The Flight of the Somebodies

A version of this essay is included in Bob Levin’s Cheesesteak – his new “rememboir” of “the West Philadelphia years.”  (There’s information on how to buy his witty book of Philly wonders at the end of this post.)

In the late 1950s, when I was in high school, two Negroes joined the periphery of my social crowd.  Edward played piano and Lester bass, and they were jazz musicians.  They never had gigs and, if they did, the gigs never paid; but that is who they were, and that is what they did.  If I or Max Garden or Davie Peters had a car, we gave Edward and his bass a ride to their rehearsal.  If you had a piano, that rehearsal might be your living room.

Both Lester and Edward were built slight, spoke soft, and dressed Ivy.  But it was Edward, still in his teens, who became through Robutussin AC the first druggie I knew.  And it was he who, when asked if he was going to college, uttered the line I fed a minor but weighty character in my first novel: “What, man, you mean be a everybody?”

Not being an everybody had been on my and Max and Davie’s minds for some time.  We had not needed Wm. H. Whyte or David Riesman or Sloan Wilson to alert us to the dangers of conformity, organization men, and gray flannel suits.  We’d already had Bob & Ray, Stan Freberg, and “MAD” for that  And their instruction would mark our passages through adolescence into adulthood in ways that define – and haunt – me still.

 

I.

I met Max in a pretzel fight at Herbie Schecter’s’ tenth birthday party.  A couple weeks later Max introduced me to Davie whom he knew from a youth concert their mothers had dragged them to.  Max lived four blocks from me in West Philly, and Davie bussed in from the suburbs to visit his grandmother regularly.  Max was loud, frenetic, with interests ping-ponging between performing magic tricks, breeding Siamese fighting fish, and clipping Charles Addams cartoons.  Davie was quiet, sardonic, and once ambushed a patrol car with a baggage of Roman candles.  I was the “good boy,” with better grades, but my mouth and wit got me sent from class my share.

A mutual obsession with EC Comics cemented our friendship.  ECs included, besides “MAD,” “Tales from the Crypt,” “Vault of Horror,” “Haunt of Fear,” and “Crime” and “Shock SuspensStories” and were condemned by parents, teachers, and an entire U.S. senate sub-committee for their sex and violence.  This verdict, in light of an excellence which, in our estimate, kicked “Superman” and “Archie”’s ass, only strengthened our belief in EC‘s worth – and our own judgment.  It was, I later saw, our first taste of being hip.

When the Comic Book Code gutted EC’s line,  Max, Davie and I turned our attentions to Mickey Spillane, Hugh Heffner – and rock’n’roll.  While our peers listened to The Crew Cuts, and Elvis, our guys were The Cadillacs and Johnny Ace.  We spun our radio dials to the far end, where disc jockeys like Jocko Henderson and Georgie Woods lurked.  And we stocked our record players with treks across Market Street, which divided white neighborhood from black, to Treegoob’s, an electronics store, which sold jukebox-used 45s for nineteen cents, when new ones would have cost us eighty-nine.  Then when the economic benefits of Top 40 programming bleached all rock acceptable for the masses, we shifted to jazz.

Charley Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Julie London joined our collections.  Our outings now included hour-long bus trips to New Jersey to catch Dave Brubeck or Ahmad Jamal at the Red Hill Inn.  Jazz was not as easy to hook onto as “Well, they often call me Speedo…”; but if it was good enough for Jack Kerouac and “Playboy,” we determined to make it fit.  We might not know what polytonality or improvising on the chords meant, but we could joke about Chet Baker playing trumpet through a needle and nod knowingly over mention of Jackie McLean having Bird’s axe.

 

By 1958, Max’s family had joined Davie’s in the burbs.  He was in one pubic high school and Davie another.  My family remained at 46th & Pine, but I was in a private school at the foot of the Main Line.  Max and Davie and my interests were not entirely the same – I played sports and they didn’t; they, briefly, had girl friends and I didn’t; Max and I drank, while Davie didn’t – but on the value of “The Cool World” and “The Hustler,” Jules Feiffer, and Lennie Bruce we agreed.

