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Paul Castellano Hit: Capo Loses Mob Primary

After all the pictures were taken and Paul Castellano’s cigar butt had been re­trieved by the cops and someone had found a piece of his skull the size of a half dollar lying near the entrance of Sparks Steak House; after the bodies of Castel­lano and Thomas Bilotti had been carted away, and the big black Lincoln had been taken to the East 51st Street station house; after all that, two middle-aged men — one black and one white — stood on East 46th Street, staring at the chalked hieroglyphics of murder on the sidewalk before them, retailing “dearies.”

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“My dearie is that the trial took up so much time, dey hadda whack him out,” said the white man, who was in his six­ties. “Nobody was mindin’ the store.”

The black man’s dearie was more up­town. “It had to be the Colombians, man. They tired of these old-time gangsters and they want to take it away from them. So they kill them. It’s simple, man.”

In the days following the murders, such dearies were everywhere. There was, to begin with, the dearie of the Castellano tapes. The government had penetrated Castellano’s home with recording devices, had listened to Big Paul discuss various Mob felonies, and would use the tapes in the prosecution of the five family heads who make up the so-called Commission. So Castellano was knocked off to save the four other bums by making the tapes in­admissible as evidence. Problem: the tapes are still admissible.

But the most popular explanation hinged on the impatience of one John Gotti. This is essentially a generation gap dearie, in which the 45-year-old Gotti, a violent little fat man from Howard Beach, had wearied of the old-world conservatism of the 73-year-old Castellano. What was all this stuff (the young hoods wanted to know), investing in legitimate businesses? Let’s do what we do best: peddle heroin! For several years, Gotti had been restrained by Aniello (Mr. O’Neill) Dellacroce, Castellano’s under­boss, in the Gambino family. But the un­happiness in Mobland was endemic.

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The Gambinos had 250 “made” mem­bers and 550 associates. Since most of these imbeciles can barely read a menu (let alone an annual report), investing in legitimate businesses did them little good, particularly if the investments were in Castellano’s name. The more cautious Castellano became, the less his soldiers had to do; it’s demeaning for a 45-year­old man to steal cars for a living. What hoodlums do best is peddle heroin and kill people.

Castellano had let out the word that he wanted Bilotti to succeed him as head of the family. And Dellacroce had gone along. Then, last month, Dellacroce died in bed. And according to the dearie, Gotti immediately went to a pay phone and called Palermo for outside contractors.

That was, in some ways, business as usual. What was extraordinary in the days immediately following the 46th Street killings was the tepid, impotent reaction among our political leaders. Mayor Koch deplored the killings, of course, and vowed that the gunmen would be caught. But his police commis­sioner was talking as if this were a shake­up at Drexel-Burnham. Neither chose all-out action. There should have been police raids all over town that night, with cops smashing into social clubs, chopping the walls to pieces in search of guns hid­den by the assassins. They should have dragged the wise guys by the hair out of their beds, exposing them before their neighbors, jamming them into police sta­tions for interrogation. Koch could have unleashed the full fury of the law. Noth­ing of the sort happened.

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Mario Cuomo reacted in an even more appalling way. He chose to mark the oc­casion of a rush-hour double homicide by complaining about the use of the word “Mafia.” Not about the killings, but the way they might be perceived. Yes, there are Cubans, Colombians, Jews, Vietnam­ese, Chinese, Irishmen in organized crime. But this branch of organized crime, in this city and this state, is Mafia. It’s a collection of 1500 to 2000 Italian-­American dope peddlers, killers, thieves, and musclemen whose continued exis­tence smears every hard-working Italian-­American in the country. Wise guys don’t work; they live like parasites off other people’s work. And what does Mario Cuomo, the tribune of the working man, have to say? “You’re telling me that the Mafia is an organization, and I’m telling you that’s a lot of baloney!” Cuomo, who will certainly be Mob-baited if he runs for president, should be leading the fight against these skanks. But he doesn’t even admit the Mafia exists; next week he might tell us there’s no Sicily either.

Denying the existence of the Mob is as bad as accepting it as permanent. The drive should he to eliminate the Mob from American life, and that task is not as impossible as books and movies make it seem. Clearly, the cases against these hoodlums brought by Rudolph Giuliani (no matter how poorly prosecuted) have already had some effect. Prosecution ties these aging bums in legal knots; it con­sumes their energies; it makes them cau­tious, diverts them from felony.

But much more could be done. The media could help by taking the romance out of the Mob; these aren’t “men of honor” out of The Godfather. They’re people who spread misery and degrada­tion through heroin; who use physical force to extort what they can’t get with work, intelligence, or talent. In the press discussion of John Gotti, law enforce­ment officials told the story of what hap­pened to a neighbor who accidentally ran over and killed Gotti’s 12-year-old son Frank. A year later, the man disap­peared, and the cops have information that he was chopped up with a chainsaw. These are not people who sit in the gar­den at twilight, reading Marcus Aurelius.

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The cops could also use some muscle in dealing with them, harassing them at ev­ery opportunity, locking them up whenever possible, letting them know that be­ing a hoodlum is a miserable life. The courts should cooperate with warrants, allowing the cops to tear apart their fan­cy homes, their lovely lawns, in search of weapons or drug money. The churches could deny these cretins respectability in the neighborhoods where they live. So­-called “straight” businessmen — particularly bankers — must learn that if they do business with hoodlums, they’re going to do heavy time. None of this can happen if elected leaders treat the Mob as an amus­ing fiction, or an unbreakable component of this society. There must be a recogni­tion that these bums are the enemy, that they’ve made this a more dangerous and degraded city by their operations. Their perceived ability to “get away with it” adds to the city’s generalized cynicism.

On the morning after Castellano and Bilotti were ambushed, I went down to federal court in Foley Square, where doz­ens of these bums — including Castel­lano — have been on trial for weeks. There was a platoon of them in the fifth-floor coffee shop, whispering, smirking, gig­gling. Not one of them had a newspaper, but they’d certainly heard the news. They did not offer any dearies. ■

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A Farewell to Machismo

Yeah, the Kid is his name
And he’s too tough tuh tame,
He’s the fastest, the meanest, the best!
Jist blam! blam! blam!
And he don’t give a damn!
He’s the Savior of the West!
He’s the Savior of the West!

— Robert Coover, “The Kid,” 1970

For me, the Kid was machismo, and he’s almost gone now, and Goddamnit, in a lot of ways, I’m going to miss him.

I know: The style was full of exaggerated masculinity; peacock pride; brutal vanity and the lan­guage of stunted boys. And the Kid, carrying the baggage of that style, is riding out of town at last, leaving the women and freeing the men from the force of his pre­sence; it was one of the longest, most violent visits in history. The Kid always wore the mask of chiv­alry, appearing tough, resourceful, brave and solitary, and his image seduced generation after genera­tion of Americans, including mine. Statesmen and steamfitters, prizefighters and presidents, foot sol­diers and Harvard men: few were immune.

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And now, at last, it’s over; the chivalric mask has been removed. In the end, we saw Richard Nixon’s features crawling underneath: we saw the dead of too many wars speaking from the eyes of the Kid; we saw marriages dissolved into bitter personal history, bodies lying on the streets of a dozen cities, macho princes filling up the prisons, all of them moving around behind the mask. The Kid could not stand exposure. Battered by long attack from the female citizenry, deprived of crucial support from some of the men, and worst of all, subjected to laughter, the Kid is riding off into what might prove to be a permanent sunset.

It hasn’t been easy. In some ways, the Kid has been central to being an American, affecting men and women almost equally, deeply integrated in the American character. The Kid, after all, was a product of the American frontier, rootless, without limits, making law with his cock of a gun, and moving on. The reality of the fron­tier was barbarity in some in­stances, banal in others. But le­gends, as constructed by Ned Buntline and made into poetry by John Ford, are always more powerful than facts. Those popular legends — of which the Kid with his code of machismo was the centerpiece — created the images by which American men were mea­sured. They taught at least five generations of American women their place (as whores or school-teachers or mothers, but seldom anything else). And far more important, these legends became, the spine of the American ideology, frequently superseding capitalism and democracy for several generations of American foreign policy makers. American statesmen, American presidents, and American spies were Americans before they were anything else; that means they were educated to respect and emulate the Kid.

And it is no simple thing to damn them for this. After all, the Whole Macho Thing was one of the most attractive life-styles ever con­structed. For me, it was Shane riding in from nowhere to clean out a corrupt town. It was the Contin­ental Op wiping out Poisonville. It was Gary Cooper, standing alone before hostile guns at high noon. It was Robert Jordan on the side of his hill, with his wounded leg and his machine gun, waiting for the Fascists. I was there with all of them; they peopled the empty spaces of a young man’s mind. I walked out on the tarmac of the Casablanca airport with Bogart and stood with him in the fog, as the woman he loved flew off to safety, while he lit another Camel and started his beautiful friendship with Claude Rains. I was in the upper deck of the Polo Grounds, cheering in the steaming New York night, while Ray Robinson flicked away the blood from the gash over his brow and called on himself to come on and knock out Randy Turpin in the 10th round. They were heroes, muy macho, and I loved them all.

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The macho style was careless, death-defying, existential, and it had its own Pantheon: Edward R. Murrow, the trench coat pulled tight, the cigarette dangling from the long piano player’s fingers, describing the Blitz from the roof of the BBC in London, oblivious to danger; Jackson Pollock, grizzled, swaggering, hard-drinking, bust­ing open the timid traditionalism of American painting, scoring one-round knockouts over the children of the School of Paris, carousing with Franz Kline at the bar of the Cedar Street Tavern, surrounded by the art history majors from Wellesley and Sarah Lawrence; Dylan Thomas destroying his gorgeous sullen art with drinking and whoring until he landed in his final bed at St. Vincent’s Hospital. For a kid growing up in America, they were the models: Along with John Garfield, with the gentle eyes set in the face of a tough Brownsville Jew, dying in bed with a woman who wasn’t his wife; Pete Reiser, smashing his beautiful talents against the walls of Ebbets Field; Charlie Parker, reinventing jazz on the tiny stages of the 52nd Street clipjoints, his arms scarred with heroin tracks, dying with his Countess; Beau Jack, Stanley Ketchel, Babe Ruth, Rocky Graziano (“I brung home the title to Noo Yawk, Mal”) lighting a Pall Mall in the dressing room, swallowing a beer, as they worked on Zale down the hall). And Hemingway.

“I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev,” Ernest Hem­ingway told Lillian Ross in 1950. “Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one. Nobody is going to get me in any ring with Mr. Tolstoy.”

That was the precise tone of the later, debased Hemingway, the Hemingway that Norman Mailer once described as “the cavalry of American letters,” and the Hem­ingway who became the central figure in the modern American macho style. That style was boast­ful, competitive, full of sports met­aphors, because sports had be­come the arena for acting out the legend that had once been very real on the frontier. Hemingway became the poet of machismo, the chronicler of bullfighters, deep sea fishermen, hard drinkers, saloon brawlers, and wasted soldiers. Two generations of American writers were forced to confront him: They emulated him or re­belled against him, but they had to deal with him, because in Heming­way, they were dealing with a deep, ferociously strong compo­nent of the American character itself: the Kid.

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“Hemingway’s he-man performance was, among other things, a means of combatting the American stereotype of the writer as a sissy,” the critic Harold Rosenberg has written. “… One might say that each of his novels origjn­ated in a new choice of male makeup.”

And there was a strain of theatricality in everything that Hemingway did from the time he arrived in Key West in 1928. He became one of the country’s first media heroes, a development that coincided with the triumph of the gossip column and the rise of the picture magazine, and he worked hard at it, dropping notes to Leonard Lyons, posing for photographs with giant marlin, or slaying water buffalo. Other photographs showed him at the front in Spain, or drinking with the partisans after liberating the Ritz in Paris in 1944. Growing older, the broad-shoul­dered body thickening, the moustached face finally assuming a full white mask of beard, as he made the transformation from Ernest to Hemingway to Papa. There were many people who thought the whole performance was ludicrous; critics like Edmund Wilson made more serious observations, pointing out that as the media image grew, as the focus shifted from the writing to the Hemingway persona, in short, as the macho image overwhelmed the scared young poet of World War I and the young man who sat at the feet of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, the art itself was being ruined. Certainly the Jake Barnes of “The Sun Also Rises” would have snickered at the Colonel Cantwell of “Across the River and Into the Trees.” If you looked closely at the photographs, only Hemingway’s eyes — increasingly uncertain, vul­nerable, and remorseful — indicated that Hemingway himself knew what was happening to him.

Because central to the macho style was performance. The macho man should be able to climb into a ring with a hangover and a bad stomach and win the title: he should be able to drink and whore all night and still work a typewrit­er the next day: and more than anything else, he must always be capable of an erection. It is a young man’s style; it doesn’t encourage a writer to grow old and write masterpieces; it does not teach anyone to embrace weak­ness, most importantly, one’s own. All that business about Grace Under Pressure is the code of the Kid: it leads to a brief performance, a culminating explosion of violence, and a slow ride out of town. And in some way, Hemingway was our best writer of West­erns. It is no accident, perhaps, that when he reached for that last shotgun, he was living in Idaho.

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***

When I went looking for a defini­tion of machismo for these notes, it wasn’t easy to find. The new Ran­dom House Dictionary talked about “maleness, virility, male domination.” There was nothing at all in the Webster’s New Third International, and the Oxford En­glish Dictionary described a vari­ety of birds, from the “macho mullett” to the British puffin. In defining the word “macho,” the Velasquez Spanish-English Dic­tionary was more helpful, if some­what comic: “1. male animal; in particular, a he-male or a he-goat. 2. A masculine plant. 3. A piece of some instrument that enters into another; a screw-pin. 4. An igno­rant fellow.”

All of the above might apply, of course, but no dictionary definition could come close to explaining what machismo has been in action. One thing is certain: machismo kills.

“We know that men stand a 500 per cent greater risk of a coronary than women,” writes Harvey E. Kaye, M.D. in his book, Male Survival: Masculinity Without Myth, “and, in the past two de­cades, deaths from heart attacks have jumped 14 per cent among men aged 25 to 44, while declining among women in the same age group.” Kaye, whose book is one of several recent volumes dealing with what he calls The Masculine Mystique, goes on to say: “Characterized by intense striving for achievement, competitiveness, aggressivity, impatience, a pre­emptive speech pattern, and a constant awareness of the pressure of time and responsibility, the can­didate for a coronary is a living embodiment of the ideals of the Mystique.”

1975 Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about the discontents of machismo

In “Naked Nomads,” his recent study of unmarried men in Ameri­ca, George Gilder also shows the effects of macho pressure on single men who are asked to perform to impossible standards as “swingers” and sexual athletes, and cool urban versions of the Kid. He quotes studies showing that single men are over 30 per cent more likely than married men or single women to be depressed; 30 per cent more likely to show ‘phobic tendencies’ and ‘passivity’; and almost twice as likely to show severe neurotic symptoms. They are almost three times as prone to nervous breakdowns.”

And certainly married people are in some trouble with machi­smo. Male possessiveness, and its dark side, sexual jealousy, are central to the macho style. And in the United States, jealousy is a killer. One New York homicide detective told me that “jealousy kills more people in New York than heroin,” claiming that in his expe­rience, two thirds of the city’s 2000 annual homicides can be traced to jealousy. Impossibly high stan­dards of male performance have also contributed to the wildly esca­lating rate of family abandonment, and the resulting social disorder and swollen welfare rates about 700,000 women and children with­out an adult male in the household in New York City alone. The male who finds that his life simply cannot measure up to the standards imposed on him by movies, television, and some literature can solve his problems with violence, the passivity of alcohol or drugs, or with flight. The macho style, trapped in an eternal adolescence, usually sides with Huckleberry Finn, urging us all to light out for the Territory. Take the Struggle somewhere else. Start all over again. The Kid is never asked to fully understand another human being, to learn to love a woman raise a family, admit human frailty and weakness and fear.

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But if the macho style can be killing on a local, domestic level, it becomes almost suicidal on an international scale. And there is no way to disguise the fact that the same myths that formed the rest of us also formed our recent presi­dents. The first champion of the macho style in this century was clearly Theodore Roosevelt (who was, incidentally, the president when Ernest Hemingway was growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, and who was one of the early examples of the rough-riding, war-hardened, big-game hunting style that Hemingway exemplified later; in some photographs, Hemingway even looks like Teddy Roosevelt). Consider this passage from Roosevelt:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place all never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Jason Miller quotes these words  in a crucial scene in his play about the failure of machismo, “That Championship Season.” Worse, they were quoted with approval by two recent American presidents, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. But when you examine the words, they are so clearly foolish, so dangerously romantic, that a high school student should recognize the horrors they might bring to a nation that believes them. Who, for example, are “those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat,” those to whom, presumably, no credit belongs? Einstein? Freud? Leonardo da Vinci? Jonas Salk? Bud­dha? Walt Whitman? Karl Marx? Tolstoy? These are the words of a football coach, the “winning-is­-the-only-thing” credo of a Vince Lombardi, whose courage is al­ways of the sideline variety, growing stronger with each mauling yard earned by the players who suffer the actual pain.

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What they are in reality are the romantic words of a man who needs glorious rhetoric to cover up murderous reality. Roosevelt was the champion of the American Empire; he clearly saw it as an American right to grab Puerto Rico and the Philippines, to carry the message of a burgeoning American capitalism to the far corners of the earth. He didn’t have the power then, but he certainly had the words. Imperialism is the ultimate form of machismo: aggressive; possessive; competi­tive; fearful of appearing impo­tent; its malign reality covered with the language of chivalry, talk of duty, honor, and courage.

In the era of Roosevelt, it was necessary to create a rhetoric to justify the killing of Indians, the robbery of the American land, and the terrible working conditions in the great cities.

The macho style served that purpose for almost a half-century to follow. If the American male was made to believe that it is somehow “manly” to endure discomfort and pain, then he could go down to the coal face every day and believe he was doing something valuable. If World War I had been explained as a struggle for colonial markets, Woodrow Wilson would not have been able to raise an army to go to Europe and fight; call it a “war to save democracy” and the volunteers would line up in the millions. The American male was given some small edge: He could enforce monogamy on his wife, have her as his possession, and perhaps even beat her up once in a while. (The ultimate macho advice was once given to me years ago: “Kid,” he said, “never marry a girl you can’t knock out with one punch.”) Women were generally kept off the job market so that they would not compete with men as a source for cheap labor, and discriminatory laws were passed almost everywhere to make certain that women were treated as slaves and/or children.

The result was that men did all the terrible jobs. Men fought the American wars. And machismo, elaborated and codified as the cen­tury grew older, became the domi­nant force in our foreign policy. When an aroused United States reacted passionately to Pearl Harbor, the earlier events behind the quarrel with the Japanese were forgotten — the struggle for raw materials and markets in Asia­ — and the duty of every American male was to enlist. In the words of one song of the era, it was time “to knock those Japs/down to their Jap-a-knees.” When the war was over, when the survivors moved through the ashes of Hiroshima and Dresden and Nagasaki and Berlin, the United States was the greatest power on the earth; the Kid ruled the town.

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But with great power came the macho style, and the macho style requires enemies. You cannot be the toughest gun in town unless there are other people in town, and the romantic nature of the argu­ment requires that the hostiles be the epitome of evil. The results are familiar: the rise of the Central Intelligence Agency, populated by romantic anti-Communists who had started out in the OSS, and were soon engaged in gunfights in Greece, Iran, Guatemala, and a hundred other places; Cold War with the Soviet Union, which had its own macho types sitting at the feet of Stalin in the Kremlin; the attempt to impose order over all forms of nationalist revolution; commitments to fight against any­one who tried to overthrow a colonial power; the still-puzzling war in Korea. The War Department changed its name to the Defense Department, but the people were the same and the weaponry grew enormous. Presidents other than Eisenhower, who had been a general, and, therefore, understood better the limitations of the mili­tary mind — seemed in awe of the men with the scrambled eggs on their hats who walked so briskly, so efficiently, in such manly fash­ion through the corridors of the Pentagon. By 1960, the stage was set for tragedy.

“The main thing implicit in the Pentagon Papers,” Daniel Ellsberg once said, “is a great and sometimes irrational fear of losing; both the decision-maker’s fear of appearing irresolute or ‘soft,’ and his perception of the American voter’s inability to accept de­feat.”

