Picture via This Isn’t Happiness
The new Lee Morgan documentary is evocative and emotional and well-worth catching.
In the meantime…
The following two articles by the one and only Seymour Krim appear in his bitchin’ anthology You and Me. They were originally published in the New York Times Book Review and Changes, respectively and appear here with permission from the author’s estate.
Part One: Won’t You Come Home, Jimmy Breslin?
A friend of mine who works for UPI airmailed Jimmy Breslin’s The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight yesterday (two pesetas were due on the postage so I walked half a mile to pick it up at the Calle de Aragon parcel-prison), but he wasted his money. With Beckett’s Malone Dies and Robert Graves’s I, Claudius going at the same time and with work to do, I’m not going to read Jimmy’s “novel” any more than I read Pete Hamill’s two years ago, although I’ve been ashamed to tell Pete so until now. And I respect, in fact, admire both men—and the clipping that my friend sent along saying that Pete was writing a screenplay for a new Frank Perry film on Doc Holliday struck me as just right, a film I wish were already in the can because I know Hamill will do a first-rate job and I’m eager to see it.
In that bit of spot news about the movie lies the whole story.
When Breslin or Hamill write about fact, their imaginations are moored to what they really know, can percipiently sense, take responsibility for in a complete way. Jimmy wrote short stories every day when I was his colleague on the Trib, and they were doubly important to the life of our time because not only did they entertain, engross, make you laugh, even bring an embarrassing snuffle to the nose and that damned fluid to the eye—do everything fiction was traditionally supposed to do—they put you in touch with a whole section of society that fate had heretofore crossed off your list. Breslin made bridges between New York intellectuals, avant-gardists, Leftists, where I find my identification in a general sense, and their natural enemies, cops, goons, insurance agents, horse players, that alien world that lives just over the bridge of one’s own experience.
I was grateful to Jim in a human as well as journalistic sense for being an ambassador of style and tact from one country to another, more than that, as a literary double agent as well as reporter, I felt that what he, Tom Wolfe, Pete, occasionally Alfred G. Aronowitz, Gay Talese for a time, Nicholas von Hoffman (Washington Post), were doing with journalism in the daily press and was the most marvelous breakthrough for a continuing prose excitement since the great days of the American realistic novel. They were using every conceivable technique they could get away with in the tight confines of the daily paper to give an added (actually new) dimension to real people living in a real world who were alienated from each other. The New Journalists were cracking through the alienation by treating it with the compassion and imaginative spinoffs that only the writer can bring to the human situation.
Jimmy didn’t always tell the whole truth any more than Wolfe, Hamill, or anyone else writing for the press with flags flying; I am not that naïve. I myself covered follow-up stories after Jimmy had cut a swath through them; people I interviewed practically wouldn’t speak to me, because our hero Breslin had gotten names wrong, embellished quotes, emotionally sided with one party and not another, given highly colored (no matter how understated his manner) versions of events that psychologically blanched some of the characters involved. But this never bothered me, nor did I ever think it was lying. There is no such thing as the “whole truth” for one person pitting himself against a situation that demands immediate writing; all he can do is absorb the objective panorama, try to know it at belly-height and fairly accurately in the short time allotted to him and then heave everything he personally owns into it.
This is what makes for fine writing, writing that counts—the sensibility of the man underneath gyrating, de-emphasizing, to get his picture. This is what separated Breslin from Wolfe from Schaap from Hamill from Talese, etc., etc., when they were all working on the papers. If all had covered the same story, you would still get five entirely different versions, all true enough, all complementing each other. The final test of the “best reporter,” if there is such a thing, would be in the amount of heart, muscle, skill, humor, and the rest of the virtues that the individual could bring to the crunch.
Breslin, in other words, was a leader in writing about the new journalistic reality because he probably had more of the natural components necessary for this kind of work than the rest; he could not touch the elegance of Wolfe’s imagination or verbal quiver nor was he ever quite as openly two-fisted as Hamill in his prose when Pete had that great year covering the Speck murders in Chicago—Hamill seems to be sent to his descriptive zenith by harsh events—but Breslin had a higher average of success than probably any of his brother strivers, and he never fumbled or froze an important story. But how long can you keep this pace up?
That’s of course, the problem. I don’t fault Breslin for turning his back on daily journalism, because it wears you out, even if you’re built like a brick kiosk, or a Breslin. There comes a point, or seems to, when you start repeating yourself, like Red Smith, who is publishing the same stories today in the International Herald Tribune that I read 10 years ago. But I do fault Breslin for not developing his newspaper work; of the group I’ve named, only Wolfe and Talese have done so, in book form—by writing what Capote has aptly called “nonfiction novels” and what I would term total imaginative truth-prose, instead of copping out in what I’m sure is some meandering fantasy for which Jimmy has apparently even borrowed phrases and characters from his own nonfiction in order to make his highly publicized $250,000 sale to the movies (“I got a quarter of a million bucks out of these two boys,” he told me, chortling on the phone, before I left the country, Breslin loving himself because he thinks he outfoxed the foxes).
Why do people like Breslin, Hamill, Schaap (with his long-romanticized novel about golf, which he used to talk wistfully about) still think the novel is the Higher Form, when they have in their hands a much greater power, that of writing about people with real names with more freedom today than a novelist had with his characters 30 years ago? Why do they write with dignity and importance in their everyday work and then throw it all away (omit the clever Schaap from this: his recent successes are not writing at all) when they wear their literary Sunday clothes? It is hard for me to understand. About 10 years older than they are, I came from the literary environment they seem to want to ape in a superficial way and I went like a homing pigeon to the New Journalism because it was to me an extension of the realistic novel, the final unmasked version of all the name-changed autobiographies and romans a clef that had been the very essence of the United States novel when I came of age. Then, in the 40′s, you could not write freely about the way things really were for a daily newspaper or weekly magazine. You had to disguise it.
Don’t Breslin, Hamill, and the rest of the journalistic novel-yearners appreciate that the novelists who came out of that period, James Jones, Jack Kerouac, James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, William Styron, Chandler Brossard, John Clellon Holmes—the list is overflowing—were essentially writing the literal truth, which because of custom, libel, publisher’s fears, and the rest had to be hedged? Don’t they see the greater liberation they can achieve and indeed contribution to society they can offer by writing the observable truth unhedged, so that it becomes not only an act of art but a way of bringing literary communication into the gut of society so that it has teeth, effect, becomes a reality that has to be reacted to on other grounds than belles-lettres? Must be dealt with politically, morally, spread out over the whole spectrum?
Whether “the novel” is alive or dead as a form for our time isn’t the point as far as these fellows are concerned. It may very much be alive for remote, introspective, shy, ruminating beings who seize on the germ of an idea and develop it into an imaginative statement because this is where their only hope for significant communication lies; they are cut off and can only come back to the center through a great effort of their imagination. But certainly this isn’t so for a Breslin or a Hamill (“I couldn’t have opened up without Jimmy,” Pete once told me with flat dignity.)
They live in the center of events, thrive on them, take their inspiration from the news, and write with richest feeling and insight about what is already tangible. Their imaginations are extroverted ones—why deny it? Their talent depends up on their involvement with events, their personal participation. Some of the stories they have covered will forever be identified with their personal stamp; the future historian will literally find the name of a Breslin or Hamill or von Hoffman or Ralph J. Gleason (San Francisco Chronicle) inseparable from an event. They are extraordinary recorders of their time along with all those others who don’t write for the daily press (Andrew Kopkind, Joan Didion, Sidney Bernard, Michael Zwerin, Dan Wakefield, Jane O’Reilly, etc.). We have never had their like before, just as we have never had a period that needed writers of the highest caliber involved with the details of daily history.
Why then does Breslin bother to write a novel? The money, obviously, now that he is involved with a shrewd entrepreneur like the literary agent Sterling Lord. But also there must be some misguided sense of literary inferiority, that even a “dumb police reporter from New Jersey [or Queens],” as Al Aronwitz once characterized himself to me, can swing with the Big Boys. And yet there are no Big Boys left in that literary caste sense. Jimmy is never gong to be a J.P. Donleavy or a Thomas Pynchon or a Joe Heller—these men are doing the only thing they can do; they have no options, and what really depresses me is that he is avoiding what he can do probably better than anyone in the country in order to try and do what he can’t do as well as at least 100 others, from Walter Van Tillburg Clark to Jean Stafford.
