Thursday, April 05, 2018

the confidence man

I had heard of Warren Hinckle before I happened upon Ransoming Pagan Babies, the collection of his writings just released by Heyday Books, but I had never read him.

I knew of him only as the guy who, when he was editor of Scanlan’s Monthly in the early 70s, sent Hunter S. Thompson to Louisville to cover the Kentucky Derby and arranged for Ralph Steadman to meet him there. The result—The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved—is considered the foundational work of gonzo journalism.

But the story as I’ve told it is at once too much and too little.

Here’s Hinckle’s summary of it, from an appreciation penned just after the renowned doctor of journalism shot himself dead in the head:

Gonzo started when Hunter called me from Colorado at home in San Francisco about 4 a.m.—a normal social hour for him—to say that he wanted to cover the Kentucky Derby, which was then but two days away. I said Okay, we’d send him tickets and money (“With expenses, anything is possible,” Hunter frequently said), and find an artist to hook up with him. That of course would be poor, dear Ralph Steadman.
Indeed, Hinckle pointed out in that same appreciation that the great ‘Fear and Loathing’ author didn’t invent anything.

A television journo asked me if Hunter had “forged a new path” in journalism. I thought about it and said, no, he had rather beaten his way back through the overgrown jungle of bureaucratic media to the original path of nineteenth-century journalism, when journalism was actually a popular, participatory sport and editors swore openly and imbibed freely and spat tobacco and carried guns and cussedly attacked politicians and other editors by name as varmints unworthy of roadkill. (Parenthetically, the gloryhole days of American journalism which included the great muckrakers were before modern advertising as we know it; a publisher was previously dependent on the pennies or nickels of readers who actually wanted to read their sheet—with the intrusion of corporate advertising money subsidizing the price of a publication came corporate media and corporate caution and self-censorship.)
Hinckle was a great perpetrator of open, opinionated, participatory journalism (and, parenthetically, his use of 'gloryhole' to describe the halcyon days of American news reporting was dead-eye marksmanship.) He looked the parta big guy with an eyepatch (the result of a car accident when he was eight.) And he acted the part, too. According to local lore, when Eldridge Cleaver called him out for editing Ramparts in rightwing hangouts like Cookie Picetti’s Blue Star Café—Hinckle swung back. “Know any good leftwing bars?” he asked the Black Panther Minister of Information. And once, embroiled in a dispute with then-Mayor (and current Senator) Dianne Feinstein over her harassment of local strip joints, he reportedly posted her unlisted number on a club marquee with the message “For a good time, call Dianne.” 

But beyond the cartoon caricature, Warren Hinckle was doing his own thing—creating a profoundly political and personal kind of gonzo journalism long before gonzo became a hackneyed and oft-imitated thing. Hinckle wrote presciently and thoughtfully about many of the things that have come to characterize our culture decades on.

Working with a bevy of writers for Ramparts, which he edited in the mid-60s, he covered the melee in Selma on March 7, 1965. The dispatches from various Ramparts' reporters that he cobbled together put readers inside the Bloody Sunday March (“What do you want, nigger? Jump off the bridge? Well, go on, jump.The troopers and possemen herded the fleeing Negroes cross the bridge with cattle prods, clubs and whips. Those who were too young or too old to move fast enough got hit the most.”) and outside it with villainous cops and their hangers on (“The sidewalk line of whites stretched from corner to corner. I'm going to take that little nigger over there to the barber's and give him a haircutright down to his neck, said one of the whites. What do you want, freedom? You black pig asses got more freedom that you deserve.”) 

The magazine revealed how Michigan State University was secretly in cahoots with the CIA to prop up the corrupt Diem regime in South Vietnam. And Ramparts savaged inequality in Oakland as a board game called Metropoly. “Playing rules are simple,” Hinckle wrote. “If you are among the substandard income families that make up 47 percent of Oakland’s population, you wait your turn, shake the dice, count your spaces, and keep quiet. Go to jail when you are told, only pass Go when you receive permission. Pay your taxes. And above all, don’t rock the board.” Hinckle went on to indict the nation: “Despite the singular obtuseness of its public officials, Oakland is not unique. It is Americait is the American core city. Oakland may be a funny place, but the joke is on all of us.”

