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DRAFTED/Part Three

MY FIRST PHYSICAL
Part 1
A NOTE FROM A SHRINK

It’s 1962 and I’m in a boho Garden of Eden.

I live in a sub basement in Greenwich Village. “The coolest place in the world,” my friends from Brooklyn say.

The super lets me tap into his electricity and use his phone. His wife takes messages for me. “You should call your mother,” she says. I feed his two cats. They kill mice and leave them outside my door.

I never take cabs or go to fancy restaurants. I live on diner food, peanut butter and jelly and chocolate milk.

Won’t go north of 14th. Street. Except to Birdland on 52nd. where I pay $1.25 admission to see the greatest jazz musicians in the world–Dizzy, Miles, Count Basie, Gerry Mulligan, Sarah Vaughan–every week another genius.

Don’t go on dates. My friend David lives in a four story walk up in the Flower District. I’m so stoned the trip up the stairs seems to go on for hours. We sit in the dark and watch the light on the amplifier blink in synch with Wanda Landowska playing Bach partitas. The door swings open. Female silhouettes appear, then disappear as it slams shut. Something warm slides in next to me. A wisp of hair brushes my cheek.

There hasn’t been a war in nine years, but the orators of Union Square warn of world cataclysm.

“Satan has been released from his thousand year captivity,” a skinny old woman shrieks in a dense German accent. She sits under a bed sheet with “TURN TO JESUS” scrawled in lipstick. ” Gog and Magog have gathered the minions together for war,” she says. “They are as numerous as the sand in the sea…A great multitude will die untested. Only the righteous will be saved…” Brandishing a dog-eared Bible she cries: “Turn to Jesus now before it is too late.”

Across the park Morris Krieger, the anarchist, invokes Randolph Bourne:

“War is the health of the state,” he says. “It sets in motion the irresistible forces for uniformity. It coerces into obedience the exploited minorities and the individuals who are straying from the herd.” He stops and walks through to the crowd to where my friends and I stand, dazed with marijuana and Italian Swiss Colony muscatel.

“Democracy is an excuse to excite the masses,”he says. “Pursuit of happiness? Only the happiness they allow you. The happiness of acquisition and slavish obedience, the happiness of sycophancy. You have found happiness outside of their system through drugs and interracial fellowship. You are a threat to the state.”

A few benches down, a kid strums a guitar and sings in a Woody Guthrie whine:

“The General needs his War

To get that extra star.

Ford needs a war

To sell his armored car

JFK needs a crisis ’cause his New Frontier’s a lie

He ain’t never gonna give poor folks

A slice of the pie.

The doomsday warnings are comic relief for the drunks and the junkies lolling on the benches. Workers on lunch stop to heckle the speakers before returning to the grind. Even the cops shake their heads indulgently.

Meanwhile, the date of my physical looms.

“My shrink will give you a note that will get you out,” David says. “It’ll cost you thirty-five bucks for the visit.”

The office is on the ground floor of a building on Riverside Drive. I look at the names on the plaques and find: Dr. Paul Fruchtman. He’s at the end of a warren of tiny rooms. Doesn’t look much older than me. Short in a brown suit with a soft handshake and a few strands of hair across his bald head. He sits in an armchair, almost brushing knees with me and lights a pipe upside down so the window fan won’t blow it out. I stare at it wondering how he keeps the ashes from falling.

“Why don’t you want to go into the Army?” he asks.

David has told me he wants a crazy, radical answer.

“I don’t want to serve a state that exists to perpetuate the power of the capitalist oligarchy,” I say.

He scribbles on a legal pad on a clipboard.

“Do you worry about being in close quarters with other men?” he asks.

He wants me to say “yes.” To admit to being a latent homosexual. It’s a lie that will get me out, but I can’t tell it.

“No,” I answer.

“Are you afraid you might be killed?”

Another “yes” is indicated here. Another lie I can’t tell.

“No…”

He sits back, puffing on his upside down pipe.

“Tell me the truth. What is that worries you the most about being in the Army?”

I give him my first honest answer.

“Making my bed.”

He leans forward, eagerly. “Making in your bed?”

“No, just making my bed,” I say. “My father says they punish you if they can’t bounce a quarter off your blanket. Also, folding my clothes. I can’t really fold my shirts. My mother always yells at me. Sewing, too. My father says you have to sew your stripes on your shirts, he calls them blouses. We had to sew our own shop aprons in sixth grade and I couldn’t do a hem stitch and had to get one of the girls to help me…”

He raises a hand to stop the torrent.

