Any list of famous writers from Brooklyn would fill a decent sized phone book. And any list of books set in Brooklyn would be almost as large. I’ve read plenty of both but there are many more I’ve missed. So, the posts I’ll be making about Brooklyn books will be far from a definitive list. Think of them as tips from your friendly Brooklyn librarian.
It would be remiss of me not to begin with the very first “Brooklyn” book I ever read. (Hell, it was the very first book I ever read cover-to-cover!) And, I’ve reread it many times since – most recently last Tuesday. In fact, it’s the overdue book mentioned above – overdue for over 60 years! If you haven’t read it then all I can say is, “I pity you!”
“Psssst, hey kid, ya wanna read a really doity book?”
As you drive into Brooklyn across the Brooklyn Bridge a large sign looms up at you. It screams, “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” If a driver doesn’t take that exit they are taken onto the Gowanus Expressway and thence over the neighborhood of Sunset Park where the spectacularly downbeat novel Last Exit to Brooklyn is set. In the 1950s, the period of the novel, that sign should have screamed, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
In the 50s, the waterfront of Sunset Park was a land of perpetual night – a slum rotting in fetid shadow beneath the elevated Gowanus Expressway. The Mafia had killed the docks, Robert Moses had killed Sunset Park by cutting it in two with his hideous highway and the Dodgers had killed Brooklyn by moving to L.A.
Hubert Selby Jr. knew this coz he was a Brooklyn boy born right next door to Sunset Park in Bay Ridge.
Selby’s book consists of inter-locking tales of losers, junkies, sadists, pimps, hookers and trannies who fight for scraps in a nightmare world of gangs and gang-bangs.
I was raised in the 1950s just a few blocks away from this world. I even swam in the public pool there. But, I knew better than to venture into the Terra Incognita below the highway. Many years later, I met a Yorkshireman who had lived in a sleaze-bag hotel in Sunset Park during WW2. He was outfitting ships to British standards that had been built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He told me that the whole area was full of crap games, gyp-joints and whorehouses all making a fortune from the servicemen and dock workers.
In the 1980s, I would spend pointless, penniless weekends meandering around Brooklyn by bike. I was drawn to the derelict and rotting factories of Industry City that lined the waterfront in Sunset Park. I thought, “Damn, this would make a great film set.” And, that’s exactly where, a few years later, much of the movie of Last Exit to Brooklyn was filmed.
That film is good but doesn’t capture the daring style and outrageous vitality of Selby’s prose. Plus, by 1989, much of the shock value of his book’s subject matter had been lost. But, when it was first published in 1964, Last Exit to Brooklyn was an outrage and banned in several countries. I haven’t been impressed by Selby’s other work but anyone interested in the lower depths of Brooklyn life and the heights of “outsider” American literature should read Last Exit to Brooklyn.
In 1965, I read it as a 15-year-old while working as a messenger in Times Square. The guy who sold it to me could have been arrested. I made sure that its instantly recognizable cover was always visible sticking out of my back pocket as I made deliveries. And, I made sure that same cover was visible as I read Last Exit to Brooklyn on the subway. I didn’t live in a artist’s garret in Greenwich Village but it was fun to pretend that I did.
London has many wonderful parks; some so large they are home to herds of cattle and deer! The parks in my ‘hood were royal hunting grounds in medieval London and are still surprisingly woodsy. For many years, I’ve used them for occasional long walks but, during lockdown, I’ve made them my daily haunts.
“Haunts” is the perfect word because, as the lockdown continues and my boredom and anxiety deepen, I am not so much walking as haunting the same well-trodden paths day after day. And, I encounter familiar masked faces doing the same. We are so many woodland ghosts sharing glances of grim determination and forced friendliness as we carefully pass each other. Actually, I let them carefully pass me. I plow ahead as in normal times – refusing to make flamboyant gestures of “giving way” or to take drastic action to avoid breaking the two-meter social-distancing rule.
It’s the terror in their eyes that makes me shudder and makes me furious. They are my enemies – members of the 84% of the British public that want this insane lockdown to continue.
Of course, there are many in that number easily dismissed as low I.Q. slugs quite happy to lay about with the state bracing them up. (Uh… better make that the taxpayer doing the bracing-up.) And, hey, there might be some otherwise intelligent folk in the 84% who are enjoying the forced curtailment of their liberty. (Maybe they hated going into the office. Or, love playing with their kids.)
But, I can see in the eyes of my fellow woodland ghosts that they are just gutless wonders who fear. Fear the state. Fear their neighbors. Fear the future. Fear death. Fear life.
They are the obedient wage slaves, consumers and pawns coveted by technocratic dictators who plot our dystopian future on their desktops and slide rules.
It’s the timid couples I pass in the woods who make me angriest. I imagine their hushed, fervent pillow-talk plans to clap even louder next Thursday night for the NHS and start a collection for the rapeugees who land daily on Britain’s beaches from the Calais jungle. Invariably, these couples are not only masked but masked to the max. No cheap paper masks or basic medical face coverings for them. No. They wear space-age contraptions with multiple fail-safe straps and vents. In the middle of the woods!