1975 Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about the discontents of machismo

So John F. Kennedy, who had written a book about political courage, and who had grown up in the Hemingway era, went to Vienna and met Khruschev. Somehow his manhood was thought to be at stake. And soon the troops were moving to Berlin, and to Southeast Asia. He could not ap­pear weak. He could not let Khrushchev think of him as a boy. The Americans financed a botched invasion of Cuba. They moved more strongly into the civil war in Vietnam. And then came the Mis­sile Crisis. In the recent television version of the events, called “The Missiles of October,” it was clear how the entire crisis was a ques­tion of proving masculinity. To prove he was a man, Kennedy risked the obliteration of the Earth. It was chilling and foolish, a 13-day exercise on the brink of doom, about a relatively minor episode (Cuba, which, after all, had been invaded two years earlier by American-financed Cuban exiles, certainly had a right to arm itself defensively against the United States, and if the Americans had the right to place missiles in Tur­key, on the border of the Soviet Union, then the Soviets had the right to place missiles in a friendly country near the border of the United States). But Kennedy seemed prepared to risk everything, and all accounts describe how cool he was during the events, how he displayed Grace Under Pressure. Fortunately for the earth, Khrushchev was not so dedicated to macho principles; he was willing to back down, to be reasonable, to display simple human fear about the consequences of the nuclear poker game.

Unfortunately, the Missile Crisis was seen by many observers as a triumph for the macho style. Clearly, it helped propel us into the quagmire of Vietnam. When Ken­nedy was assassinated, and Lyndon Johnson came to power, the decision-makers in the White House, Dean Rusk, Walt Rostow, Robert McNamara, the CIA peo­ple, and Johnson himself seemed convinced that If You Stand Up To the Communists They Will Back Down. Nobody passed the word to the little men in the black paja­mas. They fought on, and the Americans plunged deeper into the war. By the winter of 1965, it seemed as if a Western were unspooling Johnson’s head, and his cavalry was plunging into the fray against the hostiles. Americans, after all, went West to get to the Far East; the new frontier seemed to be located somewhere in the Mekong Delta.

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Billions of dollars were thrown into Vietnam. Almost 55,000 Americans died there and another 200,000 were wounded as 2 million young Americans fought across swamp and highland. Johnson destroyed himself politically. His Great Society programs died and the money went to Asia, and the once-mighty American dollar started to shudder, as the Treasury printed paper to pay for the war, because Johnson refused to ask the Americans for a tax increase.

Richard Nixon arrived in the White House but nothing changed. He said he was not going to be the first American president to lose a war. America would not become “a pitiful, helpless giant.” Nixon surrounded himself with macho types: Bob Haldeman was tough; John Ehrlichman was tough; John Mitchell was tough. Antiwar demonstrators were “bums.” They talked to each other, as the White House tapes showed later, in a curious private language, partly derived from sports, partly form the Pentagon, and the rest from the advertising business. They were all tough. Yeah.

Nixon’s foreign policy advisor, and later secretary of state, was Henry Kissinger who actually described himself in an interview with Oriana Fallaci as “a gunfighter” striding into town alone. Nixon invaded Cambodia. His attorney general tear-gassed and arrested antiwar demonstrators. When Nixon took a strange late night journey with his chauffeur to talk to antiwar demonstrators during one of the moratoriums; he tried to talk to them about football. They were flabbergasted.

And while the bombing continued, while thousands died, and Nixon talked about how terrible it would be for the United States to be “defeated” or “humiliated” or turned into a “second-rate power,” his vice-president was roaming the country attacking the “effete” intellectual snobs. Nixon had picked Agnew, he explained, because he had been a “tough guy” with black leaders when he was governor of Maryland (he didn’t know, presumably, that Agnew had also been a pretty tough thief), and because Agnew was capable of “forcefulness” and had a “strong-looking chin.” For as long as it was possible, Agnew carried your Nixon’s domestic policies, creating enemies when none existed intellectually mugging those who disagreed with the Nixon administration. It was no accident that when Agnew wanted to abuse Republican Charles Goodell in the 1970 New York senatorial contest, he described him as a political “Christine Jorgenson.”

It lasted for almost five years. The war ended after the murder­ous Christmas bombing of 1972 when Kissinger was finally able to negotiate an American retreat “with honor,” a peace that left the war going on, but at least took American bodies out of the way of Vietnamese guns. And at home, Watergate had already happened; Agnew resigned and was saved from the penitentiary through a deal. The cover-up was begun, and then started to unravel, and finally Nixon was led away in disgrace to his Elba in San Clemente. No more phone calls to football coaches. No more tough speeches to hand-­picked audiences. Only silence, as his followers, those champions of the macho style, enter and leave their various prisons.

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***

Vietnam and Watergate proba­bly finished off the Kid. But there were other forces at work too, all of which led to the decline of the macho style. In literature, Joseph Heller demolished the Hemingway ethos in “Catch-22” (although Yossarian’s final decision — to make a separate peace — was es­sentially no different from the de­cision made by Frederick Hemingway in “A Farewell to Arms” (1929), Hemingway’s last novel be­fore he became a celebrity). More important perhaps was the rise of rock music; rigid codes of dress fell away as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones took center stage in a generation’s con­sciousness. “Gates of Eden” was a long way from the Man in the Arena. The Beatles grew their hair long and in a single year changed the way young men had worn their hair for a half-century; through the Nixon years, all of his young men, like Haldeman himself, made a point of wearing their hair in the short ’50s style, as if telling the young that power was clearly masculine, and you proved it by the way you chose to look. Mick Jagger sniggered, and did his epicene dance.

More important was the way women were changing. The Pill had opened up an era of freer sexuality, and women were increasingly demanding the same rights as men. From the publica­tion of Betty Friedan’s “The Fem­inine Mystique” in 1963, the basis of male-female relationships was brought under the most stringent examination in memory. Many men resisted from the beginning, but others saw it clearly, if not immediately, that equality for women was certain to lead to an expansion of the humanity of men themselves. The docile, submissive woman was going out of style quickly; in sexual matters, women were more aggressive (in some cases scaring some men into bouts of impotence); more important, women started moving into politics, demanding that their voices be heard on matters other than specifically “women’s issues.” In literature, hundreds of novels by women seemed to appear, explaining their lives in ways that men had never seemed capable of un­derstanding before; Erica Jong became a best-seller by writing the sort of book Henry Miller had written in the past. Joyce Carol Oates exploded all over the place, issuing a stream of novels, short stories, poetry, and essays that made her a major writer in a space of a few years. There were, of course, problems. If American male writers had always had trouble fashioning believable female characters, women seemed to be having the same problems with creating male characters. But the change had begun. The future appears rich and fecund.

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But all of this is a continuing process, and the Kid is still with us, if not as powerful a figure as before. He hasn’t yet left town. The vast American public still prefers its movie heroes in the old style, and Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, Burt Reynolds, and Warren Beatty are in the classic mold. Women stars are more visible on television than in movies, and the only woman among the top-10 box office stars is Barbra Streisand. A lot of people laughed at Gerald Ford’s “WIN” button, but still talk yearningly about the need for a charismatic leader in 1976. Some of the best young American writers — Thomas McGuane, Tom McHale, Jim Har­rison, Don DeLillo — work out of the Huck Finn tradition, their books full of football players, fishermen, rock ‘n’ roll stars, and other lone men struggling with problems of courage, honor, and sexuality. In sports, Muhammad Ali remains a superstar, although he is the only one of the current world boxing champions who is an American; professional football, which be­came the repository for most of the theatrical macho brutality of the late ’50s and ’60s is still drawing big crowds, but doesn’t seem to be as packed with win-or-lose emo­tions; baseball, that lone holdout from a gentler era, seems to be making a comeback.

There is, in fact, a growing conservatism, some of which can be traced to an exhaustion with the issue-oriented life-styles of the ’60s, and the rest to the growing economic recession. The rock music industry is having its tro­ubles, and with the Beatles a thing of the past, and the Rolling Stones only sporadically active, the time when rock stars could determine the way people dressed and acted seems behind us. When Dylan  made his triumphant tour of the United States last year, the audiences seemed restrained and even middle-aged. On the campuses, short hair is back in fashion and there has even been a resurgence in fraternities and sororities. The National Equal Rights Amend­ment, which seemed such a cer­tainty to pass a few years ago, is now in trouble.

But there have been some important changes, and they seem permanent. When President Ford tried to make the defense of Cambodia a question of national honor the American people refused to go along; some 78 per cent of those polled by George Gallup said they didn’t want to support the Lon Nol regime any further, and all the talk about the “fall” of Cambodia, or it “loss” to the Communists was simply shrugged away. It will be a long time for an American president will able to raise an army to fight a distant war over something as abstract as honor, courage, or some specious commitment to a dubious ally.

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Men are no longer afraid to ad­mit that they don’t want to die for their country, or for any other good reason either. The current assault on the CIA and the FBI can be seen in one light as another example of the fall of the macho hero; the last James Bond film did not do well at the box office, and it is difficult to imagine a film being made today in which the hero is a member of the CIA or the FBI. Very few Americans today would cheer for a man who steals, cheats, burglarizes, or kills for a Higher Purpose. And there has not been a hit Western since “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” which parodied the form, so that even the Western, that most enduring American legend, seems to be a vanishing form. Those changes seem permanent.

And yet … There is something odd and appealing about all those movies I see late at night. We have changed, but those movies remain the same: documents of old emotions, heavy with nostalgia. None of us, men or women, will be able to live with those emotions again. They are finished, as dead to our time as Trilby and East Lynne. The Kid doesn’t work for us anymore. He’s left town for good. I guess what bothers me is that we never got a chance to say goodbye. ❖

Categories
Best of Spring CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

The Sylvester Stallone Story: ‘Rocky’ KOs Movie Biz

INTERIOR HOLLYWOOD OFFICE DAY —
THE PRESENT

We are very tight on the sensual face of a young man. His mouth alternately curls, sneers, pulls tight in a grin as he talks. His dark eyes glitter, go distant in repose, grow old as tombs in the young face. Sometimes the face freezes, as if poised for sex or perjury. This is our hero, SYLVESTER STALLONE, called “SLY” by his friends. He is an actor. He is a writer. He has just finished starring in an extraordinary prizefight film called Rocky, which he has written for himself. The film will open in New York on November 21. Preview audiences have been ecstatic. They say he will win the Academy Award.

STALLONE: Yeah, Rocky. I wanted it to be real, but I also wanted to take it beyond just realism. To add fantasy. In real life, the climactic fight between Rocky and the champion probably would not have gone on that long. I mean, they were both basket cases. But for dramatic purposes, I wanted to make it an actual physical poem in a sense; there is a meter, a rhythm, It’s like a Mother Goose tale written in concrete.

INTERIOR HOLLYWOOD OFFICE DAY­ —
ANOTHER ANGLE

The camera pulls back to reveal Stallone sitting over a lunch of vegetables: cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes. His neck is thick. He has the developed chest and upper arms of a weight lifter, which he is. He doesn’t smoke.

STALLONE: That’s where I see the drive of my writing. I want to bring forth these toys. I want to give people those visions they had when they were younger and everything seemed more playful and they were all more vulnerable. The All-American thing. Why not? I grew up rooting for the Dodgers, and it was great: The music was great, the food was great, everything was fine. They may be false images and idols, but I want to drag them back to the foreground because without a sense of optimism, without a sense of a positive future, it’s just …

DISSOLVE TO:
INTERIOR EXTERIOR MONTAGE­ —
CHILDHOOD SCENES

Stallone continues to talk as we see brief glimpses, of him growing up with his family and friends. The early years are in Hell’s Kitchen. Then a move to Silver Springs, Maryland, where his parents open a gymnasium, then to a dreary section of Philadelphia. The parents bicker. There are cuts of young Sylvester in a variety of foster homes. The parents divorce when he is 11. Children laugh at young Sylvester, because he so thin he even develops rickets. He becomes a solitary, lifting weights to build up the spindly body and providing himself a private form of meditation. At 16, he has been kicked out of 14 schools; his father becomes rich, owner of a chain of beauty shops. His mother is still around. Stallone watches his friends and sees their lives start to settle.

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STALLONE: They just said to themselves, you know I’m 22 years old, and I’m gonna get married to some girl named Dollie Mud and retire at Takawana Street and live under the bridge and smell fish for the rest of my life. It just inflamed me that people could start preparing their spiritual coffins at such a tender age. I didn’t want to go that route in my life or in Rocky. You have to try. That’s what Rocky does. It’s his golden shot and he’s gonna take it. It took me a long time to shed my heavy pessimism. I carried it around like a banner for years. I was so goddamned defensive because people had always con­sidered me a rather muscular mono-minded greasy-teeshirt slimy-type neighborhood guinea. One thing was true: I had always worked on the physical aspect because I figured that my body was just a device to carry my brain around, but if I’m going to walk around, I’d like to have some nice equipment. That’s all. But some people figured right away that the larger your arm gets the more diminished your mind. I hope I’ve put some chips in that myth. [He noshes cucumbers and sips from iced tea.] Kids didn’t articulate it that much. I mean, they’d just say things like, ‘Ooohhh, here comes the tough guy. Please don’t hit me, please’ — and I’d just be walking into a room. The teachers would be part of it. They would say, ‘Okay, today we are having a fire drill. Everyone goes out and Stallone, you hold the door.’ During recess, I was the guy who carried the equipment out. That type … I only lived a year in Philly. I worked for a pizza company there, living with my parents, who were, I think, trying to perfect the art of estrangement. Every other day they were on the move. They’d check out and then come back, and I’d wander around Philly.

Stallone looks out the window into the sunlight. We are on the lot at M-G-M in Culver City. Technicians, and extras walk by in the hazy, polluted sunlight. Stallone’s brown eyes go soft with memory.

STALLONE: I would ride the subway. And when you sit in the subway and look through the windows it’s almost like a picture screen. You see all of these images whipping by. And I kept looking over the rail and seeing this one place, this little microcosm, this teeming-humanity kind of a place called Fishtown. It was never getting better. It was like someone pulled the plug on this place. And I thought, what about the people that are in it? Obviously they don’t care, they’re going down with it. And it was like a big balloon going down, an entire neighborhood starting to deflate. So, one day, I took a walk down there and, man, I tell you. I met or four women on the corner and they might have had four teeth between them. The were a mural of homemade tattoos, and they had cauliflower ears that looked like matching sets of raw oysters. And all that hit me. All of that. It ended up in Rocky. But I still hadn’t thought of writing. That was later.

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EXT LUCERNE SWITZERLAND DAY

A younger Stallone moves through a variety of bucolic Swiss scenes. He is a weight lifting instructor, a jock, living in an all-girls school in Leysin. The mountains look as if they had been scrubbed that morning by a half-million industrious Swiss.

STALLONE: [Smiling.] My mother had a lot to do with what happened. She was always a woman who was out of place and time. She was a very flamboyant person and still is. But she married my father and was forced to live in a very provincial town in Maryland, and I think a lot of her of frustrations for the theatre, and the life of the celebrity, returned to me. So, from early on, I became what is known as an incorrigible child. I wasn’t cool; I wasn’t a bully. But I did the thing with the air out of the tires, the stolen hubcaps, fights here and there. But nothing like throwing gasoline on a woodchuck —that wasn’t my style. But then I went to Switzerland. I got there because my mother was a great con-artist and she got me in as a physical instructor. This was in a school for extremely wealthy and professsionally spoiled children. The Shah of Iran’s kid. The kids from the Hershey fortune, the kid whose father owned the Kimberly mines. The town was like one of those small objects you buy at the zoo for $4 and you turn it over and the snowflakes come down. I didn’t want to ski. I just wanted to get loaded and play pinball machines. Essentially, I was the imported American sheep dog for these little lambs, these girls. I mean it. My room was strategically located at the end of the dorm, and I was supposed to keep away these hordes of marauding mountain climbers. I mean it, they would come from England and Scotland and these places and, during the day, they would climb mountains, and at night it was like Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas. They would climb the frigging building to get to these girls. It was my job to chase these guys away and yell profanities, like, ‘I’ll get your mother for this!’ and crap like that. Until I realized it was more profitable the other way. I mean, one of the girls would say, ‘Listen, for 100 francs, maybe you could go blind for five minutes …’ By the end of that year, I had gone blind so often I could pay my own tuition — $6000 — and Prince Paul of Ethiopia and I had become such good buddies that we opened a clandestine, after-hours secret hamburger restaurant. I came back later like the most gauche American tourist. Ten watches, you know … But something happened there: they needed a body for a play. A warm body. I mean, if you could breathe, you got the part. It was Biff, in Death of a Salesman, and I realized, hey

DISSOLVE TO:
EXT FLORIDA BEACHES DAY

The images of snow, pine, mountains, rich girls, pinball, and Swiss watches dissolve into the flat, hot beaches of Florida under a scalding sun. Stallone moves through the campus of the University of Miami.

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STALLONE: When I came back to America. I went to a place that was just the opposite. What is Florida? One inch above sea level? [Pause] Boy, was that bad. I learned it is actually possible to function without brain waves for two years. I was signed up in acting classes, and they said to me, ‘Whatever you do, keep your night job. You don’t have it. They don’t need surfers on Broadway.’ In classes they would do scenes. But I didn’t want to do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Streetcar Named Desire. Everyone who came in the door was Brando. He’s three feet tall and he’s doing Brando. Another guy is nine feet tall, with one arm, and he’s doing Brando. Everyone is doing Brando there. But I had started to think that the proof of whether you’ve got a real artistic bent is whether you can write your own material and perform it. Well, I wrote some things, and they immediately took offense. They said, ‘Forget it. You stink. Why don’t you try for a scholarship in Pool Service or something?’ They said it was all over. So I hung around a while and then went home.

CUT TO:
INT EXT NEW YORK SCENES DAY

Stallone now moves through a darker landscape: fire escapes, dirty streets, a walkup apartment, roaches, and booking offices. We see him move through audition after audition. We also see him start to write.

STALLONE: After a while I just jumped in my ’61 Hupmobile, or whatever it was — something brown with four wheels. I head for New York and just molt for four months. Then I had my first audition. It was for Sal Mineo, for Fortune in Men’s Eyes. And he says, ‘You’re not cool enough for this part. You’re not tough enough.’ [Pause] Here’s a guy I could actually maneuver into a square knot, and he’s telling me I’m not tough enough. Well, the rejection process started weakening my confidence. I was 22. I was realistic. I would say to my friends, ‘What happens if you are going to fail? Did you ever think about failure?’ They’d say, ‘No. No. I can’t bear it. It’s impossible, man, it’s not … no way!” Right then I said to myself, They have no options. But the only option I had at that point was writing. [Pause] I said to myself, I am failing at acting; I might as well fail at writing, too. I might as well make it a Triple Crown of failure. And I started to write. It wasn’t as difficult as I was told it would be. I was always fairly glib. The William Morris Agency took me on — as a writer. They wouldn’t touch me as an actor, although I would go up there with a big hat, a poncho, anything to show I wasn’t a bookmark. But they said, ‘no. He’s a writer. Writer mentality.’ So rather than do a swan dive out the 19th floor in frustration, I decided to be a writer for a while. I must have written a million words; two novels, in a Dos Passos style, very quick, lot of dialogue, not much description of why a door is peeling. They weren’t too good and I started writing nothing but scripts and learning all the time.

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CUT TO:
INT EXT MIDTOWN RESTAURANT DAY

Stallone looks like a Salvation Army reject, turns into 56th Street, stops in front of posh French restaurant.

STALLONE: The second script I wrote was called Promises Written on Water — how’s that for pretension? It was a title that had nothing to do with the story, but I liked the sound of the words. You know. I was 23. Anyway, Otto Preminger was going to option it and he invited me to lunch at this upper-crust French restaurant. I had never been in such a place. They didn’t even want me to walk in front of the place, I’m in such bad shape by then. I mean I’m living in some rundown hotel where everyone is short. I don’t know why, but they are all short and carry canes … So I went in there and met with Preminger. And, after a while, he said, ‘I would like to do this script. Now, as a writer what would you want a week to do the rewrite?’ My esteem was so low — my clothes smell, and I smell — and I think about it, and I say, “Seventy dollars?” Well, his chocolate mousse shot out of both nostrils. He said: ‘Vot? Seventy dollars?” [Laughs] Well, that was such a turnoff to him that he never did option the screen play. [Laughs] And, you know, I was pushing! I would’ve settled for 40.

INT EXT JOBS MONTAGE NIGHT/DAY

We see Stallone move through a variety of jobs: chopping fish in a market, working in the zoo at Central Park, standing outside Walter Reade’s Baronet Theatre in an usher’s uniform, taking a few bucks to slip people in to see M*A*S*H*. He sells a couple of scripts to TV’s Touch of Evil series. Then we see him begin to get very small acting jobs: in Woody Allen’s Bananas, in Prisoner of Second Avenue with Jack Lemmon. And he gets his first starring role: in Marty Davidson’s Lords of Flatbush. He is beefier than he is now, playing a leather-jacketed punk with great swagger and street style.

