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BGS: Richard Pryor is the Blackest Comic of them All

If you dig Richard Pryor, go get Scott Saul’s Becoming Richard Pryor and David and Joe Henry’s Furious Cool. Listen to Pryor’s best albums–”Craps”, “That Nigger’s Crazy”, “Is It Something I Said?” and “Wanted: Live in Concert”. (If you’ve never seen it you should watch “Live in Concert”–perhaps the finest filmed stand up performance of them all–or any number of his better movies: Blue Collar, The Mack, Greased Lightning, Which Way is Up?, Lady Sings the Blues, Stir Crazy.

In the meantime, check out “Richard Pryor Is the Blackest Comic Of Them All” by our pal Mark Jacobson. Originally published in New West, August 30, 1976, it is re-printed here with the author’s permission.

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The zooty mobiles are rolling slow and sweet up the Strip. In front of the Roxy there’s style a block long. Hats, satin, dudes with their names rhinestoned on their eyeglass lenses, jumpsuits emblazoned with the word “coke,” denim cut every which way: an impressive preen of edgy cool. Inside his rose-decked dressing room, Richard Pryor feels the electric vibes. His leg is stiffed up like the beginnings of a really good nut, his back creaks, and maybe he’ll throw up. A bad case of the comic’s hazard: fear of not being funny.

Tonight, however, Richard is sweating double; his underwear is a mess. Tonight he’s going to record his new album, “Bicentennial Nigger.” A good title. For Richard, who once was accorded an honorary degree from San Jose State in “black street history,” has an unwavering eye for the doings of the past 200 years. He is also the man who took the word “nigger” — once feared like Godzilla by the liberal black and white communities, but always legal tender in street language — and made it his trademark.

Even so, Richard thinks about the people in line and gets sicker. He knows niggers don’t let you fudge; every space you leave they’re bound to fill it up with some sort of rap to make you cringe. And outside everyone knows the scene, too. They’ll be looking extra hard to see if this Pryor nigger is as crazy as ever.

Crazy. Hustlers who never got to die of natural causes and sharks floating around the pool halls of Peoria, Illinois, screamed, “Nigger, you crazy!” at Richard years ago. It was the old story; Richard couldn’t fight so he was funny. Fell on the floor, did impersonations, a regular ghetto jester. The name stuck. Now you find plenty of housewives bounding into the black middle-class calling Richard Pryor a crazy nigger. Mostly they say it when they hear Richard’s albums. And get an earful of Pryor’s “characters” — crazy niggers all. There are cats like Oilwell: six feet, five inches, 242 pounds of man, a police-punching-type nigger who’d bite a dude’s privates to keep from being fooled with. And the junkie, the kid who used to be the smartest nigger in town — he could book numbers without the aid of paper or pencil — but now he can’t even remember his name. No mistake that Richard’s most famous record is called “That Nigger’s Crazy”: After all, who ever heard a nigger talk like a nigger and get away with it?

“That Nigger’s Crazy,” despite a little X-rated sticker on the cellophane, became the first comedy record in recent years to break into the top twenty on the charts. Sold a million pieces — enough to “go platinum” — a precious metal indeed. Pryor’s next, “Is It Something I Said?” — the one with a picture of Richard being burned at the stake by men in hoods — did as well. Richard now might be sweating in his dressing room, but “Bicentennial Nigger” is already assured of “shipping gold” — $1 million worth. Stats like that make Pryor the largest selling comedy artist in America.

But all that is doodly-squat compared to what’s coming. Sometime last year, Richard decided that being a crazy nigger on vinyl wasn’t enough. He turned down more than a million smackers worth of concert gigs to become a movie star. People around him said, “But Richard, we don’t have any movie offers.” Pryor, one of those vision-seeing niggers, told them to cool it, the pictures would come. He was right, of course. If you spend any time at all watching movies in the next year, you should be able to trace Richard Pryor’s mellow face from memory. Right now, you can see him as a barnstorming baseball player in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. He just wrapped Silver Streak, in which he played opposite Gene Wilder. Before that he was a Reverend Ike type in Car Wash. Now he’s off making Greased Lightning with Michael Schultz in Georgia. At the end of the year he’ll do — get this — the Giancarlo Giannini part in Which Way Is Up? a semi-remake of Lina Wertmüller’s Seduction of Mimi. Next year, Pryor has already blocked time for the lead in Paul Schrader’s new depresso opus, Blue Collar, the story of assembly line workers in Detroit.

Check those names: Schrader, Wertmüller, Wilder. These aren’t Superfly projects. This crazy nigger has broken into the big leagues. And more scripts come in all the time. Not that Richard can accept any for a while. A couple of weeks ago, Universal, tossing around phrases like “uniquely talented” and “bankable,” signed Richard to a six-picture, multi-million-dollar deal. Pryor will offer his services as both screenwriter and actor. Company officials say It is the first such contract in the studio’s history.

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All of which makes Richard Pryor one hell of a potential corporate nigger. Being the biggest-selling comedy artist in America and a movie star too is quite a parlay. And Richard’s got the accessories to prove It. A demure Mercedes, a classy brown and gold office for Richard Pryor Productions complete with a fishbowl full of exotic underwater plants, a lawyer who used to be partners with Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, a full staff of frontmen and go-fers to shield him from prying eyes and push his T-shirts, and a brand new house in the Valley. Richard is especially fond of the Northridge house, which he is currently redecorating. After years of hotel rooms and rented cottages, at last he’s got a safe place. Stability is strange to Richard: The first month or so after moving in, he had dreams of men carrying briefcases coming to the door and saying, “You mean you own this house, Mr. Pryor?” But now that dream doesn’t recur. Richard says, “I feel secure, more than ever, maybe for the first time.”

Until tonight, that is. Being a star is terrific, but when you’ve got to go out on stage to face 500 niggers, knees get weak. Especially curious niggers. Tonight they’ll be asking a reasonable question: Can perhaps the hottest personality in Hollywood — white, black, or polka dot, as the old civil rights marcher used to say — be a crazy street nigger, too?

No doubt Richard used to be crazy. It seems as if everyone hoisting a tequila sunrise at Hollywood parties has at least one Richard Pryor horror story. There are tales of how Richard stabbed his landlord with a fork, jeers about Pryor’s supposed predilection for smashing women about his apartment, knowing smiles about his fabled Hoover-suck intake of cocaine. Pryor’s failures to show up for appointments, even dates to tell jokes on the Ed Sullivan Show, are the stuff of showbiz folklore. After all, who could be crazy enough to forget to show up for a Sullivan shot?

But then again, what do you expect of someone who claims to have been born in a Peoria whorehouse, says his father died in the saddle, and speaks of being kicked out of school for hitting teachers? Not to mention knowing all the bad news “characters” that Richard talks about on his records. That kind of background inspires gossip. But a little investigation reveals certain facts. Pryor did indeed miss a few Sullivan shows, once choosing instead to stay home to try out his new 16mm movie equipment. He did snort enough coke to “buy Peru” — sometimes $100 worth a day. He collects guns. He was sued for wife-beating. Also for knocking around a hotel clerk. Did a turn in the slams for not paying taxes on yearly earnings of nearly a quarter of a million.

Last week, however, around the Silver Streak set, you could see the difference a few years make. Pryor sat in an old XKE mounted on a platform and acted a scene with Gene Wilder in front of a process screen. Studio hotshots hovered. All of them seemed to be talking about how Richard hadn’t missed a day of shooting, how he’s never forgotten a line, how he “hasn’t been a problem of any kind.” They sounded relieved. In Hollywood, everyone knows the Pryor legend.

Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor

As for Richard himself, the man is looking good. No more dissipation or benders for this cat. Now Pryor is into health foods. Vitamins, too. “I’m through actively messing with my body,” Richard says like a born-again Californian. It’s paying off in many ways; a nice-looking lady in a perfect jumpsuit just told Richard how much weight he’s lost. From the smile on Pryor’s face, you figure lettuce means more to him today than a good freeze. About the old days, Pryor gets a little more solemn. Just thinking about that lunacy makes his body literally quake, like the first jolt from the Quentin death house. Looking at the ceiling, he says, “I was just a kid then. That was before I changed.”

Whether Richard has actually changed is hard to tell, but there was a night when he started to go in another direction. It was an evening in 1970 when Pryor — then 30 — was telling jokes at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. Richard was doing a typical show for him in those days: fairytale parodies, army jokes, talk show routines. It was the way Richard had worked since coming out of Peoria in the early sixties, except that he had dropped his second-rate Sammy Davis Jr. impression. That was the way Richard thought he had to work. People who knew told him if you were a black man who liked to play for $5,000 poker pots like Pryor did, then you should tell jokes like Bill Cosby, because the I Spy black man was the kind of Negro white folks wouldn’t mind coming to their door to sell encyclopedias. So it went for Pryor; renowned as the baddest dude in the desert, he played it harmless for the tourists. It helped him pick up a couple of movie roles, like the fifteen-year-old drummer in Chris Jones’s Wild in the Streets rock band, but something told Richard he was heading for insanity.

The craziness built inside of him until that night at the Aladdin when Richard blew it, or so it seemed. What happened is the pith of Pryor legend, a great Richard story, better because it’s true. Someday, after Pryor becomes a major movie star, someone will paint it as part of a series entitled “Showbiz Nightmares.” The picture will have Pryor reeling around the stage in his evening clothes, asking himself aloud, “What the fuck am I doing here?” and then walking off in the wrong direction. The tourists, all wearing corsages in the shape of cabbages, will look confused and horrified. The cigar-chomping owners will be screaming, telling Richard he’ll never work Vegas again.

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Pryor missed that six grand a week, sure, but he didn’t care if he ever played Vegas again. He made an artist’s choice, and an artist he was going to be. That meant being “himself” and extending his act past the usual boundaries of stand-up. The last few years in Vegas, Pryor had begun to think in terms of “characters,” or assuming the personas of people he thought made meaningful statements about what it meant to be black in a white world: For Richard, these were winos, preachers, tough guys, and fakers. The typical black street scene, one he knew well. Vegas wasn’t buying that. So Pryor packed his coke spoon and went off to a place where the rules were slightly more bent: Berkeley. He took a little pad by the freeway — a $110 special — and “woodshedded” for nearly a year to bring together his new vision. For Pryor, it was a wonderful time. “It was when I got naked; I just sat in my house and didn’t come out until I was ready.”

When he finally did work again, Richard was a different sort of comic. Not only was he black, but he was real. Also real dirty. His first “new” album, some funky baggage called “Craps After Dark” (still in many ways his funniest), recorded for the fly-by-night Laff label, had Pryor saying things like, “Winos, winos know Jesus Christ…. They say ‘Yeah, nigger runs the elevator down the Jefferson Hotel.’ ” This was weird stuff, no lie. He talked about niggers at police lineups. Niggers who get caught with their pants down by irate fathers. He introduced several “characters,” including Black Bertha, “the 300-pound woman with the 280-pound-ass.” Richard said all the words you weren’t supposed to. No way to hide the teeth of it, either; this was black comedy for a black audience, and Whitey came in for his lumps. Example: “They don’t give a nigger a chance. Jackson Five be singing their ass off, they be talking about The Osmond Brothers… motherfuckin’ Osmond Brothers.” Forget Vegas now; TV too. Pryor burned up all the bridges. Just to make sure, he ended the record with a bit about how he took off all his clothes and ran around the casino, jumping on the gambling tables to scream, “BLACK, JACK!”

Defiance, to be sure. And who would have figured it would have worked out so sweet for Pryor? A few years ago, Richard could have wound up going back to Peoria to sit on the stoop and tell kids about how he was a great rebel who got crushed. Credit the black middle-class with changing the scenario. They had the money to spend and weren’t so deep into bedroom sets that they couldn’t relate to what Richard was putting down. No coincidence that Pryor’s big break came in that all-time great black middle-class movie, Lady Sings the Blues. Ostensibly a screen bio of Billie Holiday, the picture was the phoniest thing to come down the pike since Sal Mineo got addicted to grass in The Gene Krupa Story. But Pryor, in the role of Diana Ross’s hophead piano player and armed with firsthand knowledge, gave perhaps the most convincing portrayal ever of being stoned on the screen. People said he stole the show; you don’t grow up one generation out of the ghetto and not know when someone’s smashed or when they’re just acting silly. Seeing a black man acting real on the screen was so unusual at the time that most audiences pronounced it “crazy.” All of which neatly paved the way for Richard’s “That Nigger’s Crazy” album.

Crazy like a fox, maybe. Because when you compare Pryor’s success to that of the other big-time black comics, it tells an interesting story. Cosby, Pryor’s old idol-adversary, is cuter than ever; even if he’s got a hokey variety show coming up this fall, he seems to have reached his natural metier doing peachy-keen Del Monte commercials. Redd Foxx, the classic black X-rated comic, has made his big killing. But now he’s more Fred Sanford than Redd Foxx, and people say Foxx gets pissed when they won’t let him get dirty in Vegas. Dick Gregory did the honorable thing by running back and forth for peace, but it makes you wonder if he wouldn’t have more effect had he stood up on television more often. As for Godfrey Cambridge and Slappy White, where are they?

