By Robert Wolf
Decorah, IA, USA
The Needle District
I was living in upper West Side Manhattan, on the edge of the Needle District, a neighborhood inhabited by grotesques. These were not simply the impoverished and decrepit—they were that—but they comprised a freak show marching up and down 96th and adjacent streets.
A man trudged slowly, his feet enveloped in enormous coverings taped with black plastic. Another had no feet but long thin flippers. No heels or toes, but long pointy black flippers. The ugliest of the district's prostitutes, whom I saw every day walking 96th, was somewhere in her sixties. Perhaps she just seemed that old because her body was decayed. She was in the last stage of syphilis. Large bumps covered her long, boney face.
Years later the buildings on 96th were renovated and gentrified. But in the late sixties, not only were the buildings shabby, the streets were littered with newspapers and other debris.
One dusk I walked down 96th to my apartment and saw a small cluster of people gathered on the sidewalk next to the curb. As I approached I saw a body laying in the gutter, face up. I felt nothing, not even disgust. I was used to the filth of upper West Side Manhattan. I struck up a conversation with a man standing next to me. We joked about the man lying at our feet, dead from an overdose. We talked as we waited for police to arrive.
The man said the dead man made him think of a dying man in a phone booth, making his last call. His call is interrupted by a recording saying, "Please deposit another twenty-five cents." The man does not have the money. The recording says, "I'm sorry, but your time is up." The man falls dead.
We laughed. What did this body matter? What did one more dead man matter? The city was a shambles. The country was a shambles. America was on fire. New York was a mass of people and therefore a mass of contradictions.
The easy answer to surviving the chaos, perhaps the sensible one, was to grab the life raft nearest at hand. Each of the many rafts had a label: "Anti-War," "Dropout," "Law and Order," "Civil Rights," "Drugs," "Rich—Don't Bother Me." Everyone, except me and the walking dead on 96th, seemed to have pulled himself up on one raft or another.
My roommate, Edward, had most likely found his raft several years earlier. He had no self-doubts. He was applying to the State Department. In the midst of America's moral confusion with cities in flames and men and women burning alive in Vietnam, Edward navigated his course far above the chaos swimming around him. He and his girlfriend went to posh restaurants most nights. I seldom saw them, except mornings.
I had returned to Manhattan in late summer and registered as an undergraduate philosophy major. Edward, a high school friend from New Canaan, had just graduated from Columbia College and was enrolled in the School of International Studies. We collided on the Columbia campus, went for a beer and decided to room together. Edward found us an apartment on 96the Street, on the edge of the Needle District.
The apartment was on the third floor of a walk-up. The steps were old marble worn smooth. The walls of the lobby and stairway were dull and shabby. The apartment was small. It had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room and bath.
Narrow airshafts separated our building from two adjoining buildings. My bedroom window faced one airshaft, my roommate's, another. In warm weather when everyone kept their windows open, we heard talk and shouting from both buildings. Whenever our neighbors finished a bottle of liquor, they dropped it down an airshaft. Every day we heard bottles smashing. A man with a safety helmet swept up broken glass once or twice a week. Once someone tried to hit him with a bottle.
Our apartment was half a block from Riverside Drive with its swank apartments and three-story townhouses. Facing the drive was Riverside Park, and below that the Hudson River. Broadway was two blocks the other direction, and a world away. Every day as I walked up 96th Street to Broadway or from Broadway back to the apartment, I encountered the realm of the dead.
Edward's aggression and self-absorption gave him an enviable certitude and confidence. The chaos floated, swarmed, and roiled about and below him, yet he maintained a steady course towards the State Department.
We came from the same background. As children we had been neighbors and played together. We both read Sir Walter Scott's medieval romances; we bought lead footman and knights, built papier-mâché castles and waged battles. We even dressed as knights and went in search of adventures in the woods. My younger sister, who had a crush on Edward, was our page.
That stage of the mind's development—the romantic stage—is essential to an artist of any kind. It remained a guiding force in my life, leading me to adventure across the country to seek out people and land and customs of a kind I had never encountered before. The romantic urge died early in Edward. Having left New Canaan High School for an ́elite prep school may have had an influence. But by age twenty-one, the boy who had written a medieval saga of his own, "The Last Templar" and who once wanted to be a writer, was now a hardened realist who, eventually, would make himself a place on President Reagan's National Security Council alongside Oliver North and John Poindexter. By that time an expert on South American affairs, Edward had suggestions on the Iran Contra, guns-for-hostages deal.
While Edward played by the rules (and played them) and forged on, taking advantage of every opportunity and of every person who could further his ambition, I floundered. Where was certitude? There was none. History had no course or line of movement, no direction. Brute force was the law of politics, national and international. Brute force governed all affairs, subtly and not so subtly.