“Okay, I’ll give you a note that you’re in treatment with me and aren’t ready for the stresses of military service. That will give you a temporary deferment, known as a 1Y. After a year they’ll call you again and I can renew the deferment.”

I rise, relieved.

“Of course there’s one condition,” he says, relighting his pipe. “You’ll have to continue in treatment with me.”

“You mean, be a patient?”

“Yes. Once a week should be enough.”

 

It’s a shakedown. He gives me a bland smile. “You’re in limbo” he says.” You can’t make the transition to productive, responsible adult life. As you get older that can become very serious.” He hands me a form. “Fill this out and bring it back” —he checks his calendar—”next Thursday, same time…You can pay Miss Rubin at the front desk.”

Miss Rubin is whispering urgently into the phone. I glide by without paying.

I can’t go out that night. The super’s cats creep through the window yellow eyes glowing in the dark. I see endless rooms of green filing cabinets. Echos of doors clanging shut. Clerks shuffling past each other down dusty aisles. A thick manila file with my name on it is dropped on a pile of files…Carried to another room. Dropped on another pile. Handed to a man in a baggy, gray suit.

He’s out there now. In a dark doorway across the street. People hurry by him with their heads down, each followed by a man in a baggy, gray suit.

NEXT: MY FIRST TRIP TO WHITEHALL STREET

 

MY CAREER AS A PETTY THIEF/PART NINE/Part Two

It’s 1961 and I’m living in a theocracy that brutally stifles dissent–Greenwich Village.

In Brooklyn, the backwater of my birth, people disagree violently– and coexist grudgingly. But across the Brooklyn Bridge the local Bohos enforce a rigid cultic orthodoxy.

The politics are easy enough to master. You’re safe anywhere from JFK to Joe Stalin with side trips to Trotsky and the brand new hero of the world revolution, Che Guevara. A Republican can’t even get in as comic relief.

The culture is more complicated. The Pantheon changes daily, new names added and subtracted. The criteria are what you read, wear, watch and listen to, who you know, what you’ve done or what you will do. In all of these I am judged and found wanting.

One night everyone is rushing to the NYU Student Center. I trail along, trying to impress Amelia, a poet with long, tawny hair–tall, broad-shouldered, wearing nothing under her granny dress. “You remind me of a lioness on the prowl,” I say, trying to be poetic. She gives me the arched eyebrow of disdain. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

A skinny kid with frizzy hair and an annoying nasal voice is singing Corinna Corinna.

I like Joe Turner’s version better,” I say, playing the purist card.

“Dylan is singing it the way it was originally written,” says a kid who’s famous for his collection of .45′s. “Joe Turner was just doing a Rhythm and Blues cover.”

A week or two later I’m in a crowd in the Art Theatre on Eighth Street watching Godard’s latest, A Woman Is A Woman.

It looks like they’re trying to do a Gene Kelly movie, but they can’t sing or dance,” I say loudly to impress the lioness.

“It’s not a conventional musical,” a fat kid corrects. “It’s an interrogation of the musical form.”

“It’s neo realism set to music,” someone else says.

This is the year of Kahlil Gibran, of smoking pot and trancing out to Wanda Landowska playing Bach on the harpsichord. Everybody’s carrying Franny and Zooey. I brandish Sons and Lovers. In secret I read best sellers, The Carpetbaggers, The Agony and the Ecstasy.

I try for the right note, but keep hitting clinkers.

Dave Brubeck?

Wrong…” Miles Davis says he doesn’t swing…”

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers?

Clunk. “Cold War propaganda, designed to cause an anti-communist panic.”

Old Man And the Sea?

Clang..”Patronizing, stilted…Hemingway blaming the world for his flagging powers…”

I walk the streets looking for celebrities. Here’s a face I think I’ve seen on a jacket cover. Wasn’t that guy in West Side Story? That little bald guy could be e.e. cummings. Or Yul Brynner. A couple on Sixth Avenue–tall, hunched guy with a tiny chattering lady. “That’s Edward Hopper,” somebody says.

I stand outside the San Remo Bar on MacDougall and Bleecker, watching the Boho nobility, the men laughing and waving drinks, the women intense and attentive.

Sports give me partial cachet. On weekends handball is the hot item at the playground on Waverly Place. Played at top speed with a hard black ball, it’s my game. In Coney Island the old pros ran me ragged, but in the Village I’m a star. I hook up with a Puerto Rican kid named Benny and we hold the court as a doubles team for hours. On the hot days we roll our pants up over our knees and take our shirts off. The other guys have tapered waists, tendoned biceps and muscles rippling on their backs. I’m stoop-shouldered and you can count my ribs, but I play with vengeful arrogance and no one can beat me. The “parkies” hook up a hose and we run cold water over our heads. The lioness and her friends walk by swinging their shopping bags and stop to watch us through the fence. We shout and play harder. Lust swirls like summer dust.

