Returning from my brief respite in the country, I am already pressed on every nerve end by being able to do no better than to double park behind a moving van which had picked the exact moment of my return to unload seven rooms of furniture into our usual mob scene of a West Side apartment house. I squeeze myself like a safecracker along the cars at the curb to unload my own car. And suddenly hear an insanely magnified voice screaming through a bullhorn, “Brownsville slumlord!”
Since I saw many evictions from the Brownsville tenement in which I spent my first twenty years, I feel much confused by the manic reversal on West End Avenue as I watch half a dozen young black women with placards denouncing the cheerful songwriter in the penthouse, whose father left him some property in that once prime (and most promising) American shtetl, Brunzvil. A young Jew with a bullhorn, who looks exactly like the pictures of Trotsky in 1905, is leading his chorus in a rhythmic chant. “Ostrofsky is a slumlord! We refuse to pay any more rent to Ostrofsky the slumlord! Brownsville demands decent living conditions! We protest!”
The Puerto Rican elevator men look on without malice and without comprehension. The passersby manage with that inimitable New York look of angry self-occupation to walk past the demonstration as if the blacks from Brownsville were shouting from a distant planet. All goes on as usual—the psychiatrists and museum curators in our building fight each other for taxis, transvestites wearing pink hair-rollers and needing a shave defiantly make eyes at glum, unseeing laundry drivers, the kook twins hold up crudely lettered pieces of shirt cardboard that denounce the nameless conspirators who have seized our government and are poisoning all the breakfast cereal. And I, staggering under my “portable” electric typewriter, cartons of books and papers, suitcases, and the certain knowledge that I will soon get a ticket and have probably left the key in the ignition, recognize that I am being welcomed back in style as the moving men, transporting their loads past me, hoarsely announce that I am in their way.
The songwriter in the penthouse, who is an amateur scholar of ancient American theology and has done an up-to-the-minute anthology called Jonathan Edwards On Hellfire, is aware that I was brought up in what is now the most undesirable of all living spaces since the Black Hole of Calcutta. In my time Brownsville was remote. As Mailer once wrote, Brooklyn is not the center of anything. But it was a great human community, and to tell the truth, there were people there, the purest of the old Jewish socialists and anarchists, whom almost forty years later I often talk to in my dreams as if everything that has happened since I left them need not have happened.
When Lindsay took some touring mayors down to see Brownsville last year, Kevin White of Boston called Brownsville “the first tangible sign of the collapse of our civilization.” My neighbor in the penthouse (the upstairsike, as my mother would have called him) has sharpened his keen sense of humor on Calvinist theology. He likes, on our occasional encounters in the elevator, to entertain me in deadpan fashion with new chapters in the rollicking saga of what it is like to be bequeathed a tenement in Brownsville. Since I, like my parents, have never managed to own any property, I smile in lieu of knowledge as he explains how he can never collect his rents without paying at the local precinct house for a guard. There are a lot of fires. Though the city constantly promises to buy up the property, more salable houses than his, caught between the rejection of Brownsville by the banks and by its own inhabitants, have been abandoned.
WOMAN SAYS SHE SET 2,000 FIRES
Suspect In Brooklyn Tells Marshals of 12-Year Total
A 23-year old Brooklyn woman arrested early Monday after she was seen running from a vacant Brownsville building that was on fire has allegedly admitted setting two to four fires every week for the last 12 years, or a total of more than 2,000 fires.
The woman, Priscilla Haynes of 419 Blake Avenue, in the Brownsville section, assertedly told fire marshals that she “liked to see the flames,” and got a thrill from watching fire equipment rolling up to a burning building.
The woman allegedly said that she would wander about the Brownsville section in the vicinity of her home looking for vacant buildings. Then, she was reported to have said, after selecting empty dwellings or tenements, she would return to them at night, start a fire, then watch from nearby as the firemen fought the blaze.
During acute depression and periods of romantic difficulty, Miss Haynes was quoted as having told the marshals, she would set eight or nine fires a day to relieve her despondency.
“She said that fires were the third biggest thing in her life,” Marshal O’Connor said. “First she said there was her mother, then her brother, then fires.”
—The New York Times,
August 2, 1972
Of course I wanted to say to the young Trotsky on West End Avenue: why don’t you and your clients use some of this energy cleaning the fucking place up? But I was too busy getting my belongings into the elevator and keeping an eye on my car. Anyway, Lev Davidovitch soon stopped, puzzled by the total indifference around him. After a few half-hearted threats to pursue Ostrofsky night and day until he made some major changes in their lives, the little band crept off. I couldn’t stand them and I couldn’t stand myself. No one except me knew what they were talking about.
I went down to Brownsville last year with the idea of doing the inevitable piece on a native’s return, or The Depression Revisited, but soon lost heart. The place looks worse than the East End of London did after the Blitz. Apparently the roofs are regularly set on fire, for the tops of the old tenements, built of New York’s usual cheap apartment house brown brick, are charred, blackened, firestreaked. When I walked down Sutter Avenue again for the first time in twenty years, I was stupefied by the look of rusted blood down so many windows, the heaps of garbage ostentatiously heaped in a continuing line down the middle of the avenue, the long line of empty boarded-up storefronts, and the dead angry silence in front of the stoops on the street where I spent so much of my boyhood playing catchball off the steps—on a street still named Herzl.
I see from Murray Kempton’s book-in-progress on the Black Panthers that the place overcame even Richard Moore, a militant Black Panther leader in from Oakland to rally the oppressed masses. “I have never seen people live like this.” On one occasion a dog crept in front of Moore’s slowly moving car and simply refused to move.
