It was war inside and war outside. It was Allen Ginsberg going up to Cambridge to get gassed, not a dope trip; tear gas and bludgeons. It was people we knew brewing half-cocked plots. It was people we knew. Did they really believe they could levitate the Pentagon? To stop the war, people bought roses and handed them out to men in suits boarding the commuter trains for Stamford and Greenwich. Then actually gushed about how touched the commuters were. Those guys have rose gardens to die for, Baz fumed. Since when have tyrants not loved flowers?
I made a couple of enemies by pointing out that Hitler was a vegetarian and a big believer in astrology.
Some people went in for rage and some went in for free fucking and it didn’t seem to matter which. Except when it did. Like sweet Walter Bowe, one of LeRoi’s friends, swayed by a beautiful Quebequois radical and busted following her in a plan to blow up the Statue of Liberty. Mild, devoted, unworldly Walter. Musician. Jazz poet. Walter had a patient wife and baby daughter he adored, living somewhere on the way Lower East Side, and I believe brown Walter was sent to federal pen while the white Quebequois was let out and deported home to Canada.
“Miss Duclos, tall, blue eyed and nervous, pleaded guilty May 12 to smuggling 30 sticks of dynamite and three blasting caps into this country from Canada last winter for use in a bomb plot hatched by three American Negroes,” according to the St. Petersburg Times, September 21, 1965. The talk around Roi’s household was that Duclos was the instigator, swinging her long blond hair and psyching up the guys. Even at the time of the arrests, it was clear that it was her dynamite, her blasting caps. Just a little later one of three “America Negroes” turned out to be a cop. He too was psyching up the gang. The busting of this bomb plot would make his career.
It was war and it wasn’t war, the sense of craziness careening around every corner. Vietnam was a process that couldn’t be stopped; it blew up and subsumed what seemed to me so much more pressing and more real: some path right here, in the U.S. not Asia, to end our very own ongoing civil war, our racial segregation, our exploitation, our class-driven ruination. The war, the war, the war.
Watts burned. Detroit burned. Cleveland. Not by themselves. The people who lived there torched the stores where they went to shop, turned over the cars in their own neighborhoods. When Newark blew there were photos of Roi, bloodied by the police, splashed across the tabloids.
By the time Mallory and Hetty were bored with the sandpit and ready for more complicated play with friends, Tompkins Square, no, our whole Second Avenue neighborhood had filled up with feral suburban teenagers, with street dogs, all-night bongo drummers, packs of shave-topped Hari Krishna’s. Now that Johnson was president, Vietnam was on TV every night, and impotence heaved and boiled in all of us. Impotence roiled the crowds of voluntarily dirty young people who swarmed the streets. Many hadn’t the first idea of how to protect themselves from boils, crabs, head lice or really bad drugs. Both pros and amateurs were turning tricks and selling dope in a swelling sea of hawkers, cons, and sharks.
As the perfect metaphor, the never to be completed Second Avenue Subway was “in progress” right down the middle of our main street. Large sections of the avenue were blockaded with huge timbers. Steel plates over the excavations rattled ominously with every passing vehicle. Yellow and green earth-moving equipment hulked behind orange plastic fences. Mountains of rocky red undersoil piled along the gutters, and orange dust blew everywhere.
Despair about the course of Vietnam seemed to merge with personal lives. We had had a group of friends, most of whom were writers or writer wannabees, long before Baz or I wrote a single word. Our group of friends had been made up of couples to an extraordinary degree. LeRoi Jones and Hettie. Gil Sorrentino and Elsine. Fielding Dawson and Barbara. A.B. Spellman and Danielle. Bertha Harris and David Wyland. There were circles and circles: there had been a cluster of painters from the Wells Street Gallery in Chicago centered around Gerry van der Weile from Black Mountain, and his wife, Anne. Couples. Couples. Red Grooms and Mimi Gross had headed up the Delancey Street Museum gang and most of them were couples. The races were crossed but in a tense way, bespeaking currents no one really wanted to think about. There were young white women from the suburbs with sexy black boyfriends, in serial less permanent relationships, and there were cross racial marriages and more stable unions, virtually all of them black male, white female. Gay people had to be circumspect even downtown—they exposed themselves in gay ghettoes only. Black women, near invisible, withdrew into their own company.
Cubby Selby wasn’t married. His first wife had decamped to somewhere New Jersey, taking kids he never spoke of, some time before Last Exit to Brooklyn was published. But he hadn’t forgotten what it was to be young parents with no money. He often volunteered to be our fee-free babysitter. “Just go on out, take a walk or something. Have a beer.” Wonderful Cubby. I remember us coming home one night to find him on the couch with both kids peacefully leaning against him; wrestling on our TV as loud as it would go, and Cubby screaming, “kill the motherfucker, kick ‘im in the nuts!” The kids leaning against him, watching, perfectly happy.
At the end of 1963 JFK had been assassinated. Mallory was a nine-month baby, squirming in her stroller. In 1965, after Hetty joined her in the stroller, it was Malcolm X. By 1966, everything was breaking up. Huge ruptures fractured every couple we knew—in no time Roi and Hettie, Gil and Elsine, Fee and Barbara, A.B. and Danielle, Bertha and David. No, Baz said to peace march invites; no, I said ducking “consciousness raising” women’s groups. Every breakup story was different and every story was the same. Every quick anger was another fix, or another. There had to be other ways to live or love or fight or was there? On Second Avenue, Baz and I stayed home.
At home, Hetty seemingly caught up to Mallory; by 1967 the two bonded as “the girls.” They had learned charm and fearlessness, their four clear hazel eyes taking in the streets, the parks, their playground lives.
“Hello, goils,” said toothless Mrs. Kalamanowitz every morning. She was one of the last of the tenants for whom living at 57 Second Avenue meant living in the heart of Yiddish Theatre district and hobnobbing with its stars over thick bowls of potato-cabbage soup in Max Thau’s Restaurant. But now the Yiddish theaters and their denizens were ancient history. Thau’s Restaurant was a filthy ghost of its own past, and on weekends, Mrs. Kalamanowitz’s outraged suburban children visited. You could practically hear it through the walls: “Ma, how can you go on living in this dump! Will ya move to the Island!”
Mrs. Kalamanowitz hung on. She spent her daylight hours, except for the foulest winter days, sitting on a plastic webbed folding chair, right by the double front door. Nothing escaped her as the neighborhood grew more and more unsettled, drugged out, overwrought.
“Hello, Mrs. Kalamanowitz,” our children would reply, seeing charm and fearlessness in her wrinkled face.