He wrote critically of the Hippies in March 1967. This was before the summer of love became the summer of love. Before Jimmy Hendrix set his guitar on fire at Monterey. Before Woodstock. Before The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test put the hallucinatory lifestyle on the literary map.

“If the people looking in from the suburbs want change, clothes, fun, and some lightheartedness from the new gypsies,” he wrote, “the hippies are delivering it—and some of them are becoming rich hippies because of it.” He warned that the new movement underplayed the importance of politics. “If more and more youngsters begin to share the hippie political posture of unrelenting quietism, the future of activist, serious politics is bound to be affected. The hippies have shown that it can be pleasant to drop out of the arduous task of attempting to steer a difficult, unrewarding society. But when that is done, you leave the driving to the Hell’s Angels.”

Fifty-one years on, you might say that legacy – think American Chopper and Duck Dynasty – is what brought Donald Trump to power.

In 1989, when former Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton was gunned down in West Oakland, Hinckle was again on the case, noting the revolution in style the Panthers had wrought. “The Panthers,” he wrote, “contributed the lion’s share of sixties political iconography—the clenched-fist Black Power salute, free breakfasts for ghetto kids, the coloring-book symbolism of cops as pigs, the slogan “Power to the People,” images of blacks with the guns that the NRA thought were its alone.” Newton—“radical icon, dope fiend, Kantian scholar, baby-faced muscleman, alkie, Hollywood darling, thug, revolutionary theorist, silk-suiter, Kools smoker, bad dude, recidivist ex-con, writer of books, poster boy, FBI psy-war victim and, finally, pipehead—held in one mystery personality, all the contradictions and accomplishments of the century’s most contentious decade. After the shooting was heard at dawn in Oakland on Tuesday, a mute inglorious taps was played for the sixties; this time the stake had been put through the heart of the vampire.”

In the 70s and 80s, Hinckle wrote excellent, heart-on-sleeve, Jimmy Breslin-style appreciations of the characters of San Francisco. In 1985, he was arrested in the San Francisco Chronicle newsroom, purportedly for walking his dog without a license.
In 1987, he ran for Mayor.

He wrote of Cuba in the 80s, sensing the possibilities three decades before the rest of America was ready: “What many Americans who view Cuba through grim glasses forget is that this has always been a nation of traders interested in making a deal. Lest we forget, the Cubans traded the captured CIA Bay of Pigs invaders for baby food and aspirin.”

“At various times,” Hinckle once acknowledged, “I have been called licentious, a profligate, an adventurer, a sensationalist, a wastrel, a capitalist guerrilla, a boozer, a corporate wrecker, a degenerate, a wheeler-dealer, and a pirate, among other things. There exist sufficient grounds for most of those appellations.”

These were big decades in America and Hinckle, who died in 2016 at the age of 77, played a big game. He was a cosmopolitan, a crusader, promoter, myth-maker, masquerader, confidence man, and, perhaps because of all these things, straight and true. His writing was powerful, literate—pulling from Heraclitus, from James Bryce’s 1888 work The American Commonwealth, and, befitting his deep Frisco roots, from Upton Sinclair and Jack London—and always on the side of society's victims.

Heyday's collection is uneven and repetitiveor, you might say, appropriately informalbut it makes you wish the master himself was still belly-to-the-bar, beloved basset hound in tow, clucking over where we are today and booming out bemused broadsides about the problems we'll have to reckon with in a generation or two.

Ransoming Pagan Babies takes its title from the opening essay, in which Hinckle describes his cavity-prone years in Catholic schools and how students were expected to buy babies born in China out of sin by paying for their baptisms. Though Hinckle skewered this cheapskate modern-day version of indulgences, you might say that his output was a continuation of the program. He wrote to ransom three hundred million of us, pagan American babies all, from the stain of our original—and not-so-original—sins.

Here's all you have to do to save yourself: read him.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

System D in the Navajo Nation

the Shiprock (Tsé Bitʼaʼí in Navajo)
The informal economy is a big part of the Navajo Nation. Roadside snow cone vendors -- visible because of the giant pickle jars on their display tables -- dot the sidewalks in towns and at highway intersections. The Piccadilly seems to be the big draw: flavored syrup and dill pickles over shaved ice (my bad: I wasn't in the mood for any taste tests.)

the choice stalls in the Saturday market
Flea markets are popular in cities across the Rez. Shiprock, NM, the second-largest city on the reservation, is particularly notable because it has two flea markets -- an official Saturday-only market and an unofficial daily market.

