ORANGES and reds, purples and yellows—tropical colors flashed against the tenement grime of grey, in shirts of men playing dominoes outside bodegas and swirling skirts of women flaunting the night, or the long strung flags of washing—white, green, aqua, pink—furled against brown slabs of buildings that bordered the junk-glittered vacant lot. High pitch and sensuous rhythm of Latin music blasted from radios, and pointed black shoes scraped time in the street. This was East Harlem, the Spanish part, another island within The Island, a transplant of vital new blood and dreams transported from Puerto Rico to mix with Manhattan in the biggest newcomer influx of the Fifties.
East Harlem was like an archeology of immigration, a history of America in one concentrated area. When "central Harlem" or just plain Harlem, whose center point is 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, had become known as a Negro community by 1910, the area from Fifth Avenue to the East River, known as East Harlem, was still "all white," with a population of Russian Jewish, Irish, and Italian origins, and it was not until after World War I that Puerto Ricans began to move in, giving the name Harlem the new adjective "Spanish." Puerto Ricans were followed by Negroes, and the polyglot nature of the neighborhood was still in evidence when I was there in '57. While most of my neighbors on 100th and 101st Street spoke Spanish, I woke one morning to the musical lilt of a deep Irish brogue and looked out my window to see a white-haired, partly crippled man hold out a battered hat as he sang "My Wild Irish Rose," while the Puerto Rican women leaning out the windows flung down coins he hobbled to collect.
The plight of the Puerto Ricans in New York was news in the Fifties—they were the Italians of the Ike Age, the new greenhorns beginning at the bottom, just as the Italians had replaced the Irish at the lowest rung of the ladder, where cheapest wages and least benefits (if any) were paid, and for good jobs the old sign was hung out again that newcomers (fill in the blank for the ethnic designation...) "need not apply."
Unlike the immigrants before them, the Puerto Ricans were officially U.S. citizens and so could come as they pleased without restriction, by-passing Ellis Island on the way. They had been coming quietly north for a century, but nobody seemed to notice till the influx swelled with the promise of jobs after World War II and cheap air travel up from San Juan. Settling in the Bronx, Spanish Harlem, and the upper West Side of Manhattan, their numbers grew to 600,000 by the mid-fifties, raising at the same time the old fears and prejudice. The added handicap the Puerto Ricans had from past waves of settlers was not only a different language and culture but the stigma (in America) of color, the Spanish-Indian heritage of the island resulting in every shade of black-brown-dark-lighter-light.
If my story of Spanish Harlem were an official one, it ought to begin with Muñoz Marin—then governor of Puerto Rico—but you already know it begins with Mary Ann McCoy. By the time I moved to East Harlem in the early spring of '57, Mary Ann was already married, but I was lucky journalistically if not romantically, for she still lived in the neighborhood and ran the Day Care Center with the other Catholic Worker girls; they all helped me find an apartment to rent at 331 E. 100th Street.
I had got a contract from a publisher to write my book, with what was then a standard advance against royalties for a first effort: the grand sum of a grand; one thousand bucks. Half the advance, minus ten percent agent's fee, gave me a stake of $450 to underwrite the project. It's a good thing I wanted to write about a poor neighborhood in Harlem, rather than the high life of what was known then as "The International Set" (they were not yet Jet-propelled) on the French Riviera.
I gave up my half of the apartment I shared at Tenth and Bleecker with Ted "The Horse" Steeg, and brought clothes, pots, pans, and typewriter up from The Village. My new room-mates were cockroaches, and George Orwell was my literary mentor; he'd been Down and Out in Paris and London and now I was following the same path in New York's premier slum neighborhood, purposely going to the place to live in order to write about it authentically.
I wanted to gain the trust of the people in the neighborhood in order to get them to talk to me, and I felt I had to prove I was not just another uncaring outsider come to exploit them, one of the occasional intruding reporters and photographers like the ones who showed up every summer to do a piece on "the worst block in the city." Mary Ann and The Catholic Worker girls had found that even when they operated the storefront Day Care Center for the kids they weren't really trusted by the people of the neighborhood until they moved on the block.
I was studying Spanish, and although I only could speak stray phrases with an unlikely Hoosier twang, I got so I could understand some of the language when I heard it spoken, even in the quick, clipped accent of the Puerto Ricans. It also helped the whole enterprise that I found a Grove Press paperback of Garcia Lorca's "Poet in New York," with English translations by Ben Bellitt of the poems in Spanish on the opposite page. It not only helped me with the language but supplied inspiration for my enterprise through the Spanish poet's vision of Harlem in lyric passages like the lines of "Dawn" ("The first on the street know the truth in their bones; for these, neither Eden, nor passions unleafing....") and "The King of Harlem" ("...the boys lay inert on the cross of a yawn and stretched muscle.") With sirens and screams and sometimes gunshots waking me in the night to the sight of cockroaches skittering across a paint-peeling wall, great lyric poetry helped me see the mystery and beauty of where I was, and what I was trying to do.
Roaming out from my base I went in search of stories, and immediately bumped into the biggest one, the most obvious one, the problem you couldn't go down the block without running up against, the one that along with poverty and the poor housing conditions that go with it helped make this block arbitrarily known as "the worst" in the city—drugs. Heroin. It seemed to be in every hallway, a scourge for families and young people that was spreading like a plague.
I learned that just a year before I moved to the neighborhood, a group of local people had got together to try to do something about the problem, and formed a committee that met once a week in the back of The Family Center of The East Harlem Protestant Parish on East 100th Street, the very block where I was living. The East Harlem Protestant Parish was composed of three storefront churches in the neighborhood that were begun by a group of young men and women who had graduated from Union Theological Seminary after World War II, most of them veterans of the war. I was immediately suspicious of a Protestant group of what seemed like "missionaries" to the slums, thinking all Protestants of the Fifties were like Norman Vincent Peale, who I considered a glad-handing Country Club type of Christian, a pusher of "easy" steps to salvation.
I was prepared not to like The Reverend Norman C. Eddy, but since he and his wife Peg (who was also a minister) and their three children were now my neighbors on 100th Street, and since Norm was one of the founders and leaders of this neighborhood committee to help narcotics addicts, I was resigned to meeting the man. I expected, if not a glad-hander who would try to recruit me for Jesus, some kind of long-faced missionary type who'd warn me darkly of the wages of sin.