There was probably just a small opening for all that talent anyway. Pryor found it. And most likely it all comes back to Richard’s willingness to call a spade a spade, so to speak. While the TV dials have been full of watered-down black street life since the “ethnic shows” got on the air, Pryor has remained hard. Too hard for TV, a medium he doesn’t do well anyhow, except for rare shots like Lily Tomlin specials. Using the word “nigger” was the masterstroke. It aced him out of the mainstream, plus it made it quite clear where his racial allegiance lay. Everyone knows white people are not allowed to say that word. But, mostly, he was good. His “characters” are the essence of hanging-out humor. They’re languid, more improvisatory, with more emphasis on performance than the punch line. And in the characters, Pryor found a basic difference between black humor and Jewish humor. Which is why he is the first comic to make meaningful strides past the humor of Lenny Bruce.

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Add all that up. The legend and the success. And it prints out into one dynamite image: the crazy nigger who had the courage to say no to bullcrap and come back bigger than ever on his own terms. It should be bottled and sold to politicians.

All the ingredients for a hero. And the other night at the Comedy Store, the showcase for young ha-ha merchants on Sunset, you could witness the worship. Not one of the several black comics didn’t use the word nigger. Every comic, all races, including even American Indian, did Pryor-like characters. But the show really began when Richard himself made an unscheduled appearance. Most everything Richard does is unscheduled: Change or no change, many of his activities still tend to have a fluid quality. Still, the word passes fast in the Hollywood Hills, and a half-hour before Pryor pulled up, scores of fly-looking people poured in. Big-shots, too. Redd Foxx peeked through the curtain; Freddie Prinze sat by the bar. Freddie is a special Pryor fan. Once he said he really felt like he was happening because he was staying in the same room Pryor once had. And as soon as Richard pops on stage wearing a white gangster hat (Richard: “Hats are good for your attitude; niggers love hats; when you ain’t got no money, you gotta get yourself an attitude”), Freddie starts punching people in the arm, screaming, “He’s the best, he’s the goddamn best…. Man, Pryor knows what’s right; he’s paid all the dues. If I could get five minutes like any of his stuff, I’d come for months.”

Pryor, who says he really likes Jonathan Winters, digs the admiration, but he’s wary. “Nice that they say they love me, but I see it like the Western movies, just the young gunfighters waiting for the old man to slow up.” But then again, Richard Pryor is always wary. The horror seasons in Vegas and the exile that followed did more than turn him into a gun collector; they hurt his heart, too. Richard is not the trusting sort. Every once in a while he’ll chill you with a statement like, “You know me; I’m cool until you lie to me, then I get bad.”

Pryor is probably a poor choice to cross. The other day Mel Brooks came by the Silver Streak set. Mel and Richard once had business dealings. Pryor wrote a script called Black Bart that Brooks eventually made into Blazing Saddles. Richard is not anxious to talk about it, but the story goes that Pryor expected to get the lead part in the film. Then Brooks supposedly got cold feet when Warner Brothers contended that Pryor’s coke rep made him too unsavory a character to be a star. Cleavon Little copped the role. Richard was further depressed when Mel garnered all the applause for the picture (especially after the movie was a tremendous smash with blacks who related to many of Pryor’s joke lines). It made Richard cry. But today he’s doing his best to keep a stiff upper. Mel is playing his Yid imp around the set, paling around with Gene Wilder. Richard is polite. Polite even when Mel cuffs him around the neck, saying that Richard is “wonderful and talented” even if he isn’t Jewish. Richard arranges his face into smiling position and even manages a Sammy Davis-style breakup for one of Mel’s funnies. But as soon as Wilder and Brooks disappear, Pryor makes a sneer and collapses sourly on his dressing room bed.

For Pryor, the Blazing Saddles number had racial overtones. In Richard’s world, everything has racial overtones. On the “That Nigger’s Crazy” album, Pryor’s wino tries to rally the spaced junkie back to this planet by saying, “Boy, you know what your problem is? You don’t know how to deal with the white man. I do, that’s why I’m in the position I am in today.” That’s Richard at his best, applying the touching irony. A combination of hip and poetry — a guy who knows every street word and still wants to discuss John Hersey books about Hiroshima. But ironic, too, that the more Pryor becomes a mainstream success, the more dealings he’ll have with the white man. By now a large segment of his audience has to be white. In that there are problems. Much of his white-black comparison routine is tiresome. Pryor will do seemingly endless portrayals of blacks as vital, hip, and honorable under fire while whites are all stewardess-sterile and have the style of accountants. A common harp, but a white person would have to be terribly guilty to accept much of it. Pryor shrugs off such criticism, saying, “It’s just characters.”

No doubt, however, that Pryor’s crazy nigger legend comes in handy. It helps him frighten press agents and other unwanted types away from his door. Tough attitudizing is old-hat for Pryor; he knows he only has to squint to send Beverly Hills souls running.

But there’s a more subtle, poignant side to Pryor’s relationship with the white world. There should be for a man with an obvious capacity for great love who’s twice been married to white women. You can see it in Pryor’s acting in Bingo Long. Richard plays Charlie Snow, a black ballplayer in the pre-Jackie Robinson days who desperately wants to make “El Bigtime,” the white leagues. He figures if he pretends he’s Cuban, no one will notice that he’s black, so he goes around talking like Ricardo Montalban. The ruse succeeds in getting Richard battered about by a passel of baddies. The moral could be easy, but Pryor’s sensitivity to the issues of power longing and self-doubt in his character make for bittersweet moments.

Very complicated and painful stuff. Let’s say Pryor is easier to hang out with than to ask questions of. “I hate interviews,” Pryor says. “Let’s hang out.” So we hang out at Denny’s while Richard eats chef’s salads and breaks up at the way David Banks, his record producer, gently pulls an old waitress’s leg by asking her what she’s doing after work. No one laughs as picturesquely as Pryor when he’s hanging out. If you make a funny, Pryor’s on it in a second. Immediately, he’s gagging from the bottom of his throat, his hands are shaking, his eyes tumbling. If he’s standing up, his feet stamp and he bends from the waist. If he’s sitting down, he lets his butt slip off the chair until his chin rests against the table top. Genuflecting for the jokes. But the man is thinking all the time; picking up rap. The other day he quizzed me about a story I once did about rough kids in Chinatown. A few nights later the whole spiel was in his Comedy Store routine.

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The best hanging out we did was the night of the Ali-Inoki fight. Some cats on the Silver Streak set told Pryor that this could be the night Muhammad finally had his ass whipped. The idea threw Pryor into a cold sweat so he bought sixteen $25 tickets so that the champ would have a solid rooting section at the Hollywood Palladium where the closed-circuit was showing. After a bunch of phone calls, people like Jim Brown — looking more massive than ever — showed up to watch the battle. The fight was a total dog. The wrestler lay on the canvas all fifteen rounds, hoping to kick Ali in the kneecap. The lack of action was getting Jim and Richard pissed off. “What the champ gonna do?” Richard said, “Jump on him and screw him?” There was one great moment. Yelling at his corner, Ali blurted, “Shut up, motherfucker!” into an open mike. That mangled Richard’s brain cells. His feet started moving, his mouth was gagging, and he couldn’t sit down for five minutes. Later it was agreed that this was the first time such a word had been said on an outerspace satellite.

This week, Richard is too antsy even to hang out. It seems strange that a comic who’s been on the boards for fifteen years should be as nervous before a performance as Pryor is tonight, but there are solid reasons. Right now, Richard is in the middle of his “transition.” Last year, before cutting “Is It Something I Said?” Pryor worked the Comedy Store every night for six weeks. He polished the characters until they were perfect — so perfect that he could throw away the original stories, improvise madly, and still have it come out right every time. But that was before the movies hit — when Pryor only had one career to worry about.

Now, for “Bicentennial Nigger,” Pryor has done the Store a total of three times. He couldn’t help it; he was shooting Silver Streak until a few days ago. The Roxy gig has already been rescheduled twice so Richard could have more time to “get his head ready.” He hopes it comes out right the first time, too, because three days after the show he’s leaving to do another movie. Preparation is a comic fallback, good to have when the gags muff, even for someone like Pryor. His major new character — a preacher who gives a sermon entitled “How Long Will This Bullshit Go On?” — is not nearly worked out. But Richard is loath to spend more time. For him, life as a stand-up could be drawing to a close.

“Can’t do this forever,” Richard says. “I don’t really want to go around the country playing clubs, seeing cities. I did that already. I have this new house. I want to stay put and do films.” It was inevitable. Anyone who sees Richard’s theatrics on stage can tell that stand-up is restricting for him. That’s what the Vegas beef was partly about. Richard’s imagination is too big for the one-man-show shtick: Besides, Pryor has always been a tremendous movie fan. Asked what he sees, he says, “Whatever’s advertised.” Comic Jimmie Walker, another Pryor disciple, remembers hanging out with Richard. All they did was go to grind houses. Richard has been translating his passions into film scripts for years. And now, with the Universal deal, he’ll be free to do what he wants. More to it than that: Pryor says, “Hey Jack, saw Logan’s Run the other day; twenty-third century, but there wasn’t no niggers in it. Guess they’re not planning for us to be around. That’s why we got to make our own movies.”

Quite a ways from the twenty-third century to the Roxy tonight. Well, maybe not that far. Black Hollywood is out for Pryor, and space-age outfits abound. Minnie Riperton has a Martian hairdo; Smokey Robinson is dressed like a Sunset Cossack. White people look sharp too; record industry types really lay on the turquoise bracelets when they know they’re going to party with blacks. And as soon as Richard ambles on stage, rather timidly, he acknowledges the Caucasian presence. “WHITE PEOPLE!” he shouts in mock horror. The scream must be primal, because it seems to loosen him up. It’s a hip crowd; they all know the Pryor legend. They titter when Pryor mentions white women, applaud when he talks about coke. Richard is doing well, especially with a bit based on Jim Brown’s version of the Ali-Inoki fight. But so far it’s all fairly sedate.

The audience knows what it wants: Pryor can act in Lina Wertmüller movies next week, but tonight they’re looking for a crazy nigger. Cheers are heard when a guy shouts, “Get crazy, man!” Pryor looks at the heckler with a sly smile, then stamps his feet and screams, “What you talking, nigger, want to fight?” The challenge has been voiced and met. But Pryor really sticks it when he introduces black actress Rosalind Cash with a standard laudatory show biz patter and tops it with, “Wish I could get some of that pussy!” That’s gall. Rosalind giggles. And the heckler surrenders in stitches: “Richard, goddamn!”

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The place breaks up; Pryor, too. Now people are calling for Mudbone. If Richard creates any lovable characters, Mudbone has got to be the one. One of those history-knowing niggers, Mudbone is full of old stories about how he came up from Tupelo, Mississippi, way back when. He’s one of those cats who’re lying all the time, but looking at their faces tells you they’re authentic, as if just “being around” imbues them with a certain trust.

A typical Mudbone story is the one about the two dudes boasting about the size of their respective organs. They decide to settle it with a dangling contest off the Golden Gate Bridge. “Man, that water’s cold!” says the first. “Yeah,” agrees the second. “And it’s deep. too!”

Tonight there’s a special Bicentennial Mudbone. Except for the two opening lines, the whole routine is different. Richard makes the whole thing up on the spot. Lines like, “Jimmy Carter! I ain’t votin’ for anybody that owns a plantation!” The crowd goes mad and gives him a standing ovation.

Later, Richard says, “See, I can’t do the same thing over and over again. Even Mudbone changes.” After which he drives away in his spanky Mercedes, heading for the movies.

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[Photo Credits: via various Tumblr sites and Wikipedia; Ali and Inoki, Tim Wehr ©Stars and Stripes]

BGS: The Hippest Guy in the Room

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Not everyone gets Humphrey Bogart to play them in the movies. Harold Conrad did. In Mark Jacobson’s pitch-perfect story of the ultimate been-everywhere-done-everything knock-around guy, Conrad and a bygone era of gangsters, boxers, and movie stars are brought to life.

Jacobson has long been one of our finest magazine writers. He’s most famous for the stories that were the basis of the TV show Taxi and the movie American Gangster, as well as the brilliant profiles of Dr. J and Sonny Rollins. He called Conrad “a prince of a man, and a good friend” and this piece features Jacobson at his best. It’s featured in the essential collection Teenage Hipster in the Modern World. Originally published in Esquire in 1992, it appears here with the author’s permission.

Dig in, this is a treat.

The last time I saw Harold Conrad, he was lying in a hospital bed wearing dark sunglasses. Leave it to Harold to stake out a small territory of cool amid the fluorescent lighting, salt-free food, and stolid nurses bearing bedpans. The results were in by then, a tale told in black shadows on X-ray transparencies: one in the lung, the other in the head. But Harold always had an angle, and even now, a step from death, the cancer throughout his 80-year-old body, he sought an edge.

He motioned me closer, rasped into my ear, “Did you bring a joint?”

A few weeks later, after Harold died, I told this story at a memorial service. It got a laugh. Several of Harold’s old friends were there, telling Harold Conrad stories. Norman Mailer recalled the evening Harold once saved his life. Mailer was drunk that night, he didn’t notice the television set falling off the shelf above him, hardly even saw Harold, stronger than he looked, snatch the machine out of midair.

