Saturday, January 31, 2015

"I'm the only motherfucker you got to deal with."

He picked up the ringing phone. “Recovery House, Richard speaking.” The large black man with a scary demeanor listened, interjecting the occasional “un huh.” The story was an old one. He’d heard it many, many times. “Well, you called the right place. You want the pain to stop? Uh huh…well, then you gotta do something about it. Why don’t you stop over, we can have a chat.” In an earlier time, where menace and threat were a way of life, invitations to chat had a darker meaning.

A Packard pulled to the curb at the corner of Broadway and River Streets. The Passaic River, swollen with the spring thaw, rolled silently a few yards away as it traveled to join the Raritan and the sea. The young man, who had been standing on the corner for the past fifteen minutes, slid into passenger seat and slammed the door. The car left Paterson, headed south for Newark.

Motioning with his head toward the back of the car, the driver said. “I got what you need in the trunk – you can get strapped before we head for the tunnel. We’ll stop in Quigquake Park - private.” The young man was nervous, his eyes darting. “First day of school, eh?” The driver smiled. The young man said nothing.

“You’ll be fine, kid. We gonna pick up Pops, get set up and head into Harlem. He don’t usually go on runs like this. Guess I wasn’t kidding about  school, huh. You got a name?”

 “Yes, I do,” the young man said. He looked hard at the driver. “It’s Richard.” The driver smiled.

“We’re going to Harlem? I thought this was a Jersey thing.” The driver stared straight ahead, “Spanish Harlem, to be exact. A gun makes as much noise there as it does in Jersey. A problem?”

The metal ribs of the Pulaski Skyway hummed underneath them as they, now three, headed for Hoboken and the tunnel. Once into the city, they turned left on Canal and then pointed north on to the West Side Highway, exiting on 110th Street. Just past the top of Central Park they turned left, traveling north to 118th Street, stopping in front of a five story tenement walkup.

“Fifth floor, rear. 5C. We’re expected…” said Pops, a late middle age black man. “I’m getting’ too old for all this stair climbing shit.” Nodding to Richard, “You stay behind me on the way up, in front on the way down. Got it?” Richard, now wearing a trench coat, a sawed off 12 Gage hanging from his belt, climbed out of the back seat. “And you,” said Pops, looking at the driver, “keep the engine on. This should be quick.”

Richard had wanted the Marine Corps; a uniform, training, a purpose, but the streets, the ‘hood, his companions, all conspired in a perfect storm of trouble.

The oldest of nine, care for siblings fell largely to him. Both parents worked – father in a silk factory, mother as a domestic. “You ain’t got a lick a sense, boy! You never gonna amount to nothin’!” his father bellowed in alcoholic rage. His mother, often with blackened eyes and a bloused lip, said nothing. The young man vowed some day to kill him.

Quick with his hands, the PAL gyms were a second home. He fought well, both in the ring and out. But prizefighting, and a way out, eluded him. The Marines – that was the answer. So he hoped. He was smart, and early on, he was a reader. “Put down that goddamn book, where’s your shine box?!”

As a youngster, the shine box, and customers wearing suits, smoking cigars, provided an introduction of sorts. “Take this envelope to Broadway and Water, see Tony in the tailor shop. Give it to him. This five’s for you…” Numbers, dope, money. Up and down the streets of Paterson. An education. Later, when the shine box was gone, he’d sing doo wop with his pals on street corners, kid the girls, roll the occasional drunk. “Kick that useless wino, what’s the matter with you?” ‘Soft’ doesn’t play well on the streets. Something inside him hurt, he didn’t want to cause pain, to be without mercy. “Kick that motherfucker!” He swallowed big gulps of that hurt, pounded it down, deep. He kicked. He fought. By late adolescence, stints in a Who’s Who of Jersey reformatories had nixed the dream of the Marines. “We don’t take criminals,” he was told, and summarily dismissed when he applied.

Fresh out of Jamesburg Reformatory, he met Pops.

Pops had had that name since he was in his late 30’s. Big, almost 300 pounds, he’d always seemed older than his years. He favored bespoke three piece suits, starched white shirts and perfectly knotted ties. Sometimes, a red carnation boutonniere appeared in a lapel. He had a presence, cultivated and nurtured. And had parlayed that presence into a lucrative career; numbers, then loan sharking and eventually, narcotics. Pops was always on the lookout for talent. Tough, strong, ruthless. He’d heard about a young man in Paterson and sent word to meet at a hotel downtown. Sitting in a high-backed chair in the lobby, the process glistening on his newly conked hair, Pops must have been an impressive sight. Richard shook his hand. He met a way out. He met his future.

The door to 5C opened before they got to it. Pops went in. Richard followed. An envelope was exchanged for a package about the size of a shoebox. Pops opened it, peered inside, then nodded. Outside 5C again, they headed down the stairs, Richard going first. Pops put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, whispering, “The motherfucker called someone, I can smell it. Let’s move fast.”