The Saturday market has its own permanent location along highway 64 near the San Juan River. Here, some 40 merchants, paying $15 per stall, get locations under built-in metal awnings. All other merchants bring their own portable canopies or umbrellas. 

Some of the sellers -- including a band playing Proud Mary and other classic rock hits -- take their power from outlets around the grounds. The market also has a vendor who provides portable toilets that -- at 50 cents per use -- are reasonably clean and not stinky.
the band serving up Proud Mary

The everyday market is up the hill near the crossroads where route 64 hits route 491. Here, on a dusty lot sandwiched between Little Caesars Pizza and the entry to the local Diné College campus, merchants use their cars as their stalls and there's no cost to anyone who wants to set up and sell.

Leandra, who usually occupies a gap in the fenceline that separates the market from the Little Caesars parking lot (she jokes that it's her drive-thru window), served in the U.S. military for 3 years in the early 2000s. Now she comes comes every day to serve biscuits and gravy, burritos, boiled
Leandra ladling gravy on her biscuits
eggs, coffee and soda. She keeps her food warm by connecting her hot plate to her car battery through a small direct current-to-alternating current power inverter.

The hood of Victoria's car won my prize for 'best retail display.' She said she was selling off many things she had kept in storage for years. (System D typology note: the use of car hoods to display products is also a facet of street vending in Lagos, Nigeria.)

Other vendors sell video cassettes and dvds (one merchant even repairs old VCRs), used clothing, power and hand tools, jewelry, and all sorts of household cast-offs.

Victoria's award-winning curiosity shop
According to a study by the Diné Policy Institute, more than half the vendors at the markets are women. And, with unemployment in the Navajo Nation hovering at 42 percent and an approximately equal percentage of the residents living below the poverty line, more than half the sellers told the Institute that they rely on their street sales as their main sources of income. Many of them travel as much as an hour -- 60 miles -- each way for the privilege of vending their wares.

finding a tiny bit of shade at the everyday market

all photos by Andrea Haenggi

(big thanks to Heather Fleming & Carole and Tim Fleming.)

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

two #metoo's


I still have a hard time calling it sexual assault. Or attempted rape. Though my girlfriend keeps telling me that’s what it was.

This was in the 80s. I was couchsurfing with various friends and relatives as I searched for a job and an apartment. When my friend Sandy went out of town, I got a week in an actual bed. Sandy’s apartment was on the 5th floor of a tenement in Hell’s Kitchen. His room was in the back, tucked into a space that was little more than an alcove you walked through on the way to the toilet. Sandy’s friend Billy had the front room, which doubled as the living room. The kitchen – which included a stall shower – was in between.

It was summer – the oppressive air almost motionless despite (or because of) the midget air shaft window that provided the only ventilation in Sandy’s nook. I was sleeping naked and must have kicked the covers off in the heat, because I woke to a strange sensation: something wet, warm, weighty and oddly pleasurable around my lower half. It was Billy, crouched on top of my legs at the bottom of the bed, sucking my dick.

I shouted, “What the fuck are you doing,” and pushed him away. He hurried to his end of the apartment. For perhaps 20 minutes, I sat on the edge of the bed, stunned and uncertain and feeling very strange. I think I debated whether to take a hot shower in the kitchen, worried that Billy would emerge to interrupt me. I think I didn’t take that shower. For the next few days, I left early in the morning and came back very late, and tried not to bump into Billy.

When Sandy got back, I told him what had happened.

Sandy didn’t hesitate. He threw Billy out of the apartment. That day. With no warning. As soon as Billy came home from work.

Sandy said that Billy needed to know that there were consequences. Sandy said he couldn’t be friends with someone like this. And he never wavered. Billy remained in the building, moving in with Gladys, on the 2nd floor, but Sandy never resumed a friendship with him. For him, Billy was banished. For life.

