Sometime between the ages of eight and nine, traumatized by The Story of Dr. Doolittle, and his adventures in Hugh Loftig’s whimsical Africa, wherein a cannibal the color of coal, and suited in an armor of rusty mop-buckets, was bleached by the titular hero to aid said cannibal in his quest for the heart of a fairyland lass, I forsooked the insidious charms of children’s literature,(1) embarking on an investigation of works consigned to disreputable–nay, lunatic
–realms of public inquiry.
Said differently, I fed on schlock authored by lowbrow crackpots.
Now, I was not a feeble-minded child: plasticine, crayons, water colors and acrylics were the tools of my imagination. I wrote stories and poems. I was well-spoken. I was an avid reader.
In fact, according to a system of measurement utilized in those culturally-biased times, the 1960s, when public institutions were under the strict, hegemonic control of a bunch of slug-brained hunkies, and Dick and Jane rubbed against the dusky booty of Little Black Sambo on the library shelf, my reading skills were deemed quite advanced for my age.
My tastes, however, were rather outre. Thus, given my new found reading, the innocent beliefs of childhood–Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny and the purity of Mickey Mouse–were supplanted by an untenable belief in ghosts, flying saucers, telepathy, miasmic bog-critters, and the luminously paranoid rhetoric of militant black nationalists.
In addition to Lofting, I also attribute this shift in attitudes to the disillusionment wrought by both the Kennedy assassination and Oswald’s televised murder; Dr. Fredrick Wertham’s salacious attack on the comic book industry, “The Seduction of the Innocent,” which opened gleaming new vistas of sex and sadism for my fevered, if impressionable, mind; and, appropriately enough, Forrest Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland. Crucial, too, was the distinctly bohemian flavor of my home life.
My parents maintained a library largely devoted to art history and psychiatry, as my father and mother were engaged in those fields, respectively. Our book shelves also contained a respectable sampling of modern fiction. The living room coffee table was always stacked with the latest issues of The Evergreen Review, Ramparts, Avant-Garde and The Realist. Abstract paintings, executed by my father’s accomplished hand, adorned our walls. The jazz recordings of Atlantic, Blue Note and Columbia were in constant play.
Frequently, I would situate myself on a heat vent in a corner of our living room, eavesdropping on the discussions my parents held with the various shrinks, painters and jazz musicians who were frequent guests in our home.
Initially, I was drawn to the poetry and plays of Amiri Baraka, then Leroi Jones; which did much to temper my emerging world-view. Thereafter, though, I hungered for gamier meat…
So, with what coins remained of my weekly allowance, the Saturday afternoons of a post-monster-movie-matinee were spent, in the company of my beloved younger sibling, browsing through the shelves of downtown bookshops. There, among tweeded scholars and harried grad students, I searched for the outlandish yarns spun by the likes of Frank Edwards, John Keel, Hans Holtzer and George Adamski.
As a result, I was regarded as something of a playground crank. You see, in that era of freedom marches and lunchcounter sit-ins, my model of ethnic pride was not, as one might assume, the fiery Baraka; but Barney Hill,(2) the first alleged black ufo abductee of modern record.
Although our Race Leaders had made strident demands for Black participation in many areas of American life, I was appalled not one had not voiced a single word of support for Hill and his otherworldy plight. On the school yard, brandishing a copy of the N.O.I. newspaper in one hand, and a dog-eared paperback of Flying Saucers from Outer Space in the other, I would rant and wildly gesticulate: “Why doesn’t the honorable Elijah Muhammad put aside his grievances with the white man for just one minute,” I’d glare, “and issue a joint statement with Major Donald Kehoe?!! I read Muhammad Speaks! I got a copy right here! I know what the man said. He prophesized the arrival of a great Motherplane, piloted by bow-tied black men who would lay waste to the white man’s wicked world. Then, cocking a conspiratorial eyebrow, he’d ask: “Could it be this egregious omission on the part of our leaders is due to the fact that Mr. Hill is married–to a white woman? Granted, Hugh Hefner ain’t exactly gonna stuff her behind in a bunny suit! Maybe that’s why Barney got ulcers in the first place, staring at them sagging old titties! But he’s a Black man! A brother! Mr. Muhammad should lighten up and give the man a break!