“Harold Conrad preserved half my head,” Mailer said.

Budd Schulberg (author of What Makes Sammy Run?) talked about a wild week in Dublin, where Harold found himself promoting a Muhammad Ali fight and how everyone lost money when the crowd stormed the gates because, people said, “It is an insult to ask an Irishman to pay to see a fight.” Bill Murray recollected a particularly gelatinous massage and steam bath procedure Harold once directed him to. “I was trapped. Melting away. Soon I would be a wet spot on the floor. And I said: I used to be somebody before I met this Harold Conrad.” These stories got laughs, which was only right. Harold would never tolerate a wake that didn’t turn into a celebration; that would go double for his own.

You could say this about Harold Conrad, newspaperman, superflack, friend to bard and bozo, custodian of a bygone age—he went out on his forever-bent shield. It was Harold’s life mission: to be in his own particular vision of the right place at the right time.

Like just two months before he died, when we were in Vegas.

Harold had been to Vegas before, of course, about 9 million times. In fact, along with almost every other bit of semi-off-brand action worth a tumble in this hot-breathed century of ours, Harold Conrad was in Vegas at the beginning, before they even threw the switch on the first neon sign. Ground-floor kind of guy, Harold. It was Bugsy Siegel (Ben to you) who got him out to the desert back in ’48, when the Strip was nothing but a dusty two-lane highway between here and L.A.

“I need you. Today,” Siegel summoned. In the way of Aeneas, Bugs was possessed by a revelatory calling to found a great city. His Flamingo Hotel, all pink and heat-waved in the sun’s blare, was ready to open, and he needed a mouthpiece, a PR sharpie to sling his ink, say how wholesome and all-American the slots and hookers were going to be. Harold had the bona fides. He’d handled the publicity for Meyer Lansky and the boys in Florida when they bought the Broward County sheriff and ran a Colonial Inn-cum-gambling joint down near Lauderdale in ’47; he was wise as to what to put in the papers and what to keep out, how to smooth over the rough spots.

There was the time Harold helped the boys, fixing that dicey scene with Walter Winchell. Winchell was on a gangbusters kick, making noise in his column about blowing Lansky’s whole operation. Winchell was big, you couldn’t muscle him. No one knew what to do until Harold, just out of the Air Force’s 101 Bomber Command, was riding in the car with Meyer, Frank Costello, and Joe Adonis. Never shy, Harold told the mobsters they had it wrong if they thought they could get tough with Winchell. The columnist was a royal prick, but he had this soft spot for Damon Runyon, who was dying at the time. A five-thousand-dollar check to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund, of which Winchell was the chairman, would help, Harold suggested. It did, too, but a well-placed word that a cute little number from Kansas City—whom Winchell had been known to eyeball—was working in the Colonial chorus line didn’t hurt either.

But the truth was, Harold didn’t really care to work for gangsters, which is why he turned down Bugsy Siegel. “Can’t help you,” Harold said to Siegel as the gangster showed him around the Flamingo’s best suite, the one with the escape chutes in the closets and steel shutters on the windows. “I’m a writer. This PR stuff’s on the side.”

“You can be a writer, too. I own Hollywood,” Bugs said. “That’s no problem.”

Great, Harold thinks, that’s all I need: to show up in Zanuck’s office with my typewriter and say, “Bugsy sent me.” Again he refuses. So Siegel shakes his head and says all right, if Harold doesn’t want the job, that’s good enough for him. That’s Harold: He turns down Bugsy Siegel and lives.

Yeah, like Kathmandu and Monte Carlo, Maine and Monrovia, Harold had been to Vegas before. In ’63, when he was hyping the Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston fight there, he drove out from New York in his Ford woody, along with his wife, the fabulous Mara Lynn, his son, Casey, and the family cat, which ripped up all the upholstery. They stopped off along the way, took in a few sights: the Grand Canyon and Eisenhower’s birthplace. Took six weeks. Flackery had a more unhurried aspect back then. Not now. This week they got Mike Tyson and Razor Ruddock over at the Mirage, where the fake volcano blows up every twenty minutes.

“Fucking town,” Harold grumbles as he reconnoiters the tourist-dense casino. Forty-five years ago Runyon referred to Harold as “my good friend, the tall and stately columnist for the New York Mirror.” Now, even as Harold remained seemingly eternally tall and stately in his dapper safari suit and pencil moustache, the Mirror was long gone, along with every other sheet he had ever worked for, including his beloved Brooklyn EagleJust the month before, after decades of smoking and drinking and staying out all night long, he turned 80. He’s not nuts about the idea. “You know what it’s like to look in the mirror and see the big eight-oh looking back?” Conrad imagined if he got this far it’d be enough time to “get revenge.” Instead, he opens his address book and “there’s two dead guys on every page.”

We went over to the Riviera coffee shop and talked with Gene Kilroy. Harold and Kilroy, a giant, raucous man who now works as an “executive casino host,” go back a long way. Together they went around the world with Muhammad Ali, to Zaire, Manila, Kuala Lumpur. It was the most perfect party, a road show no one thought would end. Harold first ran into Ali at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami back in ’61. He was working the third Patterson-Johansson fight, using every huckster’s wile to propagate the notion that the shopworn Swede actually had a chance. Johansson needed a sparring partner, and a young, brash man, just a year out of the amateurs, volunteered. Pop, pop, pop, Ali—then Cassius Clay—surrounded the lumbering Scandinavian with zinging leather. “Sucker,” the young man taunted, “I should be fighting Patterson, not you.” Harold’s eyes opened wide. He’d covered fights back to when they ran weekly cards in little dives like the Broadway Arena, where Murder Inc. had the first row on permanent reserve. Right off, Harold knew what he was looking at. “I saw the new champ today,” he told anyone who’d listen. Later, after they took Ali’s title because, as he said, war was against his religion and besides he didn’t have “nothing against no Cong,” Harold went around the country trying to get the Champ’s license back; persistent guy, Harold—he was in 20 states before Georgia said yes and Ali got to knock out Jerry Quarry in Atlanta.

Being with The Greatest was always electric, the most vital place to be, like the time in the Philippines when Ali leaned across Imelda, over to Marcos, and asked, “You the president? President get a lot of pussy?” “Much pussy,” Marcos nodded, with a curt smile. “You’re not as dumb as you look,” Ali returned.

Everyone figured Ali would be coming in for Tyson-Ruddock. He usually shows up for the big heavyweight fights and often picks up a few Gs from the promotion just for waving when they say his name. But the Champ’s not here. The Parkinson’s is getting worse, he’s too sick to travel. “Last time I talked to him on the phone I couldn’t understand a thing he was saying…” Harold says, softly. Kilroy nods glumly.

So it goes. In Conrad’s neo-autobiography Dear Muffo, a wry and passionate chronicle of his near-lifelong interface with celebrity large and small, he talks about how, in the service of hawking the first Ali-Liston fight, he got the Louisville Lip together with the Beatles, who were then on their first American tour. Taking his accustomed long view, Harold noted: “The Beatles and Cassius Clay—the two hottest names in the news, worldwide. They are all about the same age. I wonder how posterity will treat them.”

“I never expected to find out,” mutters Harold, who for the last 25 years of his life lived in the Oliver Cromwell on West 72 Street, his window overlooking the entrance of the Dakota, where John Lennon was shot dead. “At my fucking age you’re supposed to be dead, or at least sitting on your ass in Florida getting stoned. I didn’t know I’d still be out here hustling, trying to make a goddamned living.”

For Harold, that was a big part of the disappointment at Ali not being in Vegas this week; he’s supposed to be doing a piece on Muhammad for Rolling Stone,which probably made him the oldest freelance magazine writer in the world. A couple of years before, he had applied his special broth of piquant newspaperese to the pages of Spin magazine. Seventy-eight years old! Working for a low-life rockrag like Spin magazine! Getting cut for space between the Iron Maiden and Megadeath profiles. High blood pressure and arthritis—working for Spin magazine!

“What am I supposed to do?” Harold shouts in his ratchety voice. “I need the scratch.” Then he smiles and his eyes come on like star sapphires. “Also the action.”

Action. Harold’s unquenchable desire, the axis mundi of his existence.

Action. Something genuine happening. People coming together, energy pouring into a room until your head’s light and you can’t breathe right. It doesn’t happen every day, not the real stuff, Harold knew. He’d been in on more than his share of fakes and hustles. He was the point man in the promotion when Evel Knievel swore he’d soar across Snake River Canyon in a sawed-off rocket ship. He once put Casey Stengel on high-top skates to hype a roller derby in Oakland. He flacked for numerous wrestlers and six-day bicycle races. The smell of the unkosher come-on was not unknown to the less-than-petite Conrad honker. Legitimate action is a rare thing, eminently perishable. It can be a heavy jones.

Right now, here in Vegas, the tingle’s beginning. The crowd torsos past the slots, a crush of velveteen, a sheen of sequins. Here comes Tyson’s team, a dozen bodyguards, growly and hard, in black leather hats that say KICK ASS. Ruddock’s people are wearing Day-Glo baseball jackets. They’re singing Bob Marley songs, because Ruddock is from Jamaica. Harold has seen it before and better, way, way better. But shabby as it is, compared to the days of Sugar Ray and drinking coffee with George Balanchine (as Harold used to do), this doesn’t get old. Not this—that time before the bell when the drumbeating and backbiting and cadging suddenly cease and, for an instant at least, there’s a chance of witnessing something absolutely pure.

“Six forty-four, Pacific Time,” Harold says, looking at his watch. “Six forty-four, and there’s no place on earth where they have action like this. And we’re here. This is what there is to live for.”

Let me say, flat out, that Harold Conrad was the single most happening, been-everywhere/done-everything cat I ever met. For certain he had the best resume. I mean, sure, there’s that business about being Meyer Lansky’s press agent, and all those days and nights hanging with his particular rogue’s gallery of rats, badhats, and plutocrats, Runyon, Charley Lucky, Joe Kennedy, George Raft, Sonny Liston, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle (“the biggest pecker in Hollywood”), Marilyn Monroe, John Huston, Howard Hughes (he tried to pick up Mara Lynn), and Mike Todd, not to mention Mailer, Murray, James Baldwin, and Hunter Thompson.

Besides, how many guys can say Humphrey Bogart played them in the movies? It happened back in ’54, when Budd Schulberg wrote his novel about an even seamier side of boxing, The Harder They Fall, using his good friend Conrad as an exceedingly convenient model for the central figure of the somewhat dissolute, wholesomely cynical sports reporter Eddie Lewis. When they got around to making the movie, Bogart took the Lewis role.

“You can imagine how proud I am,” Harold says. “Bogart, my favorite actor, playing me in the movies! So one night I’m in a Sunset Strip joint, and I see Bogart sitting at a table. He’s got his head down over his glass, and I say, ‘Mr. Bogart, my name is Harold Conrad. I just want to tell you how proud I am that you’re playing me in The Harder They Fall.’ Now he raises his head, and I can see how skulled he is. His eyes are barely open. I repeat my line about how proud I am.

‘Why don’t you go fuck yourself,’ he says and drops his head back down over the glass … I was never so crushed in my whole life.”

The coda to the story is that Bogart later apologized, saying Harold caught him on an off night, that they both had a laugh about it. Good thing, too. Because, as Harold says, “If I hadn’t got that squared away with Bogie, I don’t think I would have ever been the same.” And that makes you happy, because Harold was the sort of fellow for whom you want (after appropriate duress, of course) everything to turn out right.

Born in East New York, Brooklyn, in 1911, the only son of Romanian steerage travelers, graduate of Franklin K. Lane High School, Harold Conrad swaggered a broken field through the century with the consuming immigrant pluck that told him anything was possible as long he thought fast, talked faster, and kept his head down in the clinches. To me—one who has never been able to casually say, as Harold did so frequently, “So one night I walk into Lindy’s,” Harold Conrad was a conduit to another, more vibrant, infinitely more colorful age. In a sea of retro-gimmicked, James M. Cain fashion knockoffs in slouch hats, he was the legitimate article, a guy with a capital G, a gaudy-pattered, Basie-rhythmed remnant of a time when people made buildings with spires lurching to the sky because they believed their works were beautiful and assumed the heavens would concur.

Hanging out with Harold was never a sweat. You’d go up to his apartment, look at the photos on the wall—Harold with the young Joe Louis, Harold with the old Joe Louis, Harold sitting at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Havana with Hemingway, Harold sipping tea in Cairo with King Farouk—and light up. Harold, you see, was always what they used to call “a viper.” He shared his first joint with Louis Armstrong and Dickie Wells backstage at Three Deuces on 52 Street. Armstrong told Harold that reefer was “medicine for headaches, toothaches, and the blues,” advice Conrad took to heart. He smoked marijuana every day of his life for the next 55 years. The haze lingered. In Vegas, Smokin’ Joe Frazier greeted Harold with the shout, “Hey man, you still with them funny cigarettes?”