STALLONE: I just had withdrawn into my apartment in New York and said to hell with it, I will write for other people. And that’s the way it was. [Pause.] Until a friend called me up one day and asked me to help him audition for this picture, The Lords of Flatbush. So I helped him. I got the role and he didn’t. So I scraped the paint off the windows and let the sunlight in. I got my phone connected. Then, when Lords of Flatbush came out, I thought, Hey, I should at least get a walk-on on the Mary Tyler Moore show. But nothing! Zippo. Zippo. [Pause.] So it was another two years of hot and cold running rats, and roach souffles. But I kept writing. My wife, Sasha, would type them. It was like a factory. I just kept at it. I think weight lifting helped give me the concentration, the discipline, and I kept going.

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INT EXT MONTAGE — THE CALIFORNIA MOVE

But we see Stallone start to get some jobs: he plays Frank Nitti to Ben Gazzara’s Capone ; he is in Death Race 2000. He leaves New York and settles into California. Still writing. He and his wife live in a tiny apartment, in the land of swimming pools, studios, Hollywood trade papers, and thwarted hopes. We see him finally, at one point, holding a finished copy of his latest script. It’s called Rocky. This is July 1975. Violins begin to build.

STALLONE: I had formulated the story in my mind for several months, so it didn’t take me long to put it on paper. Three or four days. I knew where I was going. I mean, I had already written it 10 times up here [Taps his head.] I knew the time was right for a film about heroes, and the ring was the place for — well, they’re like the modern-day gladiators. And I brought it over to Chartoff and Winkler and I find myself sitting with Gene Kirkwood — he ‘s a producer who just went to work for them — beside the pool, and he ‘s reading it. He flips every page and he says terrificterrificterrific, terrific, terrific, you hear “terrific” 126 times. I’m just waiting. And he finishes and says, ‘Never make it. Bad. It’s a good script, but it’ll never get made.’ [Pause.] I was waiting for that and, of course, I was gonna drown him right there. Just tie him to his beach chair and submerge him. But he ran it into Bob Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. I knew their reputation. They were very tough, astute businessmen. Give me facts, give me figures. So I gave them the script and they gave me a figure. The figure was around a hundred grand. He breathes out hard. At that time, I had about $106 in the bank. And we had a baby on the way and a dog who was beginning to eat my television. So the script went around to several of the important people at the United Artists hierarchy and they said: ‘Okay we like it — Burt Reynolds is perfect !’ It was like someone put my heart through a wringer. I said, You don’t understand, I wrote this for me, I tailored it, I sent this script to a perfect Italian tailor, perfect dimensions. It’s me. No. It’s all me. No. It’s mine. [Longer pause, remembering what happened, savoring it.] Another offer came back. $180,000. Right away, the eye fell out — bong! — the ear filled up, my body started to function very oddly with these figures. A hundred and eighty thousand dollars. Christ … Then an outside source, who will remain nameless because of embarrassment, wanted Ryan O’Neal in it, and offered in excess of $250,000, close to $300, 000. For a script! [A beat.] But what do I play in it? Well, you play nobody. You play a memory. You disap­pear. You take a vacation to Colma and that’s it. You just take the money and run. And I knew if I did that, then the whole thing I wrote about in the script was totally false, too. The picture was about taking that golden shot, in the face of adversity. So I hung on and hung on and hung on, and they realized that this guy’s not gonna give it up. Finally, they said, ‘Well, if you can make a movie for a million, not a penny more … ‘

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INT EXT MONTAGE — THE MAKING OF THE FlLM

So, they make the film. We see Stallone working with director John Avildsen, a scrappy bantam of a man who in Stallone’s phrase “could get knocked out by a punching bag,” but fights for every foot of film. We see Stallone in a gymnasium in the San Fernando Valley, training to get in shape for the actual shooting. We see Avildsen and Stallone reject the conventional staged fights of the stuntman, and Stallone choreographing the entire climactic fight: punch by punch, on 14 pages of tightly written script. We see them shoot four and-a half days of exteriors in Philadelphia, and then a return to Los Angeles for interiors, the only way to make the grueling 28-day shooting schedule. Off-camera, Stallone fights every day with producer Bob Chartoff and then paints his portrait, in harsh black and white; the picture now hangs in Chartoff”s office. For two straight days, 12 hours a day, they shoot the film’s final fight, in which Rocky, the unknown club fighter called “The Italian Stallion” gets a shot at the crown of an Ali-like heavy-weight champion of the world. Finally, the film is finished And it is shown in screening rooms in California, and at a sneak preview at the Baronet, where Stallone was once an usher, and the crowds love it. It’s one of the best boxing movies ever made — maybe the best — but it has other qualities: heart, humor, intelligence, optimism, and a superb performance by Stallone. The word is every­where. Stallone is a star. A new star. As big as Brando, maybe. And a writer, too Maybe even a director. But big. The picture will be huge. The violins build and build. And we

DISSOLVE TO:
INT HOLLYWOOD OFFICE DAY

Stallone is now going through another of the many interviews that will be part of his life in the years ahead In a series of cuts, we hear him talk on a number of sub­jects.

SCREENWRITING: I believe that writers are the whole backbone of the movies. They are the Whale. A great actor can’t carry a bad script, but a great script can carry all unknown actors.

TELEVISION: TV has really hit puberty. The hair is beginning to grow and curl, the testicles have just about dropped. I think it’s going to get a little mucle now.

THE ITALIAN-AMERICAN MOVIE RENAISSANCE (DeNiro, Coppola, Scorsese, Pacino, Vaccaro): Look, I’m only half Italian. But, do you think it’s pretentious to say that Italians as actors and artists tend to be more passionate than their Anglo counterparts? They seem to have a different energy. Jesus, I don’t want to offend anybody, but they just seem to be the symbols of today’s man — today’s urban man.

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OTHER ACTORS: If I’m ever in a position to do anything about it, I will always go with unknowns. ‘Cause there’s nothing more shattering than to know that you’re ready, you’ re primed — it’s like you’re ready for that major fight — and it’s being canceled and canceled and canceled. That’s like Purgatory. You end up in this vortex of self-destruction, with a chafed elbow, leaning against some bar. Telling about how it could have been. “I could have been a contender …”

THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE: I’m going to promote the film until February, and then I’m going to do this film — about Edgar Allen Poe — which is in a classical category. It will once and for all get me out of the goon category. I hope. The goon category isn’t bad. But I just don’t want to be cemented into that category forever. It’s like The Cask of Amontillado. Aaaargh …

It is late now. Stallone appears talked out. He gets up, looks out into the lot, and sees Robert DeNiro walking by, with tissues under his chin to keep his make-up from smearing his shirt. DeNiro is making New York, New York, on another part of the M-G-M lot. Martin Scorsese is directing him and Liza Minnelli. Stallone smiles. He doesn’t comment. He turns, the eyes twinkling.

STALLONE: You know what I want to be? Boy From Hollywood Makes Good! I’m serious. I live here now. It’s always Boy From Washington, D.C. Guy From Idaho Makes It In Tinseltown. [Laughs.] I want Boy From Hollywood Makes Good.

He smiles. John Avildsen is waiting in the other room. Irwin Winkler steps in to say hello. They all look pleased. There are posters commg for Rocky. Good news about previews. Stallone laughs as we

FADE OUT

Categories
CRIME ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

White Line Fever

I. PROLOGUE

Miami is one of those cities with its own peculiar odor and you smell it most distinctly during the hours before dawn. There is salt in the air, of course, a nod to the abiding presence of the southern sea. But on certain nights when a desultory breeze blows east from the Everglades, a more powerful essence soaks the dark air: the ancient memory of the swamp. It’s as if all the tar and concrete, all the gleaming hotels and banks and shopping centers, the tract houses, schools, churches, and restaurants are some dull afterthought. In those humid after-midnight hours, the modern city is overwhelmed by a primeval compost of decaying vegetation, rioting flowers, fetid water, the remains of beings that die with thrashing suddenness in the night.

And on almost all such nights, it does not take much imagination to detect something else drifting on the Miami wind: the sweet rotting stench of corruption.

No other American city has melded its natural odor so perfectly with the dailiness of its human activities. If you move around the city, you sense the pervasiveness of the corruption: the cop smoking a cigarette in a doorway, like a supporting player from Red Harvest; the chaotic sprawl of weather-stained commercial architecture, evoking deals and variances and the purchased approval of second-rate materials; young men driving Porsches and Mercedes and Caddies as if they owned the nightside streets. Corruption is most tangible, as blunt as an ax, in the bars, discos, marinas, that sleek urban scape so accurately reflected in Miami Vice. This world is not fiction; its treacherous glamour is an undeniable element of modern Miami. And the citizens of that world, adorned with Naugahyde-like tans and encrusted Rolexes, rubbing their eroding noses in unwilled salute, are walking symbols of the city’s deepest reality. The truth of a time and place is, of course, always illusive; but no historian can tell the story of Miami in the last decade without acknowledging one gigantic fact of municipal life: cocaine.

In the late 1970s, the Miami Herald estimated that drugs had become the largest single industry in southern Florida, accounting for a billion dollars a year. Today, in spite of numerous photo opportunities starring George Bush, increases in various antidrug budgets, and some hard dangerous work by the more than 800 state and federal antidrug agents, there is no reason to believe that anything much has changed. Drugs are to Miami what cars are to Detroit. As opium was for some Brits in the 19th century, cocaine has been the essential building block of great Miami fortunes. Narcobucks have erected shopping centers, financed housing developments, built vast mansions, stocked racing stables, paid for boats, cars, and more fleshy trinkets, created and maintained banks (some law enforcement people believe that there isn’t a clean bank in the state), and so worked their way into the fabric of life here that nobody will ever be likely to separate the clean money from the soiled.

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In almost every way, cocaine dominates the culture of Miami. It is part of the city’s power structure, the engine of its economy, the unacknowledged grease of its politics. In Miami, as Christine Evans of the Miami Herald has written, “drugs are cheaper, purer and more abundant than anywhere else in the country. Doctors use them. Lawyers use them. Data analysts use them. Rich kids get them from their parents’ secret drawers. Poor kids score cheap on the street.”

One recent study estimates that the citizens of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties spend $1.69 billion a year on illegal drugs. Employers spend $744 million a year on health care for their druggies or for repairing the messes made by people who go to work loaded. Cocaine — 75 per cent of which enters this country through Florida — is at the heart of a vast capitalist enterprise, a rude democratic industry that follows the most primitive laws of supply and demand while promising great rewards to those willing to take risks. The odds are almost all in favor of the outlaw. Since its inception in 1982, the federal South Florida Crime Task Force has racked up more than 9500 arrests, seized tons of drugs. The result? Drugs are more available than ever before and cheaper by half at $30,000 a kilo. Few street-level dealers are ever touched because the courts and jails are jammed; crack houses operate openly almost everywhere. And the big dealers — the importers and wholesalers — are virtually immune in their Brickell Avenue condos and Coral Gables mansions. The drug business is a very successful American enterprise. Everybody knows this: ordinary citizens, reporters, politicians, schoolchildren.

But the cops know it better than anyone else. And in this world of dirty money and deep cynicism, it is no surprise that some of them have eaten the forbidden fruit. These notes are about some of those cops.

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II. DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE

The Miami River meanders out of the interior, sluggish and dense and hidden from view, crawling to the sea for 5.5 miles under the city’s bridges like a huge, flat worm. It passes through a wilderness of boat yards, docks, skiffs, houseboats; it eases past areas full of twisted, anonymous steel, past rusting gas pumps and sun-blasted soda machines, past tiny stores selling shrimp and cigarettes and cold beer, past bars where tattooed whores arrive before noon to service the fishermen. Miami is never thought of as a river town, but its river serves admirably as municipal metaphor: dirty, furtive, lawless.

Sometime after midnight on the river last July 28, six men were unloading 300 to 400 kilograms of cocaine from a beat-up old 40-foot scow called the Mary C. This was in itself not unusual; the river is sparsely patrolled by police, whose jurisdiction is split between Miami and the larger Metro-Dade police forces, along with 30 other agencies charged with its regulation (Dade County alone has a bewildering 27 separate police departments totaling 4500 police), and the river is frequently used by smugglers of everything from drugs to Pakistanis. The six men worked quickly, moving their precious cargo from boat to waiting van. It seemed like another smooth night’s work in Miami.

Then, at the entrance to the boat yard, an unarmed night watchman named Bob Downs was suddenly brought to attention by an urgent banging on his door. He was told to open up. He did, and saw at least six men, two of whom were wearing police uniforms and caps. They said they were police and that this was a raid. Downs let them in.

The new arrivals hurried into the yard with guns drawn. Someone among them yelled, “Kill them!” Panicked, cornered, afraid, the men who were unloading the drugs dove into the filthy river. Downs then was ordered to unlock the padlock on the cyclone fence gates, which he did, and the loaded van was driven away. Three of the men who leaped into the river — Pedro Martinez (described later as one of Dade County’s biggest coke dealers, with a fleet of five steel-hulled boats operating from the Bahamas to Florida), Adolfo Lopez-Yanes, and Juan Garcia — never were seen again alive. Their drowned bodies were fished out of the river the next afternoon.

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The following December, arrests were finally made: Armando Estrada, Roman Rodriguez, Osvaldo Coello, Arturo de la Vega, Ro­dolfo Arias, and Armando Garcia. All were young. All were Latin. All were, or had been, Miami cops.

Estrada, Rodriguez, and Garcia were arrested at dawn, each charged with three counts of first-degree murder; under Florida’s felony murder law, anyone who kills another in the process of committing a felony can be charged with first-degree murder. The others were picked up later. In addition to the murder charges, all five were charged with cocaine trafficking, racketeering, and aggravated battery; individual charges included armed robbery, conspiracy and solicitation to commit a felony, and possession of marijuana. Two of the surviving civilians who were unloading the boat were also arrested and charged. But the cops got all the attention. When four of them were brought to court, the whole country saw them blowing kisses, giggling, rolling their eyes, sniggering at their pictures in the newspapers. They flexed their muscles as they moved, looking like bags of bowling balls held together with steroids.

Within days, details about these men began to emerge. All were weight lifters, all made the disco scene, both in Little Havana and in the anglo joints out at the beach. They liked to adorn themselves with gold chains, spend money on expensive clothes, women, flashy cars, all the props of Miami Vice. And in police jobs paying $10 to $14 an hour, they apparently supported this lifestyle in the only way possible: through crime. They started small, taking drugs from motorists stopped for traffic offenses, and keeping them. A few openly muscled small-time peddlers. And eventually, investigators believe, about 10 cops bonded themselves together into a group the prosecutors call “The Enterprise.”

The major target of The Enterprise was the drug dealer. As cops, they would learn on the street (or from straight cops) who was dealing, when big buys were taking place, and then they would go in with shields and guns and take the goods for themselves. Some simply invaded the homes of suspected dealers at gunpoint, a variation of the old crap game stickup. Obviously, if you’re not supposed to be doing something, it is very hard to call the cops when you’re robbed. It’s even harder if the cops are doing the robbing.

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When they weren’t robbing drug dealers, the rogue cops were working for them. The key man was a short dapper 42-year-old Ma­riel refugee named Luis Rodriguez, who had gone from two 1982 arrests for possession of burglary tools and firearms, and four arrests in two years for possession of narcotics (for which he did no time) to the obligatory Mercedes, beeper, and cabin cruiser of the successful drug dealer. Like many drug dealers, he moved around a lot, seldom staying at his Coral Gables apartment, spending nights in various hotels, traveling on occasion to New York.

But Rodriguez was not exactly a master criminal, some Cuban wedding of Professor Moriarty and Meyer Lansky. In fact, he was pretty damned dumb. An example: on March 1, 1984, while driving south on the Jersey Turnpike, Rodriguez and another man were stopped by a trooper for driving 70 miles an hour. The trooper searched the 1981 Chevy and found two bags of cocaine, $14,000 in cash in the trunk, $5000 in the glove compartment, and $44,000 under the dashboard. Rodriguez pleaded guilty to cocaine possession then changed his mind, decided to fight the case, and went back to Miami to wait for trial. He obviously preferred the warm embrace of the Miami legal system to the chill vastness of the North. After his last period of probation in Florida, for example, Rodriguez asked the judge to give him back his 9 mm. Browning. I mean, what is a drug dealer without his piece? And Miami being Miami, Circuit Judge Ted Mastos agreed.

Rodriguez ran a joint called the Molino Rojo Bar, on 3084 NW 7th Street, where drug deals were often made (according to court documents) and where Rodriguez himself was once nabbed with two bags of cocaine. The bar was usually packed (even a brutal double homicide one night in December 1984 didn’t keep the customers away) and among those who came around were the young cops.

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Luis Rodriguez had a 49-year-old assistant, a hustler off SW 8th Street known as Armando Un. In the bar, Un got to know the cops and apparently he was a good judge of character; in 1984 he suggested they work for Rodriguez. And they were willing. In an affidavit, Un said that the drug thefts began in September 1984, the period cited by prosecutors as the beginning of The Enterprise. Soon the young weight lifters were moving drugs around the city for Rodriguez, often in patrol cars, sometimes peddling on duty. They didn’t always work in combination. Officer Estrada, Un said, once gave him a kilo of cocaine in mid-1985 and took a $2000 down payment; that sounded like a private deal. Some other jobs were small; The Enterprise even helped collect gambling debts, the public servant functioning as private muscle. But according to Un, in mid-1985 be helped plan a successful 300-to-400 kilo ripoff at the Tamiami Marina, with six cops doing the heavy lifting. And then they started going after even bigger deals. In the anarchic world of Miami drugs, business was good, although Metro-Dade homicide detective Alex Alvarez later told reporters that business wasn’t always very smooth; there were, for example, too many men involved — at least 10 — and they began to squabble. Said Alvarez: “Everyone wanted to kill everyone else.”

Immediately after the Miami River arrests, there were expressions of surprise and rage. But the Miami establishment should have known. The police brass. The politicians. The prosecutors. They should have smelled the rotting odor, drifting in the Miami night. Way back in February 1985, a banker whose own activities were under investigation said that three masked men broke into his Coral Gables home, robbed him of $100,000 in cash and jewelry, and threatened him with death. The thieves were “built like body builders,” and that April, after his own investigation, he told the cops that one of the three was a Miami police officer who worked out in a gymnasium near Bird Road. Coello and Garcia owned a gym on Bird Road. The cops investigated but did nothing. They were busy elsewhere.

On July 9 last year, a group of men invaded the home of a Miami weapons manufacturer, shot him to death, stole jewelry and a safe; neighbors said men who looked like “off-duty cops” had been seen casing the home. On the day of the Miami River deaths three men in a blue Cadillac flashed a police badge, kidnapped a woman, took her to her home and robbed her husband of $50,000; a car matching the description of the Cadillac was stopped two weeks later. Officer Osvaldo Coello was driving. He had borrowed the car, he said. Nothing happened. On August 17, two days after he resigned from the police department (after an investigation into allegations that he was using cocaine), Coello was stopped doing 120 miles an hour in a $59,000 red Lotus. He was carrying $4500. As a cop, he earned $10.40 an hour. He was not locked up. The police brass saw no evil. On August 26, two cops were arrested while trying to sell police badges, radio scanners, and automatic weapons to a drug dealer. On October 7, Miami police admitted that $150,000 had been stolen from a safe in the office of the Special Investigations Unit (the real name for the Miami vice squad) right in police headquarters. On October 10, a Metro-Dade officer was arrested for being part of a home-invasion gang; he specialized in posing as a mailman. A week later, two cops were arrested for possession of cocaine. The following month, two former Miami cops were charged with stealing (while still on the force) 150 pounds of cocaine from a 1000-pound seizure also made on the Miami River. In February, a cop was arrested while driving a stolen $40,000 Porsche. The next month, a cop was arrested for using a police car in the ripoff of a drug dealer and then planning the man’s murder. The cops in the Miami area were rapidly acquiring a substantial collective yellow sheet of their own.

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The most obvious questions were asked first: Who are these people? What kind of cops are they? The answers were sketchy.

All became cops in the aftermath of the bloody 1980 riots, when the Miami force was expanded from 630 officers to 1050 over three years. To reflect the changed ethnic composition of the city (42.3 per cent of Dade County’s 1,771,000 inhabitants are now Latin) about 80 per cent of the new officers were black or Latin. Some veteran cops insist that to attract the new officers, standards were lowered. And one result was that some bad apples ended up with badges and legitimate guns. Former Police Chief Kenneth Harms says, “Instead of taking the cream off the top of the barrel, we took the whole damn barrel.”