Norm laughed. He laughed when I later told him after I got to know him I had feared he might try to "save me" from atheism the way I assumed he tried to save addicts from drugs. Norm was an open, vital man with an easy laugh and a sense of the ridiculous as well as the divine, and I had to admire him in spite of my prejudice against preachers, especially Protestants, because he wasn't preaching his message so much as he was living it. He was a much-respected and familiar figure on 100th Street, a tall man in his late thirties with a crop of hair that even before he moved to this neighborhood had turned prematurely, totally white. He wore a grey shirt with a white collar and a smile that seemed to come spontaneously from a sense of genuine joy.
After I got to know him Norm explained that one of the reasons he was drawn to working with narcotics addicts was that they were forced to grapple with the deepest questions of existence. "Those are the questions I am most interested in," Norm said. I added when I wrote about him: "And whom could Norman Eddy talk to within, say, the congregation of The Marble Collegiate Church?" That was the church of Norman Vincent Peale, my symbol of grey flannel Christianity.
The postwar world of middle-class Protestant religion and country club comfort was just what Norm Eddy had fled. He came from a well-to-do family in Hartford, went to Yale, joined the ambulance corps of The American Field Service in World War II, and served as an ambulance driver at the battle of El Alamein, and in Syria and Italy. Once in the desert, quite literally on the road to Damascus, he had an experience of "the spirit"—like a vision or visitation of the power, truth, and beauty of God—that changed his life and set him on a path that led to Union Seminary, the ministry, and East Harlem. And it led him, further, to the back room of The Family Center on 100th Street where the neighborhood narcotics committee met one night a week.
In the barren back room of The Family Center, folding chairs and benches were formed in a circle beneath fluorescent lights that were still wound with red, green, and yellow crepe paper used for decoration at the canteen dances for the neighborhood kids on Friday nights.
The first hour was for addicts and their families to come and talk with a volunteer psychologist in a sort of group therapy; the second hour was for anyone in the neighborhood to come and hear a guest speaker talk about narcotics—doctors, sociologists, jazz musicians, cops, detectives, social workers—all came and gave their views and had them challenged in discussions that were angry, funny, and tough.
At my first meeting I met Louis Leon, known as Pee-Wee, the young Puerto Rican who had gone to Norm Eddy the year before I came to 100th Street and asked his help, and out of that was born the Narcotics Committee and its on-going work. Pee-Wee was a big, heavyset guy who grew up on 100th Street and by the end of high school had seen most of his friends get hooked on heroin. When I met him at age twenty-one he told me there were thirty-six guys in his high school class, and though he had lost track of some, there were only three who were "out doing something"—himself (he was working construction), an engineer, and an airplane pilot. The rest, he said, were scattered in jails and hospitals from here to the Federal Narcotics Hospital at Lexington, Kentucky.
Pee-Wee had spent the summer after high school trying to get his friends who were addicted to go to Riverside Hospital, on North Brother Island in the East River, the only facility for treating addicts under the age of twenty-one. Anyone in that age group could be sent there by voluntarily petitioning a magistrate—or be assigned for treatment there as part or all of a criminal sentence. There was no place for an addict over twenty-one to get medical treatment unless he went to the Federal Narcotics Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. The alternative was jail: apply to The Department of Correction to be sent to the prison at Riker's Island or The Women's House of Detention in order to be locked up so you couldn't get drugs; this was the self-imposed treatment known as kicking the habit cold turkey, a tortuous physical process. Pee-Wee Leon didn't have much luck persuading his friends to voluntarily commit themselves for such treatments, nor did he know of any alternative. In desperation, he went to his minister.
Sitting in the tiny backyard garden of the house where Norm lives now on 105th Street in East Harlem (he has moved five blocks from the house where he lived where I met him more than thirty years ago), he recalls that time when the young man from his church asked for help. "Pee-Wee was one of our church's youth group who I knew very well. He loved people, and he saw his friends throwing away their lives on heroin. He came to me totally discouraged and said "What are we going to do?'"
Norm pauses a moment, then laughs. "Like all good Americans," he says, "We formed a committee."
Norm and Pee-Wee asked two women from the neighborhood to join them, one whose daughter was addicted, and one who worked as a secretary for the parish who I called in my book "Maria Flores." Maria was simply concerned with the spread of the problem among the people she knew.
"We decided we'd educate ourselves and others," Norm recalls. "And we sent the word out. We got 75–100 people coming to meetings just to hear about different aspects of the problem. Heroin had been a very hush-hush subject, something people didn't discuss, so there were a lot of myths about it, and people hid their fears and problems, not wanting others to think they were addicted or had an addict in their family. Bringing it out in the open, in a public meeting, gave people a chance to learn and ask questions and share their concerns."
"We got people from the Police Department to come, and doctors, and psychologists. We got Bill Dufty, who had just collaborated with Billie Holiday in writing her autobiography, Lady Sings The Blues. Bill came with his wife, Maely, who was one of Billie's best friends, and she continued to come to our committee meetings and help us with our projects."
I remember meeting Bill Dufty at The New York Post, where he worked as a reporter, and Murray Kempton introduced me to him as the most intelligent man he knew. I sometimes sat in Murray's office while he and Dufty, who reminded me of a sort of youthful journalistic Orson Welles (the way Welles looked in "Citizen Kane") held elliptical conversations about New York politics interspersed with references to history and literature, rendered in hip talk so recondite I could barely follow it, but found it immensely enjoyable, rather like a verbal Charlie Mingus concert. I got to know Dufty's flamboyant wife, Maely, at meetings and fund-raising events of the Narcotics Committee in East Harlem.
The first hour of those meetings were only for addicts and families to talk and get information, in what now might be called a "support group" that began with the AA "serenity prayer" and was led by a neighborhood man named Ramon Muñoz. Ramon had been through the treatment program at the Federal Hospital in Lexington and was one of the few who had managed to stay off drugs after coming back to the old neighborhood. I got permission to sit in on these sessions myself, where I played the journalistic role of fly-on-the-wall, just listening and taking notes. I knew that strangers—especially from the press—were usually not allowed in such private sessions, and I felt privileged to be there.
Word spread that as well as information and advice, addicts who wanted to kick the habit could get help in going to Lexington. Norm Eddy had the papers, the forms to fill out, and sometimes the committee would help with bus fare. The problem was that it took several weeks for an application to clear and word to get back that the applicant was accepted. Sometimes in the waiting period, the addict would turn back to his habit and lose the desire and will to kick it.
One night I watched a nervous young man who tried to cover his broken English by speaking quickly tell the committee "I wanna go K.Y." He explained he only had a six-months habit now and he wanted to kick before it got any worse. Ramon recommended he go to Riker's and kick while he was waiting for word from Lexington. A discussion followed with others addicts also urging the young man to go commit himself to Riker's for thirty days and leave from there straight to Kentucky, so he'd stay clean and out of trouble. By the end of the meeting, the young man had disappeared; he never showed up again.
