1. 3/21/12 (untitled) Man in subway, Wall Street Occupiers
2. 3/25/12 (untitled) Rainbow Book Fair
3. 4/14/12 (untitled) Spring in New York
4. 4/19/12 (untitled) Occupy Wall Street
5. 5/2/12 (untitled) May Day rally
6. 5/6/12 Subway and sidewalk entertainers and the dust of time
7. 5/13/12 Rollerena and the Tootle Man
8. 5/20/12 The Whole Foods Project: love on a plate
9. 5/27/12 Me and the Gay Pride Parade
10. 6/3/12 Village characters: the light side and the dark
11. 6/10/12 Jury duty in the Big Apple: our cross to bear
12. 6/17/12 Alcoholics I have known: their charm, their cunning, their illusions
13. 6/24/12 The Bloody Corner: what I’ve seen from my window
14. 7/1/12 Tolerance and diversity in the city: what New Yorkers will and won’t put up
with, and why
15. 7/8/12 How I got mugged and so became a real New Yorker
1. Dear friends of CB and RL, 3/21/12
Let me share with you two very New York experiences:
1. Yesterday, on the subway, I saw a man of about 40 in a black tank top and black tights, one leg solid black and the other with a leopard print (black curlicues on pale yellow), with three outsized rings on one hand and another on the other, a tattoo on one arm (I couldn't see the other arm), a belt with metal studs, and tan pointed -- I mean really pointed -- shoes. He looked like he'd just come off the stage (and I don't mean the Wild West kind). So what's so New York about it? First, I've never seen pants with legs that didn't match. And above all, second, no one in the car was looking at him (except me, discreetly), as if to say, "So what? We've seen it all." And that is definitely New York.
2. At Union Square this morning, when I went to the greenmarket, I encountered 20 or 30 Wall Street Occupiers with sleeping bags, very peaceful, all huddled together and looking a bit dirty and bedraggled, Surrounding them and outnumbering them maybe 6 to 1 were the police: a solid line of our blue-coated defenders, keeping Occupiers and bystanders apart. The Occupiers had obviously spent the night there (and looked it!), and maybe were being urged to move on by the minions of order. A peaceful scene, when I saw it, with the Occupiers brandishing signs and chanting in chorus, as is their custom. I support them in many ways (they voice my concerns and indignation), but I couldn't identify with them, given their bedraggled look. I question whether demonstrations like this now serve them well; they're apt to turn off otherwise sympathetic bourgeois like me. Who knows how the confrontation -- if that's what it was -- ended? But we taxpayers are paying for all the police overtime that these occasions cause. The Occupiers, of course, would respond: "We're peaceful. What are they (or you?) scared of?" What, indeed? In dear New York there's never a dull moment. Here's wishing you all the best from your New York correspondent, Cliff Browder
© 2012 Clifford Browder
2. Dear friends of CB, 3/25/12
Here is an e-mail that I sent to my publisher, Robert Giron, founder of Gival Press, reporting on the Fourth Annual Rainbow Book Fair, held at the LGBT Center on 13th Street, a short distance from my apartment, on Saturday, March 24, 2012. I left home at 10 a.m. so as to be set up at my table by 11 a.m., when the Fair opened, with my novel The Pleasuring of Men prominently displayed. I was there all day until it closed at 5:30 p.m. A wild fun scene, as will be seen. Hi! I sold a whopping big 4 1/2 books! (The half is for a promised e-book sale that will probably take place.) Still, it was fun, and my table mate sold only 2 1/2, and some other tables probably even less. He and I exchanged books, and I gave one to a CLAGS (Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at CUNY) raffle. The postcards [showing the cover of Pleasuring] were a big hit -- lots of people took them. Your choice of covers was excellent; it got their attention ("Where did you find him?" said one visitor) and caused many to pick up the book and read the blurb on the back. Maybe 5 out of 6 then put the book down and went on their way. (Can I complain? No! I myself made the rounds, talked with other exhibitors, looked at lots of books but didn't buy.) But the four who bought it -- all older males -- then initiated a conversation and bought. Very few younger people at the Fair, whether as exhibitors or visitors, which shows you who reads. There's no denying that an author gets a special thrill from selling to a stranger who never heard of him or the book but is drawn to it and buys. These sales would never have happened if I and the book hadn't been there in the flesh. And the last one to buy asked showed real interest, asked about how I research it, etc. I read to about 15 people in a side room, but this brought no sales, though two later congratulated me on the reading. Readings there are only a sideshow; I'm sure more sales would come if people came primarily for a reading and talked with the readers afterward. The comment of the day came from a very likable youngish Latino who read at the same time I did -- a memoir of himself as a stripper and hustler. I had read The Ten Commandments of Male Prostitution (pp. 77-78). His comment: "Your ten commandments read like my date book." We then both laughed and agreed that many things change with time, but not sex. So I have no regrets (though I had hoped to sell 5 or 6 copies) and wouldn't have missed it for anything. The ground floor section was jammed from the start. The third floor where I was had a slow start, but by 4 p.m. it was crowded too. I'd say that hundreds attended, though I couldn't say exactly how many. And the stuff offered ranged from literary to porn, with everything in between -- mostly from presses I'd never heard of. Much conviviality and lots of fun. And a useful tip from my table mate: send books to Next [Magazine] and Shelf Awareness (I'll have to google them to find out what they are) and hope for a favorable review (he got one from both); such reviews probably won't generate sales, but may provide a useful quote to be used on a website. I'll investigate and probably follow through. So yes, it was worth it, and after all I came away with $72.00 in pure profit. Regards from a weary but satisfied exhibitor, Cliff
© 2012 Clifford Browder
3. Dear friends of Cliff Browder who love New York (and even those who don't): 4/14/12
Here, in response to those who liked my earlier message about a leopard man in the subway and Wall Street Occupiers at Union Square, and wanted more New York vignettes, is a list of impressions from my trip yesterday to an uptown appointment and then across Central Park. In the subway: A real-life violinist, quite good, playing against amplified recorded music. Hurried New Yorkers stopped to listen. Park Avenue, en route to the Park: at every intersection, a huge bed of yellow tulips -- a blast of color; and between intersections, trees laden with reddish blossoms. All flowers at their peak, and visible looking both uptown and downtown, at or between intersections, as far as the eye could see. A small front yard of a private East Side residence: A dense bed of tulips of every color; I had to stop to look. Central Park: Hundreds of visitors and New Yorkers everywhere enjoying the mild spring weather with not a cloud in the sky, strolling, sprawling, gobbling ice cream cones, eying blossoms everywhere. Lots of sprawlers on Cedar Hill (a hill sprinkled with cedar trees, but with lots of grass for sprawling). Long lines for the Boat House restaurant, for boats to row on the Lake, and for the ladies' room (this last just like at the Met during an intermission in the opera). At Bethesda Fountain, another real-life violinist scraping away joyously. En route to the 72nd Street entrance, a bigger-than-life statue of Daniel Webster with the words "Liberty and Union / Now and Forever / One and Inseparable" (Texas, are you listening?). In Strawberry Fields, where blue and yellow violets dotted the grass, people snapping photos of each other at the John Lennon memorial, a circular black-and-white mosaic with the single word IMAGINE at the center. (John Lennon lived in the Dakota Apartments nearby and was murdered in front of them in 1980. His song "Imagine" is famous.) And as I left the Park at 72nd Street, thinking I had seen it all, a radiant white-clad bride coming in, followed by the groom holding her train, maybe planning on a photo at Imagine. To which I can modestly add, in the park across from my apartment building in the West Village, two small planted redbuds with small red blossoms along the skinny branches and (as is their custom) not a leaf in sight. Not as weird and exciting as the previous sights reported, but proof that, even in fiercely urban New York, spring manifests gloriously. Hope you are all enjoying similar vernal spectacles where you live. Yours in celebration, Cliff
© 2012 Clifford Browder
4. Dear friends of CB, 4/19/12
The subjects of these vignettes are never planned or anticipated; they just happen. Yesterday I went back to the Union Square greenmarket and there, at the 14th Street end of the square, right where they had been before (see vignette of 3/21/12), was Occupy Wall Street, or the segment of it now known as Occupy Union Square. But this time there were only a few of them, with no police in sight and a big table displaying all kinds of literature: Global Cannabis March Saturday May 5th 2012; Ban Fracking Now; CASHTRACK: Your Metrocard pays for bankers’ salaries; Student Debt Will Cross The 1 Trillion Dollar Mark; 10 Things Monsanto Does Not Want You To Know; TAX DAY: Tired? Depressed? You may be suffering the effects of The Corporate State; MAYDAY! No work, No school, No housework, No shopping, No banking – TAKE THE STREETS!!!!! With no police blocking access this time, I helped myself to a bunch of brochures and talked with a youngish man named Jeff , very sharp and articulate, who was manning the table. Some of Jeff’s comments: The Occupiers aren’t allowed now to sleep in a park, though apparently there’s no law against it on the sidewalk. There’s lots of open sidewalk at the south end of the Square, near where the Occupiers were located, but where, oh where does the park end? At the edge of the sidewalk? No, according to the authorities, because then the Occupiers could sleep there, though the authorities of course don’t say that. At the curb alongside 14th Street? No, for the same reason. It ends, the Occupiers have been told, on the other side of 14th Street, so that all the traffic on 14th Street, according to this dictate, is invading the park. Which shows the curious games the authorities are playing. There are some crazy people among the Occupiers, but at times they come up with inspired ideas. Park employees grabbed their banner and started to make off with it, but then, to their utter confusion, one Occupier jumped over a barrier and snatched it back. In another confrontation the police told them they couldn’t display a big banner (OCCUPY UNION SQUARE) and threatened to confiscate it, so the Occupiers proposed to cut it in half and display the juxtaposed halves, now too small to be banned: OCCUPY / UNION SQUARE. Baffled, the police then agreed to a compromise: they wouldn’t confiscate it if the Occupiers would simply fold it up, which they did. (But the banner was now prominently displayed in front of their table.)
The media have generally ignored these shenanigans, but one afternoon, hearing that the police were going to expel the Occupiers from the park (and no doubt anticipating lots of violence), they came there in force. When the police showed up, they found thirty journalists on hand with cameras ready. Knowing that whatever followed would be featured on the 6 o’clock news, the police backed off again. The presence of a city councilman was also a consideration.
Among the handful of Occupiers present was a young Asian with a bilingual sign (English and I’m not sure what, maybe Korean); a husky man with a blond beard who looked quintessentially bohemian; and a skinny one in a jacket over a low-cut undershirt who sported a pink bandanna around his hair, plus another pink one around one ankle, and an orange and red one around the other. In general they looked less scruffy than the crowd on 3/21/12, not having slept there overnight, and were a colorful bunch indeed, suggesting that the protesters’ ranks have been swelled by the homeless and some exhibitionists and yes, crazies, all of whom are obviously welcome. They remind me of the Beatniks I rubbed elbows with in North Beach, San Francisco, in 1960, when I was living in the Golden Eagle Hotel for five dollars a week and hanging out at the Co-Existence Bagel Shop. (What was I doing in S.F.? That’s another story.)
But the Occupiers’ literature shows that they are allying themselves with labor unions and environmentalists. More protests are imminent, Jeff announced, as well as a return of some banished drummers. Other passers-by who stopped to talk with Jeff seemed sympathetic to the Occupiers, and one even offered to e-mail some other Occupiers whom Jeff was trying to reach in New Jersey.
My take on the scene: The authorities are trying every trick in the book to harass the Occupiers, but are often outmaneuvered. When it comes to force the authorities will always win, but the Occupiers have by far the upper hand when it comes to imagination and a sense of humor, traits that the authorities are woefully lacking in. I left Jeff wishing him and his colleagues well. Will there be another vignette about the Occupiers? I have no idea. Best wishes to all from occupied New York, Cliff
© 2012 Clifford Browder
5. Dear friends of CB, 5/2/12
It happened again, and I swear I didn’t plan it – another New York vignette. Yesterday, May 1, I had a dermatology appointment on East 15th Street, near 2nd Avenue. Coming back from there, minus one wart, I walked west along 15th Street toward Union Square, wondering what might be happening there. Between Irving Place and 3rd Avenue – in plain sight, but a long block away from Union Square and not visible from there -- I counted 20 police vans, many of them marked CORRECTION (indicating a mobile jail), plus squad cars, waiting quietly. An annual May Day workers gathering was already under way at the Square, but that wasn’t why they were there. Occupy Wall Street was staging demonstrations all over the city, and was planning to leave Bryant Park, next to the Public Library on 42nd Street, at 2 p.m. for an unauthorized march down to Union Square; that is why the police were near the Square in force.