“As a people, we have made tremendous strides in the field of Ufology. Our people have done so for centuries. Have you heard of the Dogon? A tribe of peoples in Africa? They have a highly sophisticated system of Astronomy. And they been talkin’ to the fish folks in Sirius long before they had shit to say to the white man.”
Eventually, I outgrew my infatuation with space goblins, and abandoned the idea of heading an organization of Negroes Consorting with the Occupants of Flying Saucers; graduating to popular editions on the subject of witchcraft. Why this was so can be traced to a very early attempt at losing my virginity.
In the summer of 1970, after an unfortunate and troubled year that included my mother’s death, and an unhappy stint in boarding school, my father, ever anxious for me to find gainful employment, provided two choices for my idle summer holidays: Get a job! Or Get out!
So I left. And I moved into a dingy, two-story house with an assortment of hippies on the fringe of New Haven’s industrial district. It was located on a quiet, residential block of white working poor. And it operated along the lines of a commune. A black school bus was parked in front; its interior decorated with colorful batiks, throw pillows, handmade god-eyes and small brass bells. Motorcycle parts rusted in a jungle of weeds on the back lawn.
The house, along with our living expenses, was funded through an arrangement with the state mental health department of Connecticut and various psychiatric foundations at Yale. This was the impression given, at least, after the appearance one evening of a middle-aged psychiatrist of owlish mien. With a bedsheet draped toga-style around a portly body, he bolted into our living room on two waxy and liver-spotted legs, a turnip-man on toothpicks, dragging his hysterical wife behind him. She kicked and scratched and he slapped her. A gout of blood spurt from a cut in her lower lip. And she dropped to the floor, laying there in a protective fetal ball, sucking her thumb.
The shrink turned to us with a steadfast gaze; his eyebrows knit in a single strip of caterpillar fuzz above two squarish and glittering eyes. He affected the air of an exalted spiritual teacher, convinced the pate of his balding skull emitted rays of twelve-point brilliance.
With a condescension masked by false humility, he addressed us calmly and begged for our help in resolving this martial conflict. Apparently, though I’d never seen either of these two people before, the dispute between he and his wife was a matter of concern to all in the household.
Whatever the problem (I think his wife had fucked either the ex-biker, the ex-speedfreak or the thirteen year old runaway baby dyke playing musical mattresses with the other women who occupied the house, I don’t remember which, maybe all three, and complained about the torpidity of his recent performance), the naked shrink in toga-wrap made it abundantly clear he was the guy who kept us in fifty pound bags of groats and brown rice.
The house, I should add, was also an emergency shelter for a local crisis intervention center. This, too, was part of the shrink’s grand design. As I understood it, according to his avowed philosophy, by combining the principles of community activism with the theories of outpatient treatment, it was best, he thought, to let the patients run the asylum.
However, despite his utopian claims, the house served as a haven for freeloaders, dopers, drifters and runaways. In other words, it was a crash pad. That was how I came to be there.
When I wasn’t taunting the cordon of police surrounding New Haven Superior Court building, chanting Off the Pig! with a motley crew of Black Panther supporters, most of whom were gristled winos, I volunteered my time at the crisis center. I manned telephones on the graveyard shift. From midnight to eight, I spoke with the lonely and depressed, many of whom contemplated suicide. I was good at this. I listened with an acutely empathetic ear. But my intentions were far from altruistic. I was fifteen years old. I wanted to get laid.
In addition to the house, there was a drop-in center. It was part of a complex of run-down buildings on the outskirts of the downtown business area, which also included a coffee house and the offices of the local underground newspaper. This was the hub of New Haven`s hippie community. And hippies—to an unworldly fifteen year old with otherworldly notions—meant women who fucked. But, contrary to the musical Hair, and its lyric black boys are “… delicious, chocolate-flavored love,” they didn’t fuck me.(3) Still, life in the hub was a garden of potential, with the loveliest of nymphets in floral bloom.