An official from the prison at Riker's Island came one night to talk to the committee and answer questions, and one of the boys from the neighborhood who'd been there asked why addicts who went to kick their habit cold turkey were put on hard labor four or five days after they came, when they often were still sick from the process of withdrawal. The Rikers official explained that "many of you fellows come back again and again—sometimes two and three times a year. Well, we instituted that hard labor so you wouldn't get the idea we were running a country club out there."
Long, hard, bitter laughter burst from the audience.
One night I heard some people at the committee meeting talk about going to visit one of the teenage boys from 100th Street who was at Riverside Hospital, and I asked if I could go along. The next day we took a subway to 134th Street, where we boarded a ferry for North Brother Island, a small patch of land about ten minutes out in The East River. Standing in the spray of the deck with my new neighbors from East Harlem, it struck me that New York City had a ferry ride for everyone. My literary friends in Greenwich Village took the Staten Island ferry in imitation of Edna St. Vincent Millay, reciting her lines from "Recuerdo": "We were very tired/we were very merry...." Immigrants from Europe took the ferry from Ellis Island to the streets of New York, and tourists whose ancestors made that trip in a former generation took a ferry to the Statue of Liberty, reciting in homage the verse of Emma Lazarus: "Give me your tired, your poor/ your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...."
On North Brother Island, teenagers were trying to breathe free of the enslavement of heroin.
When we went to visit Julio he was in the detoxification ward, and he led us out to the solarium to talk. This was his second trip to Riverside; the first was on assignment from a Judge after being arrested for possession of heroin, this time was voluntary after taking an overdose on some "strong stuff"; he'd been told it was pure heroin but he didn't believe it and he took too much and OD'd. But now he had already kicked and was anxious to get back home and to the streets. On his first visit here he had stayed fifty-two days and twice tried to escape, once by swimming ("I was busted in the river"), once when he was just about to dive in. This time they wanted to keep him for a standard program of six months, but he said he didn't need it, he would never get hooked again; he said if that happened he wouldn't go back to jail or hospital, he would just OD: "That's the only way out for a junkie." It was part of the lore, based on painful experience in the neighborhood: "Once a junkie, always a junkie."
On the wall of the bright solarium was scrawled in pencil "Junkie's Place" and under it was sketched a lopsided cross. Below that someone had drawn a coat of arms with "the works"—needle, syringe, and belt on a field of chipping green plaster. Just beyond it the arc of big windows gave a sweeping, sun-washed view of the New York City skyline. I tried to see it from this vantage, through the eyes of a Puerto Rican kid hooked on heroin—rather than the starry-eyed perception of a young Midwesterner out to fulfill his dreams. The soaring, sun-flashing buildings seemed then not so inspiring as haughty and teasing, as if to say, "You can see us, but you can't reach us—look how grand we are, and how inaccessible, so near and yet so far!" It gave me a chill. I had a sense of the fractured, fragmented views Manhattan represented to its millions, the kind of shifting, kaleidoscopic experience Dos Passos tried to capture in his early novel Manhattan Transfer, a precursor to the larger canvas of USA.
Riverside Hospital at least was a tangible indication of the city's awareness of the suffering of a whole segment of its population, a human response to the epidemic of heroin that swept New York after World War II, especially among young people in the slums. At the time I visited Riverside, three-fourths of the adolescent addicts lived in fifteen percent of the city's census tracts—the poorest, most overcrowded, and physically dilapidated areas of New York. Riverside was the only hospital in the world used exclusively for treating juvenile addicts, and the only community hospital of any kind in the whole country for treatment of narcotics addiction.
The shame of addiction was felt deeply in the East Harlem neighborhood, but the committee's stand that addiction was itself not a crime but a sickness brought more people out and into open discussions. One night after a meeting I listened to Pee-Wee and Maria when they got into a debate about the question that was argued so often in the neighborhood, the conundrum of cause and effect.
Pee-Wee said addiction wasn't caused by conditions of the neighborhood or society but teenagers started "because it's a kick," and they go on from smoking pot to snorting coke and then skin-popping heroin and end up main lining.
Maria disagreed. She felt kids got on dope because of the "miserable conditions" of the neighborhood, and family problems, lack of a home. She believed the cause was often psychological: "Some of these kids that get hooked, they do it for punishment."
We were walking down 100th Street and we came to the corner of Second Avenue, and stopped under a streetlight. Pee-Wee smiled and shook his head. His voice, in the words of his answer, would stay with me over the years: "Listen—when you're flyin' through the air at ninety miles an hour and grabbin' hunks of cheese off the moon, that's no punishment."
I didn't learn about drugs just from going to committee meetings. One night while I was having dinner with Norm and Peg Eddy at their apartment a well-known figure from the neighborhood burst in. "Boppo Cruz" was a junkie who had been to prison twice for robberies to get money to buy heroin, and now he was selling it, pushing to support his own habit. Norm had helped him when he wanted to kick on two occasions in the past few years, taking him out of town on a long hike, and up to a farm to labor and sweat through withdrawal, but now he was using again, and high the night he came in as we were finishing dinner.
Boppo was a handsome, brown-skinned man of twenty-seven, sharply dressed in slacks, a sportscoat, a plaid, button-down Ivy League shirt, and sporting a natty leather cap. Norm introduced us, and Boppo turned and asked me what I was doing there, looking straight at me (or through me, it seemed) in a way I couldn't avoid, the question flung like a challenge. I knew I couldn't lie, or hedge the truth, sensing he'd pick it up at once. I said I was writing a book about the neighborhood. He asked if I'd written anything else—a pro wanting to know if he was talking to a pro—and I said I'd written articles for The Nation. He nodded, as if accepting my credentials, and pulled up a chair to join us for dinner.
In his hyper, exaggerated, highly-attuned state of awareness, I kept thinking Boppo would drop something—his hand reaching for a cup seemed like it would move right through the handle as through a shadow—but he always connected and grasped the object. It was like watching a man who was moving in a dream or underwater, but at very high velocity. When he finished eating he pushed his plate away and paced around the kitchen as he talked, seeming to bounce off the walls as he jerked back from them and turned, pacing the other way again. He said he was working the Upper West Side now, but he told Norm to keep a kid named Tony from 100th Street away from him, the kid was just back from Riverside, but he was weak and Boppo could hook him—he snapped his fingers—like that. Norm told Boppo that people looked up to him, he had a responsibility.
