CHAPTER ONE (Spring, ‘62)
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 were all the rage.
The Civil Rights Movement was making noise down South and had yet to move North.
CHAPTER TWO (Kathy)
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 a job working 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 spent most of our time on the Lower East Side. The fact is, we had our own scene down here. Our favorite bar was Stanley’s, on East 12th Street and Avenue B. There, on the weekends, everyone in Bohemia that you knew was there: painters, writers, etc. And later, there was another bar called The Annex, which was on East 10th Street and Avenue B. The same crowd would be there, as well. 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. After we were tired of dancing, 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.
CHAPTER THREE (Ishmael Reed)
Ishmael was a writer who had come down from Buffalo. He would come by our pad on East 4th Street 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 writer, that writer, and their works.
I had gotten to town about a year before Ishmael, and by this time, had gotten to know Allen Ginsberg and later LeRoi Jones. I was also a member of a group called Organization of Young Men (otherwise known as OYM), for lack of a better term, and Progressive Labor, or PL for short, made up of radical students from Columbia University and NYU for the most part. 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 on 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 drafted into the military. Even then, before they even started, the war in Vietnam wasn’t popular. So, slowly, demonstrations against segregation and the war in Vietnam were just beginning in New York City. This followed demonstrations against the nuclear bomb (“Ban the Bomb”). Aside from people talking about literature, arts, and music, I got up about segregation and the war in Vietnam.
CHAPTER FOUR (OYM - Umbra)
The Organization of Young Men was made up of young Afro-American intellectuals, not unlike Progressive Labor, which was made up of young Anglo and Jewish intellectuals from Columbia and NYU (for the most part) who thought of themselves as Marxist. As an aside, 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, etc. 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’ pad on East 14th Street. It was like being in a class. LeRoi would sit at the front of his living room at a desk and the rest of us would sit on folding chairs facing him. If memory serves me right, most of the meetings were bitching sessions. We were sitting around bitching, complaining about segregation, prejudice, etc., and how we were mistreated by white folks in this country. It seemed to me that nothing was going to get done, and all we were going to do was sit around and complain. The text at that time was Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed (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 would join and walk over to Washington Square. We would then listen to folk singers playing blues on harmonicas and guitars. The out-of-town tourists would stroll 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 would go 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’ pad 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 in the town for no apparent reason. For lack of any other action, OYM decided they should go up there and protest against the black folks being thrown off welfare in that town. Well, I thought that was a great idea, but I was dis-inclined to go. My interests were elsewhere. In other words, I hadn’t come to New York City to join a protest; I had come to New York City to become a writer. The only reason I had joined this group was that 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, etc. and the only established writers in that crowd were LeRoi Jones (with his book Blues People: Negro Music in White America) and A. B. Spellman (his book was Four Lives in the Bebop Business). That does not mean the others weren’t published; I just didn’t know it at the time. I tried not to get too deep into a conversation about politics. And then later, there was Umbra.
Ishmael Reed had found a place to settle into on the Lower East Side. It took him less than six months. 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. The group would meet every Monday at Tom Dent’s apartment. Tom had an apartment on East 2nd Street, near the corner of 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 was we were both from New Orleans, and where we differed: Tom Dent’s father was the President of Dillard University, the Afro-American college in New Orleans. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t meet Tom Dent’s family in New Orleans; I met him in New York City on the Lower East Side.
Tom 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). And it was there that he met writer Ralph Ellison’s wife, Fannie. Later, yours truly interviewed Ralph Ellison with a couple of other writers from Umbra, Lennox Raphael and James Thompson. 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, along with David Henderson later on, and would tell me all about the disagreements and arguments that Umbra would have. 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 five days a week (called Murray’s Poster Printing on West 65th St off Amsterdam Avenue), 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 on East 4th Street and gave me a vivid description of how it happened. Prior to that, John F. Kennedy got 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.
When the word came out about Kennedy, he went into conniptions; he took it personally and started an attack on the Irish. What sticks in my mind is that, Mr. Murray from the printing place 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. With Robert Kennedy being shot a few years later (June 5, 1968), and the same goes for Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4, 1968). In those days, they assassinated so-called leaders; in our days, they assassinate anybody, whether they know them or not.
CHAPTER 5 (THE DEATH OF MLK)
It was around that time in the ’60s when 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 one of William Faulkner’s novels. I remember the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated well. I was still working at the printing press on West 65th Street 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. And also 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, who we called Louisville, came over with my drink and said, “It seems like every time we get a leader, something happens to them.” It didn’t sink in exactly what he was talking about, maybe because I was thinking about something else, maybe because it just wasn’t in the air yet. But then I noticed the TV in the corner was on the news. When I heard Walter Cronkite say that MLK was assassinated, it dawned on me. 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, etc. I thought this was pretty stupid and absurd. I thought, after protests over the assassination of Martin Luther King, there were better ways to do it. 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 the talk of MLK’s assassination was still in the air. It almost feels, back in those days, all the talk 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 apartment on East 10th St and Avenue B overlooking Tompkins Square Park. By this time, we had separated. She had gone her own way and left me on East 10th Street 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 Street had become an open house; that is, 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, and this is when the counterculture and the love generation (flower children) were on the rise.
It was then that Ishmael Reed would come 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 complaining of 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, even in this area, of actors, musicians, etc. And we had our own scene where we had poetry readings and would put on plays in the back of bars. Their idea was that they wanted to start their own paper to cover the scene down here, which I thought was a good idea.
They told me about the idea and 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.
CHAPTER SIX (THE EAST VILLAGE OTHER)
We had no problem finding a printer for the first issue of the East Village Other. I was still involved (for the most part) with members of the Progressive Labor. I would attend their events and be in their company from time to time. Bruce Brown -- whose father, David Brown, fired Marilyn Monroe out in Hollywood and whose mother, Helen Gurley Brown, was the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan -- was tight with me and PL.
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 printer down in SoHo (this was before SoHo was truly called SoHo and was populated with small factories) and the Chinese printer was sympathetic to the Communist Party in China, who printed out their newspaper.
We got him, the Chinese printer, to print 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 of the paper and sell them at the local bars. The paper would sell for 25-cents; the ladies would get 10-cents for copying and we, the publishers, would get 15-cents. Then, we would take the 15-cents to pay for the printing of the next issue, aside from ads from local bookstores, theatres, bars, etc.
Lucky for us, we didn’t have to pay the writers. We had more than enough writers who wanted to write for the newspaper. Not only would we write about the arts on the Lower East Side, but talk about landlords (“No Heat, No Rent!”) who had mistreated tenants, police brutality, racism, and other issues that came to the floor from time to time, including women’s rights (which started to become a big issue at the time), and so on. 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 together 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 Boston with their newspaper called The Phoenix. This was at the height of the countercultural movement -- hippies and all that.
We became so sophisticated back in those days, pre-dating the internet, that we had our own news service called Liberation News Service (LNS), where we exchanged news from one newspaper to the other. When the students went on strike, along with the workers in Paris, we exchanged the news with them, as well as the Democratic Convention in Chicago in ‘68. Had the East Village Other existed today, we would have covered the Yellow Jacket strike in Paris as it is today.
CHAPTER SEVEN (The Writing Scene)
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 at that time 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). Whereas, for James Baldwin, he 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). And this book, The Fire Next Time, has been picked up by the younger generation of African Americans, who founded Black Lives Matter, along with other writings by James Baldwin.
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.
CHAPTER EIGHT (Encounter with Chester Himes)
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 down in New Orleans. 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 later became a movie and a big hit produced by MGM Studios in Hollywood in 1970.
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 read every single novel I could find written by Chester: his Harlem domestic tales, as well as If He Hollers Let Him Go, Cast the First Stone, and whatever else I could find written by him across the years.
The fact is, I got so excited, I sat down and composed a long-winded letter to him and about myself, mostly about him more than me. I had no idea how to get in touch with him aside from sending a letter to his publisher, who I assumed would forward the letter to Chester.
About six weeks later, I received a long letter from Chester. He thanked me for the letter and spent the next 10 to 15 pages explaining why he jumped ship (which was due to the racism), left the United States, and went to Spain and France. His tone and tune were based on discrimination of being Afro-American in his generation in this country at that time. I was so thrilled and excited about getting the letter from him, I decided to continue the correspondence.
Later, 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 to him talk about his experiences as a writer.
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, 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 to 1991, about the same time I started A Gathering of the Tribes.
CHAPTER NINE (Groove, Bang and Jive Around)
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. My job there was to put together a community newspaper for young folks up there 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, which took a matter of six months. I got into a rhythm. I spent the first three months thinking about it and making an outline, creating a chapter as scenes in my head.
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 fourteen-year-old female 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 a lot with Ishmael and a lot of musicians and writers would hang out at Peewee’s, which is where I got most of my ideas and energy to write Groove, Bang and Jive Around. This is while Ishmael was working on his own novel, Mumbo Jumbo.
To come up with a solid 250 pages, I had to write about 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.
Fact is, Maurice Girodias was my publisher and a character himself.
CHAPTER TEN (Maurice Girodias)
Maurice Girodias was a French publisher who arrived here back in the ’60s. His family was from Greece and his father, Jack Kahane, was a famous publisher in Paris. He 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 St, between 1st and 2nd Avenues, when I lived with my second girlfriend, Kathy. He would come by with Lennox Raphael, a playwright from Trinidad (he now makes his home in Copenhagen, Denmark), who had been one of the founding members of Umbra. There was this one time that Clarence came by 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 Girodias.
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. Like I said before, it took me three months to think about it and three months to write it. This was writing at a pace of about six to seven hours a day, then hanging out at night. 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, Jack Kahane, and the writers he knew as a young man when his father was a publisher, such as Henry Miller, Frank Harris, as well as Chester Himes (Pinktoes).
He was a good talker, a great storyteller and loved to tell stories. And I made myself a damn good listener, because I was learning from him about Paris in those days after the Second World War and what the scene was, especially who some of the writers were at that time. He had also published a novel by Chester Himes called Pinktoes. Plus, I enjoyed Girodias’ company because he was an easy-going guy and seemed to enjoy 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 makeup, it was hard to make out her features from all the mascara. Since the occult was a big thing at that time, 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, of course, was when Henry Kissinger was President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State; obviously, this was 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 and said that they were both Jewish, hinting at what happened to Jews in Nazi Germany. In other words, he claims they were being persecuted. 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 all of the extra copies of our books that we could carry. Girodias was gone and we had the rights to all of our works published by Girodias (Olympia Press). Years later, Girodias died in Paris of a heart attack in 1990.
CHAPTER ELEVEN (Lincoln University)
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 time, he would take me along as his “sidekick” or his “Yes Man.” I remember us going up to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he was invited to celebrate his work, and at Cazenovia College, where he did the same. It was there at Cazenovia College that we were invited to do a workshop, but more about that later.
It was at Lincoln University that he was invited to read and offered a job teaching there, but he recommended me to a professor for the position and I accepted. This was sometime after I had published Groove, Bang and Jive Around and in-between jobs, ready to take any job that came my way, especially if it had something to do with writing. So, when Ishmael recommended my name at Lincoln University, I jumped to take the job. Meanwhile, I had 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 later 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. In other words, I’d go out to Long Island and do writing, tutoring one-on-one all day on Thursday, then that was it. I had the whole weekend to myself to do whatever.
CHAPTER TWELVE (Encounter with Gil Scott-Heron and Other Interesting Highlights)
Ironically enough, 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 -- I heard it was from a cocaine overdose — I had no idea that he was also 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 (New York City), and since he was into jazz, he would pick my brain and want know if I had seen John Coltrane and Miles Davis perform in the city. He also wanted my take on those guys and whoever else I knew in the jazz scene in the city. From time to time, I would spend time talking to him about musicians and jazz and seldom about writing and writers.
After we got to know each other, after a while, 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 to me. 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, then after he read it, 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, as well as others. 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 things 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 and had a big rally on the campus. 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.
The professors told them that right southwest of Lincoln University was the Mason-Dixon Line, and it was there that the Ku Klux Klan had one of their sites. The professors advised the students not to go down to that area towards where the Klan was, because 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 on 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.
CHAPTER THIRTEEN (Finding the Building: 285 E 3rd Street)
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, but this is a story in itself.
285 E 3rd Street
It was after the demonstrations at Kent State that I found this house on East 3rd Street. 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 while he was gone. 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 month 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 my apartment 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.
