I STEAL A BOOK FROM JAMES BALDWIN/Part 2
It's 1961 and I'm living in a theocracy that brutally stifles dissent--Greenwich Village.
In Brooklyn, the backwater of my birth, people disagree violently-- and coexist grudgingly. But across the Brooklyn Bridge the local Bohos enforce a rigid cultic orthodoxy.
The politics are easy enough to master. You're safe anywhere from JFK to Joe Stalin with side trips to Trotsky and the brand new hero of the world revolution, Che Guevara. A Republican can't even get in as comic relief.
The culture is more complicated. The Pantheon changes daily, new names added and subtracted. The criteria are what you read, wear, watch and listen to, who you know, what you've done or what you will do. In all of these I am judged and found wanting.
One night everyone is rushing to the NYU Student Center. I trail along, trying to impress Amelia, a poet with long, tawny hair--tall, broad-shouldered, wearing nothing under her granny dress. "You remind me of a lioness on the prowl," I say, trying to be poetic. She gives me the arched eyebrow of disdain. "What's that supposed to mean?"
A skinny kid with frizzy hair and an annoying nasal voice is singing Corinna Corinna.
" I like Joe Turner's version better," I say, playing the purist card.
"Dylan is singing it the way it was originally written," says a kid who's famous for his collection of .45's. "Joe Turner was just doing a Rhythm and Blues cover."
A week or two later I'm in a crowd in the Art Theatre on Eighth Street watching Godard's latest, A Woman Is A Woman.
" It looks like they're trying to do a Gene Kelly movie, but they can't sing or dance," I say loudly to impress the lioness.
"It's not a conventional musical," a fat kid corrects. "It's an interrogation of the musical form."
"It's neo realism set to music," someone else says.
This is the year of Kahlil Gibran, of smoking pot and trancing out to Wanda Landowska playing Bach on the harpsichord. Everybody's carrying Franny and Zooey. I brandish Sons and Lovers. In secret I read best sellers, The Carpetbaggers, The Agony and the Ecstasy.
I try for the right note, but keep hitting clinkers.
Wrong..." Miles Davis says he doesn't swing..."
Invasion of the Bodysnatchers?
Clunk. "Cold War propaganda, designed to cause an anti-communist panic."
Old Man And the Sea?
Clang.."Patronizing, stilted...Hemingway blaming the world for his flagging powers..."
I walk the streets looking for celebrities. Here's a face I think I've seen on a jacket cover. Wasn't that guy in West Side Story? That little bald guy could be e.e. cummings. Or Yul Brynner. A couple on Sixth Avenue--tall, hunched guy with a tiny chattering lady. "That's Edward Hopper," somebody says.
I stand outside the San Remo Bar on MacDougall and Bleecker, watching the Boho nobility, the men laughing and waving drinks, the women intense and attentive.
Sports give me partial cachet. On weekends handball is the hot item at the playground on Waverly Place. Played at top speed with a hard black ball, it's my game. In Coney Island the old pros ran me ragged, but in the Village I'm a star. I hook up with a Puerto Rican kid named Benny and we hold the court as a doubles team for hours. On the hot days we roll our pants up over our knees and take our shirts off. The other guys have tapered waists, tendoned biceps and muscles rippling on their backs. I'm stoop-shouldered and you can count my ribs, but I play with vengeful arrogance and no one can beat me. The "parkies" hook up a hose and we run cold water over our heads. The lioness and her friends walk by swinging their shopping bags and stop to watch us through the fence. We shout and play harder. Lust swirls like summer dust.
On my way home from work one night I pass Benny and the lioness, making out on a bench in a dark park off Sixth Avenue. He jumps up. "Hey, man, wanna go to a party? Where's the party at Ammie?"
She glares. "It's at James Baldwin's. For his new book."