Once you’re properly blasted, the stories can commence. Forever positioning himself as the bemused adjuster of bollixed-up situations, the sane everyman set down amid the messes of majesties and morons, saints and liars, Harold unveils his dense, textured oral history with snazzy syntax and much wingy body English. You hear of Harold’s days on the newspapers, immerse yourself in the dense incense of the dripping lead type in Hildy Johnson’s city room. Harold worked the Broadway beat and wrote sports. He covered the Dodgers for the Brooklyn Eaglewhere they set the box score on the front page by hand.

It was frantic back when 12 dailies hit the New York streets with half a dozen editions each. Harold scored his own kind of scoops. Once he was sitting in a bar and everyone was talking about how tough Capone was, and someone said, “Yeah, but he ain’t as tough as the guy who gave him the scar.” Got to find that man, Harold vowed, and he did, locating an unassuming barber in South Brooklyn. The story was, the young Capone felt the barber hadn’t given him the best cut. An argument ensued. Capone reached for his gun, but the barber was quicker with the razor. Slice. The fact that Capone never came back for revenge led Harold to conclude that Scarface didn’t need a PR team to tell him the value of a good nickname (“Nick-name, Some pun, ha, ha”).

The sagas go on from there, an eclectic, free-associated torrent owing nothing to chronology or rote, seamlessly stitched together by Harold’s singular baritone scrape. Tales of Roy Cohn and Cardinal Spellman’s strange liaison, days and nights with Ray Robinson, accounts of a month spent with Lucky Luciano in Naples, during the gangster’s melancholy deportation. “You don’t know what I’d give to go eating a hot dog behind third base at the Polo Grounds,” Harold quotes Charley Lucky as mournfully saying over a double espresso.

Often the reverie rolled on deep into the night, an unflagging, unredundant product of the raconteurial mind. You could be walking down the street, and apropos of nothing Harold would say, “So I was screwing Jack Webb’s girl…” Then he’d be back to Ali, talking about the time he had to hide the Champ in his apartment before the Ken Norton fight at Yankee Stadium. Ali was running around “trying to give away all his money to every Boys’ Club in town,” looking peaked; he had to be taken out of circulation—after all, Norton was tough, he’d broken Ali’s jaw back in San Diego. Harold tells how Dick Gregory came around with his health therapies and blenders. “You have to neutralize your poisons, Ali. You have to drink your own urine,” Gregory said, demonstrating with a beaker of his own bodily fluids.

“Drink my own piss?” Ali boggled. “He poured out everything Gregory gave him after that, the vegetable juices, every elixir,” Harold says. “Gregory never knew. But he kept raving, ‘See! He looks better already.”‘

Assessing the veracity quotient of Harold’s stories, Norman Mailer, Conrad’s friend for more than three decades, said, “I suspect they are more true than you might expect. They are true because we want them to be true, and it would break our hearts if they’re not.”

You wonder if it even matters anymore. Like Mailer says, we accept them because they’re better than most other stories, tales handed down from a previous generation we here in the pygmy land of corporate spin can only regard as godlike. People like Harold hailed from a pre-TV day when it seemed as if American giants strode the earth, a time when wiseacres and sharpies, suddenly free of the shtetl, Sicilian village, and failed potato farm, were given free rein to self-invent a wholly new urban ethos (“action”) in the hitherto-unexplored marginalia of the cityscape. In that way Harold, profoundly unsentimental with his faintly detached yet undeniably firsthand merge of style and substance, performed a patriotic service; he, alone, it seemed, survived for so long to tell thee of a time when the national spirit appeared to strike a bolder, more heroic chord. With the dekiltered surrealism Harold brought to that telling, he’d sometimes break through to what can only be called Art.

Like the time his first wife threw a lamp at him.

It goes, more or less, this way: “Yeah, I was living on 32 Street at the time. Right near Sixth. Across from the Empire State Building. My first wife was a great babe. Great body. Eurasian. But sometimes she’d get crazy. So she picks up this lamp and throws it at me across the room. Did you ever have a lamp thrown at you? It takes a little bit of time to get there. So I’m looking at this lamp coming at me, and I’m thinking, That plane outside the window is flying pretty low. Really low. Low and loud. I’m thinking all this as the lamp is coming. Then it goes by my shoulder, smashes against the wall with this tremendous crash. Bam! A lot louder than I would have figured. I’m thinking, wow, she’s really got a hell of an arm. The whole building shook. And know what? I didn’t find out until later that it was right then that that plane smashed into the Empire State Building.”

Ever offhand, relentlessly imperturbable, Harold was typically diffident about his appeal to the younger generation of would-be hepcats. He’d narrow his brown eyes (which so many women less than half his age found irresistible), puff on his cigarette (only adding to the aura of understated octogenarian sexuality), and unfurl his most compelling half-sneer. “I know about you guys, why you want to hang around with me, you fuckers. You see these pictures of me on the deck of the Queen Mary with a bottle of champagne, and you get all misty; you know there’s nothing you can do about getting that. No amount of money buys it back.”

But then, in the form of a disclaimer, he’d say, “Just stop me before I get to be one of those creaky fucks who sits around talking about how great the old days were. That’s the worst. Of course the old days were better. In the old days, you didn’t have arthritis. In the old days, you could get a hard-on. What scares me is when I can’t help thinking: It was better then. I mean: look at it, on paper. Then against now. Forget about it. I don’t want to let myself think like that. Instead I say, you just have to look harder to find the action now.”

So that brings us back around to Vegas, where Mike Tyson is driving Razor Ruddock into the ropes, and the referee, Richard Steele, is stopping the fight. This denouement is not appreciated by the Ruddock camp, which all week long has been predicting that something exactly like this would happen, since Steele’s got a track record for quick triggers, and besides he works as a pit boss for Steve Wynne, who owns the Mirage and happens to have a deal for Tyson’s next fight with Iron Mike’s paramour, the indefatigably skulduggerous Don King. Right now Murad Muhammad, Ruddock’s smarmier-than-thou promoter, is in the ring kicking Tyson’s trainer Richie Giachetti in his ample gut as a form of protest.

“Another black eye for boxing,” Harold remarks with his seasoned sarcasm as he watches the ensuing riot, referring to the headlines he knows will appear in every paper tomorrow. “Boxing’s like the night. It’s got a thousand eyes, all of them black.”

Harold gets up with a grunt. He’s been feeling crappy since we got to Vegas, tired. It’s a pulled muscle in his side, he keeps claiming, taking out another joint, playing craps until three in the morning. “It’s all fucking downhill after 80,” he groans. It’s not exactly like you’d notice, however, since Harold hasn’t looked his age for years. As the decades wore on, Harold took increasing delight in telling people, especially women, his age. No squint-eyed carny could ever guess it; it’s a shock to find out he’s 20 years older than you always thought.

Mailer says, “I first met Harold in ’61. I was 38 and he was 50. He looked 50. Then he didn’t age a day in the next two and a half decades. It’s only since Mara died that you began to see a change. That was a blow. Mara was in every way Harold’s equal.”

About that there can be no argument. Mara Lynn was, by all accounts, a piece of work, a doll with a capital D. Twenty years of study with Balanchine, she made her mark dressed in funny costumes hoofing beside Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, playing a zany with Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love, and pouring a rum and coke over the head of an excessively raging Jake LaMotta. Budd Schulberg refers to her as “a one-girl riot.”

Mailer, who featured Mara in his movie Wild 90, says with a stab of reverence, “She was a blond witch and a blond angel, she could be both, often at the same time, depending on her mood. She could get a guy agitated. Like every man married to a beautiful woman, Harold, I think, was always a little in awe of her.” Others, too. As one story goes, Bianca Jagger, impressed, once made a plaster cast of Mara’s posterior.

Harold first met Mara back in ’48, when he was doing a Broadway column for the MirrorShe was dancing at a place called the Hurricane Club. A deadly entry at any price, they got married in 1950, divorced in ’56, got back together a couple of years later, and lived together for decades more. Life with Mara apparently could be quite stormy. Once, when he was doing the second Ali-Spinks fight in New Orleans, Harold and Mara had an all-time argument. He stomped out of the hotel room and found a French Quarter bar to get drunk in. Sometime during the night, he fell in with a shipload of sailors and found himself inside an all-night tattoo parlor getting a tricolor severed heart affixed to his bicep. MARA, it said. Mara was shocked—after all, 67-year-old Jewish men are not known for getting tattoos on their arms in the middle of the night. It’ll keep you out of the cemetery when you die. But Mara was swayed. She said Harold’s tattoo was the greatest tribute of love she’d ever seen.

The fun stopped when Mara got sick, and Harold spent all his money trying to save her, which is how at age 80 he wound up writing articles for Spin magazine. As horrific as the end must have been, it was in keeping with the romance of a certain romantic age. Harold and Mara remarried after nearly 30 years of living in sin, smoked a last joint together, and that was it.

“Been faking it since then,” Harold would admit grudgingly. “I’m all front.”

In Vegas, you could tell things weren’t right. Even Don King—Harold’s collaborator on several Ali fights, whose incessant effulgence of “wit, grit, and bullshit” Conrad approvingly recognizes as being in boxing’s scalawag tradition—noticed. Nattily attired in a baggy red, white, and blue ONLY IN AMERICA sweatsuit, King was in the middle of swearing on a metaphorical stack of his dead mother’s Bibles that the Tyson-Ruddock battle would “separate the pugilistic wheat from the chaff,” quoting Frederick Douglass, George Bush, and Plato in the same sentence when he sees Harold. Losing no beat, the promoter abruptly launched into an apparently heartfelt, equally loud reverie about “Harold Conrad—the legend!—a man of much moxie, the nonpareil of sell!” But then King stops, tilts his multipronged coif, and says, “Hey, Harold, you all right, man?”

He’s not. Maybe he shouldn’t have had those couple of drinks with the Brit sportswriters, Harold says with the deep embarrassment of someone forever finicky about appearances, because when he got back to the hotel, he slipped in the lobby, fell down between the dollar slots, and his head’s been spinning ever since. It’s just his luck that there’s a chiropractor convention at the hotel, because before he even hits the lobby floor, six guys are pushing cards at him.

The next morning, walking through the casino lobby, a woman in a stretchy orange dress comes over and asks Harold (who never ceases to look like a somebody), “Are you a movie star?” “Sure, I’m big,” Harold replies. She takes out a piece of paper and asks for an autograph. Harold writes “Best wishes always, Ramon Navarro.” She looks at the paper, back up at Harold, and asks, “Aren’t you dead?” Harold only bugs his eyes, shrugs his shoulders, walks on.

A week after Harold’s return to New York, however, with merciless diagnostic secession, the pulled muscle mutates to “a small stroke” and then inoperable cancer. Plenty of times Harold would talk about how he spent day after day at Damon Runyon’s bedside, how one time Runyon, who couldn’t speak near the end, once wrote him a crotchety note followed by three exclamation points. “You don’t have to yell at me, Damon,” Harold replied.

After that, Harold hated hospitals. Now, so soon after Mara’s death, he was in Mount Sinai, the same place, “just about the same room,” where a couple of years earlier he visited his longtime friend Buddy Rich, when the famous drummer was dying. It was terrible, Harold recalls, watching the great basher who only went one speed—fast—stare up at the ceiling. Then Harold raises his right arm, and real pain crosses his face. “That’s what Buddy did,” he says, “raised his arm and said, ‘If I can’t play I don’t want to live.”‘

This gets very sad because soon the tumor is pressing on Harold’s brain, making it next to impossible for him to talk. Impossible to tell the stories, to rekindle the grander times. So you sit beside Harold’s bed with his son, Casey, next to the flowers sent by the Friars Club (“Frank Sinatra—Abbot”), watching him alternately doze and glance at the muted television, where the Mets are getting shut out, and the silence is awful, because three weeks ago Harold never would have tolerated such emptiness on the soundtrack.

A few days later Harold is on a plane to Mexico, going to a clinic seeking an alternative to the chemotherapy he was certain would kill him. It doesn’t help. And a few days after that, the New York Times has a three-column-inch item headed by the phrase HAROLD CONRAD, BOXING PROMOTER. The obit indicates that Harold was “a colorful character.” Likely, Harold would have accepted the short shrift with his usual cynic’s grace. He knew they always screw you on space.

As a storyteller he would also know that you can’t stop the tale there. So, allow me one more story about my old friend Harold Conrad. It was a night a few months ago when Harold and I went over to watch Sugar Ray Leonard fight an upstart named Terry Norris at the Garden. Harold, of course, has been to the Garden before, about 9 million times. Mostly he went to the old Garden, the one on 49th Street and 8th that was torn down back in the late ’60s. That was where the real action was, standing underneath the giant curve of the marquee, waiting for something to happen, sensing that this night—like so many before it—was magic. The new Garden, except for that one ecstatic evening when Ali fought Frazier 20 years ago, and a basketball game or two, has never had the same juice.

Tonight’s event is typically desultory, overpriced, the half-filled building little more than a TV studio, the backdrop for the cable-TV broadcast. The canned music, heavy on the sampler machine, is blaring. Leonard has been a great fighter, no argument, and you can’t knock a guy for getting rich, but with his viciously cute smile and bitchy demeanor, he’s always been a tinny presence, especially now that he’s a half dozen years past his prime. Harold’s never been a fan. He wouldn’t even have come to the fight if it wasn’t for that outside chance, that possibility, that something, something memorable, might happen. It’s the action, Harold’s addiction.

