I arrived in New York from England in the spring of 1962. Existentialism was in the air and so was the theatre of the absurd. John Osborne's Look Back in Anger and Shelagh Delaney’s Taste of Honey was all the rage in England. In the downtown theatre scene, Harold Pinter, Eugène Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett were the talk of the town. It was also true for the three-penny opera with Lotalinia, Bobby Daren and Louis Armstrong singin’ “Mack the Night.”
When it came to jazz, you couldn’t hear enough of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, or Ornette Coleman, and you could check them out at either the Village Vanguard, the Five-Spot or The Village Gate. As for folk music, there was always Folk City, where you could hear the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Richard Havens, and others who became quite famous over the years. When it came to the literary world, Norman Mailer and James Baldwin seemed to be the talk of New York. When it came to visual arts, abstract expressionism was still in, and Pop Art had yet to make an entrance. And this was mainly in the downtown scene where I was hanging out. Mostly in Greenwich Village, and later on, on the Lower East Side. As far as movies were concerned, it was mainly French and Italian. Film noir, if you were. Godard and Fellini.
The Civil Rights Movement was making noise down South and had yet to move North.
After I lost a place to stay, I was homeless and lived in Washington Square Park, for the most part. I met a young lady by the name of Kathy. She had dropped out of Cornell University and, eventually, the two of us got an apartment on East 4th Street, between Avenue B and Avenue C, on the Lower East Side. The rent was $40 a month. It was there that we settled in for a while. She got a job working as a secretary at New York University and I got one at a postal printing place up on West 65th Street, which now houses Martin Luther King High School, near Lincoln Center. On my way to work, I would often see T.Mugg, the great Jazz piano player on the corner of 65th on Broadway and Amsterdam.
But Kathy and I had our own scene in the Lower East Side. Our favorite bar was Stanley’s, on East 12th Street and Avenue B. On the weekends, everyone in Bohemia that you knew was there. There was another bar called The Annex, which was on East 10th Street and Avenue B. The same crowd would also be there. Later, down on East 3rd Street, in and around 1967 to 1970, Slugs’ opened up. And across from Slugs’ was The Old Reliable Tavern, a bar owned by an old couple.
The Bohemian crowd, not the local yokels, would go there to dance. When we were tired of it, we would walk across the street to Slugs’ to listen to some damn good serious jazz. It was around this time, if not earlier, that I met Ishmael Reed, circa 1962.
Ishmael was a writer down from Buffalo. He would come by our pad on East 4th from time to time to pick my brain about the downtown scene -- who did I know, what did I think about this, what did I think about that, and when it came to writing what about this or that writer.
I had gotten to town about a year before Ishmael, and by this time, I already knew Allen Ginsberg and LeRoi Jones. I was also a member of two groups: Organization of Young Men (otherwise known as OYM), and Progressive Labor, or PL for short, made up of radical students from Columbia University and NYU. The OYM would meet every Sunday at LeRoi Jones’ pad on East 14th Street. For the most part, all were in their 20’s, African American, and involved in the arts: actors, musicians, writers, etc…
The Civil Rights Movement from the South to the North was in the air and constantly the headlines on newspapers and television. John F. Kennedy, who was President at the time, silently sent Special Forces to Vietnam. And many young draft dodgers were trying to get the hell out of the United States and go to Canada to avoid being pulled into the military. Before it even started, the war in Vietnam wasn’t popular. So, slowly, demonstrations against the war and against segregation were beginning in New York City. This followed demonstrations against the nuclear bomb (“Ban the Bomb”). So the Bohemian crowd aside from people talking about literature, arts, and music, also talked about segregation and the war in Vietnam.
The Organization of Young Men was made up of young Afro-American intellectuals, not unlike Progressive Labor, which rallied young Anglo and Jewish intellectuals mainly from Columbia and NYU who thought of themselves as Marxists. They had made visits to Communist China, Russia, and Cuba after the revolution, against the wishes of the United States. We were a bunch of writers, actors, musicians… We even had a couple of photographers involved, named Leroy Lucas and Al Simon.
As mentioned before, we would meet every Sunday at LeRoi Jones’ on East 14th Street. It was like being in a class. LeRoi would sit in the front of his living room at a desk and the rest of us on folding chairs facing him. If memory serves me right, most of the meetings were bitching sessions: complaining about segregation, prejudice, and how we were mistreated by white folks in this country. It seemed to me that nothing was going to get done except sit around and complain. THE text at that time was Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed (aka The Devils).
Every Sunday seemed to be the same. After the meetings, which would go from around 3 in the afternoon to about 7 at night, we walked over to Washington Square then listened to folk singers playing blues on harmonicas and guitars. The out-of-town tourists strolled around the park, taking it easy. And Big Brown, the local poet, sat on the mound near the fountain and recited folk poetry from memory with one of his friends passing a hat. Later that night, if we had any money, we went to hear some music at the Village Vanguard, The Five-Spot, or The Village Gate.
And if we were into it, we would go hear some music at Folk City, which was directly across the park on the east side of Washington Square. This became our routine, our ritual. Every Sunday seemed to be the same: the meeting of the OYM at LeRoi Jones’ and later the stroll through Washington Square. After a while, of course, this became rather taxing, if not boring. And then Leroy McLucas, LeRoi Jones and Charles Charles decided that we should go up to Newburgh, New York.