Boppo took a deep breath and began to speak in a deep, resonant voice: "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." He paused, then in his ordinary voice, said quietly: "John Donne. I know that crap."
As if he'd finished a performance, he left the room. Norm got up to walk him to the door, and I followed. Boppo yanked his cap down on his head, turned to us, and said with a condescending smile: "If you hear of anything to do to make a living besides narcotics that isn't dull, let me know."
Boppo himself found something more fascinating than narcotics. A few years after that night I met him, he fell in love. He tried to stop using, cut way down on his habit, and went to Norm to ask for help to get completely clean before he got married. Norm drove him up to Trail's End, a cabin the parish owned in upstate New York, and there he kicked what was left of his habit and came back down to be married in City Hall. He took straight jobs, fathered a child, but fell back to using drugs and then selling them again to support his habit, and his wife divorced him.
"He loved his wife, and the day he was divorced was the last shot of heroin he ever took," Norm tells me years later. "He finally made a commitment to never use again. He did get to drinking, though, and developed a disease related to alcohol. He died just before turning forty."
A few survived, like the man known as "Doctor Joe." He managed to kick heroin by turning to booze, and felt it was his mission to "share the truth" with others. A number of addicts were able to get off heroin, only to become alcoholics, but that was considered an improvement, a step up from hell, for the simple fact it was legal and didn't put you in jail. Doctor Joe met junkies from the neighborhood who got off the ferry from Rikers or Riverside, took them right to a bar, and got them drunk, believing this course was better because it was legal. In the process of carrying out what he saw as his mission he became an alcoholic, went into a tailspin, and Peg Eddy found him in a hallway of a building on 101st Street, a wreck. She got him into a program on alcoholism at Metropolitan Hospital, and he kicked that habit, too.
Norm says, "Joe later converted to Pentecostalism, and became a deacon in his church and works now for the Parks Department." He is one of the few former addicts from the old Narcotics Committee days who is still alive, clean, and doing well.
Norm had been pastor of the storefront church on 100th Street, but he was spending so much of his time with the issue of narcotics—visiting addicts at Riverside and in prisons, going to court with guys who were arrested, along with the committee's volunteer lawyer, Seymour Ostrow, helping them try to get jobs when they got out, counseling their families—he decided to make that his full-time ministry. The Committee got some unexpected outside help from several foundations and opened its own office in a storefront at 306 E. 103rd Street on—as Norm remembers it—"Bastille Day, 1958."
Looking back on the influence of the committee from the hindsight of 1991, Norm says, "At the end of five years we had file folders on more than 2,000 addicts we had seen and tried to help. Of that whole number there were only eight people we knew about who had stayed off drugs for more than a year. So I think it's fair to say we had no influence."
"We'd been doing commendable work, but we failed to see the methods of helping addicts be a 'new man' or 'new woman'—the kind of transformation some of them found in Pentecostalism. I still run into people we knew in the days of the Committee who say, 'You helped me go to a hospital and get a job and then I found a new life in The Pentecostal church.' What I began to see was that I've been a guide, a signpost, pointing people in a direction. The important thing was that we touched the lives of two thousand people, and some were touched by the spirit of God. We were only a step in a long path. We were also a clear Christian witness in demonstrating we cared."
Next to the Veteran Bar & Grill on First Avenue, around the corner from where I was living, a boarded-up storefront was painted black and decorated with silver hand-prints. There was no name on the door, but anyone in the neighborhood could tell you this was the clubhouse of a teenage gang called The Conservatives. The name had nothing to do with politics, but indicated a change of activity and purpose from engaging in gunfights with rival gangs and doing drugs, to holding record dances, playing pool, and looking for jobs, with the help of an adult director named Ramon Diaz. In its own parlance, the gang had given up "bopping" and "gone social."
Teenage gangs were enmeshed in the culture of New York in the Fifties, becoming part of the city's popular mythology—as well as the reality of its less affluent streets—with the runaway success of "West Side Story," first as a Broadway musical (1957) and then as a movie with Natalie Wood (1961), which translated the saga of Romeo and Juliet to Puerto Rican "Maria" and Italian "Tony" and their rival ethnic gangs of "Jets" and "Sharks."
Guns as well as drugs proliferated in the tenement district streets of New York after World War II, and both were used by the burgeoning teenage gangs, in a revival of the neighborhood gang tradition that began with first Irish immigrants from county Kerry in a grocery store on Center Street in 1828. There was no tradition of gangs in Puerto Rico, but the kids picked it up in New York, part of their assimilation to life on the mainland.
When they decided to give up guns and street fighting, The Conservatives changed their name from The Enchanters, a gang that began right after World War II and by the early Fifties had a total of seven "divisions" in East Harlem, grouped according to age—from nine to twenty you moved up through the ranks from Tiny Tots to Mighty Mites, Juniors, and Seniors. The Enchanters spread to The Bronx, Brooklyn, and across the river to Hoboken in New Jersey. Their branch in lower Manhattan was still one of the most active fighting gangs in the city when the East Harlem group went social in '57. It was not out of idealism or a sudden transfusion of social responsibility but simply that most of their leaders were dead or in jail. The new rules were no drugs or guns, and the members put their fingerprints in silver on the clubhouse door as a symbol they would never have to be fingerprinted by the police.
I went to club nights of pool playing and rock and roll harmonizing, dances with girls in toreador pants, high heels, and tight sweaters, boys in sportshirts and turbans wrapped around the head with a piece of costume jewelry from home pinned at the front like a headlight—the headgear was that summer's dressing fad. They played Fats Domino and Latin records, danced the meringue, and during slow, romantic numbers, the ministers there as chaperones patrolled the floor to make sure couples were doing the "fish" and not the "grind." In each "dance" the boy and girl mashed torsos together, but in the "fish" the feet had to be moving, which supposedly made it less—uh, provocative.
When dances ended on Saturday nights the music kept pulsing in the streets, from radios and records, from groups of teenage boys who gathered in doorways to harmonize, hoping to become a pop group and grow rich and famous, the new way up from the old neighborhood. The Enchanters had their own singing group, The Persuaders, and from doorways you heard their harmonies, as their heads pressed in toward the center in concentration and they focussed on a chorus of "Doo-wah, doo-wah, doo-wah...." that sounded like a kind of keening, a plaintive lament.