There are some indications that the contents of that barrel were drawn from a Miami generation to whom money was holy, its acquisition sacramental. This is, of course, in the grand American tradition. These, after all, are the children of immigrants, the same kind of people who — in the old days in a dozen American cities — made up the soldiers of the police and the Mob. Many came from the same neighborhoods. Two members of The Enterprise went to Miami High together. Three were in the class of ’81 at the Police Academy; all were known as “aggressive” cops, muscular machos who volunteered for tough assignments, actually preferring the high-action midnight shift. They also moved around with a certain swagger, letting everyone know they were hard guys — as hard as anyone else on the street. They worked at this, wearing muscles as if they too were a kind of uniform. Bodymasters, the gym owned by Coello and Garcia, attracted a lot of police officers; investigators now believe that while pumping iron at Bodymasters, members of The Enterprise also planned some of the drug ripoffs. But it’s not clear when these young men went bad.

Some Miami cops told me they believed the baddies became cops in order to enrich themselves, knowing that access to police intelligence and the gossip of informers would help them locate potential victims. Since the victims were also criminals there were few ethical problems. There might never have been ethical problems.

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“Look, there have always been bad cops,” one cop told me. “They’re usually cops for years and all they see is the scum of the earth and a court system that doesn’t give a rat’s ass and after a while they might say, ‘Hey, why don’t I get a piece for myself?’ In Miami, a cop can make a few grand by looking to the left instead of the right. But these young guys weren’t cops long enough to have that happen. I think they were bad from the day they went to the academy.”

If Rodriguez (through Un) was the corrupter, the relationship with the young cops didn’t last very long. At 5:30 p.m. on July 30, 1985, the day after the murders on the Miami River, in a field about a mile from the Dolphin Expressway, someone dumped a pine box that was three feet high and three feet wide. Inside the box was the body of Luis Rodriguez. He had been shot quite a few times. When the cops found the crate and opened the lid, Luis’s body popped out, and for a brief time his death was happily known to cops and reporters as the “Jack in the Box” murder.

Investigating the murder of Rodriguez, the cops heard that Officer Estrada had been around the night before the drug dealer disappeared, saying he would have to kill him. In a taped conversation after the killing, Un said to Officer Estrada: “I could care less if they killed Luis 40 times over. He had to be killed. If they had not killed him … ” On the tape, Estrada finished the sentence for him: “We would have killed him.”

Officers Arias, Garcia, and Estrada have been charged with conspiracy to murder Rodriguez, but nobody has yet been charged with the actual murder. The larger story of the Miami River murders (or, as defense attorneys call them, “suicides by drowning”) seems to have eclipsed the death of Luis Rodriguez.

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III. RUNNING AT HIALEAH

At some point, crime and politics always seem to intersect. This can be seen most clearly in the town of Hialeah. A stranger could cross from Miami into Hialeah without knowing that he has crossed any boundary; it’s like traversing the frontier between Brooklyn and Queens. But to those who know the place, Hialeah has its own special character these days. It is the second largest city in Dade County, with 180,000 residents (more than Fort Lauderdale). The city’s centerpiece is the once-lovely, now rather shabby racetrack that bears its name. In the old days, famous hoodlums came each winter to the track, carting along their fancy women, each northern don protected by a flying wedge of pistoleros.

In those days, there were almost no Latins in the town; those Latins who did live in Hialeah were third-rate jockeys, exercise boys, vendors, and petty hustlers who made a living off the track. Hialeah in the ’50s was a redneck town, full of hard-drinking shit-kickers who loved to batter each other on a Saturday night while Webb Pierce or Lefty Frizzell sang counterpoint on the jukebox. Then, after Castro took power, at first gradually and soon in a great rush, Hialeah began to change; vowels replaced consonants; Joe Cuba and the La Playa Sextet shoved Hank Williams and Merle Haggard off the juke. Today, Latins make up 80 per cent of the population and in 1983 finally took control of the city council. They have come to dominate an ugly, sprawling town, predominantly working class, whose main artery is 49th Street with its fast food joints and used car lots and grungy shopping centers. They have also inherited a ripe tradition of corruption.

“Politicians steal,” a Miami cop said to me. “That’s their business. But in Hialeah, they think they’re supposed to steal everything.”

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For years, the press and the prosecutors were after a Hialeah mayor named Henry Milander, citing various cases of alleged malfeasance. Milander brushed them away as if they were visiting fruit flies, until at last in 1970 he was convicted of grand larceny. Even that didn’t change Hialeah very much. The following year he was again elected mayor. Other pols, a visitor is told, made fortunes on developing the town, ridding the land of farms and open spaces, planting fields with warehouses and factories, jerry-building housing so unrelentingly ugly that it might even have offended Joe Stalin.

Into this fast-buck heaven have arrived many of the new-breed hustlers, and among them was a man named Alberto San Pedro. Born in Havana in 1950, Alberto was four years old when his parents brought him to Miami. In recent years, he called himself a developer, and hosted extravagant parties each December 17 in honor of his favorite saint, the wonderful San Lazarus, who is not recognized by the Catholic Church anymore but remains big among Cubans. The last two of these $50,000 parties were held at the posh Doral Hotel in Miami Beach, and among the guests were Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez, Representative Claude Pepper, Miami Beach mayor Alex Daoud, WSVN-Channel 7 weekend anchor and reporter Rick Sanchez, Miami police major Jack Sullivan, ordinary cops, political fundraisers, lawyers, various right-wing bravos, and a load of judges. San Pedro brought along a nine-foot statue of the saint, dressed himself in a tuxedo, was flanked by bodyguards, and posed with the assembled celebrities.

San Pedro’s father was a delegate to the 1984 Republican National Convention, and Alberto San Pedro was cleared for an audience with Ronald Reagan in Tampa in 1985. The son told all inquisitors that in addition to his activities as a developer, he was also a bookkeeper and salesman for his father’s business, the San Lazaro Racing Stables at Calder Race Track. These occupations obviously rewarded him handsomely: according to Jeff Leen of the Miami Herald, Alberto San Pedro’s six-bedroom mansion in Hialeah has eight and a half bathrooms and bulletproof windows.

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The windows should have been the tipoff that there was more to Alberto San Pedro than his own resume might indicate. He was, in fact, leading a far more interesting life than the one he presented to the public and seems to have studied for it with the same respect for basic texts that a seminarian would reserve for Thomas a Kempis. Leen, whose wonderfully detailed profile of Alberto for the Herald is the basis of many of these notes, also learned that Alberto kept a hardcover copy of The Godfather in the bathroom closest to his bedroom and a biography of Al Capone behind the desk in his office. It was in that same office that police set up a hidden microphone and learned many things about Alberto’s other, perhaps more characteristic, life. As we learned from listening to the Watergate tapes, the bulk of a hoodlum’s day is consumed by bullshitting with other hoodlums, and the San Pedro tapes — recorded in thousands of pages of transcripts — are a fascinating journey into the true underbelly of life in a corrupt town.

For these tapes, the police say, show that Alberto San Pedro was a major corrupter, a fixer, the classic cacique who works behind the scenes to secure power and wealth and enforces his presumed right to both with fear and violence. Among the institutions he is accused of corrupting is the Hialeah police department. It was a task he had trained for all of his life.

We don’t know if Alberto San Pedro’s reading of Mario Puzo moved him to see his life as a novel, but if so, the early  chapters followed the traditional pattern. In junior high school he learned that force can be rewarded. According to a Florida Parole and Probation Commission case analysis quoted by Leen, “Subject began extortion in the 9th and 10th grades, making the other students do his homework or work projects.”

By age 20, San Pedro, like so many other characters in this squalid story, was into weight lifting. And he began to take karate lessons from a Hialeah cop named Leo Thalassites. On the tapes, San Pedro says that he spent much of his youth beating up people for 50 or a hundred bucks (“that’s how I made my money”). By the time he was 21, his yellow sheet was lengthening: three arrests for aggravated assault, one for resisting a police officer, two for assault and battery, another for buying and possessing stolen property. In 1970, police reports said, after being flattened by a hard block in a sandlot football game, an enraged San Pedro stabbed the blocker, then went to his car, took out a machine gun, and sprayed the field. In all of these cases, he was either acquitted or had the charges dismissed. He wasn’t properly nailed by the law until 1971, when he took part in a drug rip-off and discovered that the subjects of his attention were undercover cops. He was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and given three years probation.

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

Even this didn’t convince San Pedro to go into a quieter line of work. In 1972, he was in trouble again, charged with armed robbery and assault with the intent to commit murder. His victim this time was a hooker’s John. There are clearly marked roads to heaven. But the customer wouldn’t testify and San Pedro got off. Three years later, he almost got off the earth when a hit man shot him five times. San Pedro survived. The hit man disappeared. And San Pedro began to give his annual thanks to Saint Lazarus. He also began to think more about the style of his life and the reach of his ambitions. On a July 26, 1985, tape, he says:

“I’m not a doper. I dedicate myself to my business. I was fucking broke when I was a kid and I got the shit beat out of me by the cops and by … the whole group. That’s what made me think there’s only one way to get around in life here. That’s politics and money.”

San Pedro was correct; the grand old American combination of politics and money is certainly not unique to south Florida. But there was something else going on in Hialeah. By last year, the police chief was a man named Cecil (“Whitey”) Seay, whose earlier career didn’t seem to shape him for extraordinary moral leadership. In 1970 he was accused by a drug dealer of trying to cut himself into a $150,000 marijuana smuggling plot (no charges were filed); he was indicted in 1971 after a Dade County grand jury investigation demanded by 70 Hialeah officers who said that nine officers, including Seay, didn’t meet ethical standards (he was accused of thwarting a burglary investigation, but when the chief witness against him changed his story the charges were dropped); in 1973, a teenage girl appeared before the city’s personnel board and claimed that Seay had forced his attentions upon her (no investigation was made). At the hearings that led to his choice as chief, Seay said: “Those guys who have a clean record have never done anything.”

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One of Seay’s most important officers was San Pedro’s old karate instructor and still his good friend, Leo Thalassites. He was now a sergeant. Leo suddenly found himself in the newspapers on January 30 when he threatened to kill two detectives named Eddie Preston and Tom Nevins. He made this threat in the lobby of the Hialeah City Hall in front of three other officers. Preston and Nevins were in the intelligence section of Hialeah’s police department, and Thalassites accused them of sending anonymous letters to various police organizations and the media accusing Leo and some other Hialeah veterans of corruption. Although the two cops denied this, Chief Seay and Mayor Martinez backed Thalassites. One fine morning, the two detectives found the locks on their office changed, with their personal possessions and pending cases still inside. They were then shifted to other jobs, one washing police cars, the other pounding a beat. Hialeah’s intelligence section was disbanded.

But the story didn’t end there.

The Metro-Dade police were already looking hard at Alberto San Pedro. An undercover agent, posing as a corrupt cop, had ingratiated himself with San Pedro and had a series of meetings and telephone conversations with the man. All were recorded. More than anything else, San Pedro told detective Nelson Perry, he wanted to get rid of the rest of the records of his youth so that he could obtain a full pardon for his youthful crimes and become a U.S. citizen. He planned to do this, he said, with money.

“Everybody’s got a friend and everybody needs friends,” he said on an August 30, 1985, tape. “Everybody likes to be loved and everybody wants to be loved. Money, everybody loves money. Everybody likes to spend it … And unfortunately, politicians are the worst motherfuckers in the world … They only look at one thing, how much can I steal as long as I’m there.”

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Among the records that San Pedro wanted destroyed were accounts of his dealing with a middle-level Gambino family hoodlum named Joseph Paterno. Police recorded conversations in April 1985 indicating that Paterno tried to buy from San Pedro two silencer-­equipped guns for use in the killing of two of his own cousins in New Jersey. San Pedro didn’t refuse; his price — $4000 for each piece — was simply too high for Paterno’s budget, according to Arthur Nehrbass, commander of Dade’s Organized Crime Bureau. Almost immediately after this conversation, Paterno was arrested.

The cops took a closer look at San Pedro. In June, he offered $5000 to a police informant to get the Paterno transcripts and tapes. The cops then sent their undercover man to San Pedro (setting up the meeting through San Pedro’s bodyguard) and listened to his various offers, and accepted sums ranging from $2000 to $11,000. Over a period of time, the cops fed San Pedro a combination of real and fictitious police material, and listened to his bragging, his philosophy, and his schemes. Those schemes were not empty; San Pedro was the real thing. They knew, for example, from the Hialeah records chief, Lieutenant Thomas Bardon, that San Pedro’s file had disappeared three times from that city’s police department. A narcotics intelligence file on San Pedro also disappeared. And his records were missing from the Dade Circuit Court clerk’s office and the State Attorney’s office. San Pedro was clearly attempting to create a new personal history through elimination.

Nelson Perry, who was president of the Police Benevolent Association (which began representing Hialeah cops in September 1985), says he started smelling the rot in Hialeah when he was approached by a 350-pound political press agent and community newspaperman named Don Dugan (later indicted in a separate case for being the bagman in a bribery case in Opa Locka). Dugan told Perry that he could earn “a personal profit” if he stayed out of Hialeah police affairs. This shocked Perry, who told his superiors of this; they assigned him to pose as a corrupt cop. He soon met San Pedro for the first time at the Treetop Restaurant in the Miami Springs Holiday Inn. They continued to meet for weeks. At two of Perry’s meetings with San Pedro, a Hialeah cop was also present. It was Sergeant Thalassites.

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When police overheard San Pedro in February talking about killing two men who owed him a total of $4000, and conspiring to sell a kilo of cocaine, they decided to move. On February 13, San Pedro was arrested on bribery charges, and rearrested March 2 for murder, conspiracy, and cocaine trafficking. Hialeah erupted. Within weeks, Chief Seay resigned. Thalassites went on paid leave. Some of the tapes were released, littered with the names of various politicians who were claimed by San Pedro as friends or property. TV reporter Rick Sanchez was heard discussing an exchange of favors with San Pedro; good old Alberto had found a job in Panama for Sanchez’s uncle; Sanchez, who served as a non-voting adviser to the board of the First American Bank & Trust, got a share of San Pedro’s business for the bank. (What a reporter was doing serving on the board of a bank — and sucking after customers on behalf of that bank — nobody could answer; Sanchez also was granted a paid leave but his superiors at the TV station said they saw nothing wrong with his connection to the bank. The ethics of Miami strike again.) It was then remembered that Sanchez had emceed the 1984 San Lazarus party and had led the group in prayer. Someone else noticed that Hialeah had a 29.6 per cent increase in crime during 1985 and the joke was that this was “not including cops.”

Then in mid-March, the Herald tossed a few more bombs into the discussion.

Reporters Leen and Sydney P. Freedberg discovered that in 1979, Florida’s former attorney general, Robert Shevin, and the state’s esteemed Congressman Claude Pepper had written letters to the Florida parole board extolling San Pedro’s character. They now claimed that they didn’t really know San Pedro, couldn’t remember him; since their letters claimed that they did in fact know San Pedro either the letters or the statements were lies. The former attorney general certainly should have known something about San Pedro. His law partner, a Democratic fund-raiser and adviser to Governor Bob Graham named Ronald Book, represented San Pedro during his 1983 application for a full pardon. Pepper and Shevin spluttered, suffered from amnesia, hung up the phones.

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Even more bizarre was the story of San Pedro’s access to Governor Graham himself. Last December, when there were cops all over Hialeah investigating San Pedro, a woman named Marcia Ludwig emerged to support San Pedro’s application for a full pardon. Marcia Ludwig was once Marcia Valibus and in 1957 she was queen of the Orange Bowl; in Miami there is always an element of the surreal. Later Marcia Valibus was a runner-up in the Miss Universe contest and had a screen test at Paramount Studios. She was also a classmate of Adele Graham, the governor’s wife, and over the years they had remained friends. For more than a decade, the Herald said, Marcia Ludwig has been an intimate friend of one Robert (Bobby) Erra, son of the late Pasquale (Patsy) Erra, who once worked for Vito Genovese. Marcia and Erra are often seen together, friends told the Herald, at the La Goree Country Club. More important, there are pages of conversations between Erra and San Pedro on the various tapes. On December 11, Ludwig sent a hand-written note to her friend, the governor’s wife:

“Dear Adele, This is a note for Bob’s mirror. A good friend of mine — Alberto San Pedro— has a case coming before Bob and his Cabinet on Dec. 18 … I appreciate you calling my words to Bob’s attention.”

On December 19, Adele wrote back to Marcia: “I placed the note on Bob’s mirror — so he’s aware.” This was the day after Graham presided over the hearing. During that session, he said: “Unfortunately, there continues to be this lingering question as to what might be in his background. I’m concerned that Mister San Pedro is sort of being cast under a shadow that he seems to be unable to extricate himself from and which shadow hasn’t yet, or after four or five years, moved to the substance of some action. It has been a long time since the criminal offense for which he’s requesting pardon was committed and he has an impressive statement of his community record.” Graham “reluctantly” moved to continue the case, stating that the next time San Pedro’s pardon was discussed, he would come to a decision. There is no indication that he checked with any of the cops; he certainly didn’t give San Pedro a flat rejection. What the hell: when you’re a kid in Hialeah it’s only natural to fool around with machine guns. Still, Graham didn’t say yes either. And his need to decide was made academic by San Pedro’s February 13 arrest.

The honest cops in Hialeah had long despised San Pedro and to some extent feared him. He was the shadowy man, the fixer, called upon for help by arsonist, hoodlum, dealer. On the day he was arrested, someone placed a note on the police department’s bulletin board. It said very simply: “The untouchable has been touched.”

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IV. OUT OF THE SWAMP

Obviously, every cop in southern Florida is not a crook. Most of the arrests have been made as a result of good tough police investigations along with continuing pressure from the Miami Herald. But it’s unlikely that corruption will soon vanish, the drug dealers joining the dinosaurs in the rot of the swamp. They won’t go away, and cops will continue to be corrupted because there is simply too much dirty money lying around. Cocaine will not soon be legalized: Americans won’t soon surrender their national lust for some form of chemical nirvana.

But if you wonder what happens to some of these men who briefly and luridly occupy page-one headlines, consider recent events in North Bay Village, another suburb of Miami. In 1971, a cop named George Staphylaris was fired from the Miami force for allegedly encouraging a police informant to rob a department store. He appealed the firing, was reinstated with a six-month suspension, then resigned. Six years ago he joined the North Bay Village force. He was soon known to many kids as Officer George, ran the drug education program at Treasure Island Elementary School, often took kids on trips to the Everglades, and had prepared a children’s seminar called “Just Say No To Drugs.”

On the North Bay force, he met another former Miami cop named William David Risk. He too was once fired, for battering a prisoner with a nightstick. He too fought his firing, was reinstated, and resigned in 1979. Last year, he was North Bay Village’s officer of the year, cited for his “superlative performance and dedication.” He was also a weight lifter.

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A third former Miami cop was on the North Bay force. This was Sergeant Fernando Gandon. He quit the Miami force in 1977 after being charged with aggravated battery. While interrogating a man on the street, the charges against him said, he shoved his pistol in the man’s mouth, rattled it around and broke some teeth. Five years ago, he arrived at North Bay and was again given a badge and gun.

On February 27, all three men were arrested by the FBI for selling protection to men they believed to be drug dealers. A Mob guy named Stephen Nahay told FBI agents (posing as drug dealers) in a recorded conversation that if they were moving drugs they should see the three North Bay cops. “They’ll help you out,” Nahay said. “In other words, if you want to kill a guy there … you just tell them the guy and they’ll kick him on to the coroner … ”

Clearly, redemption does not flourish under the southern sun. There are no second chances for such people, only the main chance. But nobody from New York can step back in self-righteous judgment at the sight of Miami police scandals. We have at least one such scandal in every New York generation since the mid-19th century. And late one night, sitting with a Miami cop in a place called Trainer’s, where judges and drug dealers both come to dine, I was asked, “How long can that mayor of yours last?” I wasn’t able to answer. The arrest rate at New York’s city hall hasn’t quite reached that of the Miami cops, but the crimes are about the same general thing: abuse of power for personal gain.

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In Miami, the corruption will go on and on, as long as millions of Americans maintain their passionate love affair with cocaine. Jesse Helms and his fellow yahoos should forget about corruption in Mexico for the moment and acknowledge the rot in a state that went fervently for Ronald Reagan. They might discover that drug dealers love conservatives in power; conservatives forbid things that racket guys can then sell. And while Americans keep buying expensive powders to shove up their noses, the bad guys will keep buying cops. How many. As many as they need.