I got to Union Square at 2 p.m. – well ahead of the Occupiers – and found a mass labor rally under way with speakers on a raised platform, a militant but friendly crowd, tables with books and brochures, and banners and signs galore, some of them homemade and very colorful: WORKERS’ RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS; Labor’s Enemy is on Wall Street, not in Iran!; Stop the Deportations and Alto a las Deportaciones; Capitalism is at a dead end!; Stop War and NO a la Guerra; End Mass Incarceration; and of course a banner in front of a stand in bright bold red: REVOLUTION. While speakers intoned and the crowd cheered and chanted, I helped myself to free pamphlets inveighing against capitalism and pleading for the homeless, for a universal health care bill in New York State, for immigrants’ rights, and even a guide for anyone who wants to quit smoking. Noticeably absent, though, were the big environmental groups, who probably want to avoid a radical image that might alienate their mainstream supporters. It was rowdy but joyous, no violence, no cops in sight. The rhetoric was fiery, which must explain why a fire department truck arrived, siren screeching and lights flashing, even though there was no smoke or fire in sight (it finally left). A rainbow flag was waved on the platform, to great applause from the crowd, so gay rights are also on the agenda. One guy had a red T-shirt with an image of Che Guevara, but if there was trouble anywhere it certainly wasn’t there; six squad cars raced past, but in another direction.
Tiring, I decided to catch a bus back home, but when none came, I walked. This must have been the plan of the God of Protests, since I thought I’d seen it all for May Day, but when I turned down 7th Avenue – a way I wouldn’t have gone, had I taken the bus – there, in front of one of the St. Vincent’s buildings, was another, albeit smaller, protest: some twenty demonstrators brandishing signs: Hospitals, not Condos; Politics makes us sick; Medicare for all; Cut capitalism, not Services; I’m a doctor for the 99%. (St. Vincent’s Hospital, the only hospital in the area, has closed because of financial mismanagement, and will probably be replaced by a developer’s plan for a facility on the site with only limited emergency service plus a bunch of high-priced condos, which enrages my West Village neighbors.) Some of the protesters would lie flat on the sidewalk, while another marked their outline with colored chalk – probably a way of saying, If you suddenly collapsed and needed a full-service hospital, where could you now go? Then most of them lay flat together in a mass die-in, while two others held up a banner and someone photographed the scene. Now I was really tired, so I wished them well and trudged on homeward. When 13 squad cars raced past, lights flashing, I didn’t even wonder where they were going, and when 20 cyclists turned into Greenwich Avenue, I didn’t try to figure out what – if anything – they were protesting.
All in all, a rather noisy day, but so far as I could tell, nothing violent. On the radio that evening I heard witnesses describe a rally at Union Square so packed that, if you got out, you couldn’t get back in, and then thousands of marchers – union people and Occupiers combined – marching from Union Square down Broadway to Wall Street. But in the Times the next morning, there was only an article on an inside page about the Occupiers, with no mention of the labor rally at the Square. The police reported some fifty arrests, which is nothing, given the size of the march. Is it all just noise, or will something come of it? A mass movement combining Labor, Occupy Wall Street, immigrants and their supporters, gay rights advocates, advocates for the homeless and for students with massive debt, environmentalists, and any one else unhappy with the current situation and eager for dramatic change -- is it even conceivable? Will there be a Revolution (big or small R)? Experience says no: it will all blow over. But maybe – some say, cautiously – maybe this time will be different. As for me, I have no idea. But it was a wild and fascinating day and, after all, I did get rid of a wart. And did I sleep that night! Best wishes from untranquil New York, Cliff
© 2012 Clifford Browder
6. Subway and sidewalk entertainers and the dust of time 5/6/12
You're riding on the subway, the train stops at a station and the doors open, and suddenly there they are. No, I don't mean the panhandlers, with their predictable spiel, "Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, I'll only take few minutes of your time. A year ago I lost my job and..." It's illegal in the subway, of course, so I, tightwad that I am, rarely give anything, nor do most riders. The notable exception: older black women reading their Bible and otherwise ignoring the brouhaha around them. But this isn't about them. It's about real entertainers, usually a bunch of young black men, born entertainers with incredible energy. They sing, dance, play instruments, and exhibit tremendous athletic ability, like the one who grabbed a vertical pole (meant to steady riders when our beloved trains stop or start) and whirled around it, absolutely defying gravity. These guys are good, and they know just the space they'll have on a non-rush-hour train, and how much time between stops, and plan their performance accordingly. Then, show over, they pass the hat (I rarely give), and out the door at the next stop, and on the next car on the train. Maybe this is illegal too, but who cares? A variation: an older black woman who announced herself quietly and read us a poem. I did give money to her, and told her, "This is the best thing that's happened to me today." Which was true enough; she thanked me with a gracious smile.
Then there are the platform performers who turn up either on the crowded subway platforms or in the less crowded passageways leading from one line to another. Usually musicians with deafeningly amplified sound, their instrument cases open and littered with dollar bills (some of them probably planted, to encourage dollar-size donations), though occasionally a lone violinist, as chronicled in an earlier vignette on spring in the city. One whom I used to see, a young white man, was truly talented and possessed as well of a sense of humor; I saw him escort a donor to his subway car and then, standing on tiptoe with a cordial grin, serenade him from the platform as the doors closed and the train started off. Or the Lady in Gray: a young woman (an actress?) standing on a pedestal in the labyrinthine Union Square station well away from the tracks, her face daubed gray, posing in a gray nineteenth-century dress with a parasol, frozen in place and looking ever so much like a statue. She too got a dollar from me, plus a compliment, at which point the statue nodded quietly in thanks and then, wordlessly, resumed its pose. Were other hurried passers-by as taken as I was? I have no idea. Never saw her again.
And above ground there are the sidewalk entertainers: preachers, musicians, comedians, dancers -- what have you. 42nd Street near Times Square in the early evening is a rich experience, but I rarely get up there then. Back in the 1980s, when on a Saturday night I'd go to Sheridan Square to get the early edition of the Sunday Times, there were three perennials: the Singing Lady, who played opera music on tape and sang operatic arias with more volume and commitment than talent; a young tap dancing couple -- a black boy and a white girl (obviously lovers), who did delightful numbers; and the young Frenchman who had walked a tightrope between the World Trade Towers, and now performed on the ground as a mime, playing especially to any children in the crowd. One act ended with him peddling furiously in a circle on a bike as firecrackers or something similar went off -- a smashing finale. Once I gave him a dollar and the compliment, "You're good," which he acknowledged without saying a word (a mime is, after all, a mime). And once he sat their glumly, having been stopped by the police; I gave him a thumbs-up sign, and to the police (making sure they couldn't see me) a thumbs down. They were all there simultaneously, on different corners, throughout the warm weather, and the Singing Lady returned for another summer or two.
Which reminds me of another sidewalk performer I used to see on Broadway, near the Columbia University campus entrance at 116th Street, in the 1950s: a balding older man displaying a flag and preaching, who announced he had been told by God to do this, and to persevere as long as it took, until he made his first convert. He especially wanted to convert a young man with a sister, since God had promised him a mate. When onlookers suggested that this smacked of lechery, he defended it as a perfectly natural impulse and, after all, one sanctioned in his case by the Lord. Students and other passers-by stopped and listened, but no one was converted. On and on he went, day after day. True commitment. If the police came and asked if he had a permit, he said yes, but it was something you couldn't see. Amazingly, they left him alone.
Then there are the mystery figures that haunt the city's streets -- not entertainers in their own eyes, no doubt, but adding to the rich urban experience. For years a little old lady appeared near Carnegie Hall on the evening of a performance, showing such a pathetic look on her face that you couldn't help but give her something. She became a legend. It was said that at the end of the evening her limousine picked her up and whisked her off, but that may be pure myth. In the nineteenth century, which I researched for my biographies, the Gingerbread Man and the Lime Kiln Man appeared at times on busy Broadway: mystery figures everyone noticed but no one knew anything about. The Gingerbread Man, shabbily dressed and thought to be a "mild lunatic," fed himself -- exclusively, it seemed -- on gingerbread, washing it down with water from a street pump. This went on for years until he disappeared mysteriously, never to return. The Lime Kiln Man's ragged clothes, face, and hair were covered with lime from the lime kiln where he slept at night; obviously in great poverty, he never begged, and was found in the kiln one day, dead. He was said to have been unhinged by an unhappy love affair in his long-distant youth. And back in the 1830s, when the city was smaller and everyone knew, or knew of, everyone, a handsome young man named Dandy Marx, dressed in the very height of fashion, paraded up and down Broadway in a shiny equipage. All the girls sighed and pined for him, while their mamas, not knowing who he or his family were, what his occupation (if any) was, or where his money came from, worried lest he present himself as a suitor. This went on for years until, at last, he too vanished from the scene, as much of a mystery as ever. That's how it usually goes: they appear for a day or a season, then disappear, lost in the dust of time. Maybe they go on to brilliant careers or drab ones; you never know. Or maybe they end up like the Lime Kiln Man -- who knows? Such is life in the city.
One other entertainer must be mentioned: Rollerena. But this legendary figure requires a vignette of her own, so she'll be next. But this thing is getting out of hand -- I've got a whole bunch of new subjects lined up: Alcoholics I have known, their sly and subtle ways; How I got mugged in Central Park and so became a real New Yorker; Juries I have been on, and why I'll never serve on a criminal trial jury again; What New Yorkers will and won't tolerate (re public figures' sexual indiscretions); How and why I marched (just once) in the Gay Pride Parade and greeted 100 lesbians on motorcycles; etc. Don't want to overwhelm you, so I'll try to limit this stuff to maybe once a week. If you have any preferences re subjects, let me know. Meanwhile, best wishes from this mecca of performers and eccentrics, Cliff
© 2012 Clifford Browder
7. Rollerena and the Tootle Man 5/13/12
In the 1980s visitors wandering through the Village on warm summer evenings often suddenly saw, gliding past them on roller skates, the strangest of nocturnal apparitions: a creature in a long white gown who was adorned with a tiara, weird horn rim glasses glittering with rhinestones, an abundance of costume jewelry, and a star-tipped wand that sparkled. Such was the legendary Rollerena, who had appeared out of nowhere in the 1970s and maintained her spectral presence well into the 1980s. A closer look showed her to be a fortyish male who, unlike most drag queens, shunned cosmetics and made no attempt to look like a woman, or even a caricature of a woman. On the contrary, her chosen role was fairy godmother, and as such she performed pirouettes for admiring onlookers, signed autographs, and with her wand bestowed benedictions on crowds that came to welcome her appearances. Though capable of wisecracks, she emitted a gentleness and dignity throughout. I saw her many a time, usually on weekend evenings: one more entertainer, unique, in the city’s rich roster of performers. Rumor had it that she had a nine-to-five job on Wall Street during the week, where her colleagues had no awareness of her glittery double life on weekends; if they had, given the times, she would surely have lost her job. Her rhinestoned presence was always welcome at Studio 54, the most exclusive disco of the age, where she rubbed elbows and shins with celebrities, matched in repute there only by Disco Sally, an eighty-something grandma who loved hot music and dance. On Saturday afternoons Rollerena is said to have skated into Bloomingdale’s, to be engulfed there by astonished and admiring shoppers. She also participated in the Easter parade and of course the annual Gay Pride Parade, becoming a celebrity eagerly sought after by TV and radio hosts, yet never divulging her real name; she was simply, and perennially, Rollerena. Then, in the late 1980s, she disappeared, seemingly yet another mysterious presence lost in the dust of time. And the city was poorer for her loss.