Word had it that the city fathers had thrown the black folk off of welfare for no apparent reason. For lack of any other action, OYM decided to go up there and protest against that move. Well, I thought that was a great idea, but I was dis-inclined to go. My interests were elsewhere. I hadn’t come to New York City to join a protest; I had come to become a writer. The only reason I had joined this group was because they were creative, not because they were interested in protesting.
So I went to the parties and got involved with them in the discussion of the arts, literature, music, theater… The only established writers in that crowd were LeRoi Jones (with his book Blues People: Negro Music in White America) and A. B. Spellman (Four Lives in the Bebop Business). That does not mean the others weren’t published; I just didn’t know it at the time.
In less than six months Ishmael Reed had found a place to settle into on the Lower East Side. Along with David Henderson, a poet from Harlem, he had gotten involved in a writers group called Umbra. Ishmael would bring David to my place once a week after meeting at Umbra. They would gather every Monday at Tom Dent’s apartment on East 2nd Street, near Avenue C. Tom had graduated from Syracuse University and had gone to college at the same time as football player, Jim Brown. What Tom and I had in common is that both of us were from New Orleans, and where we differed: Tom Dent’s father was the President of Dillard University, the Afro-American college in New Orleans. But I hadn’t met Tom in New Orleans; I met him in New York City on the Lower East Side. He was a very easy-going guy, still had a slight Southern accent, and seemed to move through life as if nothing phased him or got him upset. He had a job working with the legal defense department of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) where he met writer Ralph Ellison’s wife, Fannie. Later, yours truly interviewed Ralph Ellison with Lennox Raphael and James Thompson, a couple of other writers from Umbra. Umbra was supposed to publish the interview, but they were so busy fighting amongst themselves, Ralph Ellison withdrew his interview and had it published in The Atlantic Monthly. And later, Mr. Ellison republished the interview in a book of essays called Going to the Territory.
When I met Tom, he said the reason he started Umbra was that he wanted to be around writers, and since he didn’t know any at that time, he figured the way to meet some was to start a workshop. So that’s how Umbra was born. I got to know some of them, but I was never inclined to join. It was not my cup of tea. Fact is, Ishmael would come by my apartment on East 4th Street, and later on with David Henderson, and would tell me all about the disagreements and arguments that Umbra had. The more negative things he said about the organization, the least I was inclined to join.
The group would meet at Tom Dent’s apartment every Monday night, from around 6 to around 9 in the evening. After the workshop, they would stroll up to Stanley’s on Avenue B and 12th Street. There they would socialize, meet-and-greet, and get into long-winded discussions about who is who and what is what in literature and the politics of the day. At times, they would even get into fistfights. Again, I avoided them like the plague. It was always Ishmael trying to convince me to join, and I always said, “No way, Jose.”
Not only was I holding down a job at a printing press (called Murray’s Poster Printing on West 65th St off Amsterdam Avenue) five days a week but by this time, Kathy and I were married and we had a son. So my focus was mainly on my job, my family, and when it came to myself, creating stories and not doing too much partying or socializing.
It was somewhere around this time that Malcolm X got assassinated (February 21st, 1965). That whole experience is still vivid in my mind because Bob Hamilton came by my apartment and gave me a detailed description of how it happened. Prior to that, John F. Kennedy had gotten assassinated (November 22, 1963). And how well I remember that date, as well. I was at work at the printing place and my boss, Mr. Murray, was Irish and when the word came out about Kennedy, he went into conniptions; he took it personally. He thought it was an attack on the Irish. What sticks in my mind is that, Mr. Murray let us all get off work early that day. The same thing happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 16th through October 28th, 1962).
We went back to our apartments and turned on our TVs where we saw Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald. That’s what life was like back in the ’60s: Robert Kennedy being shot a few years later (June 5, 1968), as well as Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4, 1968). In those days, they assassinated so-called leaders; in our days, they assassinate anybody, especially young black males at the hands of trigger-happy police.
In the ’60s it seemed like there were riots every Summer. It got so bad that journalists called it “The Long, Hot Summer,” a title they got from a William Faulkner’s novel. I well remember the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I was still working at the printing press and, back in those days, instead of coming home to Downtown from work, I would take a stroll up to and in Harlem, just to check out the scene and find out what the folks were talking about Uptown, as opposed to what we were talking about Downtown.
I had my favorite bar on 8th Avenue and West 116th Street. It seemed like everyone at the bar was known by the towns they were from, like Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, etc. Everyone in the bar called each other, “yo, home.” I walked into the bar, sat in my favorite corner and had a double shot of cognac and a beer chaser.
The bartender, whom we called Louisville, came over with my drink and said, “It seems like every time we get a leader, something happens to him.” I wasn’t tuned with what he meant by this statement. But then from the TV in the corner I heard Walter Cronkite say that MLK was assassinated. I couldn’t believe my ears. I sat there, sipping my drink, stunned.