Baldwin is an angry, eloquent black writer, author of The Fire Next Time. I've been reading his essays. I've taped one of his quotes to my typewriter. "I am what time and circumstance and history have made me, but I am also more than that. So are we all." I want to tell him how much that means to me.
" I don't want to bring a lot of strange people," Amelia says.
"He's my boy," Benny says and grabs my arm. "C'mon, man, it's cool,"
Benny has to reach up to get his arm around Amelia's shoulders. He ignores her and talks to me about the handball players and do I want to play in the money games on Essex Street on the Lower East Side? She is docile and quiet, a far cry from the oracle whose poetry intimidates and whose pronouncements settle all disputes.
"Why are you wearing that suit?" Amelia asks me.
"I work in a funeral parlor," I say and-- anticipating her scornful disbelief--"I really do..."
On Horatio Street the party crowd has spilled onto the street. James Baldwin lives up a narrow flight of rickety stairs. We squeeze past the people coming downstairs and push through the crowd in the hallway into a cramped apartment . There are more black faces than usual, but otherwise it's the same people, nose to nose, shouting in each other's faces. A Charley Parker record is tinkling somewhere. The walls are lined with bookshelves.
"Look at all the books he has," I say.
"Makes sense, he's a writer," Amelia sniffs.
She puts a jug of Almaden Red on a bridge table. I try to follow her and Benny, but the crowd keeps closing around them.
A kinky-haired man with curling nose hairs and thick moist lips puts his hand on my shoulder.
"Just coming from a wake?"
"I work in a funeral parlor," I say.
"Really..." He clutches my sleeve. "There's something I've always wanted to know. What do they so with all the blood they pump out of the people?"
"Nothing," I say.
In a corner James Baldwin is trying to pour vodka into a dixie cup and hold a cigarette at the same time. He's a small man with a large head and bulging eyes.
Benny turns and giggles. "Cat looks like a fly, man..."
Benny's eyes are red. He's stoned. So is Amelia, but the weed has just made her obsessive. She towers over Baldwin. "Congratulations on the book, Mr. Baldwin..."
"Amelia, from the Hudson Church Poetry Project? We met at the benefit?"
"Oh yes..." He gives me a quick look, dismisses me, and turns to Benny. "Are you a poet, too?"
Amelia slides over between us with a don't try to talk to him look. I step away, starting to sweat in my woolen suit. I see a thick hardcover book--The Most of S.J. Perelman. I've seen that name as a screenwriter on a Marx Brothers movie. I read the inscription: "To Jimmy/Humbly/ Sid..." In a minute I'm shaking with repressed hilarity. This is a revelation. The way Perelman uses language, the mixture of puns, Yiddishisms and esoteric references. I had no idea that prose on a page could be so funny. I have to have this book. I jam it down the back of my pants.
Nose Hair heads me off at the door. "Can I ply you with alcohol? In vino veritas?"
He gives me a Dixie Cup full of sour white wine. "Seriously," he says. "What do they do with the blood?"
I try to slide by him, anxious to get home and continue reading. "They let it drain out into the sewers."
"Blood in the sewers," he says. "The blood of the city's dead..."
"And shit and piss, too," I say.
"You're a hardboiled realist, I see..." He puts his arm around me and feels the book.
"Is this a gun?"
" What do you think i?"
Now he's intrigued. "I knew you weren't an undertaker... You're a cop, aren't you?"
I give him the Bogey hard look. "What do you think...?"
He steps back, hands in the air. "Don't shoot I'll come quietly..." And shouts: "Everybody hide your drugs. the cruise is canceled. The polizei have landed..."
All eyes are on me. Astonished looks. The crowd parts to let me through.
Across the room I see Amelia's startled face.
Behind me, somebody giggles.
"You believe Amelia brought a cop to Jimmy's party...?"
NEXT: I BURGLE BOOKS ON PARK AVENUE
Causes Heywood Gould Supports
Leukemia and Lymphomia Association
American Cancer Society
St. Jude's Children Research Hospital