When I heard that Jimmy Breslin passed away, Todd Drew was the first person I thought of. Man, Todd loved Breslin.
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.
If you don’t know from Eve Babitz, prepared to be charmed. I wrote about her last week over at Esquire Classic, and can’t recommend her two volumes of memoirs—Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company—enough. For a little taste of Babitz’s talent, check out this 1987 profile of James Woods, which was originally published in American Film magazine and appears here with the author’s permission.—Alex Belth
“Out of the Woods”
By Eve Babitz
Whenever I think about James Woods, it is either as the affront he was in Split Image, where he plays the cure almost worse than the disease for a family who wants to have their kid deprogrammed from some Moonie-type cult, or else—and this is worse, especially since I was about to go to the Beverly Hills Hotel for one of those “interview breakfasts” in broad daylight—or else I see him hovering over Deborah Harry in Videodrome, helping her indulge her decadent, perverted taste for pain, sticking long needles through her earlobes, licking drops of blood as she slinks orgasmically beneath his hot breath, his hot eyes, his hotness—his coldness. Even Pauline Kael calls him James “the Snake” Woods.
“He’s such a sleaze, Eve,” says the only woman I know who’s immune to him. “He’s like the only guy in the eighth grade who knew about sex.”
“But someone had to,” I reply, thinking of the moment in Videodrome when James Woods spots this TV show of torture that at first he flinches from, but from which he cannot turn away.
Which is exactly how I feel about him.
* * * * *
The Polo Lounge (or the room right next to it where they serve their gardeny breakfast) is graced by ladies in pink outfits to match the pink tablecloths and pinkness of the Beverly Hills Hotel since time began. However, most of the patrons are in the movie business with a vengeance not to be denied. If you like this kind of thing, then the Polo Lounge is it.
He arrives looking like something fresh, aslant in the sunlight and breakfast shadows of an L.A. morning. His clothes are light, his feet are light, and his expression is blank. He seems as capable of being blown out the door as a tumbleweed.
An agent clasps him on the shoulder and says in his ear: “How would you like to do Dracula for Ken Russell?” Woods tells me about it as we move into the Polo Lounge, and I feel suddenly that he is as at home here as a hustler is in a pool hall. All that energy he usually uses to punch weasels into High Art is whirling through his bloodstream.
“Dracula,” I mutter, thinking it’s redundant: James Woods as Dracula—he already is Dracula.
“Hi Olivia, do you have some cream, sweetheart?” he greets our waitress as we settle into one of the ivy green booths. “Did you cut your hair? You look adorable,” he adds as he takes a menu from Olivia, whose hair is short, permed, and gray.
“Thank you,” she says, laughing. “It looks nice for about a month, then it gets too long.”
“Then you look like, uh.” He pauses. “Angela Davis.”
Olivia brings us breakfast, which for the forty-year-old Woods consists of a large orange juice, bacon (“real artery jammers, babe”), and a toasted bran muffin. No cigarettes—he gave them up several months before. Not long ago, he confesses, “I actually had one in my mouth and a match lit. And I thought: If God wants me to smoke this cigarette, he’s going to put this match right to the end of it and I’m going to inhale. And that very moment, God, believe it or not, masquerading as a second AD, came to the trailer and said, ‘You’re needed on the set.’ And I thought: Well, it may not be Jesus in a crèche, but it’s good enough for me.”
I am anxious to know how he feels to be nominated for Best Actor in Salvador. “It was the single happiest day of my life,” he says, looking very sincere and very unsnakelike. “It’s hard to explain, because people sort of expect me to be outrageous and cynical—and I am, about things that deserve cynicism. But I’m not cynical about things like having all your colleagues toast you with something like an Oscar nomination.”
“How did you find out about it?”
“I unplugged my phone in the bedroom and didn’t set the alarm clock, hoping to sleep through the nominations because they were at five-thirty in the morning, and I couldn’t imagine getting up to be disappointed one more time in my life. And I kept hearing the phone ringing in the other room. And I looked at the alarm clock and it was, like, five thirty-one. So I picked up the phone and it happened to be a friend of mine who had told me that I wasn’t nominated for the Golden Globes, when I was, because he got the information wrong. So I thought he was teasing. He said, ‘You got nominated.’ And I said, ‘This is not funny.’ And I hung up on him. And then the phone started ringing some more. He said, ‘I swear to God. Turn on CNN.’ And I turned it on and I was stunned.
“Actors pretend to be so blasé about this stuff: ‘Ah, the Oscars. They don’t mean anything.’ And yet I’ve never met an actor who hasn’t been rehearsing a speech every day of his life on his way to an audition.”
The agent bobs back, smiling loudly at Woods. “We just want to know, are you prepared to shoot Dracula in four days in between two pictures?”
“If I don’t have to do any overtime,” Woods replies.
The agent proceeds: “Listen, when we first tried to put this picture together four years ago, we got a call from this rock star and we flew to Washington, D.C., where he was doing a concert, and the guy actually told Ken that he would be prepared to drain his blood before shooting so he could really look the part—and he said he would actually sleep in a coffin to get into the role.”
Olivia serves us coffee, and the agent, at long last, leaves.
“This guy wants to drain his blood and sleep in a coffin’? It’s like Laurence Olivier’s great line to Dustin Hoffman, who stayed up four days to look tired. He said, ‘Can’t you try acting?’ ”
I am wondering whether he felt Platoon had anything to do with the renewed attention being lavished on Salvador.
“Luckily, Salvador was on videocassette at the time, and people started saying, ‘Gee, Platoon was good. I wonder what Salvador is like.’ The problem is that you try to put a film like Salvador in a theater when there’s fifteen hundred theaters with Pretty in Pink playing for the fifteenth week. Even though the theaters might be empty by the fifteenth week. But a lot of times, when you go to these sixplexes in some shopping mall somewhere in Costa Mesa, it’s the same six studio pictures.”
“So now that Platoon and Salvador have made it, are we going to see a slew of movies about Vietnam and Nicaragua and Beirut?”
“You know, for eighteen years of my career, I’d always hear that I wasn’t a leading man. I would say, ‘Well, how about Humphrey Bogart? How about Dustin Hoffman? AI Pacino? How about…?’ Even Bill Hurt is a good-looking guy, but he’s not some classic walking surfboard. Each time, they sort of get it, but they only get it that one time. It seems like they go out of their way to avoid quality, to find an excuse to hire every football player and model they can. It’s almost uncanny how difficult it is to convince them that maybe, instead of a run of movies about kids getting laid in the backseat of the car, maybe you could have a run of movies about Vietnam or Central America. There are two kinds of movies being made: There’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and there’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you know, John Hughes’s imbecilic movies. Will I get invited to the prom or not? Who gives a rat’s ass.
“Now Platoon has finally done it. But if Oliver had the script of Salvador right now, and he brought it to a studio, they probably would say, ‘God, you’re great. And Platoon was sensational and we really want to be in business with you, but do you have anything else, maybe? Instead of this thing about Central America?’”
Before I met Woods for the first time, his press agent had told me, “The great thing about Jimmy is that you don’t really have to interview him. Once he gets going, he’s off.” It’s true.
“I hate the guy I played in Salvador—I think he’s a total asshole. I don’t hate him; I’m indifferent to him—the kind of guy who is a drunken, boring, disgusting fool who’s always gypping people with money and lying and bullshitting and all the other wonderful things that compulsive obsessives do—but I loved the story. And I found a way of turning that character into a fictional amalgam of what he is and what I hoped he could be in his life, which caused untold amounts of violence between me and Oliver Stone, but the final synthesis was worthwhile.”
“I hear Oliver Stone is pretty intense.”
“Well, he met his match the day he walked on the Salvador set in Mexico with me. But our arguments were over the right stuff. They were about interpretation, balancing the picture, not making it a polemic. Not making the character too heroic, which Oliver didn’t want. And not making him such a loathsome scumbag that the audience would be so turned off that they wouldn’t get any of it, which was my point of view. And so we had two very antithetical points of view that resulted, I thought, in a very constructive synthesis. And I like to work that way. If it’s all peaches and cream, you’re in trouble, believe me. It’s a cardinal rule of filmmaking that if everybody’s happy at the dailies every night, you’ve probably got a piece of junk on your hands. We struggled through that thing like a war. We’re great friends now.”
“Give me an example of a fight.”
“One day Oliver and I were having a terrible argument. And he said, ‘You know, you’re a rat and a goddamn weasel and I hate you and I hope you die!’ I said, ‘This is great—ten minutes before a scene.’ The next day, we’re doing the scene where I’m trying to convince Elpedia Carrillo to marry me. I was supposed to say to her, ‘OK, so I’ve done some bad things in my life.’ Instead, I said,’OK, I’m a rat and a goddamn weasel!’ And I threw it right in. And he said, ‘Oh, you had to embarrass me, right? You have to throw it into the take.’ And that came out of an argument that Oliver and I had. And he was gracious about leaving it in.”
“What did Richard Boyle think of your Richard Boyle?”
“Richard was pretty content to sort of try screwing the extras and having free lunches and free drinks—which I say affectionately. He was always on the set and, in all seriousness, was concerned to make sure the Salvadoran uniforms looked right, and that the peasants looked right, and so on.
“At one point, one of Boyle’s friends there said, ‘Richard would never wear a Hawaiian shirt.’ I said, ‘No, but on the other hand, what Richard really wears is so frigging ugly that if you put it on the screen, people would walk out of the theater.’ I mean, he has the worst taste in clothes imaginable. My shirts weren’t what he would wear in actual fact, but they did poetically capture the spirit of Boyle more than what Boyle himself would actually wear.”
“So I guess you’d work with Oliver again?” I break in, spearing a strawberry.
“He wanted me to do Platoon, but I didn’t want to go get any more tropical diseases this year,” he replies. “I’ll stick by Oliver, even if his next one isn’t courted and wooed by the critics. I know the vagaries of this business. I know that they can turn on him like a lightning bolt. They may; I won’t. You know, John Daly, chairman of Hemdale, is doing Oliver’s film after the next one. When the bigwigs who all turned down Salvador and Platoon wanted it, he said, ‘Hey, John Daly was my friend. John Daly’s got it.’ I had a studio exec say to me, ‘Well, Oliver Stone doesn’t want to talk to me.’ I said, ‘Well, he knows that you hate him. You may work on the premise of “Hey, if it’s big bucks, screw it!” But there’s a moral consideration. You spit in a guy’s face, he doesn’t wipe it off with a hundred dollar bill. You think I’m a piece of crap? Then I’ll just stay a piece of crap and now you can’t have me, even though I’ve been dipped in gold. Oliver believes in something. You don’t. That’s the difference.”’
* * * *
I first met Woods in a nunnery—that’s right, a nunnery—in downtown L.A., built on a giant estate overlooking the entire smog-laden city baking in eighty-five-degreeish desperation. The bougainvillea are staggered on the terraced garden walls; the walls are stained an Italian sepia, like a Leonardo line drawing. The mixture of downtown L.A. and this thrust of pastoral, idyllic Italy is unnerving.
But then, what about Jimmy Woods isn’t.
The movie is called Best Seller and it’s about a Joseph Wambaugh-type cop-writer (Brian Dennehy) who is contacted by a white-collar hit man (Woods) who wants Dennehy to expose the corporation he works for.
When filming stops for resetting the cameras, Woods comes to me in his Armani suit and we begin to walk down to his trailer.
Me: “Let’s get serious. Where do you get your technique?”
Him: “What kind of technique?”
Me: “Do you have any technique other than plowing forward?”
Him: “I don’t even know what you’re talking about—technique for what?”
Me: “Acting, acting, what you do.”
Him: “Yeah, I put batteries in my alarm clock and try and get here on time.”
Me: “Do you have a philosophy of acting?”
Him: “I admire the James Cagney ‘plant your feet on the ground, look the other guy in the eye, and tell the truth’ school of acting. I’m not into the ‘four hours before you go to work pretend you’re a radish’ school of acting.”
By now we’ve reached this kind of luxurious trailer and spend the next few hours facing each other in claustrophobic air-conditioning across a table in a breakfast nook meant for old retired couples to play gin rummy.
Me: “They said you quit the Tavianis’ new film because you were afraid of being kidnapped and wanted a twenty-four-hour-a-day bodyguard.”
Him: “Actually, it was a stronger reaction. It was when I read that France and Italy provided safe havens for terrorists—and had a tacit agreement with them. And I thought: You bastards weren’t objecting when we left half a million American bodies here to protect your grandmas from being raped by Russians drinking gasoline in 1945. You know what, why don’t you rely on Libyan tourism?”
Me: “Are there any kinds of roles that you don’t want to do, or that you wouldn’t accept?”
Him: “I have made a conscious effort in the past year or two to avoid villains, only because I did a couple that were rather well received, even though they were extremely different characters. But the press can tend to typecast you. Best Seller is my farewell to villainy, but it was such a delicious character, I couldn’t resist it.”