Breslin is in a new league, actually helped invent it, and for perverse or cynical or prestige reasons wants to play in an old one. Just two or so weeks ago I saw an item in the Observer, out of London, saying Jim was researching in their morgue or reference library a “new novel” on the Trouble in Northern Ireland. So another bomb is on the way! Why doesn’t Breslin do a straight gut book on Ireland if he wants to write one? Why doesn’t he name names, interview his people live, make his deductions while they’re hot? Why is he ducking his responsibilities as a writer and wallowing in luxuries of “fiction” (i.e., contrivance, watered-down fact, scenes without the risk of the real, truth without the pain of exposure) which he has never allowed himself before?
My hunch is that just as Hamill has returned to the Post, where I’m sure he is doing a fierce job, although I can only catch about one copy a month in this city, and just as Pete’s next “imaginative” project is based on the real-dentist-turned-gunslinger Doc Holliday, and not a pure fabrication, so Jimmy must sooner or later come back to his own turf in book form, that combination of fact and personal being that makes reality true and full of marvel as well. If he were to be unlucky and have a success with his new Irish “novel”—a truly patsy form now for any self-respecting truth-hunter except those who have earned it by long-term commitment and necessity—I think we are going to see a musical-comedy Breslin eroding the real one, and the man who was a fullback for a kind of writing bigger than he could envision is going to become just another hustler at the bar of conventional acceptance. Breslin, you bum, come home!
Part Two: The One & Only Million-Dollar Jewboy Caper
It cost me no proud blood to write a passionate, extra-bases review of Jimmy Breslin’s World Without End, Amen for the Chicago Sun-Times and then to crib my own words and sock the message even harder in the San Juan Star so that all the heavy-drinking statesiders down here (where I’m teaching) could see the dark star of Breslin’s talent in the bottom of the bottle. I wanted to alert people everywhere that Jimmy the non-Greek was writing better than ever, that the words sizzled and struck out at you like grease being tormented on a griddle, that line for line and play by play he was a New York Ace who had come through with a super-bitch of a performance. And I can use the word “performance” easily and unself-consciously in telling you about it, even though the ads for his book have been carrying a tagline also calling it a “dynamite performance,” because I knocked off the original lyrics for the Sun-Times. Those two selling words in the ad came from me.
You see, I was as close to this book which is going to build into a national phenom as a neurotic is to his own obsession, reviewing Breslin for two or, hell, 20 newspapers was a psychological necessity for me, and being able to honestly and totally shout my admiration in public for this deeply lived and stunning print-bomb with its beautiful grave title, yes Amen Jimmy, has cleaned me out and made a free man of me for the first time in almost four years. In relation to Breslin. So get ready for a story.
In 1970 I published a piece in The New York Times Book Review saying that I thought Breslin had betrayed the tremendous possibilities of his own New Journalism by birdieing out, probably for money, with a cutesy romance about the real, ball-breaking, skull-kicking, shit-thinking Gallo Gang from Brooklyn. As you know, the book was called The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight and it was entertaining and successful to a lot of people outside jungle New York, including the most impartial and serious book journal in the English-speaking world, the Times Literary Supplement of London. I was amazed, yet forced into a big head-shaking grin of respect by the transatlantic muscle of what I thought had been Breslin’s hype; I knew I’d have to rethink my stand in a second piece or end up some kind of crank/fanatic croaking over a closed circuit I didn’t want. I wanted truth with all the portholes open. But the damage had already been done, if damage is the right word for the nightmare I walked into, and instead of Breslin having kissed off his responsibilities to the truth as I had it in my article the script was turned around and I was suddenly tagged as the smalltime Judas to his pop, commercial Christ.
Every straight impulse I had in trying to lens-wipe Jimmy and others to the real power for change I thought a New Journalism could rifle into the minds of men, causing them to act with armed vision on the basis of true stories written with the insight of the older fiction, causing them to hug literature as their own very skin and not a remote lip-service thing, was immediately knocked down by Breslin and his twerps to a cheap attack by Seymour Loser who was jealous of his book, money, fame, big juicy cockarisma on the scene we live in. The Breslin Rubberhead Corporation took one hard, dumb, demeaning line that unwavered like lead for the next 18 months and it was essentially this: Don’t hand us that highminded intellectual baloney, Krim. We know what goes on in that beady, crooked, vengeful brain of yours. You want what we’ve got and what EVERYBODY creams for, momser, and since you can’t cut it for yourself you’ve got your tin blade out for every big duke around. Self-destruct, parasite!
In case you think I’m laying it on, paranoiding, that it all sounds too vicious/simplistic/naïve for a man like Breslin to attribute such salivating one-dimensional motives to a man like myself, someone he had brothered and, yes, even loved when I was his mate on the Herald Tribune, hang on until you hear the whole story. But the important thing to say right here is that I didn’t know what a World War I was getting into when I banged out my original piece. It taught me to respect the firepower of Breslin’s cannons until the day I die. I had known Jimmy for six intense months on the Trib before it collapsed in April 1966, and then we met occasionally in his hangouts (Mutchie’s, Weston’s, Toots Shor’s) and rapped more often on the phone until I left the country three years later, but even though I knew the man and loved his work, I was too blind to see he wasn’t kidding with all his gangster bullshit.
I had seen him slap (not punch) red into the face of a girl secretary at a high-boozing Tribune farewell party, just like a haughty, manicured, slightly effeminate Mafioso Don teaching an underling an S&M lesson, and then have his Brooklyn “soldiers” form a ring of steel around him when three drunken Trib reporters tried to get at him. I thought it was all pure theater at the time and even admired him for his crazy balls in breaching the weak liberalism that would have turned the rest of us to stone if we tried a stunt like that, but that was before The Treatment was turned my way. When that happened it wasn’t his crazy balls I was admiring, believe it; I was fighting for my basic bones as a human being and a free voice against a sudden enemy who wanted to wipe me out in exactly the same way that Jimmy’s arsonists, heist-men, hit-men, cops on the take, all the types that once seemed so beautifully pricky to us, do a number. Breslin can write them better than anyone because he instinctively thinks and acts like they do when his ass is against the wall.
It had never been my primary intention to put Breslin on the defensive in that Times piece. He knew very fucking well I thought he was the big fundamental journalist of our time in New York and that in my own zealous, John Brown way I was trying to call him home from dollar-bill hamming to the scorched harvest of his own reality. But in spite or because of the damn emotion in my writing voice (“that was a hell of a love-letter you wrote Breslin”—Gordon Lish, unmet Fiction Editor of Esquire, scribbling off an innocent note to me before hate ruled the day), I went overboard on at least two counts in the piece which gave Jimmy all the excuse he needed to get into his King Kong suit and go ape after me from the top of The New York Times Building all the way to London and Paris. I’ll explain.
The first count was my overconviction in crackling positive tones that straight fiction was not his bag and in fact a waste for Breslin when he had such an obvious head start over most alienated novelist-types in dealing with the real world. I was dead wrong, not having the foresight to see that he would be using the novel in future books (Amen) as a more penetrating news/reality medium than any he had taken on before. And having just worked like a trooper on his first one, no matter how cute or transparent his motives in cooking it up, it was predictable that he would defend his labor and always sharp skill from some penniless idealist who thought the stuff second-rate. For all I know, he had felt uneasy along about writing a burlesque gangster camp when he knew the soiled backstage story, and my piece merely prodded his shame. I don’t know. But I do know that my second count really drove him to murderville with such an epic glotz of rage, guilt, exaggeration, hood threat, and wounded rhetoric that it would have made a hell of a patriotic home movie if it hadn’t scared the shit out of so many people and hung over my own life for over a year like that well-known death sword.
What happened was this. In the last phone talk I had with Breslin before I split the States in April, 1969, he told me happy and mellow at high noon that he had just pulled off the most beautiful caper of his career; he had gone out to the Coast himself and sold the movie rights to The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight on the basis of only two sweet little chapters. “I got a quarter of a million bucks out of these two Jewboys,” he husked in my ear, triumphant, and I knew exactly what he was grinning about. Jimmy had a healthy respect for money and a healthy respect for Jews; if he could make that kind of a score out of two smart J’s he had to be good. As for the “Jewboy” business, it was a sign of cruel honesty between us. Not only had the Trib been the roughest, toughest-talking shop that a reporter could hope to work in, not only did Breslin have the most inspired street language of any man I had ever met, I had the rep in Jimmy’s eyes of being a renegade Jew who could be detached about the usual digs that the non-Jewish part of the humanoid scene occasionally gets off on. Jewboy was in if you had any taste for the brown of life, which I did and which Breslin certainly did.