I guess they missed the memo that no two “experts” can agree if masks are even worthwhile. And, the “experts” to whom they grovel have admitted that they invented the two-meter rule with no scientific backing. And, those same “experts” say that Covid-19 droplets don’t travel or live in air for as long as they had claimed. And, the virus doesn’t survive on surfaces for as long as they had warned either.
Remember all those medical horror-hype stories of Covid-19 droplets traveling 22 feet and living longer than Methuselah? Well, you can forget that. Oh, this just in, now the “experts” say that you don’t have to wipe down your groceries after all.
In 1961, the late, great baseball manager Casey Stengel was fired by the mighty New York Yankees and immediately hired by the lowly New York Mets. One day he looked down the Mets dugout bench and asked, “Can’t anyone here play this game?”
I’d like to ask that of all the “experts” who have clogged the airwaves and newspaper columns for months – all those fusty-musty eggheads carefully cultivating their images and soundbites as they salivate over a book deal and regular pundit spot on MSNBC.
But, I’m glad to say that some genuine scientists are asking (as I have) whether the astonishingly wrong predictions made by the “experts” could have been by accident. And, if the mistakes were deliberate, what is their agenda?
Maybe they felt that to get the attention of a dumbed-down population (Dumbed-down by them) they had to push the worst-case scenario.
Maybe they felt that to get the attention of polyglot, multi-racial countries (Made so by them) they had to push the worst-case scenario.
Maybe, however disastrous the result of their strategy, they had our best interests at heart. (What was that about good intentions?)
But, how ’bout this?
Maybe this pandemic:
born in a wet market or not
created and released from a lab or not
on purpose or not
a bio-attack on China and Iran that backfired or not
is now being manipulated by the technocratic elites to their own ends.
It’s anyone’s guess what their end game is but when Warren “Billionaire” Buffett drops his airline stocks, this “anyone” suspects that restrictions on international travel will be one outcome.
And, as the UK starts testing its new Covid-19 tracking App, restrictions on domestic travel will be another outcome.
Chew on this… if you refuse to comply with the tracking App you could be denied travel, health care, pension, education, housing and every other aspect of life controlled by the “benevolent” state. Last time I checked, Big Brother can give with one hand…
Welp… this is one ghost who plans to resist all technocratic incursions into his life. But, I’ll betcha my woodland friends comply in a heartbeat. And, I expect a knock on the door after one of those not-so friendly ghosts drops a dime on my ass.
So, the next time you visit the woods in my ‘hood don’t be surprised if you find me hanging around.
How have we allowed a pack of third-rate politicians and unelected eggheads, bureaucrats, careerists and apparatchiks take control of our world?
Who died and left them boss?
Welp… as of today 218,000 have died from Covid 19. Possibly. Maybe. We’re pretty sure. That’s our guesstimate. Ballpark figure. Some with. Some suspected. But, yeah, 218K. That’s the body count. There or thereabouts.
Now, if you ask us about diarrhea… 1.5 million die annually from that. No foolin’. 1.5 million. Annually. From diarrhea. You can take that to the bank.
As long as we’re talkin’ numbers here…
The Flu pandemic of 1918-19 killed 20 – 100 million.
More than died in WW1
More than died from the Black Death
The Flu of 1957 killed 1.1 million
The Flu of 1968 killed 1 million
In an average year the flu kills 300 – 650,000
In the 1918-19 flu pandemic the sick were quarantined. Otherwise, life went on. And, there were no lockdowns in any of these earlier pandemics. In fact, aside from this corona-panic, at no time in history have the healthy been quarantined.
Before you argue that social-distancing and lockdown have kept the Covid-19 deaths down consider that the official modellers included those mitigating factors when concocting their original vastly exaggerated infection and death rates. Those geniuses got it so dead wrong that a suspicious person might think they did so on purpose. Could they have been that stupid? After all, from the git-go there were modellers who got it dead right.
Any dispassionate observer who examined the history of the UN, WHO, CDC, NIH, NHS (or any other member of the alphabet soup of so-called public health agencies) would conclude that the inmates had taken over the asylum. Their record of wrong projections, lethal injections and spectacularly inept responses are beyond dispute and beyond belief.
And, yet. And, yet. They are lording it over us. Calling the shots. And, we are allowing them to do so.
Coming soon to an economic zone near you, the motion-picture entertainment of the ages!
“1984 meets Brave New World”
Plus, you’ll thrill to the spectacular second feature –
“Big Mommy vs. the Big Bad Bugs
That Might Give You a Boo-boo”
SEE – the masses fight to be first in line for vaccine shots!
THRILL – while morons demand more government surveillance!
MARVEL – as cretins beg for chip implants!
GASP – to see suckers accept a devalued, cashless currency.
I feel it in my waters. You do, too. We all do. We all feel it but dare not speak it. We know what’s really going on here. But, we also know that terrible truths must be spoken aloud to be made real. We are terrified of speaking into life the horrible future we foresee.
“In the beginning was the word…
and the word was made flesh.”
Meanwhile… Don’t kid yourself. There won’t be any big pushback. Oh, sure, a few horn-honking, flag-waving, Bible and constitution-clutching diehards. But, no widespread revolt. No 1776, No Yellow Vests. No Antifa. No alt-right. No nuthin’. Acquiescence. That’s all there will be. Acquiescence. Surrender. Compliance.