Edward and Lester were among the friends our new schools brought.  Davie went to school with Lester, who introduced us to Edward, with whom he jammed in a trio completed by Artie Peltz, a drummer, whom I knew from a summer camp where he had documented his precocious commitment to social action with the only one subscription to “The Nation” in the bunk.  Our friendship was not one where Max or Davie or I would call Edward or Lester and say, “Wanna see ‘Psycho’?” but we could stand beside them at parties, assess the scene, and, afterwards, pile into a car for steak sandwiches at Jim’s.

Parties were crucial to our lives.  The week’s tail end produced phone calls across   three counties swapping leads on who was hosting what.  Then came determining who could get a car and pick up whom.  If no leads happened, we  headed to a hang-out, like the Dewey’s at 48th and Spruce, and hoped someone would pull up with late breaking news.  Then everyone chipped in for $2.00 gas and, radio blaring, off we went.

Sometimes the parties were in living rooms and sometimes basements.  Sometimes they spilled onto lawns, and sometimes, for special occasions, like after big games, they filled previously negotiated open fields.  Music always played.  “Lonely Teardrops” and “It’s Just a Matter of Time” and “What I Say.”  Sometimes dips were served. Sometimes, if parents were absent, kegs were tapped or liquor cabinets emptied.  Sometimes girls went with you into the back seats of cars or bedrooms upstairs.  But there were always parties, promising fun and excitement and extensions of who we might become when unconfined by the humdrum.  There, outside the control of family or teachers, it seemed our future would be formed.

If parties were an essential ingredient to our forming selves, Negroes were an optional spice.  While Max and Davie’s schools were only about ten percent Negro, and my class had twice as many German exchange students (two) as Negroes (one), these parties were often racially mixed.  The mix was easy, pleasant, and white-dominated, which seemed reasonable given the world in which we expected to reside.  My parents were liberal Democrats and Davie’s father a union lawyer and Max’s family lefty enough to keep “Das Kapital” on its mantle through the McCarthy era.  We had grown up listening to “Ballads for Americans” and believing “Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education” heralded the arrival of an egalitarian age, everyone as enlightened as us.  The mobs spitting on schoolgirls we witnessed on “Huntley-Brinkley” and the Jim Crow signs that greeted us as we headed toward Miami Beach for winter vacations seemed part of a vanishing world.  It did not concern us that the only Negroes to call upon our parents were our maids or that, while West Philadelphia High School was half-black, the only brother to share a car with us from Dewey’s was half-Jewish and known as “Donnie Schvartza.”

At these parties were a few white girls who dated only black guys, and, while no white guys dated black girls, plenty hoped to lure one into the back of a car.  There were also white guys who spoke and dressed as if they were black.  Max and Davie and I knew of Norman Mailer’s “White Negro,” but we did not aspire toward this state.  One should be who one was, we believed, without resort to artifice or affectation.  Change or growth came from semi-conscious accretions earned from readings or viewings or listenings, not from studding one’s conversation with “man” or “dig”or popping on a pork pie hat.  We were content to schmooze with Edward and Lester.  This degree of friendship was enough to increase our view of ourselves.  Hey, look, it announced.  We know Negroes with whom we can discuss Bobby Timmons and Wynton Kelly.  We can hear them rehearse.

Max and Davie and I went off college.  Lester and Edward stayed home.

 

II.

I came back to Philadelphia for law school, September 1964, sharing an apartment at 40th and Chestnut with Artie Peltz, the drummer, who was starting Penn Med – and leading its nascent anti-war movement.  It was no easy time with assurances cracking around one like Humpty Dumpty and confidences fleeing like Villon’s snow.  Law school vibed sadistic:  a three-year long conveyor belt designed to drop me off regimented from my shoes (wing-tipped) to my sideburns (short).  Plus, cities burned.  Hell, whole countries did.  Bodies  piled up like obstacle courses to be negotiated, like chicken bones, foretelling fates and futures, cast upon the sand.