When I came to write my piece I stuck in the phone call to punctuate the fact, rub in the fact, that here was a major man more interested in pulling a swiftie on Hollywood and running his fingers through the bread than in sculpting what I then thought had to be his stone destiny: big, graphic, nonfiction truth books written with the punch of old-fashioned fiction. My old song! I don’t feel totally clean about it, however, and if I were doing the piece again four years ago I wouldn’t use it. I was sore at Breslin for that cynical streak which to my mind had made him cop out on the best part of his gift and I wanted to get under his skin by giving him a mirror-image of What Makes Jimmy Run. What I didn’t understand was that to the streetboy still in him “Jewboy” was still a dirty word, he hadn’t really come to terms yet with the ethnic guilt/violence at his back-alley core, and when he used it with me it was not the hip, secret grip of brotherhood I had once thought but more like a puritan speaking dirty to a whore. Perhaps I knew this unconsciously and I stuck it in because I didn’t want to be Jimmy’s dirty lay. I’m not sure. But it wasn’t vital to my argument, I was showing off, and the little “Jewboy” became the pimple on the nose of the piece that almost did the big one in.
Anyway, the article went through the then-cautious Times Book Review without a murmur, all the Jewish boys who worked on the Sunday edition were so glazed by euphemism that not one was insulted by this little shot of funky energy. But then Breslin the Beast roared in after seeing an advance copy and must have threatened to have Marvin the Torch fire-bomb the building or Sam the Tool Man go to work on (publisher) Punch Sulzberger’s jewels unless the terrible “Jewboy” was forever plowed under. I don’t know what he said, I was in London poised to fly across the channel for one last beautiful fling in the newspaper business on the International Herald Tribune, but sudden word sputtered to me over the transatlantic wire from an awed voice in New York that whatever Breslin had said, hundreds of printers were now down in the bowels of the Times Building hacking at my copy. Like an army of chisel-wielding gnomes, they were scratching the word “Jew” from the plates so they could print the remaining 700,000 copies of the Book Review with the nice whitebread phrase, “I got a quarter of a million bucks out of these two ____ boys.” All of this done by hand, dig it! The Times was appeasing Breslin by the minute, Jewish nervousness was racing with Jewish masochism to see which could butter his ass most eagerly, but Jimmy, god love him, stood by his principles. Since 800,000 copies of the review had already been printed and he was now bared to the world for being an honest roughneck with his mouth, if not especially his book, this naked integrity was just too much for an unofficial mayor-type like Breslin to put up with.
He could lose the father-figure patronage of all those wise old cynical Jewish state senators and judges who loved him like a mascot in Toots Shor’s. His radical third-party run with Mailer in ’69 for mayor and president of the city council would seem a Nazi sham. Oy! That prick Krim knew he was more of a Jew-lover than Krim himself and the perverse atheist was trying to disgrace him. It probably never occurred to Breslin that any possible disgrace in that piece had more to do with his ducking reality (even such as “Jewboy”) rather than embracing it on the level we knew was in him, that nobody gave a particular crap in a time that was spawning Kinky Friedman and His Texas Jewboys, and that for all the folklore about Jewish neurotics carrying on like caricatures, nobody can hold a candle to a guilt-bombed Irish ex-Catholic. Breslin on March 4, 1970 sued me and the Times for a nice round $1 million for libel, saying the whole bloody intention of my piece was to depict him as “anti-Semitic” and “a hypocrite.”
Like a movie, all this million-dollar stuff was shaking in N.Y. the exact day I landed in Paris broke, patched bag and beaten typewriter in sweaty hand, my fucked-up Italian girl waiting for a join-me signal in London, hoping against hope I could cut it on the International Trib copy desk (no reporter jobs, this is a tight editor’s paper fed by the pick of the wires) and continue to push for a Newspaper as Literature. Perhaps you know, I was and am a three-decade committed literary man who fell hard for daily reporting at the screwy age of 43 and would have happily given up writing books if the old Trib had lasted or another writer’s paper called. It hadn’t happened. I had written another book, an ad for the cover actually socking it to you from the back page of this paper, and here I was now at 21, Rue de Berri, anxiously waiting to get the O.K. from Editor Buddy Weiss to hit the lowly, gorgeous desk when Weiss came out of his office and silently threw me a piece of folded yellow paper. It was an open telex from Breslin that had been sitting there two days and must have been read by everyone in the joint except the French janitor and the finger-popping black copyboy. The gut paragraph read: SEYMOUR, WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? YOU’RE A LITTLE, RESENTFUL FAILURE, GOING AROUND JUDGING EVERYONE ELSE’S LIFE AND ABILITIES AND YOU HAVE NONE OF EITHER. IT IS THE CRUMMIEST STUNT I EVER HEARD OF.
“I don’t like Breslin,” Weiss told me, looking me in the eye, “but I love him.”
I went to work that afternoon editing wire-service copy and writing headlines with sick fingers and inside of 13 days I was fired for slowness, incompetence, and general human sadness by the same team that had told me in N.Y. on the old Trib that I was a natural. I wired Rafaella some of the money they paid me off with in bribe-crisp U.S. dollars, not even a bookkeeping record that I had ever worked there, Jesus, my journalistic wonderland, and taxied over to James Jones’s house on Isle San Louis and asked him for a gun. He told me straightforwardly he’d give me one and three bullets too if I still wanted it in 72 hours. This was his policy. His mature grisly directness straightened me up like a goddamn jackknife and after speaking to the Times long-distance, telling them I’d start preparing the miles of defense evidence they wanted, I left Paris for grimy London as if this whole gaudy insane show had happened to another Seymour Krim. I went back to America six months later and began teaching; Rafaella took a Land Rover caravan to Mother India when I came home and has disappeared from the face of the earth….
So after almost two years of legal farting around, during which the well-heeled Times would fly me in to New York from Iowa City and Chicago and places like that, Jimmy finally dropped the case without saying boo. He told Dotson Rader at some WPIX speak-your-mind program that the thing had mainly been a joke. Fun-ny! Rader believed him, but I remembered the Times’s attorneys hammering at me across the overseas phone wanting to know if I had a tape of the little chewboy and commanding me to fly home; I could quote the humiliating unanswered letters I wrote to Breslin in Dublin offering to fight, talk it out, anything except go to hairy million-dollar law; I remember Buddy Weiss, Rafaella, the Paris Trib, the gun (Breslin has a great moment about a gun being dipped in mashed potatoes in his new book), the mutual friends I haven’t seen since the “joke” started, the loneliness I feel for that whole roaring wiseguy crew headed by the big sick joker himself. But I’ll tell you this. Breslin’s book is every inch and more the one I thought was in him. It is “fiction” in its plotting, and in that sense I was wrong, but the sting of its life is real, super-real, super-brown, and I can’t help thinking I goaded him into his best. In case you think that’s bullshit vanity, and you’re wrong, tell me how many million-dollar Jewboy lawsuits including the crummiest stunts you ever heard of have you bee in lately? They leave a deep nonorthodox circumcision that lasts the rest of your life. I’ll always be in Breslin’s head and he’ll be in mine until a nicer, easier world comes around the corner.
It was only after Breslin’s second novel came out and I paid my dues that I could unlock the way he had crashed into the pit of my being these last several years. I have always been drawn to powerful people—power in themselves, not particularly rank or status—because I feel excited and braced by their confidence and glow. They shoot off charges of animal magnetism and you should really know you’re not getting it for free, but the zing of the moment seduces your knowledge.
I loved being with Jimmy as I believe he did with me because we were such opposites. But I always thought he was naïve about me, where I had come from, what I had done before I joined the paper, the hidden length of that coiled background which reached from the Partisan Review days of the late 40s right into scoop-the-town journalism. My life even surprises me who has lived it. Jimmy saw me in the present like himself, which was wrong; he was newborn and I was always being born again. Every day, if the truth were known. I knew he was a tough customer from the start, fierce and self-absorbed, but I always felt sure of my ground with him because I had things to say which weren’t in his experience. He would look at me as if he’d seen a UFO and say, “You’re beautiful but you’re crazy, you know that, don’t you?” and then buy me a drink because he was a columnist and I was only a reporter.