An AD comes to summon Woods to the set. He stands in line with the rest of the people, assembling his lunch—pork chops, apple sauce, peas, mashed potatoes with lots of gravy, and chocolate milk. Director John Flynn comes over and says, “He acts with a pin stuck through his muscle. It gives him that edge. Otherwise he falls asleep.”
“Yeah, with you directing, I’m surprised I don’t have narcolepsy.”
“Yeah, when you sit through the rushes—”
“We could bottle those babies and sell them for Valium.”
* * * * *
Fade to pink and the slanting sunlight of a Beverly Hills morning. We’re back at the Polo Lounge. These days, Woods is busy on a new project for Atlantic Releasing Company, except that this time he’s behind the camera, as well as in front of it. He’s coproducing a film based on the novel Blood on the Moon, a murder-suspense thriller in which he stars as a Los Angeles police detective. I wonder whether, in his role as a producer, he is “nice”?
“I’m never going to be nice. Nice is what studio executives are when they’re offering your part to somebody else behind your back after they’ve already made a deal with you.”
“So what’s it like to be a producer?” I ask.
“It’s great, because I treat people the way I would like to have been treated when I was only an actor,” he says, pushing his plate aside. “It’s easy, if you’re honest—if you’re straightforward. If I’m asking somebody to work for less than the usual salary, what I do is bring out the budget and show it to them. I don’t bullshit around with them.”
“There’s been a big stir about David Puttnam coming out against inflated stars’ salaries,” I say, glancing at the movers and shakers at nearby tables. I can talk Industry with the best of them.
“But it’s not just the stars’ salaries, it’s the executive producers’ salaries. I know that people do not go to see a movie because Jon Peters produced it. They go to see a movie because Robert Redford is starring in it. Or Oliver Stone directed it. I mean, the people who make movies should get paid for making movies, and the people who make phone calls should get paid for making phone calls—by the hour. Unfortunately, they’ve got it all backward in this business.”
Suddenly he looks almost remorseful. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “There are studio heads who are friends of mine, whom I like very much. I always dump on these guys and I don’t mean to, because I do not envy them the task they have before them. If I had to answer to the people they have to answer to, I’d probably hang myself. Their job is to make money. The Killing Fields was a studio movie. Terms of Endearment, finally, was a studio movie. And they were great movies.”
This is almost too nice, so I change the subject. “You once told me that it’s usually a bad sign if everything’s going peaches and cream. Do you know when it’s working and when it’s not working?”
“Almost invariably. Not only the performance, but the feeling on the set. I mean, if I see, like, an unbelievably stupid costume on somebody, chances are that there’s five other unbelievably stupid costumes on other actors, because people are either good at what they do or bad at what they do. And usually they’re bad, not for lack of talent, but for lack of dedication. And that drives me crazy. The one thing that makes me want people to disappear from a set is that they’re too busy doing something else and don’t have time to do the job that they’re getting paid for. You know, buying a string of condos in Marina del Rey or whatever else they have on their mind. My attitude is that when you make a film, you eat, drink, and sleep it. And be thankful that you can go twenty-two hours a day, because if you’re spending any time less than that, you’re probably not giving it your best shot.”
“Are you interested in directing?” I ask.
“The T-shirt at Creative Artists Agency—have you ever seen it? It’s an agent sitting behind his desk, holding his head in his hands, and there’s a chair with a dog sitting in it, smoking a cigarette, and the suitcase he has says, ‘Ralph, the Talking Dog.’ And the caption is, ‘Of course, what I really want to do is direct’: So, you know. If I ever direct, you’ll know when you go to see the movie, and you can tell me.”
“Is there anything else you’ve always wanted to—”
“—the world? No. I’m fine. See, I wasn’t terrible after all. It’s all a myth.”
I actually had hoped not. But maybe so.
Bronx Banter Book Excerpt
Entering May of 1920, Ruth’s inaugural season in New York and that of the Yankees was at a crossroads. Ruth was hitting .226 in nine games with only a single extra base hit and one walk. The only record he was pursuing was the strikeout mark. With eight in 32 plate appearances, he was on pace to strike out more than 130 times for the season. To date, no one had ever approached 100. In nearly 600 appearances in 1919, Joe Jackson had struck out only 10 times and only 234 times for his entire career. Strikeouts were okay only if they were countered by home runs.
It was even worse than that. The Yankees were only 4–6, still in sixth place. Boston? Minus Ruth, they were a stellar 9–2. The press was referring to them as the “Ruthless” Red Sox, fully aware of the irony the name entailed. If there was truly a “Ruthless” team thus far, it had been the Yankees. So far, Ruth had been a hit only at the box office, but if he didn’t start banging the ball soon, one had to wonder how long that would last.
For Ruth, the 1920 season was shaping up as a repeat of 1919, only this time he was wearing pinstripes. Once more, just as his slow start in 1919 had buried the Red Sox, Ruth’s por performance thus far threatened to bury the Yankees, risking that whatever he did later in the season, no matter how spectacular, might be diminished. He had been given a pass on that in 19 19, but if the same thing happened in 1920 it was unlikely to go unnoticed a second time. That was the problem with all the press in New York. When they were on your side, it was grand, but they could also gang up on you. More than one Yankee manager had felt their wrath.
Although the Yankee–Red Sox rivalry was not as pronounced as it would later become, each team already considered the other its main rival. The Ruth sale put an accent on that, at least in the minds of the fans. For Boston, 9-2 on the year, coming into New York in first place was a familiar feeling. Since the founding of the American League the Red Sox, despite lacking the resources of New York City, had been the team the Yankees one day hoped to be, a champion and near annual contender. So far, with the Yankees sixth at 4-6, already 4 ½ games out, nothing had much seemed to change.
In game one, on April 30, it appeared as if that would hold. Before a sizable weekday crowd of 8,000 who turned out despite intermittent showers, the Red Sox tried their best to put their foot on the Yankees’ neck. After all, a five-game sweep would virtually ruin New York, and put them in the same position the Red Sox had been a year ago, likely too far back to climb into the race.
Ruth did his best to prevent that in the first inning, cracking a single to knock in a run and give the Yankees the lead, but that was to be his only hit of the day. Waite Hoyt settled down and Boston went to 10–2 for the season with a 4–2 win, as the Yankees fell to 4–7.
The only other notable occurrence came every time Ruth ran out to right field, and every time he ran back in. In only his third appearance in the position at the Polo Grounds, fans packed the right field bleachers to get as close as possible, a disproportionate number compared to the rest of the stands. Every time Ruth ran out to take his position, they cheered and applauded madly. And every time he left them, they cheered again. The same thing happened when he stepped out of the dugout, or into the batter’s box, or scratched his nose. He hadn’t even done anything yet and was getting twenty or more standing ovations a day. One writer termed it “The Babe Ruth roar. . . . Down as far as 125th Street [in] Harlem folks can now tell when Ruth comes to bat. The roar shakes the whole vicinity. The fans roar for Babe to hit ’em and when he misses fire they roar because he didn’t.” In this game, it was more the latter than the former.
Shawkey, the Yankees’ ace, took the mound the next day, May Day. Thus far, although he’d pitched well, he was 0–3—the Yanks had scored more than three runs only once all season. Offense was up everywhere, it seemed, other than in the Polo Grounds. Those Ruthless Red Sox, in contrast, were scoring runs at a frightening rate. So far, they had been held to three runs or under only three times. The rest of the time, they were clubbing teams to death like defenseless rabbits, and giving ammunition to those who still favored the scientific approach.
This, time, however, Shawkey was sharp from the start. The only question was whether the Yankees could take advantage. They scored one in the first—Ruth reached on a force-out, moved around to third, and then, on a ground ball to Everett Scott, Ruth deked his old shortstop into thinking he was staying at third, then timed Scott’s throw to first perfectly, taking off for home and beating Stuffy McInnis’s throw to the plate. Although Ruth was never quite the ballplayer who “never made a mistake on the field” as the hyperbole later suggested, he was a smart player, surprisingly quick for his size—particularly before he ate his way through half of Manhattan—and he knew baseball. Hundreds of games played at St. Mary’s had developed his instincts beyond his years. If anything, Ruth was sometimes too aggressive on the bases, overestimating both his speed and his ability to surprise.
He did it again in the fourth. Ruth rapped a hard liner between McInnis and first base, the ball passing the bag fair, then it hit the ground, then skipped to the wall, where it caromed off the concrete base and sent Harry Hooper racing after as Ruth pulled into second for a double. He wisely moved to third on an infield out and then, after Pratt grounded to second, Ruth timed a dash home again. It was closer this time, but he made a splendid fall-away slide, his foot sweeping across the plate as the catcher spun and reached out to make the tag. The Yankees led 2–0, and so far it was all due to Ruth.
Something was building, you could tell. If he had been bothered by any lingering discomfort from the pulled muscle he’d suffered at the start of the season, the slides proved either he was healed, or the injury taped, or somehow masked over. Ruth was feeling no pain.
Pennock struck out Pipp to lead off the sixth, bringing up Ruth, who was greeted with the now customary histrionics, this time even a little louder due to his performance in the first half of the game.
Pennock threw one pitch and a sound like no other rocketed through the park. The ball went up and up and toward right field.
What happened next released a deluge of adjectives and adverbs from the New York press, verbiage they’d been sitting on since the first week of January. Now that they had a chance to use it, they didn’t stop.
The embellishment prize went to George Daley, writing under the pseudonym “Monitor” in the New York World:
Ruth strolled to the plate, decided it was time to OPEN THE SEASON and sunk his war club into the first ball Pennock tried to pass over the plate.
There came a burst of thunder sound: that ball, oh, where was it? Why clear OVER the right field roof of Brush Stadium [the Polo Grounds] and dropping into the greensward of old Manhattan Field around the junction of Eighth Avenue and 156th Street—the longest drive they say EVER seen on the P.G. and longer even that the tremendous wallop that gave Babe his twenty-ninth homer last September.
Eyes were strained in the watching of the spheroid’s flight; throats were strained in acclaiming its all-fired bigness, and hands were strained in a riot of applause to the hitter thereof as he ambled around the bases and, lifting his cap, disappeared into the dugout.
Whew. What he meant was it left the field between the third and fourth flagpole atop the roof in right field and landed in the park next door, only the third ball ever to leave the yard, as Ruth joined himself and Joe Jackson as the only prior practitioners. To be fair, the ball was driven about 400 feet when it left the park, although no one could say with any certainty whether it struck the top of the roof or sailed cleanly over it. The grandstand roof was some sixty feet above the field, but its front edge, where the ball passed over, only a bit more than 300 feet from home. Regardless, it was still, in the parlance of the day, “a prodigious blast” and “fierce clout,” absolutely “lambasted,” one that “flitted out of the park,” “a bomb.”
It also gave the Yankees a 3–0 lead. A moment later, while the fans were still cheering, Duffy Lewis, up next, duplicated the feat, although in much more mortal fashion, smacking a home run into the left field bleachers.
That occurrence, back-to-back home runs, was so rare no one could recall it happening before. Two consecutive home runs? Both OVER the fence? The lively ball needed no more proof.
Ruth’s home run, his first as a Yankee, was the one he needed most. Now the dam was broken, now everything he was supposed to be, he suddenly was, now the pressure was off and the game was fun again. Now he was, unquestionably and everlastingly, the Babe. The remainder of his career fell beneath the shadow of what was to come.
After the game, a 6–0 Yankee win, the press noted that it was Ruth’s 50th career home run. Heck, Ty Cobb, who had been playing since 1905, only had 67 career home runs. Home Run Baker had just 80. Ruth already had 50. He had only hit one home run as a Yankee and the press was already setting goals and targets. They would do so for most of the next fifteen years. Hardly anyone even mentioned that the victory might prove a turnaround for the team. The Babe was all and everything.
In case no one had noticed, the next day Ruth did it again, as the Times noted, “At what was known in the old days as an opportune time.” In his first two times up, he collected a “mighty” strikeout (they all were “mighty” now) and then lofted a “near home run” (just about any deep fly ball) before coming up in the sixth with two on and the Yankees trailing 1–0.
After a swinging strike and a foul tip off Sam Jones, his former teammate tried to sneak one past . . . and failed. This was no blast over the roof but a drive down the line. But even that wasn’t special enough. It was described as “the lowest and fastest home run drive uncoiled in the Harlem park in years,” maybe the shortest of Ruth’s career, sneaking over the fence and into the upper deck just fair of the iron foul pole, 258 feet away.
It didn’t matter to the fans, 25,000 of whom filled the park, the second home Sunday date of the year, bringing the Sabbath total to more than 50,000. As Ruth rounded the bases, they climbed on the dugout roof and tossed papers and hats onto the field. There were even reports of celebrations emanating from the apartment windows of buildings on Coogan’s Bluff. Even the Polo Grounds stage wasn’t big enough for Ruth.