I looked across the street and there was Kirk sitting alone on a bench at a bus stop. I was surprised to see him because I had only moments before deleted him from my WhatsApp. I had deleted Kirk because he was dead.
I had spent several moments debating his deletion. It’s an act of frightening finality like scratching a dead friend from an address book or a family member from your Christmas card list. Now, I felt slightly affronted that, after causing me the upset of eliminating him from my social circle going forward, Kirk was back. Uninvited.
It was Kirk alright. Over there on the bench. Waiting for a bus. No play of the light. No doppelganger. No undigested bit of cheese. No. It was Kirk in full fleshy form. Dead but somehow alive. I considered hailing him, “Kirk, what the fuck?” But, decided that might frighten him. So, I used the nearby zebra crossing to get over to him. I checked for cars to my right but when I checked to my left, Kirk had vanished. He hadn’t boarded a bus because none had passed. The street was empty. No crowd to get lost in. No place to hide. No. Kirk had vanished.
I was sure that Kirk had died earlier that day of Covid 19. At least, that’s what they told me. Covid 19. That’s what they’d been telling everyone about anyone who had died. Covid 19. But, in Kirk’s case it made sense. He was a burly type but pushing seventy and deceptively weak inside. He’d been dealt a bad genetic hand. They turned Kirk’s respirator off on the eight day. But, I knew he was a goner when he stayed in the London hospital for more than two days.
English hospitals are lethally dirty places at the best of times. Kirk would have been safer in a men’s room stall in a tube station. But, Britain’s National Health Service is the state religion and otherwise intelligent folk are afraid to criticize it. They prefer to die. To take one for the team. (This misplaced stoicism is the only remnant of “stiff upper lip” still on display on this island.) The NHS manages to kill 40,000 a year with malpractice. And, that’s in normal years. How many of Britain’s Corona dead were foolishly trusting souls who fell not to the virus but to the inept ministrations of socialized medicine?
The only other person I knew who died of Covid 19 was a New York actor of some note. I’d never met him. Yet, our lives were inextricably linked. Forty years ago, he inherited a girlfriend of mine who had just dumped me. He didn’t do this to hurt me. We’d never met. But, I never forgave him for poaching my quail.
Then, in a coincidence of startling cruelty, he starred in an off-Broadway play as a character that was based on me. And, he got the biggest laugh of the night with a monologue in which he recounted one of the most painful romantic disasters of my life. The play had been written by an old roommate of mine. I didn’t mind that he used my life as comic fodder. But, I never forgave the actor for playing me. And, worse, for getting such big laughs.
So, when he died, I was glad. Not elated. But definitely a “gotcha” moment. It wasn’t schadenfreude – that’s the sweet pleasure one feels due to the failure and misfortunes of friends. This actor was never a friend. But, his death from Covid 19 gave me an undeniable twinge of sweet pleasure none the less. I am not completely without compassion. I hoped his death had been as painless as possible but I was glad the son of a bitch was dead. And, of course, I felt a hint of sorrow for his widow. A hint. I hadn’t thought of either of them for decades and then they burst into my life uninvited and haunted my Corona lockdown dreams.
As I sat typing this post, my cat walked between my legs as she often does, rubbing against them demanding attention and food. She’s been doing this more than ever in the lockdown. And, she’s taken to sitting on the stairs that lead up to my flat. She’s always waiting there for me when I come back from my daily sleepwalk through the local parks. And, many times during the day, I see her in her favorite spot in the back garden stretching her neck to see up to my third-floor windows and begging entrance. None of this would be unusual aside from the fact that my cat died two years ago.
As I sit typing, my neighbors are out in the street banging pots and pans, cheering, whistling, blowing horns and setting off fireworks. They are waving to each other across the street and across garden fences. Some are weeping. All are bathing in an orgy of self-congratulatory virtue-signaling.
In Britain, Thursday nights at 8PM have become a national circle jerk, a Korona Kitsch fest. It’s a mass public-display of lock-step sentimentality as we give thanks to the selfless saints who work in the National Health System.
I am reminded of the North Koreans who must cry copious tears on demand before the tomb of their fallen great leader. Or else! Meanwhile, in Britain, at a time of supposedly unprecedented crisis, our monarch has never seemed so insignificant. For, in Britain, Corona rules not Elizabeth and kitsch is king.
Saccharin citizens have put “Thank You” notes on garbage cans to cheer our noble trashmen. Widdle kids have attached finger-painted rainbows to those same garbage cans. And, those scamps have pasted rainbows to the front windows of their houses to lift the spirits of our indomitable postmen. (If you can find one!)
Worse. There have been regular street sing-alongs to such kitsch favorites as You’ll Never Walk Alone, When the Saints Go Marching In and (Please shoot me!) Imagine. All sung while maintaining social-distance, of course.
Social media is then flooded with gushing declarations about how moving the songs were followed by the usual teenage girl emojis but posted, in fact, by post-menopausal women. Actually, the Corona-mania has transformed the population of Britain into a squealing, tearful pre-pubescent girl. And, this is the men! The women…
Long gone are the British “stiff upper lip” and motto “Keep Calm and Carry On.” British media (especially the undeservedly acclaimed BBC) has become one big broadcast moan of dependency, vulnerability and entitlement. Every radio call-in show and TV chat show is now a “can-you-top-this” contest of Corona victimhood.