Breslin had defenses like a Spanish fortress; they walled out anything he couldn’t comfortably deal with, usually by a kind of cruel American Legion humor. But the life in the man was so extravagant and genuine that you overlooked the dodging. When he got to trust me more he once said, “You know I’ve got my insecurities too,” a confession that wasn’t easy for a “regular” Queens bully-boy. He must have been torn apart by the apes he idolized when he made such faggot murmurs as a kid. He essentially sued me because he thought I had betrayed him. Not for quoting some common slang about Jews, although that should have been beneath me, but because he had laid himself as open to me as he could ever do; and then to have me say what I felt in print about his first novel struck him as the act of a man with no loyalty. But the fact was that I thought he had betrayed his own honesty by writing what he did. I had taken him more seriously than he took himself and expected more than he could or would then give. He has since then given everything. He knows I feel that way. But the pain we gave each other was the hardest that either had ever received in public. There has been no direct communication since.
Picture by Bags
So, are we done with football? Got that out of our system have we? Bueno.
Onward. Pitchers and catchers report soon and that can only be a good thing, am I right?
Meanwhile, and completely unrelated, check out this interview I did with Adger Cowans over at The Daily Beast:
Taking pictures on a movie set is such a specialized kind of photography. How were you able to get crucial shots while staying out of everyone’s way?
When a shot is going down, the director is standing there, so you have to think of little games to get your picture. Because the director was always watching me to see where I was standing for a good vantage. And then he’d stand in front of me and I’d duck to the side, which is where I really wanted to shoot in the first place. Little games. Always positioning yourself. Dealing with the camera crew too, not bumping into them. You had to be stealth.
Did you approach the job by staying quiet or being more out-going?
Both. Depended. But it started with how you got along with the people on the set. The director, the camera people, the actors. You had to make friends. You had to put yourself out there in a way that people trusted you.
Which directors did you liked working with most?
Alan Pakula was a hell of a nice man and a very good director. But my models for great directors would be Francis Ford Coppola (The Cotton Club), Sidney Lumet (Night Falls on Manhattan), and Bill Duke (The Cemetery Club). Lumet was the master. He knew what he wanted and never went past three takes. He did two weeks of rehearsals and then shot quickly. Duke and Lumet were so humble with the actors. They never yelled at an actor in front of the crew. They’d pull them aside and talk quietly but confidently to them. It was beautiful to watch.
Hey, is it baseball season yet? I try to watch the NFL, really I do, but I find it so dull. Boring, which sounds funny, coming from a baseball fan, right, but there you have it.
In the meantime, check out this piece in the Guardian on the late John Berger who recently passed away:
“The way I observe comes naturally to me as a curious person – I’m like la vigie – the lookout guy on a boat who does small jobs, maybe such as shovelling stuff into a boiler, but I’m no navigator – absolutely the opposite. I wander around the boat, find odd places – the masts, the gunwale – and then simply look out at the ocean. Being aware of travelling has nothing to do with being a navigator.”
Picture by Bags
Here is another sure shot from the enchanting Eve Babitz. Originally published in the April 1976 issue of Ms. Magazine, it appears here with the author’s permission. (For more on Babitz, ready Lili Anorak’s 2014 Vanity Fair profile, and pick up Babitz’s two wonderful volumes—Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company.)
“My Life in a 36DD Bra, Or, The All-American Obsession”
By Eve Babitz
When I was 15 years old, I bought and filled my first 36 DD bra. Since then, no man has ever made a serious pass at me without assuring me in the first hour that he was a leg man. Tits! Why, he hadn’t even noticed!
The tacit understanding was that if I did indeed have those giant knockers one hears so much about in locker rooms and sees flopping across magazine covers, why he simply hadn’t seen what all the fuss was about! Instead he had been quietly pursuing his birdwatching of ankles, knees, and nicely turned calves.
For years I believed these men, which goes to show how dumb one can be when on puts one’s mind to it. And for years I felt sorry for the men who, by some sad twist of fate had gotten stuck with me when they’d have preferred legs. On the other hand, I always knew that if I ever really wanted anything, all I’d have to do was lean forward slightly. Suddenly the world was waiting to hear what it was I wanted, how fast I wanted it, and whether they could get a better one for me wholesale.
Now my legs aren’t that great. They’re okay—with feet on the end of them and toenails at the ends of the feet. They’re not the long legs that you see in Vogue magazine, those grasshopper stems glistening out in Vaseline bronze for “this summer it’s white linen, briefly” copy. (And, as for my ass, well it’s so nondescript that one one’s ever presumed to tell me that was what they were after.)
In fact, I inherited my legs from my mother, and her apple-dumplingly adorable (but short) legs used to cause my father to laugh for what my mother described as “no reason.” Then my mother would blush all the way down to her amazingly taut, and gorgeous breasts. Perhaps that was the real reason my father laughed at her legs.
I inherited my breasts from the women in our family, judging from the old photographs taken in Russia in 1905 and old photographs taken in Louisiana in 1907. Only I was what is euphemistically described as a “Late Bloomer,” but which might better be called The-Heartbreak-Hotel-Death-Row-No-Love-Low-Down-End-of-the-World-Blues. There I was 14 years old in Hollywood with all these incredible girls around me bulging out of these powder-blue sweaters, these salmon-colored sweaters, these pink and charcoal-gray sweaters, these full-fashioned cashmere navy-blue sweaters. And I’m in huge white blouses coming out of my skirts because I’d rather have people think of me a pig or a slob than flat-chested. My best friend, who’d spent hours with me in the seventh grade laughing and talking (she was really a smart funny girl and we had splendid times), suddenly turned up after one summer in Lake Arrowhead with beautiful 35C tits, in pink sweaters—and she never spoke to a girl again. (Yes, she did—to the only girl in school with tits bigger than hers. But that girl wasn’t beautiful the way she was, or smart.)
Then, it happened to me.
It was in the summertime, I was 14. I started my period and then I started “blossoming” in the most phenomenal display of glorious last-minute cavalry rescue. It was, as the English say, gratifying. Now, at least I didn’t have that to worry about any more.
Later I noticed that men would view my tits and become aflame with desire for them, and they would fantasize about having a pair of their own: “God, if I had tits like those I could fuck my way into a million bucks…” I also started getting plenty of, “Shit, she must really be horny.” (They get horny so I’m supposed to.)
Recently, in Ralph’s, my local supermarket where anything often goes, there I am trying to decide on some lettuce—lost in thought, idylls of watercress—when I feel a man behind me and quickly, before I can turn around, he says in a low, authorative purposeful salute: “Big tits.” And he’s gone.
That’s like seeing a movie star. You run up—with all kinds of fantasies beaming through your regular thought process—you run up to Cary Grant and say “Cary Grant!”
What’s he supposed to do? You’ve just said his name to him—a tradition, a heritage, a massive plethora of dreams and meanings. It’s the same with men and my tits. They cannot imagine my doing anything that isn’t somehow connected with how big my tits are. And my tits aren’t even that big. I mean…they’re not Cary Grant. They’re more…John Garfield or Dean Martin. You know, there’s that shock of recognition but no the fainting spell Cary Grant would inspire.
The other night I went out on the Last-Blind-Date-I-Shall-Ever-Go-Out-On-Ever-Again. The other night this friend, who keeps saying how smart and funny and wonderful she thinks I am, calls me and says she’s going to fix me up with this smart, funny wonderful ex-lover of hers. I’ll just love him, she says. So I get dressed in these clothes that I wear when I don’t know what I’m about to encounter—clothes vaguely reminiscent of those awful white blouses I wore in junior high to hide whatever was there. This tall, unfunny, unwonderful, stupid man picks me up (I could tell at once he was stupid because he was stupid), and on our way into this restaurant he brushes against my breasts and says, “Why, shit, Jeannie was right! You do have gigantic tits!” Home, James.
He’d have done much better if he insisted he was a leg man and you can see why, all these years, those other guys did.
When a man who I don’t love and am not sexually engrossed in talks about my tits, there’s something that makes me want to pour cold water into his lap and leave a loose cartoon of ice cream on his car seat overnight. Legs are much less tiresome to listen to under those circumstances. However, if I’m beginning to be madly whipped into a frenzy of lust, a polite mention that I have beautiful breasts is a nice touch. And of course, after I’ve known the guy awhile and he’s proved himself funny, smart, an ace lover, and a man of distinction, then he can say any fucking thing he pleases. And only then have I found out what men were really thinking the first time when they poured me a glass of cool white wine and nonchalantly admitted their preference for legs.