One afternoon when I was hanging around the clubhouse I met a young man I thought was a new boy who turned out to be a veteran—of the old fighting gang, The Enchanters, and soon of the U.S. Army, from which he was about to be discharged after a hitch of peacetime service. Louie Melendez (the name I would call this future friend when I wrote about him) was a small, finely featured Puerto Rican with smooth, light tan skin and a thin mustache that made him look even younger, like a post-pubescent boy who was trying to prove himself a man. He had an assurance about him, though, as he gave advice to Victor, a current Conservative member, and told war stories—not of the Army but the old Enchanters.
He told about the time he was up on a rooftop on 103rd Street with other Enchanters, shooting down at The Dragons, their traditional rivals. The Enchanters rushed from the roof to chase their enemies down 104th Street past the Precinct station—none of the cops even came out—and were shooting from doorsteps along the next block when one of the Dragons snuck up and pointed a rifle right at the head of "one of our guys" and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. The same gun had been going off all right before, but now the guy who held it just kept pulling the trigger and it didn't go off and finally he just walked away and that was the end of it, everyone went home.
Louie said, "Right after the war I remember I was just a little kid and guns first started showing up a lot, in the open. At first it was a real big deal. A guy would pull a gun in the street and everyone out on the block would scatter. Maybe it wasn't even loaded, maybe you couldn't hit a thing with it; all you had to do was pull a gun. Then, people got used to 'em, and after a while it got so a guy pulled a gun and another guy would just stand there and ask him 'Well, you going to use that or not? You better use it or put it away.'"
The Enchanters had put away their guns when they became The Conservatives—literally throwing them in the East River or selling them, which turned out to be a safer plan than burying them in a basement, which a few guys did and then unearthed them when they got a challenge from The Dragons, went to the roof of a housing project, and fired down at the enemy. Police had been notified and arrested one of the leaders, Monk Wescott, and another boy, charging them with attempted assault, resulting in a sentence known locally as a "zip five"—a maximum five years at the State Correctional Institution at Comstock, New York, with earlier dismissal possible for good behavior.
Louie was not urging any return to using guns—in fact he felt he had left the neighborhood just in time, lucky to get off without being charged for involvement in a gang war episode. He was telling Victor, the young Conservative, that he thought the new "social" life of the gang wasn't active enough. "The trouble with you guys is you're just sitting around." He said they needed to get out, go to The Bronx, see other neighborhoods: "It's hangin' around that gets you in trouble." He was not impressed with a meeting he went to because all the talk was about paying dues. Louie leaned across the table and cupped his hand, as if trying to grab hold of some specific formula: "What you have to do is not to talk about who's paying dues, but what you're going to do with the dues money after you get it. That's the thing to talk about."
When I told Louie later that I was a writer, he said he'd considered writing a book about the neighborhood himself, but nobody'd believe it. He said the guys at his own Army base wouldn't believe what life was like growing up in East Harlem. "You know, they say the Army makes a man of you. All the stuff you see and have to take. But those guys haven't seen anything. I say 100th Street makes a man of you."
That summer the manhood of the Conservatives was tested in their first trial of staying "social" when bopping gangs came into the neighborhood. Norm Eddy was called on to act as mediator one hot Friday night when two rival gangs whose members had guns came on to 100th street to fight, and warfare was averted, and that Sunday he gave a sermon on "Jesus and His Gang" at the storefront church on 100th Street where many of the new Conservatives and their parents attended services. Norm asked them to show "a special kind of courage" to resist getting involved in the fighting of gangs, even though it might mean being called a punk for six months, but he knew it wasn't easy: "When a club comes into the neighborhood with their pieces, it's hard." Despite temptation, the Conservatives got through the tough, hot months, and kept to their social, non-violent course.
At the end of the summer of '57, after about six months in the neighborhood, meeting people, taking notes, going to every kind of event from Narcotics Committee meetings to prayer meetings, teenage gang sponsored dances to political rallies, I moved back down to The Village to do the actual writing of the book. I felt an excitement about it and a sense of responsibility, not only to the literary standards I aspired to achieve, but also to the people I had met and come to care about. They trusted me by letting me into their apartments and their lives and telling me their stories, and now it was up to me to tell their story to the world, or at least that small segment of it that was willing to listen.
I sat at a massive old office desk in the living room of the apartment I shared again with Ted the Horse at Tenth and Bleecker, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee as I stared out the window and back at my notes, trying to conjure up the feel and sound and smell of the world I had entered for a while as a visitor.
Sam Astrachan came up from Fort Dix one weekend and I showed him the first chapter, walking nervously around the block while he read, wondering what his novelist's eye would see in my account of coming up with a plane load of migrants from San Juan on the cheapest flight to New York, one whose trips were a little more bumpily nerve-wracking because for that price the cabin wasn't pressurized. Evidently Sam was pleased, for when I came back to the apartment the cigarette was dangling more loosely than usual from the corner of his mouth, because it curled up in a smile.
"With this beginning, you can go anywhere," he said.
He held out his hand to shake and I took it, holding his always perspiring palm for a moment in relief and gratitude.
More specific encouragement came when Harper's and Commentary took chapters to publish from the manuscript in progress, but when I finished I was still dissatisfied with the personal introduction, which I felt was crucial to the book, and I went down to Princeton one Saturday and gave it to Murray Kempton to read. He sipped a beer, then put down the pages, and said, "Take out of the introduction everything that didn't happen to you while you were living in the neighborhood."
In a single stroke, the self-righteous rhetoric and pompous generalizations were eliminated. It was the best one sentence of editorial advice I ever got.
Like all the young writers I knew I was under the influence of Hemingway, and I wanted to make the book as honest and spare as his own first book of stories called In Our Time. He had interspersed the stories with brief scenes from his own time on separate pages and so I wrote brief scenes from the neighborhood that I set between each chapter. I wanted to call the book In Spanish Harlem in emulation of Hemingway's book and his non-compromising spirit, but the publisher thought it sounded too stark, and I came up with something more colorful they liked better.
I rationalized that after all, Carson McCullers had at the suggestion of the same publisher changed the title of her first novel from The Mutes to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
Waking in the night, I wondered if this was the first indication of the dread process we all feared, the Fifties version of Faustus—"selling out." The novelist Herbert Gold, feeling he had to defend the publication of his short stories in Playboy, used to say, "I'm not selling out, I'm buying in." It made me nervous (I was writing for Playboy myself). Murray Kempton wrote an eloquent column lamenting the fact that Mike Wallace was going national and warning he wouldn't be able to do the same kind of tough, intelligent interviews he did on his show for New York. The Devil comes not with obvious lures, Kempton cautioned, but the offer of a bigger audience.