I wound up moving into the building, too – taking over a mostly-destroyed apartment on the 4th floor that hadn’t been occupied in more than a decade. I pulled up the rotted kitchen floor and installed a new one. I replaced the fallen kitchen ceiling and patched the damaged plaster walls that were scarred down to the tufts of horsehair on the lathe. I re-ran some of the electrical lines, which featured paper-insulated wires twined together and snaked into ancient gas-lamp fixtures. And I learned how to sweat pipe to install a sink and a tub in the kitchen. Renovation: a good way to rebuild a self.

A few years on, Billy got sick. All of us in the building watched him waste away.

Perhaps a year and a half after he died, Billy’s twin sister showed up at my door. She told me she had not seen her brother since he got out of the army 20 years before and had only just been informed of his death. She had come up from Birmingham to find out as much as she could about him. Gladys had refused to let her in and sent her to me. I went downstairs and convinced Gladys to relent. Then I stood to the side as Billy’s sister rummaged through her brother’s medicines and syringes and needles that Gladys had preserved, stuffed into cardboard boxes in her overheated apartment. Roaches scuttled away as she prised open each box.

“I don’t understand,” she kept saying. “There was no reason for this. Why didn’t he come home?”

I think I might have said that Billy was a proud man and that he probably didn’t want her and the rest of the family to see him sick. But mostly I stayed silent and let her finger the inert medical stuff that was all that was left to give meaning to her brother’s life. I know she was probably feeling heavier and sadder than she had ever believed was humanly possible. And I know that she needed something from me. Something personal about Billy. Anything, no matter how tiny.

I wanted to be able to tell her something, but I couldn’t.

I have always told myself that what was done to me in that Hell’s Kitchen bedroom wasn’t important, that it didn’t affect me. In a general way, that’s probably true. Billy was on me, not in me. He accepted that I pushed him away. And he was not in a position of power over me in any other area of my life. Also, I know it helped that Sandy believed me and threw Billy out of the apartment. But, to this day, I can hear Billy’s bare feet on the floor and see his hairy back retreating to the kitchen after I shouted and shoved him off me.