The countdown began the next day. The Times noted, “Babe needs only twenty-eight more
homers to beat the big record he set last season. At the rate of one a day that mark won’t last
I love the movie version of Paul Hemphill’s baseball novel, Long Gone. It wasn’t released theatrically but went straight to HBO instead. Came out the year before Bull Durham and in some ways–the sex and cursing–I like it more. It’s closer to Slap Shot in its vulgarity and doesn’t have the self-conscious speech-making of Bull Durham. It’s not a great movie, there are some obvious plot turns, but it sure is appealing: the cast is terrific, and it’s got a real pulse.
Hemphill’s novel about minor league baseball in the South during the 1950s is also a ton of fun.
For a taste, check out Chapter 6 from Long Gone, reprinted here with permission from Susan Percy, Paul’s ever-generous wife.
Long Gone: Chapter 6
by Paul Hemphill
Her name was Dixie Box, only child of Floyd and Clarice Box, of Route 2, Crestview, Florida, and since the age of twelve she had been wondering what would happen next. Conceived out of wedlock, raised in a trailer camp, with only the sons and daughters of black day laborers to play with, Dixie had grown up with the notion that to live in a brick house with a picture window in downtown Dothan was to have a hold on the world. Her father had left home when she was in the midst of her first menstrual period. (“Men always run at times like this, honey,” her mother had said as Dixie held a bloody towel to her crotch and endured a twenty-minute tirade about the casual ineptitude of the male in general.) Dixie would receive mysterious picture postcards from her father now and then, from places like Oregon and Arizona and New Jersey, until they abruptly stopped and were followed by a terse postcard from a fellow in Nacogdoches, Texas, named Ralph Terwilliger, informing her of her father’s death when he was chewed up by a saw in an East Texas pulp mill. (“You ought to know,” Terwilliger had scrawled, “that your old man was the damnedest drinker I ever saw in my whole life.”) Upon receiving the postcard, Dixie holed up for eight days in her room. When she emerged, she was a woman.
She was fourteen years old when that happened, a freshman in a high school where the ultimate was to be a cheerleader, a “poor girl” without a daddy and with a mama who worked down at Maxwell’s Department Store. And so she became Dixie (Hot) Box. She relinquished her virginity to a boy named Horace Williams, who pumped gas at the Gulf station on the Dothan highway, one starry night in the back seat of Horace’s ’50 Chevy as they parked beneath a clump of pine trees—“It hurt, but it hurt good,” she told her mother when she got back home—and from that moment on, Dixie Box became the most popular girl in Crestview. During a four-hundred-day period, according to her personal journal, she brought to orgasm one hundred eighteen different men. They ranged from the black kid who swept out Maxwell’s Department Store to the deputy police chief of Crestview.
Dixie stirred awake at noon, while Stud and Jamie were at the ballpark. The ceiling fan was creaking. Sweat bees were droning around her head. Maids’ carts were rattling up and down the hallway of the decrepit hotel. Pickup trucks were slinking around on the streets outside.
She took a long look around the room. She didn’t know precisely where she was. She knew, only generally, that she was home. The room looked and smelled like her father—whiskey, cigar smoke, clutter—and she wanted it. Peeling out of the rumpled bed, she slipped into her white shorts and pink halter and high-heeled sandals and then walked out of the room.
Off the lobby, which was peopled by wheezing old men propped up in cracked plastic chairs and reading the Montgomery Advertiser, an orange sign over a doorway blinked BOOM-BOOM ROOM. She took the worn carpeted stairs at the doorway and walked down one flight into the dank bar. It was done up in neo-Hawaiian, with revolving pastel lights and a phony bamboo ceiling and colored beads and a straw-mat floor, and from the Technicolor jukebox in one corner came the heavy beat of Fats Domino singing “Blueberry Hill.”
Ah foun’ mah threeal
Awn Blueberry Heeal…
Dixie wriggled onto one of the bamboo stools at the bar and checked herself out in the dappled room-wide mirror behind the bar. In the darkest corner of the room were two businessmen in short-sleeved see-through nylon dress shirts and two gap-toothed route salesmen with rows of ballpoint pens jammed in the chest pockets of their blue work shirts. Dixie pulled a Winston from her halter top and was lighting up when a plump blue-haired barmaid in a skirt slit to her thighs came up to her from behind the bar. “Honey, you cain’t wear that in here,” the barmaid said.
“Cain’t wear whut?” Dixie said.
“Well, that. Halters and short-shorts ain’t allowed.”
“You wouldn’t be jealous, would you?”
“Now, look, honey.”
“Look, honey, yourself. Gimme a Jax.”
“Besides, how old are you?”
“Old enough to like Jax for breakfast.”
“Honey, we cain’t serve minors.”
“And put it on Cantrell’s tab.”
The barmaid blinked. “Cantrell?”
“Mister Cecil Cantrell. Room Twenty-four. He’s my guardian.”
“Honey, I didn’t know—”
“Neither does he,” Dixie said. She blew smoke into the barmaid’s face. The barmaid opened an ice-cold can of Jax beer and slid it down the shellacked bar to Dixie. The four men at the table ordered another round of drinks and began ogling Dixie, talking low among themselves and motioning toward her, until finally one of them got up and approached her.
“Anything special you’d like to hear on the jukebox?” he said.
“Anything you want to dedicate to me is fine with me,” she said.
He dropped a dime into the jukebox and returned to the other three men at the table.
Kitty Kallin’s recording of “Little Things Mean a Lot” began to play. The salesman poked one of the others with his elbow and, when he caught a glance from Dixie, held up both hands about five inches apart and began laughing and nodding. Dixie couldn’t help herself. She shook her head sideways and began to giggle out of control.
She was starting on a second beer when Stud and Jamie came in through the step-down entrance to the Boom-Boom Room from the sidewalk. Jamie still carried his bat and his glove and his spikes. Stud, squinting and making the adjustment from the brilliant sunlight to the darkness of the bar, saw Dixie and motioned for Jamie to follow him. “Well, if it ain’t Miss Crestview,” Stud said as he and Jamie hoisted themselves onto stools on either side of her.
“You got me drunk,” Dixie told him.
“That ain’t the half of it. Gimme a Jax, Bonnie. This here’s my new temporary second baseman, Jamie Weeks, from Birmingham, Alabama, and the Sho-Me Baseball Camp in Missouri. Beer, kid?” Stud slapped his cowboy hat on Dixie’s head.
Jamie said, “Just a Coke.”
“A Coke?” Stud said. “Got me a goddamn Baptist.”
“I just don’t feel like a beer right now.”
“Coke, Bonnie. Put ’em on my tab.” Stud looked at Dixie. “See you got your beauty sleep. Don’t believe we’ve officially met yet. I’m Stud Cantrell. This is Jamie Weeks. Who’re you?”
“Dixie Box—Dixie Lee Box—from Crestview, Florida.”
“Dixie”—Stud was howling—“Dixie Lee Box?”
“You heard it right. Dixie…Lee…Box.”
“You a stripper or something?”
“I roast the best cashews in Crestview.”
“Cashews,” Stud said. “Them’s nuts, ain’t they?””
“I’m not going to pay any attention to that,” said Dixie. “It would be demeaning to the people at Maxwell’s Department Store.”
“Is that”—Stud was still laughing—“is that where you work? Dixie Box? You the cashew-nut girl at Maxwell’s Department Store in Crestview, Florida?” He punched Jamie in the ribs with his elbow. “I don’t rightly recall that I ever met a real live cashew-nut roaster before. Not on a personal basis, anyway, if you know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean. Stud. Is that it? ‘Stud’?”
“Cantrell, ma’am. Stud Cantrell.”
Dixie sipped the rest of her beer. “Well, Stud Cantrell of the Graceville Oilers, you ’bout ready to go? It’s gonna take up nearly four hours, just to get there and back, and that’s if we’re lucky getting rides.”
“Go?” A pall fell over Stud. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
“Sure you are. You’re going to Crestview.”
“Hell, I was in Crestview last night.”
“Sure you were. With me. We’re going again.”
“What’s this ’we’ shit?”
Dixie said, “Me and you. Gotta get my car.”
“Wait just a goddamn minute, here.”
“We gotta get my car and my clothes and my toothpaste, and I gotta leave a note for Mama, and I guess I ought to go into the refrigerator at the trailer and take out some more of the cash from Daddy’s insurance policy. Then I suppose I owe it to ’em to run by Maxwelfs and tell ’em where to put their cashews—“
“Now just a goddamn—“
“—and possibly, in case you keep on saying ‘Just a goddamn minute,’ drop in on the sheriff and tell him I’m just an innocent little girl who got taken advantage of by some mean-eyed fucker who’s old enough to be my daddy.”
When Dixie finished, she looked sweetly into Stud’s eyes and batted her lashes and said, “Shouldn’t we leave a tip for Bonnie? She’s such a nice girl. A little fat. But nice.”
Stud slammed two quarters on the bar and dismounted from the stool.
“Go ahead and check into Myrick’s Boarding House, kid,” he said to Jamie, “and I’ll take care of this. Get to the park by five o’clock for batting practice.” Jamie grabbed his bat and glove and spikes and followed Stud and Dixie up the steps, out of the Boom-Boom Room, into the sunlight on the sidewalk. He turned left, to walk toward the boardinghouse, and when he looked back, he saw Stud gesticulating wildly to Dixie as they went toward the highway to hitch a ride to Crestview.
By four o’clock in the afternoon they were tooling back eastward on U.S. 90, between Crestview and Graceville, with the top down on Dixie’s battered ’50 blood-red Chevrolet convertible. They had hitched to Crestview in one ride, riding in the back of a pickup truck with two hogs, and stopped at the ballpark to get the car. Then they had driven to the trailer park on the east side of town where Dixie was living with her mother. Dixie’s mother was off at work, in the department store downtown, so she left a note—
I’ll be living in Graceville for a while, with a friend, so don’t try to come and get me. I got some clothes and I took $200 of Daddy’s insurance money. Don’t worry I’ll be alright.
P.S.—You’d love him.
—and hurriedly stuffed jeans and t-shirts and sneakers and toiletries into a brown paper grocery bag, tossing the bag into the back seat of the car before sliding behind the steering wheel and cranking the Chevy and scratching off.
Now, a half hour away from Graceville on the return trip, they were wobbling down the road as the car radio hummed with the Platters’ Greatest Hits. Stud was stripped down to the waist, taking in the sun, half awake and leaning against the door while Dixie drove.
“I sure love those Platters,” Dixie said.
“Humph?” Stud mumbled, jerking up straight.
“I said I sure love those Platters. Way they sing.”
“Bunch of niggers, if you ask me.”
“What’re you, one of them hillbilly singers?”
“Gimme a choice, I’d take Kitty Wells any day.” Stud yawned, stretched, sat up straight, and slipped back into his t-shirt. “Where’d you get the car? Hell, I ain’t even got a car. And that money you got out of the trailer. Them clothes.”
“I told you. When Daddy got killed. Insurance.”
“You didn’t even stop at the department store.”
“They know what they can do with their cashews.”
“Whhee-eww,” Stud said. “You’re something else. Goddamn banging on my door this morning and I said, ’Pussy posse.’ I figured it was half of Crestview coming after me, gonna leave me out on the road, nail up a burning cross, and take you back home. How many brothers you got? I mean big brothers. Bigger’n me.”
“No brothers,” said Dixie. “No sisters. Just Mama.”
“Yo’ mama big and mean?”
“Mean as shit.”
“How far we got to go?” Stud said.
“Ballpark. Graceville. We got a game tonight.”
“I figure we’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
Stud tilted his hat and scratched his groin and lighted a cigar. “Whhee-eww,” he said. “You’re crazy as Talmadge Ramey. You know that? Talmadge is this goddamn queer that runs the ballclub. Drinks moonshine with tea at nine in the morning. Got three of the prettiest little boys you ever saw living with him in this big old funeral home. His mama lives in a wheelchair down there where they keep the bodies. Talmadge sells everything but autographed pictures of Jesus on the radio. But I tell you, Miz Dixie Lee Box Crestview, you beat anything I ever even heard of.”
“That a fact?”
“You’re crazy. Bona fide crazy, girl.”
“Well,” Dixie said, “us crazies gotta stick together.” She wheeled off the highway and dropped Stud at Oilers Stadium. “Play good, now, you hear?” she said. “I think I’ll just go tidy up the place. Try to get home early.” Before Stud could say anything, she had spun away in a cloud of dust.
Peter Richmond is a good man, loyal friend, and a gifted writer. Here he is at his best, writing about his father for GQ in December of 1993. The article was the genesis of Richmond’s beautiful memoir, My Father’s War: A Son’s Journey.
To celebrate Father’s Day—and much respect and love to all the dad’s out there—I can think of no finer piece to share with you. Head on over to the Beast and check out–“My Father’s War”:
He survived Guadalcanal, and then New Britain, and then Peleliu, and came home in 1944 to take over the family business, manufacturing paper bags in a gray factory next to the railroad tracks in Long Island City. He married the woman who would become my mother and moved to Westchester County, and died in 1960, at the age of 44, when I was 7, so I never had much of a chance to ask him about his war.