When Island in the City: The World of Spanish Harlem was published in the spring of '59, Harrison Salisbury wrote in The New York Times that "to read Mr. Wakefield's book is to walk into Spanish Harlem and suddenly share its life, its problems and its tragedies." That was everything I hoped someone would say, in the best of all places to have it said, by a distinguished journalist who I'd never even met! The kind words cushioned the blow of the advance sale of only 2,000. (It also was proof I hadn't "sold out!") Like all the authors I knew with disappointing book sales—which included almost all the authors I knew—I was comforted by recalling that James Agee's classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men only sold five hundred copies when it was first published.
Though Island in the City never achieved that kind of fame, I was proud when it was re-published in paperback in the Sixties, and again in a hardcover library edition in the Seventies. The greatest personal reward came from a few young men and women I met a decade or so later who said that reading the book had inspired them to go into social work or sociology in hopes of making a difference in the life of such neighborhoods. That eased the inner disappointment and guilt I'd begun to feel about the real "use" of such a book—it hadn't improved the lives of the people I wrote about, but it helped my own "career." That it led a few individuals to contribute something of their own lives made the whole enterprise seem more justified and justifiable.
Though I didn't stay on and live in East Harlem when I finished my work on the book, I kept going back up to see my new friends and sit in on meetings of the Narcotics Committee, sometimes helping out as a volunteer press aid and publicist for its causes. I really kept returning to the Committee because I felt at home there and akin to the people—the addicts and those who were drawn to help them.
Later I read a book Nat Hentoff recommended about addiction called The Fantastic Lodge, in which the addict-author said everyone involved in narcotics, no matter which side of it, from the judges who did the sentencing to the cops who arrested the junkies to the pushers and the users, as well as the social workers and ministers and nurses and doctors who tried to help the addicts—all were involved in it because "they have eyes." That of course would include people who chose to write about it.
According to that perceptive addict author, we who surrounded the addicts, whether with threats or help, were ourselves in some way addictive personalities drawn to drugs. Whether we actually used them or not, we were mesmerized by the subject, by the life-transforming power of the substances. Maybe this only meant that, like Norm Eddy, we were people who were interested in the Big Questions. Whether we were on some level intellectual or emotional junkies or fellow travelers of dope I don't know (in my own case, I suspect it's true), but I do know I was comfortable with those people up at the Narcotics Committee and felt I was one of them, out on the edge, at some kind of dangerous and real frontier of experience that was far removed from the men in the grey flannel suits, the country club Christians, the Organization Men, the frightened herd that composed the Lonely Crowd.
It certainly wasn't some sombre sense of "good works" that took me back to the Narcotics Committee but the kind of good time I had in talking and going out after meetings for beers with friends like Norm Eddy, Pee-Wee, Maria, and Seymour Ostrow, the super-wry attorney who graduated from Yale Law School and chose to set up a practice in East Harlem instead of going to work for one of New York's prestigious big downtown firms.
Sy was an anti-organization man who knew the language of the streets as well as the courts and political club houses, and was always sharply dressed in a three-piece suit with razor-creased pants and shoes shined to a high gloss. Once Maria Flores, looking over my scruffy clothes, gently suggested I try to dress a little more like Sy Ostrow. His tongue was even sharper than his outfits as Sy proclaimed a cynical atheism while giving of his time and expert services to the work of the parish and the poor who needed representation against the System.
Like Norm Eddy, Sy possessed what Hemingway said was essential to any good writer, and I soon saw was also necessary for professionals working effectively in the city's deprived neighborhoods—a built-in shit detector. Sy most of all liked to mock the phoney do-gooders who came to exploit the slums for quick headlines to promote their own careers, and then disappeared—the lawyers who lost interest in cases that dropped out of the headlines, who failed to show up in court to meet their clients, as well as political and religious vultures who sucked support from people in need and then were off making speeches about it when their help was needed in the streets.
Besides the mutual respect and friendship those of us who volunteered for the Narcotics Committee felt for one another, we believed were playing a small part in making things happen, in changing the way things were, and there was a sense then that individuals working together as we were could actually have some effect on the monstrous problems besetting the biggest (and greatest) city in the nation. In my very minor role as a freelance press aid or publicist for the Committee I testified before a city hearing on addiction, urging hospital beds for addicts, joined the picket line outside Metropolitan Hospital, and persuaded some reporter friends to come up and cover that protest, which resulted in a ward with twenty-five beds being opened for addicts for the first time.
The Committee rallied the neighborhood and then the city in petitioning the mayor to open beds for addicts, then in a larger community effort helped get the Metcalf-Volker bill passed in Albany that recognized drug addiction as a disease rather than a crime, and gave freedom to volunteer groups to treat addicts. The Committee joined forces with other groups throughout the city—Ed Fancher, publisher of The Village Voice, coordinated these different groups throughout New York, and there was a feeling of alliance, of The Village and East Harlem being able to work together and make something happen in far-off Albany.
A lot of new things were happening in the neighborhood in the late Fifties, not only from the work of the Narcotics Committee. After the gang that "went social"—The Conservatives—got through the summer of '57 without fighting, there seemed to be more opportunities for expression than the usual outlets of "bopping" and drugs. A wealthy downtown donor was sponsoring classes in the arts, with Geoffrey Holder teaching dance, and a young painter from the neighborhood conducted art instruction.
Louie Melendez, the former "Enchanter," was home from the Army and he introduced me to a friend he'd grown up with from the East River Housing Project who was one of the neighborhood artist-intellectuals and wanted to be a painter. Ray Grist was a cool, handsome young guy with ramrod posture and a precise, distinct enunciation whose family came from St. Thomas in the Caribbean. He was teaching the art instruction class and was eager to know about music and theatre and literature.
Louie and Ray and I went out for beers and they asked me what writers I liked and what novels and I started talking about Dostoevsky. Ray and Louie had never read his work, but he sounded cool to them, and they wanted to know if I'd recommend something Dostoevsky wrote, and if they read it would I talk to them about it? I was getting excited myself at the eagerness and intelligence and perception of their interest and the next thing I knew we had a reading group going, and to really introduce the guys to literature I invited them to come to The Village and I'd take them to The White Horse Tavern.
I introduced Ray and Louie to Sam Astrachan, who I knew was another great Dostoevsky fan, and the four of us drank pints of arf 'n arf in the back room of The Horse and talked about the novel I'd assigned us all to read: The Possessed. We agreed that although it was on the surface a "political" novel it was really about the human passions that underlie politics, the "real" stuff that made people tick, that drove them to action or madness. Louie asked how you pronounced the word "nihilist" and I said I thought it could either be "nee-hilists" or "ny-hilists" and Louie nodded and chose the latter pronunciation.