“I remember one time,” my gorgeous friend David old me after I told him I was going to write this piece, “I met this girl, Lucy Sander” [I knew her—we’d shared a dressing room in Hollywood High together once and even then I thought it was hilarious because I was a 36DD and she was a 36DD and we’d get our bras mixed up—a truly uncommon coincidence] “and I was like 19 and was 16 and there they just were, you know!…” and his voice softened in memories of things lust, “and I ran home, I mean ran, I pushed people off the sidewalk so I could get home in time to jerk off thinking about her tits…” He started laughing, “And then I asked her out and I was going to kiss her for the first time and she said something about being careful because she was swollen because of her period and I said, ‘Swollen? Where?’ And then I went into a whole thing about how now that she mentioned it I did notice she was perhaps larger than other girls but since I was a leg man myself…”
I love revelations.
So for all those years when I was having to make do with men who were a trifle triste because they were leg men and they had to accustom themselves to all this extra baggage…And then how they pounced when the coast became clear, and those revelations afterward that from the moment I’d come into some party they couldn’t they their eyes off my…But of course they had to. Because if they hadn’t, I would have thought they were pigs and brutes and you know how women are about pigs and brutes. We like them to clean up their routine in polite society at least. We like to at least know they could maintain an air of respectability if they had to.
There are other little tricky situations that arise from big tits. Sometimes other women, a lot of the time when they’re drunk, can’t keep their eyes off them. They think you’re doing it on purpose. It’s like big guys in bars getting picked on for fights. But that’s okay, I don’t really mind about women. Deep down they know I know they can’t help it and eventually they turn their venom on their escorts fro liking women with big tits and leave me out of it.
There’s also all this having to bundle up. Whenever I go into the street, I have to cover myself with clothes that flow and drape. I cannot wear a tight anything on the street if I hope to have a moment’s peace. Suppose, for example, you wanted to go for a nice walk and look at the sunset and breathe in the air at eventide, nice idea, right? No, no, no. Not if you’ve got big tits and you’re not bundled up (Cary Grant can’t do it either).
Putting on disguises is one of my daily tasks. “Now what shall I wear today that’ll billow around?” I say to myself, squinting into my closet. If I’m going to see friends and I have to on the street first, I usually have to wear a coat (“Eve, a coat? It’s eighty degrees out there!”) and then take it off (sweating) upon arrival. If they’re really true friends who won’t make remarks about my tits when they get drunk enough, and if I can really be sure they aren’t going to turn on me for being Cary Grant, then I sometimes really get luscious and I try to dress like Claudia Cardinale in Caratouche or try in some other way to otherwise become a visual social asset to the proceedings.
If I’m with a man I want to entice, then I have a special bunch of immoral things I wear for in-house functions, but only if the guy is six foot seven, do I presume to wear them at large.
There is one other problem—not a problem but a little matter of concern—about having big tits, and that is that a lot of sensitive, smart men are terrified because they’re consumed by lust and they haven’t learned the old “leg man” line. Also they have this nervous feeling that anyone with tits like that must be vulgar. Or insensitive. There I sit, reading my Proust and minding my p’s and q’s and keeping up with current oddities—no slouch more or less—and I see them shrink from my gaze as they I were a tramp.
Having spent the day defending myself from the slings and arrows of outrageous truck drivers and busboys I am sometimes ill-equipped to suddenly assume an air of sensitive melancholy—and a couple of years ago I gave it up for a bad show. I mean, to be given the feeling that one is inelegant after one has just found the strategy for getting form point A to point B without having to walk past a little group of 14-year-old boys…It’s too hard and life is too short, and I want to be happy and laugh…
Occasionally, I sit in a restaurant and I watch as a lithe, long-limbed creature with daises embroidered on a sheer organdy blouse (beneath which she does not now, nor has she ever had to wear a bra) enters. I see the face of the man who awaits her; it has a particularly familiar look and until lately, I couldn’t place it. He kisses her, she sits down, and he reaches over to pour her some cool white wine. And then, I’ll be you anything, he says, “You know, even though we just met, I think I must tell you right off…I’m a tit man.”
Joseph Cornell is one of my favorite artists and Charles Simic is one of my favorite writers so you can imagine how thrilled I am to present a few excerpts from Simic’s charming—and irresistible—volume, Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (NY Review of Books). Reprinted with the author’s permission, and illustrated with photographs by fellow Manhattan-wanderer, Bags, along with a few of my own pictures and collages. Enjoy—Alex Belth]
By Charles Simic
I have a dream in which Joseph Cornell and I pass each other on the street. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. I walked the same New York neighborhoods that he did between 1958 and 1970. I was either working at lowly office jobs, or I was out of work spending my days in the Public Library on Forty-second Street which Cornell frequented himself. I don’t remember when it was that I first saw his shadow boxes. When I was young, I was interested in surrealism, so it’s likely that I came across his name and the reproduction of his art that way. Cornell made me feel that I should do something like that myself as a poet, but for a long time I continued to admire him without knowing much about him. Only after his death did he become an obsession with me. Of course, much had already been written about him, and most of it was excellent. Cornell’s originality and modesty disarm the critics and make them sympathetic and unusually perceptive. When it comes to his art, our eyes and imagination are the best guides. In writing the pieces for this book, I hoped to emulate his way of working and come to understand him that way. It is worth pointing out that Cornell worked in the absence of any aesthetic theory and previous notion of beauty. He shuffled a few inconsequential found objects inside his boxes until together they composed an image that pleased him with no clue as to what that image will turn out to be in the end. I had hoped to do the same.
THE MAN ON THE DUMP
He looked the way I imagine Melville’s Bartleby to have looked the day he gave up his work to stare at the blank wall outside the office window.
There are always such men in cities. Solitary wanderers in long-outmoded overcoats, they sit in modest restaurants and side-street cafeterias eating a soft piece of cake. They are deadly pale, have tired eyes, and their lapels are covered with crumbs. Once they were something else, now they work as office messengers. With a large yellow envelope under one arm, they climb the stairs to the tenth floor when the elevator is out of order. They keep their hands in their pockets even in summertime. Any one of them could be Cornell.
He was a descendant of an old New York Dutch family that had grown impoverished after his father’s early death. He lived with his mother and invalid brother in a small frame house on Utopia Parkway in Queens and roamed the streets of Manhattan in seeming idleness. A devout Christian Scientist, he was a recluse and an eccentric who admired the writings of French Romantic and Symbolist poets. His great hero was Gérard de Nerval, famous for promenading the streets of Paris with a live lobster on a leash.
THE ROMANTIC MOVEMENT
Poe has a story called “The Man of the Crowd” in which a recently discharged hospital patient sits in a coffee shop in London, enjoying his freedom, and watching the evening crowd, when he notices a decrepit old man of unusual appearance and behavior whom he decides to follow. The man at first appears to be hurrying with a purpose. He crosses and recrosses the city until the aimlessness of his walking eventually becomes obvious to his pursuer. He walks all night through the now-deserted streets, and is still walking as the day breaks. His pursuer follows him all of the next day and abandons him only as the shades of the second evening come on. Before he does, he confronts the stranger, looks him steadfastly in the eye, but the stranger does not acknowledge him and resumes his walk.
Poe’s is one of the great odes to the mystery of the city. Who among us was not once that pursuer or that stranger? Cornell followed shop girls, waitresses, young students “who had a look of innocence.” I myself remember a tall man of uncommon handsomeness who walked on Madison Avenue with eyes tightly closed as if he were listening to music. He bumped into people, but since he was well dressed, they didn’t seem to mind.
“How wild a history,” says Poe’s narrator, “is written within that bosom.” On a busy street one quickly becomes a voyeur. An air of danger, eroticism, and crushing solitude play hide-and-seek in the crowd. The indeterminate, the unforeseeable, the ethereal, and the fleeting rule there. The city is the place where the most unlikely opposites come together, the place where our separate intuitions momentarily link up. The myth of Theseus, the Minotaur, Ariadne, and her thread continue here. The city is a labyrinth of analogies, the Symbolist forest of correspondences.
Like a comic-book Spider-Man, the solitary voyeur rides the web of occult forces.
WHERE CHANCE MEETS NECESSITY
Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they’ll make a work of art. That’s Cornell’s premise, his metaphysics, and his religion, which I wish to understand.
He sets out from his home on Utopia Parkway without knowing what he is looking for or what he will find. Today it could be something as ordinary and interesting as an old thimble. Years may pass before it has company. In the meantime, Cornell walks and looks. The city has an infinite number of interesting objects in an infinite number of unlikely places.
I WENT TO THE GYPSY
What Cornell sought in his walks in the city, the fortune-tellers already practiced in their parlors. Faces bent over cards, coffee dregs, crystals; divination by contemplation of surfaces which stimulate inner visions and poetic faculties.