But I needed the draft deferment, and Max and Davie were around.

 

Antioch had thrown Davie out for, he claimed, trying to start a fraternity.    Penn State had thrown Max out – twice – for partying above and beyond.

Davie moved into a walk-up apartment on North Broad Street.  He clerked at Jefferson Hospital and wrote a novel that began with a woman jumping off a bridge, but when he learned James Baldwin had written a novel that began with a woman jumping off a bridge, he locked his in a trunk and enrolled at Temple.  Max aced some fee-for-credits courses, and Penn admitted him.  He crashed in Powelton Village, which to the extent Philly had a counterculture was where it was budding.  After Artie moved in with a gal who wanted to know who shot Kennedy as much as he did, I  relocated there.

I saw Davie now and then.  I doubt he saw Max at all.  Davie seemed to be isolating, heading somewhere new, alone.  He slept through classes, read Henry Miller and Celine, played the trotters at Brandywine.  One night, over “Kind of Blue” or “Favorite Things,” he mentioned going into advertising.  When I looked at him, he said, “It’s all shit anyway.”

Those years, for two dollars, Pep’s and The Showboat gave you two drinks and let you hear Cannonball Adderly or John Coltrane or Roland Kirk or Wes Montgomery put all they had into their next moment from nine until two, pushing purity against the crumbling.  I know I went with Max and Artie.  I figure I went with Davie too, but the only thing I know we saw for sure was Georgie Benton-Bennie Brisco, the Arena, December ‘66.

The first fight I ever saw, Benton knocked Slim Jim Robinson out of the ring and at my feet.  The summer Davie and I drove cross-country, we saw him K.O. somebody named Smith at the L.A. Olympic.  Benton had beat Joey Giardello and Holly Mims and Jimmy Ellis, but when we left the Arena, the man next to us said, “Ain’t no George Benson.” Sucking air, his legs wobbly, his strength gone, someone came out for the tenth round.  But it wasn’t The Champ of Columbia Avenue.  The man who’d worn his robe was bloody, weak, hurt and, maybe, scared, and, after he’d lurched into his corner, he had not come out.

The last rock’n’roll show I saw was with Davie too.  The Moonglows, Timi Yuro, Joe Tex at the Uptown.  “All I could do,” Joe Tex sang, “all I could do, all I could do was… WHOO-EEE!”  And with “WHOO-EEE,” he flung himself into the orchestra pit, from where, during several moments, black and silent, he made it to the theater’s rear and, emerging, raced down its center aisle, re-mounted the stage, and climaxed, “…CRY!!!”

I can’t say why these are my memories of Davie.  Maybe my mind was already creating art, its recall of “CRY” and blood and destruction foreshadowing what was to come.  All I know is a few months later, not saying “Good-by,” he joined the reserves and left for basic training.

 

Max I saw a lot.  We went to Lorna’s and The Aftermath, hardcore, not-for-everybody bars.  And when drugs came we did them.

Drugs began an outlaw thing.  Doing them meant you were cool.  It was cool being at a party, stoned, nobody knowing, grooving on how cool you were.  It was cool thinking only you knew what “Visions of Johanna” meant.  Then it became if you did drugs, you were cool.  Like some guy, always been an asshole, would be at a party trying to flush his foot down the toilet, and you were supposed to dig him.  This did not bother Max, but it bothered me.  But then Max did more drugs than I did.  He smoked more pot.  He smoked more hash.  He dropped acid.  He snorted more meth, and he shot it.