But her story does not end here. Years later she reappeared, minus the fairy godmother attire and retired from her job, to be interviewed more fully. Kentucky born, she had been drafted and served in the infantry in Vietnam – imagine: the future Rollerena in Vietnam! – and on her (or his) return to the States was drawn inevitably to New York City, where, like so many, she achieved her fulfillment, becoming the city’s glittering mobile fairy godmother, her outfits and accessories obtained from an antique store on Christopher Street. Now a part of the city’s rich history, she donated her famous gown (one of them, at least), her tiara and costume jewelry, and the wand that had blessed multitudes, to the LGBT National Archives housed in the gay Center on 13th Street, but a few short blocks from here. There, last month, I participated in the annual Rainbow Book Fair, totally unaware that her accouterments were safely lodged on the premises, carefully catalogued and available to serious scholars studying the city’s colorful past. In none of the interviews I have encountered does she explain what drove her to assume this particular persona, so a bit of mystery remains. Active today in gay causes, she is honored, and rightly so, for in her glory days she dreamed and dared (how American!), becoming a twinkle in the firmament of Gotham.
I’ll add just one other story, anticlimactic as it must be, after the saga of Rollerena: the Tootle Man. No outlandish outfit characterized him; he dressed like any thirty-year-old male. He started appearing in our neighborhood in the 1980s in a limousine whose horn sounded a rich musical phrase, a tootle, hence my name for him. He deposited an armchair on the sidewalk across the street from us, on the busy corner of West 11th and Bleecker, and after parking his car nearby returned to sit there and read the newspaper, seemingly indifferent to the puzzled glances that passersby gave him, wondering why anyone would want to transfer part of his living room to a public space like this. Then, in the evening, he would pack up the armchair in his limousine and drive away, sounding the tootle. This went on for months. Soon he added a little end table with a plant on it, a small rug, and other items obtained, we assumed, from his apartment. But who was he, and why did he choose to live, albeit in comfort, in public? We could have gone down and asked him, but never did. We never pondered why we didn’t, but perhaps we enjoyed not knowing, perhaps we preferred the mystery. He was certainly a friend of the proprietor of the newspaper and candy store on the corner, only a few steps from his nest, but beyond that, we knew nothing. Then, as so often happens, he failed to show up and was never seen again. We rather missed him and his tootle; the corner seemed empty without him. Nothing so adventurous and glittering as Rollerena, but another unique performer – though he may not have thought of himself as such – in this rich and crazy city. Best wishes to all until next time, Cliff Browder
P.S. Yesterday I saw a few Wall Street Occupiers at Union Square – a rather scruffy bunch stretched out on the ground in the sunlight. No outreach to passersby, just snoozing. Off duty, I guess. But they have a newspaper now, and colorful cards showing what appears to be a corporate executive supplanting on its pedestal a toppled Statue of Liberty, with the single word DANGER. Can’t wait to hear them on the subject of Chase (my bank!) and its loss of two billion dollars in a speculative trade, which is all the talk here now. So it goes.
© 2012 Clifford Browder
8. The Whole Foods Project: Love on a plate 5/20/12
Dear Gothamophiles (and Gothamophobes),
Here is the eighth vignette. In 1994 I retired from my work as a freelance editor, only to learn that I had a tumor the size of a golf ball in my colon. Surgery quickly followed, and I was told that there was a 40% chance of the cancer's recurring, which chemotherapy could reduce to 20%. Pondering this cheery news, I chose to avoid chemotherapy, its damage to the immune system and its unpleasant side effects, and instead embraced a plant-based diet that would strengthen, not undermine, my immune system. So farewell to meat (no problem; I had loathed it as a child) and, alas, cheeses (I loved them and still do). Through a friend I connected with the Whole Foods Project, the only meal program in the city for people with immune imbalance problems and cancer, offering nutritional education, meals, cooking classes, and monthly cabaret suppers. Richard, the Project's founder and director, had launched the undertaking on his own, without a model to go by, thus following Joseph Campbell's injunction, "Follow your dream"; he had indeed followed his dream and, as Campbell predicted, found others to assist him.
Becoming a client and attending the meals served twice a week at a Presbyterian church on West 73rd Street, I was treated to dishes and recipes that I had never heard of such as millet/quinoa sunshine patties, amaranth corn chowder, and walnut lentil paté topped with herbed tofu cream. It was all new to me, strange, exciting, and delicious -- "Love on a plate," as someone memorably put it. My fellow clients included artists, teachers, taxi drivers, cooks, a refugee from fashion, a dancer and clown, an AIDS survivor who had gone all the way to India to personally thank the Dalai Lama for his lesson of Love, and the waifs and strays that unusual programs always seem to attract in the city -- people whose background and occupation (if any) are vague or unrevealed, spiritual orphans in search of a family and home. For clients, the meals were three dollars, but no one was turned away for lack of means. Even though we all lived in the shadow of a life-threatening illness, a wonderful camaraderie prevailed. The two biggest groups were gay men of all ages who were battling AIDS (in those days a near fatal disease), and -- in smaller numbers -- older men and women, gay or straight, myself among them, who were fighting cancer. We were taught to take responsibility for our healing and our lives: consult your doctors but make the final decisions yourself. At the tables all sorts of useful information was exchanged: which doctors favored a nutritional approach to disease; how AIDS patients could navigate the vast city bureaucracy to get help; how two different doctors had told one of us in the same week, "Cancer loves sugar" -- a warning that has stuck with me to this day.
Soon I was doing more than gab and eat. Richard sent me to a foundation library on Fifth Avenue to learn how to approach foundations for grants -- an undertaking that in time paid off, as donations dribbled in from various nonprofits in the area. I also did office work at his apartment, often receiving phone calls or voice mail from people off in some distant small town without a health food store or other source of nutritional information, people who, having seen an interview with him on TV, needed nutritional information on fighting cancer or AIDS. (Today you could find such info online, but it was less available back then.) So we would quickly assemble an appropriate packet and mail it off. And when Richard learned that I had been a freelance editor, he recruited me to work with him on the bimonthly newsletter Dish, which offered inspirational messages from Richard, announcements of events, vegan recipes, In Memoriams announcing the loss of a friend or client, and notes on the history of food.
These notes, usually done by me, embodied information gleaned in researching a possible vegan cookbook and were both informative and entertaining. Some that come to mind: free radicals and antioxidants, explained as bad guys vs. good guys; the horrors of caffeine and white sugar, both of them addictive drugs; how grains have been worshiped as gods; how the "discovery" of America revealed to Europeans a host of foods previously unknown to them, including potato, tomato, squash, pumpkin, corn, most beans, peanuts, vanilla, and chocolate. Among my favorite squibs, perfect for cocktail conversations: In the Middle Ages walnuts were used to guard against fevers, lightning, witchcraft, epilepsy, and the evil eye. In Moorish Spain orange trees were grown in walled gardens to produce their sacred fruit; Christians were forbidden even to touch the fruit on pain of death. The name "avocado" comes from the Nahuatl (i.e., Aztec) word for "testicle"; see two of them growing side by side on a branch and you'll know why. When the tomato first came to Europe from the New World it was called "love apple" and believed to be a dangerous aphrodisiac, which delayed its acceptance for years (except, I suspect, in certain circles). In 1893 our Supreme Court opined that the tomato, though botanically a fruit, was nevertheless to be considered a vegetable and therefore subject to a tariff on veggies. But in 1947 the U.S. Customs Court decreed that rhubarb, a vegetable, is used like, and therefore should be designated, a fruit. (It's so reassuring to have our government in its infinite wisdom settle these enigmas for us!) And finally, my favorite: When grapefruit first became widely known here during the Depression of the 1930s, welfare boards got complaints from housewives that no matter how long they boiled it, it was still too tough to eat. With tidbits like these, how could you not be a hit at parties?
But of course the Whole Foods Project offered more. I took cooking classes and learned to cook vegan dishes. (I took the beginners' class three times, which made good sense, since the recipes were always different, and I had much to learn.) In the Support Groups that followed the lunches I was introduced to Buddhist meditation, Sufi chants and dancing, something called a gong bath (the bathing was strictly musical), reflexology, and other far-out ways of healing. Two carnivals to raise money featured foods from some of the city's best vegetarian restaurants (I sampled olive bread -- love at first taste), plus stilt walkers, an auction or a raffle, a string quartet, and a lesbian and gay gospel choir. And once a month I attended the cabaret dinners, where good food was followed by entertainment, including one young singer whose original composition, presenting the mindset of a fundamentalist, began with the words "Jesus loves me but he can't stand you," which brought the house down; the church's lady minister, who happened to attend that night, laughed so hard she almost fell off her chair.
Were there fanatics among us? Yes, of course, a few. The woman who attended the lunches with a headphone, so she could hear the nutritionist Gary Null's radio program at noon, thus missing all the conversation around her; amassed in her apartment was more nutritional information than anyone could absorb in a lifetime. And the young man in a wide-brimmed black hat who advocated a diet exclusively of raw foods, lecturing those around him passionately and then ending the lecture by jabbing a finger at the listeners and enjoining, "Think!" -- after which he departed dramatically. But most of us were more flexible, made room for exceptions. When my friend Patrick informed me that his apartment was being visited by mice, and I asked him what he, an advocate of animal rights, was going to do about it, he answered emphatically, "Kill them!"
Such was the Whole Foods Project: laughter and tears (those all-too-frequent In Memoriams), sunshine patties and Sufi chants, the belief that food helps prevent disease, helps heal, and underlying everything a kind of spiritual love that bound us all together. Do I believe that food helps prevent disease, helps heal? Well, I've been on an anticancer diet ever since (cruciferous veggies, soy products, garlic, and lots of fresh veggies and fruit), and here I am, years later, free of cancer. For this, and the inspiration and information and camaraderie, I will always be grateful to Richard and to those who assisted him. Today the Whole Foods Project is only a memory, for the incessant financial problems and commitment to another project caused Richard to reduce and then terminate its services. I've kept in touch with a few of the clients, but most of them are gone from my life forever -- as so often, in this vast and frantic city, lost in the dust of time.
Is this a New York story, or could it have happened anywhere? Not anywhere: it required a dense urban setting to bring together all the various talents involved. Then in another big city, say, San Francisco, where so much happens? Maybe, but in point of fact it happened in New York. New York is a place where strange and wonderful things happen: the Gay Pride movement, Rollerena, Occupy Wall Street, and so much more. New York is noisy, dirty, congested, fast-spaced, and expensive -- hardly conducive to quiet, civilized living. No wonder tourists say, "I love to visit, but I wouldn't want to, live here." But it is also uniquely exciting and creative.
One last thought: while researching for Dish I learned that garlic has been valued, among other things, for its ability to fend off vampires. Okay, I won't push it. But I eat garlic daily and have never been bothered by vampires. Next time: how the Whole Foods Project prompted me to march in the annual Gay Pride Parade, and how I greeted one hundred Lesbians on motorcycles. Until then, best wishes to you all. Cliff Browder
© 2012 Clifford Browder
9. Me and the Gay Pride Parade 5/27/12
Dear Friends of New York,
New Yorkers have always loved parades; it's in their blood. Nothing so delighted our dapper mayor of the Roaring Twenties, Jimmy (Beau James) Walker, as leading a ticker-tape parade down Fifth Avenue sporting a silk topper, cutaway coat, striped trousers, and a walking stick. (Nothing, except maybe chorus girls and speakeasies, since he frequented both. But that's another story, as is his forced resignation amid rumors of corruption and his flight to Europe for an extended vacation.) Today we have the Saint Patrick's Day Parade, the Columbus Day Parade (for the Italians, though Native Americans date their woes from the arrival of Columbus), the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the Chinese New Year Parade with dancing dragons, the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island, the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade (it used to pass under our windows; we watched from the fire escape), and many others. So how could there not be, in this enlightened age, a Gay Pride Parade?
It all began with the Stonewall Riots of June 1969, when an attempted police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a Mafia-owned gay bar on Christopher Street not too far from here, was met with resistance from the drag queens who hung out there, soon reinforced by local residents. In the days that followed, gay activist groups were organized, gay newspapers were launched, and slogans proliferated ("Gay is good," "Gay and proud," etc.). Then, exactly one year later and in commemoration of the riots, came the first Gay Pride Parade here in New York and also in Los Angeles and Chicago. Soon parades were organized in other cities; today they are a familiar late June event worldwide, except where repressive regimes prohibit them. This was all the doing of young activists. In those days of "Don't trust anyone over thirty," there was a generation gap in the gay community that matched the one in the population at large. I had just attained the glowing wisdom of forty, so you can see which camp I was in. The older gay crowd took little notice at first of the riots -- "Fighting the police? That's crazy!" -- and were suspicious of all this to-do. In time, that changed. I can remember telling friends, "If this means that the homely gay kid who could never make it in the bars now has a place to go to, it's doing a lot more good than harm!" Bob and I watched some of these early parades and found them both entertaining and enlightening, but it never occurred to us to march in them. And so it went for years. But when the Whole Foods Project (see the previous vignette) announced, in 1994, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the riots, that it would participate, I decided to do the same. I had just had cancer for colon surgery and liked the idea of being up and about again, able to march the whole length of the parade with a group I was now heartily a part of. And so it came to pass.