De Chirico says: “One can deduce and conclude that every object has two aspects: one current one, which we see nearly always and which is seen by men in general; and the other, which is spectral and metaphysical and seen only by rare individuals in moments of clairvoyance…”
He’s right. Here comes the bruja, dressed in black, her lips and fingernails painted blood-red. She saw into the murderer’s lovesick heart, and now it’s your turn, mister.
CHESSBOARD OF THE SOUL
Around the boxes I can still hear Cornell mumble to himself. In the basement of the quiet house on Utopia Parkway he’s passing the hours by changing the positions of a few items, setting them in new positions relative to one another in a box. At times the move is no more than a tenth of an inch. At other times, he picks the object, as one would a chess figure, and remains long motionless, lost in complicated deliberation.
Many of the boxes make me think of those chess problems in which no more than six to seven figures are left on the board. The caption says: “White mates in two moves,” but the solution escapes the closest scrutiny. As anyone who attempts to solve these problems knows, the first move is the key, and it’s bound to be an unlikely appearing move.
I have often cut a chess problem from a newspaper and taped it to the wall by my bed so that I may think about it first thing in the morning and before turning off the lights at night. I have especially been attracted to problems with minimum numbers of figures, the ones that resemble the ending of some long, complicated, and evenly fought game. It’s the subtlety of two minds scheming that one aims to recover.
At times, it may take months to reach the solution, and in a few instances I was never able to solve the problem. The board and its figures remained as mysterious as ever. Unless there was an error in instructions or position, or a misprint, there was no way in hell the white could mate in two moves. And yet…
At some point my need for a solution was replaced by the poetry of my continuous failure. The white queen remained where it was on the black square, and so did the other figures in the original places, eternally, whenever I closed my eyes.
WHAT MOZART SAW ON MULBERRY STREET
If you love watching movies from the middle on, Cornell is your director. It’s those first moments of some already-started, unknown movie with its totally mysterious images and snatches of dialogue before the setting and even the vaguest hint of a plot became apparent that he captures.
Cornell spliced images and sections from preexisting Hollywood films he found in junk stores. He made cinema collages guided only by the poetry of images. Everything in them has to do with ellipses. Actors speak but we don’t know to whom. Scenes are interrupted. What one remembers are images.
He also made a movie from the point of view of a bust of Mozart in a store window. Here, too, chance is employed. People pass on the street and some of them stop to look in the window. Marcel Duchamp and John Cage use chance operation to get rid of the subjectivity of the artist. For Cornell it’s the opposite. To submit to chance is to reveal the self and its obsessions. In that sense Cornell is not a dadaist or a surrealist. He believes in charms and good luck.
THE GAZE WE KNEW AS A CHILD
“People who look for symbolic meaning fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the images,” writes René Magritte, and I could not agree more. Nevertheless, this requires some clarification. There are really three kinds of images. First, there are those seen with eyes open in the manner of realists in both art and literature. Then there are images we see with eyes closed. Romantic poets, surrealists, expressionists, and everyday dreamers know them. The images Cornell has in his boxes are, however, of the third kind. They partake of both dream and reality, and of something else that doesn’t have a name. They tempt the viewer in two opposite directions. One is to look and admire the elegance and other visual properties of the composition, and the other is to make up stories about what one sees. In Cornell’s art, the eye and the tongue are at cross purposes. Neither one by itself is sufficient. It’s that mingling of the two that makes up the third image.
It’s raining on Utopia Parkway. The invalid brother is playing with his toy trains. Cornell is reading the sermons of John Donne, and the box of the Hôtel Beau-Séjour is baking in the oven like one of his mother’s pies.
In order to make them appear aged, Cornell would give his boxes eighteen to twenty coats of paint, varnish them, polish them, and leave them in the sun and rain. He also baked them to make them crack and look old.
Forgers of antiquities, lovers of times past, employ the same method.
It ought to be clear that Cornell is a religious artist. Vision is his subject. He makes holy icons. He proves that one needs to believe in angels and demons even in a modern world in order to make sense of it.
The disorder of the city is sacred. All things are interrelated. As above, so below. We are fragments of an unutterable whole. Meaning is always in search of itself. Unsuspected revelations await us around the next corner.
The blind preacher and his old dog are crossing the street against the oncoming traffic of honking cabs and trucks. He carries his guitar in a beat-up case taped with white tape so it looks like it’s bandaged.
Making art in America is about saving one’s soul.
The final episode The Night Of, HBO’s engrossing eight-part series co-created by Richard Price, airs this Sunday and if you have not been watching, have a little binge and catch up—you’ll dig it. Price is a distinguished novelist and screenwriter—I love the talk in movies like The Color of Money and Sea of Love—and one of my favorite Scorsese flicks, Life Lessons. Like many of us—thank you, P. Kael—he lost it at the movies. Back in December 1982, American Film magazine published Price’s charming essay about some of his favorite movie theater memories, and, with the author’s permission, we’re happy to now share it with you. Dive in, this will make you happy.—Alex Belth
“Gorgo, Warhol, Rocky, and Me”
By Richard Price
Over the marquee of a beat-up two-dollar movie house in Times Square, there’s an ancient faded sign: “Get More Out of Life—See a Movie.” The visual contrast between that sentiment and the desperate seediness surrounding it would yield, in its bitter irony, a photograph worthy of Walker Evans.
Nonetheless, the sign gives solid advice. Movies have always been a source of self-realization in my life; from Jerry Lewis to James Dean to Woody Allen, the shock of recognition has always signaled the Big Change for me.
But there’s another source of epiphany in a movie house, one much more profound and subtle than the screen—and that’s the audience. And I’ve always felt that the action in the seats was the greater teacher.
Rebel Without a Cause was pure bush-league in the life-lessons department compared with the ever popular torture of trying to worm a finger inside a steel-trap bra while keeping a two-hour, eyes-ahead poker face, or compared with the frantic in-crowd scrambling for who-sits-next-to-whom seating among a group of thirteen-year-old boys. Deep Throat was a rambling, flatulent dirty joke compared with the awesome sexuality of first tongue kiss while watching Topkapi. Psycho was so much “Mister Rogers” compared with the torture of sitting in front of six greaser cretins, who, after ordering you not to turn around, amused themselves through Viva La Vegas by treating your skull to sporadic slaps and buttered popcorn.
Everything—sex, power, kindness, cruelty, love lost and found—was acted out in the dark, no “The End,” and nothing could be exorcised by chanting, “It’s only a movie.”
The following memories are selected from my personal Book of Revelations.
From the age of five to eleven, the highlight of my week was spending Saturdays with my grandmother, who lived in what is now known as the South Bronx. Our itinerary never varied: a double monster-movie matinee at one of the local theaters, dinner at a deli, and then back to her place for an evening of pro wrestling, roller derby, and “Zackerly’s Shock Theater” on the ole Emerson. But the crème de Ia crème was the monster-movie outing. She’d load up a shopping bag with sandwiches, fruit, and a few thermoses, and we’d head on out—nothing could be finer.
But it all began to fall apart two weeks before my twelfth birthday, when we went to see Gorgo.
Seated in the theater, surrounded by kids howling and yowling for the picture to start, my grandmother muttered her usual, “Animals,” a few times, jerking her head in annoyance to all points of the compass. One kid ten rows down from us got dragged out even before the lights dimmed. An eleven-year-old with a cigarette, dragged up the aisle by the tall, bony, gray-haired, tomahawk-faced matron in a white uniform like that of a school nurse, her eyes razors of determination, the kid trying desperately to be cool, trying to drag on his cigarette as he was hustled by his neck and armpit out of the theater, his friends laughing and whooing in a wolf chorus: “Efram, man, she too bad for you.” “Bite her, man.”
My grandmother squinted in admiration at the matron. “She’s a tough one.”
The kids were my age, but in every way it seemed like no contest; they were bigger, badder, louder, definitely not College Bound. As the matron came back down the aisle slightly huffing, my grandmother nodded to her. The matron smiled back a “How are you, dear,” then continued down to Efram’s friends brandishing her flashlight like a nightstick: “An’ if I see anybody else light up a cigarette, ya’s gonna get the same treatment.” That got a chorus of “whoos” as she tromped up the aisle, her face in an “I ain’t kiddin’” expression.
“Watch ’em,” my grandmother murmured. “I see two packs… these little bastards… just let ’em light up… they don’t think anybody’s watchin’.”