Readers of a certain age will remember the 1950s US TV show Queen for a Day in which pathetic women competed for prizes with their tales of misery. Audience applause decided if the gal who had lost a leg to cancer was more miserable than the one who had lost a husband to the bottle. (Younger readers in need of a good horrified-laugh are urged to find the show on Youtube.) So, I guess it makes sense that a country already used to being ruled by a monarch should embrace the idea of a national misery contest to decide which lucky citizen is to be crowned King or Queen Corona.
Meanwhile, the latest UK government figures reveal that Corona kills at the negligible rate of about 0.11 as was predicted by honest epidemiologists months ago. And, it’s been confirmed that the official current UK death toll of 20,000 includes those who died with but not necessarily from Corona. “Can you say, massive exaggeration, boys and girls?”
But, facts be damned, the wailing and gnashing of British teeth proceeds unabated. In this panic-demic the Brits are determined to run to their rooms, throw themselves on their beds and have a good old cry.
What caused this seismic shift in the British character?
Too much American culture?
Too much daycare?
Something in the water?
Something in the food?
Cultural Marxism pushed by anti-Western rootless cosmopolitans?
The Christmas blues of 1970 morphed into the January blues of 1971. I and my fellow “cultural casualties” of the 1960s having dropped out of college and dropped far too many psychedelics were facing the prospect of a lifetime of blue-collar work in the Post Office. Yeah, yeah, it was a job-for-life with uniform and pension but not quite what we had envisioned for ourselves just a few years before. Back in college we were going to be actors, writers, musicians, poets, painters, philosophers even. But, the luster had faded from our Age of Aquarius fantasies as it had from the few sorry strands of Christmas tinsel that hung from atop the mail sorting coops.
We were a motley crew but not without our talents and charms. Alex was a half-assed genius and chess master. Mark was a poet and literate in Latin. Murray was a killer wit and killer blues guitarist. Sandy was trying to decipher the hidden codes in Dylan’s lyrics. And, Charles, our only Black member, was trying to convert everyone at the Post Office to 7th Day Adventism and vegetarianism. We were all from working class families and had discovered to our shock and horror that unless something miraculous happened we would not escape the gravitational pull of our caste. So, we embraced our fate.
As if on cue and without any spoken agreement, we took to wearing plaid, flannel work shirts, tattered jeans, garrison belts and battered work boots. We cut our freakish hair back to a moderately radical length. Less Woodstock. More Workers of the World. We trimmed our facial hair to Lenin length. And, we embraced the Grateful Dead’s album Workingman’s Dead as if it were written only for us. After all, we were nothing if not workingmen.
One of the worst aspects of being a trainee mail-sorter was that we weren’t guaranteed hours. If the mail dried up we were sent home. And, this often happened shortly after we had clocked on for our graveyard shift. There we’d be in midtown Manhattan at Midnight having planned to be up all night and having ingested amphetamines to help us be up all night but suddenly with no reason to be up all night. Luckily, Alex lived in a nearby East Side tenement so we’d pick up some munchies and beer and head over to his pad, there to smoke hash and listen to Workingman’s Dead till dawn’s early light. Or, at least, till Alex’s neighbors banged on the walls. We named ourselves the Dead Workingmen. (Okay, not that clever but we needed all the help we could get.)
Suddenly, it became embarrassingly clear that Tony, one of our Supervisors, was madly in love with Sandy. I don’t think this burly Italian knew he was gay and he certainly wasn’t swishy in any way. But, goddamn, he was as queer as a three-dollar bill for Sandy. Lovesick Tony was eager to demonstrate to Sandy how powerful he was by how many favors he could do for him. One big problem. If he gave Sandy a break he had to give it to all of the Dead Workingmen or his cover would be blown. We teased Sandy mercilessly about his conquest but he still generously connived to use his charm over Tony to the group’s advantage i.e. without “coming across” for the Italian Stallion, Sandy kept him sweet on our behalf.
Some nights Sandy would persuade Tony to let us get lost for a few hours. We’d head over to Alex’s while still on the clock and then sneak back in at 8AM to punch out. Some nights at Sandy’s behest Tony would let us hide and sleep on the filthy mailbags piled out on the loading dock. Other nights he’d put us on parcel sorting duty – a welcome break from the din and dementia of the sorting coops. We’d stand before rows of open mailbags and practice our basketball jump shots tossing boxes into the bags. Sometimes we even read the addresses and aimed for the right mail bag. Sometimes we even made a basket. But, truth to tell, we didn’t give a shit. We had come to hate the mail itself. Mark once tickled his throat until he vomited into the tray of mail he was sorting. (I know, I know, disgusting. But, you gotta understand that 99.999999% of the mail we were sorting was junk mail. And, the rest was going to Reverend Ike!)
Time Clock Confidential
I don’t know if anyone actually punches a time clock anymore. But when I first joined the world-of-work as a teenager, I was angered by the demeaning nature of this act. I was even more angered by the grown-ups who loitered by the time clock waiting for it to tick to a specific second so they could get a few paltry shekels more in their meagre pay envelopes. I was embarrassed for them and hated how they compared stories of time clock victories and defeats and of famous “time clock jockeys” of yesteryear. ThePost Office was full of these lifers who stared in amazement and clucked with disdain as I strode past them and punched out without even looking at the hour hand. Wage slaves. Not me.
