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.
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 amphetimines 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 tic 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.
The evening of July 13, 1977 was hot and sticky as July nights in New York City are wont to be. Vic and I were at Shea Stadium watching the Mets lose to the Cubs when BANG the lights went out. Groans, cheers and whistles from the large crowd followed immediately by jokes.
“Hey, Mets, pay ya fuckin’ electric bill.”
The crowd assumed it was a power failure limited to Shea. And, the stadium was able to run dim emergency lights so we weren’t left in total darkness but more of an eerie glow. Then we were told there had been a blackout in the entire city and the groans, cheers, whistles and jokes got louder.
“Hey, Mayor Beame, pay ya fuckin’ electric bill.”
A hardy (and hungry) few felt their way to the concession stands to stock up on beers and dogs before they got hot or cold. Others gathered around geeky fans who’d brought transistor radios to the game. (These “transistor types” looked like they’d been dressed by their mothers who invariably supplied them with sandwiches and a thermos.) The “huddled masses” around the radios looked like actors in a Radio Free Europe commercial hungry for news from the Free World. Meanwhile, the stadium announcer kept us informed and the organist kept us entertained with a Christmas carol sing along.
Then a few cars were driven out of the bullpens on to the outfield grass with their headlights shining toward the infield. Several players from both teams took this cue and took the field to play a phantom baseball game with an invisible ball in ghost light. They made spectacular diving catches, impossible throws and gravity defying slides. The crowd went wild!
After an hour or so and just as the fun had begun to pall (“Okay, enough of this shit, how the fuck am I gonna get home?), we were told that transportation had been arranged and we would all be home safely and soon. We were directed to buses in the Shea parking lot that were bound for major intersections all over the five boroughs where we would be able to get on the city buses that were still running. In our many thousands, we exited the stadium in better order, humor and time than we did in daylight. No pushing. No punches. No panic.
Vic got his bus to the Bronx but I had to get to the Bowery – the scuzziest street in the slum known as the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Walking around my neighborhood was an exercise in urban survival even in bright sunshine. The idea of traversing it in blackness did not fill me with joyful anticipation. Plus, in the summer of 1977 the city had just about bottomed out. It was not a happy place and having the serial killer known as the Son of Sam picking us off at random and at night did not fill New Yorkers with confidence. But, I couldn’t sleep at Shea so I boarded a bus that took me across many blacked out Queens and Brooklyn neighborhoods then over the Verrazano Bridge to Staten Island finally dropping me at the ferry terminal.
From there, we “happy few” ferried across a New York harbor that was in almost total blackout – the skyscrapers of Manhattan (including the World Trade Center) were barely visible. The only bright light in the harbor was the flame atop the torch on the Statue of Liberty. It was a scene out of a dystopian sci-fi movie – beautiful but unsettling. A hush fell over we passengers as the ferry plowed by Lady Liberty and that hush enveloped us until we disembarked at the Battery. There we climbed aboard city buses already waiting to take us uptown via the main avenues.
This evacuation and transportation of the Shea Stadium multitude was handled brilliantly. Yet, I have seen it reported nowhere! We all like to complain about government inefficiency but I gotta say that in this case NYC really nailed it. I blush to admit that I felt proud of my hometown and her people. No panic. No anger. No fights. Just cooperation and jokes. Lotsa jokes.
I got off the bus on First Avenue and praying that the Son of Sam was not lurking nearby equipped with a night scope, I began slowly picking my way toward my loft on the Bowery. (Goddamn how do blind people do it?) I made the trek slowly with only passing headlights, flashlights and candlelight from impromptu stoop parties to guide me. I declined invitations to join those parties coz I just wanted to get home.
I did have to navigate through a few stretches of inky blackness and, this being the Bowery, I had to be careful not to trip over bums sleeping on the street. Plus, a few overly friendly creeps loomed up at me from the murk hoping to give or receive a blowjob. But, WHEW, made it home!
