Sleaze-Out on East 14th Street

From the Annals of Pre-Gentrification

All the popcorn pimps, penny-ante pross, nickel-and­-dime pill-pushers, methadone junkies, and doorway-living winos felt the hawk wind as it blew down East 14th Street. It’s late October, the time of the year when one night, all of a sudden, you know you better break out the warmer coat. Except that on East 14th Street, who has a warmer coat? One creep — a downer-selling vermin — knows the raw of it all. He stands in front of the pizza joint on 14th and Third Avenue, begging for eye contact. “Robitussin, man, Robitussin.” Robitussin? Two dollar Placidyl is low enough — that shit’ll make your breath smell like metal. But Robitussin? “Robitussin, man. You have got to be kidding.” 

The creep’s voice squeaks up a couple of octaves, his scarred-up head sags. He says, “Just trying to get over. This gonna be a rough winter.”

Shitsure it’s gonna be a rough winter at 14th Street and Third Avenue. It’s always a rough winter at 14th Street and Third Avenue. Rough for the blond junkie and his girlfriend. They told the people at the methadone center on Second Avenue and 12th Street that they were going out of town. Back to Ohio to visit the chick’s parents. The methadone people gave them a week’s supply of bottles. Good plan: the blond guy and his girlfriend weren’t going nowhere except to 14th Street to sell the extra shit. But they got into a pushing match with some of the Spanish guys drinking Night Train Express on the subway stairs. The methadone bottles fell down the stairs. The shit got out. What a bitch.

[related_posts post_id_1=”728987″ /]

Rough winter, too, for the big black cross working the entrance of the Contempora Apartments on Third Avenue. Checking her, you’d figure she could open a 14th Street branch of the Fresh Air Fund. Tits for days. But, then again, if you’re looking for scrubbed Tahitian babes in redwood tubs, 14th Street is not the place. The other day, though, it got embarrassing for the big black pross. A Chevy filled with beer-drinkers rolled slow by her doorway. She said, “Wanna go out?” It was sincere bargaining in good faith — “Wanna go out?” But the Chevy was deadbeat. The driver yelled out the window, “Yeah, how much you want to pay me, pig?” Some joke. Whip a pross, stick her with sewing-machine needles, step on her face, but don’t call her a pig. The pross took out the after the Chevy, breasts lurching north and south, ass bumping east and west. The Chevy was stopped at the light. The big black pross slammed her pocketbook against the windshield. Mascara pads and fake eyelashes flew. “Motherfucker,” screamed the big black pross, “why you come down here and try to make fun of me?” The Chevy rolled up the windows and sped away, laughing.

Rough winter, dead rough winter. So rough some have already taken off. Nobody in the Durkin, the creep joint with the tilted bar, has seen Joey the Eye for a while. Joey the Eye was messed up — too fucked up to cop pills, never had a girl out on the street. But he could — and would — take his bloodshot eyeball out of his head and hold it in the palm of his hand. The Hung Man is also missing. He spent some of the summer leaning on a parking meter, stark naked. Valium pushers came over, slapped five, and said. “Man, you hung.”

Beat Shit Green is gone, too. But no one in the pill­-pusher ginmills on 2nd Avenue figures Beat Shit is soaking up rays in Miami Beach. Beat Shit is one of the worst scumbags ever to stand at 14th Street and Third Avenue hustling “Ts and Vs” (Tuinals and Valium). He used to claim that he was the one who sold the white boy that fatal bunch of beat shit in Washington Square Park last year. The white boy didn’t dig getting burned and came back with friends and baseball bats. People got bruised. One died. Back on 14th Street Beat Shit bragged. He is the kind of pill-pusher who doesn’t give a shit if you take one of his tuies that isn’t even a tuie and go into convulsion right at his feet. Damn, he made his $2.50. Beat Shit has been known to sell methadone that was really Kool-Aid and aspirin. He’d suck the juice out of a Placidyl and sell the shell. But, they say, that kind of beat shit comes back on you. They say Beat Shit’s not going to make the winter because he got thrown off a roof on East 13th Street.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715299″ /]

Rough. Cold. In one of the bars next to the cuchifrito stand, Willie (“call me Big W”) is wondering if he’ll see April. For a downer salesman, Willie is a pretty sweet dude. Sometimes if one of the barmaids in the Durkin is smooching it up with an off-duty cop, Willie will take a bar stool next to the chick and wait. Soon she’ll curl her hand around her back and make a little cup. Willie will slip her a couple of Valiums. The barmaid will put her other hand in the cop’s crotch and pull her face away — pretending to cough or something. While the cop is dealing with the barmaid’s squeeze, she’ll swallow the pills and go back to tonguing before the guy knows anything. Willie digs that kind of move. He says, “She’s slick, huh?”

Recently, though, things haven’t been going too good for Big W. He makes a little bread selling his shit to kids from Jersey on 14th Street — enough to keep a room in an SRO hotel uptown. But, like they say, Willie is his own best customer. Talking to him gets you seasick; he’s always listing from side to side. Tonight Big W is wearing his skullcap funny. It’s not pulled down over his head; he’s got it done up in a little crown. Willie says he don’t want it skintight, it puts too much pressure on his stitches. Seems as Willie was in the Durkin a couple of weeks ago and got into an argument with a pimp. Willie thought the guy was just bullshitting until the iron rod came out. Willie forgets what happened next. Except that he woke up in Bellevue with a head that looks like a roadmap.

Stitches get Willie mad. Mad enough to “get violent.” The other night, Wille kept looking at those stitches in the mirror so long he decided he was “just gonna go mug myself somebody.” He went around to the stage door of the Palladium and picked out a kid who was completely destroyed on Tuinals. The kid was waiting for an autograph. Willie figured anyone jive enough a wait for a fucking autograph has to be an asshole. It got better when the rock star came out the door, “got into his fucking limo, and didn’t even give the sucker an autograph.” So Willie made his move. The Jersey kid beat Willie into the sidewalk and “stole my Placidyls.” At this rate, Willie figures he’ll be lucky to live till spring.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717715″ /]

You wouldn’t predict better for Leroy and Sally. They’re sweethearts. Leroy, a good-looking mother with a brown hat, used to push pills but he got behind them. Half a dozen Placidyls a day. Bad news. So he hooked up with Sally. Now she’s on the street and he’s home with the housekeep­ing. It’s worked out good, too. They got a place without roaches on 13th Street in a building with a locked door. Sally had some chairs and a blue light bulb. Leroy slipped the super some to tell the landlord the dead Polish lady hadn’t moved yet, so the rent is dirt cheap.

But then Sally started taking busts. Every Friday night the cops’ pussy posse would pull her in. She changed corners, went over to 12th Street. Nothing worked. Sally always got the toughest judge. The fines mounted up. Leroy and Sally started arguing. Sally got uptight and started crying. Sometimes she cried for no reason. Leroy told her to shut it up. He said she was an ugly bitch with a fucking pinhead bobbing on the top of goddamned two-foot­ long neck. Sally cried some more.

A couple of weeks ago she was crying in the laundromat the Chinese guys run on 2nd Avenue and 12th Street. Leroy whacked Sally with a clenched fist. He never hit her with a clenched fist before. When the Chinese guy who folds the towels said something, Leroy screamed, “Shut up, motherfucker.” Then he went over the dryer and pulled out all his underwear. He told Sally it was over and was gone.

He was lying. A few days later Leroy and Sally were back together. They were in a bodega on 3rd Avenue, screaming at the Spanish guy behind the counter. The guy was claiming Sally stole a bag of Planter’s peanuts. Sally said, ”You cocksucker, spic. Fucking cocksucker, spic. We don’t need your fucking peanuts, spic. I got a fucking hundred dollars in my fucking pocket, spic. So take you fucking peanuts and shove them up your ass.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”725345″ /]

The 10 Sleaziest Street Corners in New York

I have always wanted to write a story called “The 10 Sleaziest Street Corners in New York.” Once, while I was working for New York Magazine, I suggested this idea to my then boss, Clay Felker. The story would be an enormous asset, I said. Diplo­matically I pointed out that the magazine seemed to spend inordinate time and space deciphering and celebrating the city’s high life. Why not devote equal time to the city’s low life? Certainly, New York is as much about its sleazoids as its swells. Here, I bargained, was a fabulous opportunity to do some truly meaningful city reporting. More than reporting. This would be a major breakthrough for the publication; it would be city anthropology — no, city sleazology, I called it, coining a perfect cover line. I mean, why did certain street corners — excluding obvious “ghetto” area ones — become hangouts for pill-pushers, prostitutes, winos, bums, creeps, cripples, mental pa­tients, mumblers, flimflam men, plastic flower sellers, peepshow orators, head­-cases, panhandlers, and other socially unacceptable netherworld types? How did these corners get this way? How long had they been this way? What was their future? Which ones have McDonalds? Which ones have Burger King? Did this matter?

I submitted a fairly comprehensive list off the top of my head: 96th Street and Broadway — the first subway stop down from Harlem; 72nd Street and Broadway — good old needle park; 53rd and Third — the Ramones sang about ‘hawking there; 28th and Park Avenue South — the Bellmore brings the pross; 2nd Avenue and St. Mark’s — the dregs of the burned-out hippies; Bowery and Houston — the creme of the classic bum corner; 6th Avenue and 8th Street — the aggressively plastic up-and-­comer; 90th Street and Roosevelt in Queens — home of the low-level Colombian coke dealer; 14th and Third; and, of course, the granddaddy: The 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue-42nd Street and Eighth Avenue complex.

To me, it was a brilliant idea. Even the title was perfect for New York. I was prepared, however — if pressured — to add the word “hot” to the headline. Felker listened to this rap with ever-widening and horrified eyes. Then he looked at me like I was a bug and told me to get cracking on Barry Manilow.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722370″ /]

Still, the sleaze story festered in my brain. But ambition wanes. It soon became apparent that it was crazy to “do” all the corners of crud in New York. How many burgers can one be called on to eat for the sake of journalism? It would be better to hone in on one singular slice of sleaze.

Fourteenth Street and 3rd Avenue was the natural choice. I live around there; it’s my neighborhood sleazy street corner. The pross have seen me enough to know I don’t wanna go out. But, also, 14th Street and Third Avenue is a classic, time-honored choice. 14th Street — the longest crosstown Street in Manhattan — has been on the skids, for the past 120 years.

Once, long ago, blue blood ran through this stem. An 1853 edition of the New York Herald said of East 14th Street, “Here, there are no stores — nothing but dwelling houses, which are substantial, highly finished, and first class.” When stores did come, they were Tiffany’s and FAO Schwarz. When the Academy of Music was built, in 1854, it was hailed as the city’s center of classical music and opera. Europeans sang there. The Metropolitan Opera House was built uptown by smarmy nouveaux riches, like the Vanderbilts, who couldn’t get boxes at the Academy.

It didn’t last long. East 14th Street did one of the quickest and earliest “there goes the neighborhoods” in New York history. By 1865, the New York Times was reporting that “all of the once-splendid row houses of the 14th Street-Union Square sector are now boarding houses.” Even more august sources scorned the street: In 1868, Charles Dickens saw 14th Street as a precursor of Levittown. He said: “There are 300 boarding houses exactly alike, with 300 young men exactly alike, sleeping in 300 hall bedrooms exactly alike, with 300 dress suits exactly alike ….”

[related_posts post_id_1=”718960″ /]

Never trust a Brit snob’s sum-up of Amer­ica. 14th Street got seamier, but it was cooking. Prostitution was firmly rooted on East 14th Street by the turn of the century (a Gentleman’s Companion of the time lists 15 whorehouses in the area), and it aided some unlikely causes. Emma Goldman writes of doing a little flat-backing on 14th Street to pick up revolutionary pocket money. Those days, there were plenty of Reds around. Socialists and worse stood on soapboxes in Union Square Park. Once, during the Sacco-Vanzetti trials, the cops mounted machine guns on top of the Guardian Life building. John Reed and Trotsky discussed eventualities in the 14th Street cafeteria, which had a sign on the wall: A TRAYFUL FOR A TRIFLE.

Capitalists did not lie down in the face of such impressive lefties. D. W. Griffith’s Biograph Studio, where Lilly and Dolly Gish graced one-reelers, was on East 14th Street. Buster Keaton made shorts here. Old-rag salesmen and handlers made shop on 14th Street. Many of the schlockmeisters who made it big — and some who didn’t make it so big — started on 14th Street. Macy’s, Hearn’s. Ohrbach’s, and Klein’s were here.

Today the only vestige of leftist activity on 14th Street is the sign from the ’60s underground newspaper Rat, which had its offices next to the Metropolitan porno theater. It reads, “HOT RATS WHILE YOU WAIT.” The capitalists didn’t fade, they moved out. Only Klein’s, with nowhere to go, held on. The trade from Stuyvesant Town in the east couldn’t sustain it. There was no future in selling to Puerto Ricans. Three years ago it closed. Now the massive “Klein’s on The Square” is an empty 300,000-foot hulk. The square-rule logo makes the place look like a decrepit Masonic Temple; except there’s no “all-seeing eye.”

The East Village Other, in one of its last issues, published a secret report predicting a deadly and monumental earthquake about to flatten half the city. The scientists, (all Hitlerians, said EVO) were keeping the news from the public. The report said all the major fault lines ran right underneath 14th Street. It was a totally believable story. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”723153″ /]

East 14th Street should have settled into a typical cycle of urban decline and upshift. Sure, the area has its share of pross and winos in Union Square Park and on the line to go to the bathroom at the Variety Photoplays. But that wouldn’t have both­ered the loft people or the apartment renovators. It didn’t happen, though. The sleazos came instead. And East 14th Street continued to go down … down … down. In fact, after a 120-year skid, it hasn’t bottomed out yet.

14th Street at Third Avenue is more than a sleazy street corner, it’s the epicenter of a mini­-sleazopolis. In the blocks around the hub, several different creep scenes operate side by side, and almost independently. Occasionally a pimp hanging out in the Rio Piedras bodega, on Third Avenue near 11th Street, will go up to 14th Street to sell some pills, but not often. The girls stay fucked up most of the time but don’t sell. Pill-pushers don’t even go to the same bars as the pross. It’s a real division of labor. The thing that holds it all together is that it’s all so low. Low! Ask the Robitussin man, or the big black cross, or the methadone tripper, or Willie — they’ll tell you: After 14th Street, there ain’t no more down.

The pimps ain’t happening. They sit on the steps of the barber college at Third and 12th, talking big and pretending to be Mexican hacienda patroons. Fake, all fake. These pimps aren’t taking no territory from King George, no way. These pimps never even get to lean against an El D, much less have a fur hat. They’re lucky to have one girl working. And the pross ain’t making bread. They’re turning $200 a week when it’s good. No chance of them taking their act Lexington or even Eighth Avenue. They’re on 14th Street because the big pimps think the place is so funky they don’t even care to organize it. Creeps say 14th is one step from the glue factory. Shit, a few months ago the cops picked up a 53-year-old pross by the Contempora Apartments.

Pill-pushers are no better. Most of them started turning up on 14th Street back in the late ’60s after two doctors, Vincent Dole and Marie Nyswarder — the father and mother of methadone maintenance — shook up the dope-fiend world by setting up a clinic at the Morris J. Bernstein Institute of Beth Israel Hospital. Methadone was touted as a wonder drug. Everyone said it would be the end of the heroin problem in the city. Junkies from all over the city were sent over to Bernstein (on Second Avenue and 17th Street) and other nearby “model” clinics to drink little clear bottles and kick.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719465″ /]

Some kicked. But most just got a short course in how to manipulate the Medicaid programs politicians loved to pour money into. Drugs led to drugs. It was easy to take your little methadone card and Medicaid slip over to a “scrip” doctor who would be willing to write you an Rx for a 100 Valiums if you told him you were “anxious.” Otherwise, you could write your own scrip. The forms were usually lying around the program offices. Anyone who could write more than “X” could get a pharmacist to fill the scrips. What you didn’t use to get fucked up on, you could sell. Same thing with extra methadone.

14th Street and Third became the flea market. It was an Eco-101 example of supply and demand. The drug of choice among the dumbo suburban kids these days is downers. And that’s what the 14th Street pillboys sell. Throughout Long Island and Jersey blond-haired types driving their papas’ Le Sabres know 14th Street is the place to go. Any night a useless boogie band is playing the Palladium (what they call the Academy of Music now), you can see the most mediocre minds of the next generation go into the toilet.

Everyone knows it. Go over to the emergency room at one of the hospitals in the area, tell them you’re dying from a headache and want some Percodan. The intern there will be surprised and ask you, “Sure you don’t want Valium?” Insist on Percodan and the intern will tell you, “Take the Valium. If you don’t use them, sell them on 14th Street.” There’s no night (except for Sunday, when the Street is eerie and dead) when you can’t walk from Fourth Avenue to Second Avenue on 14th Street without at least half a dozen ball-cap-wearing spades and pinpoint-eyed junkies asking you if you want downers. Placidyls for $2.50; Valium, 75 cents; Tuinal, $3; Elavil, $2 on 14th Street (prices somewhat higher on weekends when the Paladium is working). You’d figure that would add up. Especially since Medicaid pays. No overhead. But these guys ain’t got no money. They’re too spaced out. That’s why they’re on 14th to begin with. They couldn’t get over selling smack on 123rd Street. They couldn’t even get over selling smack on Avenue B and 6th Street. They don’t got the concentration. No big “pusher wars” here. These guys couldn’t tell friend from enemy. They are in trouble if you ask them for more than three Valiums. They pour the pills out into their hands and start counting. And keep counting.