Meanwhile back at the Tony-Sandy love affair things became waaaay too strange and sad for this trainee mail-sorter. It happened one night when members of the Dead Workingmen were surreptitiously tapped on the shoulder and told to report to Tony’s office. There we discovered the other invited guests were the usually unfriendly Supervisors. Tony had set up a movie projector and hung a sheet on the wall. He greeted us conspiratorially then locked the door, turned off the lights and showed us a stag movie i.e. the type of fuck-film that was usually confiscated if sent in the U.S Mail. I wondered if this film had been caught by an eagle-eyed postal dick and turned over to Tony.
As the silent, grainy, 8MM black and white film unspooled on the stained sheet, the air in the room became noxious with nervous laughter, unfunny quips and cigar smoke. We’d been invited to a classic “smoker.” The film showed a singularly unattractive couple reclining on a singularly uncomfortable table and fucking in a singularly unenthusiastic manner. Watching their coitus was as erotic as watching the piston action on a Ford V8. But, I sensed that a bizarre male-bonding ritual was at play. The Supers wanted to show us that they weren’t such bad guys after all. Hey, they were like our fathers and uncles – just a bunch of older working-class fellas who liked watching fuck-films with a bunch of younger working-class fellas. This secret screening was an olive branch extended across the generations and a sort of test.
Would we make the grade and join their ranks of Merry (albeit horny) Mailmen?
Also, except for Charles, we were all White as were the Supers. I sensed they wanted to find racial solidarity with us since they spent so much time with obese Black women with whom they shared little cultural interest. Least of all watching fuck-films.
I’m sure that shrinks would highlight what they’d claim was clear homo-eroticism in this sweat-lodge soiree. But, I don’t think that was what was going on with the Supers. Except for Tony. He turned on the projector, pushed me aside and sat next to Sandy. As the couple built to their inevitable climax we all watched in silence. Except for Tony. He giggled and elbowed Sandy while peppering him with questions in hushed rabid whisper.
“You believe the size of the cock on that guy.”
“Wait. Wait. She swallows the whole thing.”
“Look at that bush. You like hairy twat, Sandy?”
“Hey, Sandy, you ever put it in a girl’s ass?”
Then, after the “money shot” in which the on-screen stud splashed his semen all over his fair maiden’s belly Tony gushed – “Yeah, that’s the good part, right, Sandy?”
The Supers must have overheard Tony’s pillow talk but they didn’t react. Meanwhile, the Dead Workingmen shared looks of amused horror. Mainly horror. Then the lunch horn barked, the lights came on and with eyes cast downward we bolted out of there muttering, “Holy shit, what the fuck was that?!”
Shortly after that night I was fired for telling an especially sadistic Supervisor to go fuck himself. The union jumped to my defense assuming that I wanted to keep my job. At the mediation meeting the union rep was dumbstruck when I told all present that the United States Postal Service could sort my job where the sun don’t shine. I thought about throwing the porn party in their faces but didn’t coz I knew that would make big trouble for Tony and the Dead Workingmen I was leaving behind.
Ten years later while walking in the middle of nowhere on Staten Island, I ran into Murray. (What are the odds?) We recognized each other even though he was now as obese as his female Black co-workers. Yes, he was still at the Grand Central P.O. but he was now a Junior Supervisor. No, he wasn’t playing guitar anymore. It was an awkward encounter and a painful one for him. Murray and I had come from similar working-class backgrounds, two Brooklyn boys who had arrived at the same point via similar paths. Then our paths diverged. I had followed my dream of being an actor. He had buried his of being a musician. We exchanged phone numbers and promised to get together. We never did.
When I was a little shaver, my mother told my siblings and me the heartwarming story of a mother with many children who had killed herself on Christmas Eve. She put her brood to bed with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads then turned on the gas oven and laid down under the Christmas tree among the presents. That’s the way her children found her on Christmas morn. As a child, I wondered how she could bear to kill herself before opening her presents. But, with every passing Yuletide, I understood more and more why that mother had checked out in such ghoulishly festive style.
Christmas is a burden. A time of testing. A time of taking stock. And, woe betide anyone who comes up short. The pressure to be happy is overwhelming. Everywhere there are the iconic images of Santa, sleigh bells and snow; everywhere the glowing fireplaces, twinkling trees; everywhere the perfectly wrapped presents and perfectly formed snowmen.
And, the U.S. Post Office is one of the major purveyors of this Christmas myth via its nostalgic stamps and “mail early” missives. So, imagine my chagrin when December of 1970 found me working at the “Christmas coal-face” aka Grand Central Station Post Office – one of the largest Christmas card sorting offices in the world.
This was a time before emails, texting and twitter when people mailed each other Christmas cards to such an extent that the P.O. had to hire seasonal workers to handle the Xmas deluge. We sorters were buried under red and green envelopes for weeks and had to work tons of over time to make a dent in the never-ending flow. I was then living in a dreary studio in a dreary Brooklyn neighborhood without even a dreary girlfriend. Sadly, I couldn’t afford a Christmas tree to commit suicide under. (Hell, I could barely afford to pay my gas bill.) I needed the O.T. so I worked all the hours the P.O. threw at me. And, even though the Post Office closed for Christmas Day, I did have a shift on Christmas Eve.