"Man," he said, shaking his head in a show of appreciation, then giving his critical conclusion in a consciously mocking use of street talk, "Them ny-hilists was really on to somethin'!"
We all broke up laughing, and ordered more pints of the house special brew.
Like all young people caught up in the first excitement of ideas and art, Ray and Louie wanted to start a newspaper. They got some money for printing from The East Harlem Protestant Parish to put out a paper for the people of the neighborhood, and asked my help. I wrote an article on the picketing of City Hall led by the parish to ask for hospital beds for addicts, Ray solicited an editorial cartoon from my friend and room-mate (again) Ted The Horse, who used to draw for his college paper. Ray wrote a short story, and other friends from the parish and the neighborhood contributed to the first issue of The Edge, which also proved to be its last issue. As Ray says now looking back on our misguided effort: "It was supposed to be for the people of the neighborhood, but I think it was over everybody's head." We had made the mistake of addressing it to ourselves—we White Horse "ny-hilists"—rather than our intended audience in the East Harlem neighborhood.
Still, we put out a newspaper, and it seemed part of the hopeful ferment and spirit of the time, along with the new "social" Conservatives, the victory of the people's march on City Hall that led to the beds being opened for addicts at Metropolitan Hospital, the flow of people and ideas to and from East Harlem. A talented novelist named Warren Miller came up to the neighborhood, hung around the streets, and got out of it a novel that young people like Ray and Louie admired (and so did I) called The Cool World. There was talk of it being a play and a movie, and a few years later an excellent black and white film of it was made, directed by Shirley Clark and produced by Frederick Wiseman.
For a brief, exciting time it seemed that we, like the nihilists in Dostoevsky, were, as Louie put it "really on to somethin'," that these bright young cool kids from East Harlem were going to be artists who spoke for their culture as all of us contributed to the greater mainstream of the city, of what New York at its best could be and inspire and produce. It was during that time I took James Baldwin up from The Village to meet Norm Eddy on 100th Street in the spring of '59.
Baldwin had liked my book, wrote a blurb for it, and was curious about this white minister and his family I had written about who had come from the suburbs of Connecticut to live in East Harlem. He was also interested in the work of the Narcotics Committee, and the whole subject of addiction. He had written a powerful short story called "Sonny's Blues" about a Negro jazz musician from Harlem who was an addict, that came out first in the Summer, 1957 issue of Partisan Review (and later in one of his short story collections, Going To Meet The Man). Norm of course knew Baldwin's work and admired it, but he didn't want to talk literature, he wanted to talk about—well, what he always talked about, those Big Questions ("What does it all mean?" "Is there a God?" "How can we do God's will?" "How can we serve our fellow humans?")
Baldwin and Norm hit it off immediately, and I sat back and listened to their conversation with the rapt appreciation of a record producer who has brought together two musicians whose work he admires individually and now gets to hear them play together for the first time. They both spoke freely and openly and Norm said something I had never heard before when Baldwin asked why he had come to live in that neighborhood. Norm leaned forward with intense concentration and said it had nothing to do with "doing good" or "saving souls" or "social work" or any of the stock assumptions people who visited (at least white people) often made. It might sound grandiose, Norm said, but the truth was, "I want to help create Plymouth Colony in East Harlem."
"Yes," Baldwin said immediately, "I understand."
Norm tells me many years later: "Baldwin was the first person I shared that vision with who knew what I was talking about."
It was a time of hope, of new beginnings, of colors mixing and complementing one another, as in the new abstract expressionist paintings being done in those lofts down in the Bowery by Kline and De Kooning, the same crowd of artist friends who gathered at The Five Spot after work to hear jazz from groups of musicians that were sometimes of mixed colors, white David Amram playing with black Cecil Taylor or Charlie Mingus, black Sonny Rollins who wrote "Freedom Suite" in '58, hiring white guitarist Jim Hall in '61 as part of a group that marked Rollins' return to public performance after a self-imposed exile, and although hiring a white musician drew criticism from some black activists, Rollins said looking back years later: "I thought it was a healing symbol, and I didn't have any qualms about doing it." It was the era when Nat Hentoff and other friends in The Village collected money to help a talented young Negro poet who was short of the rent one month when he was still married to a white girl and his name was still Jones (before he became the Muslim Amiri Baraka.)
It was not the racial millennium, understand, it was still the time when Miles Davis was busted outside Birdland and beaten up and taken to jail; it was the era Baldwin himself was beaten up at an Irish bar in The Village because he was sitting in a booth with two white friends, one of them a woman. It was still a time of black and white danger and violence-as-usual, but there had been these exceptions, there had been what seemed like lights going on, special things happening, some kind of off-beat, be-bop kind of occasional, hopeful harmony.
It was a time when Norman Mailer and his second wife Adele went to rent parties in Harlem with their maid on Saturday night and got to know her boyfriend, who couldn't read or write, but had an enormous sophistication, and Mailer says, "That's where I got my understanding about 'hip' and hipsters that led to my essay 'The White Negro.' That was a period I look back on with affection. It was a time when blacks and whites were moving toward one another. There was a marvelous sense of optimism."
It was the time of the early excitement in the cause of civil rights, when The Nation sent me south to cover school integration, and I heard the stirring oratory of the young Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and sang (shedding any pretence of objectivity) "Black and white together, we shall overcome...." Up north among liberals I knew of all colors the goal was integration, not as it would later become, separation, when Negroes became blacks and wanted not just rights but power.
I am speaking of a time when Bayard Rustin, the scholarly black man with the Oxford accent who had worked with A. Phillip Randolph of the AFL-CIO and studied with Ghandi and advised Martin Luther King on non-violence, let me in free to a concert in New York to raise money for the civil rights movement in the South because I was broke at the time. When I walked in and said, "Bayard, if it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be here tonight" he threw back his head and laughed and said, "Oh, Dan, we are all here by the grace of God," and even though I didn't believe in those days I felt a tremor of the eerie wonder of life.
It was four years before Baldwin would write The Fire Next Time, that warning that shocked white liberals of the burning that was to come—and did, as Baldwin predicted, in Watts and other big city ghettos across the country the inflammatory year of 1968, when Martin Luther King and then Bobby Kennedy were felled by assassins, and with them fell a special kind of hope. It was four years before I got in an awful argument with Baldwin over whether a teenage white girl could suffer—as a black girl like his own sister had suffered—and in anger he said that sentence that hung like a sword over all inter-racial friendships: "You're just like all the others." It meant of course the other whites, the others who didn't understand. It meant: I thought you were different but I was fooled again, deluded again, you are one of Them after all.
