FAMOUS AMERICAN CRIMINALS
an excerpt from the
novel Malcolm and Jack
(and Other Famous American Criminals)
New York City is a forties town.
Arriving from elsewhere, something happens, rare in an American city.
Yes, New York sizzles with an electric current of the now; nonetheless,
you find yourself transported back a lifetime ago, when things were
wilder, more unsure in certain ways than they are today. To when war
broadcasts came over the radio, silencing rooms where dancers had just
been swinging to big band. The rumbling conga drums, an echo of blaring
brass, a veneer of loud, innocent fun. Spiffed-up and shiny, disguising
the fact that it could all come suddenly to a stop, that death could
enter the apartment or ballroom at any moment.
Does it happen to you today, walking around Midtown, that flitting visions
of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy emerge from façades of
buildings familiar from black and white movies? Go ahead, take the A-train.
Disney may have swept the pornshops out of Times Square, but the soldier
will kiss the girl on V-J Day there eternally. Santa Claus lives on
34th Street. Bums hanging out on the street corner are poets and jazz
musicians who'll someday be famous. After they're dead.
The wrong people are still making all the money. Just as when Malcolm
X called himself Detroit Red and hustled for bread uptown.
Much of what we call the '60s was born in the 1940s. Racial unrest,
questioning of dominant values by members of a surly, growing underground.
But those times were also far more settled, comfortable, less wild --
people playing along, desires more repressed than in any time since.
Citizens treated more unequally, which helped create the wildness in
the first place, or which provided the defining context by which certain
behaviors were called wild.
North of the Park, Malcolm spoke about self-determination and taught
the people of Harlem about Africa and the world. Earlier, he'd run both
drugs and women, knew both the syndicate leaders and the horn-men. A
train man for a while, too.
Jack Kerouac came to Columbia in the forties and soon knew where to
go to see Billie Holiday.
Malcolm knew Billie well enough to talk with her between her sets. Maybe
he scored her some smack. Jack would be looking for some sticks of tea.
Malcolm was a go-between for generous downtown white men and willing
uptown black girls. And men. Jack's best friend was a poet at Columbia
in crisis over his sexuality. Another friend was a downtown junkie.
A third murdered a man named David Kammerer who'd made sexual advances
toward him, dragging the body from where it fell, stabbed, in Riverside
Park, down the bank into the Hudson. Head spinning, the murderer went
to the junkie to ask him what he should do. "Get a good lawyer and turn
yourself in," said the junkie, William Burroughs. The murderer, Lucien
Carr, didn't like that answer and went uptown to wake up Jack. They
had a beer and Jack watched him bury the knife. Eventually Lucien turned
himself in (the papers called it an "honor slaying") and served four
years. Malcolm served six and a half for a string of burglaries in '45.
Billie was busted for heroin in '47 and served a year and a day. Jack
had taken so much speed that he was hospitalized for thrombophlebitis
in late '45. He was 23. Malcolm was 20. Billie was 30. At least she
didn't have kids. Her parents had married young: it says in her autobiography
that her father was nineteen, her mother sixteen, and Billie three.
But Billie didn't write her own autobiography. Lied to the man who did.
Claimed not to have even read it.
Malcolm read his, though he didn't write it. Kerouac wrote and wrote,
pretending for a while that it wasn't autobiography, then giving up.
Bob Dylan sings in "The Ballad of Hattie Carroll," "and took out the
garbage on a whole other level." Poor Hattie Carroll was a maid in the
kitchen. She lived 29 years and gave birth to ten children. And never
sat once at the head of the table.
Kerouac's family was French-Canadian. He was born Jean-Louis Kerouac
and they spoke French in his home. When his father was on his deathbed,
he accused Jack of defiling his mother's house by bringing a Jew there,
Allen Ginsberg. When his father died, Kerouac began working seriously
on his first novel. Malcolm was reading anything he could get his hands
on, dictionary, Bible, settling finally to absorb the words of the prophet
Elijah Muhammad of Chicago. Billie wasn't reading the fine print on
her contracts, if there were any, and losing most of her money to her
handlers. Before she went on each night, they brought her the white
gardenias she wore in her hair and the white junk she cooked up in a
tuna fish can and shot into her feet. Before her return concert after
getting out of jail, she stuck a hairpin into her head but continued
the showshe lost so much blood that she collapsed by her third
curtain call. There was no cotton to be picked on 52nd Street between
Leon and Eddie's and the East River, said Artie Shaw, but it was a plantation
any way you looked at it. There isn't evidence of either Malcolm or
Jack ever shooting smack, but it was a drug of choice among jazz musicians.
Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Dickie Wells, John Simmons, Carl Drinkard,
Miles Davis, Jimmy Green, Stan Getz, Joe Guy, Don Byas, Bud Powell,
Fats Navarro, Gerry Mulligan, Anita O'Day, Sylvia Sims and others got
hooked. Billie made nearly a quarter of a million dollars between 1944
and '47, but when she went to jail had next to nothing. God bless the
child that's got his own. Men would buy her five and ten dollar bags
and take one or two hundred. The D.A. recommended hospital rehab but
the judge said Billie was a "criminal defendant" "convicted as a wrongdoer."
Some eventually did kick. Others didn't.
Jack got Benzedrine without having to go through dealers. You could
buy an over-the-counter Benzedrine inhaler, break it open, roll up the
speed-soaked paper inside and swallow it. Drug laws were in their infancy.
Marijuana had only become federally prohibited in 1937. Opium had only
been made illegal at the turn of century, largely to hinder Chinese
immigration. The full force of Puritan demonizing of drugs is actually
a twentieth century phenomenon. The typical heroin addicts of the nineteenth
century had been wounded Civil War soldiers, "hysterical" women. Addiction
was treated clinically rather than criminally.
Legal or not, you had pale and wan needle-junkies, hyped up boys from
the village, lean red-eyed vipers taking in the scene, Broadway actors
blowing into clubs in tuxes. Coke was the gentlemen's drug, heroin was
for junkies, disrespected. Billie disguised her addiction from vigilant
sheriffs by drinking constantly. No junkie could possibly drink that
much. She chugged double Scotches and gin spodiodis, photographed at
table after table.
Look at the photos today and you can't tell if she's high or not. She
wears lipstick, rouge and eye shadow, smiling for the camera in a low-cut
gown, wearing a turban, a hat, or flowers in a straightened forehead
wave. Her dressing room smelled of cooked hair before her shows.
In Spike Lee's X, we see Denzel Washington as young Malcolm getting
an amateur lye-job, panicking when he finds out the water's been turned
off, rushing to the bathroom, burying his head in the toilet bowl and
flushing. Maybe this actually happened. Or maybe Malcolm got the detail
from Lester Young, the man Billie called Prez, who named her Lady Day,
who also told the story. Maybe it was such an apt metaphor everyone
claimed it happened to them.
Jack? Football player: speedy, tagged a "climax runner" for Columbia,
to be brought into the backfield in crucial situations. The school had
endured a winless season the year before and hoped for much from Jack,
who'd shown flashes of spectacular play in one season of prep school
action at Horace Mann. Then he hurt his leg.
1940. Allen Ginsberg's friends were shocked to see the Communist poet
hanging around, then rooming with this Joe College guy. Jack looked
like someone you'd find during the summer in uniform checking your oiland
who you'd trust to do it. Polite, a safe date for your kid sister. But
at night Jack was hitting the streets. Later, he ditched a tour in the
Army he'd enlisted for, told a Navy psychiatrist he just couldn't accept
any form of discipline. Ain't that the truth, you'd hear in Three
Deuces, the Famous Door, Onyx Club, 1942, '43. They wouldn't even
let me light up a goddamn cigarette! Detroit Red did it anyway,
played crazy, told his Army psychiatrist at the recruiting station that
he wanted to organize niggers to steal weapons to kill Southern crackers.
Daddy-o, don't you tell anybody about this, but you and I is from
up North here. Military commanders didn't think it a good idea to
give either one of them a gun.
His family would think he's crazy listening to that nigger music, but
Jack don't care, Jack just wants to swing and delight to that sound,
fast, fast, fast. And Red, them's bad people, and you're the baddest
of 'em. You gonna be dead before you've worn out your first shaving
razor. Red don't care. What's Red got to live for? Jack's got it all
in front of him and Red tries to stay in front of it all or else it'll
Jack works only enough in the docks to make enough money to quit and
have fun again. Maybe start traveling. Not that that takes much money.
Hang out at Pier 19, East River, or out in front of the rope store on
South Street-all the supply men go there-and you'll find a ship to go
out on. It's still like Herman Melville a hundred years later. Or stick
out your thumb on any kind of road and you'll get picked up if you look
like Jack. People'll drive you home and feed you pie and ice cream.
On the Road á la mode. Fundamentally, people are good, if only
they'd just let themselves be good once in a while, free themselves
of the grind that keeps them churning in their yokes day after day under
the hot sun; it's dull and dreary life-boredom that turns a man or a
woman against themselves and against each other and instead of enjoying
their sweet loving with one another they live miserable small lives
where they turn the soil over but never see the fruited rainbow of what
they've wrought on the earth in their all too brief time.
Red is listening. He figures Jack's got at least a ten on him, maybe
more. "Know where a cat can get some tea around here?" says Jack.
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