If you want to draw a map of the 14th-and-Third sleazopolis, give the pill-­pushers 14th Street between Second and Fourth. But they’re never, for some reason, on the north side of the street. Scoring spots include the doorway of the Larry Richardson Dance Company and the corner of Fourth Avenue. Most of the guys up there are in business for them­selves but there are also “steerers,” creeps who will tell Jersey kids to come around the corner to 13th Street. This is usually for “quantity” and sometimes for rip-off.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719458″ /]

The rest of the scene, working from the west and down, goes like this: Union Square Park is bonkers these days, the sight of curving benches packed with sali­va-streaked and leathery faces is truly impressive. The park isn’t a major retail center for the pill-pusher, but many will come over for a little rural R and R. After a tough day of Placidyl pushing, you can lose it back playing craps or three-card monte. There are also several “loose joints” guys who got off the wrong subway stop on the way down to Washington Square. Some smack here, too.

The pross take Third Avenue. Their spiritual home is near 14th Street, where there are two miserable excuses for peep­show joints as well as three porno theatres (that includes the Variety when it’s not showing devil movies). But the ‘toots will graze down to 5th Street. They are careful, however, not to mess with the turf of the pross operating out of the Delancy-Bowery area. The Regina Hotel on Third and 13th (a featured backdrop in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver) is no longer a big pross hole. The cops broke the manager’s balls so now he plays it cool. Most of the hotel tricking goes on at the Sahara, a little oasis on 14th. The Sahara has a sign saying LOW WEEKLY RATES even though most guests spend less than a half hour at the Sahara. Seven dollars is the room tariff. But this isn’t a hotel scene. It’s all $20 blow-jobs and wack-offs in the hallway down where the super keeps the trash cans. Or in the cars in one of the parking lots along Third Avenue. The West Indian guy who used to work there charged $2 for use of the cars. Hope they didn’t use yours.

The “he-shes” (also called “shims” or “he-haws”) hang near Second Avenue and 12th Street, and also congregate at Little Peters, a swish bar by St. Marks Place. This is one of the biggest t.v. scenes in the city. Of the 1400 pross arrests the cops made in the area during the past year or so, nearly half were men dressed up as women. Ask why he-shes are usually Puerto Rican and a “he-haw” says, “our people are so mean to us … besides, haven’t you ever heard that Latins were made to love?” The he-shes are much classier looking than the straight pross. Johns claim you can’t even tell until you get real close. And, even then … you can’t. But, then again, most of the johns who cruise 14th Street just don’t care.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724977″ /]

With this kind of scene in the streets it makes sense that many of the “legitimate” businesses that have stayed on East 14th Street during the downtimes fall into the seedy category in most Upper East Siders’ book. Up the stairs at the Gramercy Gym, where Cus D’amato trained Patterson and Jose Torres, the fighters don’t think too much about the sleazos below. Fighters figure they’re on the fringe of the law themselves. They don’t point fingers. They know Placidyls make it tough to run six miles in the morning, so they don’t play that shit and let it be.

At Jullian’s Billiards, one of the great film-noir light-over-the-faded-green-cloth­-Luther-Lassiter-played-here pool halls in New York, hardly anyone makes mention of the scene either. The old men who sit on the wood benches, watching the nine-ball games, don’t have time to think about creeps; this is a game of hard planning; ­you’ve got to know what’s coming five shots ahead. So just shoot pool. Who cares who pisses in the hallway?

Paula Klaw has her private thoughts. She’s been on East 14th Street for better than 30 years. She remembers when the cuchifrito stand was a Rikers. And when there were two Hungarian restaurants on this block. She is not, however, complain­ing. “Who am I to complain?” says Paula Klaw. Paula Klaw runs Movie Star News, a film-still and “nostalgia” store stuffed into the second floor of the building next to the Jefferson Theatre. It’s the best place to get photos of Clive Brook. But from the street its hard to tell if Paula Klaw is open. The window, which says, IRVING KLAW, THE PINUP KING is covered with soot. The window is left over from the days when Paula’s brother Irving ran the place. Those days the Klaws were more famous for bondage pictures than portraits of Gary Cooper. Paula and Irving Klaw were the bondage kings of New York. Together they took more than 4000 different pictures of ladies in satin bras and panties in the apartment above Movie Star News. Paula was in charge of posing the pictures. She tied ladies to chairs, hung them from clotheslines, gagged them on beds, and manacled them with leather. The pictures had titles like “Betty Comes to New York and Gets in a Bind.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”716114″ /]

“It was wonderful those days,” Paula says now, “we had politicians, judges, prime ministers coming here to buy our photos. They would park their limos right outside on 14th Street.” After a while, however, Irving got busted for sending the stuff through the mails. Lengthy court cases ensued. Fighting back a tear Paula says, “it was all that that killed Irving, I think. They said we sold porno. We did not sell porno.” Today Paula sells a book called The Irving Klaw Years 1948-1963 containing “more than 200 out-of-print bondage photos.” Paula calls it a “fitting remembrance to my brother.” Paula has white hair, blue makeup, and wears Capri pants, doesn’t have to come to 14th Street every day. She lives in Sheepshead Bay and “has plenty of money.” But she “just likes it … you know, this used to be quite a glamorous street.” She says she hasn’t washed the IRVING KLAW, PINUP KING window in 20 years. She does not intend to.

If Paula, Jullian’s, and the fighters add aged seed to the surroundings it’s the cynical “businessmen” who give 14th Street and Third Avenue its shiny veneer of plastic sleaze. Who could have been sur­prised when Burger King opened in the old Automat where the man who’s buried next to Lenin once ate club rolls? America’s Burger King knows its customers when it sees them. The burger boys probably have whole demographic departments to psyche out every sleaze scene in the galaxy. No doubt they felt they had to keep pace after McDonald’s sewed up 96th and Broadway. Then there are the donuts. There are at least five donut joints in the immediate area of 14th Street and Third Avenue. One even replaced Sam’s Pizza, a lowlife landmark for years. Donuts are definitely the carbo-junkie wave of the future. In fact, if some doctor would publish a weight-losing diet of Placidyls and donuts, airline stewardesses would make 14th Street another Club Med.

But, of course, the real merchants of 14th Street and Third Avenue are the sleazos. They control the economy. And why not? No one else wanted to sell stuff on East 14th Street. You have to figure that more Placidyls and pussy gets sold at 14th and Third than the pizza joint sells pizza or the cuchifrito place sells pork rinds. Or the boarded-up Jefferson Theatre sells tickets. No wonder the sleazos were pissed the other day. The Third Avenue Merchants Association was having a fair. They closed off the avenue. Ladies in print dresses sold pottery. Bug-eyed kids stood by tables of brownies. A nice day in the sun for the well adjusted. But the fair halted abruptly at 14th Street, even though Third Avenue continues downtown for several streets before it turns into the Bowery. The implication was clear, and the sleazos weren’t missing it. A whole slew of the local losers stood on “their” side of 14th Street, gaping at the fat-armed zeppoli men pulling dough and the little kids whizzing around in go-karts. One Valium pusher looked up at the sign hung across the avenue and read it aloud. “T … A … M … A … ,” he said. “What the fuck is a T.A.M.A.?”

The Third Avenue Merchants Association, he was informed. “Shit,” he said, looking very put out.

“Motherfucker, I’m a goddamned Third Avenue merchant.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”729359″ /]

“The Livingest Street”

So what if 14th Street is low? The soul of the city boy looks into his heart of hearts and says, 14th Street is okay by me. Does every block have to look like SoHo or one of those tree-lined numbers in Queens that Catholics say they’re ready to die for? This is New York, isn’t it? Chalk it up to local color. The other night I was helping my friend move. He had been living on 15th Street and Third Avenue in a high-rise, but the money got tight. So he took a place on 12th between Second and Third. As we were carrying an enormous filing cabinet into the lobby of his new building, he said, “Well, this place is dumpy, but at least I won’t have to pass the prostitutes every day on the way to work.” A couple of seconds later we heard a noise on the staircase. A ‘toot was slapping a solid on a guy who we swore had a turned-around collar. We almost dropped the cabinet, laughing. Funny. After all, where else but on East 14th Street can you hear a blasted Spanish downer freak abusing a little Polish guy, saying, “Que pasa? Que pasa? Que pasa?” To which the Polish guy says, questioning, “Kielbasa? Kielbasa?”

And it’s not as if the street is like the South Bronx, with parch marks around broken windows and savage skulls in the street. Considering the amount of petty law-breaking that goes on in this area, the incidence of violent crime is small. The drug pushers got some mouth on them but are pretty docile at five feet. They won’t steal your television set. Medicaid pays for their drugs . The pross, too, are a model of whore decorum. Reports of mug-teams and wallet lifting are minimal.

Of course, there are those who do not ascribe to this type of thinking. Like Carvel Moore. Explaining why sleaze is essential to the big-city experience to her is like explaining it to Clay Felker. Except that Carvel Moore takes it more personally. She is the “project coordinator” of Sweet 14, an organization dedicated to making 14th Street “The Livingest Street in Town.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”726827″ /]

They are a cleanup group. Ever since I saw the moral “uplifters” take the young couple’s baby in Intolerance and Mayor LaGuardia swing an axe into a pinball machine, I’ve been suspicious of “clean-up groups.” This group was no different. The list of names who attended their kickoff meeting at Luchow’s (the only good thing about Luchow’s is that the Nebraskans who eat there have to wade through degen­erates to sop up that Restaurant Associates’ teutonic swill) read like a who’s who among New York powermongers. Charlie (Black-out) Luce, David Yunich, Mayor Beame, Percy Sutton, representatives of Citibank, the phone company, and Helms­ley-Spear. They issued a joint statement saying 14th Street wasn’t dead, it could ”be turned around” and it was up to the businessmen and government to do it. Luce, the chairman of the group, offered $50,000 of Con Edison money each year for three years to this end. 

Suspicion smelled a set-up. The high-­rollers must be running scared. Con Ed and the phone company have their main offices on East 14th Street. Helmsley-Spear has major holdings in the area. Something had to be done about the sleazo effect on property values. Or maybe Luce just doesn’t like seeing creeps when he pulls up in his limo. Things got fishier when it was noticed that the Sweet 14 offices were on the eighth floor of the Con Ed building, right alongside the other “customer-service” rooms. 

Carvel Moore, a prim lady who once headed a local planning board, said it was “dead wrong” to assume that Sweet 14 was a front group for Charles Luce, the phone company, or anyone else. Sweet 14 was an independent organization looking out for “everyone’s interests on East 14th Street.” She said that Luce’s $50,000 was “just a small portion of the money” the group had to work with. Then she brought out a bunch of art-student line drawings showing me how “incredibly inefficient” the 14th Street-Union Square subway station is. It is one of Sweet 14’s major tasks to “help remodel the station,” said Ms. Moore, pointing out how the station’s “awkwardness” made it difficult for employees to get to work. The project will cost $800,000.

[related_posts post_id_1=”723108″ /]

She also was very high on “Sweet Sounds in Union Square Park,” a concert series sponsored by Sweet 14. Ms. Moore detailed how these musical events brought “working people on their lunch hour back into the park … and made the drunks and junkies feel uncomfortable.” Drunks and junkies always feel uncomfortable when “normal” people are around, Ms. Moore said.

The most important task of Sweet 14, however, continued Ms. Moore, was “to break up the vicious drug trade and prostitution on 14h Street near Third Avenue.” What kind of business, Ms. Moore wanted to know, would want to move to this area with things the way they are now? Sweet 14, said Ms. Moore, was now working closely with the cops to take “special action” on 14th Street. One of the main problems with local law enforcement, Ms. Moore said, is that the yellow line down 14th Street separates the jurisdictions of the Ninth and 13th Precincts. According to Ms. Moore some of the more nimble-footed degenerates in the area know this and escape cops who are loath to chase bad guys into another precinct. Sweet 14, however, has been “instrumental” in getting Captain Precioso of the Ninth Precinct to set up a “14th Street Task Force” to deal with this situation. The organization has also “been active” in monitoring the OTB office at the corner of Second Avenue and 14th Street. According to Ms. Moore, many people loiter in this office, making it a hangout for sleazos.

I wanted to tell Ms. Moore that I often make bets at the 14th Street OTB and then hang out there (admittedly not inhaling deeply), waiting to see how my nag ran. But I held it in. Instead, I wanted to know what, after Sweet 14 succeeded in making East 14th Street safe for businessmen, she suggested doing with the several thousand nether-creatures now populating the street? She indicated that was a “social problem” and not part of her job. All in all it was a somewhat depressing conversation. And I walked out feeling I would rather buy electricity from Beat Shit Green than a cleanup from Charles Luce.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725601″ /]

More troubling was a talk I had with George and Susan Leelike. They are the co-heads of “East 13th Street Concerned Citizens Committee.” The very name of the group brings up images of whistle-blowing at the sight of a black person and badgering tenants to get up money to plant a tree. But George and Susan Leelike are a little tough to high-hat. After all, they are from the block. They’ve lived on East 13th Street for 15 years. Raised a son there. And they came for cool reasons: Back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the East Village was hip. Charlie Mingus and Slugs made it hip. The Leelikes related to that.

So, when these people tell you they don’t think a pross and a priest in a hallway is funny, you’ve got to take them seriously. They do have a compelling case. George explains it all: He says the Lower East Side gets reamed because the neighborhood’s major industry is “service.” Any time a neighborhood is poor, “service” becomes a major industry. The Lower East Side is both poor and liberal. So, says George Leelike, it has a higher percentage of social work agencies than any other neighborhood in the city. He questions the validity of some of these projects, pointing out that one place, Project Contact, started in the ’60s as a teenage runaway home, then went to alcohol treatment, then to drug rehab, and now is back to runaways. This is “grant-chasing,” says Leelike. For the social workers to keep their jobs, the projects have to stay open. To stay open, they have to get grants. To get grants, they have to show they understand the “current” problems of the community and attract “clients.” George Leelike says there are more “clients” on the Lower East Side than any other place in the world.

“Clients,” the Leelikes say, are not the most stable neighbors. The worst are the methadone junkies. Beth Israel, says Leelike, has made “millions” from its methadone-maintenance programs that bring thousands of “clients” to the Lower East Side. So have the individual private doctors who run their own methadone clinics in the neighborhood. The Leelikes were a major force in a community drive that shut down one Dr. Triebel’s clinic on Second Avenue and 13th Street. Triebel pulled in more than $700,000 in one year, much of it in Medicaid payments.

This kind of activity brought still more sleazos to the neighborhood, the Leelikes said. They pulled out Xeroxed arrest reports from the Ninth and 13th precincts, showing that the majority of the pillpushers pinched on 14th Street said they were on some kind of methadone program. They said it was a vicious cycle, that many of the people on methadone had no desire or intention of kicking. Most of the local meth freaks were here on “force” programs. The city told them, sign up with a methadone clinic or no welfare.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717703″ /]

These were frightening charges, not just because they were indisputably well-thought-out and apparently true. But because they went to the very core of the two most important issues in the city — race and class. Talking to George Leelike, you had to admire his rational approach to subjects that usually inspire mad, inflammatory outbursts. You also got a closer look at why Ed Koch will be the next mayor of New York City. After all, didn’t he run an indisputably well-thought-out, apparently true, eminently rational campaign that appealed to the get-the-creeps-out-of-my-neighborhood constituency? Didn’t he win by taking the side of the harried, postliberal middle class against the nether class?

It was chilling and inescapable. Tolerance levels have gone down. The Leelikes said the thing they hated most about the sleazos was that they’re so snotty. In the old days, when Susan Leelike went to Cooper Union, junkies hung out in the Sagamore Cafeteria, near Astor Place. Dope fiends those days knew they were outcasts and acted accordingly. The Leelikes remembered these Burroughsian types with a touch of romanticism. Now, they said, methadone makes being a junkie legal. And the creeps have come out into the daylight, where it quickly becomes apparent that junkies aren’t the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.

This hit home. A few weeks ago I was walking by Cooper Square. A guy in his mid-twenties was stretched out on the ground, twitching. He didn’t look like a lowlife; he had French jeans on. A small crowd gathered around him. A cabbie stopped and put on his emergency blinker. The guy seemed to be having a seizure. Maybe he’s an epileptic, said the cabby, pull his tongue out of his mouth. Two people went for the cops, another to call an ambulance. Finally an older man rolled up the guy’s sleeve. The dude’s arm looked like a Penn Central yard. The older guy threw the arm back on the sidewalk in disgust. “He’s just a fucking junkie,” the cabby said. “A fucking junkie.” Half the people in crowd said, “Shit … ” And everyone just split. Me, too. I split. When the guy’s an epileptic he’s human; when he’s a junkie, fuck him. I remembered how, 10 years ago, we used to guide Hell’s Angels through bad trips even though we knew they would probably run us over if they were straight. Somehow figured it was our duty. This guy wasn’t any of my business.

So I knew the Leelikes had the trend on their side. Also, it was clear — they are determined. They are willing to run the risk of being called redneck — Susan Leelike says, “I hate it when they call me the white lady” — to get rid of sleazos. And they don’t flinch when you ask them where they propose the sleazos go. “It’s just not our problem,” they say.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719763″ /]

The Arrest of Ernest James

Patrolmen Bob Woerner and Dennis Harrington are in an empty office above Glancy’s Bar on East 14th Street and Irving Place, hiding. Harrington and Woerner have been partners for six years. They used to work the smack detail on Avenues A, B, C, and D (called avenues X, Y, and Z in cop parlance). But pressure from Sweet 14 and local politicians on the department to “do something” about 14th Street brought them here 11 months ago. Since then Woerner and Harrington, tough and smart cops, have been the most effective (in terms of arrests) of the twenty men on the Ninth Precinct’s “14th Street Task Force.”