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
The next morning, I went for a walk around my still powerless neighborhood where the stores and restaurants were practically giving food away. It wasn’t until late that afternoon, when power was restored, that I learned there had been widespread looting and arson in certain neighborhoods. (Ya want numbers? – $1.2 BILLION worth of damage in 2019 dollars. 3,700 arrests – the largest number of mass arrests in NYC history!)
Since 1977, the narrative about the blackout has been all about excusing those crimes with nary a mention of the cooperation. Perhaps this is because that cooperation seemed restricted to certain other neighborhoods. The spin has been that the crimes were caused by racism. The blackout has been turned into yet another tale of poor Blacks being victimized by evil Whitey.
Apparently, power failures are just another aspect of White privilege and the patriarchy. Apparently, it was my fault that Blacks looted and torched stores, restaurants and even their own apartment houses. It’s over forty years later and I have yet to see, hear or read a single account of the blackout (including many by foreign news sources such as the BBC) that doesn’t push this anti-White race-hustle bullshit.
The awful truth is that when the lights went out on July 13, 1977 some New Yorkers went feral.
The awful truth is that when the lights went out on July 13, 1977 some New Yorkers went festive.
Thanks for visiting my blog. It is a sampler of my murder-memoir Boy Outa Brooklyn. The best way to enjoy it is to start at the first post and read chronologically. I hope you’ll find it both hilarious and horrifying.
I will also be posting about the best books, movies and songs about Brooklyn. And, sharing my practical and off-beat travel tips. If you enjoy my blog, please follow me. Hover your mouse in the lower right corner of the screen and a pop-up box will appear. Enter your email address and you’ll never miss one of my posts. Your address will not be sold or shared and you won’t be pestered with any sales cons.
As long as we’re on the subject of female torsos… we rented our Bowery loft to a yoga instructor who was transitioning to yogi, i.e. a female to male transsexual. (Mind you, this was 1976, so the current “I was born in the wrong body” dementia-mania is nothing new.) “Jack” was fresh from having her breasts sliced from her female torso and was wrapped in more bandages than Tutankhamen. This creature was so cranked on pot, painkillers and testosterone that she floated several feet off the ground, vibrating in midair like a hummingbird. (You know the scene in the horror movie when the actor transforms via time-lapse photography from man to monster? Imagine a stop frame of that process mid-way. That was what “Jack” looked like – suspended between male and female, between past and present, between serenity and suicide. Unsettled and unsettling.) “Jack” was so uncomfortable around men, I was sure she would evaporate whenever I got near her. I, of course, delighted in torturing this psychosexual misfit by getting “up close and personal” as often as possible.
Even before the hit song by the Village People, everyone knew what went on at the YMCA. But, after a day walking around the streets of Manhattan and a night running around the moors of Scotland, I was too whipped to care. Plus, the “Y” was only minutes from the theater and Jersey wasn’t. So, I risked it. But, getting a room at the “Y” was not easy. It was a popular place for young Christian men to fellowship, evangelize and sodomize. The line at the check-in desk looked like a casting call for The Boys in the Band.
So, I counted my blessings whenever I could get a four-dollar room with the all-important private shower. I felt like a real swell as I piled all the furniture against the door to dissuade unwanted visitors and watched Johnny Carson in glorious Black & White. For two bucks, I could get a private room but with a gang shower down the hall. One catch. There were nightly gangbangs in the gang shower. So, on two-buck nights, I’d wait until 4 AM when the orgy had finished then tiptoe down the hall and take a shower – fully clothed. For a buck, the “Y” supplied a bunk bed and a butt-plug.
The cast of Macbeth drank in an 8th avenue dive called the Chelsea Bar, not to be confused with the bar of the same name in the nearby Chelsea Hotel where celebrities went to OD on heroin. No, our Chelsea Bar was a beer & shot joint that catered to longshoremen and merchant seamen. We liked the Chelsea because the beer was cheap and the ambiance earthy – our very own Mermaid Tavern. The toothless, one-thumbed bartender liked us because we bought a lot of his beer and caused no trouble. He was not the only person in the Chelsea missing a body part – all the regulars were minus a finger, arm, ear or eye. They were the guys who didn’t pay attention when the industrial safety film was shown.