It was four years until the time I ran into Louie Melendez, and we started by kidding about our old admiration for "them ny-hilists" in Dostoevsky, but before the evening was over it felt more like we were the nihilists. Louie told me he was working as a "sub-contractor." I asked what that meant, and he said he was dispensing drugs but not really as a pusher, more as someone who simply was delivering what had already been arranged.
I went with him to a run-down apartment on East 102nd Street, where a nervous young guy was eagerly waiting for delivery while his tough looking teenage girlfriend lay on a bed that was the room's only furniture besides a chair and a lamp. She was reading a comic book and chewing gum. The customer got out his works and asked Louie to fix him. Louie nodded, but first went to a record player where a Modern Jazz Quartet LP was playing. I think it was "Cortege" from the album "No Sun in Venice." Louie lifted the arm off and said "John Lewis, you're too sad for me." Then he went to the waiting customer, who had already rolled up his sleeve.
I left New York that fall of '63, and I don't think I went back to East Harlem until February 9, 1986, to attend a celebration of Norm Eddy's sixty-sixth birthday at The Church of the Resurrection at 325 E. 101st Street. I'd renewed my friendship with Norm a few years before when I let him know I'd returned to church in 1980, joining King's Chapel in Boston, and I wanted to give due credit to his stellar example of never having tried to recruit or convert me during my passionate atheistic years, but living the Word (instead of merely preaching it) in his life and work in a way that even I, in my angry post-collegiate atheism, could only respect.
Norm spoke on his birthday about "Acts of Prayer," and I remembered with a jolt that when I first knew him I used to privately substitute the words of a Spaniard in despair from Hemingway's story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" for the words of The Lord's Prayer when it automatically came to my mind: "Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name...."
On Norm's sixty-sixth birthday I was able to join in saying the real words of his church's "Parish Purpose" from Luke when all of us were led in reciting them by the current minister, a black man, Reverend LeRoy Ricksy:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me because He hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those that are oppressed, to proclaim a year when man may find acceptance with the Lord.
There were two choirs, one from the church and one from a neighborhood drug rehabilitation center, and the sanctuary was full, with people from the neighborhood where Norm had lived and served for nearly forty years, and people from all across the country who had through the years come to this parish and worked as volunteers, and a New York City Councilwoman and representatives of religious and political groups from all around the city who had come to honor Norm and his vision and his work.
He spoke of the work of counseling and activism of the Narcotics Committee, the picketing of Metropolitan Hospital ("We were the prelude to the Sixties"), of going to meet Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama in '56, and being convinced he was the man to lead the nation in the struggle for civil rights when it turned out King's driver was a former narcotics addict from 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem—"in those days when addicts were all considered beyond hope..."—and it convinced Norm of King's trust in individuals to grow and change. That is the faith Norm lives by, and perhaps is why I and so many others in the church that day have been drawn to him over the decades.
I had altogether lost track of Ray Grist, the aspiring painter and fellow editor of the great one-shot newspaper we helped create in East Harlem in '58, The Edge, until Norm put me back in touch with him in the spring of 1990. We meet at The Hunan Balcony restaurant on Broadway and Ray is carrying a copy of the new issue of an attractive, slick-paper publication called JUMP, subtitled "A Forum for New World Culture/A Voice for Us." As well as being a working artist, whose paintings have been shown at galleries in Harlem, Ray is the editor-in-chief of this paper. I say it looks very impressive and he grins and says, "A little nicer than The Edge. Remember The Edge?"
I laugh as we both think of our high hopes for that long forgotten publication. JUMP already has a longer life, with its fifth issue. It was started by a group of black artists who called themselves The Pow Wow Group, who got together to talk about how to get their work shown and reviewed and sold. JUMP is part of that effort, listing galleries that show the work of black and Third World artists, and giving dates of exhibits, bringing attention to their work.
Ray is not only editor-in-chief of JUMP but has written an article for this issue, "Night Train to Mombassa," and his daughter Lisa has written an interview with a Nairobi painter she and her father met on a trip to Kenya.
Ray has kept in touch with Norm Eddy over the years and he says, looking back now, "Norm and the other ministers of the East Harlem Protestant Parish were stimulating people. One of the other ministers from the parish, George Todd, sort of adopted this teenage club I was in called The Diplomats, from the East River Housing Project. Outside the Project was The Enchanters, who became The Conservatives—inside was The Diplomats. The job of those ministers was to nurture us, and they did. They were very important to me—they woke up a whole intellectual curiosity—they asked questions like 'What is God?' and 'Do I have a social responsibility?'"
Ray remembers other people who came into the neighborhood back then, the donor who set up the classes in art and dance, the black dancer Geoffrey Holder, the white novelist Warren Miller, and his novel The Cool World. We talk about our trips to The White Horse Tavern and Ray speaks of meeting Sam Astrachan and James Baldwin there.
"All of this, all these people, gave us a sense of exposure to the world—we were opened up, tremendously opened up by the experience," he says. He believes that the Fifties was a time of great cultural amalgamation, whose results are still being felt.
"We absorbed everything out there and now we're putting it back as 'our experience'—a new reality. I can't talk in terms of Europe and Africa but rather as America, the New World. Amiri Baraka is a black Muslim, but he still is an expression of the amalgam—I think his play is called 'The Dutchman' because the Dutch were the Old World power, they left it behind. 'LeRoi Jones' has to become a new person—he uses nationalist terms to express it, but that's his anger—the real point is his becoming a new person."
I think of the Pentecostals who give up drugs, of all of us struggling in religious or psychiatry or new age meditation to become "new people."
Ray says his sister Reri, who was an understudy for Carol Lawrence in the Broadway musical version of "West Side Story" and sang "Somewhere," is now a leading coloratura who has sung at all the major opera houses. She and Don Shirley were the first black singers to perform roles together at The Met. "I'm supposed to go to Amsterdam to hear her perform next week."
I ask if he's seen Louie Melendez lately, and that's a sore subject. Louie stayed with Ray a while with another big deal that didn't come off, one of the many deals he was trying to put together in later years, not with drugs but assorted business projects, like exporting fruit from the islands in the winter (a huge shipment he invested in was ruined by an early frost), deals that were legit but seemed cursed and never quite came off, and in the midst of one of these deals that started out looking so good but was falling apart, while Louie was living on credit and Ray's hospitality, he suddenly disappeared. I try on my own to track Louie down, but finally I'm told by someone from 100th Street that Louie left the country. He was living in Santo Domingo, they said, tending bar.