But it was always there. I could hold it to my face. My father’s war was tucked into the trunk that sat in the darkest corner of the cellar: a Japanese flag, stained with Rorschach blotches of blood, the red circle still bright, the field of white crowded with the Japanese characters that identified the man whose blood graced it.
As a child, I spent a lot of time with the flag, running it through my hands, marveling at the liquid feel of the silk, at how different it was from the rest of my father’s memorabilia: the .30-caliber Japanese machine gun, the Japanese hand grenade, the rifles–all of them so inconceivably heavy and redolent of good grease and iron that I knew they carried the real weight of war.
A few days ago I curated the following essay by Charles Simic on Buster Keaton over at the Daily Beast. Check it out, won’t you?
Comedy is about timing, faultless timing. It’s not so much what the story is about, but the way it is told, with its twists and surprises, that makes it humorous. Keaton draws a hook with chalk on the wall and hangs his coat on it. A brat in the theater drops his half-sucked lollipop from the balcony on an elegant lady in a box who picks it up and uses it as a lorgnette. The hangman uses a blindfold intended for the victim to polish the medal on his jacket. The shorts, especially, are full of such wild inventions. No other silent-film comic star was as ingenious.
Among hundreds of examples from Keaton’s films, one of my favorites comes from the short Cops. At the annual New York City policemen’s parade, Buster and his horse and wagon find themselves in the midst of the marching cops. Buster wants to light a cigarette, and is searching his pockets for matches, when a bomb thrown by an anarchist from a rooftop lands next to him on the seat with its short fuse already sizzling. There’s a pause, “an inspiring pause,” as Twain says, building itself to a deep hush. When it has reached its proper duration, Buster picks up the bomb absentmindedly, lights his cigarette with it as if this were the most normal thing to do, and throws it back over his head.
The short Cops is paradigmatic Keaton. Again, the plot is simplicity itself. In the opening scene we see Buster behind bars. The bars turn out to belong to the garden gate of the house of a girl he is in love with. “I won’t marry you till you become a businessman,” she tells him. Off he goes, through a series of adventures, first with a fat police detective in a rush to grab a taxi, the contents of whose wallet end up in Buster’s hands. Next, he is conned by a stranger who sells him a load of furniture on the sidewalk, pretending he is a starving man being evicted. The actual owner of the furniture and his family are simply moving to another location. When Buster starts to load the goods into the wagon he has just bought, the owner mistakes him for the moving man they’ve been expecting. His trip across town through the busy traffic culminates when he finds himself at the head of the police parade passing the flag-draped reviewing stand where the chief of police, the mayor, and the young woman he met at the garden gate are watching in astonishment. Still, the crowd is cheering, and he thinks it’s for him. After he tosses the anarchist’s bomb and it explodes, all hell breaks loose. “Get some cops to protect our policemen,” the mayor orders the chief of police. People run for cover, the streets empty, the entire police force takes after the diminutive hero.
What an irony! Starting with love and his desire to better himself and impress the girl he adores, all he gets in return is endless trouble. It’s the comic asymmetry between his extravagant hope and the outcome that makes the plot here. The early part of the movie, with its quick shuffle of gags, gives the misleading impression of a series of small triumphs over unfavorable circumstances. Just when Buster thinks he has his bad luck finally conquered, disaster strikes again. The full force of law and order, as it were, descends on his head. Innocent as he is, he is being pursued by hundreds of policemen. Whatever he attempts to do, all his stunts and clever evasions, come to nothing because he cannot outrun his destiny. After a long chase, he ends up, unwittingly, at the very door of a police precinct. The cops are converging on him from all sides like angry hornets, blurring the entrance in their frenzy to lay their nightsticks on him, but incredibly Buster crawls between the legs of the last cop, he himself now dressed in a policeman’s uniform. Suddenly alone on the street, he pulls a key out of his pocket, locks the precinct’s door from the outside, and throws the key into a nearby trashcan. At that moment, the girl he is smitten with struts by. He looks soulfully at her, but she lifts her nose even higher and walks on. Buster hesitates for a moment, then goes to the trashcan and retrieves the key. “No guise can protect him now that his heart has been trampled on,” Gabriella Oldham says in her magnificent study of Keaton’s shorts. At the end of the film, we see him unlocking the door and being pulled by hundreds of policemen’s hands into the darkness of the building.
What makes Keaton unforgettable is the composure and dignity he maintains in the face of what amounts to a deluge of misfortune in this and his other films. It’s more than anyone can bear, we think. Still, since it’s the American Dream Buster is pursuing, we anticipate a happy ending, or at least the hero having the last laugh. That’s rarely the case. Keaton’s films, despite their laughs, have a melancholy air. When a lone tombstone with Buster’s porkpie hat resting on it accompanies the end in Cops, we are disconcerted. The images of him running down the wide, empty avenue, of his feeble attempt to disguise himself by holding his clip-on tie under his nose to simulate a mustache and goatee, are equally poignant. Let’s see if we can make our fate laugh, is his hope. Comedy at such a high level says more about the predicament of the ordinary individual in the world than tragedy does. If you seek true seriousness and you suspect that it is inseparable from laughter, then Buster Keaton ought to be your favorite philosopher.
This piece was originally published in the Dec. 1995 issue of Esquire. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
Escape From New York
It is early morning in Miami, still dark, black water lapping at the dock overlooking Biscayne Bay. But here in this cold, cranky bloodshot hour that so injures a sportswriter’s metabolism, Pat Riley is undaunted, optimistic. “Fresh as a fucking daisy,” his forlorn assistants used to grumble as they disembarked from all those red-eyes. Riley’s come to chase the dawn. He sits on the concrete dock, not his dock, but a backdrop he’s chosen to heighten the dramatic effect, anticipating in his own supercharged way the new day, the new season. He’s maximizing the metaphor. There will be sunrise, rebirth, even redemption. “Gonna be great,” he says.
I groan, as enthused by all this predawn energy as by the headless, hardened baitfish on which I’ve been sitting.
Almost two decades have passed since Pat Riley chased the dawn with such purpose. That was back on State Beach in Santa Monica. Riley was morose and mournful, an exile wandering the beach with a bushy beard. He was 31, at the end of a nine-year career in the National Basketball Association, a journeyman who lacked a guard’s skill and a forward’s size, a 6-foot-4 white guy who had to bust his ass just to stay around, whose greatest talent—no, make that virtue—was to beat the shit out of Jerry West in practice. For Pat Riley the ballplayer, everything came the hard way, even the belated discovery that the game he loved was a cruel mistress. She didn’t say thanks. Or goodbye. And she really didn’t care how much you busted your ass.
“I was hanging out, all pissed off, writing everything down on legal pads,” he says. “600 pages of verbal diarrhea blaming everybody for my… demise.”
He winces with the remembrance. He and his wife, Chris, had driven to the beach in a ‘76 Chevy van with chrome pipes snaking out from under the chassis. For three days, husband and wife huddled under blankets, waiting for dawn’s early light. And for three mornings, Santa Monica remained shrouded in fog.
“Everything happened so quick,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as old, but here I am, 50. And I gotta deal with that. 14 years ago, I walked into the Laker locker room as head coach. Today, my daughter is seven. It’s like you wake up and say, What the hell happened? How did Elisabeth get to be seven? I do think I missed a lot, living in this game. But I’ll tell you what, I’ve never been around anything that made me feel so fucking alive.”
He spits into the wind. Like a ballplayer. Like his father, the baseball minor-leaguer, must have once spat.
“If my dad were alive, I could see him taking out a bucket of range balls—you know, he never played a course, but he kept a bucket of these old cut, beat-up range balls in the car—and he’d just hit ‘em into the water. Plop. Plop. Plop.”
Riley recalls the dapper manager of the Schenectady Blue Jays, the “hard-ass dad” to whom he so often refers with rage and rebellion, regret and respect. “I think I’ve come to terms with that. With him,” he says. But the voice of Lee Riley is always there, like a rude wind in his ear, even at the edge of this tropical metropolis, at the outset of yet another season. The son can imagine him turning from the tee, spitting, looking him in the eye, telling the youngest of his six kids: “You don’t know how good you got it, Pat.”
With all these years between father and son, between State Beach and Biscayne Bay, Pat Riley is someone his old man could never have imagined. He stands to make almost $40 million in his new job, running the Miami Heat. Amid a culture of mutinous millionaires, he’s kept his authority intact, almost unchallenged. And in doing so, he’s become the best coach in professional basketball, maybe any sport. He’s the winningest, the richest, the coolest. As his coiffure went from Sonny Bono to Gordon Gekko, Riley metamorphosed into a star, the guy who gave coaching some sex appeal. Corporate honchos pay $45,000 a pop to hear him lecture about his book, The Winner Within. He’s the new-age Lombardi, a salesman with a fanatic heart who speaks in dialects that seem derived in equal measure from General Schwarzkopf and Shirley MacLaine. Still, he’s just a few months removed from the first great wound to his image—inflicted, perhaps self-inflicted, during his acrimonious parting from the New York Knicks. Pat Riley left town tagged by the sporting press with a designer label of his own invention: “The Disease of Me.”
The horizon is transforming now, from black to light. Riley sips an herbal mint tea. I’ve finished my coffee but still struggle to wake. It’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the sour taste of last night’s seminar at the sports bar is grabbing at the clench in my throat. This is not what I had in mind for the High Holy Days, watching Riley worship the sun at the crack of dawn.
“Shana tova,” Riley says haltingly.
“What priest taught you that?”
“My lawyer. He says, ‘Riley, shana tova.’ I say. ‘What’s that mean?’ He says, ‘It’s gonna be a happy, healthy new year.’ I figure, Damn right. It’s gonna be a helluva year.”
At 12 minutes past seven, the sun erupts against the horizon, beginning its skyward sprint.
“Wow,” says the coach. “Look at that sumbitch go.”
* * * *
On the morning of her seventh birthday, Elisabeth Riley is presented with strawberry pancakes topped with whipped cream and a batch of cupcakes to be shared with her classmates. She has a new hat, which she uses to hide her eyes and her smile. Daddy wants a birthday kiss, but Elisabeth won’t budge. It’s all very cute, but also enough to make you feel for the poor guy who’ll show up at the door one day and say, “Coach, I’m here to take Elisabeth to the prom.”
“She gets kind of shy,” Riley explains. “She doesn’t want to kiss Daddy in front of a stranger.”
There’s a tug at my arm. James Patrick Riley, age 10, wants to show me his room, his dazzling array of on-line electronics beneath an autographed picture of Macaulay Culkin. There are laptops and PCs, digital games and a synthesizer. The boy is already fluent in the language of computers and music. There’s an awkward moment as Riley enters. It’s one thing to answer questions about rebounding and defense; it’s another to allow the interrogator into your home.
As James explains his place in the World Wide Web and his designs for computer chips, Riley makes his way to the synthesizer, touching the keys gingerly. I’ve never seen him so close to awe. When he speaks, it’s to no one in particular: “James has a different thing than his daddy. James will be different than I am. But that’s okay. That’s fine. That’s good.”
Somehow, Riley’s been made to feel grateful, maybe even liberated. This slight, sandy-haired boy has, in his own way, broken the chain, the tug and the tether that existed between the fathers and sons in this coach’s clan.
I see a different Riley in his son’s room that day. It reminds me of what a friend said about him, someone who had known him as both enemy and ally. “What you don’t understand about Pat,” the friend said, “is what it was like to be poor and Irish in the 50’s, what it was like if your father drank too much. You only showed your best face to the world. Whatever happened in the home stayed there.”
Leon Francis Riley was a ballplayer, too. In 1944, in the middle of a war, the Philadelphia Phillies finally brought him up to the bigs, where he hit a double in 12 at bats. He was already 38. But he still stayed around. “In 22 years, he gets a cup of coffee and a promise that they’d give him the next coaching job that opened up in the big leagues,” says Riley. “He gets passed over, and he just says, ‘That’s it.’ He went home and burned everything that had to do with his baseball career. I never got a fucking thing.”
It wasn’t long before the old man was full of drink and despair. “The 50’s,” says Riley, “were hell.” But the hellishness remained behind closed doors.
Riley was nine, hiding in the garage and weepy from a schoolyard stomping, when the old man demanded that his kid return to the park, that he learn “not to be afraid,” and that he learn it the hard way. So began his apprenticeship as a tough guy and a small-town basketball star.
The old man wouldn’t sit in the stands to watch his son play for Linton High School in Schenectady, New York. Rather, he’d peer through the crack in the gym door. Riley never even knew he was there until the day a ref whistled him for a charge. All of a sudden, his father staggered out onto the floor. He’d been drinking. Turned out the ref used to umpire games in the old Can-Am League.
“You son of a bitch!” the father screamed. “When you were calling baseball games, you were trying to screw me, too. Now my kid… you son of a bitch!”
“I guess it just kind of crashed for him,” says Riley.