That magical, candy cane night brought a heady party atmosphere to the usually grim sorting floor. The shift bosses cast off their usual Scrooge demeanours and donned elf hats and light-up reindeer horns. Most terrifying of all were the ancient workers (male and female) who stalked the sorting aisles brandishing sprigs of Mistletoe. These creeps had never smiled or spoken to me all year but were suddenly wagging their egg-nog-coated tongues in my direction.
The obese Black women who were “union-job-for-lifers” had years before commandeered certain sorting aisles as their private turf and held “INVITATION ONLY” office parties in them. They jealously guarded their paper plates covered with baloney and their Ritz crackers covered with aerosol cheese while they quaffed bottle after bottle of Colt 45 and Night Train.
Meanwhile, an oldies radio station blasted the usual rock & roll “Christmas classics” on heavy rotation. It also played Air Force radar reports of a mysterious, manned flying object that was tracked leaving the North Pole and headed for New York.
Just shoot me.
When our 4AM lunch break came, we were called to an open area where many of us climbed atop the towering mail machinery and dangled from it like Marxists seizing the means of production.
The sadistic fat-fuck who ran this P.O. suddenly appeared in a cheap Santa suit and arm-twisted a few of the obese Black women to sit on his lap. This much racial fraternization was a rare thing in 1970s America. Cue: A rash of awkward jokes about negroes and Noel.
Mercifully, several other obese Black females appeared in full Gospel choir drag to serenade us with their screeched renditions of Silent Night and We Three Kings. They finished their set with a sing-a-long of White Christmas. Cue: more forced racial jokes.
Then the back to work bell sounded putting an end to this Happy Holidays horror. At the end of my shift, I headed for the subway through a deserted Grand Central Station and wondered where I could buy a Christmas tree with gas jet attached.
Hallelujah! I passed the Post Office test with a gold star and was told to report to the massive Grand Central Station sorting office hidden behind the even more massive Grand Central Station. I quickly learned that working there was noisy, numbing, mindless, repetitive, soul-destroying drudgery. A shift was eight endless hours in a sweatshop under the blare of metal machinery, the glare of fluorescent lights and the stares of angry bosses and suspicious Black women who weren’t best pleased that a White-boy was on their patch. A White-boy who had passed the Post Office test first time. And, without special tutoring!
I was shown to my letter sorting station where I sat perched on a scoliosis-inducing high stool facing pigeon coops labeled with Zip Codes – 11213, 10751, 10001 etc. Like a touch typist, I was expected to know the Zip Code coop positions by heart, grab letters from the mail trays before me and deftly flick them into the correct coops without looking. Meanwhile, the slave drivers… er, I mean… shift-bosses strode up and down the aisle shouting at me to work faster. I noticed that they never shouted at the obese Black women perched precariously on their high stools with one hand in a mail tray and the other in a bag of potato chips gossiping with the obese Black women on either side. These union-job-for-lifers occasionally tossed a piece of mail in the general direction of the coops.
Trainees had to raise their hands and request permission to pee and then had to sign in and out of the toilet room. After a few weeks on the job, I was threatened with unpaid suspension for taking too many pee breaks. But, I wasn’t going to pee or to do a line of coke. I was going to splash water on my face to stay awake. I was working the “graveyard shift” – Midnight to 8AM. And, it was pure hell.
I would finish acting in a play downtown at 10PM then have two hours to kill before punching in at Midnight uptown. So, I’d join the other actors for a few beers and then head to work. I was never drunk but the hour and the alcohol conspired to make staying awake until 8AM a muthafucka. Round about 3AM, I would start fading and start my regular treks to the toilet.
Meanwhile back at the pigeon coops… one coop didn’t have a Zip Code. It had a name. That name was Reverend Ike – a Black televangelist who had become very popular in the early 1970s. And, no foolin’, the Good Reverend got so much mail he needed his own Zip Code!
Ike sported the processed hair and wardrobe of a pimp. And, like a pimp, he was all about money. But, he was also intelligent, articulate, witty and (I still believe) genuine. (As an actor, I admire all good public speakers and Ike was one of the best. You can catch his act and his suits on Youtube. Forget Creflo Dollar and all of today’s exponents of the “Gospel of Greed” coz Ike had ’em beat.)
Ike’s God wasn’t no welfare God. Ike’s God was a Maserati, mink coat and motorboat God. Ike’s God was The God of Bling.
I liked Ike.
I liked him coz he wasn’t a hypocrite. He wasn’t preaching sack cloth and ashes while wearing Armani. He wanted his congregation to wear Armani, too. (Jim and Tammy Bakker later practiced and preached this same holy excess. And, Joel Osteen has become America’s top televangelist with a white bread version of Ike’s message.) But, Ike’s theology wasn’t original. It was a mish-mash of Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale and Napoleon Hill with a dash of the uber-pimp Iceberg Slim thrown in for good measure!
