Excerpts for Le Freak : An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny


one

The Ballad of Beverly and Bobby

It took me a long time to realize that the things my parents did were not exactly normal. I was about seven years old, and it was the tail end of the 1950s, when it started to dawn on me that they were_._._._well, let's just say they were different.

For instance: My friends and I got shots when we went to the doctor, and we hated them. But my parents stabbed themselves with needles almost every day, and seemed to enjoy it. Weird.

Most of my friends' parents sounded like the adults in school or on TV when they talked. People understood them. My parents, on the other hand, had their own language, laced with a flowery slang that I picked up the same way the Puerto Rican kids could speak English at school and Spanish at home with their abuelas.

And then there was the matter of how they talked. My parents and their friends spoke this exotic language very slowly. There were other odd things. For instance, they often slept standing up, and this group narcolepsy could strike right in the middle of the most dynamic conversation. Someone would start a sentence: "Those ofay cats bopping out on the stoop are blowin' like Birrr_._._." and suddenly the words would begin to come out slower. And. Slower. Soon they wouldn't be speaking at all. Eventually our living room would be filled with black-and-white hipsters suspended in time and space, while I ran through the petrified forest of their legs. My favorite game was waiting to see if the ashes from the cigarettes they were smoking would ever drop. Somehow they almost never did.

I can still remember the day when I finally realized that there was a name for this unusual lifestyle. My parents were junkies! And their slow-motion thing was called nodding out.

Oh well-it was nice to be able to name the thing. This was my life, and as far as I was concerned, there was nothing uncommon or uncomfortable about it at all. In fact, for a while at least, it was a carefree Shangri-La.

My mother, Beverly, was a beautiful, brilliant black girl whose family was a generation from southern sharecropping. She got pregnant with me when she was thirteen, the very first time she had sex. Bobby, my stepfather, was white, Jewish, and central-casting handsome. They were an unusual progressive pair: They smoked pipes, dressed impeccably, and read Playboy for the articles. Even in Beat Generation Greenwich Village, New York City, circa 1959, interracial couples weren't exactly commonplace.

Mom's maiden name was Goodman. Technically, it was Gooden, but her father, Fredrick, appropriated the name from a huge Goodman's Egg Noodles billboard that hung outside of the Lincoln Tunnel on the New Jersey side. The family story is that Fredrick had been forced to flee the cotton fields of Georgia after he used a tree branch to beat a white man he'd caught raping his sister. Grandpa Fredrick (never one to let a good story go to waste) told me that he saw the sign for Goodman's Egg Noodles just after his car exited the tunnel connecting New York to New Jersey, the state where he'd begin a new life. When he emerged from the Hudson River baptism, he was a new man. Better than new: He thought the name would help people up North think of him as a "good man." In the end, I guess it sort of worked. Twenty long years later, after the Woolworth CEO he chauffeured passed away, Grandpa got the Cadillac as thanks for his devotion and service.

By the time Beverly Goodman was twelve, she was already what they used to call a fast girl. She ran with a street gang called the Taejon Debs. They dated members of two different rival male gangs, the Copians and the Slicksters. But she wasn't just beautiful and bright. She was hip. She and her cadre of friends were aware of the fact that they knew things that most civilians didn't. She listened to Nina (Simone), Clifford and Max (Brown and Roach), Julie (London), Monk (Thelonius), TB (Tony Bennett), and Ahmed Jamal on a regular basis, and was so down she called them by a single name (except Jamal, maybe out of respect for the fact that he'd gone through the trouble of changing his name from Freddy Jones). She spoke with confidence, just a peg down from arrogance, which only big-city intellectuals could get away with, even if they were only twelve. She had art, literature, and music all around her.

My earliest recollection of life with my mother is of two young people-one so young he'd barely finished wearing rubber pants-living together as roomies, a strange friendship instead of the standard maternal setup I'd see with other kids and their mothers. I always called her Beverly instead of Mommy. She never asked me to do otherwise. Even as a very young kid, I was utterly convinced that my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world. Mom's looks were a combination of African American, Native American, and Irish. This was no accident. Mom's bloodline goes something like this: My great-great- grandmother Mary Ellen was the child of a partially African mother, whose slave name was Caroline, and an Irish doctor and slave owner, Dr. Gough, who was, um, intimate with his property. Though he was married to a respectable, proper English woman, he apparently fathered at least more than one child with his slave housekeeper.