The place was loud, the guys at the bar were shouting and screaming at one another. Everyone seemed to be excited and angry at the same time. I didn’t know what else to do, so I finished my drink and strolled up to 125th Street to check the pulse further Uptown. When I got there the sun was setting and there was a hook and ladder fire engine at 125th off St Nicholas Avenue. Young folks were running all over the streets, teenagers for the most part. Already, they had started busting windows open at shops in the neighborhood. Rioters were walking away with TV sets, boxes of cereal… I thought this was pretty absurd. I thought there were better ways to protest over the assassination of Martin Luther King. I stopped a few of them and said, “Hey, what are you guys doing?” Their response to me was, “What do you mean ‘what are we doing’? Don’t you see what we’re doing?” I said, “Yeah, I see what you’re doing, but you’re destroying your own neighborhood. If you had any sense, you’d go down 5th Avenue to where the rich white folks live and destroy their neighborhood, not the neighborhood you live in.” They looked at me as if I was from another planet. The subtext, of course, was that they were too scared to go down to them and were more comfortable at “home.”
Later that night, I went back downtown, where everybody was talking about MLK’s assassination. It almost feels, that back in those days, all we talked about were big events: President Kennedy’s funeral, MLK’s funeral, and, of course, Malcolm X’s.
Kathy and I moved out of our apartment on East 4th Street to a bigger one on East 10th St and Avenue B overlooking Tompkins Square Park. Then we separated. She went her own way and left me with the baby.
I was still working at the printing place, thinking about either finding another job or quitting, but I had to make sure I had a source of income to pay my bills. The apartment on East 10th had become an open house. Writers, actors, and musicians would come by any time. We would all have spontaneous parties where we would drink beer, smoke reefer and get into long-winded discussions and arguments about this, that and the other.
Around that same time, LSD became the drug of choice. We would sit down and listen to jazz on LPs (long play records) and talk about this musician or that musician, getting into long discussions about what was happening in politics for the most part, as well as the Civil Rights Movement, and the war in Vietnam. This is years before gentrification, of course, when the counterculture and the love generation (flower children) were on the rise.
It was then that Ishmael Reed came with this other poet by the name of Allan Katzman, who later was killed with his daughter in an automobile accident Upstate. It was the two of them, Ishmael and Allan, who told me about a newspaper they wanted to start on the Lower East Side along with Walter Bowart. Their justification was that The Village Voice didn’t cover the Lower East Side scene. By this time, there were between 1,000 and 1,500 Bohemian types, in this area and we had our own scene (poetry readings, plays in the back of bars, etc…) So they wanted to start their own paper to cover this scene and I thought it was a good idea. So I said, “Count me in. How much?” They said, “One hundred dollars.” I said, “I got my hundred dollars, who do I write the check out to?” And that’s how the East Village Other, which was named by Ishmael Reed, was born.
We had no problem finding a printer for the first issue. I was still involved with members of the Progressive Labor. I attended their events and was in their company from time to time. Bruce Brown was tight with me, and the PL. He was the son of David Brown, a producer at XX Century Fox, who fired Marilyn Monroe because she constantly showed up late on the set, and of Helen Gurley Brown, the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, who was put on the map with her book Sex and the Single Girl.
The Progressive Labor had not only started their underground newspaper, but they even published their own literary magazine called Street. They were in contact with a Chinese printer down in SoHo (this was before SoHo was truly called SoHo and was still populated with small factories) who was sympathetic to the Communist Party in China, so he printed out their magazine.
That same printer ended up printing our first issues of the East Village Other. Ishmael Reed was good friends with Walter Bowart, and the two of them came up with a wonderful plan as to how to distribute the newspaper. For each issue, they would get one of the young ladies in the neighborhood to pose for the cover and call them the “Slum Goddess of the Month.” They would get other young ladies to take stacks of the newest edition and sell them at the local bars. The paper would sell for 25-cents; the ladies would get 10-cents for selling and we, the publishers, would get 15-cents. Those 15-cents were used to pay for the printing of the next issue. We also used the money we made for the adds from local bookstores, theatres, bars, etc.
Lucky for us, we didn’t have to pay the writers. We had more than enough of them wanting to publish with us. Not only would we write about the arts on the Lower East Side, but also about landlords (“No Heat, No Rent!”) who had mistreated tenants, police brutality, racism, and other issues that came to the floor, including women’s rights (which started to become a big issue at the time). We even got the writer Ed Sanders to cover the Charles Manson trials about the killings of the Tate family out in California. The articles that Ed wrote on the Manson Trials were collected in a book called The Family, published in 1971.
The East Village Other was the first underground newspaper in the ’60s in the United States. Other cities that followed suit were Boston, Denver, Chicago, Houston, and San Francisco. Some of these still survive today, including The Phoenix from Boston and The L.A. Weekly from Los Angeles. This was at the height of the countercultural movement.
We became so sophisticated back in those days, pre-dating the Internet, that we had our own news service called Liberation News Service (LNS), through which we exchanged information with other newspapers. For example, when the students and workers went on strike in Paris in 1968, which was the same year the Chicago Convention happened. Had the East Village Other existed today, we would have covered the Yellow Jacket strike in Paris.
Norman Mailer and James Baldwin were the leads of the literary scene. There were others, of course, but they weren’t as prominent. Then like now, most of the media started with The New York Times.
Today you pick up a newspaper and see anti-Trump articles; back then, you would pick one up and find anti-war and pro-Civil Rights movement articles. When it came to the riots, the papers were more concerned with property damage than they were with human suffrage.
Norman Mailer was busy writing against the war in Vietnam with his book The Armies of the Night. And later, he was taking on Germaine Greer in the women’s issue (The Town Hall Meeting, 1970). And James Baldwin was busy writing about civil rights and taking on Elijah Muhammad and the black Muslims in Chicago in the pages of The New Yorker. It was there that he published an essay called “A Letter from a Region in My Mind,” which he later republished as a book called The Fire Next Time (1963). This same book was picked up by the younger generation of African Americans who founded Black Lives Matter.
It was around this time that Gloria Steinem founded Ms. Magazine, and later, Hugh Hefner put up money to start Essence magazine for career-minded black women. Thomas Pynchon with his first novel, V, hit the scene and made a big splash at the time. He became the poster boy for a new generation of writers. Ishmael Reed later joined that crew of writers with a novel called The Free-Lance Pallbearers.
This is around the same time that the publishing world went after the works of young Afro-American writers, —including yours truly with the publication of Groove, Bang and Jive Around— as well as other ethnicities such as Chinese, Latinos, etc.
It seems to me that as a young man in New Orleans I had heard of Chester Himes. This is around the same time that I discovered Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and Edgar Allan Poe. Of course, I was also aware of the work of Richard Wright. He was a big name in our community. I vaguely remember reading and hearing about Chester Himes’ first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go. But it was then, while living on East 10th Street in 1965, that I got wind of his novel Cotton Comes to Harlem, which in 1970 became a movie and a big hit produced by MGM Studios in Hollywood.
I got so fired up and excited reading Chester for the second time as an adult. His writing and his approach to literature freed me up as a writer. Once I read Cotton Comes to Harlem, I went on with every single novel I could find written by him.
The fact is I got so excited I sat down and composed a long-winded letter. I had no idea how to get in touch with him aside from sending the letter to his publisher, who I assumed would forward it. About six weeks later, I received a long letter from Chester. He thanked me for mine and spent the next 10 to 15 pages explaining why he jumped ship left the United States, and went to France and Spain. His tone and tune were based on discrimination. I was so thrilled and excited about getting the letter from him I decided to continue the correspondence. When Himes came to New York for a book tour, Ishmael Reed, Joe Johnson and I, along with writers John A. Williams and Clarence Major, went up to visit him in his hotel on Central Park South. Later an interview with Chester Himes was published in a magazine called Armistad, founded by Charles Harris and John A. Williams. As young writers, Ishmael Reed, Clarence Major, Joe Johnson and I sat at Chester Himes’ knee and listened his experiences in the field.
He talked to us about who was on the scene when he first started as a writer and he emphasized what it took to tell the truth in fiction. He’s the one who told me that the only thing that’s constant in life is change. From that day on, I continued to follow his career until he left this planet. And it was years later, because of Ishmael Reed, that I was invited to a writers’ conference in Paris to speak about Chester Himes’ work and my encounter with him. This was in and around 1990, about the same time I started A Gathering of the Tribes.
Finally I gave up my job at the poster printing place. Through Ishmael Reed, I got a new job working as a writer and editor for Lincoln Hospital up in the Bronx. I had to put together a community newspaper for young folks in the neighborhood. That didn’t pan out, so I cut a deal with the woman who hired me and was able to get unemployment for a year. I took that time to write my first novel, Groove, Bang and Jive Around. I got into a rhythm: I spent the first three months thinking about it and making an outline and the other three writing it.
Since the Women’s Movement was in its inception, I decided to make the main character a fourteen-year-old female who didn’t take any crap from anybody, including her parents. At the same time, the specific issue on the Lower East Side was that kids were running away from home due to disillusion with their parents, which is why I made the main character not only a young teenager but also a runaway.
The bar at the time where I was getting most of my information in terms of writing scenes for the novel was called Peewee’s. Peewee later lost his life when a disgruntled customer came into the bar, opened fire and blew his head off. But at that time, I was hanging out there with Ishmael and a lot of musicians and writers and I got most of my ideas and energy to write Groove, Bang and Jive Around at Pewee’s. This is while Ishmael was working on his own novel, Mumbo Jumbo.
To come up with a solid 250 pages for the final version of the book, I ended up writing 2,000 pages. Then it became about cutting back and editing. I had this great editor who was from Idaho. She lived on St. Mark’s Place and loved nothing better than sitting around, talking trash and smoking hash. She happened to have her black boyfriend up in jail in Connecticut; she would take him up a pound of reefer to satisfy his needs while he was in the slams. She was a damn good editor and a lot of fun to be around. She was the one who came up with the title of my novel; I wanted to call it Annette’s Blues, but she decided a better title would be Groove, Bang and Jive Around and I agreed.
The person who ended up being my publisher was a character himself. He was a Frenchman who arrived here back in the ’60s. His family was from Greece and his father, Jack Kahane, was head of Obelisk Press and published, among other writers, Henry Miller, Frank Harris, and Chester Himes. Girodias arrived at the scene in the middle of the Sexual Revolution -- free love and all that jazz. He put the word out that he was in search of writers on sexual subjects; back in those days, we called it eroticism and not porn. I got word of him from Clarence Major.
Clarence Major was a young writer from Chicago who would come by and visit me in my apartment on East 9th, between 1st and 2nd Avenues, when I lived with my second girlfriend, who also went by the name of Kathy. He often was accompanied by Lennox Raphael, a playwright from Trinidad (he now makes his home in Copenhagen, Denmark), who had been one of the founding members of Umbra. One day Clarence came all excited, saying he was going to have his novel, called All-Night Visitors, published by Olympia Press.
I congratulated Clarence and thought, “Why did I not ask Clarence to tell his publisher about me?” The next time Clarence came by, I confronted him with the question. His answer was, “I had no idea that you wanted to publish a novel...” and he gave me the information.
I called up Girodias on the phone and told him what I had in mind. He told me he was open to it, just to give him a chapter and an outline and we would go from there. I thought about it for a month, came up with the first chapter, fictionalizing the story of a young lady from New Orleans -- whom I had known when I was a young man twenty years earlier -- wrote it up and took it to him. He read what I had written, including the outline, and said: “You got it.” He wrote me a check for an advance of $750. I got busy writing at a pace of about six to seven hours a day. Then out at night. And I would get up the next day and do it all over again.
Meanwhile, from time to time when I would run out of dough, I would go up to Girodias’ office on Park Ave and 19th Street, across from Andy Warhol’s factory, and get another check from him. Over a period of time, the two of us became the best of friends -- drinking partners. He would take me over to Max’s Kansas City (this is where I first encountered Andy Warhol), buy us dinner and drinks, and from there we would walk all the way over from the West Side to the East Side, listening to him talk about his father and the writers he knew as a young man through him.
He was a good talker, and a great storyteller and I made myself a damn good listener because I was learning about Paris after the Second World War and what the scene was like for the writers mentioned above. Plus, I enjoyed the easy-going Girodias’ as much as he enjoyed being with writers. Unfortunately, he ended up getting thrown out of the country.
He had this young Jewish woman who was always in his office. She looked and acted like a gypsy; she had all kinds of bracelets from her forearm all the way down to her wrists. She wore so much make-up it was hard to make out her features. The occult was a big thing at that time, and she was deep into it. It was then that Girodias came up with this crazy idea: he would get her to ghostwrite a book about Henry Kissinger's sex life. This was when Henry Kissinger was President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, years before Watergate.
Well, as the story goes, word had it that Henry Kissinger found out about the fictional novel that was going to be written about his sex life, and he made it a point to get Girodias chased out of the country. This part was hilarious as all hell, due to the fact that Girodias wrote a letter to The New York Review of Books stating that since Kissinger and himself were Jewish it seemed odd that a Jew would persecute another, hinting at what happened to Jews in Nazi Germany. In fact, what Girodias said to Henry Kissinger was, “You’re a Jew and I’m a Jew, so you should understand.” Kissinger would have no part of it and wanted Girodias out.
We writers got word that Girodias was getting kicked out of the country, and we all went over to his apartment to get hold of the extra copies of our books that were there. When Girodias was gone, we had the rights to all of our works published by his Olympia Press company. Years later, in 1990, Girodias died in Paris of a heart
It was sometime after Ishmael Reed had published his first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, that he would be invited to read his work here and there. Many of the times, he would take me along as his “sidekick” or his “Yes Man.” I remember us going up to Wesleyan University in Connecticut or Cazenovia College where he was invited to do a workshop, but more about that later. At Lincoln University he read from his work and was offered a teaching job, but instead he recommended me for the position and I accepted. This was sometime after I had published Groove, Bang and Jive Around and in-between jobs, so I was ready to take any job that came my way, especially if it had something to do with writing. I had also a job teaching once a week at the College of Old Westbury in Long Island.
It was easy-going. The way things worked out: I would leave the Lower East Side on Monday afternoon, take a train and a bus to Philadelphia, visit with my sister and her family in Philly, and then go to Lincoln University, which was about an hour outside of Philly. And there, I would do one-on-one tutoring with the students, talking to them about their work -- what was good about it, what was lousy about it, and how it could be improved -- and make suggestions on what writers they should be reading to improve their style. I would stay at Lincoln overnight and then come to the city the next day, usually on a Tuesday. I’d take a break on Wednesday and then, on Thursday, do the same thing out at Old Westbury in Long Island. And that was it. I had the whole weekend to myself.
Lincoln University is where I met Gil Scott-Heron, who made a name for himself from a poem called “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” He later died of a n overdose and I heard he was HIV positive. Once I stopped teaching at Lincoln University, I lost track of him. Gil did not take my workshop, but he got wind of me being on campus, knew I was from the Big Apple and since he was into jazz, he would pick my brain and wanted to know if I had seen John Coltrane and Miles Davis perform. He wanted my take on those guys and whomever else I knew in the jazz scene. So, once in a while, I would spend time talking to him about musicians and jazz and seldom about writing and writers. After we got to know each other, he invited me over to his trailer to smoke some reefer and hear some of his poetry. He shared the trailer with his piano player, Bryant, and all I remember is that he pulled out wads of paper and started to read some of his poetry. The poem that sticks in my mind is “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” He passed the joint, I took a couple of hits, passed it back to him and then he read the entire poem. I quietly listened without interrupting him, and after he finished, he asked me what I thought. I didn’t think too highly of it because it was spoken-word poetry, and I came from a school of poetry written on the page, in spite of the origin of poetry that was all oral predating the Odyssey and, of course, is still alive today among indigenous populations throughout the world. So I told him that it sounded okay, but it didn’t knock me out; the fact is I told him that it needed editing. Next thing I knew, six months later, it was a big hit all over the country.
This was around the same time that the students at Kent State got attacked by the National Guard, and the same thing happened to the black students at Jackson State. The students at Lincoln University decided they should have a protest rally against the incident. They got all riled up. People would give speeches, recite poetry, play music, the whole nine yards. They worked themselves into a passion and got ready to march down to the local city outside of Lincoln but were stopped by the professors who told them that right southwest of Lincoln University was the Mason-Dixon Line, where that the Ku Klux Klan had one of their sites. and there might be a clash where someone could get hurt or even killed. The students took the professors at their word and changed their minds. They continued the protest on campus and decided to do the rally there. It was years later after the monument had been built of the students at Kent State, and the Times photograph of the monument made the front page, that word got out that the lady who was pictured with the students who were hurt and killed was actually a runaway. She was on the campus, visiting friends when the incident happened.
Maybe I’m leaving too much out and maybe I’m not, but if memory serves me right, during those riots and demonstrations in the ’60s and into the '70s -- protests and marches against the war in Vietnam, demonstrations concerning discrimination -- any time a black kid got shot by the cops, there would be hell to pay. In other words, there would be riots in those particular cities. Fact is, when Martin Luther King got assassinated, over 123 cities in this country went up in flames. By this time, in 1970, luckily I found a house and moved over to East 3rd St. This is a story in itself.
It was after the demonstrations at Kent State that I found this house. Gerald Jackson, a visual artist and a dear friend of mine, decided he was going to visit his family back in Chicago and needed someone to house-sit his loft to water his plants. I had lost my apartment on East 10th Street and was living on East 9th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues. When Gerald said I could stay in his apartment for a while for free, I jumped at the chance. I told Gerald, “This is cool, just let me know a couple of weeks before you get back to the city so I can find myself another apartment.” I did not want to go back to my own apartment because my bathroom and kitchen were too small, and I had given it to a friend of Gerald’s, a guy by the name of Butch McAdoo, who was from Connecticut. But as luck would have it, Gerald did not follow my instructions. He never called and when he got back from Chicago, he wanted me out of his loft on the very same day. I scrambled around and found an apartment on East 9th Street, between Avenues C and D. The couple who lived there was on their way to California for a month, an Arab jazz saxophone player and his Jewish girlfriend. They told me and Kathy we could have the place for a month or so, and I told them the same thing: “Let me know when you’re coming back so that I can find another place. Give me two weeks notice” Well, they did the same thing Gerald did: came back to New York and wanted me out the same day. Frantically, I made as many phone calls as I could and finally reached Chester Wilson on the phone. He was an artist whom Gerald and I knew for years and who was living on East 3rd Street, between Avenues C and D. It was he who told me about a vacant apartment on his very street. He gave me the name of the realtor, Arnold Warwick, who had his offices on East 10th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues. I called him on the phone and gave him my sob story. I told him that I only needed a place for a month or less, until I could find a permanent place. He said, “I can’t let you do that because, by law, if I let you stay there for a month, I wouldn’t be able to throw you out.”
Then he said, “Why don’t you buy the place?” My answer was, “Buy the place? That’s the last thing I was thinking about.” He said, “Why don’t you come over and let me talk to you about it.” He gave me his address and I hopped on a bicycle. When I walked in, he said the same thing to me over again: “Why don’t you buy the place?” I took a deep breath and said, “I don’t have the money, but how much is it?” He said, “How much do you have for a down payment?” Since it hadn’t cost us anything to stay with our friends for the Summer, we had saved up about $2,000. He said, “I’ll make it easy on you. I’ll cut a deal with you. The building is worth no more than $35,000 dollars. There are three mortgages on it, held by various individuals. No banks are involved in holding the mortgages. One is marked for $10,000, the other is marked for $15,000, and the last is marked for $10,000. All of these mortgages are from different time periods. So here’s what you can do.” I sat there and listened, “What?” He went on “You give me $2,500 now, and within six months, you give me another $2,500, and you can move in right away. In fact, I’ll even get you a lawyer for the closing.” I said “Wait a minute, Arnold. This is going too fast. Hold your horses. You haven’t given me time to think this through.” “How much time do you need?”
“I don’t know, I need to move in right away. Give me 24-hours.” Arnold said, “Call me when you want. The place is yours when you’re ready.”
And again, I got back on the phone and made a thousand calls to figure out who from my circle of friends had some dough and could come in with me to own a building. The only person who had some money was a friend of Bruce Brown, Jeff Roben who had gone to NYU with Bruce and shared an apartment off-campus with him. Jeff had graduated and just gotten back from a tour of the Middle East. He said he could go in with me, because he had money from his parents. I took a deep breath -- I had no other options -- and said yes.
Instinctively, I knew this was a mistake on my part. It was ten years later, when the house burnt down and Jeff ran off with $100,000 of the insurance money that this decision proved to be a disaster.
But let’s go back to when we bought the house. Kathy and I moved to 285 East 3rd Street. Since Arnold had a couple of veterans on the first floor who were dealing drugs, Jeff was forced to temporarily move into the second floor with Kathy and me. But enough about that.
There was a Puerto Rican family on the top floor: a mother, a father, two little girls, and two little boys. The building needed an awful lot of work. Jeff did some research and found out that the building, built by the Hamilton Fish family, was over two hundred years old. So, we had to redo the building from top to bottom: put in new walls, flooring, wiring, plumbing, etc… Since we didn’t have that much money, we had to do the renovation room-by-room. For example, when we had $100, we put in a new door. When we got another $200, we put in a new stove, so on and so forth.
By this time, I was teaching at Hunter College twice a week, and Kathy, if memory serves me right, was working as a secretary. We were barely making enough money to make monthly payments on the building, let alone have any money for entertainment, such as seeing a movie, watching a play, or even hearing some music. In other words, we were penny-pinching at the time. Jeff was in the same situation, but lucky for him, he was leaning on his parents for dough.
We had cut a deal with Arnold: he paid the Vietnam veteran dope dealers on the first floor to move out of the apartment. Not only did he pay them to move out of that apartment, but he also found them a new apartment and paid the first and last month’s rent. According to Arnold, that was the only way to get them to move. Lucky for Kathy and me, that meant Jeff was out of our hair. He moved from living with us on the second floor to moving down to the first floor where the veterans had been living. He got himself involved with Arnold’s secretary, and she moved in with him. Later, they were married and had a little boy; unfortunately, the little boy grew up to be a drug addict.
Later, the Puerto Rican family moved out of the top floor. This was after there was a fire in the building next to us, and the Puerto Rican family got the city to move them up to an apartment in The Bronx. So Kathy and I had the two top floors to ourselves (second and third floor), and Jeff and his fiancé (who later became his wife) had the first floor and basement to themselves.
Kathy and I were responsible for renovating our two floors and Jeff was responsible for renovating his two floors. The common space, the stairway, and the halls, the front and the back of the building, along with the backyard, were both of our responsibilities. It took us about five years to get the building into some kind of good shape and, again, we were in no hurry since we owned the property.
Meanwhile, I got a job writing two children’s books. My editor at Harper & Row called me up and told me she had this woman who was a photographer who needed someone to help her put together a couple of children’s books. Since I was low on dough, I took up the job. It was a series of photographs of an old guy and a young boy who lived down in Alabama. The story according to the photographs was to be told from the child’s point of view. My job was to tell the story of the child, explaining how he helped his father build a house. All I had to do was write captions for the photographs and keep the action moving from scene to scene.
So I did that and was paid $750 in advance and another $750 when the book was completed. Then I was given a chance to do another book with the same photographer in a similar vein and was paid $3,000. Through John A. Williams (writer of the novel The Man Who Cried I Am), I also got a job teaching literature at York College in Queens. That job lasted for two semesters and I was fired for incompetence and they were right because I was lousy, I had not enough experience. It was then that I decided that was the end for me: no more teaching, I would figure out how to make my way as a writer. But things just didn’t work out that way. Son enough, a young Chinese-American came by the house and wanted me to teach at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, which is part of City University. Apparently, he had gotten wind of me from an Afro-American poet who was a student at NYU. I had thrown my hands up in the air, and I was done as far as teaching was concerned, but he made me change my mind. He pleaded with me to take the job. I kept telling him over and over again that I did not want to do it. But he was filled with emotion and passion, demanding and pleading with me that I had to do it. I kept saying, “No, no, no. I want to write, I want to write.” Finally, he said, “It’s full time.” Since we had to make mortgage payments, I caved in. So, I joined the faculty at Medgar Evers College in the fall of 1971 and taught there for 24 years, until I was forced out because of an incident with Ishmael Reed: as mentioned before, I went to a writers’ workshop in Paris without getting permission from the university.
Anyway, while teaching at Medgar Evers College, I happened to encounter John O. Killens, an Afro-American writer from the previous generation, along with Chester Himes and Ralph Ellison. He was brought in as writer-in-residence at Medgar-Evers. The first thing John decided to do was host a writers’ conference. The topic to be discussed: the responsibility as a writer versus the responsibility of the community. I helped him come up with the names of writers from my generation who should be invited. He on the other hand suggested Gwendolyn Brooks, among others.
But the first writing workshop I remember attending, took place at Cazenovia College, a small liberal arts college with no more than 2,500 students located in Upstate New York. It was a private university with upper class white students. The conference lasted at least four or five days. Ishmael Reed was called upon to give the keynote address. Others I met there were Quincy Troupe from the Watts Writer’s Workshop in Los Angeles, California — he would later go on to co-write the autobiography of Miles Davis — and other writers from such cities as St. Louis, or New Orleans. What sticks out in my mind was an older poet from the Harlem Renaissance who gave us a rundown on what that scene was like back in the ’20s and ‘30s. The other person who also comes right to my mind was a classical Afro-American pianist named Robert Starling Pritchard (I think he had something to do with organizing the conference). He told us stories about playing piano in the Deep South and how he avoided the Ku Klux Klan. The story that I will always remember was him being in Mississippi, sitting in the cafeteria and ordering a soda cracker, not realizing that “crackers” is what we called white folks pejoratively in the South back in those days. As the conference started to close, Ishmael and I convinced Quincy Troupe to move to the Big Apple.
The second big writers’ conference I remember attending was in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1990. This was around the same time that Twin Peaks, created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, was on television. It was a well-attended writers’ conference with both emerging and established writers; however, the conference had only invited Afro-American writers. It took place on the campuses of Emory University and Spellman College. The only person I remember meeting there was Alice Walker, who was well celebrated at the time, because of her books Meridian and The Color Purple, which put her on the map. There were others there, but the only things that comes back to my mind is that Ishmael Reed told us to stop in our tracks to circle around a TV set to watch the last scene of Twin Peaks (“Who Shot JR?”).
PEN had its first international conference in the spring of 1986. To make sure that the conference was well-attended, its Board of Directors decided to elect Norman Mailer as president, and since this was before the Iron Curtain collapse in 1989 — lucky for PEN and through the good graces of the United States State Department — they were able to invite writers from Latin America, Russia, Eastern Europe, China and Japan, as well as other parts of the Far East, India and South Africa. It seems to me that every major writer, mostly white males, were invited to the conference. The subject of discussion was decided by Donald Barthelme and another writer whose name escapes me. The topic was the imagination of the state versus the imagination of the writer -- or the other way around.
Since the number of female writers was in the minority, Cynthia Ozick, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem, among others, pitched a bitch. They decided to draw up a petition, which said that there were not enough female writers chosen to participate, and asked people to sign it.
I remember sitting in the lobby of the Essex Hotel on Central Park South with E. L. Doctorow, who was celebrated at the time for his novel Ragtime, which was later made into a movie. Cynthia Ozick showed up with the petition; she wanted both E. L. Doctorow and me to sign. Doctorow blew her off and I told her that I had trouble with the petition. When she asked me why, I explained that when they wrote the word “women,” they only meant white women, but what about the women of color? Right away, embarrassingly and nervously, Cynthia said she would change it and add women of color. She did so, and I signed. About two hours later, the women in the audience, including some of the writers, had a press conference in the middle of the conference. I must tell you that the only female writers who were invited were Toni Morrison, Isabel Allende, Nadine Gordimer, and, the one and only, Susan Sontag, who was a darling of the “New York literary scene” — the Zabar’s crowd. She later died of cancer. After the press conference in the afternoon, Betty Friedan held court. It was she who complained that there were not enough women writers who were invited to participate at the writers’ conference. She went on and on, adding in “furthermores,” “by the ways,” and “as I was sayings.”
Norman Mailer, mentioned before, who was president of the conference committee at the time, responded. He mentioned how they came up with the topic to be discussed and how they made a conscious effort to invite writers from behind the Iron Curtain. He was quite glib in his explanation and did not pull any punches. In other words, he told it like it was from his perspective. He said, after considering the topic, they looked around and decided that most people who could talk about it were male writers. He said that there were only a handful of female writers who had the intellectual capability to handle the caliber of the subject. There was a big “UGGHH” in the audience, as if they were wounded. After the conference ended, the next week at PEN’s headquarters on Broadway and Spring Street, Mailer held court again. PEN had called for a meeting of the Board of Directors. Mailer chaired the meeting. He called the women who had attacked him a bunch of “Stalinists” and told the story of how he was elected president for the conference to give it high visibility. After he made his appeal of speech, the Board of Directors and members of PEN voted him out of office and gave the job to the one and only Susan Sontag.
Slowly, things began to fall into place on the Lower East Side and the same thing happened to me at Medgar Evers College. Fact is, at the college, I got into a rhythm. I finally convinced the chairman of the department to let me teach literary courses. And as far as the Lower East Side was concerned, lucky for me, more and more artistic types were moving to neighborhood.
It was around this time that Joe Papp took over The Public Theater on Astor Place. It was the joy of the downtown theatre scene. Not only did they have four or five stages and more than enough money to fill admission, but they had workshops and used some of the space to show movies. They even had a poetry series and musicians came to perform from time to time. I spent an awful lot of time going to events in that building: plays, open poetry readings... Joe Papp was a long-time Marxist and tuned into the legacy of social responsibility in the arts going back to the ‘30s in New York Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty and The Country Girl, among other playwrights of that era.
Around the same time there was another theatre space, on 2nd Avenue off St Mark’s Place that featured plays by Jean Genet (The Balcony and The Blacks), before it was taken over by Douglas Turner Ward who was an actor from my hometown (New Orleans), who created the Negro Ensemble Company.