There’s a David Foster Wallace story from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men that begins this way. 
Here is a weird one for you. It was a couple of years ago, and I was 19, and getting ready to move out of my folks’ house, and get out on my own, and one day as I was getting ready, I suddenly get this memory of my father waggling his dick in my face one time when I was a little kid. The memory comes up out of nowhere, but it is so detailed and solid-seeming, I know it is totally true. I suddenly know it really happened, and was not a dream, even though it had the same kind of bizarre weirdness to it dreams have. Here is the sudden memory. I was around 8 or 9, and I was down in the rec room by myself, after school, watching TV. My father came down and came into the rec room, and was standing in front of me, like between me and the TV, not saying anything, and I didn’t say anything. And, without saying anything, he took his dick out, and started kind of waggling it in my face.
The story continues.
I do not remember if he even looked at me. All I remember was the dick. The dick, like, claimed all of my attention. He was just sort of waggling it in my face, without saying anything or making any type of comment, shaking it kind of like you do in the can, like when you are shaking off, but, also, there was something threatening and a little bully-seeming about the way he did it, I remember, too, like the dick was a fist he was putting in my face and daring me to say anything, and I remember I was wrapped up in the afghan, and could not get up or move out of the way of the dick, and all I remembered doing was sort of moving my head all over the place, trying to get it out of my face (the dick). It was one of those totally bizarre incidents which are so weird, it seems like it is not happening even while it is happening. The only time I even had glimpsed my father’s dick before was in locker rooms. I remember my head kind of moving around all over the place, on my neck, and the dick kind of following me all over the place, and having totally bizarre thoughts going through my head while he did it, like, ‘I am moving my head just like a snake,’ etc. He did not have a boner. I remember the dick was a little bit darker than the rest of him, and big, with a big ugly vein down one side of it. The little hole-thing at the end looked slitty and pissed off, and it opened and closed a little as my father waggled the dick, keeping the dick threateningly in my face no matter where I moved my head around to. That is the memory.
So, alone with his dad in the moving van carrying all his stuff to his new apartment, he speaks up.
out of (from his perspective) nowhere, I suddenly tell my father I just had recently remembered the day he came down and waggled his dick in my face when I was a little kid, and I sort of briefly described what I had remembered, and asked him, ‘What the fuck was up with that?’ When he kept merely driving the van, and did not say or do anything to respond, I persisted, and brought the incident up again, and asked him the same question all over again. (I pretended like maybe he did not hear what I said the first time.) And then what my father does—we are in the van, on a brief straight away on the route home to my folks’ house, so I can get ready to move out on my own—he, without moving his hands on the wheel or moving one muscle except for his neck, turns his head to look at me, and gives me this look. It is not a pissed off look, or a confused one like he believes he did not quite hear. And it is not like he says, ‘What the hell is the matter with you,’ or ‘Get the fuck outta here,’ or any of the usual things he says where you can tell he is pissed off. He does not say one thing, however, this look he gives me says it all, like he can not believe he just heard this shit come out of my mouth, like he is in total disbelief, and total disgust, like not only did he never in his life waggle his dick at me for no reason when I was a little kid but just the fact that I could even fucking imagine that he ever waggled his dick at me, and then like, believe it, and then come into his own presence in this rental van and, like, accuse him. Etc., etc. The look he reacted and gave me in the van while he drove, after I brought up the memory and asked him straight up about it—this is what sent me totally over the edge, where my father was concerned. The look he turned and slowly gave me said he was embarrassed for me, and embarrassed for himself for even being related to me. Imagine if you were at a large, fancy, and coat-and-tie dinner or track banquet with your father, and if, like, you all of a sudden got up on the banquet table and bent down and took a shit right there on the table, in front of everybody at the dinner—this would be the look your father would be giving you as you did it (took a shit). Roughly, it was then, in the van, that I felt like I could have killed him.
And, after not talking with his family for more than a year this is how it gets resolved.
Little by little, it seemed like the moral of a memory of any incident that weird is, anything is possible. After the year, I got to this position in my attitude where I figured that, if my father was willing to forget about the whole thing of me bringing up the memory of the incident in the van, and to never bring it up, then I was willing to forget the whole thing. I knew that I, for fucking-‘A’ goddamn sure, would never bring any of it up again.
So he goes to meet his family for dinner, and is late, and his family orders food in his absence, and this is the end of the story.
I sat down, and smilingly asked what they ordered me.
My father said, ‘A chicken presto dish thing your mother ordered for you.’
I said, ‘But I hate chicken. I always hated it. How could you forget I hate chicken?’
We all looked at each other for a second, around the table, even my littlest sister, and her boyfriend with the hair. There was one long split second of all looking at each other. This was when the waiter was bringing everybody’s chicken. Then my father smiled, and drew one of his fists back jokingly, and said, ‘Get the fuck outta here.’ Then my Mom put her hand up against her upper chest, like she does when she is afraid she’s going to laugh too hard, and laughed. The waiter put my plate in front of me, and I pretended to look down and make a face, and we all laughed. It was good.


I thought of this story – and my story, which I hadn’t thought about in a long time – when I read the horrifying accounts of rape, attempted rape, abuse, and sexual harassment that have spilled into the press of late.

“Anything is possible,” David Foster Wallace said. But that was an understatement.

I was tempted, weeks ago, when I started thinking about this, to say #metoo, and leave it at that. But #metoo as a stand-alone imposes its own kind of silence. It expresses solidarity while closing the conversation. ‘Yes,’ the meme says, ‘I’ve either experienced this or understood it. But I don’t want to go into detail. I don’t want to open the subject. I’m content with six characters instead of a story.’

So I waited, trying to find what resonated for me, to recover what I first felt, what I still feel. Assault and rape and abuse and harassment are a grievous wound to the self and, even decades after the fact, we can’t talk and others can’t listen. I certainly never talked about my experience. It seemed as if silence was the only way I could re-enter my life and have the world return to normal. Silencio es salud – silence is health – Argentina’s military leaders warned back in the 70s as they killed and “disappeared” all dissidents. Now true in a whole new way.

Yet I know ACT UP was right: silence=death. So I tell the story, just as David Foster Wallace told his. And, even now, having written this, I am not really talking. I’m stating, averring, declaring. It’s a deposition, not a conversation. And I’m just as empty afterwards as I was before I told it, left only with the imprint of Billy’s body on my legs, the memory of his bald-spot gliding up and down as his mouth moved on my penis, the sensation of being locked in a tunnel watching a slow motion movie that will probably repeat for all my years, as he turns and moves away from me down the over-heated yellow-linoleum-tiled tenement corridor of the future.