Halfway through Gorgo, while a mother dinosaur destroyed London in a search for her baby, one kid bent over the crotch of his friend for a light and both of us caught the brief orange flare reflected off the seat back in front of him.
She grabbed my arm. “We got him!”
The kid sat back in a low slouch, casually checking out his sides, the cigarette cupped inside his palm, lit end between his legs.
“Go get the matron!” my grandmother said, her eyes widening. I hesitated, not wanting to rat on another kid and not wanting to get beaten up. “Go, go! He’s almost finished!”
The matron was lounging against an archway, arms folded across her waist, eyes scanning the crowd. “Excuse me, miss? My grandmother wants to talk to you.”
She tromped down to our seats and bent over my grandmother, who didn’t say a word, just raised her eyebrows, made a slight motion with her head in the direction of that row of kids, and pressed two fingers against her lips as if she were dragging on a butt.
I saw all this from where the matron had been standing. I knew there was a chance that she would hustle this kid past me, that the kid would get a good look at me, and that maybe my ass was grass, but I didn’t really feel that worried. What I felt, more than fear was deep sorrow. For the first time in six years of movie outings with my grandmother, I found myself wishing I was one of her “animals,” wishing that I was sitting right in the middle of those kids, cupping a passed butt, taking a drag, and passing it on.
Much to my relief, the matron decided to lay off. When I sat back down, my grandmother was sitting hand to mouth, eyes wide, staring down at those kids. “Oh, honey, what a world,” she whisper-moaned, shaking her head behind her fist. “What a world…”
For the next several hours, I ate, she drank black coffee, too aggravated to eat, and we watched the kids. Every time one would come up the aisle to go to the john or get candy we would stare at him until our heads were almost completely turned around. We would do the same when he came back down. And we watched the movie. It struck me that my grandmother was a very lonely person and that in the very near future she would get a lot more lonely.
When we got out, it was twilight. The kids streamed around us, my grandmother’s tottering, arthritic bulk like a rock splitting rapids. One kid locked eyes with her, caught her death-ray sneer, and nudged his friend. My heart stopped. I envisioned my grandmother and me back to back fighting them off, but nothing happened, and I wound up watching them bop down the street, counting how many of them wore Keds and how many Converse.
THE DAY MARS INVADED EARTH
When we were all thirteen years old, my friends and I would go see any film anywhere at any time. We didn’t go to watch, we went to hunt. We knew that in every movie crowd there was at least one eighth-grade girl just sitting there waiting to put out. We’d go in, take a row, hiss, elbow each other, and snigger for two hours, then head on home calling each other faggots.
Everybody was pretty happy with the arrangement, but during Christmas break, early 1963, things were thrown into chaos at a neighborhood kiddie matinee of The Day Mars Invaded Earth.
Surrounded by seven-year-olds, we scoured the darkness, muttered variations on “I was up for it, too, man” and settled in for a few hours of wisecracks. At some point during the first hour of the movie, I was lurching down the aisle on my way back from a popcorn run when I heard someone hissing out my name. It was my main man, Howie, who, obviously out of his mind, was sitting in between two teenage girls. Giving me a look like he was sinking in quicksand, he said, “Hey, yo’, this is Jackie; she thinks you’re cute.”
Too freaked to think up an out for myself, I took the offered seat and concentrated on the movie. I had never wanted to be sitting next to a guy so badly as I did at that moment. The other girl was Jackie’s sister, Carol. Like the sluts they obviously were, they both had plucked eyebrows and more eye makeup than Cleopatra.
After a debonair half-hour pause to show her I was no beggar, I draped my hand along the back of Jackie’s seat and caressed Howie’s similarly outstretched arm. Howie responded by diddling the hollow of my elbow. I was in stud heaven for fifteen minutes before I glanced down and saw that both of Jackie’s hands were in her lap. Whipping my arm away from Howie’s like it was touching something with teeth, I sat reeling in retroactive revulsion, then made my move. I scored waist right off the bat. After what seemed like days later I made it up to the edge of her bra. Suddenly she hunched over and drawled out, “Hey Carol! I got another rib counter here.”
Carol had a look on her face as though she was at the end of a line at the Motor Vehicles Bureau; Howie was sitting there with his hands tucked in his armpits.
Turning back to me, Jackie grabbed my hand and planted it on her small left breast. My forehead tingled like a tuning fork. Now what? My hand lay on top of her sweater inert and splayed like a starfish until Jackie got up, gave her sister the high sign, announced a trip to the bathroom, took her umbrella and shoulder bag, and vanished forever.
When we all got outside, Howie bolted for a cab and rode alone the three blocks back to his house.
I walked home like Moses returning from a conversation with the Burning Bush. Oblivious to the frantic six-man press conference that circled me from the theater to my building, I was obsessed with trying to keep my wrist curled and my fingers spread in “the exact shape of Jackie’s breast. It had taken thirteen years for me to score, and, fearing that it would be another thirteen before I saw some action again, I felt that I had to preserve the mold of my conquest to tide me over the years.
But by the time I got inside my apartment, my hand was killing me. I began to panic. My first thought was to trace it on paper. Photograph it. Plaster of Paris. Luckily it was too late by the time I noticed the baby shoes on top of the family television. Before I realized that I could have bronzed it, my cramped hand had become unbearable and I had shaken it out.
THE T.A.M.I. SHOW
The T.A.M.I. Show was a rock concert filmed in 1964, at the dawn of the British invasion and the California sound. It was also the epitome of the racially integrated rock show, an amazing mix of three worlds—White America, Black America, and Liverpool—your hosts, Jan and Dean.
I saw The T.A.M.I. Show with three friends and our girls, all of us fifteen years old. My girl friend didn’t really love me, but in our crowd, if you weren’t part of a match, you might as well have a bell around your neck, and I was the only guy available. Unfortunately for me, I loved her madly.
All through Lesley Gore, the Supremes, Gerry and the Pacemakers, I sat there in the Saturday-matinee darkness totally focused on Mary’s hand, which lay in mine like it was carved from wax. Everybody around me was screaming and bouncing, and it pissed me off. I hated surfing music. I hated the British sound. And although I loved Motown, not even the synchronized svelteness of the Miracles could pull me away from agonizing over the implications of Mannequin Hand.
But suddenly, without warning, James Brown came flying across the screen, shrieking like he was on fire, and, without thinking, I found myself standing in a half crouch, pulling Mary’s hand over her head. Backed up by the Famous Flames, he seemed like the Devil in a doo, screeching and doing splits in celebration of his own bad-ass status. I’d never seen such a ferocious refusal to compromise, to “make nice,” and for twenty minutes he turned the world into something best seen from the portal of a Sherman tank.
The crowd was enjoying his set, but with a slight pall of wariness and detachment. There were no teen screams for “Please, Please, Please” or “Night Train” as there had been for “It’s My Party” or “Ferry Cross the Mersey.” James Brown was definitely not cute; no fantasy escort for a sweet sixteen. I felt as if all through the movie I had been at odds with the crowd and now we had just passed each other again. My girl friend stared at the screen like she was being forced to watch a massacre. She pulled her hand out of mine and crossed her arms in front of her chest. To hell with her.
At fifteen I had already established myself around school as a poet, but I was more into the wrapping than the gift. I wrote poems because it made my run-of-the-mill adolescent mooniness seem romantic and intriguing, elevated me from loner to lone wolf. Persona was everything because, allegedly, girls are suckers for uniforms.
But James Brown was a true outlaw artist, and sitting there watching him crooning and yowling, tearing up the boards with the smoking intensity of a flamenco dancer, face twisting and writhing into a catalog of passions, I found myself exhilarated by the making of art rather than the posing of the artist.
Walking out of the theater at two-thirty in the afternoon, I was astonished that it was still daylight.
I still wanted “poet” to shelter me from Mary’s coolness, still wanted “artiste” to rationalize my lovesickness as part of the forging process, but as I walked home, filled with the sights and sounds of James Brown, for the first time in my life I found myself wondering if I had any talent.
1970—Being in Love Means Never Having to Sit Through Andy Warhol
During the late sixties and early seventies, my college years, movies were divided into two categories: “Amerikan propaganda” and “surreal.” Any movie where the cowboys, the cavalry, or the GIs won the battle was Fascist and sinister. Same for anything heartwarming or corny—all “part of the problem.” Surreal became synonymous with Good: Fantasia,Betty Boop cartoons, Medium Cool, Easy Rider, Zabriskie Point, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Bergman, Putney Swope, Mickey One,anything low-budget or starring mainly unknowns or shot in black and white—all surreal, all good.