Over that summer, there were many one-sided fascinations and numerous out-and-out rejections. Yet, I persevered, if fruitlessly. In the mornings, until late afternoon, I would sit on the grass of the New Haven Green with the ragtag bunch of aforementioned winos—who were, by name, The Professor, Tonto, Swamp Rat, Pickle, Weak Willie, Junkyard and Shoebox Bennie(4)—in support of the Black Panthers’ political prisoners then on trial. We’d squat in a semi-circle on the lawn, our legs folded in lotus position, smoking dope and passing jugs of cheap wine. And, to the considerable annoyance of all others present, we’d laugh, cuss, harass businessmen and listen to the Panthers talk shit all morning until it was time to march across the street to the courthouse.
When that time rolled around, we’d parade for half a block with our fists thrust in the air, shout slogans, carry banners, flags and signs emblazoned with a snarling black jungle cat, and stand in front of the courthouse listening to the Panthers talk some more shit until the cops chased us away with riot sticks.
Some days, there were guest speakers—movement stars like David Hilliard, Elaine Brown, Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman—who, noting our antics, would roll their eyes in dismay. Most days, however, the speaker was a rank and file member of the Panther Party. And they were hilarious!
Outfitted in signature black leather jacket, beret tilted just so on bulbous afro, a multitude of tin “Free (__PUT NAME HERE__)!” buttons pinned on both. (DESCRIPTION T.K.)
The speaker’s rhetorical style, though not without substance and truth, was enough to embarrass Jim Rice. The only thing missing were the endman, Topkick and Bones.
“We, the members of the Black Panther Party, who are the revolutionary servants of the world’s masses of oppressed people, believe that the genocidal machinery of fascism and repression that defines the core and essence of capitalist imperialism in the United Snakes of Disneyland’s Amerikkka has been mobilized against our incarcerated comrade in struggle, Chairman Bobby Seale!”
Right on! Free Brother Bobby! (CROWD CHANT)
“Chairman Bobby, who understands the purity, righteousness and correctness of revolutionary thought, as exemplified by the wise leader of the Vietnamese people, Uncle Ho Chi Mihn, who, as history will show, like his Marxist-Leninist brethren in the so-called ‘Third World,’ Chairman Mao Tse-Dong, Ché Guevara and Fidel Castro, will prevail against the armed puppets of the mad dog military-industrial complex, is being held in the excretious bowels of Disneyland Amerikkka’s pig penal system for teaching the correct methods of resistance against racist, neo-colonialist oppression to the masses of downtrodden lumpen-proleteriat people of all colors and nations who labor under the iron thumb of greedy fat-cat rule!”
The wordiness angered The Professor. He wagged an agitated finger in the speaker’s direction and shout over the heads of the Panthers’ patient flock: “Can you repeat that?!!”
Swamp Rat and Tonto burst into raucous fits of laughter. This brought pointed looks of disdain from the two Panther “marshals” stationed by the bandstand. They trotted over, combat boots shined to a mirror polish and chastised our behaviour.
“You think Chairman Bobby some kinda clown?” the two marshals sneered, unaware of Chairman Bobby’s pre-Panther comedic roots.(5) “You think this rally just another act for Barnum’s big top? And we Panthers out here for your amusement? See our noses light up an’ shit? Laff at the Panther midgets fall out those funny little cars? Huh? Is that what you think? Revolution ain’t no circus, brutha. And Bobby ain’t no Bozo! We tryin’ to educate the people!”
The Professor snapped, “Before you even suggest you can educate anybody, learn how to construct a clear and concise sentence first!”
The marshal’s face soured. He sniffed at The Professor as though he were a dog sniffing another. He turned to his partner and asked: “What we gon’ do ’bout these misguided bruthas?”
“I believes as proper penalty for their politically-incorrect misconduct” his partner answered, “we gon’ hafta liberate they herbs! In the name of the peoples, hand over yo’ reefa! This is a revolutionary confiscation!”
This only elicited a second bout of laughter. Pickle and Junkyard flailed on the grass, wracked with spasms. It was a cheap ploy. And we knew it. There were plenty of half-assed hustlers playing off the Panthers’ rep and rhetoric; scamming drugs, money and booty. Weird thing was even some of the Panthers preyed on that same bullshit. I mean, like, what powder swirled up Cleaver’s nostrils and told him he was the movement’s answer to Frank Rizzo? And that he suddenly had the power to put Leary’s crazy, C.I.A. ass under ‘revolutionary arrest’? Or how about Huey and Barbarella’s space-coochie?