Sometimes Woerner and Harrington walk down 14th Street and ask buzz-brained cats, “Hey, man. What you doing?” It’s a torture technique; they know that the toughest question in the world for a sleazo is “What are you doing?” Creeps’ knees buckle under the weight of that one; they say, “I dunno, what am I doing?” But what Woerner and Harrington really like to do is make busts. Which is why they are hiding in the empty room above Glancy’s Bar with their binoculars trained on the action beneath the Palladium marquee.

Making busts on 14th Street isn’t tough. Sometimes guys will be so loaded they come right up and say, “Placidyl … Placidyl … oh, shee-it” before they realize they’re talking to the Man. It is tricky, however. First of all, the captain doesn’t like cops to make too many arrests. He says busts take police off the street and put them in court. But cops say the department doesn’t give enough of a shit about what’s in the street to pay overtime. Primarily though, when you’re making “observation” busts on 14th Street, you’ve got to see them good. Most of the sellers get their stuff from scrip doctors, which means their own name is on the bottle. It is not a crime to carry “controlled substances” — if the (not-forged) scrip is made out to you. Selling the stuff, however, is illegal. So, instead of just grabbing a single party, like a smack bust, cops have to get both the buyer and the seller as well as recover the shit cold. They also have to see the deal go down perfectly — that is, if they’re not into fudging evidence in court. Woerner and Harrington say, why fudge, on 14th Street if you miss one sale, they’ll soon be another. But still, it hurts when you’ve been freezing behind the Con Edison fence at 14th and Third, waiting for just the right view. And then, right at the big moment, a bus goes by.

[related_posts post_id_1=”729090″ /]

Tonight, however, it ain’t gonna be no prob-lem. Foghat, some mindless boogie band, is playing the Palladium and a dozen suburban kids are milling around in front of the theater, looking to get stupid. Woerner and Harrington are licking their lips. All they need is a seller. And from down the street, trudging slowly up from Third Avenue by the poolroom, here he comes. In unison the cops shout, ALL RIGHT, ERNEST JAMES … COME ON, ERNEST JAMES. Ernest James, a gangly guy with a face and beard like Sonny Rollins, came on. He walked into a crowd of leather-jacketed white kids. Got into a conversation with one. Took him off to the doorway of the fight gym. Then it couldn’t have been clearer if Otto Preminger were directing. Out came the bottle. There went the pill. Across came the three dollars. And down the stairs went Woerner and Harrington.

Like nothing, Harrington was reading Ernest James his rights. Woerner had the buyer, a blonde boy from Pelham Bay, up against the wall. Ernest James, the perfect degenerate, pulled out a slew of false I.D.s, a Kool cigarette, and looked impassively at the sky. Against the wall another kid was screaming to the buyer, “Jeff, Jeff … give me your ticket for the show.”

Ernest James was in big trouble. He had a goddamned drugstore on him. Ten bottles of pills in all: 26 big white tabs thought to be Quaaludes, 21 Tuinals, 15 Seconals, 40 unknown peach-colored pills, 34 unknown white pills, 23 ampicillins, 29 unknown yellow pills, and several dozen Placidyls. Most of the bottles were made out to Ernest James. Some to Ernest Jones. Some to A. Ramos. One was just to “Ernest,” which prompted Woerner to wonder if Ernest James was on a first-name basis with his pharmacist. Also found were two Garcia y Vega humidors full of 5- and 10-mg. Valium. Neither one of those was made out to anyone. Almost all the scrips were supposedly written by one Doctor Jacob Handler of West 103rd Street. Doctor Handler is a 14th-Street favorite. Harrington keeps a little scorecard of doctors’ names that appear on bottles. Doctor Handler is way up near the top of the list. But the cops say nothing will happen to him because “it’s tough to bust a doctor.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”721103″ /]

In Dr. Handler’s defense, it was thought that Ernest James forged some of the scripts. After all, Ernest has half-a-dozen different medical identification cards. Some are made to the name William Summersall, others to A. Ramos and Ernest Jones. He also had a little notebook in which he has apparently been practicing different signatures. Most are Ernest Jones. But there is also a page on which “Texas Slim” is written a dozen times.

Under the 15-watt glare in the Ninth’s arrest room, Harrington books Ernest James. This is nothing new — Harrington has arrested Ernest James before. In fact, Ernest has six busts for pills this year already. Too bad, figures Dennis Harrington: Ernest James is not a bad guy. In fact, Dennis thinks, most of the guys he busts aren’t real bad. Just a bunch of losers. Ernest James had $84 on him, but that had to be his life savings. Most guys have about $30. “Sometimes it is that ‘there but for fortune thing,” says Dennis, who is haunted by the memory of his brother, who was “into junk.” He also thinks about that same picture they always show of Karen Quinlan. Dennis wonders if she got her downs on 14th Street.

Asked where he got all the pills, Ernest James is cool. “I’m qualified to have as many pills as I want,” he says. Asked about all the different IDs, Ernest says, “I’m qualified to have as many names as I want.”

While the cops count up the rest of Ernest’s stash, I ask him if he thinks the businessmen and cops can clean up 14th Street. He says, “I dunno ’bout no cleanup. All I know is I wanna get to St. Louis. I can do security over there. I can’t sell these pills no more. But if I don’t, I got bread and water. My philosophy is that if the city put the clean in the street, they put the dirt in the street, too. Goes both ways. There is one thing that’s sure. Ain’t no way to clean up this. Cops come fuck up with 14th Street, people just gonna go somewheres else. If they want to get rid of the dirt, they gonna have to shoot those motherfuckers. Line up those motherfuckers and kill them. All of them. Dead.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”721023″ /]

‘Junkies Out of the Park’

Woe is Ernest James. He got caught in the cleanup. Usually Ernest winds up with one of those mumbo-jumbo raps like Time-Served or Adjournment Contemplating Dismissal. In other words, he gets off. Not bad, considering pill-pushing is a class-D felony worth up to seven years. This time, however, Ernest James is taking the fall. The D.A is making an example of him. A special grand jury on soft drugs is indicting him. Instead of the usual weekend at Rikers, they’re offering Ernest a year. And that’s if he pleads.

Tough shit, Ernest James. Add insult to injury: When Ernest got picked up on September 30, he claimed it was his birthday. No one believed him. But it was true. Happy birthday, Ernest James.

Another thing Ernest James was right about: If you move a sleazo, he’ll just go somewhere else. You got to kill the motherfuckers … dead. Down in Chinatown, they say that’s what Mao did with the opium addicts. Hopheads can’t drive tractors, so Mao’s guys just put them up against the wall and blew their brains out. Bet there ain’t no sleazy corners in Shanghai.

For a society stuck with half a million sleazoids (conservative metropolitan-area estimate) this could be an eminently modest proposal. Discussing this alternative with liberal city councilman Henry Stern, he says, “Of course, I’m not in favor of killing these people.” But Stern admits that he can’t figure out what to do with them. “It’s a dilemma,” he says, “maybe it’s one of the biggest dilemmas in the city today.” Miriam Friedlander, another liberal councilperson who has been working closely with Sweet 14, also does not favor wholesale annihilation. She takes a more conventional tack, saying. “It’s my primary function to break up that situation and get them out of the neighborhood.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”719427″ /]

In place of execution, the pols offer “redevelopment.” “Redevelopment” is a coming concept in the city-planning business. A modification of the pave-it-all-over-and-start-from-scratch school of urban studies, “redevelopment” essentially means taking over “depressed” areas and transforming them into middle­-class shopping and residential areas. The best-known example of “redevelopment” is on 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. A civic group came into possession of several “tax-arrears” buildings and redid them into boutiques. Henry Stern, Miriam Friedlander, Koch, and the rest feel that “redevelopment” is at least worth trying on 14th Street and Third Avenue. And with economic biggies like Charlie Luce, Helmsley-Spear, Citibank, and Restaurant Associates around, you know the job will get done right. Oh, boy, will it.

Of course, “redevelopment” stops short of final solutions. So Ernest James’s philosophy holds up. Due to the hard-nose police work by the “14th Street Task Force,” the sleazos have begun a minor migration. Routed from parts of 14th Street, they camped in Stuyvesant Park on Second Avenue and 15th Street. According to the locals, who say they pay extra rent to live near the park, the situation is becoming disgusting. Methadone addicts are leaving their bottles all over the place. Pill-pushers are dealing. The other day two of the he-shes got into a little mutual around ­the world.

The neighborhood forces rallied, led by one Jeanne Pryor, a right-minded lady who loves a firm grip on the bullhorn (who last week opened a cleanup storefront at 14th and Third). They decided that the 13th Precinct was not providing adequate protection from the sleazos. They demanded police guards in the park.

One night last month a protest march was organized. About 150 people showed up to carry signs saying things like OUR CHILDREN ONCE PLAYED FRISBEE IN THIS PARK. Others carried shopping bags full of empty scrip bottles they said were collected in the park. These were a present for Capt. Joseph Neylan of the 13th, who, Ms. Pryor kept shouting, “has been out to lunch for the past six months.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”563435″ /]

The march, accompanied by a man in a kilt playing a bagpipe, began at 15th Street and headed up Third Avenue toward the precinct house on 21st Street. Ms. Pryor had planted stories in the Daily News, so the local television stations sent out crews to cover. Arc lights flooded the streets as Ms. Pryor led the chant of “JUNKIES OUT OF THE PARK.”

As the march reached 17th Street, it started to get interesting. A messed-up black guy bounded in front of the marchers and held up his hands like he was stopping a runaway team of horses. “Stop!” he said, the TV lights glaring in his buzzed eyes. Stunned, Ms. Pryor halted in her tracks. The whole march bumped to a stop. There was a silence. Then the guy started chanting, “JUNKIES OUT OF THE PARK. JUNKIES OUT OF THE PARK.” The marchers stepped back. The guy kept screaming, “JUNKIES OUT OF THE PARK.” Then he stopped and looked the bagpipe player right in the eye and said, “I’m a fucking junkie … I’m a fucking junkie … I’m a fucking junkie … Get me out of the park … GET ME OUT OF THE PARK … GET ME OUT OF THE PARK … “

The mock has turned to a plea.

It was then that Jeanne Pryor should have acted. She should have taken out a 12-gauge shotgun and blown the creep’s head off. 


Legs McNeil: Teenage Hipster in the Modern World

Cool in an Uncool World

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”721116″ /]

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”725655″ /]


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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”725466″ /]

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”724039″ /]

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”716296″ /]

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”715299” /]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”718856″ /]

Legs McNeil and the Obsolescence of the White Negro Theory

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”725695″ /]

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”718882″ /]

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”727406″ /]

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”725147″ /]

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”716127″ /]

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”720494″ /]

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”713453″ /]

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”718730″ /]

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”717919″ /]

Orgasm, Where Is the Orgasm?

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”725345″ /]

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”718291″ /]

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”719427″ /]

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”595776″ /]

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”719631″ /]

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”723842″ /]

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

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


Tongs Strike Back in Chinatown

Nicky Louie’s Mean Streets

A pockmark-faced guy who sometimes spends 10 hours a day laying bowls of congee in front of customers at a Mott Street rice shop remembers the day the White Eagles, the original Chinatown youth gang, ripped off their first cha shu baos (pork buns). “It was maybe 10 years ago. We were hanging out in Columbus Park, you know, by the courthouse, feeling real stupid. Most of us just got to Chinatown. We couldn’t speak English worth a shit. The juk sing [American-born Chinese] were playing basket­ball, but they wouldn’t let us play. We didn’t know how to anyway. I remember one of our guys said, ‘Shit, in Hong Kong my old man was a civil servant — he made some bread. Then he listened to my goddamned uncle and came over here. Now he’s working as a waiter all day. The guy’s got TB, I know. And I ain’t got enough money for a goddamned cha shu baos.’ ”

Even then the juk tuk (Hong Kong–born Chinese) were sharp to the short end of the stick; they looked around the Toy Shan ghetto and sized up the possibilities for a 16-year-old immigrant. The chances had a familiar ring­ — what the tourists call “a Chinaman’s chance,” which, of course, is no chance at all.

So the eight or nine kids who would become the nucleus of the White Eagles walked up the narrow street past the Italian funeral and into the pastry shop, where they stole dozens of cha shu baas, which they ate — and got so sick they threw up all over the sidewalk.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721103″ /]

Within the next week the Eagles got hold of their first pieces — a pair of automatics — and began to terrorize Toy Shan. They beat the daylights out of the snooty juk sing. They ripped off restaurants. They got tough with the old men’s gambling houses.

It was logical rebellion: In Hong Kong they were city slickers; here the farmer “overseas Chinese” had them penciled in for the laundries and restaurants. There might be moments of revenge, like lacing a lo fan’s sweet-and­-sour with enormous hunks of ginger to watch his white lips pucker. But you knew you’d wind up frustrated, throwing quarters into the “Dancing Chicken” machine at the Chinatown Arcade. You’d watch that stupid chicken come out of its feeder to dance on a record for a couple of minutes, and you’d know you were watching yourself.

Better to be a gangster, and easier. In Hong Kong, you try anything shifty and the cops bust up your ass. They would search an entire block, throwing pregnant women down the hillsteps if they got in the way, just to find a guy they suspected of boosting a pocketbook from the lobby of the Hyatt Regency. Here the cops were all roundeyes­ — they don’t know or care about Chinese. Besides, the old guys kept them paid off. Corruption was the way and extortion was the perfect crime, since the merchants believed money sends away evil.

The fringe benefits included street-status, fast cars to cruise uptown and watch the lo-fan freaks, days to work on your “tans” at Coney listening to Brit rock and new Hong Kong–Filipino platters, plenty of time to go bowling, and the pick of the girls — in general, the old equation of living quick, dying young, and leaving a beautiful corpse.

The Kids Get Cool

It took the Toy Shans a while to comprehend what was happening in their village. Kids had been an unknown quantity in Chinatown. Until the immigration laws eased up in the ’40s, there simply weren’t any. In a show of solidarity with our great Eastern ally, the U.S. agreed to allow Chinese women to immigrate here. At first the lo fa kews were pleased: These were nice kids, respectful kids, hard-working ones worth burning your fingers in the laundry for.

Soon there were flashy ones, too. In 1965, several juk sing “clubs” began to appear. Foremost was the Continentals, a hip bunch who were trying desperately to escape the traditional Chinese stereotype. They spent a good deal of time looking in the mirror, practicing complex handshakes and running around ripping the insignias off Lincoln Continentals. They even talked back to their parents and got acne from eating pizza on Mulberry Street, but no way they were going to carry guns and steal. These Hong Kong ghetto kids, however, had no propriety.

In the beginning the family associations did their best. They marshaled the new kids into New Year’s dragon dancing. For the older, more sullen ones, they established martial-arts clubs. But these kids didn’t seem interested in discipline; besides, they smoked too many cigarettes. That’s when the tongs intervened. Within weeks of the first extortion report, several White Eagles and representatives of the On Leong tong were sitting in a Mott Street restaurant talking it over. When they were done a pact was sealed that would establish the youth gang as a permanent fixture of “New Chinatown.”

It was agreed that the Eagles would stop random mayhem around the community and begin to work for On Leong. They would “guard” the tong-sponsored gambling houses and make sure no other bad guys ripped off restaurants which paid regular “dues.” In return, the Eagles’ leaders would receive a kind of salary, the right to hang around gambling houses to pick up “tips” from big bettors who thought the kids’ presence brought them luck, free meals in various noodle houses, and no-rent apartments in the Chinatown area.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721095″ /]

It seemed a brilliant arrangement: it got the Eagles jobs that furthered the status quo as well as keeping them out of everyone’s hair. But for the tongs, it was more. The On Leongs and Hip Sings no longer struck fear in the heart of Chinatown. Paunchy middle-aged businessmen, they spent most of their time competing for black-mushroom con­tracts. Tong warriors like Sing Dock were just misty reminiscences for bent-over guys playing away their last dollar at fan-tan. The Eagles brought them muscle they felt they would need in changing times. And the kids fulfilled vicariously a longing for the past. This was like having your own private army again, just like the good old days.

But the tongs weren’t used to this kind of warrior. The kids mounted a six-foot-tall statue of a white eagle on top of their tenement at Mott and Pell. Ten of them piled into a taxicab and went uptown to see Superfly; afterward they shot up Pell Street with tiny .22s just for the sheer exhilaration of it. They went into tailor shops, scowled, and came away with $200 suits. Once Paul Ma — Eagle supreme commander — showed up for an arraignment wearing a silk shirt open down the front so everyone could see his bullet holes.

During eight or so years on top in Chinatown, the Eagles set the style for the Chinese youth gang. Part was savagery. Eagle recruiting practices were brutal — coer­cion was often used to replenish their street army. They kidnapped merchants’ daughters and held them for ransom. They also set the example of using expensive and high-powered guns. No Saturday-night specials in China­town. The gangs use Mausers, Lugars, and an occasional M-14. One cop says, “You know, I’ve been on the force for 22 years, and I never saw nothing that gave me nightmares like watching a 15-year-old kid run down Bayard Street carrying a Thompson submachine gun.”

But there was another side to this. A new style was emerging in Chinatown. Chinese kids have had a tough time of it in schools like Seward Park. Blacks and Puerto Ricans, as well as meanies from Little Italy would vamp Chinese students for sport. Groups like the Cons and Eagles were intent on changing this. It was a question of cool. In the beginning they copied the swagger and lingo of the blacks — it is remarkable how closely a Chinese teenager can imitate black speech. From the Puerto Ricans they borrowed souped-up car styling, as well as the nonfashion of wearing army fatigues, which they added to their already zooty Hong Kong–cut shirts.