We formed up on a side street off Fifth Avenue in midtown. There were only twenty or thirty of us, since many Whole Foods Project clients wouldn't have been up to marching. It wasn't just gay men by any means; I remember a woman and her two young children joining us, maybe because she or her husband was on the Project's board. We all donned paper hats representing vegetables, and two of us -- I ended up one of them -- carried a large banner proclaiming WHOLE FOODS PROJECT. A marshal was on hand to guide us and feed us into the parade. And just as all this was going on, there came a loud roar as a hundred Lesbians arrived on motorcycles to participate. They waved joyously as we cheered and applauded. Soon after that we were off. When you march in a parade you don't see the parade, so all I can do is recount a few impressions. As we marched up Fifth Avenue (in those days the parade didn't come downtown to end in the West Village, as it does now), we became aware of a chant from a counterdemonstration nearby: a small group from a fundamentalist church in the heartland who had come to protest this celebration of sinful homosexuality. A heavy police detachment kept us and the protesters apart, but when we realized who they were, we began a mounting chorus of "Shame! Shame! Shame!" that drowned them out completely. I thought the protesters were misguided but had to admire the commitment that had brought them all this way to the wicked big city to make their statement in such a hostile environment. I don't recall if there was a reviewing stand on Fifth Avenue or who might have been in it (today politicians and celebrities either march in or review the parade). Soon we turned west on a cross street in the Fifties. From time to time the police stopped the parade so as to let traffic cross at intersections. We took advantage of these pauses to ask bystanders if they wanted to join us in a veggie dance that we had just improvised; though hesitant -- what are we getting into? -- they usually agreed. The dance simply involved joining hands and running in a circle as we chanted, "Veggie veggie veggie veggie veggies!," after which we all leaped in the air and yelled "Yeeaow!"
Few of the spectators or our fellow marchers had even heard of the Whole Foods Project, but our paper hats in the form of vegetables identified us as vegetarians, and throughout the parade I sensed in the spectators' attitude toward us a gentle and well-meaning condescension: Oh, they're vegetarians, how oddball, how touching, how quaint! Of course everybody was welcome in the parade, even oddballs. But in those days before the cocktail there was no effective treatment for AIDS, and we of the Project wondered how much chance those with AIDS had of surviving, and for how long. Though we offered no perfect solution, we were sure we were on the right track. (Today, with the cocktail -- a combination of drugs to be taken daily -- those with AIDS can live near normal lives, but a vegetarian approach reduces or eliminates certain unpleasant side effects associated with the treatment.)
Behind us in the parade was a contingent from San Francisco who for some reason chose to join us here, rather than march in San Francisco's own parade. Most of them were simply young men in T-shirts and shorts, indistinguishable from most of the other marchers. But the leader of the group and the entire front row were something else again -- not drag queens, but creatures from another planet. I can't describe their outfits, but they were so far out, so weird, so flamboyantly outlandish as to suggest beings from outer space. During one of the pauses we turned to face them and shouted, "Thank you, San Francisco!" They acknowledged our greeting heartily in turn. (A footnote: New York and San Francisco have always had a bond, dating back to when the Argonauts -- a fancy name for Forty Niners setting out for the Gold Rush -- departed New York by ship in hopes of finding riches in the Sierras; few did. But San Francisco -- as I know from having lived there for a year and a half -- is the one West Coast city where a New Yorker can feel immediately at home.) Soon the parade turned north again and we entered Central Park, where it disbanded. We were tired but fulfilled and exhilarated, having shared in the Event. As I recall, the Project never marched again, though it continued for many years, gaining recruits less from marching than from word-of-mouth.
We've all seen photos and films of the parades. Invariably they emphasize what I've just now seen on the Internet: flags, balloons, drums; near naked men and leather studs; drag queens adorned with wigs, plumes, and capes of every color, and long fluffy gowns, or very short gowns revealing shapely legs; old men in dresses; acrobats; and every kind of sign (Pansy Power!, Butch/Femme Society, Don't Say No to Sex). All these scenes are authentic, but in the parades I've watched, the spectacular participants were outnumbered by very middle class types who might be your downstairs neighbor or a colleague at work: young men in T-shirts and shorts (the weather is invariably sunny and hot), some of them waving and dipping rainbow flags in unison; a van marked SAGE with white-haired occupants smiling benignly and waving from the windows; a middle-aged man with a sign FIFTY AND FABULOUS that drew cheers and applause from bystanders; and a Families of Gays section with a mother walking beside her son with a sign I'M PROUD OF MY GAY SON, two brothers with signs QUEER and QUEER'S BROTHER, and a grandmother throned in an armchair atop a float and waving benignly to all. Yes, occasionally a hint of confrontation, usually some militant Lesbians with signs reading GIIRRRRL POWER and KEEP YOUR ROSARIES OFF MY OVARIES. But no violence, and a joyous mood throughout. So why does the media emphasize the weirdos? Because that's what people want. For the marchers, it's a communal celebration, but for spectators it's an entertainment, and it's the weirdos -- always welcome in the parade -- who provide the greatest entertainment. This of course provides ammunition to certain commentators who then ask, "Are these the people you want teaching your children?" But to my knowledge no drag queen or leather stud or male in a G-string has ever taught a class in a school. The parade is the gay Mardi Gras and should be viewed as such -- a once-a-year event when anything (well, almost anything) goes. And New Yorkers have come to love it. Mayors review it or march in it, and politicians and their staffs identify themselves boldly in its ranks. Is it too long? Like most New York parades, of course. Watch for twenty or thirty minutes and you've got the essence of it; the rest is repetition. But it is unique and wild, and most of us can use a little wildness -- albeit at a safe remove -- in our lives. And it's become a part of New York. Next week: Village Characters, the Light Side and the Dark, featuring a blond force of nature and a murder. Until then, be joyous and wild (but not too wild). Cliff Browder
© 2012 Clifford Browder
10. Village Characters: The Light Side and the Dark 6/3/12
I met them in bars or observed them there from a safe remove, some of the most interesting people I have ever known or known of. When I first came to New York in the 1950s, I went to gay bars, because for gay people that was the only social scene available. These bars were all Mafia-owned with a thug at the door to keep undesirables out -- or, perhaps more accurately, to let only undesirables in. On weekends they were jam-packed and full of cigarette smoke: obviously, not the most relaxing atmosphere. And of course they paid off the police. I was never quite at home in them. When I came back to New York from San Francisco in the early 1960s and got an apartment in the West Village, I found a different kind of bar, not gay but gay-friendly, with no thug at the door, a pleasant mix of patrons, and a more easygoing atmosphere. Foremost of these was the legendary San Remo, on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, where writers and artists and wannabes, plus the inevitable sprinkling of tourists, rubbed elbows and sipped beers in a relaxed and tolerant atmosphere. In the 1950s the Beat writers had been seen there, and even on occasion the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, though his preferred habitat was the famous White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street, still going strong today just one short block from my building. But back then the Remo was as lively as ever, and there I met a whole new circle of friends. Many of this crowd later migrated to the nearby Bleecker Street Tavern, a new bar run by a woman named Rose, who, when the gay element gradually took over, made the colossal mistake of failing to pay off the police. Inevitably, her place was closed by the guardians of order, who posted a notice on the doors announcing that the premises had become a gathering place for homosexuals. (Had the same law been applied generally, two-thirds of the bars in the Village would have been shut down, thus depriving the gay population of a social life and New York's Finest of a useful source of income.) Meanwhile many of her patrons had drifted on another half block to the Village Corner, where everyone was welcome except the uncool, the unhip. There, when some visiting college boys tried to strike up a conversation with some girls, I heard one of the girls announce, "C'mon, gang, let's move on. These guys are square!" The girls took off, and the chagrinned college boys could only protest in vain the horrible stigma imposed on their tender young psyches. One could be anything in those bars -- anything at all -- but square.
So who did I encounter in these bars? Let's take the light side first. Bert was intelligent, polite, well-spoken, articulate, always dressed in a jacket and tie that stood out in this most casual of scenes but somehow never labeled him as square. A superb conversationalist, he could describe the opening of a Dickens novel, or a scene in a play or film, so vividly that you wanted to run out, get the novel, and read it, or see the play or the film. His great passion was silent films, which he viewed repeatedly in various art theaters about town, planning to write a critical work on the subject. He seemingly had no job, being financed by a well-to-do family. One day he got a phone call from Pauline Kael, the renowned film critic of the New York Times, who asked point-blank, "Who are you?" She had seen one of his film reviews in The Nation and recognized at once a rare blend of knowledge, sensitivity, and style in someone she had never heard of. Here was a rare opportunity, a summons from on high to become better known and make his way in the world, but he never followed up on it, lacking totally the gift of self-promotion and nursing an inner doubt about the extent of his ability, At first I would ask him how his book was coming along, only to be answered with a wry smile and a quick change of subject. In time I came to realize that he would always be willingly distracted by an active bar life and relationships with failed artists and other ne'er-do-wells who counted on him to foot the bills. "Two cannot live more cheaply than one," he informed me more than once, always with that same wry smile. What he gave himself totally to was dancing. At Carr's, a friendly gay bar on West Tenth Street, when the juke box inspired him he would cavort with a young Algerian dressed in a flowing white gown and a turban, the two of them performing the wildest of fandangos in what wasn't even a dance bar, but whose management winked at this flouting of the rules. The Algerian assured me in excellent French that his dancing including movements that were "specifically Algerian," at which point I usually exclaimed, "Vive Algérie libre!" He was indeed living freely -- more so than he ever could have back in his native Algeria -- and Bert too was attaining new heights of liberation. The ultimate heights were achieved when, on Fridays, Bert danced in discos with ear-splitting music whose rhythms, he told me, still pulsated through his mind and body all the next day. If I saw him at a talk bar like Carr's on Saturday, he was contentedly tired, played out. So it went for years. The book -- brilliant and insightful -- never got written.
When Bert appeared at Carr's, the San Remo, or the Corner, often he was escorting April, a robust blonde who for the fifteen years or so that I knew her always looked a youthful forty and, to quote a neglected minor poet, "buxom, blithe, and debonair." Though she changed boyfriends every month or more often every week, for consistency through life's vicissitudes she favored the company of her gay male friends, many of them intellectuals, ever ready to escort her and give her the attention she required. Not bright or reflective, she was incapable of introspection, lived by intuition and spontaneity. Her relationships were short-lived and adventurous. Once she appeared at the Corner with a bunch of Dutch sailors (the fleet, indeed, was in), one of whom suddenly exclaimed, "Look, are you with him or with me? What's going on here? I don't understand!" Not prone to anger or scenes, she tried to calm him. He and his friends quickly learned that a tryst with April meant nothing in the long run, since April, ever vernal and faithful to her name, belonged to no one but was constantly reborn to fresh adventure. On another occasion a young guy from Brooklyn, having enjoyed her favors once, followed her to the Corner, where he was immediately immersed in a wild scene of joyous West Villagers, climaxed by a young black dancer, very witty and femme, who regaled a group of us with stories of the hectic backstage life of the dance. "I'm just an ordinary guy from Brooklyn," April's latest explained to me; "I've never known a scene like this!" "I don't like that guy!" another regular told me, but the stranger from Brooklyn was nice enough, plainspoken and free from pretension. Soon enough he got the message about April and departed, never to be seen there again, but armed with stories of Manhattan adventures for compatriots in the distant nether regions of his borough. How did April initiate her adventures? Once, passing me as I sat on a bar stool in the Corner, she stopped, looked me in the eye, and announced in the softest and sweetest voice, "And I may fall in love with you, too," then went on, having filed me away for future reference. I soon learned that this was her standard opening; few males in the area had failed to receive it. Yet no one ever labeled her "slut" or "whore." April was simply being April, always direct and unreflective, almost innocent: in short, a force of nature. One doesn't judge a force of nature; one simply stands back, observes it, and marvels.