A good number of Miami cops have the integrity to resist the lure of narcodollars. But just as surely, others will plunge into the swamp and rise covered with the kind of slime that will never wash off. They are there now, driving Chevies and longing for Porsches, dressed in baggy suits and lusting for Giorgio Armani, hearing preachments of denial, while drug dealers leave with the women, and the country at large throws roses to the greedy. They are men of the law but nobody in Miami would ever be surprised to see them leaving the sunshine in handcuffs. Their sweet decaying odor will not go away. ❖

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

1986_Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about cocaine corrupting Miami

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From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Donald Manes: End of the Road

I used to see him around town in the days when covering New York politics was still gaudy fun. “Hi … Donald Ma­nes,” he would say, offering a thick hand, an uncertain smile. He told you his name each time he met you, as if he could not bear the hurt of your failure to remember him. Fifteen years ago, Manes was a lumpy slab of a man who looked incarcer­ated in a suit. His handshake was damp. His left eye was larger than the right and glittered brightly. When I saw him, he was usually with Matty Troy or Meade Esposito, a favored acolyte in the compa­ny of bishops. He always looked hungry.

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Manes also tried too hard to affect a personal style. Inspired, I suppose, by Meade and Matty, he attempted to be­come still another edition of the happy hack, who professes ignorance of the grand political abstractions but knows everything about judgeships and con­tracts. The trouble with Manes was that you could always see the mask. From the moment he started coming around, there was something odd about Donald Manes. The man and the mask never fully came together.

I would see the mask most often in Jimmy’s on West 52nd Street. In the company of other pols and newspaper­men, Manes and I would argue and drink, but we never became friends. He would tell jokes you had already heard. He would complain about — or defend — John Lindsay or Abe Beame. Occasionally, he would try to say outrageous things, to veer from the orthodox, but when pressed, he always backed away. Nothing seemed to him worth confrontation, and he would adjust his ideas, his style, even his mood, to suit the company he kept. Perhaps that’s why friendship with him was so difficult; you didn’t know which Donald Manes to befriend.

But there was another thing about Ma­nes in those days. Too often, he carried a look in his eyes (even the glittering one) that said: Please don’t hurt me. That look was almost too vulnerable for the hard, judgmental politics of the time. It certainly demanded more pity than most of us possessed.

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“You want politics to do too much, to make this a better world” he said to me once. “F’chrissakes, I’m satisfied if poli­tics gets the garbage picked up.”

He was right, of course; in the ’60s and early ’70s, I wasn’t alone in expecting politics to do a lot of things that probably could not be done by anyone. To men like Manes, idealism was for saints and amateurs.

“I do this for a living,” he said once, with some heat. “This is my life, not my hobby!”

That attitude was at the heart of the system that later destroyed him and will almost certainly survive him. Today, in spite of the final blood and horror of the man’s life, there are hundreds of political New Yorkers traveling the same road as Donald Manes. These people enter poli­tics for one basic reason: to make money.

Along the way, they make many con­tacts but few friends. They kiss an amaz­ing amount of ass. They develop an ex­traordinary capacity for self-abasement (sometimes called loyalty). Usually, they rise slowly through the organization. Sometimes they even get to be county leader. Or borough president. Or both. And then at last the dough begins to flow.

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Even in the early ’70s, Manes knew what he wanted — and what he’d have to do to get it. When Matty Troy got jammed up with the law, Manes was ready, made his move, and grabbed his piece of power. In at least one borough of New York, he’d kissed his last ass.

I saw him less often after that, but when I did, he still seemed uneasy; power hadn’t really settled whatever was seeth­ing in the back of his eyes. Sometimes in the summer, I’d run into him on Main Street in Westhampton Beach, where we both had houses. He was always friendly, in a practiced way, and we would chat about politics. But he was never relaxed. The colorful mask was drained and slipping, but he hadn’t yet devised a new one to replace it. The burly body was plump­er, softer, yet he seemed drawn, almost gaunt. And in a town of summer tans, he had an unshakable indoor look. It was as if when he was a boy (long before his father killed himself) Donnie Manes had spent too many lonely hours at home making up with industry what he lacked in talent.

In some respects, he was becoming a cartoon of the man whose business is politics and who uses money to keep score. The public Donnie Manes ap­peared on talk shows, posed with Ed Koch, talked about moving from his base in Queens to run for higher office. But up close, there was a chilly aura of loneliness and loss around the man that touched me. I would say, “Let’s get together sometime,” and he’d say, “Yeah, let’s do that,” and of course we never did.

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There was, as we’ve now all learned, more than one hidden agenda in his life. In the months ahead, we’ll hear many details of that part of the Manes story, as various rats and thieves who once called themselves his friends will shout a mighty perjured chorus of “Donnie made me do it.”

But there’s also a dark Balzacian novel buried somewhere in this man’s life. His story was made terrible and final when he reached into that kitchen drawer, his wife upstairs, his daughter nearby, and found that 14-inch Ekco Flint knife with its eight-and-three-quarters-inch blade.

But we will never have that story. The prosecutors will give us, as always, some of the facts and almost none of the truth. His wife, Marlene, must know much of the deeper truth, and so must his children and possibly even his psychiatrist. But it’s likely that much of this story will remain elusive; neither journalism nor grand juries are perfect instruments for such investigations.

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I suppose that’s why, after January 10, I kept imagining Donnie Manes lying awake in the Queens night with his fam­ily asleep in the darkened house. In that solitude, in the city he had helped rule and in which he was now mocked, did Donald Manes whisper for help that wasn’t there? Did the old wounded anger boil and churn across the decades? What could his success have ever meant if his own father wasn’t there to see it? And why did the old man do it? Why did he kill himself? When the news came that Manes had at last accomplished what he had failed at in January, when it was clear that he had followed the dreadful example of his father, I was sure I heard child’s voice calling from the horror, say­ing Look what you made me do.

And I remembered a summer after­noon a few years ago, when a fierce gray summer storm came suddenly upon Westhampton Beach. People scattered, hurrying into shops, slamming the doors of their cars, emptying the streets. I was gazing out at the sheets of driving rain when I saw Donnie Manes coming slowly from the direction of the library. He was completely alone. He stopped near the corner and stood there by himself, the rain pelting him, hammering at him, the harsh hard punishing rain.

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The Spirit Strikes Back

The Spirit Strikes Back

There was only one great comic book in the ’40s and ’50s, the days when comic books were in their first muscular prime. It was set in a place called Central City, which was obviously New York, and it was filled with darkness. Great dark Gregg Toland shadows, men standing in Fritz Lang pools of light, women with dark hair and inviting bodies. “My name is P’gell,” she said, staring with brutal directness from the splash panel, “and this is not a story for little boys…” The comic book was called The Spirit, and in the last year, as always, The Spirit has risen from the grave.

The old Will Eisner classic is back in a series of handsome buck-a-copy reprints published by Warren Publishing Co. The covers are new, beautifully drawn and colored, and, thankfully, the stories are old. The hard coloring of the ’40s comic supplements and comic books has given way to handsome gray Bendays, which emphasize the lush blacks of the drawings and give the stories a feeling of some old Warner Brothers film, caught forever in the ambiguous light of late afternoon. The stories are brilliant — Jules Feiffer was one of Eisner’s writers — and the artwork is the most expressive ever practiced in comic books — among Eisner’s assistants were Wally Wood, who found his own style in the early Mad, and Alex Kotsky, who now draws the newspaper strip, Apartment 3-G. But more than anything else, The Spirit contained great characters, starting with the lead character himself.

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In the first episode of The Spirit, published as a newspaper supplement on June 2, 1940, a young private detective named Denny Colt challenges the police commissioner, a knuckle-faced character named Dolan to find one of those arch-fiends of the day, a mad scientist named Dr. Cobra (the comics, even before the atom bomb, napalm, herbicides, and the founding of the military-industrial complex saw that warped science might be our greatest danger). Pursuing the mad doctor, Colt gets in a fight, has a vat of chemicals spilled on him, and seems to die of heart failure. Dr. Cobra gets away, and Colt is buried in Wildwood Cemetery. But Colt is not dead. He rises from the grave, visits Dolan, announces that he will stay legally dead because “there are criminals and crimes beyond the reach of the police, but The Spirit can reach them!”

It was a hoary beginning — even down to the stiff, crude artwork — for something that would later become a glory of the cultural backwater known as comics. Now, 23 years after the last Spirit comic, the masked man is back.

I went to see Eisner recently and talked to him about the comeback.

“I kept hammering him back into the box,” said Eisner, a neat 58-year-old New Yorker with precise features, a trim mustache, and a businessman’s style. “He kept coming out. I was the head of a firm that marketed educational materials, social studies enrichment material, and I was heavily involved in that until suddenly… well, not so suddenly, something started to happen. Over the years, there had been European reprints of The Spirit, and gradually I began to get a lot of mail. Guys wrote in asking for originals, which I never sent, and then they asked for old proofs, and then there were requests for interviews. Suddenly I became aware that there must be something going on out there. Then, two, three years ago, somebody out of a clear blue sky asked me to attend a comics convention, to give me an award. Hell, even from the plumber’s convention an award is good.”

Eisner laughed, doodled with a pencil.

“So I went down there. Burne Hogarth (the best artist Tarzan ever had) was down there and I gave a talk, and I suddenly became aware of the enormous underground market. You must understand that the underground concept is very close to me. I started as an underground sort of artist, although it wasn’t called underground in those days. My whole origin came from breaking into established markets from the outside. Original comic books were practically non-existent when I started. It’s hard to claim that you’re the first of anything, because you never know what the guy across the street is doing, but certainly I was among the first guys to make original comic books, with original art, rather than reprints of newspaper stuff.

“It was, let’s see, ’37. 1937. My first work was sold to something called Wow Magazine, which was an attempt at a broad juvenile magazine, and it very promptly went broke… But it made me aware that there was a potential there. So I formed a partnership with a fellow named Jerry Iger. I was like 19 years old, but very entrepreneurial.

“At the time, something else was happening: the pulp publishers were going broke. Popular Publications, Street & Smith, Muncie were all dying. They started looking for new things to publish and some of them were even putting comic strips inside the pulps. So we hit on a publisher and convinced him that he ought to publish comics. He said yes, but that he had no way to get comics. At that time, the comic books — like Famous Funnies — were just daily strips pasted into a sequence. So I said, ‘We’ll do original work.’ He said okay, but he would only pay the rate he would pay for proofs from newspaper syndicates, $5 a page. So we told him we had five artists as Eisner and Iger, which wasn’t true. And I turned out five different scripts in five different styles.” Eisner laughed: “There’s a lot of stuff around with names like Willis Rensie, which is my name spelled backwards, and Spencer Steel. Spencer Steel: I always like to be called Spencer Steel. Especially where I come from. It had a nice Anglo-Saxon ring to it.” (He came from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.)

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“I soon had a staff of 15 guys working an operation that looked like a galley ship. I sat in the center and along the oars were the pencilers and paste-up people and inkers and so forth. I was writing the stories, and passing them down, and drawing the heads or something. At $5 a page, we made about a buck and a half net profit, which added up, strangely enough. Later on, as the publishers got smarter, they insisted on owning the properties, so that features we owned, like Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, ended up with a separate life.”

By late 1939, after Superman and Batman had taken off, some newspapers started inquiring about having ready-made comic books of their own. Eisner teamed up with a man named “Busy” Arnold, a former newspaper press salesman, and Henry Martin of the Register and Tribune Syndicate.

“You know, we were just emerging form the depression,” Eisner recalled, “and there were a lot of new ideas generating, and newspapers were beginning to smell death at the time. Technology was improving, offset was coming in, and all of these things were having an impact on the publishing industry. Anyway, after some discussion, we formed a partnership. Newspaper delivery systems, as you know, are very inflexible, with six-weeks lead time, and you need someone producing the material who is dependable. I had that reputation. We had a big package deal, that included Police Comics and Uncle Sam comics, and Busy Arnold and I became partners. His real name was actually Everett, and I don’t know why he was called ‘Busy,’ because he wasn’t always that busy. Anyway, the whole thing was pretty much in my hands, including the editorial judgement, which was a tremendous break, especially when you’re 21 years old and full of beans. I had no idea what I’d do, except that you always have something on the back burner that you want to do if you’re let loose. For me, that was The Spirit.”

Eisner knew from the beginning that the key to its success would be its stories. Most comics at the time were simple-minded versions of movie serials. Eisner’s work had to be self-contained, and so he focused on the short story as his model.

“I was an avid short story fan, but more importantly, I suppose, I was a frustrated serious painter and a frustrated serious writer. I could do both reasonably well, but not well enough to make a name for myself in either media by itself. But with the euphoria you bring to something when you know it’s the big time, I attacked it as if I were a young Dostoevski. I also equated myself with Ben Hecht and some of the pulp writers, who were my heroes at the time. Short stories are sort of dead now, but they were very big in the ’30s.

“The title — The Spirit — was the result of about 15 names I’d listed, and I really had no intention of making him a ghost. I didn’t want him to be a super-hero, because I had been grinding out super-heroes, and knew what super-heroes were all about. But at the same time, I knew that I had to have an identification; there were certain perimeters you stayed within, or accepted formulas that would augur success. The syndicate sales­men were selling a product, and they wanted it to look like a product they could sell. I promised them a detective. That was fine: a detective could sell. And I promised them a complete story every week, and that was novel, because most people had to wait six weeks to finish a story in a newspaper strip. So we tried to get as much plot into a single episode as the dailies got in six or eight weeks.”

The first 16-page weekly comic book featured The Spirit and two other features. Eisner decided that the load was too much and sold his interest in Eisner and Iger (which was still free-lancing comic art to other publications) so he could concentrate solely on The Spirit.

“When I think back about it now, it was an enormous decision,” Eisner said. “But when you’re that young, you know, you feel impervious. It’s like young pilots in Vietnam, saying: ‘What do you mean I’m going to get killed? No one can kill me: I’m 21 years old.’ I remember Iger trying to dissuade me, saying that The Spirit might not sell in the newspaper business, it could be dead in a year. I said, “I’m immortal. I’m Superman. I’m going to do it.’ ”

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The high quality of The Spirit was probably traceable to the oddity of its being a newspaper supplement, rather than a newsstand comic book. Eisner said that in those days the average comic book was written for an eight- or 10-year-old mind.

“But I had a totally different audience. When you’re writing, you’re writing for someone: you, or a little old lady in Brooklyn, or whomever. I was writing to adults. I was writing to college students. I was writing to kids. We started with three papers and grew to 19 or 20, and I also knew that I had a Bible Belt out there to worry about. If you spent a dime on Superman it was because you wanted Superman. But here was a comic that came into the house on Sunday because Pop went out and bought it for the news.

Eisner quickly discovered an enormous freedom and range in possible stories.

“I could pull out the stocking and I could make mistakes,” he said. “If I did a lousy story this week, it was only that week, and I could do a good story next week. And I did have ups and downs, because there are weeks when you go dry. In the beginning I had more good ideas than I could produce, but as time went on, of course, I used them up. Then I started generating new stories out of the newspapers themselves. That went on for a year and a half, and in 1942, I was invited to join the armed forces.”

In the army Eisner was an aide on the staff of the Chief of Ordnance, and later started doing cartoon instruction strips for a magazine called Army Motors; he still maintains an interest in the use of comics as an instructional device. The Spirit continued, with Lou Fine drawing it for a while, along with the great Jack Cole (famous in his own right as the artist of Plastic Man and then as a Playboy cartoonist in the magazine’s early days).

In early 1946, Eisner came back to New York and The Spirit and, from 1946 to 1950, had what he calls “four glorious golden years.” It was at this time that Jules Feiffer went to work for Eisner. “We’ve had a remarkably good relationship over the years,” Eisner said of Feiffer. “There’s a tremendous empathy between us. Psycholo­gically we’re very much alike, philosophically we’re much alike… Those were the vintage years for me… A lot of collectors are into the early, pre-war Spirit, but as I look back now the drawing is very, very crude. I think what attracts the collectors or so-called historians is the obvious fact that I was experimenting so vividly, so aggres­sively. There just was nothing like The Spirit in existence. King Features came out with an imitation called ‘Red Barry’ or something, but it died in a couple of months. It just didn’t haveI guess the word is elan.”

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The post-war Spirit was the world of lush blacks, unusual angles, great humor, all of which had been present in a cruder form in the earlier version. The difference, Eisner said, was that the war had matured him — ­and his work: “The early Spirits were done by a young kid barely out of high school, who lived a very cloistered life, when you con­sider that most cartoonists live a cloistered life. I mean, 90 per cent of a cartoonist’s time is spent at a drawing board in a fantasy world. Occasionally you get up and tell the plumber, ‘Yeah, the pipe is over there,’ or whatever it is, and you do go out and buy lunch. But one of the great occupational hazards of this life is that an artist spends an enormous amount of his life in the nice soft womb of a studio. Now with the rates higher, it might be possible to spend six months on one book, as if you were writing a novel. In those days, I was functioning the way, say, a TV series writer works, and you don’t expect great masterworks under the circumstances. Of course, I was functioning as the writer and the director. I teach at the School of Visual Arts, and I keep telling the students that you’re the actor, you’re the author, you’re the screenwriter, you’re the cameraman, you’re the director, and you’re the cutting editor. I hold to the idea that the comic strip author should be writer and artist.

I asked Eisner how much he had been influenced by movies.

“My early life was spent in the Brooklyn movie houses, those marvelous temples of fantasy. That’s where my life experience came from, by and large, with the exception of a couple of street fights. As a kid, I used to go and look at Man Ray movies, all the experimental films that the New School used to run in the ’30s, and in high school I very seriously considered going into theatrical design. I was very theatre oriented. The answer is yes: I was always motion picture oriented. I thought of a comic strip as a movie on paper. Or put another way, movies are comic strips made to move.”

Eisner loved Fritz Lang’s movies: his cartoonist heroes were Milton Caniff, Al Capp, Popeye’s E.C. Segar, and George Herriman, whose Krazy Kat pages ended up in museums. But he said he didn’t con­sciously steal from anyone.

“There’s no such thing as stealing, really. There’s a difference between stealing and imitation or slavish emulation. If you’re emulating a guy, and you’ve got a strong personality of your own, you’ll always devel­op your own style anyway. Some artists serve as jumpoff points for other artists. For example, George Herriman showed me that you could develop odd and abstract back­grounds without any realistic relation to what was going on. It isn’t much of a jump to say, ‘Ah yes, he showed me the way and now I’m going to improve on the idea.’ Writers showed me. Conan Doyle, for example, helped me tremendously in writing balloons. Balloons are like writing telegrams. You’re constricted in space, you have to make every word count. You learn there’s a dynamics of words, that words have visual impact. The word ‘shit’ on paper doesn’t look as horrible as it sounds, so you have to find another word to make it sound as horrible. ‘Glak!’ sounds like a man choking or dying when you write in on a page, but it doesn’t sound the same when you say it. Conan Doyle’s style was largely dialogue, three or four pages of crisp back-and-forth dialogue where the reader knows exactly what is going on, and even knows how the man feels. So I learned from that. And combined with pictures, it becomes an art form in itself.”

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The Spirit revival started when Eisner granted a man named Dennis Kitchen the right to reprint some old Spirits in an underground comic, for which Eisner drew a new cover. It sold out. They did a second and that too sold out. Meanwhile, a magazine called Tin Tin in France was also publishing the old Spirit stories, with Eisner’s permission, and “soon I was back in the Spirit business.” Then several New York comic publishers offered to revive the strip. But Eisner started talking to Jim Warren, who wanted initially to do a Spirit poster, then to scatter Spirit stories through existing publications, and finally agreed to a full-scale revival in a magazine entirely devoted to The Spirit. “I know Warren,” Eisner explains, “and we have a philosophical compatibility. But if someone asked me why I gave it to Warren, I’d say, because he cares.”

Eisner had saved all the original artwork, which was in good shape “except for a coffee cup stain here or there.” Warren hired a fine underground artist named Rich Corben to color the first two issues: Eisner and an assistant did the coloring in the six that have followed, and he has also directed the appli­cation of the gray Bendays that have given the strips such a handsome texture. There are 240 old stories, and they will start to run out in 1976. So Eisner is preparing to write new ones. Where will the new material come from?

“The newspapers,” he said. “I did that from the beginning. I remember, back in 1941, they were building the Lincoln Tunnel and there were a lot of stories about sand­hogs dying and so forth, so I used that and built a story around it.” I mentioned a fine Spirit story of 1947, based on the great blizzard that year, in which The Spirit is trapped in a sewer because he can’t raise the snow-covered manhole covers. All of the stories seemed to draw on the life of cities.