As the daughter of a white man, my great-great-grandmother Mary Ellen was more privileged than the average ex-slave's child, and she was better educated than the darker-skinned blacks around her. This fact was not lost on her. Later, when her own daughters came of age, she passed along some interesting advice: "Protect your children and the benefits you've gotten from my being half white," she told them. "Marry the fairest man you can so your children will have good hair." My great-great-granny and her husband, Lee Randal, had five children with very good hair. One of them, Mabel Ethel (born October 12, 1891), would marry a man named Percy Stanley Mickens, who was born on December 6, 1888.

Percy's father was Abraham Lincoln Mickens. One day a woman named Wicke dropped off a child at his home. Abe's wife Alice couldn't bear children and Wicke had agreed to have Abe's baby (Percy) for them. She was a full-blooded Indian woman (FBI, as they say back on the rez). Percy's birthmother was of the Iroquois Nation, so his hair was also very good. Percy's wife, Mabel, had four children. One was called Alice, after the mom that raised him but couldn't have children of her own. That Alice is my mother's mom. Today those Iroquois and Irish genes are very apparent in my family. Most of us resemble to varying degrees Lena Horne, Halle Berry, Cab Calloway, or Lenny Kravitz.

Except for me.

I inherited my biological father's genes: I'm dark-skinned. "The only spot in the lot" is what some friends and family called me. As screwed up as it is, my great-great-grandmother knew what she was talking about when advising her daughter to "marry light." It's hard to describe how horribly ugly I felt as a dark-skinned kid in the fifties. Thank God for the sixties, when black was suddenly beautiful, no matter the shade.

Which brings me to my stepdad: Bobby Glanzrock. It's not fair to call Bobby a black man in a white man's body, because his style was genuinely his alone. Bobby was a beatnik Ph.D. His observations had angles and perspectives that would make Miles Davis contemplate his own sense of cool. Bobby spoke with a slow, deliberate syncopation that was constantly modulating through the musical scale. This was the preferred style of speaking amongst the hipster class. Think Mitch Hedberg or Jimi Hendrix.

Some of his black friends called him "White Bobby," but my stepdad acted more like the black avant-garde jazz musicians he idolized than the haberdashers in his lineage. He only dated soul sisters, most of whom could have doubled for Cleopatra Jones, all Afro and attitude. That included my mom, who sported the latest Carnaby Street duds and a towering nimbus of kinky hair. Bobby's uncle Lew, who had no sons of his own, groomed his nephew to take over his clothing business. But Lew disowned him for marrying a black woman, even one with a nice Jewish-sounding name. Bobby threw away the glory of the schmatta business for Beverly. And in return, he became the love of her life, and she had more than a few lovers. Me, I was their little groupie. I loved them both like crazy.

And "crazy" may be the operative word. Beverly and Bobby may not have been model parents, but they were a really good fit for each other; art, literature and especially their love of music bonded them together. But as they spiraled deeper and deeper into addiction, they were also increasingly self-centered, not infrequently criminal, and less and less interested in the responsibilities of raising a kid. On some level it was great to be treated like a peer, to be on a first- name basis with my parents, but it wasn't exactly a substitute for the usual parental cocktail of nurturing and discipline. Respect? Yes, there was plenty of that. If I had a problem, we'd "rap on it." Then they'd ask me something like: "Are we copasetic?" If I answered, "Yeah, I guess so," the matter would be settled with a "Solid!" and a five slap or some other affirming gesture.

Bobby always affectionately called me by my nickname, "Pud," short for "pudding pie." Once, after I'd accidentally set fire to the apartment while playing with matches, he sat me down. More disappointed than angry, he stared woefully into my eyes for about five minutes or so, then finally broke the uncomfortable silence.

"Pud, dig yourself," he said.

This was the harshest discipline Bobby ever doled out. My mother then asked me if I wouldn't mind walking over to her and lying down on her lap. She gave me a few whacks on the behind and asked me if I understood why.

"Yes."