Eventually, the father sobered up and came to gentler terms with his son. But the dapper Irishman of Riley’s youth finished as a janitor at Bishop Gibbons High School. At Pat’s urging, he coached the school baseball team, but only on the condition that he take the field in the green custodial outfit he wore to swab urinals and scrub toilets. “Years later, a lot of those kids he coached told me how much he did for them,” says Riley. “But I think they did something for him, too. Those last years he spent managing in his janitor’s outfit, I think those were the happiest in his life.”
He died in 1970, as Riley was desperately trying to hang on with an expansion team, the Portland Trail Blazers. The way he remembers it, the last thing his father told him was: “Plant your feet, and kick some ass.”
Riley would go on to kick a lot of ass. But no matter what—the accumulation of championships or money or fame—it was never enough to silence the voice that kept telling him, Go back to the park.
“I guess all that has a lot to do with how I am, the Irish part. I guess that’s why I have a hard time letting anyone in,” he says. “We kept it in the family. Whatever problems we had in the family didn’t go out. And it should be the same way with the team.”
Riley guards the interiors of his life in ways both Nixonian and noble. His is a necessary strategy for the rich and famous. But more than that, he considers his family a team and his team a family. Riley, of course, would be the patriarch of both. If this coach had theme music, it would be “We Are Family” set to bagpipes. He divides the world into friends and strangers, us and them. “It’s okay to hurt,” he says. “You just can’t let them see you hurting.”
* * * *
For the first time, though, you can sense the wound. He’s still in control, as it were, but ill humors now surface when he speaks of them back in New York. His feelings are hurt.
“In 28 years in this game,” he says, “I had never been tainted. Now I don’t care how they finish me off in New York. But questioning my character? That pisses me off. I’m embarrassed by what happened. As a coach, I’m embarrassed.”
Yes, it ended badly for him in New York, and, yes, most of us in the press box will be finishing him off for some time. But to understand how bad the end was, understand first how well it began.
The Knicks had spent too many years as a tired joke in a city whose fans still reveled in their belief that they were the game’s true connoisseurs. Now enter the coach with the hair and the clothes. That’s how it started. Riley had won four championships with the Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but no one understood how good he was. And if it weren’t for the Knicks, no one ever would.
There was a particular type of ballplayer—hungry and a bit angry—who blossomed under Riley. There was Anthony Mason, a rebel bruiser who’d grown up in the cracked-up, 9mm culture of southeast Queens and served his basketball time in such remote purgatories as Venezuela and Turkey. And there was John Starks, not far removed from a stint bagging groceries at a Safeway in Tulsa. The Knicks would never be the Lakers, but by unleashing the snarling talents of guys like Mason and Starks, Riley got them good fast.
The Knicks went at other teams the way their coach had gone at Jerry West. Just as Riley once jumped center for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, for a team known to posterity as Rupp’s Runts, the Knicks could be considered Riley’s Runts. What they lacked in talent, they made up in heart, hustle, and hard work. At the same time, the Knicks evolved unlike any other pro team, their identity derived not from their star players but from their star coach.
There were more than a couple of guys in the pressroom who didn’t buy into it, who privately regarded Riley in terms that ranged from suspicion to contempt. They had their reasons. As Riley defined the world, sportswriters were not only “them,” but part of a subspecies he called “peripheral opponents.”
We’d gather as inbred rivals, a caravan of harried, overworked typists in various states of dishevelment, a profane chorus of beat writers and opinionists (the louder, the better), professional exaggerators hyperventilating for pay, more than willing to spin prowess into virtue and mere flaws into evil.
The sportswriter endures myriad minor indignities. But Riley made them all worse. He didn’t give out his home number, didn’t do golf outings, didn’t kill anyone off the record. His band of monosyllabic millionaires would stay at the Four Seasons while the rest of us were consigned to Marriotts for the bonus points and those less-than-dirty movies known throughout the profession as Spank-O-Vision. Riley’s guys dined on silver and china like knights at his round table while we hustled chicken fingers on the buffet line. Riley closed practices, making us loiter in the parking lot so that we might catch those pearls from Starks (“We have to focus more”) or Patrick Ewing (“Most definitely”) or Charles Oakley (“Whatever, whatever”) as they made their way to their Mercedeses and their all-terrain vehicles.
Riley stood in stark juxtaposition to the whole sports culture, and for that alone I wanted to cheer. He kept his distance from the hangers-on, the autograph seekers, the ticket scalpers, and all those guys screaming on the radio. We suffered from bellies and baldness and nose hairs. But Riley was pressed perfect. He took not a step on the StairMaster, and he never got old.
If you only knew our resentments, the smell of that sweaty serum as we’d gather for his postgame press conference, full of deadline dread. There’s some maniac cursing you back at the office, there’s an asshole TV guy probing your vertebrae with his microphone. And here comes Riley. You ask him X’s and O’s, he gives you the philosophy of “Force.”
And he’s fresh as a fucking daisy.
Eventually, the nerds would exact their revenge. But during the honeymoon, who cared? Riley may have been a bit—how to put it?—extreme, but he had his own lunatic virtues, which was a lot more than could be said for some of the tobacco spitters and two-bit felons we glorify. Of course, I could hyperventilate with the best of them. And by the time I got through with Riley, he wasn’t a basketball coach. Hell, no! I’d turn that sumbitch into Henry V and every playoff game into another Agincourt.
* * * *
Honeymoons always end, though, and badly in a town like New York. The Knicks finished the 1993–94 season—Riley’s third with the team—just seven points shy of a championship. But we spent most of the playoffs bashing them, mouthing the displeasures of the connoisseur fans whom we both pandered to and served. Along the way, another perception had been born: If the Knicks represented Riley’s virtues, they also epitomized his faults. They could be dogmatic bullies, predictable, plodding, even paranoid.
Paranoia was all the rage in the spring of 1994 as Madison Square Garden was being sold from Paramount Communications to Viacom, which in turn would sell it right off to ITT and Cablevision. Life in the Garden became Machiavellian—full of intrigue, subplots, and treacheries. All that, and Riley—who had just taken his Knicks to the finals—wanted a new deal.
He wouldn’t come cheap, either. He wanted a five-year, $25 million extension. He wanted a piece of the team. He wanted to be president of the New York Knicks. He wanted a lot of things.
The Knicks were offering five years, $15 million.
And it never really got closer than that. Just nastier. This last season was hellish—for the coach and the team. The Knicks were still tough, but Riley called them “cream puffs.” They worked their asses off, but Riley called them “unprofessional.” He had his annual blowout with Anthony Mason, suspending him for five games. The strain was showing. And yet, somehow, they regrouped from a lousy start to finish with 55 wins, just two behind the Orlando Magic, a young team but also the most physically gifted ensemble since Riley’s Lakers.
On May 21, the Knicks were eliminated in the seventh game of the second round by the Indiana Pacers, as Patrick Ewing’s last-second finger roll bounded off the back of the rim. On June 15, Riley faxed his official letter of resignation. Then, in an absolute bonehead move, he skipped town, leaving nothing but a statement saying he wanted “ultimate responsibility for all significant aspects of the ball club.” For Riley, it was all about control.
But for Dave Checketts, the Garden boss, it was all about money. Checketts—a bright, ambitious executive who had prospered in this concrete Kremlin, becoming president of both the Garden and the Knicks—was calling Riley a pig without saying as much.
Later, The New York Times would report that on June 5, ten days before he faxed his resignation, Riley’s friend Dick Butera passed the coach’s “wish list” to Miami Heat owner Micky Arison. Among other things, Riley was asking for $15 million in salary, immediate 10 percent ownership of the Heat, another 10 percent over the life of the contract, loans, limousines, credit cards, and $300 per diem in expenses. The memo became the basis for the deal, which, depending on how long Riley stays with the Heat, approaches a worth of $40 million.
So we all got out our book of Rileyisms, The Winner Within, and started quoting. The guy was a liar, a phony; it was about money, greed…. It was about the Disease of Me, the Disease of Riley.
Eventually, Riley would say that Checketts—his erstwhile ally, the guy who brought him in—had used him and lied to himself. He said Checketts had promised him an unconditional release in return for his silence as the Garden was being sold from Viacom to ITT and Cablevision. He said that he needed to be president of the Knicks to insulate him from the corporate intrigue that had doomed so many other Knick teams and coaches. He said they could have cut a deal for about $20 million and the title, but that Checketts refused to budge. He had a lot to say. But by then, it was too late for Riley to repair his reputation in New York.
* * * *
We’re in the limousine heading for practice, rolling down Palmetto Expressway, discussing The Winner Within. Published in 1993, it was a best-selling primer that grew out of his motivational lectures. Only Riley could write a book with motives as mercenary as they were sincere. The Winner Within was dedicated to his father.
But for my $22.95, it was the worst thing the guy ever did. The world no more needed a how-to on leadership, teamwork, and success from Pat Riley than a beauty book from Cindy Crawford. The Winner Within demystified his charisma. It came off like a preachy infomercial. Riley may have been image conscious (he’d sneak a smoke, though never in public), but he was dismal at PR. Now you could read all about “The Core Covenant” and “Core Cracking,” about “Thunderbolts” and “Moving On,” and, most of all, about “The Disease of Me.”
“That book is for people like you,” he says, “for cynics.”
“C’mon, how do you expect—”
“No. I laugh when guys like you roll their eyes; I laugh at the writers and maybe even some of the players who mock it . They can roll their eyes all they want, looking for something to get me on. They don’t understand: It inspires me. It clarifies things for me. I believe that stuff. I live it.”
I ask if he lived it during his departure from the Knicks.
“Have you read the book? I mean, have you sincerely read it?”
“I kind of, you know, went through it….”
“Well, I did exactly what it says. We reached an impasse, and I planted my feet. It was either time to go home or time to go on. I went on.”
We’ve hit traffic. Riley checks his watch and gazes out the window. “I was miserable in New York,” he says quietly.
“Why is it,” he asks, “that no coach lasts more than three or four years in that town? Why are they always looking to get you? Maybe that’s the difference. Look, I am who I am, but I don’t try to get anybody. I don’t go off the record. I don’t leak stories.”
“TEAM TURMOIL,” I blurt out, referring to one of the better back pages at the Daily News, players bitching off the record that the offense sucked, that Ewing took too many shots. “Good story.”
“The Rule of the Gutless,” he says. “I mean, you got something to say, put your name on it. How many unnamed sources lied and ruined people?”
Too much talk of getting and they for my taste. I knew he cared, but not this much.
“Damn right I care. Shit, I was coaching in a city where tabloid and mainstream have come together, where perception is reality. You want a good quote, well, I’ll tell you what, gimme the name of the guy who said it, and I’ll give you a helluva quote.
“Guys would question my character in the paper. But not ever to my face. No, they’d come to practice and ask me about rebounding. Well, ask me to my face. Call me gutless to my face. I mean, what would you do?”
“I don’t know. I’d probably—”
“Damn right. I’d put ‘em on their ass.”
We’ve broken through the traffic now, a little behind schedule, It’s not yet 9:00 a.m., but Riley will still be the first guy in the gym. He’s already choreographed every moment of the day’s two practices. It’s all committed to his blue index cards. He’s got a lot of rookies coming in today. They’ll be hungry. They’ll listen. And he can’t wait. He’ll run them as they’ve never been run before. He gets cheerful quickly.
“I love going to practice,” he says.
* * * *
By noon, about two dozen reporters and cameramen have gathered outside the gym to cover the big event, Riley’s first day. They’re not accustomed to this ritual: waiting. Closed practices are one thing, but this is just a bullshit minicamp for the game’s minor-leaguers, none of whom even figure to make the squad. Still, Riley’s taking his time, looking for a practice player, someone like the guy he used to be.
A few of the writers are thumbing through The Winner Within. They’re rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, reading aloud from page 144: “Riles’ Rule for Kicking the Complacent Ass.”
They’re just beginning to learn about us and them. Soon they’ll discover the Gaelic Bushido. And eventually, “The Disease of Me.” They won’t write it that way, though. Not for some time. And maybe never. It’s different down here. Honeymoons last longer in the tropics. And Riley’s the hottest guy in town. There’s a story in the morning paper about the slick hair and the expensive suits, the caricature. That’s always how it starts.
* * * *
Midnight approaches at Don Shula’s All-Star Cafe, a standard-issue backdrop in the society of sports, a blur of autographed memorabilia, a Bennigan’s on steroids, and just a mere piece in the Dolphin coach’s empire: There’s also Shula’s sports bar, Shula’s steak house, Shula’s fitness center, Shula’s golf course, Shula’s tennis facility, and Shula’s hotel, all of which goes to show how far we are from New York. The instinct of this town, a whiff of boosterism in the humid air, is to deify its coaches.
It’s been a long day for Riley. He ran two practices, had a meeting with his assistants in the car, and another with his son’s principal at the new school. He taped a series of TV spots for the Heat, negotiated his release from Elisabeth’s birthday party in return for the promise of a big family dinner next week. Then he took another round of meetings with his assistants. And here he comes, round midnight, fresh as a daisy.
“Well, Kool Moe Dee, there go the coach,” says a waitress. “I love coach. Coach got it all goin’ on.”