Philosophy at Columbia
Philosophy at Columbia only reinforced the message of nihilism coming from government and industry. I registered for a course in the theory of knowledge and another in the philosophy of science. Had I suddenly arrived on Earth from the dark side of the moon, I could not have been more lost. Our texts were massive, obscure tomes written by Columbia professors. Neither had anything relevant to say about a world in chaos. Still, I tried to struggle through them, but their irrelevance combined with my thick-headedness (compared to the seeming comprehension of the other students) unsettled me as much as the walking dead on 96th Street.
Clearly analytic philosophy was antithetic to meaning itself. My professors might retort that meaning is a private matter. I soon learned that meaning, or what meaning I might attach to anything, including my own life, was arbitrary. Even opposition to the Vietnam War was arbitrary. One cannot connect logical and grammatical analysis to value.
Plato, Socrates, Lao Tzu, Confucius and hundreds of other philosophers and sages who had shored up civilization for thousands of years were now informed that they were, at best, irrelevant. Where was I? What was I?
The world degenerated into a kaleidoscope of events without order. To the waking mind, the rational mind, time and events proceeded in jerky, stop-frame images. The subterranean mind was trying to make sense of the chaos in the big world. It could not. Nor could the waking mind. Some part of me was unresponsive, aware but blocking the meanings behind the images. The outer shell kept moving, going about its business, but the subterranean mind, not making sense of anything, absorbed and felt everything. To this day events of that year remain a chaos of images.
I had no television but read an occasional newspaper, feeding my mind with images of smashed store windows, glass in the streets, fires, photos of bagged bodies.
An older cousin asked me how I felt about the war and I told him, "I haven't made up my mind. I haven't enough information." He said, smiling, "I've got it here in my jacket pocket," and reached inside his sports coat.
One afternoon in early April I returned to New York on the New Haven Railroad. As I had done many times in the past, I got off at the 125th Street station and in late afternoon walked across Harlem to Morningside Heights and up the steep bank to campus. Several hours later Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered.
Riots erupted in Cleveland, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Louisville. Edward knew what the score was. But did Edward care?
In those days of anger black men and women panhandled from whites. Perhaps one might feel white guilt or fear and hand one a quarter. I decided to turn tables. I was lonely and needed human contact. I dressed in a tweed sports jacket, put on a tie and headed for Broadway. I approached one black and then another and asked, "Can you help me out with a little money?" I enjoyed imagining the jolt they must have felt when this well-dressed white kid asked for money. Surprisingly I do not remember anyone denying me. I stood outside a bar and saw a prosperous looking black woman walking towards me. I asked her for money. She looked in her purse and told me, "Wait here," went inside the bar to get change and came back with a dollar.
At nights I wandered up and down Broadway, terribly alone. On a rainy evening on Broadway I picked up a pretty, light-skinned woman and took her to a coffee shop where we talked until 5 a.m.
My inner world was a maelstrom. So, too, was the larger world. Following King's assassination Columbia students seized Hamilton Hall. Then word had it that Harlem blacks had seized it. Had they? I was not sure what was happening. I saw a younger acquaintance from New Canaan sitting on a window ledge of Low Library. That too had been seized. I called out, "What's a nice boy like you doing up there?" He waved and smiled. To me it was a big joke. I was apolitical and could not understand why someone would want to be a part of the occupation. I could understand black anger but not the action of middle-class kids. To me the occupation was a stunt.
Then I heard that Harry Coleman, a New Canaan neighbor and dean of Columbia College, had been shot in the chest in his office by a deranged student. For days we were kept off campus, which was surrounded by a ring of blue-uniformed police.
For the prior two years I had lived a privileged life of irresponsibility at an ivory tower school in the hills outside a lovely city, working on a ranch and playing melodrama in summers. I was blissfully unaware of police brutality and misconduct; therefore I was surprised when a cop on the Columbia cordon came up to me and whispered, "Fuck you" in my ear. I looked at him, totally uncomprehending. Only later did I understand that he wanted me to yell at him so he could club me.
Students demonstrated elsewhere in Manhattan. My friend Barry Boland and I went with our girlfriends to watch an anti-war demonstration at Grand Central Station. We stood on the main floor not far from the demonstrators, who were chanting and holding signs. We stood near the stairs leading to the Vanderbilt Avenue exit. We were lucky to be standing near there. A mass of blue-uniformed police came through the Forty-Second Street doors, formed into a phalanx and charged the demonstrators, nightsticks in hands. The four of us turned and ran up the stairs, turned at the doors and watched. The police were clubbing everyone in sight, even commuters with briefcases, the stolid Republicans who thought the war a wise and lovely thing. We paused only a moment, then fled outside onto Vanderbilt Avenue.
In these years the certitude Father had lived by began crumbling. He had lived his work life among the senior management of international firms and now announced, "Doing business is little more than putting a gun to somebody's head." Amidst the madness of 1968 I told him I felt that Mass Man might revolt against the ruling class and attack the rich. "You may be right," he said.