[related_posts post_id_1=”418976″ /]

But it was Bruce Lee, the Hong Kong sex-symbol kung-fu star who did the most for the Chinese street presence. In the early days of Lee’s fame, Chinese youngsters were baffled by the black and Puerto Rican kids sitting in the first rows at the Pagoda and Sun Sing theatres to watch the martial-arts epics. Later, when kung fu became a ghetto craze, the Chinese kids began to capitalize. They ran around Chinatown carrying nunchakas — kung-fu fighting sticks — which few of them knew how to use, and postured like deadly white cranes. When “Kung-Fu Fighting” became a number-one hit on WWRL, being Chinese was in. They became people not to mess with (although the police report there has never been a gang incident in which martial arts were used). “It was like magic,” says one ex-Con. “I used to walk by the Smith projects where the blacks live, and those brothers would throw dirty diapers out the window at me. Now they call me Mr.”

The image of the Chinese schoolgirl was changing too. Overnight they entered the style show on the subway. A lot of the fashion — air-blown hairstyles, mucho makeup, and tiny “Apple jacket” tops — came from the Puerto Ricans. Classy tweezed Oriental eyebrows produced a new “dragon lady” look.

Openly sexual, some of the Hong Kong girls formed auxiliary groups. Streaking their hair blonde or red to show that their boyfriends were gangsters, they were “ol’ ladies” expected to dab their men’s wounds with elixirs swiped from Chinese apothecaries. It was something to brag about — which not many Chinese women get to do. There are stories of them carrying pieces and doing sentry-work during extortions. Once a group of girls stole a car, which they used to spirit their boyfriends out of a tough spot. But who can blame them? More than half Chinatown’s women work in the 300-odd garment factories in the area, buzzing through the polyester 12 hours a day, trying to crack $100 a week. Hanging with the bad kids risked an occasional gang bang, but it was a better risk than dying in a sweat shop.

Ghost Shadows on Mott Street

The Chinese underworld couldn’t be concerned with this kid stuff; they play a bigger game. The Chinatown heroin connection dates back to the 1949 expulsion of the Nationalist government from the mainland. It’s no secret that many of the Kuomintang generals — including, almost certainly, Chiang Kai-shek — were hooked up with the notorious “Green Gang,” part of an ancient smuggling ring with access to potent poppy patches in “The Golden Triangle” (a well-fertilized area covering parts of Burma, Thailand, and Laos).

When Mao marched on Nanking many of these pusher­-politicians turned tail for New York, where they eased into the On Leong power structure. At first there were problems: The Chinese could move the stuff through the Commonwealth Circuit — Hong Kong to London to Toronto — but they had no street distribution network here. It was then, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (which spends a good deal of time keeping tabs on Chinatown dope trade), that the On Leong people went across Canal Street to deal with Italian organized crime. Soon after that, several On Leong elders became very rich and a new adage was added to Mafia parlance: “if you want the stuff, get yourself a good gook.”

The connection — which is believed to be kept running by a manager of an On Leong restaurant who is also believed to be the only Chinese ever admitted to the Carlo Gambino crime family — works well. While most of the country is flooded with Mexican smack, in New York the percentage of Golden Triangle poppy runs high. The dope money is the lucrative tip of Chinatown’s pyramid crime structure. The take and extortion kickbacks of many gambling houses provide seed money for the dope trade.

With the gang kids around, business could get even better. DEA people say the gangs are used as runners to pick up dope in the Chinese community in Toronto and then body-carry it across the border. But they may play a greater role. Chinese dope hustlers have always felt on uneasy ground when dealing with flashy uptown pushers. Now, however, street sources say the gutter-wise gangs are dealing directly with black and Puerto Rican dealers.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717703″ /]

But using junk is frowned on in Chinatown. It probably has something to do with the senior citizen home on East Broadway. Eighty-year-old Chinese men and women who still suffer from the effects of long-ago opium addiction live out their lives on methadone over there. They’re probably the oldest addicts in America. The specter of the opium days is still horrifying down here, where landlords con­tinue to find lamps and pipes in attics. These days kids know it too; one Shadow — who was packing a .32 — said, “I look at those people and see a skull, know what I mean?”

That’s why the sight of 14-year-old Eagles nodding on Mott Street during the smack influx of the early ’70s was so galling to the old men. It was a final indiscretion, a final lack of discipline. Actually, the Eagles had been tempting fate for some time. They insulted tong elders in public. They extorted from restaurants they were supposed to be protecting. They mugged big winners outside of the gambling houses. It was playing havoc with the tong’s business as usual. Often the old men threatened to bring in sharpshooting hitmen from Taiwan to calm the kids down.

So in 1974, when Quat Kay Kee, an aging street hustler looking for a handle in the tong hierarchy, told the On Leong of a new and remarkable gang leader, the old men were ready to listen. Nicky Louie and his Ghost Shadows would be more dependable, but no less dangerous. To show their style, Nicky and his top gun, Philip Han (known as Halfbreed), supposedly put on masks and pulled off a ballsy submachine-gun holdup at the Eagle-guarded gambling house in the local VFW post.

Soon after, in another gambling house, a drunken Eagle poured a water glass of tea down the brocade jacket of an On Leong elder. The word came down: The tong had formally withdrawn its support of the Eagles; the Shadows could make their move. A few nights later, the 4 a.m. quiet on Mott Street was broken by Shadows honking the horns of their hopped-up cars. They rode around the block, screeching their tires. The Eagles tumbled out of bed clutching their pieces. The shooting woke up half the neighborhood. Amazingly, no one was injured. But the change had come. The Eagles fled to Brooklyn. And Nicky Louie was pacing back and forth on Mott Street.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721001″ /]

Gangs and Tongs Together 

This struggle proved that the tongs needed the gangs if they were to retain control in a changing Chinatown. The gangs, too, had learned a lesson. Survival is more important than cool. The gangs now knew it was the old guys who made the illegal bread possible through their well-developed connections. Find a Shadow at the corner of Mott and Canal and ask him what the tongs mean to him. He’ll point at the On Leong pagoda and say, “A bankbook, man,” and then point to the Chemical Bank.

So it comes as no surprise that, aside from the sorties against rival gangs, Nicky’s Shadows have been model tenants during their stay on Mott Street. The perfect rebels have ended up as defenders of the status quo. Reformers are fearful of visits from gun-wielding gang members; one lawyer who spoke out against the Chinatown establishment woke up the next morning to find Mott Street plastered with wall posters telling him to get out of town. Threat of gang extortion is also responsible for pushing newer unaligned Hong Kong businesses into tong affiliation.

One hundred years of neglect has atrophied the links to the lo fan power. Years ago, according to just about everyone, the cops and tongs had a neat nonaggression pact well oiled with palm grease. The petty vice at the gambling houses and the occasional opium ODs were unreported and unnoticed except for the obligatory elec­tion-year raids publicized by tabloid “exposes” of “myste­rious” Chinatown life. Back then there was only one Chinese cop, the fabulous Johnny Kai. Kai walked a thin line between American and Chinese law and did a good job for both. Today, however, with Chinese making up the majority of the Fifth’s constituency and youth crime skyrocketing, there is still only one Chinese cop on the beat, Barry Eng, who once said with a straight face, “The associations disowned the youth gangs a long time ago.”

Estrangement from the community they supposedly protect has led to cynicism in the police department. The existence of large sums of illegal money always brings up the possibility of top payoffs. It’s a tough rap to beat — espe­cially in Chinatown — and the Fifth Precinct cops widely resented former special prosecutor Maurice Nadjari’s two-year-long probe of corruption down here.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719876″ /]

Not that the cops say there aren’t payoffs. One On Leong insider says, “Those guys are crooks. I was pit boss at a gambling house and gave $200 a week to the same sergeant for two years.” It’s just that the street-level police say they’re not seeing any of the money. They figure the Chinatown vice organizations are sophisticated enough to bestow their favors on higher-ups.

Fifth Precinct cops are not allowed to make gambling arrests unless they actually see money on the table. But since the chance of a lo fan getting into a Chinese gambling house unnoticed is akin to a snowcone in hell, they might as well not bother. Instead they are instructed to send intelligence reports to the public morals division uptown. Most cops, however, feel this is a thankless task. “For the most part it’s file it and forget if with those guys.” says one. “When you do raid the houses, it’s almost like they’ve been tipped. By the time you get through all the trick doors, there’s no one there but a couple of 100-year-old men smoking cigarettes.”

Nicky’s Peace

Last summer it all began to hit Nicky Louie — all the night riding and blood, and knowing any minute he could be splattered across a wall. One Saturday afternoon on Mott Street he saw an old enemy Eagle gesturing in his direction from across the street. It was a finger. Nicky was being fingered. He stood like a freeze frame, looking at the two strangers drawing down on him. One had a Mauser, the other a Colt .38. The first gunshot whistled by his ear and broke him out of his trance. He ran down Mott, pushing aside the tourists and the old ladies, turning down Canal until he was safe, panting against a wall.

That afternoon haunted Nicky. Battling Paul Ma made sense. But these unknown hitmen had no reason to shoot except money.

It was scary; things seemed to be getting out of control. Eagle Yut Wai Tom had been convicted — the first gang kid to be sent up for murder. Word was around that Tom, who’d been saying that getting 20 years wasn’t nothing, had cracked on Riker’s Island. The cops were doing a suicide watch next to his cell. Quat Kay Kee, Nicky’s old sponsor at On Leong, had been flipping out, too. Shot at in the Wiseman Bar on Bayard Street by a group of Eagles wearing wigs, Quat railed that he’d tell all. He managed to compose himself just before the drug cops got there with their tape recorders.

Being a warlord was a tough gig. To keep up their street army, the Shadows had been forced to recruit younger and younger kids. But what exactly do you say to a 14-year-old when you’re a 22-year-old legend? The young Shadows were griping about their wages, saying that they were getting spit waiter pay for long nights in the gambling houses while Nicky and Halfbreed were cruising around on the island in their cars. In the early part of the year some of the kids had broken a way from Nicky to ally themselves with the scuzzy Wah Chings. For a couple of nights in January, they had actually succeeded in pushing Nicky off the Street. It took all of his negotiating prowess to fix things again.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721906″ /]

For months he’d let it be known that he was tired of being a youth-gang leader, but the tong gave little indication that they’d allow him to move up in the organization. And quitting was out of the question. First of all, he knew too much and had far too many enemies. It wouldn’t be enough to leave Chinatown, or even New York City. Anyplace there was On Leong — like Toronto or Chicago — or Hip Sing, which is just about everywhere, he’d be known and fair game. Anyway, if he did get out, what was waiting? He knew lots of ex-gang guys who’d “retired” and now broke their humps for their families in the old restaurant grind.

Ironically, it was the old men who provided Nicky and the other gang kids with an escape from street fighting. Despite Chinatown’s traditional reluctance to look for outside help, poverty money is beginning to find its way down here. Funding scams may not be as venerable as gambling houses, but for a modern world, there must be modern hustles. So the tongs figured the angles. People had been telling them about a Harlem incident in which the hak guey youth gangs have given up their arms. The federal government had laid a sizable chunk of cash on groups promising to reform the kids. The old men saw an opening; if they could get the gangs to call “peace,” they could get the uptight merchants off their backs as well as pick up a large grant. There would be a cut of the pie for the gang kids, too. The plan was laid out to Nicky. He liked it and promised to set it up. He contacted Eagle Paul Ma and Dragon Mike Chen — who hated each other more than they both hated Nicky — and got them to say “cool.”

Next step was to make it respectable. So the gangs contacted one of Chinatown’s “name” social workers and told him they wanted to give up their evil ways. The worker, eager to be known as the man who stopped Chinatown gang warfare, went for it. Everything was set.

But somewhere along the line, Nicky began to forget it was all a scam. Suddenly, he liked the idea of “reforming,” learning English for real and getting a decent job. And he wasn’t the only one. Around lo tow, guys were still packing rods, but they also were talking about what they’d do when they went “legit.”

The first “peace” meeting was at the Kuo Wah restaurant on Mott Street. Kids embraced each other, saying it was crazy for Chinese guys to kill other Chinese guys. Nicky sat down with Paul Ma. They’d been trying to wipe each other out for years; but now they spent hours reminiscing about their favorite extortion spots on Mott Street.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718606″ /]

The old men were flabbergasted. What a double-cross! If these kids were on the level, then the whole vice structure could go down the tubes. Then again the gangs could be pulling a power play to cut Chinatown up for themselves. Either was disaster. And after that the tongs did everything they could to sabotage the peace. They spread mistrust among the merchants; they tried to bribe front the gang leaders. The kids had to stay one jump in front their bossmen. They changed the restaurant where they were meeting, which was just as well because the place was raided while the gangs met around the corner. Pissed to find the Kuo Wah deserted, the police said, “We were tipped that there were plenty of guns going to be there.”

The old men unsuccessfully tried to cancel the press conference formally announcing the “peace.” But, on August 12, Nicky and the other gang leaders read their joint statement. They didn’t expect to be forgiven, but then again they weren’t apologizing. They had become wiser; being a gangster wasn’t so great. Other kids shouldn’t get into it. It was moving; several of the old family association leaders wept. Even Nicky looked a little misty.

But time had run out on Nicky’s peace: the old Toy Shan forces of secrecy and mistrust were working overtime. The merchants had been soured by the tongs. They never believed the gangs were sincere and offered no support. The social service agencies, more interested in competing with one another than focusing on the kids’ cry for help, failed to come up with concrete programs. The cops didn’t help either. Figuring they were being good guys, they offered a 10-day amnesty period for the gang kids to turn in their guns. The gang smelled a lo fan rat. “I’m gonna turn in my gun so they can do ballistic and fingerprint check on it? No way,” said one. No weapons were turned in.

Some would say Nicky was a victim of his own history, but others knew warriors don’t give up their arms on a whim. Nicky’s peace held for nearly three weeks but tension flooded Mott Street. Cops said, “They might have called it peace, but they spelled it ‘p-i-e-c-e.’ ” Nicky knew it was over the night the Eagles ripped off a restaurant on the other end of Mott Street. He ran over to find Paul Ma and see what was up. An Eagle told him Paul was “out” and laughed. After that, Nicky kicked chairs in a Mott Street rice shoppe. Gang members say the sear was back in his eye.

By then it was just a matter of time. Within the next week the Shadows, Eagles, and Dragons were shooting at each other; the two-month-long war would prove to be the bloodiest in Chinatown history.

[related_posts post_id_1=”730344″ /]

The tongs used the madness to solidify their position. They promised the frightened merchants they’d get the gangs out of town. Big boss Benny Ong, backed by On Leong big shots, had the gangs over to Hip Sing and told them to ease off or they’d kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Murder each other and play extortion games outside Chinatown until the heat comes off. Just to make sure it worked, the tongs staged a little drama for the gangs’ benefit. It’s been common knowledge in Chinatown that a major new restaurant is the best extortion target around. Before it opened in December, gang kids were around asking $40,000 for a year’s worth of “protection.” When the place opened to brisk business, they came back, looking for more. This time, however, according to Chinese newspa­pers, the gangs ran into five smashnoses imported from Mulberry Street. Reportedly the kids wound up in a meat grinder, their remains dumped into a plastic bag and driven to Newark.

The tong plan worked. Except for a few gun violations, the cops say Chinatown’s been quiet for the past few weeks. But reports of gang extortions in exotic places like Massapequa and northern New Jersey have begun to come in. It’s a safe bet to say that there isn’t a Chinese restaurant in the metropolitan area that hasn’t been approached at one time or another for some kind of payoff.

But in fanning out of Chinatown, the gangs broke a New York City rule: Don’t mess with the rich people. The uptown cops have been laying an unwavering eyeball on extortion rings in the fancy midtown restaurants. Someone goofed when they rubbed out the young couple who run the Szechuan D’or on East 40th Street. It mobilized whole armies of cops. Determined to strike Chinese crime at its root, the police — even the public morals division — have shut down the gambling and extortion rackets in Chinatown. Every so often the cops bust a kid and claim it’s the key to the city-wide extortion game.

Word is big gamblers walk around in a daze at the OTB, trying to latch on to private pi gow games uptown. Nicky and the Shadows, seeing no percentage in hanging around for the onslaught, split for greener fields in the On Leong–run towns of Toronto and Chicago.

No one, of course, expects this to last. Some things are different. Just the other day the cops busted Mike Chen with a 12-gauge shotgun and 150 rounds of ammunition. Paul Ma, Philip Han, and Big Benny Ong are on their way to the slammer. And some even say the good people at Hip Sing could stage a takeover m Benny’s absence.

But much more remains the same. Go tonight to a restaurant on Mott Street and look out the window. Across the street you’re likely to see a good-looking skinny guy in a green fatigue jacket pacing back and forth. Nicky Louie is back in town, vigilant as ever. Look into his eyes and wonder what he’s thinking. But, then, remember… it’s Chinatown.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721128″ /]


The Ghost Shadows got their name from The New York Times. It happened about four years ago when the Shadows were functioning as the “junior auxilia­ry” of the now defunct Kwon Ying gang of Pell Street. A Times reporter was in Chinatown to cover an incident in which some of the young Kwon Ying were involved. The reporter wanted to know what “Kwon Ying” meant. (It means “not the Eagles,” a reference to the rival gang, the White Eagles.) One wise guy — probably an Eagle — said, “ghost shadow,” knew that a “ghost” is a bad thing to call a Chinese tough guy. The Chinese have long called whites bak guey, or white ghost, and blacks hak guey, which means black ghost. The gist is that these people were incomplete — were definitely not all there. Being a “ghost shadow” went double. The reporter dutifully filed “Ghost Shadow” with his copy. The next morning, after reading about themselves in the paper, Nicky Louie and the rest of the Ghost Shadows decided they liked their new name. It was so born to lose.