Riley excuses himself for a quick call on his cellular. He wants to check on the kids, the birthday girl in particular. “She understands Daddy,” he sighs. “She understands how he is.”
It’s the children, both adopted, who’ve helped temper his obsessions. “We tried to have kids for 15 years,” he says. “Then they came along and changed our lives.”
The night wears on, a conversation moving toward confession. He tells me that he’ll play golf but only on the rarest of occasions, only with friends, and only if someone cracks a six-pack and heads for the clubhouse on the back nine. He says he wants to drive a black 1949 Mercury, the one from Rebel Without a Cause, that he wants to hear “Chapel of Dreams” by the Dubs, and that he can’t fathom Magic Johnson dying of AIDS.
“He’s special,” Riley says quietly. “I just believe it’s all gonna turn out good. They’ll find something…You know, I remember being with the Lakers, I never thought it would end. But here we are….”
Here we are, all these years later, and I’m wondering what happened to the guy in L.A. who used to drink beer and bullshit with the reporters in the pressroom.
“I used to do a lot of things I don’t do anymore,” he says. “Hell, I was a broadcaster, a traveling secretary. I used to hand out boarding passes to the players for the planes. But that was all before I became a coach.”
I remind him of something he told me: “I’m still the same guy I always was—a prick.”
Riley snorts a laugh. “Look, I drive players. Just like I drive myself. But if I’m a prick, I’m more of a prick to myself. As far as the control thing, people just embellish that. I want to treat my players to the best. If I’m having a team party, I want white tablecloths, I want china, and I want silverware. I don’t want fuckin’ plastic plates. And I want a flower arrangement in the middle. And if the towels are hotel white, hey, put some color in there, I don’t give a shit. I want my team to fly first-class, to stay in first-class hotels. I’m gonna ask them to do a lot. So tell me, is that wrong, wanting them to have the best?”
In Riley’s world, coaches can be pricks, but they can also be patriarchs. He speaks of coaching as if it were theology.
I ask him about Adolph Rupp.
“I knew he would make me better. He was a little like my old man,” says Riley. “He was the only coach who ever scared the shit out of me.”
Rupp was also the game’s last unabashed segregationist.
“He was a great coach. Period. I learned more about coaching and detail and organization from Adolph than I learned from anybody…. Look, was he a hard man? Yes. Was he a disciplined man? Egocentric? Powerful? Yes, he was all those things. But racist?” A pause now: Riley trying to reconcile his loyalty with the facts. “When I was there, I never once once sensed he was racist. It was the Southeastern Conference in the early to mid-60’s. There weren’t any black players. Just weren’t. Wasn’t until we got beat by Texas Western and Big Daddy Lattin dunked on my ass that we even started thinking about it.”
Texas Western—now the University of Texas at El Paso—an all-black team of transplanted city kids, beat Rupp’s Runts for the NCAA championship in 1966. Then Riley watched Rupp walk off “holding a brown paper sack by the throat.”
It brings a grimace to his face. “Hell, I didn’t care. I mean, I was raised in a family where my old man would do the same thing…. Anyway, years later, Bob McAdoo told me that was the game that changed everything. He said it made it okay for black players to go to school in the South.”
McAdoo, the great scorer, played his last best days in the NBA for Riley’s Lakers. Now he’ll be one of his assistants.
I ask if McAdoo got the job because he’s black.
“I would never hire anyone for that reason,” he says. “I’ve only hired coaches because they’re the very best.”
It’s been years since Riley had a black coach on his staff. That said, he’s almost never kept a white guy at the end of the bench. And it occurs to me now that Riley—a great general but willfully ignorant of such political arts as compromise—is doing the only job for which he’s temperamentally qualified. Coaching is the last accepted American autocracy. No need for PC. Just win, baby.
Which could be a problem down here. The Heat have never been hot. Theirs is an inglorious history, a grand total of two playoff wins. Last season’s record: 32–50. Cell phones could be heard ringing during home games. As a bunch of losers, this team is only flattered by comparisons with the pre-Riley Knicks.
“Well, we’re gonna have to do something,” he says. “Something dramatic.”
He takes a small sip of beer and declares: “This is my last run, without a doubt. I’m gonna coach like hell to try to win it. I’m committed to that goal. But if I don’t ever win it again, well, I’m not gonna chase that dream into my sixties or seventies. That’ll kill you.”
So that’s it. The show closes in Miami. There’s only one thing left to ask, an intrusion into his most private sanctum, the secret life of Riley:
“What’s that stuff in your hair?”
“Little gel, little water. Takes two minutes.”
“Nah, what kind of gel?”
“We gotta give someone a plug?”
Finally, reluctantly, he says: “Sebastian.”
And the clothes?…They’re really all Armani?”
He looks at me with disbelief, even irritation, squinting until the hint of a grin forms at the corners of his mouth. “’Cause it’s good shit, that’s why.”
He pauses again, tripping through his own chapel of dreams. “My father was a dapper guy, swept his hair back, used to wear these shirts back in the forties, gabardine shirts—big collar, big pockets. My dad was dapper. He wouldn’t let you out of the house unless you were groomed and clean and looking good. I was taught to peg my own pants in second grade. I only had one pair. Washed them every night. Put ‘em in the stove to dry ‘em for the next morning. Then l’d iron them before I went to school. And one time, I left ‘em in the stove too long and they got griddle marks. The kids teased me, ‘Hey, Riley, what’d you do, cook hamburgers on your pants?’”
Last call is long gone by the time we get up to leave. Riley stops in front of a men’s store in the lobby, pointing to a shirt in the window.
“See,” he says. “That’s like one of those gabardine shirts.”
He gazes at the shirt in much the same drifting, awestruck way he considered his son’s electronic piano.
It’s late. The sun will be up in just a few hours. I tell him goodbye.
But he’s still lost in some recollection that gives the cloth form, animation, even life.
I’m almost at the door when he calls back. “Hey!… Shana tova.”
And a top of the morning to you, too, Coach Riley.
[Photo Credits: AP and Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images]
A private man when compared to professional celebrities, say, Mailer, he did not wish to pursue the subject any further. Prying into a living writer’s personal life, he said, was “trivial, a degrading pastime that is best left to gossip columnists. What’s important is a writer’s work.”
And how, at sixty, did he assess his work, I asked, mentioning that writer Richard Yates had described him as “probably the finest living novelist we have.”
Styron’s self-appraisal was more modest. “I have created and, I hope, will continue to create a few people whom readers will want to read about after I’m gone,” he said. “I still feel that I have years ahead of me to be able to say more with the same talent that I have been endowed with.”
A few months after he said that, Styron very nearly lost those years, and the talent that had produced Lie Down in Darkness and Sophie’s Choice collapsed to the point that he could not read and comprehend a simple newspaper article, let alone write anything. The disease that struck him used to be called melancholia. Its current name is clinical depression—a cloak of despair that falls over a man or woman and makes every waking moment so painful that the victim loses all desire to live.
I was made aware of his breakdown last fall, when Styron called me at my home in Key West and told me he was suffering from a profound depression, which, he then thought, had been caused by tranquilizers prescribed to ease his withdrawal from alcohol. He was, he’d said, considering committing himself to a psychiatric hospital.
The news shocked me because I had formed an image of him as a contented man—contented, that is, compared to other novelists I knew, including myself. Naively, I had persuaded myself that his stable marriage, affluence, and “literary gentleman” style of life had insulated him from the grave misfortunes that seem to befall most American writers.
l heard nothing from or about him for weeks; then, in the winter, I learned from a New York magazine editor that Styron had been committed to the psychiatric ward of Yale-New Haven hospital.
There was no other word until this spring, when the same editor telephoned with what might be called the good news and the bad news. Good news first: Styron had been released. The bad news was, he’d been so ravaged by his bout with depression that he had abandoned The Way of the Warrior. Worse, the editor implied, Styron’s career might be at an end. This information was more than distressing; I refused to accept the idea that Styron’s voice could be silenced by anything short of death. I wrote him a letter, a somewhat embarrassing letter, for it was full of tough-guy, gung-ho attempts at reinspiring him, the sort of thing a corner-man might say to an exhausted fighter, but inappropriate when addressed to a sixty-year-old author recovering from a nervous breakdown. The gist of it was that writers sometimes need as much courage as warriors, courage of a different kind. If he was abandoning his book for artistic reasons; that was one thing, I said; but if he was doing so because he no longer felt up to it, he had to force himself to keep going. I then invoked the “never retreat, never surrender” spirit of the Marine Corps. It would not have surprised me if Styron had not bothered to reply to such rah-rah, but I received an encouraging answer in early April.
“Let me say again how grateful I am to you for your letter,” he wrote. “Corny as it may appear, it seems that only a Marine can be truly aware of another Marine’s suffering; you gave me a nice jolt of good cheer. Thanks from the depths. I’m pleased and proud of your friendship.”
And I was pleased that I had done some good after all. Still more pleasing was the news that he had not given up on The Way of the Warrior.
“It’s not so much abandonment,” he’d said in his letter, “as extreme alteration….I’ve completely restructured the novel.”
Over the phone, we agreed to discuss the book’s radical transformation when I visited New York later in the month.
[Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe]
The following is excerpted from Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, by Donald Hall. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
Dock Ellis is moderately famous for throwing at batters. On May 1, 1974, he tied a major-league record by hitting three batters in a row. They were the first three batters up, in the first inning. They were Cincinnati Reds batters. Dock’s control was just fine.
Four days earlier, I had seen him at a party in Pittsburgh. I wandered around, talking to various people. Dock’s attorney and friend Tom Reich was there, shaking his head in disapproval of a plan of Dock’s. I met Dock in the kitchen fixing a drink. I asked him with some awe, “Are you really going to hit every Cincinnati ballplayer Wednesday night?”
He returned the awe. “How you know that?” he said.
We must now consider the history, philosophy, and psychology of hitting batters.
In the challenge between mount and plate, which is the center of the game, a reputation can be as effective as an extra pitch. Dock: “The hitter will try to take advantage of you. Like if you are a pitcher who throws a lot of breaking balls, a lot of sliding fast balls, or if you pitch away, the hitter will have a tendency to lean across the plate. Quite naturally, if they know that this is your routine, they’ll be trying to go at the ball, to get a better swing at it. They’ll be moving up closer on the plate. Therefore, when you throw in on them, you don’t throw to hit them, you throw to brush them back. That means: ‘Give me some of the plate. Let me have my part, and you take yours! Get away! Give me some room to pitch with!’
“As far as hitting a batter, there are situations when it is called for, like sometimes a pitcher might intentionally or unintentionally hit a batter, or throw two balls near a hitter. The other team, to retaliate, will either knock someone down or hit a batter.”
Not all pitchers will throw at batters. If you are a batter, you want your pitchers to throw at their hitters, to protect you. Bob Veale was the Pirates’ best pitcher for years. Between 1962 and 1972, he won 116 games. But he had a flaw. Gene Clines, a Pirate outfielder at the time, talked to me after Veale was traded to Boston: “He can throw the ball through a brick wall, but everybody knew that he was a gentle giant. If Veale would knock you down, it had to be a mistake. He didn’t want to hurt anybody.” Clines shook his head in bewildered melancholy. “Who’s going to challenge him? Nobody on the baseball field is going to say, ‘I’m going to go out and get Bob V eale.’… Take a left-handed hitter. Take Willie. They going to be going up to the plate, and digging in, knowing that Veale is not going to knock them down….” He shakes his head again, at the waste of it all.
“Blass was the same way.” Steve Blass announced in 1973 that he would not throw at batters, even if management fined him for disobeying orders. “Now he was one guy that personally I really didn’t like to play behind,” Clines told me. “If they knock me down two or three times… well, if he throws at a batter, he’s gonna say, ‘Watch out!’… and I don’t want that, because they never told me to watch out! They trying to knock my head off! Why go out there and play behind a guy that’s not going to protect you?”
Manny Sanguillen: “I tell you about Veale. The only player Veale used to knock down was Willie McCovey. The only one. I was catching. Because McCovey hurt him so much.” McCovey hurt Veale by hitting long balls off him. “You remember when McCovey had the operation here?” Manny, whose hands are as quick as the expressions on his face, jabs at his right knee. “Veale used to throw down at the knee!”
When Bruce Kison came up to the Pirates, Dock took to him immediately. Although Kison was 6-foot-6 and weighed only 155 lbs. when he first reported (in the locker room, Dock says, when Kison breathed and filled his frail chest with air, he looked like a greyhound who could walk on his hind legs), he had acquired a reputation for hitting batters. If you hit batters, it is sensible to weigh 230 and look mean at all times.
“I was wild,” says Bruce Kison, sprawled and smiling. “I’ve always had a reputation… I have a fastball that runs in, on a right-handed hitter. In the minor leagues in one game I hit seven batters.” Kison laughs, as if he were telling about a time in high school when he attempted a foolish escapade, like chaining a cow in the women’s gym, and the cow kicked him, but nobody got hurt. “I was just completely wild. I hit three guys in a row. There were two outs. The manager came out of the dugout and said, ‘Bruce, I know you’re not trying to hit these guys, but we’ll have the whole stands out on the field pretty soon!’