“That’s what I mean,” he said. “Only a city dweller can be aware of the real signifi­cance of a snowstorm. A snowstorm in the country is really something to ride over, you know. It’s part of the landscape, no different than the rocks and the mud. But a snowstorm in the city is the equivalent of dropping the atom bomb. Think about it for a minute. If you and I were mad scientists here, and we were going to tie up the city of New York… Let’s say it’s a military exercise, so that the people of the city of New York couldn’t get out of the city of New York. You wanted to capture New Jersey, but you wanted the people of New York to be immobilized for 48 hours or more. Well, you could bomb all the bridges at the same time, but they would still get across the river. But settle 14 to 20 inches of snow on the city! It does things like immobilize manhole covers, it immobilizes traffic, it’s a real thing! Only a city kid, only a person who’s lived in the city and learned how to survive in the city and regards the city as his jungle, so to speak, can be aware of how enormous that would be.”

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Eisner’s work at its best contained a kind of urban poetry, and I asked him if the lyric strain had come from the same things that had produced similar qualities in such di­verse Brooklynites as Irwin Shaw, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer.

“We were doing different things, but sure! What we were doing, all of us, was weeping inside the ghetto walls. ‘Outside the ghetto walls was another world,’ we were told. But I mean ghetto, inside the walls of the city, a kind of medieval city in which you’ve grown up. Your plan is really to climb one of those walls. Some guys do it by marrying a nice blonde Gentile girl and living up in Westchester with her family. Some guys do it by becoming a basketball player, or a boxer: in those days everybody was going to be a boxer. Or the other guys say the hell with it, I’m going to join the mob and I’m going to make it. I wanted to be a comic strip artist. From the time I was eight years old! So guys go to movies, read books, they know there’s another world out there, and how things could be. You learned from everything. You lived in the tenements and looked at Mr. and Mrs. Cohen living to­gether. As a kid I could watch him banging her, or him beating the shit out of her. Now, television does that. It’s like a window into somebody else’s house, from which you glean what life is about. Even television. It shows you a world that doesn’t have a sense of realism, but from which you draw some of your life experience.”

Eisner is clearly enjoying the increasing interest in The Spirit and the realization that some of the strips approached art.

“Sure, most of it was crap,” he said. “But when I grew up, along with my peers — the Jack Kirbys, the Jack Coles, the Siegel and Shusters — we were learning the merchan­dise. We were cobblers, not shoe designers. When I was at the Art Students League, I was taught that art was synonymous with one or two mediums. An oil painting is art. An etching is art. A mural is art. But a comic strip is not art, or was not art. This seemed always to me a great injustice. But we were making art. I prefer to call it sequential art. Daumier, Goya, the people who made 13th-­century broadsheets: they were making se­quential art. I think we’re poised now to treat other kinds of subjects. More sophisticated subjects. Comics have dealt with only one theme for the last 30 years and that was Crime Does Not Pay. Yes, there were Jiggs and Maggie subjects, or A Monster Is Going to Take Over the Earth. But it’s still ‘crime does not pay.’ My one condescension to the medium — the way I had to pay my dues­ — was to make The Spirit a crime fighter. Your new people will be touching on subjects that are more sensitive, if not more serious. Me: I’d like to do a novel in this medium. I’m at a stage of affluence where I can afford to do it without worrying whether it will sell or not. The trouble is that it’s a two-year project, because the fastest anybody can move is about a page a day. At least that’s as fast as I could go. But even then it’s not so much the length and the physical limitation, it’s the story, the plot. It would have to be serious stuff. What I’m talking about is that instead of doing ‘Crime and Punishment,’ by a fellow named Dostoevski, I would have a story by Will Eisner.”

Eisner smiled, and doodled.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Requiem for a City: Mexico’s Impending Earthquake

For days, the sirens never stopped. The ambulances came screaming down the Paseo de la Reforma, the sound preceded by cars packed with young men waving red flags, honking horns, demanding passage. The ambulances went by in a rush. And then more came from the other direction, cutting across town on Insurgentes, grinding gears at the intersection. In the ambulances you could see doctors, nurses, tubes, bottles, a dusty face with an open mouth and urgent eyes. And then they were gone, heading for one of the hospitals in the great injured city of Mexico.

“Somos los chingados,” a man named Victor Presa said to me, standing in the crowd in the Plaza of the Three Cultures in the district called Tlatelolco. We are the fucked. Presa, 41, a tinsmith, didn’t know if his wife and three children were alive or dead. He lived with them in the 13-story Nuevo Leon building of the Nonoalco-Tlatelolco housing complex (one of 96 buildings erected in the ’60s to make up the largest public housing development in the country). When the terremoto hit at 7:19 on the morning of September 19, Victor Presa was coming home with friends. “We were up all of the night. Yes. I don’t have work, you understand? Still, no excuse. I was out, yes, we were drinking, yes … ”

The residents of Nuevo Leon had been complaining for eight months to the project’s officials about the dampness of the concrete, seepage of water, unrepaired fractures, the feeling of instability. The housing bureaucrats ignored them. And at 7:19 a.m., when Victor Presa was still almost a mile from home and thick with pulque, the building seemed to rise up, swayed left, then right, then left again, and all 13 stories went over, reeling down, slab upon slab, concrete powdering upon impact, pipes and drains crumpling, steel rods twisting like chicken wire. Within the gigantic mass, smashed among beds and stoves, sinks and bathtubs, among couches and cribs, bookcases and tables and lamps, ground into fibrous pulp with the morning’s freshly purchased bread, boxes of breakfast cereal, pots of coffee, platters of eggs, bacon, tortillas, there were more than a thousand men, women, and children.

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***

“Somos los chingados,” said Victor Presa, sore-eyed, his hands bloody, voice cracked, smoking a cigarette, staring at the ruins, as a small army of firemen, soldiers, and residents clawed at the rubble. A woman kept calling for a lost child: Ro-baiiiiiiir-to, Ro­baaaaaiiiii-irrrr-to. The scene seemed almost unreal; surely some director would now yell “cut” and everyone would relax, the calls to the dead and dying would cease, the special effects men would examine their masterpiece. But this was real all right, and Victor Presa stared at the building, summoning whatever strength he had left to join the others who had been smashed by what was being called El Gran Chingon. The Big Fucker.

“This was all we needed,” said an exhausted, hawk-nosed 24-year-old doctor named Raul Tirado. “Things were bad enough. Now this, the catastrofe. Pobre Mexico … poor Mexico.”

Before the catastrophe was the Crisis, always discussed here with a capital C, a combination of factors that were at once political, economic, social. The $6 billion foreign debt. The incredible $30 million a day that leaves Mexico just to pay the vigorish to the banks, never denting the debt itself. The accelerating slide of the peso (for years, 12.5 pesos were pegged to the dollar; last week you could get 405). The collapse of the price of petroleum. All these were intertwined with a wide-ranging cynicism; a loss of faith in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that has ruled Mexico without interruption since 1929; contempt for the obesity of the state, where almost four million Mexicans are employed by federal, state, and local governments out of a total work force of about 20 million; despair at the monstrous growth of Mexico City and its transformation into a smog-choked, soul-killing crime-ridden purgatory; fatalism about the daily, hourly arrival of more and more and more children; and above and below everything, touching every level of the national life, persisting in the face of exposure in the press and President Miguel de la Madrid’s oratory about “moral renovation”: the rotting stench of corruption.

“There will be a Mexico when this is finished,” said Dr. Tirado. “But if they only clean up the physical mess, then we are doomed.”

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So the cranes will soon arrive to remove the top four floors of Continental Hotel on the corner of Reforma and Insurgentes, but neither the building nor Mexico will be easily healed. In 1957, when an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale rolled through the city, killing 51 people, the Continental was a year old, a proud new member of the Hilton chain, with a blue-green mosaic mural rising from street level to the roof. That quake split the mural and fractured the building, but repairs were made and business went on. There were only 3.5 million people in Mexico City that year, and the city brimmed with optimism. But Hilton’s name was long ago removed from the building, and the mural torn away, and when I walked around the corner to Calle Roma to look at the aging weather-stained edifice from the rear, the top floors seemed to have been mashed by some gigantic fist. Business there will not go on. Not after El Gran Chingon. Across the street from the Continental there’s a statue of Cuauhtehmoc, the valiant Aztec prince who fought Cortez after Montezuma had failed; Cuauhtehmoc survived 1957 and survived September 19. But his pollution-blackened face now seemed sadder than ever.

“There’ll be nothing there next year,” said a 31-year-old insurance executive named Maria Delgado, staring at the Continental. “Who would build there again? Who would grant insurance? Who would build in many other parts of the city?”

Walking the city in the days after the quake, much of the damage did seem permanent. On the corner of Hamburgo and Dinamarca, a gallery called the Central Cultural de Jose Guadalupe Posada had been compacted from five floors into two; the art work had been removed, the building cordoned off behind a string of sad dusty pennants, but it didn’t matter now: there was nothing left to steal. Across the street, rescue workers combed the rubble of an apartment building: cops, soldiers, doctors in Red Cross vests, university students, men with flat brown Indian faces, all lifting broken concrete, smashed furniture, calling for sounds of life, hearing nothing. Such groups would soon be familiar all over the ruined parts of the city, and they helped compile the statistics of disaster: nearly 5000 dead, another 150,000 hurt, an estimated 2000 trapped in the rubble, dead or alive. Some bureaucrats, afraid of permanently losing tourist business, rushed to minimize the effects of El Gran Chingon; Mexico is a large city, they said (it sprawls over 890 square miles); only 0.1 per cent of its buildings were destroyed. And that was true.

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But you couldn’t minimize what happened to the people who’d been directly affected. On Calle Liverpool, a blue moving van from Romero’s Mudanzas was parked in front of Shakey’s Pizza y Polio, loading furniture from a damaged apartment house; in middle-­class areas, moving vans were part of the scenery, like salvage boats after a shipwreck. A few doors down, the tan cement skin had peeled off the facade of another apartment house, revealing cheap porous concrete blocks underneath. On Calle Landres, two buildings to the right of the Benjamin Franklin Llbrary tilted to the side like drunks in a doonvay; cops warned pedestrians not to smoke because there was gas in the air. At the corner of Landres and Berlin, tinted windows had been blown out of a building, its walls sagged, the street was piled with broken glass and rubble; but in one window you could see the back of a spice rack, its jars neat, orderly, domestic, suggesting life in a place where nobody would ever live again.

The contrasts from one block to another, one building to the next, seemed baffling. Why did this house survive and that one collapse? Of the more than 450 colonial-era buildings listed with the Mexican equivalent of the landmarks commission, not one had been destroyed. But more than 100 new government-owned buildings had fallen, including three major hospitals and many ministries; hundreds of others (including many schools) were mortally wounded. Fate bad never seemed more capricious. But every Mexican I spoke to offered the same basic explanation and it had nothing to do with God, faith, subsoil erosion, fault lines, the Cocos Plate, or the superiority of the 19th century to the 20th. Their answer was simple: corruption.

“Today, more than ever, it has been shown that corruption is a very bad builder,” said the Committee of 100, a group formed last March to combat the environmental disasters of Mexico (its members include writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Octavio Paz, artists Rufino Tamayo and Jose Luis Cuevas). “It is no casual thing that the historic center of the city, made to last, has survived the two tremors …”

Senator Antonio Martinez Baez, a professor emeritus of the National Autonomous University, said that corruption was widespread in the building industry, particularly in the 1970s, when Mexico was booming with oil money. Martinez Baez said the corruption involved more than government bureaucrats, who looked the other way when shoddy materials were used; it included contractors, engineers, building owners and their intermediaries, usually hustling lawyers.

“They should not be allowed to clear these areas until a thorough examination has taken place,” said an engineer named Rafael Avellanor. “Concrete, steel, everything must be tested, measured against the original specifications. And then the guilty should be jailed for murder.”

Corruption is, of course, one of the oldest, saddest Mexican stories; didn’t Montezuma first offer Cortez a bribe to go away? But corruption doesn’t explain everything. If the earthquake toppled many modern buildings, if it seemed a horrible act of architectural criticism to enrubble the Stalinoid fortresses of the permanent bureaucracy, well, El Gran Chingon also rolled into Tepito.

And while the camera crews faithfully assembled each day at the Children’s Hospital, at the Medical Center, at the Juarez housing project, where dramas of rescue and redemption were played out with touching regularity; while cameras for three hours followed Nancy Reagan in her yellow jacket and professionally concerned mask; while journalists sought out Placido Domingo, bearded and dusty in the ruins of Tlatelolco, working alongside ordinary citizens, searching for four of his lost relatives “until the last stone is lifted”; while cameras at the airport recorded the arrival of volunteers and aid from 43 countries; while all of that was happening, almost nobody went to Tepito.

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***

There seems always to have been a Tepito in Mexico City; it’s perhaps the city’s oldest slum, maker of thieves and prizefighters and entertainers. For most of this century, the Tepito poor have crowded into tiny dollar-a-month, one-room flats in vecindades (apartment houses assembled around damp central courtyards, described in detail by Oscar Lewis in The Children of Sanchez). They built houses for themselves too, of scraps of wood, homemade brick, parts of cars, discarded advertising signs. Boys from Tepito became toreros and football players; they went to the great gym called Baños de Jordan and fought their way onto page one of Esto or Ovaciones, the city’s daily sports papers; at least one, Raton Macias, became a champion of the world. Some became musicians and worked in Plaza Garibaldi, not far away, singing, playing horn or guitar for lovers, tourists, and each other in the Tenampa Club or the Guadalajara del Noche; some became cops; a few went on to become lawyers, doctors, teachers; many ended up a dozen blocks away in the notorious Black Palace of Lecumberri, the city’s major prison, until it was torn down a few years ago.

The women of Tepito had harder lives. They married young, bore children young, suffered young, died young. Most were faithful to the code of machismo, imposed upon them by the men; those who violated the code often ended up in the pages of Alarma, a weekly crime journal that specializes in the mutilated bodies of the dead. Too many became prostitutes, working in the three famous callejones, or alleys behind the Merced marketplace, alleys so narrow that men stood with their backs against the rough walls while the women sat on stools and performed for a dollar. They started there when young, las putas de Tepito, and many ended up back in the callejones when old. Along the way, perhaps, there were stops in the houses and cribs of Calle de Esperanza (now lost to reform), or if they were pretty enough, smart enough, tough enough, they’d move up to the dance halls on San Juan de Letran, or the more expensive whore houses beyond the Zona Rosa, where the politicians and generals arrived each night with their sleazy cuadrillas. They might hook up with a married man and be installed in a casa chica. Some went off to the border towns. But they were always men and women “de Tepito,” a phrase said with the tough pride of someone from Red Hook or the Lower East Side.

And now, a few days after the earthquake, Tepito was gone. In the cerrada of Gonzales Ortega, all of the houses were destroyed. Vecindades were in rubble along Brasil Street, on Rayon, Jesus Carranza, Tenochtitlan, Fray Bernadina de Las Casas, Florida, and Las Cardidad, all the way to the Avenida del Trabajo. This had always been a barrio whose true god was noise. A mixture of blasting radios, shouts, laughter, rumors, deals, quarrels, jokes, screaming children, imploring mothers, furious husbands. You could hear young men playing trumpet in the afternoons. You could hear lovers careening into melodrama, while dealers hawked contraband radios, hot jewelry, used clothes, drugs.

Now Tepito was silent except for one lone radio somewhere, playing a tinny mariachi tune. A drunk of uncertain age, grizzled and dirty, sat on a pile of broken brick, talking intensely to himself. A tinsmith poked at the ruins of his shop, a small boy beside him looking grave. An old man who had run a small antique record store trembled as he looked at his smashed collection. “I have great treasures here. Jorge Negrete. Carlos Gardel. Lara. Infante. Treasures. Of the old style. Ahora … ”

Ahora. Now. Now the men, women, children, and dogs of Tepito had moved by the thousands to the open spaces around the Avenida del Trabajo. They had improvised tents. They’d formed teams to search for water. Old women had set up charcoal mounds to boil water and cook. Together, they consoled each other, fed each other, cursed at politicians, cops, fate, God. They passed along news: the Bahia movie house was wrecked (“Ay, chico, where will we go now to get fleas?”) and on San Juan de Letran all six stories above the Super Leche cafeteria had collapsed, killing many people having breakfast (“Cuatey the coffee killed more …”) and more than one hundred government buildings had been wrecked, including the Superior Court, with all the city’s criminal records (“There is a God …”). They joked, as most jokesters do, because they are serious men.

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“We want to go home,” said a white-haired wood finisher named Jesus Torres. “But we have nowhere to go … ”

He was standing with a crowd of men among the tents. Someone said that the government estimated the homeless at 35,000. Torres said, “That means there must be one hundred thousand on the street.”

A young man named Eloy Mercado arrived with a copy of Esto. A story in one of the back pages said that Kid Azteca was among the missing. When I first came to Mexico in 1956, to go to school on the GI Bill, Kid Azteca had been fighting since the 1920s. He had been the Mexican welterweight champion for 17 years, an elegant boxer, good puncher, and in his forties he kept having one six­-round fight a year to extend his record as the longest-lasting Mexican fighter in history. Now he and his two sisters were missing in Tepito, perhaps dead. Jesus Torres shook his head: “He’s not dead.” An old man leaned in, his face dusty, teeth stained with tobacco, smelling like vinegar. “You know how to find Kid A’tec’? Go in the street and start to count to 10. Then he’ll get up …” He and Torres laughed, two men as old as the lost Kid Azteca who had managed to remain true to their origins. Somos de Tepito, hombre

So to experience Mexico after the earthquake, you had to go to Tepito too. You had to go to the corner of Orizaba and Coahuila, where seven bodies were spread across the sidewalk, packed in plastic bags of ice, waiting for hours for ambulances too busy with the living. You had to smell the sweet corrupt odor that began to drift from collapsed buildings. You had to hear the sirens: always the sirens.

You could also see Mexico after the earthquake in the baseball park of the Social Security administration, where more bodies lay under blue plastic tents, waiting for identification. In other times, a team called the Red Devils played here. Now a somber line of men and women waited patiently for admission, searching for their dead, while bureaucrats in the third base dugout compiled their mournful lists. The corpses were photographed and fingerprinted and those that were not identified were wrapped in plastic bags and taken away.

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Some were taken to the Cemetery of San Lorenzo Tezanco, and this too was Mexico in the autumn of 1985. Those who bad lost their names along with their lives were given numbers: Cuerpo 127, Cuerpo 128. About 20 gravediggers chopped at the weed-tangled earth. More people came to look at the bodies, and many brought flowers. The unidentified were buried in a common grave. Presiding over this rude democracy was a white-haired, white-bearded priest named Ignacio Ortega Aguilar, who gave the blessings and offered the prayers. On the fifth day after the earthquake be told a reporter: “With this tragedy God bas placed all of us in the same condition. In only a few minutes, while the earth shook, God permitted us to understand who he is and who we are. Today we know that we are owners of nothing.”

And to know Mexico after the earthquake, you had to listen to the sound of rage. There was rage in Colonia Roma, because some cops were demanding a 500 peso mordida to allow residents past barriers with cars or moving vans; rage at unconfirmed stories of cops who had looted wrecked apartments or pried wedding bands off the fingers of the dead; rage at flower sellers who tripled their prices outside cemeteries; rage at tienda owners who doubled and tripled the price of food, and at men who sold water among the almost two million who had none at all; rage at the makers of coffins, who jacked up their prices (some donated free coffins, too). In Colonia Roma I saw a man who had rescued hundreds of books from the ruins of his apartment sitting among them on the sidewalk.

“The rest has no value,” he said, his voice trembling, angry. “Only these. These I love.” He touched the books, some of them in expensive leather bindings. “But when my brother-in-law came to help me take them away, the police said he would have to pay 1000 pesos. I insisted no! I asked for a supervisor. Nothing! So I will stay here. I hope it doesn’t rain. But I’m prepared to die here before paying them anything.”

One morning I walked to Calle Versalles, where I’d lived in a friend’s apartment with my wife and daughters one winter in the ‘6os. The street was blocked at both ends by rifle-toting soldiers, while rescue workers chopped at the ruins of the old Hotel Versalles. Mattresses jutted from the rubble at odd angles. Men used plastic buckets to pass along the broken brick, plaster, concrete to waiting trucks. The house where we had lived was intact, with a lone broken window on the third floor. But the Versalles, across the street, was gone, along with the building beside it and another one at the corner. I showed a New York press card to a soldier who shrugged and passed me through the lines. The smell was then richer, loamier, the sweet sickening smell of putrefaction,

Suddenly everything stopped. Workers, soldiers, firemen called for silence. A body had been found. A middle-aged woman. Her jaw was hanging loose, hair and face bone-white from broken plaster, tongue swollen, eyes like stone. Her pale blue nightgown had fallen open. A man in a yellow hardhat reached down and covered her naked breasts. Mexico.