And now for the dark side. At the crowded San Remo one might find oneself quite by chance standing next to almost anyone; a conversation might -- or might not -- then ensue. Once I was next to MacNiven, a good-looking man in his late thirties. Not a word or glance passed between us, until he looked at me, smiled, and said, "No, I don't think so." Unoffended, I smiled back and replied, "I know how to say no, too." For I was no more interested in him than he was in me. But afterward I acknowledged a certain charm in his presumption and insolence. Then, a few weeks later in the same bar, I found myself standing next to Beardsley, his longtime partner, who was pushing fifty and looked it. We exchanged a few civil words, nothing more, but he then said, "Thank you, young man, for talking with the old Beardsley." Suddenly I realized how totally out of the mating game he considered himself to be, and how grateful if someone younger granted him the slightest bit of attention. If MacNiven exuded a charming presumption and insolence, Beardsley revealed sheer pathos. So far, these nonevents hardly constitute a story. But some years later a friend told me how one night an acquaintance of his named Mitchell, whose apartment on the Lower East Side was just under MacNiven's, heard a loud altercation above him that got ever shriller, then silence; a few minutes later, through a crack in the ceiling blood came dripping down into his apartment. Sirens sounded, firemen arrived to put out a fire in MacNiven's apartment, and there they found MacNiven and Beardsley both dead of multiple stab wounds. The murderer had evidently set the fire to cover his tracks. MacNiven was known to haunt the leather bars, with their contingent of S & M patrons, and had presumably, with Beardsley's blessing, brought a pickup back to the apartment. That same month several other grisly murders were reported, all involving gay males involved in the sinister world of S & M; a single perpetrator was suspected. The MacNiven/Beardsley murder was reported at length in the Times, for Beardsley, it turned out, was from a socially prominent Philadelphia family; living on the unchic Lower East Side with the decidedly unpedigreed MacNiven, he was probably the family's black sheep. As for Mitchell, he was haunted for months by the memory of his friends' blood dripping into his apartment. But the murders stopped as mysteriously as they had begun and were never solved.
Not even these horrendous events could blight for long the exuberant spirits of Mitchell, a legend in his own right in the Village, whose bars he haunted. A fortyish blond with a deep, rich voice, he radiated charm, had many friends on whom, being perennially impecunious, he imposed unstintingly, borrowing money and bedding down in their apartment. Why he was a drifter with no center to his life, I never knew. He had a waggish and sometimes destructive sense of humor, as for instance when he hosted his friends at a holiday party and, without informing them, laced the punch with a drug. Wild things were said to have resulted, but fortunately nothing too dire or fatal. He was eternally on the prowl for young men, and not without results. A mutual friend told me how, in the course of a single day, he quite by chance glimpsed Mitchell in action in various spots in the Village, trying to make out. "I can'!" protested one Puerto Rican messenger boy, though obviously tempted; "I have to deliver this stuff!" Finally, at the end of the day, he spied Mitchell once again, sitting with an attractive young man at an outside table at a bar, imbibing cocktails, Mitchell totally unruffled by the day's mischances, looking elegant and urbane. Mitchell's greatest achievement, I was told, was his raid on Klein's department store, that paradise of bargain hunters on Union Square. There, during a frenzied sale one Saturday, he roamed the aisles, urging the throngs of shoppers in an almost demonic voice to "Buy! Buy! Buy!" Informed that a madman was running amok on the premises, the store detectives set out to apprehend him, but Mitchell was always one step ahead of them, terrorizing the third floor when they arrived on the second, and the fourth when they arrived on the third. In the end he got clean away, leaving behind him a baffled team of detectives and a multitude of startled and unsettled shoppers. Some time later at Sheridan Square I saw a mop of bright blond hair dashing toward me in a last-minute attempt to beat the light. Under this vision of golden tresses tossing in the breeze I discerned, as they approached the pavement where I stood, none other than Mitchell, who had let his hair grow long and dyed it a magnificent gold. Thus rejuvenated, he could envision years more of adventures and capers. Who was Mitchell really, and what prompted his wild sense of humor, his unmoored existence, his unfailing exuberance? I never knew, and probably never did he: another colorful but enigmatic presence in the ever changing mix of the Village bars, seemingly untouched by doubt and, like April, ever buoyant and blithe. At least for a while. What finally became of him I am unaware of and prefer not to know.
There is a hint of sadness in many of these stories, but I want to remember Mitchell and the others at the peak of their powers and pretensions, when they added richly to the color of the bars, and to the glory of New York. Next week: My Jury Duty, and Why I'll never Serve on a Criminal Trial Jury Again. Best wishes to all from that mecca of vivid characters, New York. Cliff Browder
© 2012 Clifford Browder
11. Jury Duty in the Big Apple: Our Cross to Bear 6/10/12
Because of the heavy load of cases being heard in the courts, part of New York City life is serving on juries, and few New Yorkers do it with enthusiasm. We view it like taxes, potholes, and traffic jams -- something to be put up with but hardly embraced. When we hear of people in small communities welcoming the summons that for them comes maybe every five years and brings a pleasant change in the pattern, if not tedium, of their life, we marvel. Since names of prospective jurors are culled from lists of registered voters, some New Yorkers, to avoid serving, simply don't vote. But the state can get your name from other sources as well, so not voting may not be enough. Some city residents have even arranged to have a letter signed by them, and postmarked with an out-of-state address, sent to the New York county clerk, announcing their removal from the state. But every two years or so, after one or several postponements, most of us, sighing wearily, serve.
So there you sit with scores of others -- usually strangers -- in the jury pool, eyeing your laptop or reading a newspaper, waiting to be called for a jury. When you are, you undergo a screening process called a voir dire (puzzled by the term? ah, you should have studied French in high school). The two attorneys question each prospective juror in turn and then eliminate some -- indeed, most -- by a challenge for cause, where they inform the judge of a reasonable justification for the challenge, or by a peremptory challenge, which is arbitrary and requires no explanation. I have been eliminated many times in this fashion, since defense attorneys are wary of teachers (I was one once) and editors, whom they view as criticizing and correcting others; with rare exceptions, they want jurors who feel, not those who think. (Though rumor has it that some people can do both.) The cases I did serve on were routine enough, but always of some interest. Here's a glance at a few of them.
A black seaman in the merchant marine, who slipped in some oil that had been applied to the deck. was suing his shipping company employer for damages. One maritime expert testified that the oil could not have been responsible, and another said the opposite: checkmate. With the doctors, though, it was different. Those testifying for the plaintiff were soft-spoken and quietly competent -- just the kind you'd want to be treated by. Of the two produced by the shipping company, one was crusty and irascible, condemning the use of a cane while announcing, "I don't pamper my patients!"; the other, a Park Avenue smoothie dressed to the nines and overly assertive, obviously netted a tidy little income on the side by testifying often -- too often, the plaintiff's attorney managed to suggest -- in cases such as this. Also testifying were two agents for a private surveillance firm -- "snoops," as we jurors immediately termed them -- hired by the shipping company to spy on the plaintiff at home. One was big, expansive, and loose, a good-natured guy just doing a job; you couldn't dislike him. But the other was a concentrate, lean, hard, and mean, a tight little man trying hard to be coldly efficient. They testified that they'd seen the plaintiff wield a rake for a few minutes in his yard, then put it down and go back in the house, all of which helped the plaintiff far more than the defendant. The plaintiff, indeed, struck us as hard-working, honest, decent. We found for him in record time and heartily wished him the best of luck; he waved back, flashing a smile.
It wasn't always so easy. A stocky black man in his forties had been attacked by his lady friend's estranged husband on a street in Harlem and been arrested for illegal possession of a weapon by an off-duty detective who had happened by and stopped the fight. The only spectator in the courtroom was a handsome, well-dressed black woman, obviously the woman in the case. When the defendant took the stand, I was struck by one detail in his get-up: he wore orange socks. In my vast experience I had seen socks of every conceivable color, but never, absolutely never, socks of a flaming orange. Suddenly I became aware of a great gap in society between people like me -- surely the vast majority -- and people who wear orange socks. Further enlightenment came when the defendant, who claimed he had wrestled the handgun in question away from the enraged husband, was subjected to a relentless cross-examination. Finally he could take no more. "I'm a fast-talking salesman!" he protested. "I can't stand all these technicalities!" The judge quickly sent us jurors from the room; when we returned twenty minutes later, the defendant, obviously chastised, was sitting sullenly in his chair. In their summations the prosecutor -- the usual young assistant D.A. -- presented his case with machinelike logic and precision, but the defense attorney, older and pudgier, proved a ham. "I have a horror of these things!" he said of the handgun in his hand, and flung it down on a nearby table. Then, not five minutes later, the abhorrent object had somehow found its way back into his hand, and he again proclaimed his horror of it and flung it on the table. By now I was convinced that the defendant, even if he wore orange socks, was not a criminal, and that he had carried a weapon because he feared for his life. Irrelevant: he had broken the law. We convicted him, but lamented all the things we didn't know. What had become of the estranged husband? Why didn't the woman's parents, who had witnessed the fight, testify? And anyway, what was the arresting officer, who was white, doing in Harlem? Was he alone in his car? Did he have a girlfriend with him? What was going on here? Again, irrelevant. On the basis of the limited information given us, we did what we had to do. What sentence would the defendant get? It would be announced in a later hearing, so that too we would never know.
The last jury I was on heard the case of another Harlem man arrested by an undercover agent -- white again, of course -- for selling illegal drugs. The arresting officer, a veteran witness, testified calmly, coldly. Then, to our surprise, the defendant took the stand. I don't remember what his defense was, but he admitted to being high on drugs on the night of the sale. "I didn't watch television," he said; "the television watched me" -- a statement that haunted all the jurors. During our deliberations the two black jurors declared the defendant obviously guilty, but some of the middle-class white jurors hesitated. "They say you should be judged by your peers," said one white juror, dismayed. "I'm not that fellow's peer. My God, we're worlds apart!" We all agreed that the defendant needed therapy, not prison time. But that, again, was irrelevant, so we convicted. One young woman, new to jury duty, was terribly upset; she found the experience of judging another human being shattering.
All the juries I served on were reasonable and competent, without a trace of the tension and screaming back and forth that you occasionally hear of. And in all cases but one, looking back, I am convinced that, however reluctantly, we did what we had to do. The one exception involved an auto accident. A young man from the suburbs had been taking a girl to the New York World's Fair when his car collided with a taxi on Park Avenue. This was before seat belts: the girl had been thrown forward against the dashboard, suffering severe injuries and loosening all the teeth in her mouth. Her dentist had put them back in place but warned her that in a few years they would probably have to be replaced. She was suing both drivers for damages but had no idea who was responsible for the accident, could only describe her injury. Both drivers were sitting in the courtroom, a tall young blond man named Hans who looked like anyone's cousin or son, and the taxi driver, a short, runty man, dark-skinned, with a foreign-sounding name; neither testified. Dilemma: the girl of course deserved substantial damages, but who was responsible for the accident? At the end of our deliberations, suppressing any bias whatsoever with regard to the two defendants, we found young Hans responsible. One day later, when I and another of the jurors met by chance and talked, we realized our mistake: we should have found against both drivers. If, during our deliberation, any other juror had questioned our finding only one defendant responsible, it would have instantly triggered doubt in my mind. But no one did. To this day I am haunted by our error. We, the jurors, were guilty.
Most of my cases were humdrum -- a far cry from those that two of my friends sat on: a shady arms dealer involved in the Iran-Contra affair, and the Black Panther trial, both cases well covered in the press. But once, just once, high drama came my way. A young black man, accused of killing his girlfriend "with multiple blows on and about the body," had chosen to defend himself because, as he told the prospective jurors in a voice charged with tension, "it is in my interest" -- a remark that triggered chills in all of us. The prosecutor warned that we would be shown photographs of the victim that were deeply disturbing, and whenever the defendant questioned us, guards with barely concealed bludgeons hovered near. I and the other jurors promised the young man that we would hear his case impartially, but a prosecutor's challenge eliminated me from this bloodiest of trials, inspiring in me a blend of disappointment and relief. How the case turned out I never learned. My fellow jurors in these cases were almost all middle class, ranging from a corporate executive who remained majestically aloof to a chatty Englishwoman, quite delightful, whom we termed our social secretary. For a few days or hours you form a tight little club. But once you have delivered your verdict, you all go your separate ways; given the vastness of the city, you will never see each other again. And if you have found the defendant in a criminal trial guilty -- as in my experience always occurred -- you will never know the sentence that results.
