12 July 2006

Welcome To The Jungle

Dr. Frank phoned today and invited me to come over to the dark (aka hipster) side of Williamsburg to join him for lunch. I told him I was only two stops away on the subway, but that if he wasn't in a hurry, I might walk, since it would only take 15 or 20 minutes.

"Man, I wouldn't even want to walk two minutes in this..." His voice trailed off, as though even his stupendous vocabulary and range of expression were not adequate to describe the awful heat and humidity of a typical midsummer's day in New York City.

"What, this? It's not even that hot today," I told him. "Probably only about 85, maybe 87. I love it. If it were like this all year round, I don't think I'd ever want to leave New York."

As it turned out, at least according to a time-and-temperature sign suspended above Bedford Avenue, it was 94 (that's 34.5 for you non-Americans), which was a little warmer than it's been most days so far this summer, but nothing all that staggering, especially after the 113F/45C I enjoyed in Sydney on New Year's Day. Tonight they were predicting thunderstorms, but none turned up, so instead we had one of those steamy, sultry nights that are a New York summertime specialty.

If it were a weekend and a full moon, there probably would have been blood flowing in the gutters and packs of feral bridge and tunnel people stalking the streets, but being a lethargic Tuesday, the relatively few people out and about glided indolently along, half walking, half swimming through the fetid, swamplike night. I got a frozen custard and it was running down the sides of the cone before I could take the first bite. I ambled down Avenue A, sipping ginger ale through a straw to make it last, but it was gone before the first traffic light turned green. Down to Houston, back up to 14th Street, weaving interstices across the East Village by way of 4th Street and 7th Street and 13th. It was one of those nights where you just don't want to go home, even if you're lucky enough to have an air conditioner, because outdoors it's just so sensuous and rich, even if you're sweating like a pig and smell like one too.

Walking up 13th Street always reminds me of a misadventure I had there in the spring of 1968. My friends from E. 11 Street dragged me up to a fifth-floor apartment there to see their buddy Charles, who was a wild-eyed nickel-and-dime dope dealer and the token angry Negro for our particular East Village hippie pack. It seemed like every group of white hippies had one: an Afro-sporting, Malcolm X-quoting, bluff-spoken black man who got a free pass on everything he said or did because, well, you didn't want to add to the horrible burden of oppression he'd already suffered, did you?

Charles was always going on about one big deal or another, which made me wonder why he was constantly on the verge of getting evicted from his $40-a-month walkup, and on this particular day, he was banging on about the caseloads of machine guns he was supplying to the Black Panthers. My friends were like, that's really far out, Charles, but I wasn't buying it. Rather than call him an outright liar, though, I started spinning an even more preposterous tale about how I and my buddies back in Michigan were flying heavy weaponry into the Guatemalan rebels. I was 20 years old, looked about 14, hadn't had more than 50 cents to my name in recent months, was in imminent danger of being homeless, and New York was the farthest I'd ever traveled in my life from Detroit, but I insisted I'd made thre trips already that year to the Central American jungle.

At first Charles ignored me and went on bigging up his own Black Panther stories, but I matched him lie for lie until he couldn't take it any more. "I want this racist motherfucker out of my apartment right NOW," he bellowed at my friends. "I ain't gonna be responsible for what happens to him if you don't get him out of my sight."

Now it was my turn to be hurt. Call me a liar, fine, I knew perfectly well that I was one. But racist? Just because I'd questioned, however obliquely, what was obviously a bullshit story on his part? I turned to my friends and pleaded, "You didn't hear me say anything racist, did you? I would never say anything racist. I have total respect for Charles, even if I don't always agree with every single thing he says."

But I was about to learn a vital lesson in scene politics. To a man my friends said, "Sorry, man, if Charles says he wants you out of here, we gotta back him up." My ire with Charles had vanished; now I was on the brink of tears that I was about to be banished from the inner sanctum. But the inner sanctum of what? I didn't even like Charles, and as far as I could tell, my friends didn't care that much about him either. Even though they were only entry-level junkies, they'd already discovered much better connections uptown in Harlem, so they didn't need Charles for dope, and frankly, he didn't have much else to offer, except of course, a reliably steady line of bullshit.

Eventually it sunk in: what Charles offered them and I couldn't was credibility. If they fell from Charles' graces, they'd be the laughingstock among their fellow junkies, at least until they found another complaisant Negro to sanctify their endeavors at coolness. And, as lame as I considered Charles to be, I felt more or less the same way. Without at least one black friend - acquaintance, anyway - I couldn't walk the streets of the Lower East Side with the same swagger and élan.

As it turned out, it didn't matter. Within a month I had left New York for California, where I lived in the ghetto next door to a whole apartment building of angry young black men willing to validate my existence in exchange for the occasional joint or hit of LSD. Within a year all three of my friends from E. 11 Street were dead from heroin, and I heard Charles was too, though stories varied as to whether he'd been shot or OD'd. Occasionally I'd see genuine Black Panthers strutting around Oakland or Berkeley and was tempted to ask them if they'd really been getting machine guns from this Charles dude on E. 13th Street in New York City, but always thought better of it. From what I saw of the Panthers, they had if anything even less of a sense of humor than Charles, so I confined myself to buying copies of the Black Panther Party newspaper and saying "Right on, brother, keep the change."

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