Other Chinese expressions of interest:
Toy Shan: A district in Canton from which most early immigrants to New York’s Chinatown came in the mid-19th century

lo fa kew: Descendants of the original Cantonese immigrants

juk sing: American-born Chinese

juk tuk: Hong Kong-born Chinese

lo fan: “Foreign devils”

tong: Hall or association

On Leong and Hip Sing: The two major tongs

lo tow: A slang phrase for Chinatown

pi gow: A domino game


Paranoid Notes on the Strange Death of Bruce Lee

The gray-haired judge presiding in Arraignment Room No. 2A had spent the better part of the morning listening to the same old story about how this defendant put a voodoo spell on that plaintiff’s gypsy cab, thereby causing the vehicle to lose its steering column while making a 40-mile an hour U-turn on the FDR Drive. The stuff was pretty routine for the gray-haired judge.

Now, however, he was up against something really tough. The plaintiff, Alan J. Weberman — aka A.J., well-known garbologist, as­sassinationologist, and semi-leader of the Youth International Party (YIP) — was charging that defendant William H. Depperman — former YIP fellow traveler, now leader and close-to-only member of the Assassination Information Committee (AIC) — had menaced him with a six-inch blade on Bleecker Street.

The pulling of a shiv was well within the gray-haired judge’s frame of reference. The reasons for the alleged crime, however, were somewhat baffling. According to Weberman’s statement, Depperman is in the midst of waging “a one-man counterinsurgency campaign against the Yippies because he claims we’re not Communistic enough.” Depperman, a hairy hulk of frazzled nerves, dismissed these allegations as impossible since Weberman is no “legitimate leftist” but rather “a CIA agent.” Depperman countercharged that it is actually Weberman who plans violent action. As proof, Depperman waved a WANTED — ­DEAD OR ALIVE, WILLIAM H. DEPPERMAN, AKA THE DIAPERMAN poster in front of the judge, a poster supposedly distributed by Weberman and his Yippie cohorts. The text of the WANTED poster depicts Depperman as a “rat-faced, asshole, scum­faced NAZI pig Narc.” It goes on to charge that Depperman is nothing more or less than an “FBI informer.”

With each new assertion by Depperman that it was really Weber­man, not he, who worked for the intelligence arm of the United States government, the gray-haired judge rolled his eyes. He had been cast as arbitrator in a War of the Paranoids, and he was not too happy about it.

My interest in this case is many-fold. First of all, paranoia, the leftover sixties variety, is news this week, and I always make an effort to stay current. I also have a deep-running passion for paranoids, an obsession which began to creep one Early Show afternoon following a Hebrew school class on the Holocaust as I watched Ralph Meeker open a black box full of seething uranium. Since then I have come to take a religious view of paranoia and its adherents. The belief that nothing in the universe happens by chance strikes me as essentially theological. Trilateral Committee, Rockefeller, God, Satan, Reverend Moon — it’s all the same kettle of Prime Movers to me.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717345″ /]

During my paranoia research I have run across some good one­-liners. Jackie Mason, the noted paranoid who once gave Ed Sullivan the finger on national television, has said he doesn’t like to go to football games because when the players huddle he’s positive they’re talking about him. Michael Corleone was famous for not wanting to “wipe out everybody, just my enemies.” Personally, I can pass on the more dangerous paranoids like Corleone and Jim Jones. I prefer to stick with less harmful types like Weberman and Depperman. After all, it was A.J. who voiced the true credo of the slightly gone: “Just because you don’t think they’re out to get you doesn’t mean they’re not.”

But it was not my appreciation of Weberman’s stand-up style that attracted me to his case against Depperman. It was my consuming interest in the strange death of Bruce Lee.

I first became aware of the awesome cross-cultural power of Bruce E. Lee while watching Enter the Dragon at the Lyric Theatre on Forty-­second Street. The vengeful Bruce was on the verge of killing a bad white boy who earlier in the film had tried to rape a Lee sister, causing the woman to commit suicide. Now, however, the hoodlum was staggering on one edge of the Cinemascope screen, while on the other Bruce was winding himself into a corkscrew of death. Then Lee flung himself, feet first, toward the bad guy. Bruce slow-motioned through the air for what seemed an eternity. Just before Bruce planted his dynamite feet into the white guy’s soon-to-be-demolished rib cage, a cry came from a black wino sitting behind me. “Don’t hurt him so bad, Bruce. Kill the motherfucker. But don’t hurt him so bad.” All movie long the wino had been rooting for all the whiteys to get dead, so his show of mercy for the chief bad white guy puzzled me. The only conclusion was that somewhere down deep the wino had connected with the notion that Bruce Lee possessed within his seemingly slight body a cosmic force far more terrible than a battery of M-16s. Even a Forty-second Street wino doesn’t want to be eyeball to eyeball with that kind of power.

This incident occurred soon before the fall of Nam. I coupled the calendar reference with the fact that audiences for Bruce Lee movies have always been almost exclusively black and Puerto Rican — even when the films were only playing down in Chinatown — and came up with the Third World Alliance Theory. The theory postulates that blacks and Puerto Ricans in New York were giant Bruce Lee fans because the United States lost the Vietnam War. Sense could be made of it: For years blacks and Puerto Ricans hadn’t been getting squat in the city due to a heavy white boot heel. Now they were checking the Daily News and seeing little guys, a bunch of egg-roll makers, kicking whitey’s butt in Nam. Kicking whitey’s technological butt. But how were they managing it? What secret weapon did they have? The answer was clear to anyone watching The Chinese Connection or Fists of Fury.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718092″ /]

To any student of paranoia (those with some instinct for pop culture, that is) the Third World Alliance Theory had to seem tenable. After all, times were changing. The Nam War exposed the folly of blindly relying on a computerized military. Balances were turned upside down. No longer could the Anderson family sleep soundly snuggled beneath the thick metal sheets of vaunted American technol­ogy. Jimmy Stewart and the SAC were not up there ready to ward off real and imagined cascades of plague. If they were, they were cooping. It was every man for himself — I mean, how capable are you with your hands and feet, buddy? To the student of cross-cultural paranoia, this situation was fascinating. Kung fu could be the ultimate weapon of these new times, and Bruce Lee its Messiah. And before Lee was finished preaching in the drive-in and sleaze Temples of the Inner City, Western civilization could go down the tube in a flurry of sidekicks and nunchakas. Would the CIA allow a menace to exist? Obviously, something had to be done.

Perhaps that something was done back in 1973 when Bruce Lee died in Hong Kong under distinctly mysterious circumstances. The first report of Lee’s death said he succumbed to “marijuana poisoning.” This had to be the most laughable cover story ever invented. Later the cause of death shifted to “water on the brain,” whatever that is. I decided to do some checking. I went to Aaron Banks’s New York Karate Academy, then and now located above a male burlesque house and Spanish-language theater on Seventh Avenue. Banks, who looks like Dracula and once claimed to have held the record for the most boards broken within a given space of time, turned out to be a valuable source. He said, “quite confidentially,” that Lee had died of the Iron Fist. “An ancient martial arts ritual,” Banks intoned as he shoved several monthly fees into his pocket.

Banks’s story went as follows: Several of the elder Manchu Dynasty martial arts teachers were worried about Bruce Lee. Having watched several of his films, they decreed Lee — who was no fake, but rather a kung fu genius who developed his own style of jeet june do — was giving away too many of the ancient Oriental secrets. The Masters acquired some box-office figures from Variety and saw that Lee’s movies were cleaning up in America. This was terrible, the Masters decided, since Americans are inferior, potentially mindlessly violent people, and thus not to be trusted with these secrets to ultimate power. Then, according to Banks, the Masters dispatched an emissary to reason with Lee. Bruce, however, was already as big as Valentino in Hong Kong, and arrogant to boot. He would not agree to stop making films. So the emissary, a Great Master, simply laid his hand on Bruce’s shoulder for a moment. This, Banks said, was the Iron Fist, a martial arts technique only the Great Masters, with their consummate knowledge of brain-­and-body waves, can apply.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717934″ /]

Weeks later, as if a slow-working poison were pushing through him, Lee’s body functions began to ebb. Eventually, they stopped dead. That was why, Banks said, the doctors could never successfully determine the cause of Lee’s death. This sounded a little odd to me, but a quick check of dojo around the city indicated that, almost to a man, martial arts students believed in the Great Masters’ Theory. Surprising, too, was the fact most students believed the Masters’ findings. They believed they were unworthy of such great knowledge.

This Great Masters’ Theory sounded morally logical on the surface. But natural paranoia told me not to accept it wholesale. Someone, I suspected — probably Rockefeller — had to savvy the significance of the Third World Alliance Lee was forging through his films. The fact that Lee died while making Game of Death, in which he co-starred with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — a pairing that would have cemented the Alliance — added to my suspicions. I figured the Great Masters were paid off to off Bruce Lee, assuming Great Masters can be bought.

So, you can dig my surprise and all-consuming interest when I first came upon the slew of wall posters currently plastered all around downtown claiming BRUCE LEE WAS MURDERED BY HONG KONG AND WORLDWIDE FILM KING, MULTI*NATIONAL CAPITALIST* BANKER RUN RUN SHAW.

The poster goes on, at great length and copious detail and in minute type, to outline how Bruce, once a low-wage contract employee for the Shaw Brothers’ Hong Kong cinema combine, broke away and formed his own production corporation. This new company, spearheaded by Lee’s own fabulous box-office appeal, soon was on the verge of eclipsing Shaw’s empire. Shaw, according to the wall poster, “a monopoly capitalist like the Rockefellers, Mellons, Duponts, and Rothschilds,” had no choice but to destroy Lee. Shaw had no compunction about murder, the poster says, once being responsible for blowing up “a planeload of Cathay Productions executives over Taiwan.” Shaw contacted one Betty Ting Pei, a girlfriend of Lee, and a Dr. Chu-Pro-hywe (described as a “contract killer”). Together these two cooked up an elaborate poisoning scheme that succeeded in killing Lee on July 20, 1973.

As outlandish as these charges appear to be, I made it an interesting document. While the poster does not take into account the cross-­cultural significance or postulate paranoia by right-wing factions over the potential Third World Alliance, it refuted the accepted Great Masters’ Theory. At the very least, the poster was the equal of much of the recent graffiti around town, including the WORSHIP GOD scrawl on every pay phone from here to Sheepshead Bay, SAMO, and the BECOME A CATHOLIC legend on the majority of abandoned buildings in Harlem. Besides, wall posters, too, are in the news this week.

A small sidebar on the poster said it was the work of a group called “The Assassination Information Committee.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”717965″ /]

The AIC described itself as “originally a government counterin­surgency group that ‘formed’ after a Mark Lane talk at NYU in the spring of 1975. The AIC was taken over democratically on October 23, 1975, when members voted by secret ballot to present the Dealey Plaza ‘tramp’ photographs and Watergate ‘burglars’ photo-overlays [positive transparencies which line up the ear cartilages on Frank Fiorini Sturgis and E. Howard Hunt] at a talk again to be given by Mark Lane, but sponsored by the NY AIC. Lane refused. Government people… ran off with the keys, mailing list, and checkbook of this supposed ‘grass­roots’ organization, but by doing so they lost control, and discredited themselves and their methods. Consequently, the AIC of NY is probably the only legitimate assassination research group in this country.”

I read the above and couldn’t make head or tail of it. But then, recognizing telltale paranoia phrases like “counterinsurgency,” I re-read it with a more informed (i.e., paranoid) headset. After which I concluded I was most likely dealing with a termite left group convinced that Mark Lane is a government plant attempting to divert “real” investigation into the John F. Kennedy assassination. I was not far wrong. After glancing at other wall posters under the AIC banner, including LARRY FLYNT SHOOTING IS LATEST CIA PUBLICITY STUNT, I spied a more revealing one. This said: Total Media Blackout… with trumped-up charges. Capitalist state harassing William H. Depperman, coordinator of the Assassination Information Committee of New York… First Assassination Researcher Arrested.” Then I dug that if I was to get information on the Great Masters’ and Third World Alliance theories, I would have to deal with this Depperman.

At the outset I knew nothing of Depperman other than he sometimes gave out leaflets in Washington Square and was rumored to have once broken Bob Fass’s (late of WBAI) nose with a short right. But, being an auteurist, I was determined to ferret out the possible role of Raymond Chow, the director of Enter the Dragon, in Lee’s death. So I went to ten East Sixteenth Street, the address given on the AIC posters. The place, a gray apartment house nestled amongst ware­houses, turned out to be Depperman’s home. I rang the bell under his mailbox and was buzzed in. After an unpleasant ride in a cattlecar elevator, I knocked on Depperman’s door. Nobody answered. I assumed the guy was paranoid so didn’t blame him for not opening the door for someone he didn’t know. I slipped a note under the door describing who I was and my interest in the wall posters.

The next day I got a call from Depperrnan. Before he even let me say word one about the Third World Alliance Theory, Depperman commandeered the conversation. In a voice that had all the resonance of feeding time in Iowa, he said, “Don’t tell me you’re interested in Bruce Lee. I know who you are. I’ve checked you out. You work with Weberman. You are straight from Central Intelligence. If you want to talk to me, you’ll have to put up money, big money. Five thousand dollars. Maybe ten thousand dollars. You might not have the money, but your boss does. So, listen, you agent, pay. Cash. No checks.” He hung up.

This was the first time I had ever been accused of being a CIA agent. It was no fun. Sure, I knew calling other people government agents is common among assassination researchers. Once Mae Brussell, who calls everyone an agent, said I.F. Stone was a CIA operative at the Elgin Theater. That just about killed her credibility amongst the old-line leftists, and Brussell’s career suffered afterward. Still, I was only after a few scraps of information and did not like being called an agent of any government — especially since I was not drawing a check for my supposed services. I was certainly not “with Weber­man.” Once when I marched in a Yippie Smoke-In Parade up Fifth Avenue a Yip reached over the picket fence surrounding the sidewalk cafe of the St. Moritz Hotel, thrust his greasy hand into a Madison Avenue lady’s spinach salad, gobbled a fistful of leaves, and then stuck his green-specked tongue out, saying, “Your lifestyle stinks.” But I wouldn’t exactly call this being “with Weberman.” Who was this idiot Depperman to call me a CIA agent?

[related_posts post_id_1=”717255″ /]

I decided to find out. Discounting talking to Depperman directly, inasmuch as I doubted Rupert Murdoch’s people would look too kindly on an expense report listed “talking to paranoid, $10,000,” I called Joel Meyers. I got Meyers’s name from a Depperman poster entitled TAKEOVER FROM WITHIN OF ASSASSINATION INFORMA­TION COMMITTEE BY COMMUNIST-CADRE “MARXIST” IS DEFEATED. In this poster Depperman accuses Meyers, an old-line Trot whose group was the only one to support Lin Paio at the recent City Center Mao rally, of being the leader of a “government group designed to pace, contain, manipulate, sabotage, and neutralize the Assassination Information Committee of New York.”

Meyers responded by painting Depperman as a right-wing son of a “rock-ribbed Republican family” in a counter-poster affixed to the blue formica wall of Whalen’s at Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street. He said Depperman, somewhere in his middle thirties, had gone to medical school in Kentucky but allegedly was thrown out for smoking pot. Meyers said Depperman’s left-wing activity was new, and that he “voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Nixon twice, in 1968 and 1972.” According to the poster, Depperman previously had worked in a “united front” with Meyers’s group, but split after a tactical dispute over an incident with police in Washington Square Park. The poster goes on to say the Assassination Information Committee “consists of only Depperman and one dogged follower,” the teenaged Brian Huber “whom Depperman calls Brainless.”

On the phone Meyers had a somewhat more charitable view of Depperman. “Well,” he said, “I have no evidence that he is hopelessly psychotic as of yet. We have hopes of making a Bolshevik out of him yet. Trouble is, Depperman has a conspiratorial theory of history. He thinks everyone is an agent until proven otherwise. But we’ll keep trying to bring him to his senses. Small groups tend to be desperate for members. We will spend huge amounts of time trying to win over a very few people.”

About the Bruce Lee material, Meyers thought, “It’s something out of the ordinary for Depperman. He probably read some kung fu magazines and made the rest up.” This was not encouraging news.

Still, I pressed on for insight into the Depperman character, talking to John Zirinsky, a lawyer, and David White, a union official. According to his wall posters, Depperman has been “the target of a coordinated attack by many arms of the state,” as well as “twenty-four­-hour telephone harassment and a mail cover.” Part of this harassment, Depperman says, was his recent arrest on criminal mischief charges for allegedly stenciling the Washington Square arch with slogans to the effect that the Moonies and Yippies are government agents. Depper­man claims the “endless series of pretrial hearings (ten to fifteen) are… one of its [the govt.’s] prime ways of neutralizing legitimate leftists.” He further charges he has been sabotaged in much more elaborate and nefarious ways, saying, “On every court date a demon­stration was planned and on every court date it rained!” Then Depperman adds, in parenthesis, “USA admitted to increasing the monsoon rainfall on the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”415552” /]

In any event, John Zirinsky, legal aid lawyer and member of the Lawyers’ Guild who has often been identified with left causes, was assigned to represent Depperman in this case. Zirinsky says he did his best, but all sorts of arguments arose with his client. “Soon,” Zirinsky says, “the guy was plastering the entire courthouse area with posters attacking me as a government plant. And all during that time he was pleading with me to continue with his defense. Everyone was asking me what was going on.” Zirinsky, a sober type, did not see the humor in this situation. He says, “Besides, it was clear to me the guy didn’t have even the rudiments of leftist thought.” Eventually, Zirinsky withdrew from the case, prompting a triumphant Depperman wall poster saying, “Zirinsky’s withdrawal reflects the failure of the state and the Rock­efeller family strategy against Depperman…”

Woe is the Dep. A few months ago, he was fired from his job as a cardiopulmonary technician at the Hospital for Joint Disease. Depper­man says it was for his “political activities,” primarily his drive to organize R.N.’s at the institution. The management claims Depperman “falsified records” to avoid getting caught for coming in late. Depper­man has described the case in two lengthy wall posters, one entitled DEPPERMAN CASE GOES TO ARBITRATION, MANAGE­MENT LOSES AT 1ST HEARING, and another explained WHY THE CIA IS LIKELY TO BE BEHIND MANAGEMENT’S NEW STRATEGY. Both of these posters were signed by the “Save the Jobs Unity Coalition,” not the AIC.