“The next guy up was a big catcher. No, he was an outfielder, but he came up to the plate with catchers gear on…”
I want to make sure I understand. “But you do, on occasion, throw at batters?”
“Certainly.” Kison is no longer smiling. He sounds almost pedantic. “That is part of pitching.”
A pitcher establishes his reputation early. Dock came up to Pittsburgh in 1968, and in 1969 was a regular starter. He quickly established himself as mean and strong. “Cepeda is the biggest,” says Dock. So it was necessary for Dock to hit Cepeda. “He was trying to take advantage of me because I was a rookie. He was trying to scare me. I let him know, then, that I was not the type dude to fuck around with. It was a big thing, because who would be hitting Cepeda? If you went for the biggest guy, it meant you would go for anybody. You weren’t scared of anybody. I hit McCovey, and I really got up on McCovey that year. But he’s not so big. Cepeda is the biggest. The rest of the season, from that point on, I had no trouble with the hitters. They were all running.”
Sometimes one courts trouble, hitting batters.
In 1969, in Montreal, “I hit Mack Jones in the head, but I wasn’t trying to hit him in the head. I was trying to hit him in the side.
“They had hit Clemente in the chest. So I said, ‘The first batter up, I’m going to try to kill him. Mack Jones was the first batter. I threw at him. I missed him. I threw at him again. He ducked and it hit him in the head. He came out to the mound, like he was coming at me.” Players rushed out on the field. Enormous Dick Radatz, relief pitcher recently traded from Detroit to Montreal, ran in from the bullpen toward the mound. Dock addressed Radatz, “Hey, man, I’ll turn you into a piece… of… meat!” Radatz stopped in his tracks.
The umpire behind home plate looked as if he planned to interfere, possibly even to throw Dock out of the game. “But Clemente,” Dock remembers, “he intervened, and he told the umpire, ‘You leave Dock alone. The motherfuckers hit me twice! Don’t mess with Dock!’”
On Wednesday night, May 1, 1974, the Reds were in Pittsburgh. Dock was starting against Cincinnati for the firs time that year. As it developed, he was also starting against Cincinnati for the last time that year.
Beginning in spring training, among the palm trees and breezes and gas shortages of Bradenton on the Gulf Coast of Florida, Dock had planned to hit as many Cincinnati batters as possible, when he first pitched against them. He had told some of his teammates, but they were not sure he meant It. Dock loves to sell wolf tickets (“Wolf tickets? Some people are always selling them, some people are always buying them… “) and the Pirate ball club had learned not always to take him literally.
Manny knew he meant it. At the regular team meeting before the game—the Pirates meet at the start of each series, to discuss the ball club they are about to engage—Dock said there was no need to go over Cincinnati batters, their strengths and weaknesses. “I’m just going to mow the lineup down,” he said. To Manny (who later claimed to the press that he had never seen anybody so wild), Dock said, “Don’t even give me no signal. Just try to catch the ball. If you can’t catch it, forget it.”
Taking his usual warm-up pitches, Dock noticed Pete Rose standing at one side of the batter’s box, leaning on his bat, studying his delivery. On his next-to-last warm-up, Dock let fly at Rose and almost hit him.
A distant early warning.
In fact, he had considered not hitting Pete Rose at all. He and Rose are friends, but of course friendship, as the commissioner of baseball would insist, must never prevent even-handed treatment. No, Dock had considered not hitting Pete Rose because Rose would take it so well. He predicted that Rose, once hit, would make no acknowledgment of pain—no grimace, no rubbing the afflicted shoulder—but would run at top speed for first base, indicating clearly to his teammates that there was nothing to fear. “He’s going to charge first base, and make it look like nothing.” Having weighed the whole matter, Dock decided to hit him anyway.
It was a pleasant evening in Pittsburgh, the weather beginning to get warmer, perhaps 55 degrees, when Dock threw the first pitch. “The first pitch to Pete Rose was directed toward his head,” as Dock expresses it, “not actually to hit him,” but as “the message, to let him know that he was going to get hit. More or less to press his lips. I knew if I could get close to the head that I could get them in the body. Because they’re looking to protect their head, they’ll give me the body.” The next pitch was behind him. “The next one, I hit him in the side.”
Pete Rose’s response was even more devastating than Dock had anticipated. He smiled. Then he picked the ball up, where it had fallen beside him, and gently, underhand, tossed it back to Dock. Then he lit for first as if trying out for the Olympics.
As Dock says, with huge approval, “You have to be good, to be a hot dog.”
As Rose bent down to pick up the ball, he had exchanged a word with Joe Morgan who was batting next. Morgan and Rose are close friends, called “pepper and salt” by some of the ballplayers. Morgan taunted Rose, “He doesn’t like you anyway. You’re a white guy.”
Dock hit Morgan in the kidneys with his first pitch.
By this time, both benches were agog. It was Mayday on May Day. The Pirates realized that Dock was doing what he said he would do. The Reds were watching him do it. “I looked over on the bench, they were all with their eyes wide and their mouths wide open, like, ‘I don’t believe it!’
“The next batter was Driessen. I threw a ball to him. High inside. The next one, I hit him in the back.”
Bases loaded, no outs. Tony Perez, Cincinnati first baseman, came to bat. He did not dig in. “There was no way I could hit him. He was running. The first one I threw behind him, over his head, up against the screen, but it came back off the glass, and they didn’t advance. I threw behind him because be was backing up, but then he stepped in front of the ball. The next three pitches, he was running…. I walked him.” A run carne in. “The next hitter was Johnny Bench. I tried to deck him twice. I threw at his jaw, and he moved. I threw at the back of his head, and he moved.”
With two balls and no strikes on Johnny Bench—11 pitches gone: three hit batsmen, one walk, one run, and now two balls—Murtaugh approached the mound. “He came out as if to say, ‘What’s wrong? Can’t find the plate?’ ” Dock was suspicious that his manager really knew what he was doing. “No,” said Dock, ‘I must have Blass-itis.” (It was genuine wildness—not throwing at batters—that had destroyed Steve Blass the year before.)
“He looked at me hard,” Dock remembers. “He said ‘I’m going to bring another guy in.’ So I just walked off the mound.”
In his May Day experiment, his point was not to hit batters; his point was to kick Cincinnati ass. Pittsburgh was down, in last place, lethargic and limp and lifeless. Cincinnati was fighting it out with Los Angeles, confident it would prevail at the end. And for Pittsburgh, Cincinnati was The Enemy.
In 1970, Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh in the Championship Series for the National League pennant. In 1971 with Cincinnati out of it, Pittsburgh took the pennant in a play-off with the Giants, then beat Baltimore in a seven-game Series. In 1972, three months before Roberto Clemente’s death, Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh in the Championship Series, three games to two.
“Then,” says Dock, “they go on TV and say the Pirates ain’t nothing….” Bruce Kison adds, “We got beat fairly in the score, but the way the Cincinnati ball club—the players sitting on the bench—were hollering and yelling at us like little leaguers. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I remember that. When I do go against Cincinnati, there’s a little advantage.”
In the winter of 1973–74, and at spring training, Dock began to feel that the Pirates had lost aggressiveness.
“Spring training had just begun, and I say, ‘You are scared of Cincinnati.’ That’s what I told my teammates. ‘You are always scared of Cincinnati.’ I’ve watched us lose games against Cincinnati and its ridiculous. I’ve pitched some good games at Cincinnati, but the majority I’ve lost, because I feel like we weren’t aggressive. Every time we play Cincinnati, the hitters are on their ass.”
“Is that what the players are afraid of?” I asked.
“Physically afraid,” said Dock. In 1970, ’71, and ’72, he says, the rest of the league was afraid of the Pirates. “They say, ‘Here come the big bad Pirates. They’re going to kick our ass!’ Like they give up. That’s what our team was starting to do. When Cincinnati showed up in spring training, I saw all the ballplayers doing the same thing. They were running over, talking, laughing and hee-haw this and that.
“Cincinnati will bullshit with us and kick our ass and laugh at us. They’re the only team that talk about us like a dog. Whenever we play that team, everybody socializes with them.” In the past the roles had been reversed. “When they ran over to us, we knew they were afraid of us. When I saw our team doing it, right then I say, ‘We gonna get down. We gonna do the do. I’m going to hit these motherfuckers.’”
When Dock had announced his intentions, he did not receive total support.
“Several of my teammates told me that they would not be there. When the shit went down they would not be on the mound. Bob Robertson told me that. It really hurt me. I believe he was serious.”
“Because this was benefiting him. He wasn’t hitting but .102. Pitches coming up around his neck.”
From time to time a batter who has been hit, or thrown at, will advance on the pitcher, the dugouts will empty, and there will be a baseball fight. Mostly, baseball fights are innocuous. But Dick McAuliffe once dislocated Tommy John’s shoulder, and Campy Campaneris threw his bat at Lerrin LaGrow. But Dock thinks and plans. “I talked to other pitchers who have dealt with them on this level, one being Bob Gibson. He hits them at random! In fact, Pete Rose and Tommy Helms tried to whip Gibson, and Gibson got in both of them’s stuff, in the dugout. He just went in and got them.
“I took everything into consideration, when I did what I did. Because I had to figure out who would fight us. Manpower per manpower, it had to be them. That’s the only team that I could see would really try to deal with us. I was thinking of the physical ability of the two teams, and that was the only one that was comparable to us. The only one I could think of that was physically next was Philadelphia, and they wouldn’t want to fight us. No way would they want to fight us. If I hit 20 of them in a row, they ain’t going to fight.”
Donald Hall, a former Poet Laureate, has written over 50 books, including the recently-published, Essays After Eighty. Sports fans will want to cop Fathers Playing Catch with Sons and Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball.
Opening Day Delight.
There were some hard miles on that bus, and harder ones on the man behind the wheel. His name was Oscar Charleston, which probably means nothing to you, as wrong as that is. He was managing the Philadelphia Stars then, trying to sustain the dignity of the Negro Leagues in the late 1940s as black ballplayers left daily for the moneyed embrace of the white teams that had disdained them for so long. Part of his job was hard-nosing the kids who remained into playing the game right, and part of it was passing down the lore of the line drives he’d bashed, the catches he’d made, and the night he’d spent rattling the cell door in a Cuban jail. His players called him Charlie, and when it was his turn to drive the team’s red, white, and blue bus, it was like having Ty Cobb at the wheel. Of course the players never said so, because sportswriters and white folks were always calling him the black Ty Cobb and Charlie hated it.
While Cobb counted the millions he’d made on Coca-Cola stock, Charlie bounced around on cramped, stinking buses until he, like their engines, burned out. The Stars would play in Chicago on Sunday afternoon, then hightail it back to Philly so they could use Shibe Park on Monday, when the big leaguers were off. So they drove through the long night, with Charlie peering at the rain and lightning, wondering which was louder, the thunder or the racket his players were making.
When he could take no more, he glanced back at Wilmer Harris and Stanley Glenn, a pitcher and a catcher, earnest young men who always stayed close to him, eager to absorb whatever lessons he dispensed. “Watch this,” he said, yanking the lever that opened the bus door. Then he leaned as far as he could toward the cacophonous darkness, one hand barely on the wheel, and glowered the way only he could glower.
“Hey, you up there!” he shouted. “Quit making so damn much noise!”
The bus turned as quiet as a tomb. “I bet there wasn’t one player hardly breathing,” Glenn says. The Stars were a strait-laced bunch—“the Saints,” some called them with a sneer—and they weren’t inclined to test whatever higher power might be in charge. But Charlie was different from them, and everybody else for that matter. And when the thunder boomed louder still in response to his demand, he proclaimed his defiance with a laugh. If it didn’t kill him, it couldn’t stop him.
Over at the Stacks I’ve got a fun one fuh ya–Myron Cope’s 1968 SI profile of Harry Caray:
Even before the World Series got under way Wednesday, it was shudderingly clear that one result was as predictable as bunting on the commissioner’s box: Millions of television and radio listeners, whose eardrums may have healed in the year since the Cardinals-Red Sox Series, are once again going to be exposed to a feverish clamor coming from a Cardinals delegate to the NBC broadcasting team. It was equally certain that across America the baseball public would then divide into two camps—those who exclaimed that by God! Harry Caray was almost as exciting as being at the park, and those who prayed he would be silenced by an immediate attack of laryngitis. Caray, should you be among the few who still have not heard him, is an announcer who can be heard shrieking above the roar of the crowd when a hitter puts the ultimate in wood to the ball: “There she goes…! Line drive…! It might be…it could be…it is! Home run…! Ho-lee cow!” You may not know that with a second home run his more dignified colleagues have preferred to flee the broadcasting booth before the ball has cleared the fence.