On my way home from work one night I pass Benny and the lioness, making out on a bench in a dark park off Sixth Avenue. He jumps up. “Hey, man, wanna go to a party? Where’s the party at Ammie?”

She glares. “It’s at James Baldwin’s. For his new book.”

Baldwin is an angry, eloquent black writer, author of The Fire Next Time. I’ve been reading his essays. I’ve taped one of his quotes to my typewriter. “I am what time and circumstance and history have made me, but I am also more than that. So are we all.” I want to tell him how much that means to me.

” I don’t want to bring a lot of strange people,” Amelia says.

“He’s my boy,” Benny says and grabs my arm. “C’mon, man, it’s cool,”

Benny has to reach up to get his arm around Amelia’s shoulders. He ignores her and talks to me about the handball players and do I want to play in the money games on Essex Street on the Lower East Side? She is docile and quiet, a far cry from the oracle whose poetry intimidates and whose pronouncements settle all disputes.

“Why are you wearing that suit?” Amelia asks me.

“I work in a funeral parlor,” I say and– anticipating her scornful disbelief–”I really do…”

On Horatio Street the party crowd has spilled onto the street. James Baldwin lives up a narrow flight of rickety stairs. We squeeze past the people coming downstairs and push through the crowd in the hallway into a cramped apartment . There are more black faces than usual, but otherwise it’s the same people, nose to nose, shouting in each other’s faces. A Charley Parker record is tinkling somewhere. The walls are lined with bookshelves.

“Look at all the books he has,” I say.

“Makes sense, he’s a writer,” Amelia sniffs.

She puts a jug of Almaden Red on a bridge table. I try to follow her and Benny, but the crowd keeps closing around them.

A kinky-haired man with curling nose hairs and thick moist lips puts his hand on my shoulder.

“Just coming from a wake?”

“I work in a funeral parlor,” I say.

“Really…” He clutches my sleeve. “There’s something I’ve always wanted to know. What do they so with all the blood they pump out of the people?”

“Nothing,” I say.

In a corner James Baldwin is trying to pour vodka into a dixie cup and hold a cigarette at the same time. He’s a small man with a large head and bulging eyes.

Benny turns and giggles. “Cat looks like a fly, man…”

Benny’s eyes are red. He’s stoned. So is Amelia, but the weed has just made her obsessive. She towers over Baldwin. “Congratulations on the book, Mr. Baldwin…”

“Thanks, uh…”

“Amelia, from the Hudson Church Poetry Project? We met at the benefit?”

“Oh yes…” He gives me a quick look, dismisses me, and turns to Benny. “Are you a poet, too?”

Amelia slides over between us with a don’t try to talk to him look. I step away, starting to sweat in my woolen suit. I see a thick hardcover book–The Most of S.J. Perelman. I’ve seen that name as a screenwriter on a Marx Brothers movie. I read the inscription: “To Jimmy/Humbly/ Sid…” In a minute I’m shaking with repressed hilarity. This is a revelation. The way Perelman uses language, the mixture of puns, Yiddishisms and esoteric references. I had no idea that prose on a page could be so funny. I have to have this book. I jam it down the back of my pants.

Nose Hair heads me off at the door. “Can I ply you with alcohol? In vino veritas?

He gives me a Dixie Cup full of sour white wine. “Seriously,” he says. “What do they do with the blood?”

I try to slide by him, anxious to get home and continue reading. “They let it drain out into the sewers.”

“Blood in the sewers,” he says. “The blood of the city’s dead…”

“And shit and piss, too,” I say.

“You’re a hardboiled realist, I see…” He puts his arm around me and feels the book.

“Is this a gun?”

” What do you think i?”

Now he’s intrigued. “I knew you weren’t an undertaker… You’re a cop, aren’t you?”

I give him the Bogey hard look. “What do you think…?”

He steps back, hands in the air. “Don’t shoot I’ll come quietly…” And shouts: “Everybody hide your drugs. the cruise is canceled. The polizei have landed…”

All eyes are on me. Astonished looks. The crowd parts to let me through.

“A cop…”

Across the room I see Amelia’s startled face.

Behind me, somebody giggles.

“You believe Amelia brought a cop to Jimmy’s party…?”

NEXT: I BURGLE BOOKS ON PARK AVENUE