Ike had his congregation hold up and wave dollar bills while intoning, “I want money. I love money. Money is my friend.” He closed his broadcasts with a call for Love Gifts. Those were to be sent in an envelope simply addressed to –
Grand Central Station
New York , New York
The envelopes that I sorted into Ike’s coop (and I sorted lots every night!) were written in pencil, in shaky little-old-lady handwriting with many words misspelled and with backward letters. We mail sorters passed around the funnier versions. I envisioned Black little-old-ladies all over America waving their dollar bills at their TVs while intoning “I love money” then sticking the bills in an envelope addressed to “that nice young man” – Rev. Ike.
Some envelopes held nothing but coins but others held very large bills. (We held the envelopes up to the light and called out the denominations.) The bigger the bill you gave, the bigger the boat you got. Or, at least, that’s the way it was supposed to work. If your ship never came in then maybe you just weren’t gifting enough. (Okay, so Ike was a conman but he was a genuine conman – a very common character in American social, religious and political history.)
One night I was being lectured about Aesthetic Realism by the paunchy, prematurely balding Jewish guy to my right. He was working on a masters in Philosophy at Columbia. (There were a surprising number of screwy-scholars working at the P.O. and they all had theories about everything from Bauhaus to blintzes.) This particular genius was also a homosexual and he wasn’t happy about it. He explained to me how Aesthetic Realism would cure him of his compulsion to fist anonymous members of the public in public restrooms.
Aesthetic Realism was a psychobabble micro-cult founded by the Jewish poet Eli Siegel, who claimed that he could cure queerness. Aesthetic Realism enjoyed a Nano-second of popularity in the pretentious arty-academic circles of Manhattan in the early 1970s. But, I don’t think it ever made it across the Hudson. And, it was soon surpassed by the psychobabble sensation called est which was concocted by another Jew – John Rosenberg… er, I mean… Werner Erhard. He was a conman and not a genuine one. (What is it with these Jewish conmen and their psycho-cults already? But, enough about Sigmund Freud.)
So… anyway… I was half-listening to my conflicted colleague while planning my next trip to the toilet and praying he didn’t follow me in when… WHAM! Mr. Aesthetic Realism was pulled off his perch, handcuffed and dragged away kicking and screaming by a pair of plain-clothes postal cops. They’d been watching him for some time and caught him sorting mail meant for Rev. Ike into his own pocket.
There was no loudspeaker announcement acknowledging what had just happened. The guy was simply disappeared like a Soviet dissident. At the next coffee break the Post Office grapevine passed the news that not only were we being watched from above like gamblers in a casino but there were spies working among us posing as trainees and lifers. We were slaving in the Grand Central Gulag.
As the psychedelic sixties deflated into the sinister seventies, America was suddenly full of draft-dodgers, drug-burnouts and college-dropouts. They had few prospects and fewer skills. I was among their number. We “cultural casualties” wore the facial expression seen on the faces of people whose home had just been sucked away by a cyclone. It asked, “What the fuck just happened?” It asked the more terrifying, “What am I gonna do now?”
The answer for many of us was, “Take the Post Office test.”
I was among their number.
The Post office was a union job, a job for life, a job with a uniform and a good pension and… and… “Jesus Christ,” I thought, “how the fuck did I get here? I’m an actor. I’m supposed to be a Broadway star. I can play a mailman not be one.”
And, in fact, I was then starring off-off-off Broadway in a roach-infested basement in Manhattan. But, I figured I could get a graveyard shift at the P.O. that would pay my rent and leave my days free for auditions, lunches at the Four Seasons with movie stars and eight shows a week on the Great White Way. I might need this back-up job for a month or two. Tops.
Plus, like all baby-boomers I’d grown up watching The Merry Mailman on TV so I had a special affection for all things postal.
The test was held in a grubby room in an even grubbier West Side mail sorting office. As we applicants milled around outside the building waiting for the start time, I couldn’t help noticing that I was the only person there who was not Black, female and the size of a sumo wrestler.
While these large ladies nervously ate and smoked, I nervously scanned the crowd for a friendly freaky face. Finding none, I assumed this intake of recruits was a demographic anomaly.
Remember the first tests you ever took in school? The tests that used pictures rather than words? Brightly colored pictures? And, the few words on the page were in big size type? That’s what the test was like to gain a life-long union job with uniform and pension in the United States Postal Service.
Which of these three things does not belong with the other two?
Picture of Horse
Picture of Cow
Picture of Banana
John Q. Public plans to sail to Bermuda. Which of these will he use to make the trip?
Picture of Horse
Picture of Cow
Picture of Sail Boat
I am not a brain box. Honest. I possess very modest IQ and SAT scores. But, I aced this no-brainer test in no-time and sat there twiddling my thumbs. Suddenly, the not-so Merry Mailman running the test banged his gavel and ordered us to put our pencils down immediately. This African-American gentleman then explained in grave tones that if any of us found this test too difficult we could choose to re-take it. In fact, the Post Office had specially trained tutors who would work with worried applicants to help them pass this stringent test in a month’s time.
Unison sigh of relief. Laughter. Test papers tossed into air. And, Whoosh! I was almost sucked out of the room in the wake of the departing multitude.