On the landing of the fourth floor stood a Hispanic man in his 30’s, arms folded. “What you fellas got there?” Richard stopped on the stairs, half a flight above him. “You best step out the way,” Richard said.

“Out the way?” Sneering, the Hispanic man said, “Which way’s that? The Jersey way? Where you think you are?”

Richard pulled back the right side of his trench coat, his hand on the shotgun. “Any old way, so long as it’s out,” Richard said. His unblinking eyes riveted on the Hispanic man.

“What you got in the package there?” the man said, gazing up at Pops. Pops was silent. “Got some dope there? I think we need to have a chat. And I bet you Jersey fucks can’t even shoot straight.”

As those words spilled from his mouth, the Hispanic man suddenly moved his hand toward his pocket. The shotgun swung from Richard’s belt, the muzzle flash lighting the semidarkness of the stairwell into bright, high relief. The Hispanic man’s left leg exploded and disappeared below the knee.

“Oh God! Oh God, Oh God…!” he screamed. Blood and bone splattered over the corner of the landing where he lay, writhing.

Richard walked down the stairs and stood over him.

“God’s not here, amigo. I’m the only motherfucker you got to deal with.”

It would be awhile before God and Richard would enjoy any proximity. Forty years, long stretches in two state penitentiaries. Finally, standing on the second tier, in front of his cell at Arizona State Penitentiary, he looked out on a patch of desert. The same patch he’d looked at for more than two decades. “I’m a drunk and an addict. That’s why I’m standing here.”  He’d been told for years that he had a problem. His standard response had always been, the only problem I’ve got, is you telling me I have a problem. For the first time, he told himself, they might be right. He stood quietly as that thought ripened in his consciousness.  In time, that thought would grow; it would morph into kindness, gratitude, courage, and Richard, cloaked in perpetual amazement, would find what he had always sought - a purpose.

 “No – it’s not a cult. It’s about improving the quality of your life,” he said, speaking into the phone for the first time in more than a minute. “The God stuff is up to you, whatever you want it to be.” He listened some more. Finally, “I’m not here to convince you of anything, partner. You want to chat, I’m here. You don’t have to knock. Just walk in.” He hung up the phone.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Racisim - and Presidents

My friend, John Taylor, posted a piece on FB (1/2/15) about the five biggest racists who sat in the Oval Office. Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon take some shit, as do both Roosevelts and LBJ. Reading it made me uncomfortable – not for what these men said or thought, but that they all had been painted with a well-soaked 21st Century brush. It’s easy (facile?) to apply current morays to past words or actions (Nixon, not so much, that paranoid crook). This is not to say that the actions and words referred to did not constitute abject racism. They did. Historical context is what I’m talking about.

Both Roosevelts accomplished great things. Teddy, with his Trust-busting (where would we be today had that not happened?), FDR, with the egalitarian (socialist?) WPA and, eventually, Social Security. LBJ, a champion of several civil rights bills, stretching back to the ‘50’s, was crude, colloquial and boorish. All three men came of age in a time when the gulf of disenfranchisement was HUGE. Educationally, economically, culturally, the black population of their time was an order of magnitude different from today. There was no black middle class to speak of, there were few recognized black icons of achievement (for obvious reasons). As a child, I remember reciting ‘eny meany miny moe’ with friends and it wasn’t a tiger that got caught by a toe. And we didn’t give it much thought (though I was told by my parents that that was “not a nice word” and that I shouldn’t use it).

Over the years, I have sought out the company of “others” – from geriatric blues musicians to my present work environment. Today, (wait for it…), my BEST FRIEND is a big, scary black guy whom I truly love and trust; I would, without hesitation, put my life in his hands. That said, do I have any real concept of what it means to be black? To be raised by black parents, to have experienced life, day in and out, as  non-white? NO. Not at all.

Over the Holiday I visited my daughter, brother and friends in New Jersey. My daughter and I had a discussion about race. She works in Washington DC for a United States Senator (himself black). Her office is about 50% black. “Do I have any idea what it’s like to be black?” she said to me. “No. I came from white privilege, educated at a privileged grade school, high school and university.” But, she is AWARE. She is aware because of who she is, but also because she’s been made so by the times. And the times are different from those of the men referred to in the article. Do we have a long way to go? Just look at the newspaper.

I’m not aghast at the rhetoric of these past Presidents. What shocks me is what I hear today. Weeks before Obama’s first election, I was waiting to pay my check at a local restaurant. Two men, whom I didn’t know, were behind me in line. One asked if I knew how Obama was going to fix the economy. Um, no, I had no idea. “He’s gonna nigger-rig it!” one said, and they both laughed.