The bars where Max and I hung drew a lot of people, white and black, who did drugs.  Lots of them you sensed you’d never see again.  Richie the Pipe and Steven Harley, a cat with no teeth and  Reds Perloff, who’d shot up with Ray Charles, and Joe Washington, who I once mouthed off to before I spotted the pistol on his hip.  Solly Goldfein, who went to jail for smuggling guns, and Don Palermo, who became a Rajneesh, and Travis Cost, who secluded in the Pine Barrens, and Lou Hitchens, who disappeared from Earth.  Billy Callahan, who’d be stabbed to death in Graterford, and Will Oliphant, who died in a head-on, and Pumps Pumphrey, who fell from a cliff.

I ran into Edward once or twice, bopping down Powelton Avenue.  “Hey, man, how you been? Y’let me have a couple bucks?”  If I asked about Lester, I got, “Oh, yeah, like, you know, he around.”   It didn’t mean much that I didn’t see them.  I was getting used to not seeing people.  I validated other ways than Edward and Lester now.  And, I figure, they didn’t need my rides.

 

Max went to his pre-induction physical, barefoot, in an army jacket, wired.  He dropped his paperwork or dropped his pencil or broke its point or made so many mistakes he had to crumple up the forms and start over.  He shook so bad  they offered him meds to help him through.  Then the doc said he was crazy and sent him home, and everyone else steered toward Vietnam.  Max moved this psych PhD he’d married to Jamaica, where, he’d heard, the weather was good, people friendly, and dope cheap.

I needed one more year’s deferment.  VISTA sent me to Chicago’s South Side.

 

III.

By 1977, John Coltrane, forty, Roland Kirk, forty-two, Wes Montgomery, forty-five, Cannonball Adderly, forty-seven, Lee Morgan, thirty-three, Bobby Timmons, thirty-eight, Wynton Kelly, thirty-nine, and Jimmy Garrison, who once let Lester on stage to feel his callused fingers, forty-two, had joined the gone.

And Davie, thirty-four.

 

I had been in Berkeley since ‘68, married, practicing law, writing stories.  He was in L.A., writing porn, covering Del Mar, Hollywood Park, Santa Anita for “The Morning Telegraph.”  He came up once in a while.  His last trip, summer ‘74, we’d visited a flea market and, pop-eyed at  a dealer’s prices on ECs he’d hoped would boost his collection, talked about Max.

In Jamaica, he’d gone Rasta, grown dreads, smoked ganja, beat drums, walked out on his wife and baby.  He got so crazy, gashing a leg in a car wreck, running around with it suppurating, his folks brought him home and committed him.  When the hold ran out, he split for the East Village.  He’d call, two in the morning, wanting me to sue his parents, sue his doctors, sue his hospital, claim he was too bummed to roll out of bed in the morning for a pint of gin.  Then he’d stopped calling.

“You think drugs had much to do with it?” I said.

“Who knows what the fuck has what the fuck to do with what the fuck?” Davie said.  “Marvin Lipsky, remember him, thinks he’s Jesus Christ.”

The next spring an obscure journal printed my story in which two old friends visit a flea market and, over a table of old comics, discuss the loss of a third.  I sent a copy to Davie’s p.o.  box.

He did not reply.  He had not replied for two years when his father called.  He was dying of cancer and wanted to see or speak to Davie.  But all he had was a p.o. box to which all letters sent were ignored.  He asked me for help.

But I only had the same number.

 

That summer, a manuscript arrived.

At first I thought a journal I had forgotten submitting to was using my SASE to return someone else’s m.s..  But the m.s. had no logic, no structure, was uncontrolled bits and pieces, stops and starts, repetition after repetition, shrill shriek after anguished moan.  DESTROY WOMEN, the m.s. urged.  WOMEN ARE EVIL.  WOMEN ARE PLAGUE.  WOMEN ARE  PROGRAMMED BY MOTHERS TO DESTROY MEN AND MEN  PROGRAMMED BY MOTHERS TO OVERLOOK THIS EVIL.  The m.s. said this over and over.  Then it said this some more.