As of now, Depperman has yet to be rehired. David White, of the medical services union No. 1199, represented Depperman at his arbitration hearing. In the wall posters, Depperman implies that White was acting in collusion with management. White says, “He thinks I was working with management? Oh, boy. I don’t know. I’ll tell you, there was no reason we should have lost that case. Management really didn’t have a thing on Depperman. He said he filled in the wrong time because his watch was slow. That’s not grounds for firing someone. But during the hearing, Depperman just wouldn’t shut up. I had to stop the proceedings a dozen times to tell him to quiet down. He kept jumping up and calling the arbitrator a tool of the oppressors.” White agrees that most likely management was “just trying to get rid of Depper­man.” But not because Dep was union-organizing. “Are you kidding?” White says. “He almost killed our drive. He was going around talking about general strikes and preparing the workers for revolution. You can’t talk to workers like that.”

With each new piece of info I picked up on Depperman, I became more convinced a freshly slivered section of the Dep medulla sold to an independent laboratory might fetch a handsome price. For sure the cat was going into the Paranoia Hall of Fame on the first ballot. I was beginning to give up on ever getting any intelligence out of this guy on either the Great Masters’ or the Third World Alliance theory.

But the most damaging anti-Depperman testimony was yet to come. It was provided by Depperman’s arch-enemies, the Yippies. In his wall poster campaign, Depperman regularly derides the Yips as a govern­ment-funded group attempting to “sidetrack people on drugs and counterculture,” thereby leading the masses “back into the fold of the Republican party.” The most recurring and bizarre Depperman charge, however, is that A.J. Weberman, the Yippie theoretician, is “suppressing his own book.”

The book, Coup d’État in America, written by Weberman and Michael Canfield, details how the CIA allegedly seized control of the United States government on November 22, 1963. Depperman claims Coup d’État, which contains the famous “tramp” pictures and photo-overlays that supposedly prove Frank Sturgis and Howard Hunt were on the scene that day in Dallas, is an example of “controlled release” of assassination material. He says A.J. “must be” a CIA agent to gain access to the overlays in the first place, and that since “exposing” the evidence Weberman has done much “to make the information contra­dictory,” thereby confusing real assassination researchers.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717766″ /]

Now I must admit, I am somewhat biased in this particular matter, since A.J. Weberman, while without a doubt a world-class paranoid, is also one of the most entertaining and hamisha guys I know. And knowing A.J. as I do, I could see that these book “suppression” charges were really getting under his skin. Going into one of his hour-­long stare rages, Weberman barked, “What a Daffyman the Depper­monster is! Why would I fucking suppress my own book? I worked months on that book. It’s the hardest thing I ever did. Harder than a garbology project. Suppress my own book? Only a moron with a low rate of metabolism like the Daffymonster would think that.”

Then A.J. discussed Depperman from the historical perspective, saying “he first came around in 1974, around there. He said he wanted to help put out the Yipster Times. You know, he’d do any shit work. Dana [Beale] was suspicious of him, but I was taken in. I went by his pad and he had all the Dylan records and the Dylan bootlegs, I thought he was cool. It was a moment of weakness. But after the book came out, he started acting suspicious. He put out stickers for the book everywhere. He was overzealous. He put stickers all over the book­stores and they started calling me saying they wouldn’t stock the book anymore. I didn’t know what was happening, then I find out it’s Depperman. We told him to stop, but then he gets his own stickers printed up. Then we realized he was waging some kind of campaign against us. He was spreading all kinds of disinformation. Then he started beating up Yippies. He broke Fass’s nose. He gave Aaron [Kay, the Yippie pie-thrower] a black eye. He’s tough, he’s a fucking powerful guy. We knew he couldn’t be a Yippie, he’s too crazy to be a Yippie. We had to investigate him.”

Then A.J. pulled out part of his FBI file. A.J. obtained the file under the Freedom of Information Act, a statute he makes use of quite often. FBI files supposedly contain most of what the government has on you, but the names of the “informants” and anything you really want to know is blacked out with magic marker. The Yippies have spent many evenings over a piece of hash the size of a deflated football attempting to remember if it was really Sally from Madison or Jim from California who was present on the nights described in the file. On this particular page, however, A.J. claims, the “informer’s” name was insufficiently disguised. “Look,” he said, pointing to a Xeroxed smudge, “you can see the D and the top of an E, also, look, there’s the two Ls. It’s Depperman, no doubt about it. He’s an informer sent to infiltrate us. Probably got into it after he got kicked out of medical school. The reason the FBI sent us this file with the name not completely blacked out is even they couldn’t stand the Deppermouth anymore. The Deppermonster is too obnoxious even for the feds!”

Try as I might, however, I could only distinguish half an L, no D or E. I smoked two more joints, after which I did spot another L, which was not enough to convince me, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it was actually Depperman’s name beneath the blur. I did, however, agree with Weberman that Depperman’s Yippie-beating activities were to be scorned. And I also promised to show up a few days later when A.J. said Depperman would have to be in court to answer charges of knife-wielding.

[related_posts post_id_1=”421903″ /]

I left the Yipster mansion thinking it was kind of ironic that Depperman, in his unwavering bleat that A.J. has “suppressed” his own book, had, more or less, taken over the role in Weberman’s life that A.J. himself once played in Bob Dylan’s. Back in the days when the Dylan Liberation Front assembled on MacDougal Street screaming “Hey, Bob, crawl out your window,” A.J. stole the singer’s garbage as a “people’s act.” Dylan always yelled at Weberman to “stop hassling me, man,” and eventually beat A.J. to a Greenwich Village sidewalk with karate blows. Thinking about this left one question unanswered: If Depperman is Weberman’s Weberman, who is Depperman’s Weber­man? Someone, I figured, always has to be around to keep you honest.

In spite of it all, I felt a little sorry for Depperman. My heart goes out to anyone who sincerely feels the government is manipulating the weather just to harass him. After all, Depperman really was being “persecuted” for politics, whatever they may be. I decided to attempt to open the dialogue with Depperman again, affording him a chance to tell his side of the story and possibly giving me a shot at obtaining his Bruce Lee information. After learning from a reliable source that Depperman had once been approached as a potential mensa member, I wrote him a closely reasoned letter asking him to give free press a chance. I was, however, still smarting from Depperman’s accusations about me, so, just to be a bastard, I crossed out several passages in the letter and did a cut-paste job. I figured, being the paranoid he is, Depperman would spend a few anxious minutes holding the letter to a naked light bulb, attempting to see what was missing. I taped the letter to Depperman’s mailbox.

This was Sunday. Monday I stayed by my phone hoping Depper­man would give a civil call. He did not. Tuesday was the hearing date, so I trudged over to the Tombs at 9:30 A.M. Near the second floor DAT intake room, I ran into Aaron Kay. Aaron pointed out two guys standing below, leaning on the circular first-floor information desk. “It’s Daffyman and Brainless,” Aaron said. Depperman looked pretty much as I expected except that he was wearing a paisley tie and seemed to have not slept in a month. Brian Huber, or “Brainless,” could have passed for a Tex Watson double.

I went downstairs to engage the pair in conversation. Depperman was in the midst of abusing Huber. Soon as I identified myself, however, he recoiled and clutched his tan attaché case as if it was doll stuffed with money. “Get away from me, you government, government pig,” he said as he edged around the circumference of the information desk. Huber followed Depperman. “I just want to ask you a couple of questions,” I said, trailing both of them. We must have went around that desk three times with Depperman shouting “Stop harassing me. Beat it. Stop harassing me,” before I gave up the ghost.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715757″ /]

Soon the courtroom drama, which I have given you the gist of at the top of this tome, ensued. Depperman, demanding to defend himself and using some legal terms lifted out of Perry Mason, did most of the talking. A.J. was content to play the injured citizen. And, sure enough, Depperman hung himself, getting close to a contempt citation on more than one occasion. The judge told Depperman, “Look, the court is not your adversary.” To which Depperman raised his eyes as if to say, “You expect me to fall for that?” The judge held the case over until next month, prompting Depperman to quote loudly and extensively from a book called The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove. These quotes threw the West Indian court officers into giggling fits.

There will, however, be quite a bit more court in Depperman’s immediate future. After this case was adjourned, the Yippies, who were afraid to stare at Depperman during the proceedings, unfurled their sneak attack in the person of one Detective Guariello of the Sixth Precinct. Guariello was waiting in the hallway outside AR 2A to arrest Depperman on charges that he assaulted Yippie electrician Robert Druskin. Upon having the cuffs snapped on his wrist and told he was “under arrest,” Depperman screamed, “By whom, by whom?”

Then he yelled, “It’s more harassment, it’s more harassment of legitimate leftists,” as Guariello hauled him into the DAT intake room. Just before disappearing, Depperman shouted in panic to Huber, “Brian, Brian, my briefcase.” Huber, who seemed stunned by this turn of events, was slow to react, prompting Depperman to a more frenzied plea. Finally, Huber picked up the case. As he did, one of the court officers pointed to Depperman’s head and then to the briefcase, intoning, “Tick, tick, tick.”

Moments later, Depperman was gone, except for a few muffled protests emanating from the other side of the door. He would spend that night in the can. Huber waited a few moments, then split aimlessly with Depperman’s briefcase. The kid looked like Renfield lost a master. The Yippies left, too, celebrating their victory. And I figured what a drag it all was. Dealing with paranoids is a thankless task. Depperman saw me talking to Guariello before the pinch and probably, knowing his mania, thinks I was in on the arrest. Plus, who knows, we may never find out who killed Bruce Lee.


Woodward’s Dis

. . . a media marketplace that long ago concluded having access to power is more important than speaking truth to it. Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey, October 2005 essay

Bob Woodward rightly became a beacon in the journalism world for the groundbreaking shoe-leather reporting he and Carl Bernstein did on the Watergate scandal in 1972 for The Washington Post. Since then he has become known for his books gleaned from rarely given interviews with presidents and other powerful people in Washington’s high places. He appears often on television talk shows, giving inside looks at major stories as well as orotund comments on the practice of good journalism.

On October 27, Woodward appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live and pronounced that the current Plamegate scandal in the White House was really much ado about nothing.

Here are some of his words: “First of all, this began not as somebody launching a smear campaign. . . . When the story comes out, I’m quite confident we’re going to find out that it started kind of as gossip, as chatter, and that somebody learned that Joe Wilson’s wife had worked at the CIA and helped him get this job going to Niger to see if there was an Iraq-Niger uranium deal.

“And there’s a lot of innocent actions in all of this. . . . Well, this is a junkyard dog prosecutor and he goes everywhere and asks every question and turns over rocks, and rocks under rocks, and so forth. . . . I think it’s quite possible, though probably unlikely, that he will say, you know, there was no malice or criminal intent at the start of this. Some people kind of had convenient memories before the grand jury.

“Technically they might be able to be charged with perjury. But I don’t see an underlying crime here, and the absence of the underlying crime may cause somebody who is a really thoughtful prosecutor to say, you know maybe this is not one to go to the court with.”

Is this the same Bob Woodward whose Watergate scoops were dismissed by Richard Nixon’s press secretary, the late Ron Ziegler, as piddling stories about a “third-rate burglary”? Doesn’t Woodward remember the reaction by many in the White House press corps, who initially sneered at the story and brushed it off as the fevered product of two lowly cityside reporters covering crime and the courts—which is what Woodward and Bernstein were at the time?

I wish I were wrong, but to me Woodward sounds as if he has come a long way from those shoe-leather days—and maybe on a path that does not become him. He sounds, I think, like those detractors in 1972, as they pooh-poohed the scandal that unraveled the Nixon presidency— the scandal that Woodward and Bernstein doggedly uncovered.

The day after that Larry King show, the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, picked by George W. Bush’s own Department of Justice, handed up a grand jury indictment of I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, for perjury, false statements, and obstruction.

Fitzgerald—who in his televised press conference came across as a very thoughtful prosecutor—stressed that there was nothing technical about these charges. They were serious crimes, he said. He also said his investigation into the White House doings was continuing.

It is clear that Fitzgerald does not share Woodward’s view that this scandal grew out of idle chitchat and wasn’t really a campaign to “out” a CIA operative and punish her husband for challenging the president’s weapons-of-mass-destruction rationale for going to war against Iraq.

I wonder what Woodward’s newsroom colleagues at The Washington Post think of his put-down of this investigation, especially the reporters—Dana Priest, Walter Pincus, Barton Gellman, Jim VandeHei, and others—who have been doing such an impressive job of digging deep and informing the public about the White House machinations and the larger Iraq story. I doubt they’re throwing him any parties.

To write his books, Woodward needs special access to major people in the White House and the key cabinet departments. He is presently working on what he says may be a multivolume treatment of Bush’s second term. He had access to the president himself for his book on the first term. But with this scandal still unfolding, lots of government biggies have suddenly zipped their lips. This has complicated Woodward’s work. Perhaps that explains, in part, his reluctance to mouth any full-blown criticism of Bush administration missteps.

Also, the indicted Libby has reportedly been a source for Woodward in the past. Critics in the press have suggested that Woodward is too close to some of his sources to provide readers with an undiluted picture of their activities.

His remarks about the Fitzgerald investigation convey the attitude of a sometime insider reluctant to offend—and that is hardly a definition of what a serious, independent reporter is supposed to be. It’s a far piece from Watergate.

People in glass houses

Last week’s New York magazine carried a lengthy article about the Voice and the proposed merger with New Times Media that will put it under new ownership. The thesis of the piece by Mark Jacobson, a former writer for the alternative weekly, was that the Voice, which has just celebrated its 50th birthday, wasn’t what it once was. That’s true, but it’s hardly an electrifying revelation. No newspaper of any importance in this country is what it used to be. All have adapted to—and continue to grapple with—the changes in our culture and in the technology of news gathering and delivery. And to the shrinking readership and advertising revenues these changes have wrought.

Jacobson, to his credit, doesn’t pretend he’s discovered something new. Here’s a candid passage about his interview with Village Voice Media’s CEO, David Schneiderman:

” ‘I don’t even know why you came over here,’ Schneiderman said, smiling. ‘Because you’re going to write the same story everyone does, how the Village Voice isn’t what it used to be anymore. But those people say they don’t read the paper, so how would they know?’ He could keep using that line to his uptown friends, but it wasn’t going to work with me. Because I read the Voice—every week, if only because there was stuff in there worth reading: my homey Hoberman’s movie reviews, the great Ridgeway, Wayne Barrett, and Tom Robbins, still kicking municipal butt. Still, it was so, the paper wasn’t what it used to be.”

My only reason for writing this postscript is that I wish Jacobson had given a little more space to the “stuff in there worth reading”—which would include the standout work by those he mentioned but also the contributions of newer arrivals like Jennifer Gonnerman, Jarrett Murphy, and many others.

I’m also a newcomer to the Voice, an alien immigrant from The New York Times and Newsday, mainstream papers that, most of the time, determinedly ignore the Voice‘s singular coverage of New York politics and government corruption. Is there some other publication in New York that exposes city and state malfeasance and nonfeasance the way the Voice consistently does? Certainly no other newspaper. And surely not New York magazine, which chose to omit this truth.


The Grand Tour, or What Dad Learned on Our Family Vacation

Dragging the family around the world is one of those things nearly every parent fantasizes about, but few cobble together the time, money, or book deals to tear themselves away from TiVo and actually do. Fortunately, former Voice staff writer Mark Jacobson hit the road in 2000 with his wife and three kids, so we don’t have to (at least not this year), bringing back the good news that while there’s still no place like home—indeed, it’s an intolerant jungle out there—nobody returns from a grand tour unchanged.

The crisis of elder daughter Rae’s descent into sulky slackerdom is the trip’s emotional impetus, and Jacobson is refreshingly forthright about his high parental standards: “Ingrate bloodsuckers. Incurious losers. It was all our fault. How had we managed to bring up such morons?” Exposing the young ‘uns to the burning corpses of Varanasi and the killing fields of Cambodia is probably as fine an antidote to Disney World as any. Even more important, however, are the serendipitous minor epiphanies the family calls “esteeming the chance booty” and discovers in the Nepalese mountains, Jordanian desert, or back alleys of Bangkok. Rae gets an opportunity to respond in a few short chapters, but insofar as Jacobson is one of the more engrossing of old-school “Me” journalists around, you know where the spotlight ultimately winds up. Which would only be a problem if Jacobson weren’t such a thoroughly readable combination of self-mocking boho narcissist and perceptive family mensch.


The Yankees: Good Enough to Hate… Again

Good Enough to Hate… Again
May 30, 1977

For the Yankee Hater, it was a mounting dilemma: an endless parade of pin stripes rounding bases, a monotony of pin stripes blowing heat past banjo hitters, a ho-hum succession of pin stripes Hooverizing ground balls in the infield. The New York Yankees — the souped-up 1977 version of the Hated Yanks — haven’t quite got their death-rays stoked up yet. First they lose eight of 10, then they win 14 of 16. But the old feeling is back. The cold dread that stalked every national-league kid when he proclaimed that this year the Yanks were dead tunas and might as well not show up. Of course, the Hated showed up, of course they won, and of course there was misery all around. And now, after all these years, the Yankee Hater is whistling by the graveyard once again, for when these new Hated are good, they are very, very good.