Yup, a long way to go. But it’s about progress, not perfection.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

So nice, they named it twice.

On Monday Dec. 22 at about 6 AM I’m going to throw a suitcase into the trunk, start my car and point it east. In ten hours or so (God willing) I’ll be in New York, the city that was once my home. I loved living there – and loved (in almost equal portion), complaining about it. Nothing was easy about the city. Everything was an effort. Buying groceries; schlep, to and from. Transportation; a litany of delays. Noise; endless. And I loved it.

As a new arrival, I remember standing in front of my apartment on Morton St in the West Village. It was about 2:00 AM on a warm Saturday in May. Looking around, I had the thought, “I’m standing in the middle of an amusement park – and I don’t have to go home.” I was a much younger man then, and the city was all futures and possibilities.

Now, those futures and possibilities are largely behind me. But the city remains attractive, alluring and as visually spectacular as it ever was. I recall my daily commute, after I had moved to NJ and started a family, riding NJ Transit into the Lincoln Tunnel. Sitting on the Transverse as the sun rose over the Atlantic, rolling slowing toward the mouth of the tunnel, the city spread to my left. From Midtown to the Battery, the vista was spectacular. I often thought of the line from Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, “…never such a sight, like rolling into New York City, shining in the morning light.”

Next week I’ll reconnect as best I can with some of the magic, some of the awe that keeps me engaged. I’ll eat, the food is always special, varied, unexpected. I’ll walk, marvel at all that is new. And, I’ll get turned around, confused and have to ask directions (unheard of in the ‘old days’), knowing that New Yorkers are the very soul of helpfulness. And, there’ll be the people; the characters, the crazies, the humor that is part of the great democracy found on every street.

When I tell people that I miss the place I often hear, “How could you possibly live there?” I can’t explain it, other than to quote a John Sebastian tune:
I'll tell you about the magic and it'll free your soul
But it's like tryin' to tell a stranger 'bout rock and roll

Yeah, I know it sounds sappy (and maybe a little arrogant). Kind of like a lot of New Yorkers I know.

Heh, heh…

Below is a link to some wonderful observations about the city, and what it’s meant to a few generations of writers.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Music in the night...

A friend just posted a piece on that Facebook thingie about her mother, a record changer, Peter Paul and Mary and music coming down the hall to her room at night. She talked about how it soothed her; she, the childhood victim of something unspeakable. And I thought of me (‘cause it’s the easiest thing I do…) at age 17, a college freshman, just beginning EVERYTHING. And how my good friend, Bryan, (who was tall, good looking, smart), killed himself. Richard Corey is still almost too painful to read. I remember where I was when I heard, I remember how I felt. And I remember how listening saved me – or at least, made the pain tolerable. For me it was Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Big Bill Broonze and…Burl Ives (yup, Burl Ives). Mean Ol Southern, Foggy Foggy Dew, Tell Me How You Want Your Rollin’ Done, et al. dropped in turn from the record changer next to my bed. And the last record played on the changer, repeated, over and over. And over. I’m sure my parents could hear it. And my two brothers, sleeping in the next room. But there was no word of admonishment. I think they sensed that it was what I needed. I can’t explain what it was in that experience that gave me comfort. And I’m not going to drone about the “healing power of music,” blah, blah. But it saved me then, late in my 17th year. And I’ve never forgotten it.

The same friend who posted about the record changer and PP&M, left a comment about what we remember in our final moments. And prompted me - again - to comment on an experience I had just today (8/14/14). I visited a dear friend, Yvonne, who is the parish secretary of Christ Lutheran Church, where I attend. She had just returned from Atlanta where she had been with her mother in the old lady’s final moments. Yvonne is Irish, born and raised in Dublin. She has a stunningly beautiful singing voice – and worked professionally all over Europe before coming to this country. She sings occasionally at church (not often enough to suit me) and gave a concert about 3 months ago at a church in Parkersburg, WVA. It was boffo. Well attended, packed, actually. Across the aisle from where I was sitting, sat an older woman. I had no idea who she was, but she seemed transfixed by what was happening on stage. And – she was mouthing the words to almost every song sung. There was something about her that made me (discreetly) take out my iPhone and shoot a video of this wonderful reaction. Yvonne sang Danny Boy. The old lady joining in a silent duet. I thought I’d show it later to Yvonne; “see what you do to people…!” After the concert, I was introduced to the subject of my clandestine video, “...and this is Moira, Yvonne’s mother.” Oh, um, pleased to meet you. Today, Yvonne told me about Moira’s final moments. About how Yvonne and her sisters, Sinade and Kathleen, (who had flown in from Ireland) stood by her bed and sang. They sang many of Moira’s favorites, with Sinade and Kathleen hitting the harmonies around Yvonne’s soprano. And I’m sure the old lady’s face looked much the same as it did three months ago, sitting in that pew. Music. Again.