Maybe, I thought, this quarterly I forgot published a story I forgot and these are responses of readers I aroused.  Maybe “Madmen’s Quarterly” has reprinted a madman’s story and these are its madmen-reader responses sent me through confusion, error, or USPO negligence.

Then I realized the envelope was addressed in Davie’s hand and the POB it came from  his.  A notesaid, “You are a writer.  Finish this.”  I felt like a wild and sickened beast had run across my floor, just beyond my line of sight, its scent searing my nostrils.  I feared it rotting in the corner.

I thrust the manuscript into an envelope.  “This is your vision,” I wrote.  “The ending is yours.”

I regret I kept no copy.

 

By now Max had sent me his post office box.  He had made it, somehow, to the high desert, near Joshua Tree.  By now his parents had also called, wanting to see or speak to him.  I could not help them any more than I could Davie’s father.

I wrote Max what I had received from Davie.  He replied that he wanted to get in touch with Davie because he was sure he knew where his head was at.  I said I doubted Davie wanted anyone to know where any of him was at.  But I sent Davie’s POB to Max’s.

A month later, Max arrived, unannounced, at my office, four conga drums in tow, boots decomposing on his feet, eyes wild, body twitching, sweat flashing, and told me that, two days earlier, he had gone to his p.o. box, opened what he thought was a birthday card, and found an  attorney’s letter informing him that Davie had shot his girl friend and O.D.d on pills.

“I gave Davie the best low budget wake I could get together,” Max said, “green herb and red wine.”

“How is this night different than any other night?” I said.

“Usually it’s brown herb and white wine.”  He blew a Camel’s smoke at the ceiling.  “I guess I’m handling his thing all right. It didn’t add any problems to my situation, after all.  Just more sadness and, as you get older, you get better at dealing with sadness and there is sort of a permanent sad spot in your head, where you can put it all, and you don’t have to deal with it, except when you have to, like now.  Reflecting on it, the way Davie killed himself is the most sensible part of the story.  It’s the other stuff that’s fucked, and I’ve often said that if a lot of life was fictionalized, it would make a shitty story.”

I wondered what had happened to Davie’s ECs.  I could not help it, but I did.

 

IV

Max never returned to the high desert.  He lived in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland.  We had coffee every week or every month.  I heard him play congas here and there.  He played with good musicians, usually because he got them drugs or because he was the only one together enough to get the gigs.

He kept it together a long time.  He collected S.S.I. and worked odd jobs off the books and dealt pot and later cocaine.  (He said he did not like the class of people he met dealing coke.  I thought he meant, like, Colombian suppliers; but, no, he meant his Yuppie clients.)  All his life, as he put it, he wanted to hang out in dives all night and get high.  Now he was doing that.  He sent money orders to his father, who put it in treasury bonds.  Then when Max wanted a house in North Oakland, his father sent him a check.

He was living with a cop’s ex-wife, and, because he was on S.S.I., he put title in her name.  Then when the drugs got too bad, she kicked him out.

You could not entirely blame her.

He was seeing worms popping out of his skin.  His remedy was to dose his abdomen with peroxide, broil it with a heat lamp, knot a belt around his waist so they could not reach his brain, shoot crank into his thigh.  When I told him he needed help, he stopped talking to me.  When the woman had him 5150’d as a danger to himself or others, he told the doctors it was she who was mad.  They could not keep him forever, so she changed the locks on the doors.

I had not seen him in a year when he limped into my office.  A car had broken his hip.  I lent him $50, and we went for coffee like it was nothing.

He’d once joked he might be suffering “dive burn-out.  But he never said he wasn’t happy.

 

Max made fifty-seven.

Infections secondary to intravenous drug injections, the death certificate said.

The antibiotics did not work.  The rehab hospital and assisted living never happened.  He would not have like that anyway.  He wanted to live his life.  So one too many floors collapsed beneath him.  So he fell into a pit he could not climb from.

Why a middle class Jewish boy from West Philadelphia thought heroin a good idea was something I did not understand.