But, as dedicated members of The Wino Liberation Brigade (we flew a Viet-Cong Flag pasted with labels steamed off of old Thunderbird bottles), we didn’t subscribe to the idea that a muthafucka should be deprived of his ‘get high’. So Swamp Rat tossed them three joints. The two ‘marshals’ left, satisfied. And repositioned themselves at the side of the band stand, sucking away at the people’s contraband. It was no mystery what happened to the third joint.
“As authorized by president Porky Pig in the starkness of Babylon’s Ovum Office, with the assistance of his Merry Melodies in the Senate and Congress, supported by a Looney-Tunes bourgeois brainwashed by the sinister Master Cylinders mass media, as echoed by Rocky and Bullwinkle on the nightly news, and enforced by the agents of its Mickey-Mouse Gestapo, Huey, Dewy and Louie, with the treacherous aid of its covert operatives, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, the unspeakably hellish actions perpetuated against our Chairman in particular, and the Black Panther Party in general, is part and parcel of a national campaign of terror and murder to exterminate the Black Panther Party in particular and Black People in general!”
On another occasion, the speaker, a woman, her derringer wardrobe provided by the Black Panthers’ Big Boutique (“…for the revolutionary as large as the burden of the people!…”), rallied our sympathies by ridiculing the genitalia of the tactical riot-unit stationed along the perimeter of the Green, batons at the ready. “And I just bet your pink little things are twisted into cute little curly-cues, too” she teased, swinging her hips in sassy sashay, “just like the tails hangin’ off the pigs you are!”
This was all rousing good fun, especially for her, until it was time to march to the courthouse. And our exit was blocked by the unit of tactical police. Most jumped over the barricades and scattered. She, given her ample weight and size, was unable to lift her leg high enough to surmount the barrier blocking her egress. Instead, she mustered her dignity, and attempted an exit through a public gate, where she was immediately set upon by several huge porkers with very tiny pee-pees and very hard sticks.
The last we saw of her, six or seven bulky police officers held her aloft, trussed like a shot deer, and carted her off to a waiting paddy wagon. As the police officers swung her playfully from side to side, she screeched—
“Hep me, Lawd! Oh, hep me! De whyte man done got ho a me agin! Pleeze, lawd, oh pleeze, don`t let ’em hurt me! I jus’ knows dey gon‚ whip they pink little curly-cues out an‚ pee on me! I be a good nigras! I gets me an audition fo’ de Ed Sullivan Show an’ do comedy an’ tapdance fum now on! Oh my lawd! Oh my lawd! Hep me! Hep me!”
1) The exceptions, of course, were depraved Victorians like the Reverend Charles Dodgeson, and his pal in pedophiliac picture-taking, George MacDonald.
2) Barney Hill was a postal clerk who had developed an ulcer condition. In 1961, he and his wife, Betty, decided on a short vacation in Montreal. On the return trip home to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Barney spotted what he thought was a bright star. They tracked the ‘star’ for some miles until Barney stopped his car, got out and examined it through a pair of binoculars. Instead of a ‘star’, Barney alleged he saw a disc with rows of windows flashing multicolored lights. The disc drew closer and he claimed he saw humanoid figures inside. After this, he and his wife could not account for the next two hours of their lives. I say ‘alleged’, not because I doubt the veracity of his experience, but, rather, Sun Ra, professed citizen of Saturn, had traveled along the same roads where the Hills were abducted six months before.
3) In fact, I once heard some hippie hoze strumming guitars, singing “… jungle bunny, jigaboo, coon, pickaninny, mau mau… I strolled over, rejoining “And I’m the President of the United States of LUUV!” And they shot back, “Well, Snowflake, we’ve just got the bulletin—you’ve just been impeached!” Frankly, John Waters “The Diane Linkletter Story” best reflects my feelings on the people of this period which is—Turn on, tune in and drop out—a window!
4) He was called ‘Shoebox’ because he carried one. It contained—well, we didn’t know what it contained; but, whatever it was, it smelled really bad.
5) Bobby Seale worked in Bay Area nightclubs with the likes of Paul Mooney and Richard Pryor. This would explain the source of Pryor’s classic Wino and the Panthers sketch.