The result is an upset. Leonard loses, but where’s action in that? He was in there only due to his innate hubris and not knowing when enough’s enough. As when Ali and Joe Louis had that one last, unnecessary fight, the whole thing is mostly depressing. Harold knew it in the first round. A minute in, he turns and says, “He’s got nothing.”

So the fight’s over, and we’re walking over to Broadway in the cold night air. We’re at Herald Square, it’s Saturday night, and the town’s dead, no one moving except for some ragged figures over where the big welfare hotel used to be. “You could shoot a cannon off out here,” Harold snorts. “Used to be, on a big fight night, by now everyone would be going up to Toots Shors: Winchell, Joe D if the Yanks were in town, the Fischetti Brothers, who ran Chicago, right next to J. Edgar Hoover. People would be all decked out, up and down Broadway from here to 57th Street….”

We walk on, freezing. Years ago Damon Runyon wrote a column about how Harold never wore a hat. Everyone else wore one then, why didn’t he, Runyon asked Harold. “Because I do not look good in a hat,” Runyon quoted Harold as replying. Tonight, however, Harold is wearing a hat, crammed down over his outsized ears. “Got to,” he says, “my head gets cold.” Then, reminded that when Runyon died he had his ashes thrown out of a plane so they sprinkled over Broadway, Harold says, “Not for me. Dust in people’s eyes? No thanks. It’s against my religion. Besides, you never know, maybe I’ll live forever.”

Far From Satisfied

Our man Mark Jacobson has a beautiful story on Sonny Rollins in the latest issue of Men’s Journal. Rollins played with the great musical innovators of the mid-century–Parker, Monk, Dizzy, Miles.

When he was at the top of his game he took a two year sabbatical to practice and get better.

He’s 82 now and the man has kept playing long after his idols and many of peers are gone.

“I think he was really lost there for a while,” said the esteemed jazz critic Gary Giddins about the work Sonny did in the early to mid 1970s, an exceedingly strange time to be a jazz musician of the traditionalist bent. In what appeared to be an ill-considered attempt to keep up, Sonny made a few “fusion” records with Bob Cranshaw’s electric bass, a number of jazz-rock guitarists, and the criminally forgotten kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing Rufus Harley, but nothing took off.

By the late 1970s, however, things began to look up. “Sonny seemed to relax,” Giddins said. “It was as if he realized that he was primarily a concert artist and didn’t have to spend all that time in the recording studio. His live solos became these great meditative, playful, stream-of-consciousness things. It was like the whole history of the music was just pouring out of him on any given night. The audience understands the process, waits for him to find his groove, then the whole place explodes, because when he’s on, there’s nothing else like it in this world. The fact that he has continued to play as well as he has for so long is a real blessing. I never thought I’d say this, but Sonny’s really great period might be 1978 to now.”

Recently, health problems have prevented him from playing:

“I mostly stay in,” Sonny said, sitting in his leather chair with his now familiar blood-orange skullcap on his head. He had a bunch of tests scheduled to check on his lungs, which he said had gotten “a little worse.” He believed that the problem had been building for some time, perhaps back to 9/11. “I was living so close to the Towers, and when they fell down, we had to stay there,” he said. “It was such an upsetting time, I really felt like playing. I took out my horn and took this deep breath, something I’ve done a million times. But I immediately felt sick, like I’d gulped down something bad. Some poison. It was just in the air.”

Sonny looked wistfully at his sainted ax sitting on a brick shelf beside the fireplace. He hadn’t played for months, the longest period since he returned from India in 1971.

But he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. Indeed, he appeared in good spirits, even jolly. It was difficult in the beginning, he said, not being able to practice. It was something he feared. “I really felt that would be the end of me, not being able to play. But I’m coming to terms with it. We’re here for such a short time, you have to make the most of it. I’ve been lucky, getting to spend my life playing this horn. So how can I complain?”

Besides, Sonny said, it wasn’t like the verdict was in for sure. There was every chance he’d play again. This was a good thing, Sonny said, because “I haven’t really met my goals. I haven’t made my full statement yet.”

He asked if I remembered what he’d said back in Germantown, about those transcendent notes, the notes that hadn’t yet been blown, the ones that were going to take him “past Sonny Rollins, way past.”

Of course I did, I said.

“Well, keep your ears open,” Sonny said. “They’re coming.”

Made me think of Linda Ronstadt who told AARP last month that she has Parkinson’s.

“No one can sing with Parkinson’s disease,” said Ronstadt. “No matter how hard you try.”

Last week, she spoke with Sam Tanehaus in the New York Times:

“Every time Emmy comes to town, I wish I could get up on stage with her,” Ms. Ronstadt said. “I know I’d be allowed to, but I can’t do it.” Instead she will sit in the audience “and think the notes I’d be singing” in earlier times.

“I have no choice,” she added, withheld passion at last surging to the surface, just as it does in the songs she made her own. “If there was something I could work on, I’d work on it till I could get it back. If there was a drug I could take to get it back, I would take the drug. I’d take napalm. But I’m never going to sing again.”

For more on Sonny, click here and here.

BGS: The Passion of Dr. J

A treat from Mark Jacobson. Originally published in Esquire in 1984 and anthologized in Teenage Hipster in the Modern World, a stellar collection of Jacobson’s non-fiction. Reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Author’s note:

Michael Jordan is certainly the greatest basketball player of all time, but Julius Erving, the incomparable Doctor J, is my all-time favorite. No one ever gave me as much pleasure watching any kind of game. Since his retirement, Julius has been the subject of a number of distressing headlines, exactly the sort of stuff he sought to avoid during his career. He acknowledged the tennis player Alexandria Stevenson to be his out-of-wedlock daughter. Later, his son Cory drove his car into a lake in Florida and drowned. These are unfortunate, sad events, but even more so when connected to someone like Julius, who was once so effortlessly perfect. I’ve written numerous articles on sports figures, most of them basketball players, but Julius remains my number one. The fact that he used to pick me up at the Philadelphia train station in his Maserati, nearly unthinkable for a current-day player, is still one of highlights of my career. From Esquire, 1984.


I went for a ride through downtown Philadelphia with Julius Erving in his Maserati the other day, and with each passing block it became more apparent: Julius cannot drive very well. It wasn’t a question of reckless speed or ignored signals. Rather, he seemed unsure, tentative. His huge, famous hands clutched the steering wheel a bit too tightly, his large head craned uncomfortably toward the slope of the windshield. He accelerated with a lurch; there was no smooth rush of power. Obvious openings in the flow of traffic went unseen or untried. All in all, it reflected a total absence of feel.

This struck me as amusing—Julius Erving, the fabulous Doctor of the court, driving a Maserati with an automatic transmission.

Just an hour before, I’d compared the act of seeing Julius play basketball to Saint Francis watching birds in flight. It was my Ultimate Compliment. When a reporter with pretensions meets an Official Legend, especially a Sports Legend, it is mandatory to concoct the Ultimate Compliment, something beyond a plebeian “gee whiz.” Something along the lines of the august Mailer’s referring to Ali as a Prince of Heaven, whose very gaze caused men to look down. Or, perhaps, Liebling’s mentioning that Sugar Ray Robinson had “slumberland in either hand.” Saint Francis was what I’d come up with.

Viewing Doctor J move to the hoop inspired what I imagined to be an awe similar to what Saint Francis felt sitting in a field with the sparrows buzzing overhead, I told Julius. It was as if a curtain had been parted, affording a peek into the Realm of the Extraordinary, a marvelous communication that ennobled both the watcher and the watched equally. What wonders there are in the Kingdom of God! How glorious they are to behold!

“What you do affirms the supremacy of all beings,” I told Julius as we sat in the offices of the Erving Group, a holding company designed to spread around the wads of capital Julius has accumulated during his career as Doctor J. Large gold-leaf plaques calling Julius things like TASTEE CAKE PLAYER OF THE YEAR dot the walls. “Seeing you play basketball has enriched my life,” I finished.

“Thanks, thanks a lot,” Julius said politely. Then again, Julius is always polite. It was obvious, my Ultimate Compliment clearly did not knock his socks off. It was as if he were saying, “Funny thing, you’re the third guy who’s told me that today.”

Every serious hoop fan remembers the first time he saw Julius Erving play basketball. My grandfather, a great New York Giants baseball fan, probably had the same feeling the first time he ever saw Willie Mays go back on a fly ball. There was Julius, mad-haired and scowl-faced, doing what everyone else did, rebounding, scoring, passing, but doing it with the accents shifted from the accepted but now totally humdrum position to a new, infinitely more thrilling somewhere else. Who was this man with two Jewish names who came from parts unknown with powers far greater than the mortal Trailblazer?

Flat out, there was nothing like him. No one had ever taken off from the foul line as if on a dare, cradled the ball above his head, and not come down until he crashed it through the hoop. Not like that, anyway. Julius acknowledges a debt to Elgin Baylor, whom he calls “the biggest gazelle, the first of the gliders,” but, to the stunned observer, the Doctor seemed to arrive from outside the boundaries of the game itself. His body, streamlined like none before him, festooned by arms longer and hands bigger, soared with an athletic ferocity matched only by the mystical, unprecedented catapult of Bob Beamon down the Mexico City runway, or by the screaming flight of Bruce Lee.

Has any other individual in team sports radically altered the idea of how his particular game should be played to the degree Julius has? Jackie Robinson? Babe Ruth? Jim Brown? A more instructive comparison would be someone like Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio was impeccable, the nonpareil. He was simply better. Yet there is something hermetic about Joe DiMaggio. He did what everyone else did, but with incomparable excellence. Joe’s exemplariness is to be admired, but it doesn’t offer a whole program of reform. His greatness is a dead end, specific to Joe and Joe alone. Julius, on the other hand, may not have invented the slam dunk, the finger roll, or the hanging rebound—the entire airborne game in general. But he certainly popularized it, and by doing so he announced that others could follow in his footsteps, even surpass him. Seeing Julius fly to the hoop spread the news: it can be done, so do it. Nine years ago Julius appeared alone in his ability to go pyrotechnic at any time. This past year, however, lined up against a gaggle of his poetic offspring, “human highlight film” youngbloods like Dominique Wilkins and Larry Nance, Julius was content to make his final attempt a running foul-line takeoff: the “classical” dunk, a bit of archaeology demonstrated by the father of the form.

Befitting the matter-of-factness of a legend discussing his craft, Julius is not falsely modest about his contributions to the game. In the clinical fashion he employs when delineating the x’sand o’s of his profession, he says, “I’d say I’ve had an effect in three main areas. First, I have taken a smaller man’s game, ball-handling, passing, and the like, and brought it to the front court. Second, I’ve taken the big man’s game, rebounding, shot-blocking, and been able to execute that even though I’m only six-foot-six. What I’ve tried to do is merge those two types of games, which were considered to be separate—for instance, Bill Russell does the rebounding, Cousy handles the ball—and combine them into the same player. This has more or less changed the definition of what’s called the small forward position, and it creates a lot more flexibility for the individual player, and, of course, creates a lot more opportunities for the whole team. The third thing I’ve tried to do, and this is the most important thing, is to make this kind of basketball a winning kind of basketball, taking into account a degree of showmanship that gets people excited. My overall goal is to give people the feeling they are being entertained by an artist—and to win.”

Then Julius laughs and says, “You know, the playground game … refined.”

In Roosevelt, New York, the lower-middle-class, largely black Long Island community where he grew up, there is a playground with a sign that says THIS IS WHERE JULIUS ERVING LEARNED THE GAME OF BASKETBALL. Herein lies Julius’s triumph. He successfully transmuted the black playground game and brought that cutthroat urban staple to its most sumptuous fruition. He, once and for all, no turning back, blackified pro basketball.

He did it by forcing the comparatively staid, grind-it-out, coach-dominated NBA to merge with the old ABA, a semi-outlaw league that played the run-till-you-drop “black” playground game with a garish red, white, and blue ball. Julius was in the ABA, and the older, more established NBA could not allow a phenomenon like Doctor J to exist outside its borders. Most observers feel the NBA absorbed the whole funky ABA, with its three-point shots and idiotic mascots, just to get Julius. Once they did, the entire product of pro basketball was refocused. Surprise! The ABA, comprising many performers from Podunk Junior College and some who never went to any college, had a lot more than Julius Erving. Many players long scorned by the NBA brass became stars, the incandescent “Ice,” George Gervin, and Moses Malone among them. And there was a lot more running. Before the merger there was only one consistent fast-break team in the NBA, the Celtics. Now, with the ABA people around, it seemed as if the whole league was running, playing the playground game, Julius’s game.

This is not to say Larry Bird isn’t great, no matter where the game is, on the back lawn of Buckingham Palace or up in Harlem, but blackification was inevitable. No one will really deny that the majority of black players jump higher and run faster than the majority of white players, and that’s what pro ball, as it’s currently constituted, is all about—running and jumping with finesse.