She looked me in the eyes and said, "Pud, you really have to start digging yourself."

"OK, Beverly." I cried more from shock than pain, because she'd never hit me before. Then again, I had set the house on fire.

But that incident was an accident, not pyromania. In fact, I was rarely a burden to adults. Our cigarette-fogged living room was regularly dotted with junkies in full nod, like a twisted beatnik version of Ingmar Bergman's chess game with death: adults of every hue in suspended animation, waiting to move to the next square. Shooting, drinking, snorting, and smoking any and everything right in front of me was all part of the daily script. But I knew better than to mess with anyone's high.

"Shit, man, little Pud is cool as a muthafucka." An old family friend and a truly gifted artist, Harold, used to say at an excruciatingly slow tempo. "You don't have to worry about Pud, man, he's all right." Harold was one of the finest gentleman-junkies I've ever known.

By the time I was seven, I'd become fairly independent. The Zenith black-and-white screen in our apartment had been unofficially designated as my primary guardian. I had a bottomless appetite for grown-up TV. Insomnia kept me up until the wee hours and I'd watch The Late Show and The Late Late Show every night. Since I was always alert and functional during the day, no one was much concerned with the fact that I hadn't quite figured out how to sleep.

Most of the people in my life back then may have been constantly high, but they were pretty stylish. Coming home from school, it wasn't unusual for me to see berets or tams, jackets with elbow patches, ascots, dickeys, turtlenecks, groovy "slacks," highly designed cigarette holders and cases, hashish and rolling papers from all over the world, sketchpads, record albums, shoebox lids to clean the seeds from marijuana, magazines of all types, books, music manuscript paper, various sets of works and different ligatures to wrap around your arms to make the veins pop up and easier to hit with the needles. This was the paraphernalia of a junkie pad at the twilight of the fifties. Some visitors were famous artists, all were friends, and all were welcome. Once, Thelonius Monk himself came over to buy my mom's fur coat for his girlfriend. Heroin often turns addicts into gifted salespeople. Some families go to Disneyland for fun; we went to the pawnshop. In most junkies' wallets, the pockets where you'd expect to find family photos or business cards are instead crammed with pawn tickets.

We moved around a lot-Chinatown, the Lower East Side, the Bronx, and Alphabet City-but our lives first started to change when we lived in a two-bedroom apartment on the corner of Greenwich and Bethune streets, sometime in the summer of 1959. This was the last moment in my parents' lives before junk began dictating everything about how and where they lived. Ironically, this part of New York is now the high-rent West Village, but I still associate it with the sewage- perfumed brine of the Hudson River that used to fill those cobblestoned streets. This was before America learned how to monetize geographical assets by simply renaming them, as my Grandfather Goodman and the soon-to-be-ordained-

beautiful blacks in the sixties would surely applaud.

Bobby had a round-the-clock sarcastic wit. When he was about to move us to Greenwich Street, he told Beverly that he ran a great line on the doorman. "Excuse me. Do any black people live in this building?" he inquired in a highly concerned voice.

"Absolutely not," proudly replied the doorman to the new tenant.

"Well, guess what? There's some livin' here now." Bobby snickered.

I can still picture life on Greenwich Street. Our brand new French Petrol Blue Simca was parked curbside, right out front. It looked like a frowning flat-faced barracuda with its dorsal fins chopped off. It was the most unusual car in town. Our pad was in the first wave of newer buildings in the Village, most named after famous artists like Van Gogh, Cézanne, or Rembrandt. Though my folks weren't artists, they had the Bohemian style down. Many people in the building often smelled of linseed oil and turpentine; the girls wore their hair up in buns and walked with their toes turned out, radiating grace even when they were dumping the garbage. You could look into the windows of your neighbors and see and hear composers writing show and jazz tunes at their pianos, like something out of Hitchcock's Rear Window.

From the south corner of our block looking right was the Bell Telephone Laboratory, with an elevated railroad track that ran right through the middle of the building. Today it's part of the High Line Park, but back then, to my eyes, it was a world within a world, complete with a private transportation system. Standing in the lobby of my building and looking across narrow, Victorian-sized Greenwich Street, I'd see slaughtered livestock being moved onto loading docks, the meat swinging from large hooks.

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