I saw all the required movies, in part because I was enjoying my new role as a hippie aesthete, but also because I was a devout believer in “no pain, no gain”—Sugar Pops tasted better, but oatmeal made you strong. Outside of the hip comedies, most of what I found myself buying tickets for seemed to me boring, pompous, or just plain incoherent. In my heart of hearts I was still a Sands of Iwo Jima junkie, but I restrained myself for the good of the Movement.
When I was a junior, I had a first date with a coed whom I didn’t know if I really liked or not. Date meant movie. Our choices were The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Nazi Sex Crimes in Third Reich Love Camp Number Seven, Slaves,and Andy Warhol’s Trash.
Five minutes into Trash I felt myself going into a coma. In the first forty-five minutes I left to go to the bathroom three times. I would have died before admitting I was stupefied with boredom. I wouldn’t even turn to my date for fear that she would see my eyes rolling up into my head. An hour into the flick she touched my arm and asked me what time The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly started. I was embarrassed to know, but when I told her she looked at her watch and said, “That’s in five minutes; if we run we can make it.”
I said, “This is starting to mesh,” nodding toward the screen, amazed at my own cowardice.
She sighed and whispered in my ear. “Last year I was handing out flyers for a student-worker alliance rally at some construction site in New York. Some Puerto Rican guy in a hard hat—we’re talking prime-target minority labor here—he took the flyer, read it, and gave it back to me. He said, ‘If you don’t like it here, go back to Great Neck.’ Now we have only three minutes to make it.”
Two blocks into our dead run for the Strand I was in love.
1976—Just One of the Boys
In 1976 I had my own apartment. Being a self-supporting writer and having just finished a novel, I found myself with too much free time on my hands. It was a restless, boring time for me, and I filled in a number of empty afternoons by going alone to the movies. These solo excursions didn’t bother me, because I didn’t really consider myself a lonely person. I rarely had dinner alone.
But I always hated seeing other people sitting in the dark by themselves. Anybody, young or old, three-piece suits or babushkas. I could account for my own circumstances, but I always saw the others as tragic loners, destitute hearts doomed to a life of Chock Full O’Nuts counters.
On one Tuesday morning a few months into my “fallow” period, I woke up with a bad case of the Gregor Samsas. I felt lethargic and aimless; the refrigerator was stocked, the rugs vacuumed, the roaches in temporary retreat. I had nothing to do and the day yawned open ahead of me like a stretch of Kansas highway. A movie day if there ever was one.
I went downtown to see what all the hoopla was about with Rocky. I was supposed to go to the movies that evening with a girl friend, but I knew she’d rather see Scenes From a Marriage minus the subtitles than submit to two hours of Meatball Ascending.
From the moment I sat down in the half-empty theater I knew I was in trouble. I found myself surrounded by lone men, and from the screen credits on, my attention kept shifting from Rocky to the 3-D sad sacks in the seats, all of whom seemed to be perfectly self-contained and enjoying the show. Nonetheless my heart went out to them.
Whenever I concentrated on the movie, I found myself getting hot eyes and golf-ball throat at the most embarrassingly inane moments: Rocky not having the heart to break a longshoreman’s thumbs, Rocky doing push-ups, Adrian slaving over kitty litter in the pet store. It wasn’t Rocky,it was all those guys around me, kicking my ass with their painful solitude.
And then the whole thing blew up in my face.
During the final round of the climactic fight, when Rocky and Apollo Creed were pounding each other to pizza, the Bill Conti score pulsing with Rocky’s superhuman efforts, the audience lost control and people started yelling and cheering for the Italian Stallion, egging him on; a few were on their feet ducking and weaving and throwing punches at the screen. Suddenly, the guy to my left, an enormously fat black man nursing a tub of popcorn, belted out, “For God’s sake, Rocky, you can do it,” his cheeks slick with tears. My first reaction was shock that he wasn’t rooting for the black fighter.
Embarrassed by his outburst, the fat man looked around to see if anybody was laughing at him. When he turned in my direction, I was waiting for him with a commiserating basset-hound face, but when our eyes met, the contact was more than I had bargained for. Neither of us could turn away. We sat there, entranced with each other’s grief, pop-eyed, our mouths working wordlessly like beached fish; then we simultaneously burst out crying. Afraid that he would offer me some popcorn, I bolted from the theater.
Two weeks later, I moved into a huge apartment, splitting the rent with three roommates.
1979—What Ralph Ellison Meant by “Invisible Man”
THE ONION FIELD
AII my life I’ve gone to movies in the Times Square area. The crowds are ethnic mix ’n’ match, the fare usually critical crap, but the action is nonstop. If the movie is going over, the house is pure empathic Sensurround; if it’s a dud, everybody just turns to each other for their five dollars’ worth. People bring in grass, radios, babies, and portable televisions. There are always a half-dozen flakes arguing with the screen and another bunch who have no idea where they are. For years I saw that scene as a major goof; I was proud of my ability to feel at ease in any movie crowd in New York, from the Gold Coast theaters near Bloomingdale’s to the two-dollar roach sanctuaries on Forty-second Street. Mister Manhattan..
One evening I went down to Times Square to see The Onion Field. It was a Friday night and the house was packed. I could have caught the movie in the Village or on the Upper West Side, but I wasn’t in the mood to sit there with people who might applaud cinematography credits. I wanted audience juice.
At first the crowd started out with the usual woofing and cackling, goofing on everything from John Savage’s glasses to Ted Danson’s bagpipes, but as the focus shifted to the relationship between the two cop killers, white James Woods and black Franklyn Seales, the party mood began to fade. Woods played a cool and domineering psychopathic con man, Seales a quivering, spineless petty thief, and every scene between them hammered home their master-slave relationship.
At first, the mainly black and Puerto Rican crowd responded with sullen silence, but after a particularly degrading exchange, someone lost control and yelled out, “Stand up for yourself, chump!” and the audience erupted, cursing out Seales. A spray of popcorn landed on the screen, but nobody laughed. No one cursed out Woods, like I expected. No one cared about the dead cop or John Savage’s slow breakdown. I was amazed at the fury around me, but I didn’t feel it in myself. I felt like a social scientist, an outsider. I realized I was surrounded by people who had no addresses, no childhoods, and no names for me. I was slumming. Always had been.
When the two killers came to trial, Seales finally rebelled. He started cursing out Woods—even tried to physically assault him, and the crowd cheered with humorless encouragement.
But the rebellion was short-lived. Once Seales got to jail, his lawyer informed him that unless he and Woods cooperated in court, they’d both end up in the gas chamber. Blubbering and shaking, Seales confronted Woods in the prison shower room to beg forgiveness, but Woods had his price, and as the black man slowly slid to his knees, the white man’s hand on the back of his neck, the crowd was on its feet shouting, “No!”—pleading and threatening.
A young black guy standing in front of me wearing a knit skullcap bellowed, “Be a man, you punk!” At the end of the scene he remained standing, heaving with outrage, staring’ wildly around the theater. He saw me sitting behind him, slouched down, my face partially obscured by my hand, and before sinking back into his seat, he glared at me and drawled, “You enjoying the show?”
* * * * *
And there are any number of Honorable Mentions:
◻︎ I was taken to see The Ten Commandments for my eighth birthday and experienced my first religious crisis when my father told me that not only was Charlton Heston just an actor playing Moses, but that the guy wasn’t even Jewish.
︎ Experienced another religious crisis years later when I found myself sitting through The Bible a second time just to see the Sodom and Gomorrah part again.
︎ Sat through three consecutive showings of Mean Streets one afternoon, then went home, rifled through a box of family photos, and started the first chapter of Bloodbrothers that same night.
︎ Realized that I was no longer part of the youth vanguard the day I found myself in a revival theater surrounded by a roomful of punky-looking kids cackling at the horrifically dated slang of Easy Rider and Woodstock.
︎ Saw a sneak preview of Bloodbrothers booed by a full house because everybody was expecting the sneak to be Superman.
But the strangest of all my movie house experiences had to be the night I sat in a huge theater and watched myself up on the screen in The Wanderers. I was on for two minutes, playing a lounge lizard in a bowling alley. I talked, I sneered, and I got strangled with my own tie.
Sitting there, I felt absolutely no connection between myself on the screen and myself in the audience; no excitement, embarrassment, anger, or giddiness. I became so unnerved by the numbness of it all that I had to turn my head away from the screen, and in an effort to come back into myself, I put all my energy into watching the crowd watching me.