Many people have wondered if all this running is such a good thing. Since the merger and the takeover by the “black” game, the pro sport has suffered reversals. Attendance is uneven and TV ratings are down; rumors of widespread social evils among the players abound. It is difficult to have any in-depth conversation about the status of the league without coming up against the Problem. A league official says, “It’s race, pure and simple. No major sport comes up against it the way we do. It’s just difficult to get a lot of people to watch huge, intelligent, millionaire black people on television.”

When presented with the notion that by elevating his art he may have served to narrow its appeal, Julius says, “It’s unfortunate, but what can be done about what is?” Well, at least the onset of the playground game has exploded several pernicious myths. If there is one thing Julius and his followers (Magic Johnson comes to mind) have proved without a doubt, it’s that just because you play “flashy” doesn’t mean you’re not a team player. No longer is it assumed that the spectacular is really, at its root, just mindless showboating easily thwarted, in the crunch times, by the cunning of a small man chewing a cigar on the coaching lines. Julius’s teams have always won.

For the hoop fan, though, likely the most treasured item concerning Julius Erving remains in that first cataclysmic moment of discovery, that first peek into the Realm of the Extraordinary. This has to do with the nature of the fan, the hoop fan in particular. All team sports have their cognoscenti, gamblers poring over the injury lists, nine-year-old boys with batting averages memorized, but somehow the variety of fan attracted to pro basketball is in a slightly more obsessive class, sweatier, seedier perhaps, but absolutely committed. This type of hoop fan I’m talking about isn’t much different from the jazz buffs of the 1940s and 1950s, white people digging on an essentially black world.

How Julius, the Official Legend, comes into this is that he approached the beady consciousness as Rumor. He was a secret. He wasn’t a well-publicized high school star like Kareem; he went to the University of Massachusetts (a school with no basketball reputation) and then played two years at one of the ABA’s most remote outposts, the Virginia Squires. There was no hoopla surrounding him, no Brent Musburger hyping the size of his smile. The Doctor was something for the grapevine.

It cuts both ways. Probably, by somehow staying out of the limelight (that was easier in 1970) and by choosing not to go to a “big program” school where a crusty Adolph Rupp might have made it a principle to correct all that boy’s strange habits, Julius was left alone to create his wholly new thing. And by virtue of this anonymity, the hoop fan was able to come upon Julius as a wondrous found object.

Magic Johnson, Sugar Ray Leonard—no one is knocking their talents, but they arrived on the scene tied in a bow, sold to anyone within eyeshot of a TV. They will always carry that stigma. Julius, however, remains eternally cool. You had to work to see Julius, seek him out. There wasn’t any cable; maybe you could catch him on an independent station that had been hustled into picking up one of the numerous ABA All-Star games. Even after he came from the Squires to the Nets, then the ABA New York entry, the hoop fan had to ply the forlorn parkways to the Nassau Coliseum to sit with four thousand dour faces expressing regret that they weren’t viewing a hockey game. You had to go out of your way to see Julius. But it was worth it. When you saw that Rumor was Fact, and a far more remarkable Fact than imagined, then you felt like you had your little bond with Julius, that he was in your heart.

That Julius has maintained the quality of play this long is gravy. How do you measure the benefit one gets from seeing beautiful things happen? Sometimes I find myself idly replaying some of Julius’s more astounding moves inside my head. The one against the Lakers in the championship a few years back, the one where he goes behind the backboard and comes around for the reverse layup? Ones like that bring tears to my eyes. Really.

Of course, it can’t last. Last season Julius’s club, the Philadelphia 76ers, for whom he’s played since the league merger in 1976, were mangled by the bedraggled New Jersey Nets, transplanted to the Garden State from Uniondale, New York. It was an upset. The year before the Sixers won the title in a near walkover. Of the thirteen games they played in the championship rounds, they won twelve. The Sixers didn’t come close to repeating. Julius did not have a particularly good series. There were several reasons. For one, it had been a grueling season for the Doc. Numerous Sixer injuries forced him to play many more minutes than he might have wanted to at his age. He responded with perhaps his best year in the past three and had his backers for league MVP. By the playoffs, however, he was weary, worn out. In the last moments of the deciding game he made repeated turnovers and missed key shots. Had a b-ball cognoscenti arrived from Mars right then, dumb to the history of the past fifteen years, he could have watched Julius’s play and pronounced it “ordinary.”

So it goes. Athletes get old, and soon they’re too old to play. In the variety of pro basketball Julius helped create, it happens even quicker. There is no DH in the NBA, and right now Julius, at thirty-four, is among the fifteen oldest guys in the league. If he stays another couple of seasons, as he hints he might, he could be the oldest. His Afro, once wild as a Rorschach blot and seemingly a foot high, is now demurely trimmed and flecked with gray. So it goes: a million dudes with the hot hand down in the schoolyard waiting for the Doctor to roll over so they can get their shot. No tears over that. But it’s this driving that’s upsetting, the way Julius is driving this Maserati with the automatic transmission. It’s all so ordinary, how Julius is driving.

“Don’t ask me any questions or I’ll miss my turn,” Julius says, smiling, as if to comment on his competence.

Then he makes this flabby, too-wide turn off Broad Street. What a deal: soon enough Julius is going to retire from basketball, but likely he’ll be driving that Maserati with the automatic transmission for years to come.

“As it came it can go, as it came it most definitely will go,” he says cheerfully, unaffected by his companion’s gloom. “It won’t really be that big a change for me,” Julius says. “I’ve always thought of myself as a very ordinary guy.”

This is a little tough to swallow, the Doctor an ordinary guy. This is not to say Julius Erving is not a regular guy. Sports-page “class”—Julius is the embodiment of it. Probably no athlete still playing has signed more autographs. His marathon sessions are spoken of with awe. Talking about it, Julius gives a look that asks, “Weren’t you ever a kid?” and says, “Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Should I accommodate today, or go straight ahead?’ and I usually find myself accommodating.” There is a limit, however. Walking through the icebound streets of Milwaukee, a fat guy accosted Julius, screaming, “Doc! Doc! Where’s the other shoe?” Julius frowned. “I gave that guy one of my sneakers three years ago,” he says, “and now, every time we go there, he asks for the other one. Some people are never satisfied.”

As far as hoop reporters are concerned, Julius is the best. “There is no second place,” says a Philly writer. This means that when deadlines are approaching and sweat is popping out on foreheads, Julius can be counted on to produce the proper verbiage, a smooth rap that, without much time-consuming translation, can be plugged into hastily written stories as “game quotes.” It is something Julius works on, like any part of what he calls “my basketball function.” He knows what reporters need and tries to give it to them.

“A courtesy,” Julius says. Ask the right questions (nothing controversial, if you please!) and Julius will, in a voice that makes Frankie Crocker sound shrill, calmly assess the team’s mood for you. He’ll also say that Denver’s Calvin Natt is among the toughest for him to score against, and that it is difficult to play Dallas’s Mark Aguirre because “his butt is so big you can’t get close to him,” and that George Gervin is his favorite player, and that the Knicks’ Bernard King, considered by many the best forward in the league, “will never get up to the level of the real all-timers like, say, Kareem, or myself, because he looks like he’s working too hard. When you reach a level of greatness, there’s a certain added element that goes into making it look easy.”

Mainly, Julius keeps a low profile. He will often make inquiries about jazz—more out of educational desire than passion, for he prefers fusion. You could call him elegantly laid-back, stylish, though certainly you’d never confuse him with Walt Frazier. He is always the clean-living family man and, while sharp, displays little outward flash. He leaves the five-pound jewelry to the Darryl Dawkinses of the world, although he appears to cop no attitude toward the more flamboyant displays, sartorial or otherwise, of his fellows. He has, after all, been around, and not much raises the Doctor’s eyebrow.

In Milwaukee, however, one John Matuszak, late of the Oakland Raiders football team and the movie North Dallas Forty, came close. The Tooz, as he has been known to call himself, appeared unannounced in the Sixers’ locker room, and he was calling some attention to himself. Even in a world of large men, the Tooz stands out. He goes six-foot-eight, about three hundred pounds. In addition, he sports a mug that resembles the sort of hood ornament Screamin’ Jay Hawkins might have mounted on his ’55 DeSoto to ward off unfriendly spirits. This is not to mention his dress on this particular night, which included a black silk coat, tuxedo pants, patent leather shoes, and a white satin tie over a leopard skin print shirt. He was also affecting a manner that would put him right up there for the Bluto part, should a remake of Animal Housebe made anytime soon.

It was the Tooz’s sworn purpose to have both Julius and Moses Malone, the Sixers’ famously intimidating center, join him at one of Milwaukee’s more stylish wateringholes.

First he invited Moses. “Gonna win this year, Moses?” was Tooz’s opener. Moses, no midget himself, was sitting on a stool stark naked. “Yeah, we’re gonna win, ” said Moses, laying on his usual Sonny Liston-style bale.

Then, like a shot, the Tooz was down on one knee. He clasped his palms together and drove them like a hammer into Moses’ thigh. “Don’t say we’re gonna win. Say we gotta win, Moses!!” the Tooz shouted, startling the few stragglers in the locker room. “Come on, Moses,” the Tooz continued, “repeat after me: WE GOTTA WIN!” And, to the amazement of onlookers, Moses, who had not uttered a word in public since telling Philly reporters, “I’ll be making no further comment for the rest of the season,” repeated this after the Tooz. Moses, however, steadfastly refused to have a drink with the former lineman.

Thwarted, the Tooz went looking for Julius, who was in the midst of taking a shower. Unmindful of the water splashing everywhere, the Tooz confided to Julius how much he loved him. “I love you, Doctor!” the Tooz bellowed. Then he said, “Come on, Doctor. The Doctor and the Tooz must have a drink together. I got some friends, it’ll be a party!”

Julius, never rude, thanked the Tooz for his offer but expressed his regrets, citing a 5 a.m. wake-up call the next morning.

“If you’re worried about people hassling you, forget about it,” the Tooz said with understanding. “No one will mess with you if you’re with the Tooz!”

The football player had now stepped over the edge of the shower, his long hair dripping down over his drenched suit.

Backing into the stall, Julius, seemingly unrattled, said. “You’re getting wet, you know that?”

“A drink, that’s all I’m asking,” Tooz repeated, reaching out to wrap his arms around the Doctor. “People love you, man,” the Tooz said with sincerity, “people live to see you do your thing.” Then, clearly disappointed, the Tooz left.

Several moments of silence ensued, during which Julius began to dress and Moses picked tape off his leg. Then Moses looked at Julius sleepily and said, “See those shoes?”

“What about the tie?” Julius said back.

Later Julius smiled and said, sure, it seemed like the Tooz was something of a boor, but you really had to get to know him better before you could say that unequivocally. After all, The Doc is not what you would call judgmental.

Teammates speak of him with healthy degrees of awe and camaraderie. Marc Iavaroni, a marginal forward cut by a couple of lesser NBA clubs before catching on as a “role player” in the Sixers’ system, says, “Playing with the Doc? Don’t pinch me, please. He looks for me. On and off the court. Can you imagine that! Doctor J looking to pass off to Marc Iavaroni? Know how that makes me feel?”

Nearly everyone close enough to Julius to have personal dealings speaks of some small kindness, a birthday remembered, an appreciated pep talk, a good laugh. League officials, always aware of the “image problem” of the sport, tell you how many young players Julius has done right by, how his example is primarily responsible for the “rehabilitation” of Chicago’s troubled Quintin Dailey. Julius’s community awards appear endless. Last year he got the Father Flanagan Award for Service to Youth at Boys Town; previous recipients include Mother Teresa, Danny Thomas, and Spencer Tracy’s wife. The list of charities supported, youth groups spoken to (he read Peter and the Wolf at a special children’s show of the Youth Orchestra of Greater Philadelphia), and hospital wards visited goes on and on.

“All part of my ‘nice-guy image,”‘ Julius says with a wink. He is aware that all these good vibes add up under the economic heading of “Doctor J”: is proud that the Q ratings of his numerous commercial endorsements show him rating higher in “believability” than in “popularity.” “But really,” he says, “I just try to be decent. I try to do the decent thing in the circumstances. Right now I happen to be a well-known professional athlete, so I attempt to be decent within that context. Being nice is pretty normal, I think. If someone was drowning in the river, you’d assume most people would throw them a life preserver. You’d figure most people would do that, under those circumstances. That would be the normal thing to do. That’s what I like to believe I’d do, being a normal person.”

This led to Julius’s further insistence that, really, he was a very ordinary guy. An ordinary guy dealing with extraordinary circumstances, perhaps, but ordinary nevertheless.

“I’ve never felt particularly unique,” Julius says. “Even within the context of basketball, I honestly never imagined myself as anything special. I remember, back home, when I first started playing. At nine, ten, I had a two-hand shot. Then by twelve and a half, thirteen, I got a one-hand shot. Always went to the basket, that pattern was set by then. Actually, I don’t think I’ve changed much as a player since then. Back then, before I was physically able, I felt these different things within me, certain moves, ways to dunk. It sounds strange, being five feet tall, thinking about dunking in a clinical way, but that’s how I was. I realized all I had to do was be patient and they would come. So I wasn’t surprised when they did, they were part of me for so long. But I didn’t find anything particularly special about it. I assumed everyone could do these things if they tried.”