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***

Nothing had prepared me for Avenida Juarez. In the old days, this was one of the city’s great streets, a busy hustling thoroughfare. Turning into it from the Reforma, the Hotel Regis was on the left, along with a movie house, a pharmacy, the huge Salinas y Rocha department store. On the right was the Del Prado hotel, with one of Diego Rivera’s finest murals inside. Past the Del Prado was a mixture of shops, both elegant and tacky, silver stalls, handicraft shops, book stores, restaurants. In the distance, there was the great green space of the Alameda park, with its baroque red shoeshine stands, and the Palacio of the Bellas Artes beyond. In the 1950s, I went out with a woman named Lourdes who worked on this street, and for years afterwards I thought that one form of heaven would consist of the Avenida Juarez on a Saturday afternoon, with a new book or a newspaper in hand and a shine on my shoes and a nap in the grass of the Alameda park.

On this day, the old avenue was a shambles. It was as if some brutal general, bored with the tedium of a firefight, had called in an airstrike. The Salinas y Rocha store was now a giant shell, blackened by fire. Across the street, the Del Prado was closed (a Mexican reporter told me the Rivera mural was intact) and so were all the shops and restaurants. Three huge buildings leaned at a precarious angle. The street was packed with soldiers, sailors, doctors, nurses, reporters, and all attention was on the Regis.

The old hotel lay in a huge jagged mound; all 367 rooms had been destroyed. And I thought about the novel of Mexico City written by Carlos Fuentes in the 1950s, called (in English) Where the Air Is Clear. This was another city when he wrote his book, but Fuentes had premonitions of its ferocious future. One of his major characters was a revolutionary gone bad, an industrialist named Federico Robles.

But not he, he moued straight toward what he saw coming: business. 
the spot which will remain the center of style and wealth
in the capital: the ‘Don Quixote’ cabaret of the Hotel Regis …  

They were still at the Hotel Regis when I was there in the ’50s, the models for Federico Robles eating with Fuentes’s other great character, Artemio Cruz, laughing and drinking with all the other “robolutionaries” who came to power with President Miguel Aleman in ’46. They sat in booths or at small dark tables, heavy-lidded men dressed in silk suits and English shoes, graduated at last from tequila and mezcal and pulque to good Scotch whiskey, while their chauffeurs parked outside and the blond girls waited in the casas chicas on Rio Tiber. They were the men who made the present horror: the choked decaying capital, the failing banks, the greedy cement companies, the porous hotels. They invented Acapulco (with Aleman their leader), added Zihuatenejo, Cancun, Ixtapa, providing oil and shelter for the pampered bodies of the north. They were men who were all appetite. They ate the forests, they swallowed the rivers, they sucked up water from beneath the surface of the city and the regurgitated cement. In the end, under presidents Echeverria and Lopez Portillo, they ate Mexico.

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But even in the ’50s, when they still could be seen at the Hotel Regis, there were some who sensed what was coming. In Fuentes’s novel, a journalist named Ixca Cienfuegos says:

“There’s nothing indispensable in Mexico, Rodrigo. Sooner or later, a secret, anonymous force inundates it and transforms it all. It’s a force that’s older than all memory, as reduced and concentrated as a grain of powder; it’s the origin. All the rest is a masquerade …”

In a way, that secret anonymous force arrived at 7:19 on the morning of September 19, fierce and primeval. And now the Regis, along with so much else, was destroyed. Most of the men from the Don Quixote bar are gone too, dead and buried, the profits of old crimes passed on to their children; they stand now only as examples to the hard new hustlers of Mexico. There will never be statues of these men on the Paseo de la Reforma, but there are monuments to them all over the city: mounds of broken concrete and plaster, common graves in Tezonco.

And while many of the dead remained unburied in the week after the earthquakes, jammed among the slabs of the fallen buildings, everyone talked about the future. Mexico will never be the same again: the phrase was repeated over and over again in the newspapers. There were calls from the left and right for investigation of the corruption that led to the faulty construction of so many new buildings; there were demands that Mexico decentralize the government, sending many ministries to other cities; there were suggestions that the ruined sites be converted into parks, to allow some green open spaces for Mexico City to cleanse its lungs. Some insisted that Mexico would have to postpone its payments on foreign debt until after reconstruction.

And there were a few published reminders of another eartliquake, far to the south, that had led to the eventual overthrow of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. That 1972 earthquake killed thousands too. And when the generosity of the world sent money, supplies, medicine, clothes to Managua, Somoza and his gang stole it. The great fear of some Mexicans is that the same massive robbery will happen here, that the endemic, systemic corruption will absorb most, if not all, of the money that should be spent on the people of Tepito and Colonia Roma, on the survivors of Tlatelolco and the Juarez housing project and all the other ruined places of the city. If that happens, Mexico will not require agents of the Evil Empire to provoke the long-feared all-consuming revolution. ♦

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Dance Archives FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES show-old-images Theater

Farewell to Fosse

Fosse was dead and after the urgent calls and the logistics of death, there seemed nothing really to do about it except go for a walk along Broadway in the midnight rain.

This was the square mile of the earth Bob Fosse cared for more than any other. Up there on the second floor at 56th Street was the rehearsal hall where I’d met him years ago. Around the corner was the Carnegie Deli, where he’d have lunch with Paddy Chayefsky and Herb Gardner, trading lines, drinking coffee, smoking all those goddamned cigarettes. On the 11th floor of 850 Seventh Avenue, he and Chayefsky and Gardner had their separate offices, and from Paddy’s they would often gaze in wonder across the back courtyard of the Hotel Woodward, at the man in underwear who was always shaving, no matter what the hour. A few blocks away was the building where Fosse lived the last decade of his life.

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And down the rain-drowned avenue was the sleazy hamlet I always thought of as Fosseville: all glitter and neon and dangerous shadows. This wasn’t Runyon’s fairy-tale Broadway; it was harder, meaner, as reliable in its ruthlessness as a switchblade. Yet even in his most cynical years, Fosse insisted on seeing its citizens as human, observing their felonies and betrayals not as a journalist or a sociologist but as the fine artist he was. “I see a hooker on a corner,” he said to me once, “and I can only think: there’s some kinda story there. I mean, she was once six years old … ” On this late night, I could see Fosse in black shirt and trousers, standing in some grimy doorway, looking out at his lurid parish; he had been young here and almost died here and sometimes fled from the place and always came back. In Fosseville the gaudiest dreams existed side by side with the most vicious betrayals; everything was real but nothing was true. And, of course, he believed in some dark way that all could be redeemed by love.

Nobody loved harder. He loved his wives: Mary Ann Niles, who danced with him in the last years of the nightclub era (and who died a year after Fosse), Joan McCracken, who died on him when they were both young, and Gwen Verdon, who was with him when he lay down for the final time on the grass of a small park in Washington. But Fosse wasn’t one of those men who can be married; the emotional core of his masterpiece, All That Jazz, is not so much the romantic attraction of death, but the impossibility of fidelity. There were simply too many beautiful women in this world, with their grace and style and intelligence and mystery; the demand of monogamy was like ordering a man to love only one Vermeer.

And so he loved many women; most were dancers and actresses, because in the world where he worked they were the women he met. He treated all of them with the same grace. I saw him most often when he was between women; he was then usually engulfed by a bleakly romantic sense of loss (although the only remorse he ever expressed was about Gwen). When be met a new woman, when he was swept away, he would vanish from his usual precincts; no male friends were as important as a woman or the possibility of love.

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It was no accident that he always celebrated women in his work, although he was hardly an illustrator of feminist dogma. In the ’50s and ’60s, half the men I knew were in love with Gwen Verdon, who on stage combined humor, vulnerability, toughness, and sensuality in shows designed, choreographed, directed by Fosse. She always moved the tough guys most of all. “Every time I see her,” the sports-writer Jimmy Cannon said of Gwen, “I want to run away with her.” When Damn Yankees was in its long run, Paul Sann, the greatest newspaperman I ever knew, said of Gwen one night: “You better go see her now, kid, ’cause you ain’t gonna see anything like her again on Broadway for the rest of your fucking life.” About Gwen Verdon, as about so many things, Sann was absolutely right.

But if it’s forever impossible to separate Fosse from Gwen, he was also a fine director of other women. Liza Minnelli, Valerie Perrine, and Anne Reinking did their best work with Fosse. He was one of the few directors to see King Kong and recognize that Jessica Lange could be a superb actress; later they would become lovers, and he would cast her as the Angel of Death in All That Jazz. It was entirely appropriate, of course, that Fosse would imagine death as a woman, thus merging his two most passionate obsessions.

But he loved other things too: almost all forms of music; nightclub comics; cheap vaudeville jokes (Q. “Do you file your nails?” A. “No, I throw them away …”); the New York Mets; good food (he spent hours cooking in the huge kitchen of the house in Quogue, bringing his perfectionism to the details of the simplest meal); Fred Astaire (there were no pictures of himself in the Quogue house and two of Astaire); air hockey; children; New York Post headlines; boxing and football; his daughter Nicole; good wine, margaritas, and brandy; his cat, Macho, a stray discovered beaten-up and bloodied in the Quogue grasslands and nursed to plump domesticity; and, of course, those goddamned cigarettes.

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After family and lovers, he admired writers more than anyone else. Among his friends were Gardner and Chayefsky, E. L. Doctorow, Peter Maas, and Budd Schulberg. Although he liked to affect the I’m-only-a-song-and-dance-man pose, Fosse was a careful, intelligent reader. His writer friends knew how high Fosse’s own standards were (whether he failed or succeeded, he never set out to manufacture crap) and they often responded to his subtle urgings that they do better. Some writers who worked with him were angry at the end, as he demanded from them what he could more easily demand from a dancer; those who didn’t work with him had easier friendships.

Yes, Fosse was competitive, and cared (perhaps too much) about the way he stood in relation to other directors. In 1974, after he had his first ferocious heart attack, Gardner and Chayefsky were summoned to Fosse’s hospital room to serve as witnesses to his will. There were two lawyers waiting. Fosse was in critical condition in his bed, silent and trapped in a ganglia of tubes and wires. The lawyers asked the two writers to sign the will; Gardner did so immediately. But Chayefsky insisted on reading the text. He discovered that Fosse hadn’t left him anything, so he turned to the silent Fosse and said: “Fuck you, live!” Fosse started to laugh; all measuring devices began to go wild; the lawyers blanched; a platoon of nurses arrived to save Fosse’s life. Finally, all was calmed down again. Chayefsky resumed reading the will while Fosse lay silent. Then Paddy came to a provision that reserved $20,000 for a party for Fosse’s friends. Hey, that’s great, Chayefsky said, it’s just what Josh Logan did. For the first time, Fosse spoke.

“How much did Logan leave for the party?” he said, in a thin weak voice.

“Twenty thousand,” said Chayefsky.

“Make mine twenty-five,” said Fosse, falling back, as Chayefsky and Gardner dissolved into laughter. That visit probably saved his life.

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Quite simply, Fosse wanted to be the best at what he did. In that impossibly romantic quest, he drove dancers hard (although never harder than he drove himself) and kept demanding more from his stars. He worked hard at understanding actors, studying with Sanford Meisner, reading the basic texts from Stanislavski to Harold Clurman. And he developed his own ways to get his actors to do their best work.

“He could act incredibly humble when he wanted something from you,” said Roy Scheider, who believes his own best work was in All That Jazz. “When he met someone he wanted for the first time, he knew everything about you. He’d done research, he’d seen your movies or plays. He’d say, ‘You know, you were very good in that part, hey, wait, you got a nomination, didn’t you? You won.’ And there’d be a pause, after he did all this praising. And then he’d say how that was nothing compared to what lies ahead in your work with me. And he made you believe it. And then he did it … After three, four meetings you’d be thoroughly convinced that you were not capable of giving him what he wanted. And then he would begin to build your confidence, making you feel that your reflowering would take place in his show.” Scheider laughed. “You see, for him, it was always being done for posterity. Every time out of the chute, it was for history.”

Because he worked so hard, and because he knew how much pain was involved in the making of a show or a movie, Fosse generally despised critics. He thought they saw too much and, as a result, their sensibilities were blunted, making them unable to respond to amazing theatrical moments in the way an audience might. They were all too glib, dismissing (or praising) two years of another’s work in a review dashed off in an hour. He thought critics were primarily responsible for the failure of Star 80 (based on Teresa Carpenter’s brilliant article for the Voice); when Big Deal opened to lukewarm reviews last year and then closed after 100-odd performances, he was disheartened.

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“Maybe all they want are Eddie Murphy movies or sets that sing,” he said. “Maybe all they want is shit. Maybe it’s over for people like me.”

But he was still working at the end; trying to choose between a movie about Walter Winchell, a movie version of Chicago, probably with Madonna, or something completely new. During the summer, we talked a few times about his experiences during the Second World War, when he was a 17-year-old sailor working in an entertainment unit in the South Pacific; he was with the first Americans to enter Japan at the end of the war and was still horrified at the scale of the destruction in Tokyo and the stupidly brutal way so many American soldiers treated the Japanese, particularly the women. “It still makes me sick,” he said. “That was the first time I was really ashamed to be an American.” The contrast between the idealism of fighting the war and the morally corrosive realities of victory was a splendid setup for a Fosse movie, but Fosse was uneasy about it. “That world is gone, that music, the way people were … Most of the country wouldn’t know what I was talking about.”

Now we’ll never know. The night after we all got the news, there was a small gathering at Gardner’s apartment, a kind of secular wake. Some wept; others told the old stories, with examples of Fosse’s dark humor; all were in shock, because Fosse had been looking better than at any time in years. Later, wandering through Broadway in the rain, I thought that for Fosse, who so perfectly expressed a certain vision of New York, the worst thing about dying in Washington might have been that he closed out of town. ♦

1987 Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about director and choreographer Bob Fosse

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

Bernhard Goetz: Notes From Underground

The slow and tedious processes of justice brought Bernhard Hugo Goetz last week to a fifth-floor courtroom at 111 Centre Street and there, at least, the poor man was safe. Out in the great scary city, the demons of his imagination roamed freely; across the street, many of them were locked away in the cages of The Tombs. But here at the defense table, flanked by his lawyers, protected by a half-dozen armed court officers, the room itself separated by metal detectors from the anarchy of the city, Goetz looked almost serene.

By design or habit, he was dressed as an ordinary citizen: pink cotton shirt and jeans over the frail body, steel-rimmed glasses sliding down the long sharp nose. His hair looked freshly trimmed. You see people like him every day, passing you on the street, riding the subways, neither monstrous nor heroic. From time to time, he whispered to the lawyers. He made a few notes on a yellow pad. His eyes wandered around the courtroom, with its civil service design and the words In God We Trust nailed in sans-serif letters above the bench of Judge Stephen G. Crane. Goetz never looked at the spectators or the six rows of reporters. In some curious way, he was himself a kind of spectator.

So when it was time to play the tape-recorded confession that Goetz made to the police in Concord, New Hampshire, on New Year’s Eve, 1984, he, too, examined the transcript like a man hoping for revelation. The text itself was extraordinary. Combined with the sound of Goetz’s voice — stammering, hyperventilating, querulous, defensive, cold, blurry, calculating — it seemed some terrible invasion of privacy. We have heard this voice before; it belongs to the anonymous narrator of Notes from Underground, that enraged brief for the defense.

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Goetz furrowed his brow as he listened to this much younger, oddly more innocent version of himself that had ended the long panicky flight out of the IRT in the second floor interview room of police headquarters in Concord. He started by telling his inquisitor, a young detective named Chris Domian, the sort of facts demanded by personnel directors: name, birth date, social security number, address (55 West 14th Street, “in New York City, and that’s, uh, that’s zip code 10011”). But it’s clear from the very beginning that he realized these would be his last anonymous hours.

Goetz: You see, I’ll tell you the truth, and they can do anything they want with me, but I just don’t want to, I just don’t want to be paraded around, I don’t want a circus … I wish it were a dream. But it’s not. But, you know, it’s nothing to be proud of. It’s just, just, you know, it just is.

Exactly. It wasn’t a dream, certainly not a movie; it just was. On December 22, 1984, at about 1:30 in the afternoon, Bernie Goetz boarded a southbound number 2 Seventh Avenue IRT train at 14th Street and his life changed forever. So did the lives of Darrell Cabey, Troy Canty, James Ramseur, and Barry Allen. Within seconds after he boarded the train, they were joined together in a few violent minutes that changed this city. And when you listen to Goetz making his jangled confession, you understand that on that terrible afternoon, there were really five victims.

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Domian: Okay, let’s start with the person that was, uh, on the right, so to speak, laying down.

Goetz: Yeah, I think he was the one who talked to me; he was the one who did the talking.

That was Canty. He is now 20, finishing an 18-month drug rehab treatment at Phoenix House. Before he ran into Goetz, he had pleaded guilty to taking $14 from video games in a bar. In his confession, Goetz is trying hard to explain to Domian (and to officer Warren Foote, who joined Domian) not simply what he did, but its context. The resulting transcript reads like a small, eerie play: the man from the big city explaining a dark world of menacing signs and nuances to the baffled outlanders.

Goetz: I sat, I sat down and just, he was lying on the side, kind of. He, he just turned his face to me and he said, “How are you?” You know, what do you do? ‘Cause people joke around in New York a lot, and this and that, and in certain circumstances that can be, that can be a real threat. You see, there’s an implication there … I looked up and you’re not supposed to look at people a lot because it can be interpreted as being impolite — so I just looked at him and I said “Fine.” And I, I looked down. But you kind of keep them in the corner of your eye …

Domian: Did he say anything else to you?

Goetz: Yeah, yeah … the train was out of the station for a while and it reached full speed … And he and one of the other fellows got up and they, uh  — You see, they were all originally on my right-hand side. But, uh, you know, two stayed on my right-hand side, and he got up and the other guy got up and they came to my left-hand side and … You see, what they said wasn’t even so much as important as the look, the look. You see the body language … You have to, you know, it’s, it’s, uh, you know, that’s what I call it, body language.

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That’s what started it off: “How are you?” and body language. It just went from there. Goetz remembered: “He [Canty] stood up and the other fellow stood up. And they very casually walked, or sauntered — whatever you want to call it — over to my left side. And the fellow … uh, he said, ‘Give me five dollars.'”

This is the moment that helps explain the intensity of the public response to the Goetz story. It is one thing to read with detached amusement about Jean Harris or Claus von Bulow; such tabloid soap operas have little to do with our lives. But for millions of New Yorkers, what happened to Goetz is a very real possibility. Being trapped on the subway by four bad guys demanding not a dime or a quarter but five dollars is similar to the nocturne about the burglar beside the bed in the dark. A quarter is panhandling; five dollars is robbery. Such scenarios don’t often happen, but you wonder what you would do if they did. For Goetz, it happened.

Goetz: One of the other fellows, he had in his fur coat, he had his hand or something like this and he put a bulge … And even that isn’t a threat. Because the people, you see, they, they know the rules of the game, the rules of the game in New York. And you know, they’re very serious about the rules … You see you don’t know what it’s like to be on the other side of violence. It’s, it’s like a picture. When it happens to you, you see, you see it … People have the craziest image; they see, like Captain Kirk or someone like that, getting attacked by several guys and boom, boom, boom, he beats ’em up and — and two minutes later, he’s walking arm and arm in, with a beautiful woman or something like that. And that’s not what it is ….

Goetz was not Captain Kirk. He was a frail bespectacled young man living in New York and he had learned the rules of the game. He knew what was meant when one of four young black men told him he wanted five dollars.

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Goetz: I looked at his face, and, you know, his eyes were shiny, you know. He, he, he was, if you can believe that, his eyes were shiny, he was enjoying himself … I know in my mind what they wanted to do was play with me … You know, it’s kind of like a cat plays with a mouse before, you know …

Domian: After you got that impression, what did you wind up doing?

Goetz: That’s not an impression, that’s not an impression …

Throughout the confession, Goetz struggles with what he clearly believes is an impossible task: to explain to his rural auditors the terrors of New York.

Goetz: … You have to think in a cold-blooded way in New York … If you don’t … think in what society’s going to brand it, as being you know cold-blooded and murderous and savage and monstrous … I feel it’s irresponsible … How can you understand that here in New Hampshire? How, how, how can you?