Today I have resolved never to serve on a criminal trial jury again. A civil trial I could handle, but not a criminal trial. Since July 2000 I have been the pen pal of a gay inmate in North Carolina who was sentenced to twenty years in prison for indecent liberties with a child and crime against nature. Having helped Joe write his memoir, which tells the story of the three-year relationship with a teenager that caused his arrest, I know that this relationship was completely consensual and in no way injurious to the "victim," who has subsequently testified to this effect. Since three of my friends were molested as children and bear the scars to this day, I take child molestation very seriously, but, knowing Joe's story, I have had to rethink my attitude toward adults' consensual relationships with minors. And having obtained the court record of Joe's sentencing hearing, I know that the prosecutor made certain statements that were totally false. As a result, I have serious doubts about the methods of prosecutors and will never serve on a criminal trial jury again. Not that any prosecutor, learning that I'm the friend of an inmate, would want me. Joe's story is complicated but very moving; when people hear the gist of it, their reaction ranges from vehement condemnation to total sympathy. When released two years from now, he will self-publish his memoir, "Crimes Against Nature," telling in full the story that never got told in court. Then, and only then, can he be fairly judged for his actions. Will I, in my ever progressing dynamic maturity (I'm over eighty), be summoned for jury duty again? Of course. The federal courts no longer summon me, but New York State has no age limit for jurors; they'll summon me until I'm on my deathbed, and probably beyond. A cheery prospect. Such is life in the Big Apple. Coming soon: Alcoholics I Have Known: Their Charm, Their Cunning, Their Illusions; and The Bloody Corner: What I've Seen from My Window. Meanwhile, my best to all -- Cliff Browder
© 2012 Clifford Browder
12. Alcoholics I Have Known: Their Charm, Their Cunning, Their Illusions 6/17/12
Greetings to all. Here's another. When I first came to New York I knew nothing of drinks or alcoholics. Because there had been heavy drinkers aplenty on my father's side of the family, including a grandfather whom my grandmother had finally divorced, my father often announced, "No Browder can drink!" and banned all liquor from the house. Yes, I had a rare sip or two of beer in high school, but when I came to the wicked big city, I still had a lot to learn. In time I met a number of alcoholics -- some who announced themselves frankly as such, and some who didn't -- each with his own distinct manner and charm.
Fred, an older man, was a consummate gentleman, well-dressed, courteous, well-mannered. Only when he was deep in his cups did his overfondness for alcohol become apparent: he touched too freely (when I first met him, he held my hand for several minutes until I managed to disengage it), and in time went into slow motion. Once, when he stooped to pick up something from the floor, I wondered if he would ever retrieve it and straighten up again; he did, but ever so slowly. A lapsed Catholic, he would admit with the saddest of smiles, "I am not strong." Somehow he met a widow named Audrey who, being of good family and active socially, needed a gentleman escort. In Fred she found just what she needed: an eminently presentable older man, chaste (or so she thought) and docile; of his weakness she had no awareness. For months he squired her about. Her tastes were expensive; I suspect that Audrey, however discreetly, footed the bills. When the holiday season came she planned to have dinner at Luchow's, the renowned old German restaurant on Fourteenth Street, and insisted on a table not near, but smack beside, the towering Christmas tree. It was Fred's job to bribe the maitre d' to this effect; he did, and they dined grandly in this most coveted of locations, caressed by the scent of spruce. In time even Fred found this subservient role unacceptable and managed to wiggle free of the imperious widow, resuming his serene, slow-motion ways.
Don was a sophisticated Washingtonian whom I met on his visits to New York. He too was a gentleman, well-mannered and well-informed, full of opinions about this or that president, foreign dignitaries, and the Shah of Iran, plus the latest whispered gossip in the capital. Public relations came to him naturally; when he introduced me to acquaintances of his, he presented me -- to my discomfort -- as a successful writer, almost a minor celebrity. This was simply his way, well honed from consorting with such stellar figures as Indira Gandhi and Claudette Colbert when they were guests of the Washington Press Club, his haunt of haunts that boasted no less than three (count 'em) bars. He always held a job. The only indication of his alcoholism was the way his cocktail hours stretched on into the deeper reaches of the evening, with dinner at best a last-minute afterthought. If, with hunger gnawing at my vitals, I hinted that dinner was an earlier possibility, he gave me to understand, in the most courteous way, that such a proposal was unwelcome, untoward, and uncivilized. Fascinated by the Middle East, he had thought of doing a book on some phase of its history, but his penchant for lengthy cocktail hours seasoned with Washington gossip left little time or inclination for such sane and sober work. In time he went on the wagon and in the newfound wisdom of sobriety took great delight in telling an overbearing former boss of his, "I'm learning how people live," and then, with a flourish, escorted the boss's secretary out to lunch.
Shy, soft-voiced, and gentle, Hugh was by his own admission crippled with insecurities. Fearful of face-to-face contact with others, for years he worked the night shift at a phone registry, taking messages for clients; night, and contact only by phone with the clients, calmed his anxieties and let him project his undeniable charm. For further soothing he relied on vodka. Incapable of going sober even to a social engagement with friends, when invited for dinner by Bob and me, on arrival he would immediately request a cup of black coffee, and just as Bob was serving dinner, would collapse on a bed for needed sleep. Food, indeed, held little interest for him; at home he never ate full meals, snacking on junk food while watching TV. Yet for all that, in his better moments he was truly friendly and considerate, never failing to send us birthday and Christmas cards with amusing or touching, heartfelt messages. On several occasions Hugh joined Bob and me on our annual fall trek to Monhegan, an idyllic island off midcoast Maine. At the airport the first time, he was embarrassed when a baggage screener revealed in one of his bags silhouettes of four liquor bottles side by side like sentinels standing at attention, and little else; Monhegan being officially dry, he wasn't taking any chances. (In no time he learned that any amount of liquor was available under the counter at the village store, since in certain circles alcoholism was rampant on the island.) He rented a room from Mary, a woman Bob and I had once stayed with in the village, while we stayed as usual in a cabin on a nearby hill that we rented from our good friend Barbara. Knowing how adept Hugh was at arousing the interest and sympathy of women (he had totally enchanted Bob's mother), Bob was determined not to introduce him to Barbara, lest he impose his ingratiating ways , but in no time Hugh was calling on her, and she, ever hospitable, would bring out a cheeseboard and cheese and chat with him, totally taken with his gentle charm. As I remarked many a time to Bob, Hugh was indeed a waif, but a cunning waif; he negotiated a lower rent from Mary, and when, on subsequent trips, he rented a room from Barbara, he got a bargain rate from her as well. Even on this idyllic island Hugh's insecurities persisted. During the day, when most visitors were out absorbing the island's natural beauty, he clung to his room, counting his money -- even the small change -- obsessively, convinced that parties unknown were pilfering his meager funds. (Informed of this, I suggested that he'd find the pilferer by looking in the mirror.) Then, emerging finally in the late afternoon, he roamed the island's deserted paths by dusk and moonlight. In a restaurant on the way home, I saw him surreptitiously produce a bottle from under the table and fill an empty glass; when our eyes met, he registered an engaging little-boy look, as if to say, "Oops! Mama caught me doing something naughty." When traveling, just as at home in the city, he treated every stranger like a friend, and every friend like a mother. Once, on the plane coming back, he dozed off, resting his head on the total stranger beside him, till I jostled him awake. Small wonder that Bob and I, without malice, often referred to him as "Baby Hughie." In his later years his insecurity took the form of heightened paranoia: convinced that strangers might steal his identity and use it for nefarious purposes, he hoarded all incoming mail, stashing it away in huge plastic bags instead of discarding it; his apartment was full of them. Just why anyone would target him and his scant resources, he never explained. By now he too had managed to quit drinking, which provoked a wondrous change: instead of the puffy-faced imbiber whom Bob's camera had captured on the island, he had slimmed down, his face becoming almost gaunt. He was now much easier to live with, but, as we reluctantly had to admit, he had lost his naughty-little-boy charm; sobriety too comes at a cost.
Vernon radiated Texan charm, had a host of friends, was a marvelous raconteur. If a friend drank too much, Vernon referred to him as "a bit too fond of the grape," while his description of a physicist whose manuscript he was editing evoked such splotches of color as to suggest a Fauve painting. Perhaps he wasn't an out-and-out alcoholic, but on occasion he drank compulsively until his money was gone, then borrowed from friends if he could, going home only when all funds had been exhausted. On several occasions I was fool enough to loan him a dollar or two; having no recollection of the debt, of course he never paid it back. These bibulous bouts had either of two outcomes: a broken limb or a departure into never-never land. I often saw him with one arm or the other in a sling, and he himself told me how he had once left a party in a state of sublime euphoria and tumbled down a whole flight of stairs. The other outcome came late in the evening when he had been drinking heavily. Through dinner he was fine, but after that he slipped into what he called his "bardic self," mouthing cryptic utterances like a demonic sibyl. These pronouncements were mostly incoherent and seemed quite detached from the real world around him, but at times I discerned in them subtle jabs directed at myself. At this point he was beyond rational discourse and deaf to any well-meant counsel, so I could only duck out, hoping that he would get home safe. On one occasion the police found him crawling on his hands and knees in a park, a prey to some mysterious delusion, and took him to Bellevue. He ended up there more than once; by the time I learned of it and went to see him, he was completely his normal self and soon to be released. On one such occasion he asked me to fetch something from his apartment; when I entered it, I found the place in total disarray, with books and clothes tossed about everywhere: a perfect mirror of the chaos of his mind. A professed misogynist claiming to view women with suspicion and contempt, in these times of crisis he turned first to his women friends, a formidable nurse who had once attended an English class he was teaching, and a mild-mannered office worker who had long ago decided that the newly hired copy editor could use a bit of mothering. Whatever he needed, they did their best to oblige. For weeks after one of these incidents his bardic self was in complete abeyance, and he was his usual charming self. But any time I failed to keep up with him in his drinking -- and I always and willingly failed -- he gave me to understand, in the subtlest ways, that I was a puritan, a prude, and a party pooper; his drinking, by implication, was normal, social, and civilized. But any time when, at the cocktail hour, he was asked by a host what he was drinking, and he announced, "Martoony," I knew that trouble loomed. For him, martinis were the gateway to madness.
Virginia-born Lewis had lost both his parents early and was raised by aunts in New Jersey, where Bob met him in school. When he returned to his native state, he took with him a taste for opera and theater that only New York could satisfy, and a certain objectivity about his genteel neighbors and the South. A gentleman on his home turf and a schoolteacher who was probably demanding but effective with the kids, when he came North on visits he was primed with alcohol and ready for a blast. Always, when I saw him, he was onstage, flamboyant in word and gesture, by turns offensive or highly entertaining. Often he regaled us with stories of the decayed gentry of Northern Virginia, in whose homes he was always welcome: the spinster schoolteacher who spoke wistfully of the young neighbor who, despite a tentative mutual attraction, had never proposed; the mother and grown daughters who lived together and referred to one another as "Mother Love" and "Sister Love"; and as an example of the ultimate in sister love, Zelda and her sister Julia. Zelda, a woman of some years who hobnobbed socially with Lewis, lived in an old house replete with antique silver and spiders dangling from the ceiling. Since she had trouble masticating, Lewis told us, her sister Julia would chew the food for her and then pass to her the masticated morsels. All of which reminded me of the remark of a librarian in the Genealogy Division of the New York Public Library: "For real eccentrics, you can't beat New England and the South!" Although in rare moments of sobriety Lewis was low-keyed, civil, and restrained, most of time he was over the top. He loved opera, whose excesses matched his own, and when they went together, Bob found his extravagant applause and cries of "Brava!" embarrassing. Where his manic energy came from I couldn't at the time fathom; it was probably a combination of alcohol and uppers. Two themes recurred in his vocal outpourings: women's breasts, which he referred to as "mammaries," and the accouterments of the Catholic Church, which often strike Protestants as mysterious and fascinating. The first found expression in the overstuffed costumes he wore as drag; the second, in a number of impulsive acts. Once, returning with Bob from dinner in Chinatown, he entered a deserted Catholic church and lit every candle in sight, till the interior glowed with a hundred flickerings. And when he went with Bob and me to visit a friend in Brooklyn, and the phone rang when she was out of the house, without a moment's hesitation he picked up the receiver and told the woman at the other end, "You've dialed the wrong number, my child. This is the Holy Father." You could sense on the woman's part shock and consternation at having disturbed his sanctity, and when he asked, "Can I do anything for you, my child?" she stammered a "no" and hung up in confusion. To Lewis's credit, this bravura performance occurred when he was in the throes of sobriety.
These are only some of the many patterns of behavior that characterize the alcoholics I've known. My brother became a classic binge drinker, hiding his bottles and going weeks without a drink but then holing up for three days in an alcoholic haze. After many years and many attempts he finally quit cold and never again had a drink -- which Alcoholics Anonymous says only one alcoholic in four manages to do. And then there's the alcoholic who makes it through the workday but at 5 p.m. sharp rushes to the nearest bar for that desperately needed first drink of the day. (The pavements here are especially crowded and frantic just after five.) And so on; the patterns are endless. All the imbibers I've mentioned have now departed this earth for intoxications of the Great Beyond. They had their faults and failings, but my life was richer by far for having known them. I wish them well in their further adventures. Next week: The Bloody Corner; What I've Seen from My Window. Until then, here's wishing you all a sane and relatively sober week. Cliff Browder
© 2012 Clifford Browder
13. The Bloody Corner: What I've Seen from My Window 6/24/12
Dear friends of New York City,
This one may test your love of the city and, for out-of-towners, your eagerness to visit it. But New York is the same city it has always been, neither more nor less violent, neither more nor less enticing. I might also add that my parents, newly married, lived on the near South Side of gangster-ridden Chicago in the early twenties, went about their lives quietly and routinely, never witnessed an act of violence, knew of Al Capone & Co. only from the papers. But first, before focusing on what I've seen from my window here in the Village, a word about the Kitty Genovese case of 1964, which you'll still hear mentioned in the media. Kitty Genovese was a young woman who, returning late one winter night from work, was attacked while approaching her apartment building in Kew Gardens, Queens. The assailant stabbed her twice, she screamed for help, he fled. She then managed to stagger into a back hallway of her building, where she collapsed. The attacker, eager (as he confessed later) "to kill a woman," returned, searched for her, found her in the hallway, stabbed her many more times, raped her, robbed her, and fled. Summoned by a neighbor, the police now finally arrived; she died in an ambulance en route to a hospital. Some days later, a New York Times article reported that 38 neighbors had witnessed the attack, heard her screams, done nothing. The story spread throughout the media as an example of the callousness and apathy of New Yorkers, their refusal to "get involved." The occupants of her building were so vilified that some of them moved out. The Times's account has been repeated ever since in psychology textbooks and other print media, on TV, and even in song.
But is it true? As regards the indifferent witnesses, the answer is no; surprisingly, the Times article was based more on hearsay than fact. The police interviewed about a dozen witnesses, but not 38; where that number came from no one seems to know. It was a cold winter night; many neighbors had their windows shut, didn't hear the screams; those who did, saw the attacker leaving or a young woman, possibly drunk, staggering toward the building. No one witnessed the second attack, which occurred in a back hallway. Those who heard a disturbance dismissed it as a lovers' quarrel or drunken brawl. Some neighbors even insisted that they did indeed call the police, but with no result. And contrary to legend, no one drew a chair up to their window so as to watch in comfort the horrors being perpetrated below. Shocking as the murder was, the story about the witnesses -- still lodged today in most people's minds -- was far more myth than fact. The assailant was arrested subsequently on other charges, confessed to this and two other murders, was declared "medically insane," and is now serving an indeterminate term in prison, having been repeatedly denied parole. The Times has never issued a retraction, but many sources now challenge the accuracy of its original article. To which I'll add this personal note: out-of-towners don't always realize the daily noise level of the city and how New Yorkers have to tune it out. If I hear a shout in the street, that in itself means nothing. If I hear what seems to be a cry for help, I have to investigate, since I may have been mistaken, or it may be a bunch of kids just fooling around. On the other hand, a repeated cry for help has to be taken seriously and in my experience usually is.
Some good did come of the Genovese tragedy. The police department reformed inefficiencies in its telephone reporting system; some communities organized Neighborhood Watch programs to help people in distress; and psychologists and sociologists investigated the so-called bystander effect or Genovese syndrome. To which I'll add the contents of an e-mail reply that I received this week when I asked several friends if the name Kitty Genovese meant anything to them. All the present or former residents of the city remembered her and the story of the neighbors' alleged indifference. And one replied: "Kitty Genovese is the reason I stopped the car at two in the morning in a bad neighborhood to help a woman who was screaming for help in the middle of the street while being wrestled to the ground by a very large and angry man. He could have been armed, but I could never have forgiven myself if I hadn't intervened. He backed off when I stopped, and I took her to the police station." For which, I think, a medal should be given.
As further proof that New Yorkers do, on occasion, "get involved," let me mention how once, years ago, while walking east along 42nd Street toward 8th Avenue, I saw a tall young black man get off a bus, dart back onto the bus to beat the driver repeatedly on the head, and then get off again. Supported by two passengers, the driver too got off, in tears from shock and pain, and a brief verbal confrontation followed on the sidewalk. When the attacker then rushed away into the crowd, I followed him, hoping to spot a policeman and inform him of the attack, but of course no policeman was to be seen, and I lost the attacker when he hurried down into the subway. This all happened in a matter of minutes. What provoked the attack, and what, if anything, resulted, I never knew.
And now at last to the Bloody Corner. When Bob and I moved into our apartment on the corner of West 11th and Bleecker in June of 1970, it was a corner just like any other. Across Bleecker was the shop of Andy the Candy Man, a gravelly-voiced but quite likable older man who had been there selling newspapers and candy for years, a real fixture in the neighborhood. Since Andy lived above his shop and didn't draw the curtains at night, from my living room window I could see his bedroom and bed; sometimes I even saw Andy in the bed, and his feet protruding at the foot of the bed. But on the sidewalk outside his store -- the very spot where, some years later, the Tootle Man installed himself (see vignette #7 of 5/13/12) -- disturbing things seemed to happen. Once when I was returning from errands along 11th Street, I met a young man hurrying away from that corner and, close behind him, another young man carrying an empty trash can. Before I had time to even ask myself why anyone would carry an empty trash down the street, the second man hurled the can with great force at the first. Obviously, something had happened on that corner, or in the little park across 11th Street from Andy's and catty-cornered from our apartment, where a neighborhood gang of teenagers hung out, but of course I never knew what. And on another occasion a car raced past me on 11th going much too fast. On such occasions, which are all too common in the city, I wish the driver a bit of mayhem -- no bodily injury, just a small crash with resulting, and costly, damage to his car. On this one occasion my prayers were answered by the gods of justice, or whatever saint looks after pedestrians: I heard a crash at the corner, and immediately afterward saw that car and another stopped amid an abundance of shattered glass, and the disgruntled driver of the first car -- the one that had sped past me seconds before -- holding a loose and very dented fender, clear evidence of appropriate costly damage to his car. So far, no blood, and not even a trace of the sinister.
But at night other things, strange things, occurred -- especially on Sunday night, when the weekend's diversions are fading fast, and the cold reality of Monday morning looms. One night I heard a weird series of yelps and whines, like a wounded puppy. Looking out the window, I saw a young man lying face down on the corner, presumably drunk, mouthing an incoherent spiel and yelping and whining his grief. Finally I made out the problem: he had been deserted by a lover, was grief-stricken and immersed in an alcoholic haze. The yelps and whines continued most of the night, but by morning the wounded puppy was gone. On another Sunday night I heard shrieks and curses from the corner, saw an older black man, also drunk, voicing his rage at everyone and everything that had ever oppressed him: whitey, God, his wife or girlfriend, and sundry others. The list seemed endless, the anger unquenchable, resulting from a lifetime of frustration and defeat. Sad. He too vanished before morning.
Still no blood. But one afternoon I heard more shouts from that corner and, looking out, saw a burly man of about forty shouting over and over again with great intensity, "These kids are not nice! These kids are not nice!" Who he was angry at I couldn't imagine, since no target was visible. Passersby ignored him; one encounters so many oddballs in the city. So I ignored him, too. A few nights later -- still another Sunday night -- Bob and I were both awakened by more shouts from that corner, where we saw the burly man raging as he kicked the body of a young man who had fallen in the gutter, while another young man shouted at the attacker while keeping carefully out of reach, evidently trying to draw the attacker away from his victim. Little by little Bob and I grasped the situation: the burly man had probably seen two young men leave a gay bar down the street and, incensed by some sign of affection between them, had attacked one of them and knocked him to the ground. Even as we watched, the attacker, still screaming, went over to his fallen victim, who was barely stirring, and kicked him repeatedly in the head. We at once called the police, and soon afterward the burly man stalked off. Minutes later a squad car arrived -- perhaps just patrolling the neighborhood -- and, without waiting for an ambulance, took the now motionless victim off to a hospital. By now a crowd had gathered, but the assailant was nowhere in sight. As usual in the city, where so much happens and only the big crimes get reported by the media, we never heard what became of the attacker or his victim. But for weeks afterward, I saw blood spots on the sidewalk. Passersby didn't even notice, but I did, and it haunted me for months. Finally, rinsed by repeated rain, the spots faded and disappeared, but I could still hear that obsessed and frenzied chant, "These kids are not nice!" In time even that faded.
Today, Andy the Candy Man and his shop are long since gone, and on the Bloody Corner is BookMarc, a trendy Marc Jacobs bookstore offering overpriced books I neither want nor need, supplementing his chain of designer clothing stores in the neighborhood offering overpriced clothes I neither want nor need. The park catty-cornered from us has been refurbished and is now quite charming, while the ground floor of our building houses the Magnolia Bakery, a prime tourist attraction renowned from its appearances in Sex and the City. Tourist buses stop regularly nearby and spew forth tourists, many of whom snap photos of each other in front of the bakery. Everything changes over time; who but Bob and I remember today why we once called that spot across the street the Bloody Corner? And it's just as well.
Next week something less disturbing: Tolerance and diversity in the city: What we New Yorkers will put up with -- especially in our elected officials (so puzzling to non-New Yorkers) -- and where we draw the line. One further note: On the advice of several readers, I'm thinking of turning these vignettes into a blog. Don't worry, they would still be readily available to all of you, but with a potentially wider audience and the opportunity for readers to post comments after each vignette.
Still in the works; as regards the blogosphere, I have a lot to learn. Meanwhile enjoy a quiet and uneventful week, hopefully cooler than the sizzling heat we've just had here in the city.
© 2012 Clifford Browder
14. Dear readers, Here, as promised, is Tolerance and diversity in the city: What New Yorkers will and won't put up with, and why. 7/1/12
We New Yorkers are pretty easygoing regarding the morals of our elected officials, which sometimes puzzles non-New Yorkers who read about those officials' misdeeds and peccadilloes. As an example I'll mention again Jimmy (Beau James) Walker, our dapper parade-loving mayor in the Roaring Twenties, a celebrity long before my time but even today a legend in the city. Natty, beguiling, and debonair, he charmed everyone who came near him, and seemed the very embodiment of his age, being fond of chorus girls and speakeasies and rarely showing up at City Hall before noon. Alas, the Great Crash of '29 and the Depression that followed brought a very different age when his charm and nonchalance didn't quite seem appropriate. When an investigation of his administration revealed rampant corruption, Mayor Jimmy resigned his office and, fearing indictment, left the country for an extended stay in Europe, where his show girl lady friend soon joined him. But the investigation never pinned any specific misdeed on him, and when he returned to the city a few years later, a dozen tugboats crammed with well-wishers saluted him in the harbor with horns and whistles, reporters flocked in droves, and 1400 letters and telegrams awaited him in his hotel room. If a rascal, at least he was a charming rascal; all was forgiven.
Fast-forward to today: Though it's common knowledge that Mayor Bloomberg has a girlfriend, this raises no eyebrows here. What does raise a few is the report of her having a six-figure salary as a member of the board of directors of Brookfield Properties, which owes the city a six-figure sum in back taxes. Also, Brookfield is the owner of Zuccotti Park, where the Wall Street occupiers moved in and founded a real community, until Hizzoner sent his minions to drive them out. This too raised a few eyebrows, but to date no torrent of moral indignation has engulfed his august presence; he hasn't crossed the line. (A possibly irrelevant aside: Michael Bloomberg, with a fortune of $22 billion, is the eleventh richest person in the U.S., but we New Yorkers, being, as I say, tolerant and easygoing, have managed to forgive him that.)