Julius claims the idea of being a professional basketball player didn’t occur to him until he was among the country’s leaders in both scoring and rebounding at UMass. He wanted to be a doctor. That’s the source of his unbeatable nickname. In grammar school when the kids got up to say what they wanted to be when they grew up, Julius said, “A doctor.” “Doctor!” the kids shouted, and it stuck. Later, when playing in the Rucker League, the deejay types “announcing” games were calling him the Claw, a moniker based on his large hands. Julius, always sharp to the distasteful, objected and, when asked for a substitute, said, “Oh, why don’t you just call me Doctor.” Doctors, after all, Julius felt, were white-haired men with soothing voices, who surrounded themselves with a great air of dignity. They also made a lot of money. These were Julius’s two main concerns at the time. His father had left his mother and brother early on and wound up being run down by a car when Julius was eleven.

“I never really had a father,” Julius says, “but then the possibility that I ever would was removed.”

After that, security, financial and otherwise, became obsessional with Julius. Even today, with a contract that pays him more than a million each year and other lucrative interests (he refers to basketball as “my main business application”), Julius is notoriously parsimonious. Do not expect him to pick up the check. It was this desire for himself and his family (there are four children now, three boys and a girl, living in a mansion on 2.8 acres on the Main Line) that made Julius think of playing ball for money.

“That’s when I started hearing all these people talking about how different I was supposed to be,” Julius recounts. “When a hundred people, then a thousand people tell you you’re different, you just say to yourself, ‘Okay, I’m different. … Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. I liked what it got me. I was a young player, I was doing what came easy to me, I was having a good time, so I accepted it as a fact of life.” It was only during the stresses caused by his leaving the Nets (in a protracted contract battle), the subsequent league merger, and his arrival in Philadelphia to less than knock-out notices when Julius began to ponder, “Why am I different? Why, with all these great players all around, guys who play as hard as I do, guys who want to win as badly as I do, why am I Doctor J?”

Quite a picture: the angst-ridden superstar, his piston legs rocketing from the pinewood floor into the glare of the houselights, his seemingly inexorable gaze transfixed on the orange ring, yet, in reality, his leap goes nowhere, for he is lost.

That’s the way Julius paints it. During his first years in Philly it became commonplace to downrate the Doc. In the ABA he’d scored 28.7 points a game and nabbed nearly a thousand rebounds each season; now he was getting 21, 22, and his ‘bounds were way down. Some nodded and said it was true what they said about the old league; it was a circus, after all. In 1978 an unnamed coach was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying, “[Julius] has been on vacation for three years.”

For his part, Julius complained that his knees were killing him (he has had a tendinitis condition for some time) and that he’d purposely hidden away much of the spectacular side of the Doctor, so as to better mesh with then-teammate George McGinnis, another ABA scorer not noted for his passing skills. Yet, it wasn’t fun. None of it. He let it slip that more than likely he’d be retiring when his contract ran out in 1982. Now, though, Julius says his main problem was a spiritual, not a physical, one. “I felt totally hollow,” he says. “It was eating at me. I started off asking, ‘Who is Doctor J? How did I get to be him? What does being Doctor J mean?’ … then it came down to asking, ‘Who, really, am I?’ I became very frightened when I began to sense that I really had no idea.”

One can imagine the terror Julius felt. He seems a very methodical person, someone who likes everything in its place, not one to rush into things. Perhaps due to his longtime regimen as an athlete, where every day the practice is set for a certain amount of time and the bus leaves at such-and-such o’clock, he is given to compartmentalizing his life and talking of it in terms of small, constantly repeated activities. “I admit to liking the feel of things being in context,” Julius says, “the sense of the familiar waters.” This extends even to the court. Julius contends, “Out of one hundred moves I make in a game, I’ve made ninety-nine before, at one time or another. Sure, that one new one gives me a hit, but actually I get as much or more out of doing the other ninety-nine, because when I do something I’ve done before it means that I’ve compiled this information in my mind and selected the right action for the proper situation. That gives me a lot of pleasure.

“Back then, though,” Julius adds, “I felt completely alone at times. Often, after a game and a late dinner, in one of those cities, I’d be sitting up, three o’clock, four o’clock, after eating a big steak, just watching that TV, with all the phones turned off. I never felt like that before.

“It was finding my faith that pulled me through,” Julius says, leaning back from the desk in his Philadelphia office. In front of him is a rectangular paperweight you’d figure would be made of copper or brass and say, in embossed letters, something like JULIUS WINFIELD ERVING JR., PRESIDENT. But it is wooden and appears to have been made in a junior high school shop class. It says JESUS.

Julius’s conversion occurred during the summer of 1978, at a family get-together in South Carolina. The previous season had been his worst yet. Julius had played poorly, and he was suffering from numerous injuries. The flak was getting intense. “I was feeling a little sorry for myself,” Julius says, “but when I got down there and saw all those people, people I didn’t know, some of whom I didn’t even know existed, yet people who were connected to me in some way, it was really something. Because I was well known, everyone sort of used me as a lightning rod, a common denominator. They used me to get closer to each other. And I felt all that love passing through me. It was a very strange and wonderful feeling.”

At the meeting Julius encountered an uncle of his, Alfonso, a preacher. He told Julius about a blessing that had been laid on the family that, Alfonso said, was now being manifested through Julius. “After that,” Julius says, “things fell into place for me.”

When the subject of Julius-as-Christian comes up, a good portion of the cognoscenti express surprise (it is not well known) and then shake their heads. However, to the reporter with pretensions, it seemed a great boon, a fabulous opportunity. This isn’t to say Julius won’t go Jaycee on you at any moment; no doubt his “Dare to Be Great” speech ranks with the best. He is also given to saying things like “Did I want to open the doors to essential knowledge or did I want to remain on the merry-go-round of nondiscovery?” Primarily, though, here was an intelligent, observant man, who by the vehicle of a mysterious “blessing” had been thrust into the Realm of the Extraordinary. The hope was that he would have the presence of mind to keep his eyes and ears open while in this marvelous land, and that hope was rewarded. I mean, you could enter into a metaphysical dialogue with this man!

On a Milwaukee street we mulled over the notion of the Divine Call. On a bus in Detroit we beat around the dichotomy of true Needs and venal Wants. In a Madison Square Garden locker room we pierced the outskirts of the Spirit of Giving. But it wasn’t until our discussion in his office, during a laborious spiel of mine concerning the duty of the seeker to examine the varieties of religious experience, that Julius began to get pissed.

“I just can’t agree,” he said, “because even if you do manage to synthesize all these systems, what good is it going to do you? Even if you’re the smartest man on earth, even if you’re Albert Einstein, you’ll still only have a thimbleful of all the knowledge in the world. Where does that lead you? Digging and grinding on this unbelievable quest? Is there happiness in that? So it comes down to making concessions … down to knowing you’re not the wisest or the smartest, not the ultimate of anything, but knowing too that you have this powerful need to grasp something meaningful, something purposeful … you want a way, a way that makes sense for you, that you can embrace.”

It was clear what Julius was getting at. After all, he is a black guy in America, the son of a very religious church lady mother. He reached out to what was available to him, and it worked. He found himself capable of faith. But really, was there any other solution for the intelligent, humble man with the nice-guy image? Doctor J has not simply been a great player, he has been the epitome of a player, God’s own fantasy of a player. If Julius meant to “deal with logic, infused by faith,” as he says is his bent, was there any other conclusion but to accept the notion of the involved, controlling presence of a Higher Power? There seemed a profound sanity in Julius’s belief, and the reporter with pretension found it very satisfying.

Julius says he has no fear of life A.B. (After Basketball). “The thing that frightens me is what I heard about spiritual casualties. A spiritual casualty is someone … say a well-known athlete who takes a spiritual stand, and then the focus shifts from looking at that person as an athlete to something else. Suddenly there are all these people who want to put this athlete in the forefront because they assume he can be as significant spiritually as he was athletically. Then this famous athlete uses this forum to talk about what he feels about this new field he’s entered … and he doesn’t know what he’s talking about … like, say, someone might say, ‘Kareem, he’s a superstar ballplayer, so he should be a superstar Muslim.’ A spiritual casualty is someone who falls for that.”

Julius shivers at the mention of Eldridge Cleaver, who did much to make a mockery of himself in his post-Panther days, showing up on The Hour of Power one minute and modeling codpiece trousers the next. Julius is well aware of what went into the creation and maintenance of Doctor J, and he will do almost anything to keep that image from being defiled. “The last thing I want to be perceived as is a flake,” he says warily.

Some suggest that Julius might be a little less cautious. There have been intimations that by stressing his “Christian umbrella,” Julius has demonstrated a degree of naïveté concerning day-to-day life in lower-rent districts. This talk became increasingly intense after Julius’s no-profile stance in the recent Philly mayoral election, which pitted liberal black W. Wilson Goode against neo-Neanderthal Frank Rizzo. Hearing this, Julius gets as close as he does to bristling. “I’m very sensitive to this type of criticism,” he says, “but I’m not going to be pressured by it. My track record in the black community speaks for itself. You know, I’m not blind, I understand how things are. I remember what it was like growing up, and when we go to Boston and Chicago, there’s racism there. We hear what people shout, you know. I understand the danger of getting so far from a situation that you fool yourself and say it doesn’t exist, or get the illusion that because you’re a well-known ballplayer it doesn’t apply to me. I’m not living in a dream world, but I’ll tell you I’d be a fool not to use the advantages I’ve earned through playing in behalf of my family. But I’m not going to invite a potentially hostile situation into my life, into the lives of my wife and children, for just anyone’s idea of solidarity. If I can afford an extra layer of protection, I will exercise it.

“I’ve never been a political person. I’ve never backed a political candidate in my life. When I was with the Nets, a picture came out of me in the newspaper with a local candidate. It was just some function for the team, but this guy was there and he was running for some office, and then all these people were asking me why I was supporting the Republican candidate. I don’t want that to happen again. It would threaten my livelihood. If I backed the Democratic candidate, I’d run the risk of alienating half my public, and the other way around.

“But mostly it comes down to: I’ve played basketball for twenty-five years, almost every situation that can come up has come up. Therefore I’m qualified to sit here and talk to you about basketball. I don’t have those sort of memory cells concerning other areas.”

So, Julius says, he will enter the realm of the ordinary as a businessman. “An entrepreneur,” he says, professing to have always had “a deep yearning” to be such a person. Typically enough, most of his investments have reflected a stolid, blue-chippy side. He is a large stockholder in the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New York. He makes earnest use of the products he endorses, which have included Coke, Converse, Spalding, and Chap Stick.

Don’t look for Julius dancing in the back row of a Bally’s Park Place Hotel Casino commercial, or any Doc’s Dunkshot Bar opening in the East Sixties. Julius does, however, keep some mad money around for what he calls “risk capital ventures.” One of these ventures was the now-defunct Doctor’s Shoe Salon, a chic fulfillment of one of Julius’s long-cherished fantasies. Throughout his life, especially since he got rich, Julius found it galling that he could not find high-fashion shoes to wrap around his size fifteens. The Doctor’s Shoe Salon assumed there were many others in the same boat and sought to fill that need by offering a wide selection for the hard-to-fit dog, mostly in the two-hundred-dollar range. The shop, poshly appointed and located on Philly’s South Second Street, was slated to be the prototype for a far-flung chain that would eventually take in all the NBA cities. It was not a success. “It caused me untold duress and aggravation,” Julius says sheepishly. “A lot of people expected, because my name was involved, that I’d be there all the time. When I wasn’t, they got mad. And when I was, I couldn’t concentrate on the business. I got bombarded with all kinds of questions, basketball stuff, A to Z. Plus we had a lot of trouble with kids who thought it was a sneaker store.” Kind of humorous—the great Doctor as the harried shoe salesman. But never let anyone say Doc doesn’t learn from experience. Currently his “risk” project is REACH, a camp for gifted and highly motivated children. Nowhere on the brochure will you find the name Julius Erving.

Basically, though, Julius says, his business goal is “to work four hours and rest twenty, as opposed to now, when I’ve got to work twenty hours to rest four.” Until he gets there he has other things to think about. The end of all those hotel rooms and 5 a.m. flights to the next city will mean a lot more time at home, a lot more time.

“One hundred and thirty to 140 more nights,” Julius relates, admitting some anxiety about this. Now, Julius, his wife Turquoise, and their four children (Cheo, Julius III, Jazmin, and Cory) are pretty much your all-American family, as was witnessed at last season’s dunk contest, during which the kids told Dad which shots to make. But 130, 140 nights. “A lot of nights,” Julius predicts, “they’re gonna be saying, ‘Him? Again?”‘ Then he laughs and says, “This is all first-generation problems for all of us, my wife and I, dealing with the circumstances we find ourselves in. There’s going to be a lot of trial and error, that’s for sure.” Then he says he’s thinking of calling up John Havlicek, Jerry West, “some old-timers, people on my level,” to get some pointers on the life ahead. Somehow, you figure, he’ll get over.

Mark Jacobson is a writer and journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. He is known for his explorations of the seamy side of urban life, both here and abroad, and for his offbeat and witty take on popular culture. His 2000 profile of Frank Lucas formed the basis for the Ridley Scott film American Gangster. He is the author of The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans; 12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time: A Semi-Dysfunctional Family Circumnavigates the Globe; and the novels Gojiro and Everyone and No One. He has been a contributing editor to Rolling StoneThe Village VoiceEsquire, and New York. You can find more at his website.