Perhaps not good enough to fit the definition of what old crotch Jacob Ruppert — the Hated Yank owner who bought the Bambino from the Bosox to the Bronx in 1920 to begin the Bombers’ 29-pennants-in-44-years domination of hard­ball — used to croak was his idea of a perfect afternoon: “When the Yankees score eight runs in the first inning and then slowly pull away.” But close enough.

What was worse was what pitcher Mike Torrez said. Only recently escaped from the Finleytorium, it was Mike’s first start for the Yanks. He went five innings, no-earned runs. The press, figuring “the Woolly Bear” was the “story” for the evening, crowded around his locker. It’s possible, even probable, that Torrez was thinking of the $200,000 a year he stands to pick up from Yank owner George “Bottomless-Wallet-But-No-Cheek” Steinbrenner, but he said it anyway. He said: “Gee whiz, there really is something about putting on the Yankee uniform. It’s the feeling you get when you look down and see that NY. And those pin stripes, those pin stripes really give me a tingle.” Phil Rizzuto, the shrill shill, happened to be passing by. His ears perked up at the mention of pin stripes. He took one look at Torrez, a dark and handsome type, and said, “Holy cow, he looks great in pin stripes. Just like a Yankee.”


Shit. Can you believe that? That kind of crap was what made hating the Yankees one of the great passions of my life. I suppose I was fated to hate the Yankees: The first game I ever went to was on May 12, 1956. It was my birthday, and my grandfather, after three years of constant badgering, took me to Ebbets Field; an old John McGraw man, he had been holding out. But on this day, just for me, Carl Erskine pitched a no-hitter. The afternoon would brand me a national-league rooter forever and, by definition, a Yankee hater. Once, in 1966, through a haze of acid, I ran down Sunset Strip screaming that the Hated had finally finished in last place. The clones who took their transistor radios to Chavez Ravine to listen to Vin Scully tell them what my ex-beloved Dodgers were doing on the field didn’t understand what I was talking about.

I hated the Yankees for most of the same reasons I thought everyone must hate the Yankees: the cloying “great to be a Yankee” litany, pin stripes, the numbness of winning constantly (especially against the Dodgers), the Protestant front, the dullness of the American League, no blacks, the phrase “Yankee co-owners” used to describe Topping and Webb, Frankie Crosetti banking all those world-series shares, you name it.

But mostly I hated their fans. All accountants and success worshipers, I felt; if there was ever a group you could build a fence around and say, “These people have no soul,” Yankee fans were it. The worst thing about them was the “excellence” rap. They smirked and talked about Bobby Richardson, or Tony Kubek, or Cletis Boyer. They said, “They play the game the way it’s made to be played. They’re the best. It’s beautiful to watch the best.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”79481″ /]

Sure. The Babe must have really been something. I too cry when Gary Cooper (in Pride of the Yankees) says, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” I always root for Italians, so DiMag and me would have gotten along. But the paragons of excellence we got stuck with were the nark look-alikes Ford and Mantle. Now they call them Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and paint them lovable, but they still could ruin a pot party. They’re so blond. And these were the guys Rizzuto — in an obvious case of WASP worship — said “looked just like Yankees.”

There was triumph when the Yankees fell. Hey, Riz­zuto — didn’t guys like Roger Repoz, Ray Barker, Jerry Kenney, Jake Gibbs, Frank Tepedino, Lu Clinton, Ken Johnson, Jimmy Lyttle, and Bill Burbach look like Yankees? They wore pin stripes too. Why didn’t you get any of those “great to be a Yankee” testimonials from old Horace “Ass Out” Clarke? So what if the sight of flashing spikes made him faint? He still led the club in hitting in 1967 with a smashing .272. It wasn’t his fault “Butch Cassidy” Mickey struck out 113 times and hit .245, or that “real” Yankee Tommy Tresh didn’t have what it takes to be a star and hit .219, or that old Charlie Smith — a Met castoff the Yanks got for what was left of abused Roger Maris — hit .229 and did less than play the hell out of third base. It wasn’t Horace’s fault, not all of it. But the Yankee fans, the fickle few accountants that stayed, still booed his West Indian ass off. They said Horace — decidedly non­-Yankee (he played calypso records in the clubhouse) — was “the symbol of the Yankees’ decline, the embodiment of the fall from excellence.”

It was a bum rap. If there was ever a case of the turkeys coming home to roost, the Yankee Misery Decade was it (during 44 Dynasty Years, the Yanks won 4292 times, lost 2643 for a .619 percentage; the Misery Decade, 1965 to 1975, netted them a stunningly ordinary 888 to 881 won-lost record). The Yanks had been fucked in every respect. They were owned by CBS, the first ball club to be owned by a conglomerate. It was fitting that the network bought the club in a “diversification” move (they also picked up Fender guitars at the same time) in 1964, the last year the Yanks won. The CBS smartguys knew so much about their product that they failed to psyche out that the “co-owners” had been looking to unload for a while and hadn’t spent any money on new players in years. It was also fitting that the Yanks would stagger through the early stages of the Misery Decade as an aging white team. They had been, after all, one of the last clubs to play blacks. They passed on such obvious stars as Vic Power — too flashy, he caught balls with one hand, how jive — before they settled on the benign Elston Howard, who couldn’t even run.

By 1969, when the Mets won, there wasn’t much point to hating the Yankees. Sure, there were a few cackles left. Jim Bouton’s Ball Four affirmed what Yankee haters always suspected. Mickey Mantle really wasn’t such a saint after all. If he stayed out of saloons two nights in a row, maybe those “crippling” injuries wouldn’t have been so “crippling,” and he would have been able to hit those 1000 homers he was always supposed to hit. The Mike Kekich–Fritz Petersen wife swap, fabulously un-Yankee, wasn’t bad either. But the club didn’t present enough cheek for a solid Yankee hater to spit in; they were the invisible team.

Now, of course, that’s all fodder for the stat freaks. The anonymous losing of the Horace Clarke Memorial Misery Decade stopped with last year’s pennant. Today you can’t pick up a goddamned magazine without seeing trillionaire Reggie Jackson’s candy-man mug. Pin stripes are all over the Howard Cosell–inspired “Game of the Week” bullshit-athons. The pack, as they say, is back.

On paper, at least, this has the makings of a great Yankee team, certainly with the most fire power since the 1961 Mantle-Maris hammer brigade. Squat Man Munson and Quiet Chris Chambliss are, with George Brett and Rod Carew, among the best “pure” hitters in the league. Nettles and Jackson are the premier sluggers (they hit 59 homers between them last year). Willie Randolph, who’ll quite likely wind up better than Bible-thumping Bobby Richardson if his knees hold up, is developing into a class lead-off man. Mickey Rivers will never hit below .300 and always takes the extra base. Toy Cannon Wynn, if he gets going, and Slabby Carlos May are the best left-right dh combo around. Roy White is an accomplished .290 hitter.

Speedwise, with Rivers and Randolph, there’s enough. The defense, despite the outfield’s lack of top-notch arms, is more than adequate. Nettles, Dent, Randolph, and Munson are contenders for Golden Gloves. And how can you argue with a pitching staff that has Catfish (if well), Eddie Figueroa (who’s won 36 games in two years), Torrez (a probable 20-game winner with the Yanks), Gullet (if he doesn’t get hurt), and Kenny Holtzman (he’s not com­pletely finished; if he is there’s Ron Guidry) for front-line starters. Not to mention Sparky Lyle and the grossly underrated Dick Tidrow in the pen.

[related_posts post_id_1=”669095″ /]

Clearly, this is a team worth hating. No lie. Go to any bar and guys’ll tell you how much each player’s making, even if they don’t know what he’s hitting. After all, who do the Yanks think they are, buying themselves world-series rings? They got Catfish (3 million), Reggie (3 and a half), and Gullet (a little teeny two and a half), through the free-agent route that’s probably going to end up destroying the historical progression of the game. The total contract money of the Yanks’ 25-man roster is nearing 15 million. Just about every player has one of those leisure-suited agents who stands the hair in Dick Young’s armpit on end.

Then there’s the guy who pays: George (Watergate) Steinbrenner the third (no less). How can you help but hate a team that’s owned by a hick from Cleveland who’s been convicted of giving illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign? And then making the employees of his ship­building company lie about it to cover up his bloody tracks? Steinbrenner, who got the team from CBS on a fire sale — the only baseball franchise that ever decreased in value — passes the bill for his generosity with hot-dog outfielders and crook presidents on to the kid baseball fan. Until recently, he had been pressing a mind-boggling $4.50 general admission price for kids to sit in the stratosphere third deck. It was a mere three-fold rise over last year’s prices. George, it seems, didn’t like the practice of kids buying cheapo seats and then moving down to boxes in the fifth inning. He sought to exile such rabble to the bleachers so they could get a good view of Mickey River’s asshole and not much more. To top himself, the felon — who recently was reported by Liz Smith “in a corner” with Spiro T. Agnew — had his ushers haul down a banner in the bleachers that said, “$4.50 is a shutout.” It was a “political banner,” the Yank brass said. And everyone knows politics and baseball don’t mix.

If that’s not enough, there’s always Yankee Stadium itself, everyone’s favorite political-patronage $200-million boondoggle. It’s probably not the Yanks’ fault part of the $2 million dollars once ticketed to improve the neighborhood around the stadium got rerouted into buying $300,000 of equipment now owned by the team. In the irrational, beer-sweat-stained mind of a ball fan, you could wind up hating the Yanks for it.

But somehow, despite it all, the Yankee hater likes this team. He could even root for it.

Jimmy Wynn, Chris Chambliss, Roy White

Besides, there isn’t much choice. Oh, the Mets. How I have suffered and gloried in you… You scumbags. There was the day, opening day Baseball Season of our Lord, 1963, that I cut ninth grade, got on the subway with my bed-sheet “Let’s Go Mets” banner, and rode up to the Polo Grounds. It was a day of hope. The team had lost 120 games the year before, but now they had added the stellar Al Moran, the stunning Tim Harkness, and my favorite, the Duke, late of Flatbush. Unfortunately, they had retained the fucking terrible Charley Neal, who took the first pitch of the game, a little dribbler down the third baseline, and threw it 125 feet over Frank Thomas’s head, at first, into the stands.

I persisted, however, and in ’69 was so richly rewarded. But no more. The franchise has been going downhill since Mrs. Payson died. And her executor, the prig Grant, has turned perhaps the most beloved team in the history of sports into a blot.

It was a shock to discover that the “People’s Team” was racist, but after the “Cleon Incident” — in which the laconic Met leftfielder was made to publicly apologize for a little spring training hankypanky — there was no way around it. The Mets never had any speed or hitting because they didn’t want any blacks. For a while first baseman John Milner was the only black on the team; no wonder he never became a star. Then came the Jet flap, in which M. Donald conspired to force the football team over to New Jersey. And the refusal to sign free agents. It seems as though the team is happy to finish third; they haven’t made a significant effort to upgrade the squad in five years.

Now all that neglect is coming home. They can have clubhouse meetings with Grant forever. It won’t help. They’re out of power. The Yanks will outdraw them two to one this year. The best thing that’s happened to the Mets recently was the rain-out of the Mayor’s Trophy Game. It avoided all those terribly obvious comparisons between the two teams. The Mets will finish last and alone this year. It’ll take a Misery Decade before they turn it around.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713648″ /]

The Yankees are now the home team. Warts and all, they look the part. The only good thing about last year’s series was the red-neck Cincy fans making a big deal about how neat their little Astroturf was compared to the Yankee Stadium grass. They were intimating that the Yankees, representing an evil and dirty place, were an evil and dirty team. It seemed like the Yankees, for the first time, embodied what New York is really all about. It doesn’t hurt that they start six blacks, one of their most important pitchers is a Puerto Rican, the manager is Italian, and they even have two Jews (if you count Blomberg).

And they don’t (Torrez’s statement aside) look or feel “like Yankees.” Mickey Mantle, Blonde Bomber, used to go down to the old stadium’s “Great Moments Room” to listen to tapes of DiMag’s great plays. Reggie Jackson, the team’s first black “Big Guy,” doesn’t even know the room exists. Jackson came to New York because, like they say, there’s not enough mustard in the world to cover his sausage, but the Big Apple has the most.

The majority of the players, however, are here because Steinbrenner pays the best. Only Munson and White of the starters were “developed” in the Yankee “system” (in contrast to the ’61 team, for which only Maris wasn’t from the Yankee farm). Somehow, despite Steinbrenner’s Nazi dress code (no long hair) that guards against creeping Rizzutoism, Jimmy Wynn, a classy guy who’s been through Houston, L.A., and Atlanta in the past 10 years, says, “I don’t exactly feel like a Yankee. No. What’s a Yankee? I feel like a ball player who is employed by the Yankees, which is good because there happen to be a lot of good ball players employed by the Yankees right now.” The end of the reserve-cash-money hassles, the free agents, made baseball a grown-up game, and the Yankees, a group of fabulous mercenaries, are the game’s most grown-up team. That’s good because, like Wynn says, the Yanks are good. In fact, an accountant of a Yankee fan might say “excellent.” The kind of Yankee “excellence” even a Yankee Hater could love.

When you “cover” a team, you’ve got to get out to the park two hours before the game. Not that you’ll see anything particularly new. Yogi will be fungoing grounders to the infielders just as he’s done for the better part of the last 10 years. He will have four baseballs in his back pocket, making his body look even more like a plumber’s than the days when he was hitting all those homers in the clutch. A kid will be in the stands screaming, “Hey Yogi, hey, hey Yogi, hey Yogi” as he tries to make Yogi acknowledge his existence. Yogi won’t hear the kid (after all, he’s heard millions of kids just like this one; now it just goes in one ear and out the other; and will continue to hit fungoes to the infielders. And the kid will yell, “Hey Yogi, hey Yogi, hey Yogi… hey Yogi, you suck!”

The purpose of getting to the park two hours before the game is that you can fill your notebook with “Seen and Heard Around the Cage and Clubhouse” items. That means you stand around the batting cage and wander into the dressing room trying to overhear what the players are saying to one another. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear Reggie Jackson call to Don Baylor of the California Angels, “Hey, applehead, dickface… how you doing?” Or Thurman Munson say, “Which cocksucker took my towel?” Because it’s a cinch most players aren’t going to say much when they know you’ve got your pen in the cocked position.

So you hang around. Baseball writing is much like the game itself, a collection of tiny details painted on a wide but well-defined canvas. To do it well is a gradual process of building up confidences, making small talk, and ca­taloguing impressions. It was easier in the old days, when baseball was the plum of the sports desk, when there were three teams and seven newspapers in New York, when the great writers Daniel, Schecter, Smith, and Young traveled with the teams on trains, and when the Yankee players still lived in the Bronx.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713114″ /]

Now baseball writing is in decline. Much of the talent has been siphoned off to other sports, where you don’t have to file 162 times a year and spend two days in Boston, then get on a plane and fly to Anaheim. Papers, cognizant of the “bread-and-butter” relationships writers often develop with players, began switching assignments often. So now the continuity of the daily coverage is rather jumpy, and imprecise. Most of the better young writers don’t get to cover one team for extended periods of time. So the players see plenty of guys they don’t know getting more and more suspicious, giving more and more “nothing.”

That makes the “Seen and Heard Around the Cage and Clubhouse” stuff important. It also gives you plenty of items for the three-dot columns you have to file on off-days or rain outs. Hanging around the Yankees, you might learn:

…Jimmy Wynn has the most colorful underwear on the team. Over a recent three-day stretch, he wore: yellow with brown polka dots, denim, and brown cross-hatching with blue polka dots. All bikini briefs… Graig Nettles’s license plate, as does his glove, says “E- 5,” the official scorer’s notation for error on the third basemen. Nettles, who is off to a better start than usual, being above 200 in May, has been reminding people of Roger Maris. He looks like him, plays like him — intense, a brilliant but underrated fielder, super power, low average; also he is what the players call a “red-ass,” a crackerism for prick… There is a story around about the time a reporter came over to the Catfish and asked him if he could do a magazine story. The Fish, a friendly aw-shucks guy who writers liken to a hockey player for his omnipresent use of the word “fuck,” said, Sure, just send me a copy. The guy did. The Cat hit the ceiling when he saw he had been profiled in a raunchola stroke book; the Baptist in him was outraged. He went upstairs to Steinbrenner and said, “They got me between the beavers, what’s my family gonna say?”George, a noted prude, thereafter issued an edict that all mag interviews had to go through him… Another Catfish-media story concerns the time someone brought the tobacco chewer the lyrics of a Bob Dylan–Jac­ques Levy song, “Catfish,” as recorded by Roger McQuinn. The Cat took one look at Dylan’s rhymes and said, “It ain’t me, boy”… Yogi smokes Lucky Strikes… Big Lou Pinella said the other day, “Shut up or I’ll stick your head up the Farrah Fawcett”… Sparky Lyle, a beauty, has been said to buy a guy an enormous cream birthday cake, sing “Happy Birthday,” and then sit down in the cake bare-assed. He also once rose from a coffin, “Screamin’ Jay Hawkins” style, at a team meeting… Pete Sheehy, the Yank clubhouseman, has had the job for 51 years. That means he’s picked up the jock of the Babe, the Iron Horse, Joltin’ Joe, King Kong Keller, the Mick, the whole schmeer. But he doesn’t have any stories. Ask him, and he just smiles. Around the clubhouse they say that’s how you keep a job 51 years: Don’t tell stories… The best bodies on the team are Paul Blair, Reggie, Don Gullet. Catfish and Carlos May are the most noticeably out of shape… Some Yanks were saying maybe its better Steinbren­ner got shortstop Bucky Dent to complete his “all all-star” lineup instead of waiting for injured rookie Mickey Klutts to come around. Who wants a shortstop named Klutts?… When Joe Pepitone first used a hairdryer in his locker, Mickey Mantle, that good ole boy, loved to run his sweaty hands through Bensonhurst Joe’s do. Now even the batboys have stylers… Some say the real purpose of the famous “out of a hat” lineup Martin used to shake the Yanks out of their early slump was to move Mickey Rivers out of the lead-off slot as diplomatically as possible. Mickey pissed Martin off by refusing to learn how to drag bunt during the spring. His refusal to try to draw walks has caused fans to scream, “Way to wait him out, Mick” after Rivers pops up on the first pitch. Considered by writers to be “okay, but you can’t shut him up once he gets going,” Mickey has also been known to “miss a sign or 10″… After the game, the Yanks usually get some food brought in. All carbohydrates. The other day Don Gullet ate a potato-salad-on-white-bread sandwich… After watching Ron Blomberg run into a few walls, some baseball people have sworn, “He can’t be Jewish”… The Yank locker room hasn’t been the same since the departure of Dock Ellis. He was the most outspoken guy on the team. Against Steinbrenner — “l’ll talk about the man’s personal life.” Against anything. But a good guy. He was the club player rep. Now that’s he’s gone there isn’t any team leader. In fact, the Yank clubhouse emits no vibe at all… If basketball tends to make white country boys act like black city boys, baseball goes the other way. Almost all the slang is cracker. There are black expressions like “zacky” (which is old now). It was used to denote a smelly guy whose “mouth smell zacky like his ass.” But ball players use towny talk like “horseshit” over jive “bullshit.” Willie Randolph, of Livonia Avenue, borough of Brooklyn, says, however, “I think horseshit is bullshit”…

Some players, however, won’t fit into “Seen and Heard…” These guys are stars, guys you “write.” Yanks Reggie and Munson are the “stories.” You’ve got to talk to them, even it they sit on the bench.