Gerald never called and the day 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. There was a couple who 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, and I told them the same thing: “Let me know when you’re coming back so that I can find another place.” (In other words, give me two weeks notice before they came back to town.) 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 East 3rd Street. He gave me the name of the realtor and I called him up. The realtor’s name was Arnold Warwick. He 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. Where are you?”
I told him I was on the corner of East 9th Street and 1st Avenue. He gave me his address and I hopped on a bicycle, then went to his office. 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 didn’t cost anything for us to stay with our friends for the summer, we were able to save 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, then said “What?”
He said “You give me $2,500 now, and within six months, 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. Let me give you 24-hours.”
Arnold said, “Give me a call when you need. The place is yours when you’re ready.”
And again, I got back on the phone and made a thousand phone 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. They had shared an apartment off-campus. Jeff had graduated and just gotten back from a tour of the Middle East, when he heard I was looking for an apartment. He called and 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 yeah.
Instinctively, I knew this was a mistake on my part and that Jeff was not to be trusted. It was later that this decision proved itself to be a disaster. In the end, the house was burnt down and Jeff ran off with $100,000 of the insurance money, but that’s another story.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN (285 E 3rd Street, Part Two)
Finally, when the dust settled, 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.
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 found out that we had to redo the building from top to bottom: put in new walls, flooring, wiring, and 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. We did the renovations when we had the money, and, if we didn’t have money, we just waited until we did have the money and would then do some work.
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 based on the photographs. In other words, 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 for that. 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. 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.
The next thing I knew, 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 studying at NYU at the time. 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 Kathy and I had just bought that house with Jeff, and 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 close to 23 or 24 years. It was then, twenty-four years later, I was forced out because of an incident with Ishmael Reed -- that is, as mentioned before, I went to a writers’ workshop in Paris without getting permission from the university. Meanwhile, while I was teaching at Medgar Evers College, I happened to encounter John O. Killens.
Killens was an Afro-American writer from the previous generation, along with Chester Himes and Ralph Ellison. It was there at Medgar Evers College that he was brought in as writer-in-residence. The first thing John decided to do there was host a writers’ conference, and it was he who came up with the topic to be discussed at the writers' conference: the responsibility as a writer versus the responsibility of the community.
Since John treated me as a fellow published writer, and both of us were familiar with some of the same writers, I helped him come up with the names of writers from my generation who should be invited to the conference. It was he who suggested that we invite Gwendolyn Brooks, among others.
CHAPTER FIFTEEN (Writing Workshops)
The first writing workshop I remember attending was at Cazenovia College. It was a small liberal arts college with no more than 2,500 students, if not less, located in Upstate New York. It was a private university with upper-class white students whose parents had money.
The writers’ conference, it seems to me, 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, New Orleans, etc. What sticks out in my mind was an older poet there 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 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 sticks in my mind was him being in Mississippi, sitting in the cafeteria and ordering a soda cracker, not realizing that “crackers” is what we called white folks in the South back in those days. And as the conference started to close, it was Ishmael and I who convinced Quincy Troupe to move to the Big Apple.
CHAPTER SIXTEEN (Writing Conference in Atlanta, Georgia)
The second big writers’ conference I remember attending was in Atlanta, Georgia (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 Spelman 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 come 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?”).
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN (The PEN-Writing Conference in New York)
PEN had its first international conference in the spring of 1986. To make sure that the conference was well-attended, PEN’s 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 behind the Iron Curtain, such as 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 now. The topic that came up was the imagination of the state versus the imagination of the writer -- or the other way around.
Since the number of female writers were 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 mean 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. But before I talk about the press 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 (Imagination of the State versus Imagination of the Writer), 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 the topic 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. They voted him out of office and gave the job to the one and only Susan Sontag.
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN (MEC - LES)
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 this neighborhood.
It was around this time that Joe Papp took over The Public Theater over 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 there from time to time. I spent an awful lot of time going to events in that building: plays, open poetry readings, etc. Joe Papp was a long-time Marxist and tuned into the social responsibility of the arts going back to the days of theatre in New York in the ‘30s: Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty and The Country Girl, among other playwrights of that era.
It was around this time that 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 created the Negro Ensemble Company. This was years after Arthur Miller had done After the Fall, the play about his relationship with Marilyn Monroe, which opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre when it was still at NYU’s campus.