Million Dollar Movie

Mark Jacobson on the new Kubrick documentary:

After Strangelove, the canon was filled in. There was The Killing, from 1956, in which Kubrick reconfigured time to stage a racetrack heist and had Vince Edwards tell Marie Windsor, “Don’t bug me, I got to live my life a certain way.” There was Tony Curtis, talking like Sidney Falco/Bernie Schwartz as he washes Laurence Olivier’s back in Spartacus. And, of course, there was James Mason’s Humbert Humbert shooting Clare Quilty in the boxing glove and telling Dolores Haze of the “great feeling of tenderness” he has for her. But how could anyone have predicted the transformative experience of 2001? Four straight nights, we lay on the carpet between the first row and the screen, staring up into the Light. When it was over, the usher peeled us from the floor.

Which brings us up to The Shining, which, like so many Kubrick fans of my vintage, I lined up to see the night it opened at the now-torn-down Criterion Theatre in old, scuzzy Times Square.* Barry Lyndon had been an oil painting. But The Shining augured so much more. Pre-Internet rumors had been circling for months: Kubrick, holed up in his English mansion, had ordered forklifts of books delivered to his file-filled study. He read the first few pages of each book, groaned, and threw it against the wall with a thump. A huge pile of discarded material grew, a dozen feet high or more. Then the thumping stopped. The master had found his new vehicle: a Stephen King horror story set in a haunted hotel. Brian De Palma had a hit with Carrie; King was hot. Bemoaning that for all his success he had yet to make a film that had “done blockbuster business,” Kubrick pounced. Aesthetically, it made sense—a Kubrick horror picture, a return to the reliable genre chassis, one more opportunity to merge the high and the low in that seamless wiseguy way.

Except it sucked. For the Kubrick fan, The Shining was like watching Roger Corman on Robitussin, a 16-rpm Fall of the House of Usher, some classroom chunk of faux-Pirandello absurdism. Among my ilk, the verdict was that the great Stanley, egghead avatar of Cold War cool, had gone terminally corny midway through A Clockwork Orange, halfway through the “Singin’ in the Rain” scene. The Shining seemed the final nail in the suddenly square-shape coffin. It was a rough year for the heroes of youth, with Bob Dylan born again, Muhammad Ali finished, and now Kubrick.

I mean, “Here’s Johnny!” This was supposed to be funny?

Million Dollar Movie

This here is intriguing. Mark Jacobson’s 1999 article for New York magazine on Stanley Kubrick and Joe D:

One can only suppose how Stanley Kubrick might have filmed the life story of Joe DiMaggio. How might the disparate life visions of these two Bronx icons who last week died barely hours apart have meshed on the silver screen? For one thing, Kubrick, who liked biographies of the outsize (he made Spartacus, wanted to make Napoleon), would almost certainly have used idiosyncratic, Max Ophlus-like moving-camera shots to depict those two nifty backhand stabs utilized by Ken Keltner to stop Joltin’ Joe’s famous streak in 1941. As for the Yankee Clipper’s well-documented weekly ritual of sending a bouquet of roses to Marilyn Monroe’s grave site for twenty years, one can only guess at how Kubrick’s mordant comic spirit might have handled that. After all, Kubrick, horny boy of the Bronx, was never noted for love scenes, requited or not, even if Shelly Winters did keep the ashes of her beloved husband on her beside table in Lolita.

Joe D, a film by Stanley Kubrick — it might not be Dr. Strangelove, but ya gotta love it. Could have happened, too, since as a boy-wonder Bronx still photographer in the midst of cranking out a 70 average at Taft High School and haunting movie palaces like the Loews Paradise and the RKO Fordham, Kubrick rarely missed an opportunity to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, where he saw the peerless Clipper patrol the center-field greenery in all his Apollonian glory. The stuff of dreams, no doubt. While never fulfilling his primary ambition of playing second base for the Bronx Bombers, once Kubrick began working as an assignment photographer for Look magazine, he often returned to the Big Ballpark. Indeed, in the May 9, 1952, issue of Look, there is a photo of Joe DiMaggio taken by Stanley Kubrick.

The Bobster

Here’s Mark Jacobson’s 2001 Rolling Stone feature on the Cult of Bob:

Someday, no doubt, when the keepers of the tower officially allow that Bob was one of the two or three greatest American artists of the second half of the twentieth century, Dylanology will be boiled down to a standard three credits, a dry bonepile of jewels and binoculars to squeeze in between the Yeatsology and Whitmanology. You might even be able to major in Dylanology, hand in papers on the interplay between Deuteronomy and Dock Boggs in Bob’s middle period. But for now, even as the Dylan economy grows each day (a mint copy of the rare stereo version of Freewheelin’, which contains four extra songs, goes for $20,000), Dylanology, the semi-sub rosa info jungle of writers, fanzine publishers, collectors, Web page keepers, DAT tapers, song analyzers, old-girlfriend gossips and more, retains a bracing hit of democratic auto-didacticism, a deep-fried aroma of overheated neocortices.

“We are fanatical because we are fanatics,” says the indefatigable Paul Williams, author of more than twenty-five books, whose Bob Dylan: Performing Artist 1960-1973, Bob Dylan: Performing Artist 1974-1986 and the ongoing Bob Dylan: Performing Artist 1987-2000 will likely approach an aggregate 1,000 pages before he’s done. Speaking of his Bob “compulsion,” Williams, who is also the former literary executor of Philip K. Dick’s estate, says, “If Shakespeare was in your midst, putting on shows at the Globe Theatre, wouldn’t you feel the need to be there, to write down what happened in them?”

…Rock is full of cults, but nothing — not collecting the Beatles, not documenting Elvis — rivals Dylanology. Back in his dark-sunglasses days, Dylan might have been the coolest, but Dylanology is not about cool. Neither is it a hobby, a fleeting affectation or indolent lord-it-over-you taste-making to get girls, like in High Fidelity. Dylanology is a risk, a gamble, a spiritual declaration, a life choice, and if you don’t believe it, ask those real Weathermen, erstwhile college students who took the drama of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to heart, maybe too much. A year after Rubin Carter addressed the United Nations, several of those forgotten revolutionaries continue to rot in jail, so ask them which way that wind blows. But this is how it is with Dylanology. To be a Bobcat is to acknowledge the presence of the extraordinary in your midst, to open yourself to its workings, to act upon it. In a world of postmod ephemera, this is a solemn bond.

In turns, a real folkie, a real rocker, a real lover, a real father, a real doper, a real shit, a real Christian, a real Jew, a real American from a real small town come to a real big town with real dreams and little false modesty, Dylan, big-tent preacher of millennial concerns both sacred and profane, has never offered less than authenticity to his variegated flock, no matter what peculiar ax they might grind. With Bob, you may feel betrayed, bitterly disappointed, but you never think it’s a hustle. Because he has always been so willing to lay his heart on the line, so are we.

The Return of Superfly

Sticking with the good stuff, here’s Mark Jacobson’s New York story that was the basis for the movie, American Gangster:

Twenty-five years after the end of his uptown rule, Frank Lucas, now 69, has returned to Harlem for a whirlwind retrospective of his life and times. Sitting in a blue Toyota at the corner of 116th Street and what is now called Frederick Douglass Boulevard (“What was wrong with just plain Eighth Avenue?” Lucas grouses), Frank, once by his own description “tall, pretty, slick, and something to see” but now stiff and teetering around “like a fucking one-legged tripod,” is no more noticeable than when he peered from Nellybelle’s window.

Indeed, few passersby might guess that Lucas, at least according to his own exceedingly ad hoc records, once had “something like $52 million,” most of it in Cayman Islands banks. Added to this is “maybe 1,000 keys of dope on hand” with a potential profit of no less than $300,000 per kilo. Also in his portfolio were office buildings in Detroit, apartments in Los Angeles and Miami, “and a mess of Puerto Rico.” There was also “Frank Lucas’s Paradise Valley,” a several-thousand-acre spread back in North Carolina on which ranged 300 head of Black Angus cows, including a “big-balled” breeding bull worth $125,000.

Nor would most imagine that the old man in the fake Timberland jacket was a prime mover in what federal judge Sterling Johnson, who in the seventies served as New York City special narcotics prosecutor, calls “one of the most outrageous international dope-smuggling gangs ever . . . an innovator who got his own connection outside the U.S. and then sold the stuff himself in the street.”

It was “a real womb-to-tomb operation,” Johnson says, and the funerary image fits, especially in light of Lucas’s most culturally pungent claim to fame, the so-called Cadaver Connection. Woodstockers may remember being urged by Country Joe & the Fish to sing along on the “Fixin’ to Die Rag” — “Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box.” But even the most apocalyptic-minded sixties freak wouldn’t guess the box also contained a dozen keys of 98 percent-pure heroin. Of all the dreadful iconography of Vietnam — the napalmed girl running down the road, Calley at My Lai, etc., etc. — dope in the body bag, death begetting death, most hideously conveys ‘Nam’s spreading pestilence. The metaphor is almost too rich. In fact, to someone who got his 1-A in the mail the same day the NVA raised the Red Star over Hue City, the story has always seemed a tad apocryphal.

But it is not.

Here’s Jacobson…

Night-Shifting for the Hip Fleet

“Night-Shifting for the Hip Fleet,” by Mark Jacobson. New York Magazine, 1975:

A driver I know named David is worried. David and I used to moan cab stories to each other when I was on the night line. Now he keeps asking me when I’m coming to work. After four years of driving a cab, he can’t believe interviewing people is work. David is only a dissertation away from a Ph.D. in philosophy, which makes him intelligent enough to figure out that job openings for philosophers are zilch this year. The only position his prodigious education has been able to land him was a $25-a-night, one-night-a-week gig teaching ethics to rookie cops. David worked his way through college driving a cab. It was a good job for that, easy to arrange around things that were important. Now he has quit school in disgust and he arranges the rest of his life around cab-driving. He has been offered a job in a warehouse for which he’d make $225 a week and never have to pick up another person carrying a crowbar, but he’s not going to take it. At least when you’re zooming around the city, there’s an illusion of mobility. The turnover at the garage (Dover has over 500 employees for the 105 taxis; it hires between five and ten new people a week) makes it easy to convince yourself this is only temporary. Working in a factory is like surrender, like defeat, like death; drudging nine to five doesn’t fit in with a self-conception molded on marches to Washington. Now David’s been at Dover for the past two years and he’s beginning to think cab freedom is just another myth. “I’ll tell you when I started to get scared,” David says. “I’m driving down Flatbush and I see a lady hailing, so I did what I normally do, cut across three lanes of traffic and slam on the brakes right in front of her. I wait for her to get in, and she looks at me like I’m crazy. It was only then I realized I was driving my own car, not the cab.”

David has the Big Fear. It doesn’t take a cabdriver too long to realize that once you leave the joy of shape-up and start uptown on Hudson Street, you’re fair game. You’re at the mercy of the Fear Variables, which are (not necessarily in order): the traffic, which will be in your way; the other cabdrivers, who want to take your business; the police, who want to give you tickets; the people in your cab, lunatics who will peck you with nudges and dent you with knives; and your car, which is capable of killing you at any time. Throw in your bosses and the back inspectors and you begin to realize that a good night is not when you make a living wage. That’s a great night. A good night is when you survive to tell your stories at tomorrow’s shape-up. But all the Fear Variables are garbage compared with the Big Fear. The Big Fear is that times will get so hard that you’ll have to drive five or six nights a week instead of three. The Big Fear is that your play, the one that’s only one draft away from a possible show-case will stay in your drawer. The Big Fear is thinking about all the poor stiff civil servants who have been sorting letters at the post office every since the last Depression and all the great plays they could have produced. The Big Fear is that, after twenty years of schooling, they’ll put you on the day shift. The Big Fear is you’re becoming a cabdriver.

The typical Big Fear cabdriver is not to be confused with the archetypal Cabby. The Cabby is a genuine New York City romantic hero. He’s what every out-of-towner who’s never been to New York but has seen James Cagney movies thinks every Big Apple driver is like. A Cabby “owns his own,” which means the car he drives is his, not owned by some garage boss (58 per cent of New York’s 11,787 taxis are owned by “fleets” like Dover which employ the stiffs and the slobs of the industry; the rest are operated by “owner-drivers”). The Cabby hated Lind-say even before the snowfalls, has dreams about blowing up gypsy cabs, knows where all the hookers are (even in Brooklyn), slurps coffee and downs Danish at the Belmore Cafeteria, tells his life story to everyone who gets into the cab, and makes a ferocious amount of money. But mostly, he loves his work. There aren’t too many of them around anymore. The Dover driver just doesn’t fit the mold. He probably would have voted for Lindsay twice if he had had the chance. He doesn’t care about gypsies; if they want the Bronx, let them have it. He knows only about the hookers on Lexington Avenue. He has been to the Belmore maybe once and had a stomach ache the rest of the night. He speaks as little as possible, and barely makes enough to get by. He also hates his work.

 

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver