It’s 1962 and Morris Krieger’s dire warning is ringing in my ears.
“World War III is coming.”
I’m taking my Army physical with several hundred other kids in Selective Service Headquarters off Wall Street in downtown Manhattan. A red faced Sergeant, crewcut bristling, hash marks covering his khaki sleeve, sharply creased blue trousers with a red stripe strides along our line, shouting:
“Strip to your shorts and shoes. Guard your belongings. If you lose your pants you will go home to your mothers bareass naked…”
Krieger, the last anarchist orator of Union Square, greeted JFK’s election with a prediction:
“Camelot will have its war…”
I kept myself awake all night smoking Gauloises to increase my heart rate; chugging Coke to turn my urine brown. Now I’m lightheaded. I stumble into the kid in front of me. He turns with a snarl: “What the fuck’s the matter with you?”
After the Bay of Pigs, Krieger became more strident.
“No one will remember the poor fools left to die on the beach…Millions more will be led to their death…”
I’ve been in high school locker rooms, but have never seen such a grotesque profusion of male flesh. Fat and woebegone, buff and arrogant, slight and timid…Red pustules on white flab, acne clusters, pimples, sores, weird Rorschach bruises. Gray jockeys, bulky boxers with stripes and flowers. The undersized sneak covert looks. The muscled strut and sneer…I try to place myself along this continuum. I am tall, but slouched and narrow-shouldered. I always made the team, but was never a star. I can do sit ups and push ups, but strain at pullups and chins. I’ve fought to defend myself, but have never attacked anyone in anger…
The Russians move their missiles out of Cuba. Krieger scoffs at claims of victory.
“Russians don’t blink. They merely look for another battlefield.“
They give us a form to fill out.
“Print clearly,” an older man in a doctor’s white coat says in a German accent. “If we can’t read it you’ll do it again.”
I curse my good health. There’s an endless column of diseases, but I’ve never had one.
The mental disorders are more promising. Bed-wetting, problems in school, visits to a psychiatrist, arrests, convictions, feelings of persecution, sudden eruptions of rage, homosexual attraction…
I’ve been advised I’ll arouse suspicion if I check them all. Just pick one aberration I can defend.
I check “use alcohol and illegal drugs…”
” Word War II was just a sideshow,” Krieger says. “The Tsar and the Robber Baron tried so hard to get Adolph on their side. Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Mosley, Chamberlain, Joe Kennedy, JFK’s dad. If only he wouldn’t be so stubborn about the Jews. Even Uncle Joe Stalin wanted to make a deal. From one mass murderer to another. You keep your camps I’ll keep mine. But Adolph wouldn’t share. So they formed an uneasy alliance to silence his Wagnerian oompah band. And when it was over they couldn’t wait to return to the eternal debate on what is the best way to control a subject population–Communist regimentation or Capitalist exploitation…”
We form a single line and shuffle into a large room, the size of a gymnasium where doctors in white coats are waiting. They are elderly, probably retired, and bored. Stethoscopes are pressed to our chests. “Deep breath…Breathe out.” Lights are shined in our eyes, noses and ears…A tongue depressor is thrust so deep in our mouths we gag. “Say Ahhh…”
Some kids are taken out of the line and sent to smaller examination rooms. They’re the lucky ones, but they walk with heads down as if they’ve been found wanting.
A doctor with a hammer gestures impatiently to a chair. “Well, sit down…” He taps our knees lightly. The kid ahead of me shudders and his knee shoots up. Mine hardly moves. “You waiting for the second feature?” he snaps. “Get up.”
Krieger spots me carrying Camus and Hesse.
“Alienation and mysticism,” he thunders. “The cheap thrills of the bourgeois state. Meant to distract the intelligentsia from its oppression.”
It’s pointless to explain that I use the books to start conversations with girls in coffee shops.
“Drop your drawers,” a doctor shouts. A kid walks up to him. He thrusts his hand under his right testicle and orders:
Then moves the left.
And does this a hundred times.
At the end of the room a doctor commands:
“Lean over and press the wall with both hands. Now reach back and spread the cheeks of your ass…Spread ‘em!”
He walks up and down the line looking up every one’s ass.
“Did he lose somethin’?” some kid whispers and we all get hysterical laughing.
We walk into a room with rusty sinks, faucets sputtering, along all four walls. A man in a white coat hands out plastic vials.
“Piss in the vial and bring it to the desk,” he orders.
Another moment of truth as we check out the line of pissing penises. Dark ropes, purple veined monstrosities, fragile pink wands; it’s amazing that they are all the same organ. I am abashed by the larger ones, but not encouraged by the smaller.
After all that Coke my urine rust brown.
The man at the desk hands me a tiny dipstick.
“Stick it in your specimen,” he says. “Show it to me.” He hardly looks. “Dump it in the sink…”
We’re done. Our journey through the rooms has taken us back to the entry hall. A man in a white shirt covered with medals checks my form. Suddenly, I am sorry that I checked off drug use.
“Down the hall to the left,” he says.
A line of kids is waiting outside four offices. We hear snatches of conversation.
“How many times a week?”
“Was there a police report?”
“Don’t give me the letter. Send it to the Draft Board.”
I am steered into an office. An old man with two brown moles, each sprouting a hair, on his bald head looks down at my form.
“Drugs?” he asks.
” Heroin? Opium? Hashish?”
“Marijuana,” I say.
He writes in a blank space on my form.
“Sweet wine, dry wine? Beaujolais, Chablis?”
“Italian Swiss Colony,” I say. “Whiskey, too?”
“Rye, vodka, gin…?”
“Scotch,” I blurt.
I panic. Try to remember the weird-shaped bottle in the sideboard that my father sneaks shots out of while my mother is in the kitchen.
“Haig and Haig…”
He looks up with a smile. “Haig and Haig. Can’t afford that on a private’s salary…”
JFK is sending 16 thousand “advisors” to help the South Vietnamese repel the Communist invaders from the north.
“The Tsar cannot take his army away from oppressing his own people,” Krieger says. “He will use the Vietnamese as proxies. The Robber Baron will send his own young men to keep them from making trouble in the Civil Rights movement and Organized Labor…”
Krieger’s wife comes to keep him company. A wiry old lady with sun-leathered skin, she knits while he rants. Unwraps salami sandwiches and pours coffee from a thermos.
“Were you in the Army?” I ask.
“It was important to defeat the Nazis,” he says. “But I did not support the oppressive military system…”
“He was a good soldier,” his wife says, placidly knitting.
Krieger twitches in irritation.
“I was not,” he says.
Three weeks later I get a letter from the Selective Service System. I have been classified “1Y”, which means I am deferred for a year.
It’s what I wanted. Still, I feel rejected and vaguely ashamed.
NEXT: A VERY SHORT REPRIEVE
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I AM STALKED BY UNCLE SAM
It’s 1962 and the State is closing in on me.
A few months after my eighteenth birthday I get a letter from the Selective Service Agency, enclosing a draft card, registering me for military service, with the command: “You must carry this on your person at all times.”
To me it’s just a drinking license. I don’t need phony “proof ” anymore. I can walk into any saloon head held high.
A month later I get an ” Order to Report for Armed Services Physical Examination” where “it will be determined if you qualify for military service.”
I’m a student and get an automatic “2-S” deferment.
Six months into my freshman year at Brooklyn College I drop out and go to Paris to write the Great American Novel. When I return, having barely managed to write a few postcards begging my parents for money, there is another “Order to Report.”
I complain to my mother. “They didn’t tell me they were canceling my deferment.”
“What did you expect, a personal letter from the President?” she says.
There is also a notice from the Department of Motor Vehicles, stating that I owe $300 in outstanding parking tickets.
And a letter from the State Board of Regents demanding that I repay my $800 scholarship because I didn’t complete a year in college.
“If you don’t pay they’ll hound you for the rest of your life,” my mother warns. “You can’t get away from them.”
But I’m convinced they will never find me. My sub basement on Barrow Street in Greenwich Village is an illegal residence so I have no lease. I pay the super $53 cash a month and $15 extra to use his phone and hook up to his electricity. I’m making $90 a week, $110 with overtime so I’m rich. I have no bank account. Willie, the shylock at the Park Circle Lanes bowling alley cashes my paychecks from the Riverside Memorial ChapeI. My chauffeur’s license has my old home address and a teenage photo of me, but I look completely different now–long hair, Fu Manchu mustache…
“There is no record of me anywhere,” I brag to Naomi Krieger as I follow her around Union Square Park. ” I don ‘t exist.”
“That’s very existential,” she says.
Union Square is a meeting place for radicals of every stripe and Naomi is its temptress. While orators mount benches and makeshift podia to harangue passersby with predictions of doom, indictments of America and fervent espousals of their one true cause, she glides through the crowd, handing out Anarchist leaflets. She has a mountain of brown hair, rimless glasses, fierce black eyes and moves with lissome grace. “Revolution is accelerated evolution,” she chants. “Force is the weapon of the weak…”
I join the ranks of the smitten, who follow Naomi on her rounds, hoping to get her attention. Some try to show their erudition, but she knows more about Marx and Engels and the Second International and the flaws in Dialectical Materialism than any of them.
Others try flattery. “You are the avatar of Vera Figner,” a bearded East European gushes, invoking the Russian who helped assassinate Tsar Alexander II.
She laughs. “Do you mean I’m the mythic device of an oppressive religion? The incarnation of a woman who devoted herself to a corrupt ideology which she repudiated later in life…? Thanks a lot…”
She is airy, unapproachable. Trotsky’s implacable intellect on Audrey Hepburn’s body. I’m humbled and exhilarated just to be in her presence.
Then, one afternoon, she walks across the park to the bench where I am eating a Sabrett’s hot dog with “the works.”
“Have you ever read any anarchist texts?”
I am caught in mid bite and spray mustard, ketchup and onions on my Dickey carpenter pants.
“Here…” She hands me a pile of mimeographed leaflets–ABOLISH THE WAGE SYSTEM, THE BETRAYAL OF SACCO AND VANZETTI, THE MYTH OF THE DEMOCRATIC STATE, all written by Morris Krieger.
That night I try to plow through the dense, smudgy single-spaced pages of anarchist theory. The next day she is on me like a teacher checking homework.
“Did you read the material?”
“Oh yeah…Interesting…I was always taught that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent…”
“Because you came from a Communist household, am I right? Liberals made them innocent to hide the fact they had committed the robbery as a propaganda by deed to inspire others to attack the Employer Class and overthrow the wage system…Come meet the author…” She takes my hand and leads me to a bridge table where a bald, old man with a battered fighter’s face and sleeves rolled up over brawny forearms is hectoring the crowd.
“Who protects you in this wonderful Democracy? Your government which taxes you and forces you to fight wars to enrich its oligarchs? Your boss who exploits you? Your landlord who raises your rent and cuts off your heat? Your family that extorts money and guilt with emotional blackmail…?”
The crowd enjoys baiting him. “Are you a Communist or Capitalist, Morris?” someone shouts.
Morris scoffs. “Communism, Capitalism. What does it matter who coerces you, the state or the Corporation? Krushchev and JFK are merely cult totems for the ruling class.”
“But they are enemies.”
“They are collaborators,” Morris corrects. “The Cold War is window dressing. Authoritarian systems secretly cooperate to oppress their subjects. The Hungarian Revolt, the Bay of Pigs were planned to fail. The CIA conceived them, funded them and then aborted them…”
“Our Lord Jesus will judge us,” a wild-eyed man shouts.
“Your Lord Jesus said ‘render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,’ Morris says. “He was just the first Capitalist propagandist.”
The crowd laughs and wanders away to seek amusement at another bench.
Naomi smiles proudly. “He’s brilliant. Makes you see things in a new way.”
“Morris Krieger,” I say. ‘Is he your grandfather?”
“He’s the father of my mother, according to Mildred, her mother,” Naomi says. “But since bourgeois morality forces women to lie about their sensuality who can really say and does it matter?”
“It doesn’t matter at all,” I say, eager to agree with anything.
Morris calls us over. “Naomi, bring your friend…So young man, is your father a party member?”
“Democratic party.” I say.
“FDR was an admirer of Mussolini, did you know that? Joe Kennedy, the President’s dad, loved Hitler.” He points to a livid scar above his eyebrow. “Lepke’s goons gave me this, the day the gangsters took over Local One of the Bakery Workers. The same day Hitler was selling out to Krupp and Stalin was starving the Ukrainians. And that Democratic Party stooge Sidney Hillman was having tea with Eleanor Roosevelt…”
I turn to Naomi. “Who’s Sidney Hillman?”
Morris shoves a pile of books in my chest. “We strive for the administration of things, not people. Educate yourself. Free your mind…”
“They’re heavy,” Naomi says. “I’ll help you carry them.”
I fly the two city miles to Barrow Street, borne by Naomi’s relentless rhetoric. The wind is on my face. The world races by as if seen from a passing train.
Naomi feels her way down the metal stairs to my pitch black sub basement.
“This is a magic place,” she says. “You could plot great deeds here…”
She brushes my hand away from her shoulder.
” Do you have to play the chivalrous rapist?”
She pushes me down on my unmade bed and presses her cool, dry lips against my neck.
“Can you imagine yourself a female?” she whispers in my ear. “Welcoming…? Receiving…?”
I can. No problem.
In the morning Naomi scours the food-crusted pots on my stove, washes my underwear in the shower and makes me get out of bed so she can soak my sheets in the super’s work sink.
“Don’t confuse this with an atavistic domestic tendency,” she says, merrily. “I clean because it gives me pleasure. I am not a slave of a peer-controlled feminist ideology.”
In the afternoon I plow through the Anarchist texts, scribbling statements I’ll be able to quote to Naomi.
Bakunin: “I am truly free only when all men and women are equally free.”
Stirner: “Society is a chimera. Individuals are the only reality.”
Kropotkin: “America shows how all the written guarantees for freedom are no protection against tyranny and oppression. In America the politician has come to be looked on as the very scum of society.”
True enough, but I’ll be able to tell her what I’ve observed on the streets of Brooklyn: Only the thieves and hustlers who live outside the law are truly free. I will impress her with my knowledge of the real world.
I run to Union Square. Morris is at his bridge table, offering the same books, the same replies to the same jibes.
“Naomi’s back at school,” he tells me.
“Sarah Lawrence. She was just here for her vacation. She’s leaving next week for Paris for her junior year abroad to study French Literature.” Morris smiles proudly and I see the family resemblance. “She’s got a full scholarship.”
I go to Whitey’s Bar on Sixth Avenue. Nobody asks me for “proof.”
Next morning there are four envelopes on the steps outside my door.
One from the Division of Motor Vehicles stating that a warrant will be issued for my arrest if I do not pay what has now grown to $425 in parking tickets.
Another from the Board of Regents that “Collection Procedures will be initiated” if I don’t repay my $800.
Something from the NY State Department of Taxation that I am “delinquent” in submitting my return.
And a notice of “Failure to Report…” from Selective Service, warning that I face “imprisonment of up to five years and a fine of $10,000″ if I do not appear for a physical on the specified date.
My cover is blown. Someone has informed on me.
I call home and my mother confesses:
“I gave them your new address.”
“The letters were piling up,” she says. “All these official envelopes. You could get into trouble.”
“But I am in trouble now that they found me,” I say.
“What are you going to do, hide like a mole in that cave?”
“At least I’d be free,” I say.
“Free? Who’s free? Free to be what? A bum?”
“You betrayed me…My own mother betrayed me…”
I hear my father’s voice. “What’s he yelling about?”
And my mother’s muffled reply. “He’s very upset…Sounds like he’s crying.”
NEXT: I AM HELD HOSTAGE BY THE MOB
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