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How I Became a Writer (6.)

I took an apartment in Powelton Village, a neighborhood to Penn’s north, of sycamore-shaded streets and big houses broken into tiny apartments for poor blacks, un-gallery connected artists, unpublished writers, out of power agitators, and assorted misfits, eccentrics and madmen. (Ira Einhorn, the hippie guru/trunk murderer-to-be, was already there, spouting off about Marshall McCluan and who killed Kennedy to a crowd of six. John Africa, who would build MOVE into an organization whose members’ home a future mayor would deem it necessary to bomb, wasn’t yet.)

My apartment had splattered floors like Jackson Pollock had been its previous tenant. Each time I went out, I thought every Negro I passed would offer me a joint, each long-haired girl would comment on the book I was carrying and invite me to her pad.

Never happened.

Law school was looking up though. We could choose some courses. (I went with Advanced Criminal Procedure, Evidence, Con. Law.) The professors tempered the bullying and ridicule, as if our re-enrolling had earned us that much.

First semester, my average went up eight points. Second, it dropped four but was respectable. One night I dreamed I was living in a shack in the Keys with a sign in the yard: "Robert A. Levin. Bait. Tackle. Attorney-at-Law."

It seemed the best I could imagine.

I was smoking pot with Max every weekend. And snorting meth-amphetamine.

I liked drugs because they set me apart. (I knew only one other law student who did them.) I felt part of this dangerous, elite vanguard. It was cool to be at a party, knowing you were high and no one else was. But soon Max was turning on more people – and dealing on the side. Instead of drugs being something cool guys did, it was as if turning on made you cool. Like if somebody you always thought was an asshole passed you a joint, you were supposed to dig him.

Then LSD hit. Max grabbed onto it too. Those were the days of stories about teenagers burning out corneas staring into the sun and English lit instructors jumping through windows and running naked down the street and being at parties with a girl trying to flush her foot down the toilet or a naked guy, a top hat over his cock, tipping it to everyone who walked in.

That was not how I wanted to be remembered.

Or maybe I was chickenshit.

We had a new place to drink.

Flora’s was on Walnut, two blocks from the law school. A circular bar filled most of the room. There were stools around it and booths along the east side. The juke box played "Midnight Hour" and "Summer in the City" and "Devil With the Blue Dress On."

Flora was a copper haired, blue jeaned mother of three, who’d got title in a divorce. Her bartender, Billy McDonnell, was a hatchet-faced, pompadoured sociopath from Fishtown, the worst white neighborhood I’d ever seen. Her bouncer was Hesh Berkowitz, a 35-year-old clammer from Absecon Island, who’d once shot up with Lennie Bruce. Her base clientele were cops and felons and beauticians and Penn football players looking for fights and the occasional copy writer down from New York or blues guitarist up from New Orleans who’d heard this was a scene.

Then there was us. "Us" was me and Max and Rose. I brought Travis Cost, who was studying Tolkien, while hustling chess and pool around Powelton Village, and Al Hickey, the only black guy in my class to come back second year. Al brought Ray Goatley, a Negritude-inspired collagist, and Don Moates, a runner for Titus Blood, a p.i. lawyer and local CORE chief; and Don brought Will Tottenham, the dental school’s major doper. Max brought Flopsy and Mopsy Goldstein, daughters of a neurosurgeon, whom he’d known since Labor Zionist camp, and Pumps, who brought Dan Indio, a stock clerk who’d helped him steal the safe. Flopsy’s husband Randy, who was AWOL from the army came; so did Mopsy’s, Gino DiPieto, who’d served two years on a Nike base on Guam. Gino brought Reds Wolf, another West Philly guy he’d been in the service and who was working as typesetter; and Reds brought Bernie Blumberg, who had a Mexican import business in New Hope he was thinking of converting into a head shop; and Bernie brought Pete the Pipe, a diesel mechanic from Upper Darby, and Billy Harley, a biker with no teeth, and his girlfriend Sally, who didn’t talk; and Sally brought her girl friend Annie, whose father played first violin with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and who slept with Tommy and Hesh and Tommy again.

One of them would be stabbed to death in prison and one jailed for smuggling guns and dope and one die in a car wreck on his way back from a Black Panther meeting and one after falling off a cliff while drunk and one from infections secondary to intravenous drug use and a few simply dissolve into time; but I didn’t know any of this then.

I once went 36 nights in a row.

I went out with a Negro girl I’d met in high school, a perfume salesgirl at Wannamaker’s, a girl who’d led cheers at Overbrook for Walt Hazzard and Wally Jones; and, some nights, after leaving them, I took long rides out Baltimore Pike and thought about Adele. I read Cuckoo’s Nest and Tenants of Moonbloom and Sot Weed Factor. ("One must needs make and seize his soul, and then cleave fast to it, or go babbling in the corner," I wrote in my journal. "One must assert, assert, assert or go screaming mad.") ) I wrote the "Bars, Jazz Clubs and Coffee Houses" chapter for The Collegiate Guide to Philadelphia. (When the copy I submitted included Drury Lane, a Center City gay bar, the editor showed newfound interest me that didn’t quite register.) I bribed an usher to sneak me into a sold-out Academy of Music and saw Dylan plant himself at the stage’s edge and spit "Like a Rolling Stone" into his audience’s teeth. I began a story about a college basketball player whose roommate is arrested for stealing a safe. By its end, the player was to lose his friend, his girl, and basketball.

Lyndon Johnson ordered the DMZ bombed. 200,000 anti-war demonstrators marched in New York. Omaha, Chicago and Cleveland burned.

I turned down a summer job with the Law Students Civil Rights Research Committee to clerk for a Common Pleas Court judge. LSCRRC would have shut me in a library. Clerking gave me people to experience.

Like the 13 year old boy who accused his next door neighbor of forcing him to commit oral sodomy. Like the deaf and dumb 19 year old who communicated only through a sign language understood by no one but his grandmother. Like Willy Smith, imprisoned since 1948 on a confession beaten out of him by police. I wrote the opinion that set Willy free.

I thought, You get one life. If you do not do things in it while you have the chance, you never will. Why then, I thought, do things that substantially increase your chance of losing that life? Why, for instance, fight a war that will make no difference?

The next march, I stepped off the curb

Comments
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Thank God, you saw the light.

Bob,
Christ! You give new meaning to the expression, "Been there, done that." But, tell us, how'd you get from all that to being a staunch Rush Limbaugh-listening Republican who voted for McCain?

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It's feels like more a

It's feels like more a matter of been there, coulda done that -- and didn't. Helped the survival factor. Not that I don't have some regrets. But as Baba Rama Das said, You do what you do because that's what you do, and what comes out of it is what comes out of it.