Every so often a fight would break out at the bar between two lugs and the bartender would bring out his sawn-off baseball bat to restore order. He’d slam it on the bar a few times then brandish it above his head. Silence. Then there’d be a final shouted curse from one of the combatants followed by a sudden flood of tears and a flight to the men’s room. Eventually, it hit us. These were lovers’ spats. We were in the butchest gay bar in the world. And, I am talkin’ butch. These guys looked like the wrestling tag-team of Skull Murphy and Brute Bernard.
The Chelsea Bar is long gone along with all those toothless, tattooed, hard-drinkin’, hard-lovin’ men. Were they buried at sea? In Potter’s Field? Did they spend their last days in the “Home for Sissy Stevedores?” Or, did these old salts care for each other in their dotage? Care for each other through the nightmare of AIDS that was gaining on them and perhaps already a stowaway in their bodies?
I met Don in 1969 in an off-off-Broadway theater buried in a supermarket basement on the lower West Side. The proximity of the stage to food made it a magnet to the largest cockroaches East of the Sun and West of 8th avenue. We actors developed the ability to smash the creepy critters mid-soliloquy without breaking our iambic pentameter rhythm or the audience noticing.
To be or not to be,
That is the question.
It was my first acting job. I landed it right after I landed in New York from Milwaukee, Wisconsin where I’d been evading military induction, aka the Draft. I touched down; bought a showbiz paper at the first newsstand I passed and saw this audition notice –
Spear-carriers needed for Macbeth
Like Gene Kelly in an MGM musical, I raced to the theater with luggage in hand. I’d like to say it was a straw suitcase but it was a duffel bag. I’d like to say I auditioned on a large stage facing red velvet seats but it was in a filthy hallway facing cases of Velveeta cheese. I’d like to say I auditioned for David Merrick but it was for Mark Fink. I’d like to say I had his undivided attention but he read his mail. I’d like to say he wasn’t a married queer on the prowl but he was.
Fink leered to me that I had a touch of genius but that we must keep that a secret lest it spread jealousy in the ranks of the spear-carriers. He used the same line on all the spear-carriers. And, you’ll notice it’s the same line used by Professor Pervowitz. But, unlike that creep, Fink never asked me to masturbate at his feet while saying I was his bitch-slut-cunt. Fink just tried to suck my cock. When I resisted, he reverted to that hackneyed homo ploy, “What are you afraid of finding out?”
Hmmnn… maybe there’s a Showbiz Scumbag College where they learn these seduction techniques.
Don and I were political junkies – he far Left, me far Right. He loved sparring with me and I loved being told that I was the only 19-year-old he’d ever met who could quote Calvin Coolidge. Since Don had worked as a newsman in Washington and New York, he was full of “what really happened” stories of major historical events. And, since he was gay, he gave me the lowdown on which celebrities and politicians of yesteryear had been on the downlow. He also clued me to the fact that homosexuality was endemic in the worlds of espionage and intelligence.
Don was the annoying type who did The New York Times crossword puzzle in ink. No mistakes. He was a whizz at all word games. No surprise that during World War Two, he worked in the cryptography unit of the US Army. But, he didn’t spend much time code breaking. Turns out, Don could do a brilliant imitation of President Roosevelt that Army intelligence exploited.
India was on the fence in World War Two because it wanted independence from the British Empire. It’s a little-known fact that a sizable Indian army fought for the Axis against Britain. But, the Indian people loved FDR. So, every day, Don read Allied propaganda to India over the radio doing his best impersonation of FDR. He never said that he was FDR but he sure sounded like him. The hope was that giving the Indians a daily dose of FDR’s smarmy, fireside-chat charm could turn the tide in the Allies’ favor. Even Don didn’t know if or how much this trick worked.