Stay tuned for the next exciting instalment of Blog Outa Brooklyn – POSTAL REALISM. You’ll thrill as this reporter goes undercover as a mail-sorter trainee in the Grand Central Station Post Office. New York, N.Y. 10017
It happened on a bright June day in 1967. I was walking across the surprisingly bucolic campus of Brooklyn College nestled inside the decidedly un-bucolic Flatbush. Many of the campus buildings were ivy-covered brick so who needed the Ivy League? I was a recent Catholic high school graduate there for a day of testing and orientation. I was unaware that I was in the epicenter of Jewish communist activism.
Brooklyn College was so radical it was called “the little red school house” but not to be confused with The Little Red School House in Greenwich Village. Both institutions graduated a spectacularly disproportionate number of Levantines who were moaning-Marxists of dubious sexuality and (worst of all) folk singers.
The co-eds at Brooklyn College were evenly divided into two opposing camps.
The “JAPs” (Jewish American Princesses) had been gifted nose jobs as high school graduation presents and came to class loaded for bear i.e. they were out to land a nice Jewish boy preferably in pre-med or pre-law. I had never been in close proximity to such exotic creatures and gazed open-mouthed at them in class as they simultaneously adjusted their hair, stockings and bra while filing their nails and applying lipstick. I was a goy so I was invisible to them. They were brainless and harmless and at least afforded me a chubby or two.
The “Rachels” and “Ruths” bore their Hebraic-honkers like a badge of honor. Their wiry hair was left to nature and they favored sandals, folk skirts and unshaven legs. Their moustaches were unshaven, too. They scurried around campus clutching to their peasant-blouse covered bosoms Joan Baez LPs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti poetry books and Wilhelm Reich’s The Function of the Orgasm. (I wouldn’t fuck these hectoring yentas with your dick.)
So… I was strolling across campus feeling like Joe College when a Rachel ran up to me screaming like a banshee, slavering like a bronco and demanding that I boycott class because LBJ was bombing Vietnam. She shoved a flyer into my hand and her unshaven face into mine and ranted about nukes, napalm and negroes. I thanked her and promised to read the flyer but she screamed into my face, “Nazi” and ran to her next target. I tried to proceed but was forced to walk a gauntlet of Rachels, Ruths and their male counterparts – the Bruces and Barrys. All screaming. All slavering. All thrusting flyers. All demanding that Brooklyn College be brought to a standstill because LBJ was bombing Vietnam.
The very next day the Six Day War broke out between Israel and Egypt and I was back on campus for more testing.
So… I was strolling across campus feeling like Joe College when the very same Rachel ran up to me screaming like a banshee, slavering like a bronco and demanding that I boycott class because LBJ was not bombing Cairo. She shoved a flyer into my hand and her unshaven face into mine and ranted about Auschwitz, Anne Frank and Arabs. I thanked her and promised to read the flyer but she screamed into my face, “Nazi” and ran to her next target. I tried to proceed but was forced to walk a gauntlet of Rachels, Ruths and their male counterparts – the Bruces and Barrys. All screaming. All slavering. All thrusting flyers. All demanding that Brooklyn College be brought to a standstill because LBJ was not bombing Cairo.
In fact, these leftist humanitarians wanted Cairo nuked!
Suddenly and e’en like Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, I was knocked to the ground by a blinding light of revelation. I then picked myself up and stood in the center of Brooklyn College, in the center of Flatbush, in the center of Brooklyn and knew in the center of my Catholic, Italian-American soul that I was in enemy territory. The scales had fallen from my eyes! I knew that the Rachels, Ruths, Bruces, Barrys and, yes, even the JAPs were not me. Not mine. Not American. All their supposedly selfless political activism was all about them. (And, they have done nothing to dissuade me of that conclusion in the more than fifty years since my Damascene conversion.)
Day of Infamy
During the Six Day War, Israel, our supposed ally, deliberately attacked and attempted to sink the USS Liberty, an intelligence ship, observing the war from the Mediterranean. In order to prevent the Liberty from reporting Israeli war crimes, Israel killed 34 U.S. sailors and wounded 171 more. Israeli planes even machine-gunned U.S. sailors attempting to escape in life rafts.
Meanwhile, Israeli dupes inside the White House almost gave my Brooklyn College classmates their dream. They almost tricked LBJ into nuking Cairo. (Take a minute to imagine that scenario.) Then, the dupes and LBJ conducted a massive cover up. The surviving sailors were ordered and threatened into silence.
Israel claims its act of treachery carried out on a U.S. ship clearly flying the Stars and Stripes was a tragic mistake.
If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I wanna talk to you about.
In the 1970s, I learned that a former classmate at Brooklyn College had machine gunned many Palestinian women and children to death. When I knew this particular Bruce, he was a “peace & granola” hippie-dippie-trippie type. Then he got that Old Time Religion. From Meyer Kahane and the Jewish Defense League to the present, Brooklyn has been the breeding ground of Israel’s most violent fundamentalist lunatics.
Whenever I hear wild-eyed, wiry-haired women living on illegal Jewish settlements being interviewed with a baby on one hip and an uzi on the other, their Brooklyn accents are those of the Rachels and Ruths I first encountered on that bright June day in 1967 on the surprisingly bucolic campus of Brooklyn College.