“No one ever died from an overdose,” he told me.  “Those were suicides.”

“They leave a lot of notes?” I said.

 

The last time I saw Max he was living in an SRO on a block so rough dealers would not walk there, in a building so rough visitors could not get in without leaving ID with the desk clerk in a barred-off cage.  His neighbors liked Max enough to give him money to score when they were too sick to leave their rooms.

Max’s spine curved so far forward he needed a walker.  He was missing teeth.  His beard went untrimmed.  His room held a bed, a chair, a TV that received two channels, shards of a broken mirror, syringes, bleach.  He had invited me to lunch, but his SSI had not arrived.

“Want crack instead?”

“No.”

“You’d like it.”

The last coke I’d done had been with Max.  And the last speed.  But I thought how my wife would feel when I told her.  “Still…”

“Want to see if my check’s in then?”

“Sounds part of the floor show.”

The people on Market Street he bummed cigarettes from called him “O.G.,” for “Old Gangster.”

“Remember when I burnt the Pinsky’s pup tent?”

“No.”

“Remember when we tossed records around my living room like ‘Blackboard Jungle’?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Good times, hey, Bob.”

The check was not there.  At the Chinese restaurant I paid.

 

I saw him in SFGH the day before he passed.

He lay like a fish on ice, eyes open but glazed, motionless but for an involuntary lip tremor.  He had a tube down his throat, a tube down his nose sucking droplets of blood, a tube to a urine bag.  There was not a flicker of consciousness, not a hair of recognition.

I said a few words.

When I spoke to his ex-wife, a therapist, she wept.  “I feel like I am still married to him.”   It had been, what…?  Thirty years?  When I offered to tell his son, a manufacturer of custom skateboards,  stories about his dad, he said, “Now, that would be depressing.  But thank you for your time.”  When I spoke to Max’s sister, she asked why I had never abandoned him.

Abandon Max?  It had never entered my mind.  Who else would tell me what wonderful people Mexicans were because when you slipped a few dollars through a car window to one you didn’t know what came back was exactly what you expected?  In that first novel, the two main characters, thwacked on beer and pills, drive through a blinding snowstorm, from Philly to New York.  When Max would tell people about the book, he would say, correctly, “I drove.”  As long as he had coffee with me, I knew I was not an everybody.  (And, I suspect, our having coffee reassured Max part of him still was.)  I would not be who I was if not for him.

When I hear “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” or “Long May You Run,” lost souls fill my room.  Why am I here, I wonder.  Genes or luck or the plots of God?  By doing what we do with those with whom we do it, we affirm for each other the right of this doing.  But was it right; was it wrong; were there choices?  Sometimes I feel like Ishmael,  alone escaped to tell you.

 

V

And in November 2012, I open an e-mail from Artie Peltz, now a neurologist, still drumming, while operating a sustainable farm in western Massachusetts.  He tells me Edward lives on Maui, where he is writing a jazz opera about Marcus Garvey.  He includes a link to a twenty-minute You Tube interview in which Lester speaks of his playing, teaching, money raised for good causes.  The interviewer calls him “a living legend.”

If you had told me in 1962 of Kennedys and King, of Vietnam and AIDS…  If you had told about Max and Davie and Lester and Edward…  What bends my head is that it would have made no difference.  Max would have picked drugs to sail on over anything.  And the same dark tentacles would have dragged Davie below.  Which does not stop the joy that overwhelms me.  Which does not stifle the fireworks that celebrate those who out-swam the tides.

I e-mail Edward.  The next afternoon, my phone rings.  “Is this 46th Street Bob?” Lester, speaking softly, says.

 

There are other tastes from Cheesesteak available at Bob Levin’s First author page. The book costs $25, including postage, a handsome mailer, and a personal inscription and is available ONLY from his website, www.theboblevin.com, which takes Pay Pal, or from Spruce Hill Press, PO Box 9492, Berkeley 94709, which takes cash or checks.

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