He explains to the two New Hampshire cops that he began, in his mind, to lay down “my pattern of fire.” He would shoot from left to right. That was the only thing he could do, he insists, because this act wasn’t premeditated: “I never knew those guys were on the train, you know, and like I said, I’m, I’m no good guy or anything like that. But if they had acted a little differently, if they hadn’t cornered me … ” Clearly what he feared most from them was humiliation. And so he decided to shoot them with the unregistered nickle-plated featherweight .38 caliber Smith & Wesson Special that he had shoved inside his pants.

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Domian: Your, your intention was to shoot these people?

Goetz: My intention, at that moment, let me explain: when I saw what they intended for me, my intention was, was worse than shooting.

Domian: Okay. Was it your intention to kill these people?

Goetz: My intention was to do anything I could do to hurt them. My intention — you know, I know this sounds horrible — but my intention was to murder them, to hurt them, to make them suffer as much as possible.

No, he explained, he didn’t have a pistol permit, because the New York police department had turned him down. And then, recalling all this to the cops in New Hampshire, the core of his rage began to burn. The reason he wanted a pistol permit was because he had been attacked three years before and was left with permanent damage to his knee. The cops caught the man who did it, Goetz said, and two hours and 35 minutes after his arrest, he was back on the street without bail, charged with malicious mischief; Goetz himself claimed he spent six hours and five minutes filing the charges and talking to the bureaucrats in the victim aid program.

“That incident was an education,” he said, his voice beginning to tremble. “It taught me that, that the city doesn’t care what happens to you. You see, you don’t know what it’s like to be a victim inside.”

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And he began to explain what it’s like to live in an almost permanent state of fear. This can’t be sneered away; thousands, perhaps millions of New Yorkers live with this most corrosive emotion. Most of us have adjusted to the state of siege. We are tense, wary, guarded; but most of us function and do not explode. Goetz was different.

Goetz: … I kind of accept my life, as I know it, is finished. But, but, boy, it would be just — to lead a normal life. If, if you can’t, I mean, is it too much to ask? … To live being afraid is unbearable, you know? It’s too much to ask, goddamn it .. .”

All over the tape, Goetz talks about fear and its denial. “I’m not afraid of dying instantly,” he says at one point. “I don’t have a family or anything like that. What I’m afraid of is being maimed and of, of these things happening slowly and not knowing what’s going to happen from moment to moment. The fear, in this case, the fear is a funny thing. You see, this is really combat.” He then becomes even more analytical, sounding like a man who had mastered the theory before engaging in practice. “The upper level of your mind, you just turn off. That’s, that’s the important thing. And you, you react … your sense of perception changes, your abilities change. Speed is everything, speed is everything.”

And so, with speed, he shot Canty, Allen, Cabey, and Manseur. “They had set a trap for me,” he tells the cops, “and only they were trapped. It was just so bizarre. It was — I know this is disgusting to say — but it was, it was so easy. I can’t believe it. God.” He insists that he knew exactly what he was doing when he was doing it. “I don’t believe in this insanity stuff. Because you know what you’re doing. You cannot do something and not know it. I mean how could I do it and not know it? This is, this is all bullshit … But if you can accept this: I was out of control … Maybe you should always be in control. But if you put people in a situation where they’re threatened with mayhem, several times, and then if, then if something happens, and if a person acts, turns into a vicious animal — I mean, I mean, you know, how are you supposed, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, what, what do you expect, you know?”

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After firing the first shots, dropping Canty, Ramseur, and Allen, he saw Cabey sitting down.

Goetz: I wasn’t sure if I had shot him before, because he just seemed okay. Now, I said I know this sounds, this is gonna sound vicious, and it is. I mean, how else can you describe it? I said, “You seem to be all right. Here’s another.” Now, you see, what happens is, I was gonna shoot him anyway, I’m sure. I had made up, I mean, in my mind, that I was gonna pull the trigger anyway. But he jerked his right arm. And on reflex, he was shot instantly. You see, that’s the whole thing. You’re working on reflex. You don’t think …

Scattered through the confession there are many other examples of Goetz’s fury and rage, which sound as if they too had become reflexes. “If I had more [ammunition] I would have shot them again and again and again.” He says that “I wanted to hurt them as much as I possibly could.” But even in his rage, he could recognize the fallen men as humans: “I wanted to look at his eyes, I don’t even want to say what may have been in my mind. And I looked at his eyes … there was such fear.” It was as if Cabey’s fear was the only sign to Goetz of their common humanity. “You know, the, the, the look had changed. And I started — it was kinda like slowing down. All of a sudden it’s like putting on the, screeching of the brakes, and you just start slowing down … ”

He talked about the reactions of other passengers, the train slowing down, a conductor coming in and asking what was going on. He talked about jumping out into the tracks after the train stopped in the tunnel, and coming up at Chambers Street and taking a cab home, and then a long drive that night in a rented car to Vermont because “instinctively, somehow I kinda feel like heading north is the way to go if there is a problem.”

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Goetz stayed in Vermont for a week. And if you can believe the confession, he seems actually to have been happy. What he did in the subway, he thought, would be considered just another New York crime. “… When I got back to New York, the stuff was still on the news and people were talking about it. You see, up here people have just forgotten about it. It was one more piece of, excuse me for using the word — one more piece of shit that happened in New York.”

Hearing himself say those words, Goetz massaged his temple, and then lifted his glasses and rubbed his eyes. In the end, the eruption that Saturday afternoon on the IRT wasn’t just another piece of shit that happened in New York. It was a lot more than that. ♦

1987 Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about Bernie Goetz and the subway shooting

1987 Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about Bernie Goetz and the subway shooting

Categories
From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

America in the Eye of the Telescope Site

In Transit

LOS ANGELES — At the long rented tables inside the door of Kennedy-for-President head­quarters, three middle-aged lad­ies wearing Kennedy hats were selling bumper stickers and post­ers. It was the afternoon after Nebraska and you arrived ex­pecting elation, perhaps even eu­phoria; instead the three middle­-aged ladies sat there rather­ glumly, staring out at the bright clean sidewalks of Wilshire Boul­evard and the plump, suited fig­ures of other ladies shopping at the Broadway across the street.

“What’s the matter?” I asked one of them, a blue-haired lady nervously shuffling bumper stickers. “I thought you’d have a party going here.”

“Oh, no, “she said, smiling metallically. “We’re just begin­ning. The real one is just be­ginning.”

She was right, of course, In­diana, the District of Columbia, and Nebraska were important enough; Kennedy could not have afforded to lose any of them. But the real fight is in Califor­nia. This is the heart of the new United States, and if he cannot win convincingly, Hubert Humphrey will be the next President of the United States.

“The other ones were just the preliminaries,” a young USC graduate said. “It’s sort of like the heavyweight elimination. You can’t afford to lose any of them, but the last one is the big one.”

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Away down Wilshire Boule­vard, in Beverly Hills, McCarthy for President headquarters had seemied like a West Coast ver­sion of Walter B. Cooke’s. One lovely little girl sat behind a table covered with literature and her face was so wasted and forlorn that you felt like taking her to a Laurel and Hardy movie just to give her some perspec­tive.

“It’s so … unfair!” she said.

Kennedy headquarters was something else: it had a kind of motion and fury to it, played against a background of jerky shabbiness. The walls were painted red, white, and blue; adorned with posters of the candidate. People were dashing ev­erywhere: the three middle-aged ladies were the somber window dressing for a jumble of ham­mering typewriters, clattering mimeograph machines, ringing telephones, blasting tv sets, rad­ios turned to the all-news chan­nel. Young girls with impossibly white teeth and Kennedy hats gathered up clusters of posters and signs to take to the airport to greet the candidate. They walked across a floor littered with a compost of cigarette butts, crushed coffee cups, discarded press releases, balled carbon paper, and crusts of Dan­ish pastries. They were pretty but they were like all the chicks you ever saw around a cam­paign headquarters: clean, straight, smart, and oddly sex­less; in the sack, they probably hollered for the Candidate.

The men in Kennedy head­quarters were something else. All the younger guys seemed to have been pressed from the same mold at the Rent-a-Volun­teer-with-Pragmatic-Com­passion Works. They wore grey suits on the street, and in the office hiked their shirt-sleeves halfway up the forearm, in case a photographer from Look drop­ped by. They all had horn-rim­med glasses. They all had tight law-school mouths. They all smoked thin panatella cigars. And they were all pricks. That is, they were almost without ex­ception rude, bursting with self-importance, quick to hang up telephones, incapable of return­ing calls, and for most purposes unconcerned with anything ex­cept the technical processes of politics.

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With a few exceptions, Ken­nedy had nothing to do with en­listing these people. Most of them, I’m told, have come out of the Jesse Unruh operation in California. Unruh does not run a machine, in the old sense of that word; but in Democratic politics in this state he has the best organization. The trouble is that the guys who work for him now feel they are working for a winner at last, after the Pat Brown and Pierre Salinger di­sasters. And they feel that they can win without any outside help. The major organizational problem Kennedy has in California has been caused by the Unruh men who answer the telephones; hundreds of people who wanted to work for Kennedy were told by Unruh’s people to forget it, they had enough help. These po­tential volunteers have gone to work for McCarthy, or the Peace and Freedom Party, or stayed home. (I haven’t heard of any­one joining up with Hubert, the Soul Brother.)

My brother Brian and I were standing around when one ot the volunteers came over. He was one of the few fat guys in the place, and stuttered a little.

“You going to the airport?” he said.

“Yeah … ”

“Can you take two riders?”

“Sure.”

Why not? I told Brian. We’re going out there anyway. A few minutes later the fat guy came back with a girl and a pile of posters.

“You can squeeze in some more people, can’t you?”

“No.”

The guy looked miffed. We went and got the car, and the fat guy and his girl and his hats and his posters all piled into the back. We started for the San Diego freeway and the airport. After two blocks the fat guy said: “Roll the window down, will you?”

“Can I smoke?” I asked.

“Let him walk,” Brian said.

“Just don’t want to get a cold,” the fat guy said.

I rolled the window up. The girl was quiet and the fat guy started talking about how ter­rible it was that Kennedy was late after all the planning they had done. I rolled the window down.

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Kennedy was expected at American Airlines Gate 44, and all the way to the airport a disc jockey who sounded like 1958 Bruce Morrow announced the ar­rival time every 10 minutes. I expected 10,000 people. There were about 100 there when we arrived. They were clustered a­round the gate, with the press off in the waiting area on the side. About 60 Kennedy girls in tight white blouses and plastic boaters were rehearsing a song while a woman’s voice led them on from same mysterious loud­speaker. The song kept repeating a line that talked about  “… conscience with a capital K …” It sounded like a song construct­ed by Jimmy Van Heusen for the Ku Klux Klan.

All the little girls were white, except for one pretty black chick with blue eyes (sorry, Rap) who was brought up to the front for the photographers. A black guy and his wife and six-year-old daughter leaned over the fence to see Kennedy. The man car­ried a Kodak. I asked him why he was there.

“Bobby’s my man.” he said. “I want my daughter to see him too.”

“We never saw President Ken­nedy in the flesh,” his wife said. “And so we want the little girl to see Bobby.”

The little girl watched the cameramen, who were banging and tripping each other with cameras and wires. As usual they reminded me of the CBS reporter who once said, “If I ever have a retarded child, God forbid, I won’t worry. I’ll just enroll him in the cameraman’s union.” Then a middle-aged wo­man came to the front, trim, neat, bright-eyed, in a white dress a couple of inches above the knee, looking like she drank Tanqueray in the summer and Chivas Regal in the winter and subscribed dutifully to the New York Review. She started danc­ing, cold sober, and I realized she was the cheerleader. She started singing again about con­science with a capital K, and all the Kennedy girls did their best, while the reporters and photo­graphers stared dully at them and I wondered if there were any girls in California with flat chests and cavities. They weren’t at the airport.

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After awhile a squad of the pricks arrived carrying clipboards and folders, smoking those goddamned small cigars, wearing the tight mouths and the horn-rimmed glasses. They started pushing the crowd around and making Terse Announcements about how Kennedy would first make a statement to the press and then would walk through a kind of gauntlet of Kennedy girls “so you can all see him.” Then they started arranging the reporters, with the tv guys in front, followed by a few lonely magazine reporters, and the local newspapers some­where around the candy stand in the next terminal. The crowd was growing bigger now, with people standing up on the stairs to the left and a few cops drifting around the edges.

About 7:30 the plane arrived, and the crowd had grown to about 1000. Those reporters who had not been given a week off by their bosses trailed off first, limp and pale, toting typewriters. The cameramen crashed forward, a wall of them, and the girls’ choir came on about the conscience with a capital K, and you could hear screaming and shouting, and there was Kennedy, with tired lines around his eyes, blue-grey suit, his lips moving into the cluster of microphones, and I decided to get the hell out of there.

I made it just in time: the line of girls were pushed forward, some women screamed, the black guy was wobbling with his daughter on his shoulder, and the cameramen were committing various acts of mayhem as they shot film they must have known would never be used. Another mob was in the rotunda near the escalator. One of the pricks pushed a tv report­er and the tv reporter gave him a good shove back. More screaming. A little girl fell.

“I touched his hand, I touched his hand,” said one of the long-­haired California girls.

“I’d hate to tell you where I touched him,” her girl friend said, all teeth and innocence.

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And then we were down the stairs and moving fast along the shiny corridor between the hori­zontal escalators that they use to move people in L.A. Kennedy did his best to smile while people leaped around him and then he was outside, climbing into the convertible, while the press buses loaded, and we went off behind him to Valley College in Van Nuys.

The trip took us north on the freeways, heading for the blue ridge of mountains that separates L.A. from the San Fernando Valley. Mayor Yorty had provided two motorcycle cops and a stationwagon with two more to follow the press buses. We didn’t know until later that the Van Nuys cops had received a call from some terrified citizen saying that his brother was going to shoot Kennedy.

We got off the freeway at Burbank Boulevard and passed into a neighborhood of town houses, clotheslines, gas stations, kids on bikes. A sound truck had plowed the route earlier, warning the residents that Ken­nedy was coming. The reception from knots of scattered people was warm. The kids on the bikes kept up with the motorcade all the way to the college. I saw one Nixon sign, one sign that simply said “Eccch!”, and about 50 Kennedy signs. At one point, a lone man in a sleeveless undershirt stood out in the street under the trees and shouted, “Booo.” That’s all he said, and you wondered what the hell his kids thought of him.

There were cops blocking traf­fic at the college, and they stopped a black reporter in a Volkswagen in front of us and made him park three blocks away. They couldn’t let us do anything else. We parked and started running through the cool evening after the twin red eyes of the press bus. It was beautiful: kids on an overpass, someone yelling into a bullhorn, and Brian and me running through the tennis courts on the trail of the candidate. And all around us young college kids were running too, in the direction of the great ugly brown building where Kennedy was scheduled to speak.

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The motorcade stopped at the front door and the McCarthy signs started waving high. Kennedy tried to get out, and the cops started rapping people with bats held at each end. I was on the side beside a hedge of pine trees as we all tried to get into the gym behind Kenne­dy.

This was impossible. When Kennedy was through the door, they slammed it behind him and locked it.

“It’s all right, it’s all right, there’s a loudspeaker.”

“What about the press?”

“Go around the back.”

A guy fell on the ground beside me, and a girl stepped on him, and we cleared some room. “I lost my shoe!” he said. There seemed to be nowhere to move, so Brian and I started to crawl under the pine trees. A big dark grey dog stared us in the eye.

“The hell with it,” I said. We ran around to the back, and the door there was locked too. Three football players arrived and started crashing with their fists against the door. It looked cer­tain that we’d be arrested if we stayed with them. That, or torn limb from limb by the people charged with feeding them. We went around to the front again and finally convinced a cop that we were supposed to be on the inside. We stepped through, fol­lowed suddenly by the football players. Another beautiful eve­ning in the only life I will ever have.

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Kennedy was already talking when we came into the gym. There were about 8000 young people in the place. The McCar­thy kids were in the stands flanking the speaker’s platform and down in front, seated on the floor, were some of the kids from the Peace and Freedom Party, who looked like the Mc­Carthy kids before they cut their hair.

Kennedy was talking about welfare and the need to give citizens jobs. It was a familiar theme, and Kennedy himself seemed a bit bored by it. The formal speech was repetitious and ragged and was not really what these young sons and daughters of the middle class had come to hear. They wanted to hear about Vietnam and true change in the American system. Kennedy was not giving that to them, though he was applauded loudly and often. He talked about how great numbers of Americans were hungry and humiliated, “how some of them might have wanted husbands, some of them might have wanted fathers, and we have only given them checks.” He talked about what a disaster the welfare system was, how demeaning and ugly it was. He started building then, throwing the prepared speech away. He talked about the law passed by Congress last year that will cut off vast numbers of children from even the humiliating sub­sistence of welfare. “Those chil­dren have a choice between starving to death or moving,” Kennedy said. “I’ve seen them, in the state of Mississippi, with their bellies swollen and their faces covered with sores …” He enumerated and exploded some of the myths about the poor. “It is simply not true that the poor do not want to work,” he said. “It is far more likely to be children of favored families rather than the poor …”

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Then there was a question period and Kennedy was better than he ever is with prepared speeches. Some of the kids were nasty and bitter, and after one particularly snotty question, Kennedy said, with a tired voice, “What we need in the country is to cut down the belligerence. If we let this hatred and emotion control our lives, we’re lost.”

“It’s our lives!” one of the Peace and Freedom kids yelled.

Kennedy talked about the draft, as he always does with college audiences, and tried again to say to them that if they really oppose the war, if they were against the draft, they should follow their consciences on the matter. “But you also have to face the consequences of your actions,” he said. This never goes over well, because most of these kids have grown up believing that there are no consequences to their actions. (Joel Oppenheimer once ex­plained why he can’t take pot­heads seriously: “The drinker pays with a hangover. The junkie pays with a big habit. The pothead never pays.”)

Kennedy’s line of argument infuriated the Peace and Freedom kids. They shouted and booed and interrupted both questions and answers. “You fascist pig!” one kid said (seriously). Others threw tantrums, like nine-year-­olds being asked to clean up after a birthday party. They looked as if they wanted to kill somebody, and they were in the same ugly mood when the even­ing ended and Kennedy made his way outside to the convertible.

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A group of them stationed themselves on the school overpass, and as Kennedy’s car started moving they unleashed a barrage of small stones, pebbles, apple cores, and other debris. This was in the name of social and racial justice, of course. Kennedy was not hit, but he slid down into the seat. Fred Dutton, of Kennedy’s staff, was hit on the head. The kids were ranting on the overpass, and I tried to get up there. The cops sealed it off. Kennedy’s car dis­appeared into the quiet side streets, heading for the Ambas­sador Hotel and some sleep.

I don’t believe that those young people were just an obscure case, hardened up by the barbarities of Marxist prose. No. They were the truest children of the Johnson era, because if the past few dirty years have taught us anything, they have taught us how to hate. Hatred on the left is even more vile and disgusting than hatred on the right, because it clothes itself in the rhetoric of decency. All those people sitting around the West Side getting their I-hate-Bobby rocks off are not much different from the George Wallace animals; they just think that their hatred is purer. They’ve made Kennedy into Savanarola and McCarthy into Francis of Assisi and when the primaries are over, the hatred will go even wider, hitting Humphrey and Rockefeller and Nixon too.

I think Kennedy is a decent man; he is the only politician now functioning on a national level who presents at least the possibility of bringing us back from the brink of race war; personally, he is the only politician I know who has never lied to me. He’ll have my vote no matter how many potential Walt Ros­tows now are attaching themselves to his campaign. But it would be self-deception of the worst kind to believe that any single man will save America. Kennedy alone will not do it; McCarthy can’t and Nixon would only push us into a seething cauldron, like Mexico about 1917. It’s too late for fairy tales, especially when we tell them to ourselves. I enjoy funny hats, balloons, campaign songs, and the rest of it. But 562 American men were slaughtered in Viet­nam last week. They are what politics is about this year. The smug, pampered, self-righteous kid who takes rocks into the darkness of an overpass and pelts a candidate with them is only a step away from picking up a Mannlicher Carcano with a telescopic sight. He is what politics is about in 1968 too. The cold dumbness of the pragma­tists killed those kids in Viet­nam. The Cocktail Party Left with its nasty little sophistries and its thrall at the prospect of violence put the rocks in those kids’ hands. I’d like to see America saved, but that’s not going to happen until all of us, the left even more than the right, begin to de-escalate our capacity for glib hatreds. Politics used to be our national clown show; but it has become an ugly confrontation between armies of opposing haters, and if it keeps going that way, we’re doomed. ♦

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