Reggie’s the easiest, you can always talk to him. But what do you talk about? Everyone already knows he has a $3.5 mil contract, 100 shirts (many of which have Bill Blass labels on the outside), 11 cars (give or take a Ferrari), likes Weather Report and Herbie Hancock–style jazz, is into encounter groups, loved “living with the hippies” in the Berkeley Hills, speaks Spanish fluently, has the middle name Martinez, was once married to a Chicano, went to a fairly swank high school in Philly where he hung out with the faster-moving white kids, likes stewardesses, called Charley Finley “my great white father” but is thought to be cozy with Steinbrenner, is the only Yank who lives in Manhattan, gets mentioned regularly on Page Six, talks a lot about what he’s going to do for Harlem with his money, (“If I was here five years ago, Harlem would be a lot different today”), first wore Number 20 after Frank Robinson but soon changed to Number 44 after Hank Aaron, watches his home runs from the batter’s box, finally got his way and is hitting clean-up, has never hit .300, still is a very feared batter by opposing pitchers, is an overrated fielder who makes good throws then it doesn’t count, is the most popular guy on the team with the fans, will sign autographs even for cops, and finally got what he came to New York for — a candy bar named after him, the Reggie, Reggie, Reggie bar, which will be test-marketed this summer. The Reg says it will be “nutritious.”

If you missed any of that, go talk to Reg again. He’ll be glad to reiterate. When you’re switching gears from Reggie Jackson, bitchin’ ballplayer, to Reggie Jackson, folk hero, you’ve got to keep the rap flowing.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716433″ /]

But if the writers think Reggie is part good guy, part insecure egomaniac who tries to “write” their copy during interviews (most older white writers tend to believe black stars who showboat are egomaniacs), they are not quite sure what to make of Thurman Munson. After the Yanks’ shutout of Seattle a few Fridays ago, a daily writer asked Munson about his catching of rookie Ron Guidry. Team captain Thurm said, “Hey, fuck off, you know I ain’t talking to you, cocksucker.” To which the unfazed reporter said, “Gee, I can never get anything out of that Munson.”

Thurman Munson is a very touchy guy. He’s touchy about his name, he’s touchy about his squatty body, he’s touchy about his place in baseball history. You see, Munson thinks more about getting into the Hall of Fame than fan love or folk heroism. The only reason he made such a big deal over his contract was that he figures salaries are based on ball-playing ability, and on that score he doesn’t want anyone in front of him. Yankee players used to torture Munson by plastering the clubhouse with pictures of Carlton Fisk, the handsome lumberjack catch­er from the Red Sox. It drove Thurman nuts; he always thought Fisk got more recognition than him because Carlton had more savoir faire, not because he played a better game of hardball. As it turned out, Munson was right on both accounts.

On one hand, Munson has to the the biggest boor in the club. Asked by a young reporter if he had a minute, Chubby T threw underwear toward the kid’s face. He’s the sloppiest dresser on the team. He goes around the clubhouse snorting and beating his mitt. But then again, you won’t find many people around who still think Carlton Fisk, or even Johnny Bench (Munson’s other nemesis), can carry Thurman’s mask. He is easily the smartest ball­player on the Yankees: he doesn’t make mistakes. Not the fastest guy on the team by a long shot, he’s the best base runner. With a bat in his hands Thurm has been known to leer in the fashion of a cheap crook fingering his first tommy gun, but if he’s in a good mood he’ll go through long and detailed theories about “keeping a quiet body” and “being gentle with my stride at the plate.” Listening to him talk about going to the opposite field can be moving. A Zen student of hitting, Munson could become latter-day Ted Williams, albeit with less power.

One guy you always write is Billy Martin. Billy Martin is an American tragedy dressed up in pin stripes. He was born Alfred Manual Martin in a poor and broken home near Oakland. But it’s easier to see him out by the road in a hot-picking county, maybe Salinas, a mean little rat-faced kid throwing rotten peaches at passing cars. The cars would keep going and Martin would remember each and every one of them, figuring when he met the driver, he’d get even.

It’s ironic that Martin would wind up managing the team that seems destined to return the Yankees to the glory of the dynasty days. He played second base here for six years in the ‘5os. And despite Stengel’s love for him (Case knew a punk when he saw one, saying, “The little bugger is scrawny, is no beauty with that big schnozz but he’ll never let you down”) and his remarkable ability to play miles above his head in the World Series (far beyond his usual .260), Billy Martin was always doomed as a New York Yankee. He just didn’t “look like a Yankee” to George Weiss and Dan Topping. He always seemed to be trying too hard — those days Yankees were supposed to hustle, but not sweat. Joe D., the Yankee Clipper, never sweated — Billy Martin sweated. He also battled with his draft board, suffered from hypertension, got divorced, and fought on the field. (In fact, no player probably fought more: Martin tangled with Jimmy Piersal, Clint Courtney, Larry Doby, and once broke Cub pitcher Jim Brewer’s jaw with one punch. Brewer sued for a million, to which Billy said, “How would he like it — check or cash?”)

It was no surprise that Billy would take the fall for the Copa incident. It happened 20 years ago, on Martin’s 29th birthday. His Yankee buddies Mantle and Ford decided to take Billy out. During the show a guy was calling Sammy Davis, Jr. a nigger. Hank Bauer, the Yank Marine, didn’t like it. A fight started, and a banner headline flashed across the front of the New York Mirror blaring about Yankees in a drunken nightclub brawl. Billy never even got in a left hook but a few weeks later he was exiled to “the kissin’ cousin” Kansas City team. After that Martin played with six teams in five years, but he wasn’t much; after all, none of those teams ever got into the World Series. So Martin thought about the Yankees, and how it would be when he “got back.”

Before Billy “got back” to win the pennant for the Yanks last year, he managed three other clubs, Minnesota, Detroit, and Texas. All were dogs when Billy put the whip to them; each time he brought them home winners. He won divisional flags with Minny in ’69 and the Tigers in ’72. In ’74 he was the “manager of the year” for transforming the floundering Texas team — which had never had a winning club in the franchise’s history — into the hottest bunch of young ballplayers in the league. As a skipper, Martin plays it the same way he did barreling into second to break up a double play — spikes up. He’ll bring the infield in to cut off a run in the second inning of a scoreless game. He’ll pinch hit in the first inning. There’s no better operator “between the lines,” but then again, there’s also never been a manager who’s gotten fired three times in six years after significantly improving the play of each club he’s handled.

[related_posts post_id_1=”638234″ /]

It was always “the front office.” That means the bosses told Billy to do something, he told them to fuck off, and got canned as a result. Or something like that. Billy will tell you none of it was his fault: The fans loved him. The players loved him. And the owners didn’t know shit from shinola — they should have stayed in the Stadium Club polishing pinky rings. It’s true, too, that all three clubs took almost immediate dives into the toilet after Billy left. But there’s another side to this. At Texas some players balked when Martin reportedly told them to bean Elliot Maddox, an ex-Ranger then with the Yanks. Martin was supposed to have had a run-in with Maddox and was using his pitchers as button men. Billy says, “They just didn’t understand my way of doing things.”

Which is why Billy’s current tenure with the Yanks is so strange. Here he is back with the team that stole his youth, the team he’s always vowed to return to. And everyone is just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Martin explains it all in his “clubhouse theory.” “Managing on the field ain’t shit,” Billy says. “It’s in the clubhouse a manager has to know what he’s doing. I go by the Peter Principle. You know about? It says everyone seeks his own level of incompetence. That I do, find that level.” Billy Martin’s level of incompetence is, of course, the punk in him, and he can’t shake it.

The writers are hip. After every game, while the players soap up and play bumper pool, scribes file into Billy’s blue cinderblock wall office to watch The Skip drink a Lite beer and glare underneath the mounted bonefish he caught off the Bahamas. (It figures fish is on the puny side but “fought like hell.”) They ask Martin about managerial decisions made and not made. Billy answers in one or two sentences, usually saying things like, “I don’t have to explain what I do to you guys.” Over the recent homestand these rituals were kind of boring. But the writers know you can’t “get” from Martin while his club is winning. You’ve got to wait for him to get mad, that’s when the copy gushes.

Two weeks ago it began. All through the media blitz over the free agents and Steinbrenner’s supposed “all all-star team” you got the feeling that despite Billy saying accommodating things like, “I’ll manage whoever they give me,” he was not happy with the state of affairs. The acquisition of Bucky Dent wasn’t his idea. He would have been happy with Chicken Stanley at short. The Chicken can’t hit worth a shit but he fields like a vacuum and tires hard — the kind of limited but hungry player close to Martin’s heart. To Billy it was a symbol of what was happening to the club. Sure they were getting great players, but Martin liked last year’s less devastating team better. That club has “a pulse”: they gambled, ran the bases, and hit line drives. They were like their manager. Now, with a multitude of riches, Billy can’t find that “pulse.” This is a rich and unwieldy crew, not Billy’s at all.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714117″ /]

It had been eating at Martin. And a few weeks ago the bile began to surface. In a fit of self-destruction, Billy began to call Steinbrenner out. Reports leaked that he didn’t like being called after every losing game. Then came “the 25th man” incident. After a particularly depressing loss to the Seattles on the coast, Martin screamed he didn’t know why the hell he has to play ball with 24 men while everyone else got to use 25. He was referring to the open spot on the Yank roster, one which Martin wanted filled with Elrod Hendricks, the catcher Billy said he needed to spell Squat Man Munson. He implied the “front office” had been lax in making the move.

After some headlines, Steinbrenner hit the ceiling. First he filled the 25th slot with Dell Alston who, although he was hitting some .200 points higher than Hendricks, is an outfielder and won’t do much for Munson’s wobbly legs. Then came a press release saying Martin’s statements were “inaccurate and unfounded.” A few days later, just in time for Billy’s birthday, Steinbrenner fined his manager $2500, presumably for having a big mouth.

So the lines are drawn. No doubt, it’ll be a fight to the finish. For if Billy Martin, Salinas punk, has always longed to grace a baseball field with “Yankee excellence,” so has George Steinbrenner, third-generation rich kid from Cleveland.

Steinbrenner, a rotund 46-year-0ld man with faraway eyes and a nervous manner, has been rehearsing all his life for owning the New York Yankees. He says he’s always wanted “being part of the best… what has always signified the best. A tradition of greatness. That’s what the Yankees are to me.” Now George has it; he is, just as Topping and Webb were “co-owners,” “the principle owner.” But that’s not enough.

You see, what George M. has really always wanted is to be one of the guys. Once, when he was the boss of the Cleveland Pipers, a minor-league basketball team, George became enraged at a call against his team. He charged out onto the court to protest and got saddled with a technical foul. It’s probably the only technical ever called on an owner during an actual game. George said, “Well, I just wanted to get into the game.” Steinbrenner’s later techni­cal foul, his campaign contribution conviction, came for similar reasons. To hear George tell it, he believed in Nixon and just wanted to be part of the team.

No surprise he got caught. Like Billy Martin, George has always tried too hard. Since buying the Yanks and a townhouse in the East ’60s (three years ago), Steinbrenner has been going around saying, “I’m all for New York, it’s the best city. That’s why I want to win for my city. I want to give New York the best. It’s my home.” So, like any would-be City Father, George has tried to move with others who are “all for New York.” The other night at the Garden’s Norton-Bobick fight, George was sitting in the right section: alongside Hughie Carey, John Lindsay, Felix Rohatyn, and the rest. But with the NY Yankee logo monogrammed on his tie and that faraway lonely hurt in his eyes, he seemed painfully out of place; just the way a hick businessman from Ohio is supposed to look in a crowd of New York sharpies.

George has had similar success buddying up with the Yankee players. They like his checks, but they sure aren’t going to love him. When asked if they were going to bet on Steinbrenner’s horse, Steve’s Friend, in the Derby for “sentimental reasons,” the pony-playing Yanks reacted like the idea had lice. Some say they remember George’s other attempts to be one of the guys. When he was suspended by Bowie Kuhn for his felony conviction, he reportedly sent tape-cassette pep talks to be played at team meetings.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714847″ /]

In the end George Steinbrenner will fire Billy Martin. Maybe because baseball owners always fire baseball managers. Or maybe because Billy Martin was born to be fired. But there’s better tragedy here than that: When two losers, no matter what their pretensions, aspire to the mantle of eternal winning, something has to give. When it dies, if it hasn’t already (the Yanks’ recent stumble started the night “The 25th Man” episode began), it will be sad. Because after Billy goes, the Yanks, like all the teams he’s managed, are likely to go into the toilet, too. And then the grace both Billy and Steinbrenner sweat after will be gone forever.

When it happens, Billy, who cried the last time he was sent out to Kansas City, will pretend not to notice. He was half-expecting it all along. He’s been in town nearly two years and still lives in a hotel over in Jersey. In fact, Billy’s already got his statement planned. “All my life,” he says, “all my life in baseball and in everything else, too, I’ve never gotten back the loyalty I gave… so I don’t care what they think. There’s only one who can judge me now, and that’s Jesus Christ in the heavens.”

But later for all that. Today, as Red Barber used to say in the days when he’d banter with Mel Allen before they both got fired to signal the absolute end of the Yankee dynasty, it was a beautiful day at “The Big Ballpark.” The sun was out, 35,000 little kids got free double-knit pin-stripe shirts with NY on them, and the Yankees killed the Oakland A’s. Jacob Ruppert would have loved it. They scored five runs in the first inning, and then slowly pulled away, making it 10 to 2 before the Oakland scrubeenies closed it to 10 to 5. Graig Nettles hit a homer and made a few dazzlers in the field. Thurman hit one, too, as well as banging out three other safeties. It put him in a good enough mood to actually “give” the writers some positive Munson stuff. Mike Torrez won his second game in a week and said, yes, it was still “great to be a Yankee.”

Outside, the kids waiting for autographs are talking about the players. Most of them wait at the press gate every day to get a look at the Yanks as they come out all dressed like normal people to get in their cars to drive to New Jersey. Just like the writers, they talk about which players you can “get” from and which will “stiff” you: Mickey Rivers, sometimes he’ll sign. Carlos May never will. Chicken Stanley’s not bad, but he don’t start so who gives a fuck about him?

Reggie, they agree, is the best. Not only will he always sign no matter, says one kid, “what kind o’ fox he got waitin’ for him downtown,” but his John Hancock is worth the most. One teenager comes up to the Press Gate every day to “get Reg.” Then he goes to Harlem and sells the auto; once he got five dollars… maybe that’s one way the Yanks can put money back into the community.

When Reggie appears in his leather-trim jacket, every­one starts chanting, “Reg-gie, Reg-gie, Reg-gie.” The chant, now a Big Ballpark staple every time the Reg comes to the plate, was what gave Standard Brands the idea to call Jax’s candy bar the Reggie, Reggie, Reggie. As part of the promotion they let 140 kids in free to the right-field stands. The only thing they have to do is pretend to be part of “Reggie’s Regiment” and hold up letters spelling out REGGIE. Sometimes it comes out REGGIE and the Reg hits the ball before the kids have a chance to fix it.

Hearing his name, the Reg smiles. Everyone crushes toward him. He politely motions them to go back behind the police sawhorses. They do. Then the Reg goes down the line, signing maybe 20 “Best wishes, Reggie Jackson’s.” Then he goes into the VIP parking lot to get into his Rolls.

A guy standing with his wife says, “He ain’t so good-looking.” She looks at him and says, “He’s a whole lot better looking than you, fool.” And as Reggie pulls away toward the Major Deegan, kids run after the car, scream­ing, “Hey Reggie, hey Reggie, hey Reggie, hey Reggie… hey Reggie… you suck.”  ■