In the past decade the trend of play-by-play broadcasting has been decidedly in the direction of mellow, impassive reporting, a technique that strikes Harry Caray as being about as appropriate as having Walter Cronkite broadcast a heavyweight championship fight. “This blasé era of broadcasting!” Caray grumbles. “‘Strike one. Ball one. Strike two.’ It probably hurts the game more than anything, and this at a time when baseball is being so roundly criticized.” Never one to burden himself with restraint, Caray more or less began hoisting the 1968 pennant over Busch Stadium clear back in early July when, following a Cardinals victory, he bellowed, “The magic number is 92!”
The fact is that Harry Caray’s 24 years of broadcasting St. Louis baseball have been one long crusade for pennants, a stance that might be expected to have endeared him to all Cardinals past and present, but which, on the contrary, has left a scattered trail of athletes who would have enjoyed seeing him transferred to Ping-Pong broadcasts in Yokohama.
“What’s Caray got against you anyway, Meat?” asks Mrs. Jim Brosnan in a passage from The Long Season, a reminiscence her pitcher-husband wrote in 1960.
“To hell with Tomato-Face,” answers Brosnan. “He’s one of those emotional radio guys. All from the heart, y’know? I guess he thinks I’m letting the Cardinals down, and he’s taking it as a personal insult.”
“Well, you ought to spit tobacco juice on his shoe, or something. It’s awful the way he blames you for everything.”
[Photo Credit: The Sporting News]
“You know,” he says, “this team… it all flows from me. I’ve got to keep it all going. I’m the straw that stirs the drink. It all comes back to me. Maybe I should say me and Munson… but really he doesn’t enter into it. He’s being so damned insecure about the whole thing. I’ve overheard him talking about me.”
“You mean he talks loud to make sure you can hear him?”
“Yeah. Like that. I’ll hear him telling some other writer that he wants it to be known that he’s the captain of the team, that he knows what’s best. Stuff like that. And when anybody knocks me, he’ll laugh real loud so I can hear it….”
Reggie looks down at Ford’s sweater. Perhaps he is wishing the present Yankees could have something like Ford and Martin and Mantle had. Community. Brotherhood. Real friendship.
“Maybe you ought to just go to Munson,” I suggest. “Talk it out right up front.”
But Reggie shakes his head.
“No,” he says. “He’s not ready for it yet. He doesn’t even know he feels like he does. He isn’t aware of it yet.”
“You mean if you went and tried to be open and honest about he’d deny it.”
Jackson nods his head. “Yeah. He’d say, ‘What? I’m not jealous. There aren’t any problems.’ He’d try to cover up, but he ought to know he can’t cover up anything from me. Man, there is no way…. I can read these guys. No, I’ll wait, and eventually he’ll be whipped. There will come that moment when he really knows I’ve won… and he’ll want to hear everything is all right… and then I’ll go to him, and we will get it right.
Reggie makes a fist, and clutches Ford’s sweater: “You see, that is the way I am. I’m a leader, and I can’t lie down… but ‘leader’ isn’t the right word… it’s a matter of PRESENCE… Let me put it this way: no team I am on will ever be humiliated the way the Yankees were by the Reds in the World Series! That’s why Munson can’t intimidate me. Nobody can. You can’t psych me. You take me one-on-one in the pit, and I’ll whip you…. It’s an attitude, really… It’s the way the manager looks at you when you come into the room… It’s the way the coaches and the batboy look at you… The way your name trickles through the crowd when you wait in the batter’s box… It’s all that… The way the Yankees were humiliated by the Reds? You think that doesn’t bother Billy Martin? He’s no fool. He’s smart. Very smart. And he’s a winner. Munson’s tough, too. He is a winner, but there is just nobody who can do for a club what I can do… There is nobody who can put meat in the seats [fans in the stands] the way I can. That’s just the way it is… Munson thinks he can be the straw that stirs the drink, but he can only stir it bad.”
I never realized how many Bill Heinz stories I love until I read The Top of His Game. Some I would have loved earlier if I’d known about them or hadn’t been too lazy to root around for them in the library. But I didn’t, even though I sit here and tell you he was a friend and an inspiration to me. All I can do now is savor what he wrote and suggest that for openers you too might love his beautifully crafted 850-word newspaper columns on Beau Jack buying hats—”Ah want three. Ah want one for every suit”—as he waits to fight in Madison Square Garden, and on Babe Ruth, in his farewell to Yankee Stadium, stepping “into the cauldron of sound he must know better than any man.”
Bill, demanding craftsman that he was, thought “Death of a Racehorse” was the only one of his columns worth saving. But I’m glad his ode to Toughie Brasuhn, the Roller Derby queen, made it into the new collection because I doubt there’s a newspaper sports columnist in America today who’d be given the freedom to write about such an off-the-wall subject. And then there are the columns he constructed entirely of dialogue, harbingers of his best magazine work and even more so of The Professional. They weren’t written off the news or because they were on a subject that got a lot of hits. (Personally, I think only baseball players should worry about hits.) Heinz used dialogue as a device because it was a change of pace and, let’s be honest here, because he was trying to add to his authorial toolbox. So we get boxing guys and fight guys talking and Heinz listening without, he said, taking notes. Truman Capote made the same claim when he wrote the classic In Cold Blood, boasting that he could recall hours of conversation word for word. Somehow I believe Heinz more than I do Capote. I believe the distinct voices he captured on paper, and the oddball theories his largely anonymous characters spout, and the exotic world that rises up before the reader as a result.
It’s surprising how little time Heinz spent as a sports columnist—less than three years and then the Sun folded in 1950 and he took a giant step to full-time magazine freelancing. Judging by the contents of The Top of His Game, there wasn’t a magazine that wasn’t happy to have him—Life, Look, Colliers, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, Sport, True, even Cosmopolitan. Granted, it wasn’t Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmo and Heinz wasn’t writing about sex and the single girl. But he was writing about boxing and a boxer’s wife for a distinctly female audience, and he delivered pieces that have stood the test of time.
And here’s one of Heinz’s classic magazine stories, “The Rocky Road of Pistol Pete”:
“Down in Los Angeles,” says Garry Schumacher, who was a New York baseball writer for 30 years and is now assistant to Horace Stoneham, president of the San Francisco Giants, “they think Duke Snider is the best center fielder the Dodgers ever had. They forget Pete Reiser. The Yankees think Mickey Mantle is something new. They forget Reiser, too.”
Maybe Pete Reiser was the purest ballplayer of all time. I don’t know. There is no exact way of measuring such a thing, but when a man of incomparable skills, with full knowledge of what he is doing, destroys those skills and puts his life on the line in the pursuit of his endeavor as no other man in his game ever has, perhaps he is the truest of them all.
“Is Pete Reiser there?” I said on the phone.
This was last season, in Kokomo. Kokomo has a population of about 50,000 and a ball club, now affiliated with Los Angeles and called the Dodgers, in the Class D Midwest League. Class D is the bottom of the barrel of organized baseball, and this was the second season that Pete Reiser had managed Kokomo.
“He’s not here right now,” the woman’s voice on the phone said. “The team played a double-header yesterday in Dubuque, and they didn’t get in on the bus until 4:30 this morning. Pete just got up a few minutes ago and he had to go to the doctor’s.”
“Oh?” I said. “What has he done now?”
[Photo Credit: Gayl Heinz]
Here’s a fun one for you–Robert Ward on Redneck Rock circa 1976 for New Times Magazine:
The bus floated through the Nashville streets and stopped at the James Thompson Motor Inn. I got out and walked with Tommy (the Outlaw) and Coe’s old friend, Bobby.
“It’s on the fourth floor.”
We climbed the steps and walked down a long motel corridor. Looking over, I noticed it was a good 75 feet to the parking lot. At the door, Tommy waited for me.
“Come on in, writer.”
I felt frightened by his tone—soft, but mocking. I had assumed that there would be women, other musicians, and whiskey. But there was none of that. Instead, there were Outlaws, about 15 of them, sprawled around the room. I looked at their eyes, which were all trained right on my own. In the exact center of the group, like some ancient fertility god, David Allan Coe sprawled on a bed. On his lap was an ugly, trashed-out looking woman, who was laughing insanely.
Behind me the door snapped shut. “This here is the writer,” someone said in a steel-wire voice.
Everyone was totally silent.
“The writer who wrote that shit about David Allan not being an outlaw!” someone else said.
I felt my breath leaving me and tried to laugh it off. “Hey, c’mon, you guys. I didn’t write that stuff.”
A short, squat, powerful man, the same Outlaw I’d seen screaming at the Exit Inn, came toward me. “You wrote that shit, did you?”
He reached in his back pocket and pulled out a five-inch hunting knife.
“Hey, wait now,” I said.
[Photo Credit: George Tice, 1974]
Hey you guys. I’ve been light on posting here at the Banter recently but I haven’t been idle. Recently, I’ve reprinted a pile of good stories at The Stacks.
[Photo Credit: USA Scanning]
I’d not seen my stepbrother Dale in more than two years when a bitter norther slammed into Texas in December 1989. Schools closed, pipes burst, and sleet-covered highways took on the look of salvage yards. I was sitting alone one blue-gray afternoon, listening to the frozen rain tick on the windows of my house in Belton, when the phone rang.
It was Dale’s mother, and she was in a panic. She was at Arlington Memorial Hospital, where her son was in intensive care. “He might not live through the night,” she said. “You’ll have to tell your mother and stepfather. They’ll never believe me if I call them.” I knew she was right; ever since her divorce from my stepfather, more than thirty years earlier, he had done little to hide his loathing for her, even after he’d retained custody of their two sons, Elden and Dale, and rebuilt a family with my mother and me. I promised to be at the hospital as soon as I could, then phoned my mother in Oklahoma. “What’s wrong with him?” she asked, stunned. I told her I didn’t know.
But that was not exactly true. Sitting in the car on my way to the hospital, inching across the ice on Interstate 35, I played news headlines from recent years over and over in my head. AIDS, a disease unknown to Americans just a decade earlier, was filling hospitals and clinics and hospices across the country with patients covered in lesions and fighting for each breath as their lungs were steadily destroyed. And in the late eighties, only one outcome awaited its victims: death.
Bunch of years ago, my pal John Schulian hipped me to “The Mongoose”, Jack Murphy’s long 1961 New Yorker profile of Archie Moore. Murphy was a sports writer in San Diego–you remember, they named the ballpark after him–and this was a one-off freelance assignment. It’s a really nice, meaty piece. Reason you won’t find it in any boxing anthologies is because it’s just prohibitively long.
Enter–the Internet! It took awhile to secure the rights–a few years of hunting around, in fact–but I’m proud to finally bring it to you. So if n your interested, head on over to The Stacks and check out this story about one of boxing’s great characters:
Moore is acutely aware of his special position as a champion—and, more particularly, as a Negro champion. “A Negro champion feels he stands for more than just a title,” he says gravely. “He is a symbol of achievement and dignity, and it is tough to be a loser and let down a whole race.” In 1959, not long after the Durelle fight, Sam Goldwyn, Jr., invited Moore to try out for the role of Jim, the runaway slave, in a movie version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both Moore and his wife were leery of what they called “handkerchief-head parts,” and a Negro publication cautioned him against taking an “Uncle Tom” role, but he proceeded with the screen test, was offered the part, and signed a contract with Goldwyn.
Moore is unconscionably proud of the fact that he won the role in competition with professional actors as well as amateurs. (Among the latter was Sugar Ray Robinson, who was then the middleweight boxing champion. “Ray lost the part because he was too sleek,” said Archie. “They didn’t have sleek slaves in those days.”) Moore has boasted about how, although he was training for a title fight at the time, he memorized a sixteen-page transcript for his screen test and went before the cameras after only one rehearsal. The way he tells it, his performance in the test alone entitled him to an Oscar. At the end of the scene, as he recalls it, the professionals on the set—electricians, stagehands, and the like—broke into spontaneous applause. “Tears came from the director’s eyes,” says Archie. “Goldwyn was dabbing his eyes and shaking his head in wonder. An electrician told me it was only the second time in 30 years that he had seen such emotion during a test.” However accurate these recollections may be, the director of the movie, Michael Curtiz, appears to agree with Moore’s own estimate of his talent. “Archie has instinctive acting ability,” said Curtiz. “He seems to know just the right inflection to give a line, and his facial expressions are marvelous.”
When Moore first saw the script of the movie, he noted that the offensive word “nigger” appeared in it now and again, but he said nothing about this until the part was his and the contract signed. Then he began maneuvering. “I’m not a clever man, but I know how to get things done,” he said later. “The script used the word ‘nigger’ at least nine times. I went through it with a pencil and struck out the word everywhere I found it. Then I took it up with Mr. Goldwyn. I told him I couldn’t play the part unless he would agree to the deletions. I told him, ‘You are a young man, Mr. Goldwyn, and times are changing. How could I play this part when it would cause my people to drop their heads in shame in a theater?’ Goldwyn thought about it and he agreed with me. He ordered the deletions. The man who wrote the script was furious; his anger meant nothing to me. I had saved my people from embarrassment.” (Actually, the word was used only once in the movie, and then when Moore was offstage.)
[Photo Credit: Boxing Record Archie]