The one who truly tried our patience was Bill Clinton, at the time of Monicagate. When he repeatedly denied having an affair with the twenty-one-year-old White House intern and was then proved a liar, we didn't cry out "How wrong!" or "How immoral!" Rather, we said, "How stupid!" For it was stupid to give his enemies such ammunition. And as my dentist's assistant commented resignedly, "He just can't keep his hands off the girls!" But for most New Yorkers the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice that brought his impeachment in the House didn't constitute the high crimes and misdemeanors justifying an impeachment, and in Harlem the whole business was shrugged off as irrelevant. So when the Senate acquitted him, we concurred. And then, of course, Newt Gingrich, leader of the drive to impeach him, admitted to having an affair with a House intern, and several of his fellow solons owned up to the same. At which point, with some justification, we cried "Hypocrite!" Whatever his sins, for most of us Bill Clinton hadn't quite crossed the line.
Rudy Giuliani was a different story. We had reservations about him as a peacetime mayor (more on that another time), but had to admit that as a wartime mayor -- post 9/11, that is -- he came into his own. But when he humiliated his second wife by announcing his plans for divorce to the media, rather than first informing her in private, we found his action to be (to put it mildly) ungentlemanly, a reaction that intensified when he paraded his girlfriend about in public, and his lawyer described Mrs. Giuliani as "howling like a stuck pig." This indeed was hubris and not to be countenanced. Push New Yorkers far enough and they turn out to be conventionally moral with a vengeance. Fittingly, the aggrieved wife got a million in alimony, though the errant ex-mayor was married to the girlfriend in Gracie Mansion, the official residence of New York mayors, by none other than our illustrious current mayor, Hizzoner Michael Bloomberg.
Another perhaps irrelevant aside: Rudy at least was deliciously unpredictable. When word got out that he had appeared at a private party in drag, we New Yorkers were thunderstruck. Mr. Macho Get-Tough-on-Crime Giuliani in drag? Preposterous! But photos in lavish color, showing him in a platinum blond wig and appropriately padded frilly pink gown, convinced us, and we chuckled. It didn't help any hopes he had for higher national office as a Republican, but proved he had a sense of humor; his poll numbers shot to an all-time high. "I already play a Republican playing a Democrat playing a Republican," he announced, being a onetime Democrat turned Republican. And, more to the point: "I enjoy having fun." This topped even Jimmy Walker's antics. Ah, Rudy, how we could have loved you, if you hadn't been so monstrous to your wife!
Another brief example: John Edwards of North Carolina, competing with Hillary and you-know-who to be the 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, also denied rumors about a girlfriend and even a child by her, saddling an aide with the paternity, until forced to admit the truth. This we could have -- maybe -- overlooked. But the affair was unfolding while Edwards knew his wife had an incurable cancer, and this could not be condoned. I had in fact preferred him to the others but, once the whole story came out, I was totally disgusted and knew his political career was kaput. Sad. Like Giuliani, he had crossed the line.
And Eliot Spitzer (is there no end to these examples?), a dynamic New York State attorney general who was easily elected governor, but whom the media then exposed as having patronized an elite escort service, paying a "petite, very pretty brunette" $4300 in cash for a single encounter, and maybe as much as $80,000 to prostitutes in all. We have nothing against petite, pretty brunettes, and he did seem to have had good taste and certainly wasn't stingy, but this didn't sit well with the citizenry, since as attorney general he had broken up a call-girl ring and locked up eighteen people involved in it. Within a month he had to resign. We New Yorkers might (with reservations) have overlooked the call girls, but we despise hypocrisy. (Thanks to her media exposure, by the way, the petite brunette was allegedly offered $1 million to pose nude for Hustler magazine and finally ended up in Playboy.)
Why do New Yorkers tolerate as much as they do? There are probably many reasons, but surely one of them is diversity: in a city where there are so many different kinds of people, one learns not to judge too harshly or rush into severe moral strictures. (There are exceptions, I don't deny it.) Instances of diversity: my partner Bob's doctor is Norwegian, and our home-care aides are Jacques, a Haitian, and Irena, a Russian from Moscow. If I go out on errands, within two blocks I'll hear at least three languages, often from tourists with their noses in a guidebook, and I may see a turban or a sari. And recently, when I took a walk in the park by the river, I saw a woman veiled from head to foot in a burka. If I go out to lunch on Sunday with friends, our choice of nearby restaurants include the Dublin Pub, the Smorgas Chef (Swedish), or the Empire (Chinese, but serving Japanese dishes as well). And when I last lunched at the Empire, at a nearby table sat a bunch of young marrieds, some black and some Asian, with infants of mixed race, all having a delightful time. (Significantly, perhaps, their elders were not present.) And out the window I could see, across Seventh Avenue, a row of store signs: Fantasy World (offering sexy outfits no respectable citizen would want to be seen in, except in fantasy); Yavroom (jewelry); Psychic Reader; Spa Jolie -- Grand Opening; VILLAGE VANGUARD (a renowned jazz spot that's been there for years); Rivoli Pizza Restaurant; and above them on the second floor, Lose up to 8 Inches in 2 Weeks, and Laser Hair Removal. For all these varied enterprises there are obviously enough customers to justify the high rent paid. Again, diversity.
A comment on the times: When I go to my bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, the ATM proclaims, "Our commitment is to our country, our commitment is to you," and then announces special services for vets and a gift of $20 million to charities -- messages that warm my tummy, before we proceed to cold transactions of cash. Is it possible that J.P. Morgan feels a need to scrub up its image, given its involvement in the recent financial convulsion, and the revelation by its CEO Jamie Dimon, a veritable wizard of finance, that it lost $2 billion (billion, not million) in a misguided trade -- a figure that the New York Times has since raised to $9 billion? No, I shan't let these negative thoughts tarnish the one golden moment of my day. My bank is a worthy institution, a selfless enterprise, and an eminent all-round good guy.
Thought for the day: Love your warts. Next time: How I got mugged in Central Park and so became a real New Yorker. Until then, be tolerant and diverse. Cliff Browder
© 2012 Clifford Browder
15. How I got mugged and so became a real New Yorker 7/8/12
It was a magical morning. A light dusting of snow had fallen overnight, freshening the old snow on the ground and giving the whole city – for a few precious hours at most – a fragile coat of white. I and a friend had agreed to walk in Central Park on just such a morning, so I phoned Jim and arranged to meet him at the Bow Bridge, which arches gracefully over a narrow stretch of the Lake at the edge of the wooded Ramble.
When I got to the Park, I found only three or four other visitors, all wonderstruck at the wintry scene all around them, and – contrary to the usual custom of New Yorkers – eager to share their reaction with strangers. The ice sheathing the Lake glistened in the sun, and every branch, every twig of the bare trees was limned in delicate white. Everywhere, enchantment. Not finding Jim, I crossed the Bow Bridge and entered the Ramble on a path that skirted the edge of the Lake. Ahead of me I was vaguely aware of someone jogging toward me on that path, but thought nothing of it until suddenly a tall young black man in a parka was right in front of me, pressing something into my chest. “I’m a junkie,” he said, “and I need ten dollars. Give it to me or I’ll cut you.” Whether or not he was pressing a knife against me I couldn’t tell, given the thickness of my jacket, but he seemed desperate. “I’ll cut you,” he repeated. “Boy, you must really need it,” I said; “sure, I’ll give you ten dollars.” When I took out my wallet, he grabbed it immediately, took all the cash in it – more than ten dollars – then tossed it on the ground and jogged off. It was all over in a minute or two: unreal. There was no one else in sight. Seeing him jog off in the direction of the Bethesda Fountain, I decided that he would probably exit the Park at Fifth Avenue and East 72nd Street, but as long as he was in the Park, there was a chance he might be caught. Remembering a police call box just on the other side of the Bow Bridge, I hurried to it, my eyes fastened on his receding figure; but the box was out of order, dead. What to do? I was torn between the desire to enjoy the beauty of the Park regardless, and a need to contact the police. Walking west toward Eighth Avenue, I saw a squad car approaching on the Drive. With a surge of hope I waved frantically; the car zoomed right past me. Maybe they had already been alerted, maybe not; my one chance of catching the mugger had evaporated.
By now the magic of the Park held no charm for me, so I left it and went on to the Whole Foods Project lunch in a church on West 73rd Street near Broadway. When I blurted my story out to Gary, the volunteer cashier at the entrance – the one who had gone all the way to India to thank the Dalai Lama in person for his message of love and forgiveness -- he at once loaned me enough money so I could get to my bank. When I repeated my story to others during lunch, they all had similar tales to tell; it made one a real New Yorker. Jim was there and told me he had arrived at the Bow Bridge a little late; when an officer approached and asked if he had seen anyone there, he said no but, sensing trouble, had chosen to clear out. So someone had alerted the police. And when after that I heard the stories of still others, including a friend who had been knocked to the ground in the Park by two young Puerto Ricans who took his watch and money, I realized how lucky I had been; my attacker used no violence, only the threat of it, to get what he wanted, and then took off. Also, it was common knowledge that a thief who finds you have little or no money on you can get very nasty; New Yorkers in those days always carried on them “ten dollars for the mugger.”
For days afterward I was haunted by the incident; only with time would it fade. But that was not the end of it. Deciding I should report it to the police, I did so by phone, and as a result was summoned by them on three occasions. The first time they showed me scores of mug shots of suspects, but my assailant had no distinguishing features, no moustache or beard or scar, and none of these photos clicked. The second time they wanted me to help a police artist, himself black, do a sketch of the mugger to be used in a WANTED poster to be posted in the subway. Also present was a photographer of about forty who had likewise been robbed in the Park that day, almost certainly by the same man. With our help the artist achieved a fairly accurate sketch. Tough and angry, the photographer told me how he had foiled two other attempts to rob him in the Park by black teenagers less formidable than the man who robbed us. In one case he had pursued the would-be thief out of the Park until, on Central Park West, the teenager whipped out a revolver and started shooting at him – a foolish act, since his target was dodging behind parked cars, and the shots alerted people at the entrance to the Museum of Natural History across the street. Soon a police siren was sounding, and the teenager tossed his gun under a parked car, where it was easily retrieved once he had been apprehended. At his trial his mother and grandmother testified that he was at home with them on the day of the incident, but the testimony of the photographer, backed up by that of the arresting officer, convinced the jury, who convicted. Decidedly, the photographer was not someone to mess with.
Once more I was summoned, this time to pick the suspect out of a police line-up. This time a young Asian, also a victim, was on hand. We watched through a slot as six young black men were lined up, then saw each one stand closer by himself. We looked closely, but these were young men in their early twenties; the one who robbed us was closer to thirty. So ended my cooperation with the police. Whether they ever caught our mugger I never knew.
Today I can walk in Central Park without trepidation, free of memories of that magical yet frightening occasion. I and my friends are less nervous about crime, and the crime rate in New York has declined steadily, whether as a result of police tactics or demographic trends, or both. New York is not the most crime-ridden city in the country, far from it; according to the FBI’s 2010 statistics for violent crime, that honor can be claimed by Detroit, followed in descending order by St. Louis, Memphis, Oakland, Baltimore, and a host of others. In this one regard, New York can be inscribed in the annals of normality.
An irrelevant aside: Please note that I say “normality,” not “normalcy,” and urge everyone to do the same. “Normalcy” was an invention of our illustrious twenty-ninth president, Warren G. Harding of Ohio, whose highly successful campaign slogan in 1920 was “Back to normalcy!” Though personally honest, Dr. Harding (oh yes, he was given an honorary doctorate in something by someone) presided over the most corrupt administration since that of our revered preserver of the Union, Ulysses S. Grant. Dr. Harding later died in office, probably of heart failure, while returning from a trip to Alaska. Had conspiracy theories been in vogue back then, his death would surely have been attributed to Bolsheviks, Democrats (he was a Republican), his wife (she refused to have an autopsy), or defenders of the English language.
Thought for the day: Today’s shock, tomorrow’s tease.
Final note: These vignettes may soon be turned into a blog, in which case I’ll simply give current readers the blog’s address. This is my first venture into the blogosphere, so things of course can go wrong. I’ll keep you informed. Meanwhile, survive the heat and think twice about moving to Detroit. (In fairness, I know that some Detroit citizens are fighting heroically to revive their city’s fortunes. More power to them!) Cliff Browder
© 2012 Clifford Browder