee T-shirts here, Yankee T-shirts.”

On this day in Brooklyn, the ghosts of the past are no longer present. Few wanderers in the great Court Street bazaar even know the New York Yankees were once the most loathed assembly of athletes in the city. They weren’t here. The immigrants live with their own ancient grudges and their own nostalgias; none are crippled by New York nostalgia. The immigrants and the young live in the city as it is, not as it was. At the same time, they are forging the city that will be.

“Of course, Yankees will win!” says a smiling man named Ahmed Hassan, a Palestinian taxi driver, on his way to lunch on Atlantic Avenue. “Our team! Yankees in six!”

“Five!” says Wilfredo Chacon, of Puerto Plata, in the Dominican Republic, and of Red Hook, Brooklyn. “We’re back, man.”

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True. But this is more than a sports story. The return of the Yankees to the World Series parallels the astonishing changes in the city in the past few years. One thing is very clear: this is a very good time to be in New York. It’s as if the siege has ended and the survivors have come blinking into the sunlight. The murder rate has been cut in half, and there have been steep declines in almost all other crimes. At midnight now, in many neighborhoods, people are out on the streets again, walking home from movies or restaurants, free of a once invincible sense of menace. The subways are cleaner and a lot safer. And when crime goes down, optimism increases. The city can’t flourish without that most elusive emotion. Neither can baseball teams.

Nobody knows with any precision why there has been such an enormous change. Cer­tainly, Mayor Giuliani deserves some of the cred­it. He had the good sense to hire police profes­sionals who came up with a revolutionary strategy: make the cops work an eight-hour day. They were correct to make the quality of life a police responsibility. In the subways, they did su­perb work intercepting the bad guys at the point of entry; felonious kids who used to go robbing did not bother paying the fare. They made po­lice commanders responsible for failures in their precincts and boroughs. The police brass are hardly perfect; they still tolerate too many cops who are semi-psychos. But they have done a sol­id job. They have made optimism possible.

But all over the city, there is evidence of other forces at work. They have little to do with the inhabitants of City Hall. The crack fad seems to have ebbed, which means fewer murders over sneakers or control of street corners. Heroin is making a comeback, but the poor smackheads don’t spend much time shooting children with machines guns. Heroin has always been known as the cop’s best friend: it destroyed the fighting street gangs of the New York past; it is more easily centralized by the suppliers. The crack wars were an example of uncontrolled capitalism; for hoodlums and addicts, that experiment now seems over.

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Much more important is the solidifying of New York’s most recent immigrant wave. I can’t prove this, but it seems obvious that the immi­grants are adding social cement to this city. They have a work ethic. They have families. The oth­er night I was talking to a Catholic priest who told me that he recently had to save some young thief from sure death at the hands of two enraged Korean shopkeepers. “He’d stolen an av­ocado off the stand,” the priest said, “and they chased him three blocks. Then they wanted to beat him to death.” The priest was amazed that nobody who has watched Koreans working 14-hour days would be surprised.

From the new Chinatown in Brooklyn to the great ethnic enclaves of Queens, the immi­grants are doing what immigrants have always done: work at the lousiest jobs until they can get better ones; show their children by example that work must be honored; envision a better future. Like the Irish, the Jews, and the Italians before them, they are subjected to stereotyping and prej­udice from those who are already here. Many of the new immigrants are being exploited: a few fall into drug addiction or crime; others give up and go home. But most of them know one big thing: this is better than what they left behind. This rude and unruly city. This New York.

In the process, they are becoming New Yorkers. And one of the crucial routes to citi­zenship remains baseball. My father passed from immigrant to citizen through Ebbets Field, not Ellis Island; he learned more about America from Dick Young than from de Toc­queville. Now we have Mexicans and Dominicans and Panamanians among us, people who have carried baseball with them in their luggage. Now they can see players from their own coun­tries in las ligas grandes. So can the others. The Koreans can cheer for Chan Ho Park when the Dodgers come to town, and the Japanese among us arrive to cheer Hideo Nomo. Their faces will be blank if you mention Jackie Robinson, or Reese or Campy or Skoonj. That was all long ago, before they were born, before they packed those suitcases and came to America. But look around a stadium on a Sunday afternoon. You know that this is their game too. Many of the rest of us have been soured by baseball. The strikes broke too many old habits, fatally interrupting a narrative that stretched all the way back to childhood. Too many players were spoiled, oafish jerks; too many owners were swine. The players and their agents moved from town to town, perpetual freelancers, never stay­ing long enough to establish local identities; be­fore we could get to know them, they were gone. Basketball grabbed us. The Knicks stayed together longer and played a swifter, more ele­gant game. For many of us, these past few years, baseball has been a corpse. And it wasn’t just a case of cynical New Yorkers. At night this sum­mer, I’d turn on ESPN’s SportsCenter and watch outfielders in a dozen different towns chasing fly balls before backdrops of empty seats. In Prospect Park, I often saw softball games among 50-year-olds. But the kids were off in the neigh­borhoods playing basketball.

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Even when the Yankees were leading the division by 12 games, it was difficult to sustain interest. There were cheers, and apprehension, when Dwight Gooden pitched his no-hitter. But there was no sense of the dailiness of the game, the accretions and unfolding dramas of the long season. Until August. Until the Yankees began to lose. Until it seemed possible that they could blow it. Anyone can be a front-run­ner, and the Yankee machines of the past always seemed to be out front. But sports teams, like prizefighters, or cities, can’t ever be truly judged until you see what they do when they are hurt.

And the Yankees, like the great wounded city that houses them, got to one knee. They paused. Then they got up. And here they are, in the World Series. Here they are, for the first time in 15 years, in the great October roar of Yankee Stadium. And who could not root for them? What old fan of the Dodgers could not see that these are no longer the tormentors of the past but a whole new group, as fresh as immigrants. In the age of the sports oaf, Bernie Williams has grace. In the age of the spoiled fool, Derek Jeter plays with style and speaks with modesty. And there is David Cone, the toughest white man since Tony Zale. And there is Jimmy Key, using guile and craft and intelli­gence to make a game resemble art. And there, dark and brooding and infinitely patient, is Joe Torre. Out of the immigrant stream. Out of the old tight notion of family. Out of the culture of work. Out of Brooklyn. With a face like an old shoe. How could anybody root against him?

So I was sad when the Yankees got wasted 12–1 in the first game with the Braves. But I wasn’t ruined. After all, like Joe Torre, I’m from Brooklyn. When we were young, we learned about losing. Lessons that were usually taught by the goddamned Yankees. But a loss, a defeat, a disappointment are nothing if you have some belief in tomorrow. The young know that. The immigrants know it. They’re living their tomor­rows. And when they take their turns at bat you have to pray that the wind is blowing out.