Brownsville is not the sort of place to inspire understatement, but its devastation is so complete that it is possible to view it, in fact, as the collapse of a former civilization. One walks through the rubble and refuse with the uneasy curiosity of a tourist at the Baths of Caracalla or in the Catacombs. The broken walls and gutted rooms breathe a dank, remote sadness, as of something very long dead. Nothing stirs, and no matter how long you stare, no secrets are yielded up.
By estimate there are about 100,000 not-at-all-ghostly men, women and children clinging to the wreckage of Brownsville, awaiting its promised salvage. Most of them are black or Puerto Rican and probably few of them are there by choice. They are largely the beneficiaries of thoughtful city agencies that gather up the rejects of other neighborhoods and house them wherever there is insufficient citizen organization to reject them again.
The poor blacks who had lived on the fringes of Brownsville—on Thatford and Sackman and Van Sinderen—moved into the first of the massive low-income projects at Stone and Livonia. But the bleak, cheerless projects were no better than vertical slums, one of the shameful failures of city planning.
As vacancies began turning up, urban renewal projects elsewhere in the city made Brownsville a convenient dumping ground for evicted tenement dwellers and welfare clients. With mindless efficiency, the city’s relocation agency shipped increasing numbers of Blacks and Puerto Ricans to Brownsville over the next decade, creating a vast, ruinous dependency in the four square miles of the district. Landlords took what they could from the new class of rent-payers, then began abandoning their 30- and 40-year-old buildings by the hundreds. Derelicts and junkies pitched camp in the emptied properties.
“Brownsville: All Fall Down”
Newsday, June 14, 1971
* * *
D., my old student at Amherst and now a detective in the New York Police Department, went down with me “to see the place I’ve heard so much about.” The only cheerful note of the afternoon was when I remembered to call back a government psychiatrist in Washington who had been pressing me to join his conference on suicide prevention because “I so much admired your writings on Herman Melville.” I was in a telephone box on Rockaway and Sutter to make this call, and noticed that D. was uneasily patrolling the space around me. He encouraged me considerably when, after two hours of despondent walking about past blocks of boarded-up storefronts, hills of garbage, addicts jerkily dancing in the gutter, he admitted that he had been expecting us to be jumped at any minute but that he had neglected to bring his gun.
D. is all on fire these days recruiting Ivy League graduates into the New York Police Department, and of course has a foundation grant. He is so full of his cop experiences, so eager to tell his old teacher what is really going on in New York, that I have come to think of him as the only informed sociologist I know. After all, all the other sociologists of my acquaintance were radical and are still ideologues. What is interesting to me about D. is that he relates all his material with passion, but there is absolutely no point to be drawn from his unbelievably charged chronicles of life in Fun City. Only recently he caught me coming down the steps of the courthouse when I was on jury duty, swept me off to lunch at an Italian restaurant back of Police Headquarters that seemed to serve up centuries of secrets with the fettucine, and told me so many tales of violence and corruption that I seemed to see humanity red-faced and straining on the toilet—and still eating.
D. is so worked-up, idealistic, defensive, overstimulated by his insatiable job, so electrically in contact with the constant humming of violence in New York, that his tales contradict his ingenuous belief that the Police Department can be an instrument of social reform—if only all the cops are nice Ivy League graduates like him, taking a PhD in urban problems.
Blacks and Jews. Jews and Blacks. D.’s mind is crisscrossed with their conflict now, as so many Jews are. How can you be so beastly to us when we have worried more about you than anybody else has since Harriet Beecher Stowe! The only aggressive, fullthroated, hate-filled anti-Semitic insult I have ever experienced came from a black truck-driver who was making a wild turn off Second Avenue. He was horribly close to all three of us crossing the street, and when I mildly put up my hand, he looked down at me from the heights of his Mack truck and called me a blankety-blank god-damned Jew. Imagine the readiness of mind that required!
D. says that Black Panthers make a point of robbing old Jewish storekeepers. Describes some pimps attacking a white prostitute in front of the Dakota. Complains that the Jewish middle-class crowd on West 72nd watched the near-murderous assault without interfering. And then “two Jewish SDS types” gave him an argument for stepping in. Says that as a patrolman he was summoned up to a Columbus Avenue apartment to help a black woman who was having an epileptic fit, but that the other people in the room, drunk or stoned, wouldn’t let him use the telephone to call an ambulance, were laughing hysterically and shouting that she was a fake, just a drunk, and kept him from the phone until he pulled his gun.
I first saw D. as a cop outside the stage door of the theater where Richard Burton was doing his athletic Hamlet. Every night Elizabeth Taylor would call for her husband in a black shiny limousine a block long. The crowds outside the stage door were so great that a whole passel of cops had to be summoned to keep them from scratching at the limousine doors with their votive prayers, petitions, and autograph books. D., as babyfaced as he had looked at Amherst fifteen years ago, good-looking in his glum Jewish way, seemed to me an actor playing a cop. I couldn’t understand what he was doing in that costume until he explained that he had joined the force. He is very, very serious about everything relating to the New York Police Department, and I was not surprised to find that over the years he has become a celebrity. A New Yorker writer interviewed me for a profile he is doing on my old student. I hear there is a movie in the offing—D. to be played by Paul Newman. D. even called me the other day, asking if I knew a good literary agent.
* * *
“If you’ll forget about that grade,” said a boy to his German-born teacher at the Dalton school, “I’ll forget about the six million.”
* * *
At E.’s party on Park Avenue, Mailer, who has got quite astonishingly rich and oily looking in his corporation vice-president getup of striped suit and vest self-importantly pulled down over his generous pupik, was standing in the midst of the pushing, nervously seeking crowd. These cocktail parties in velvety surroundings are full of restless yearning pilgrims seeking a significant contact before they are whisked off, someone who can impress or be impressed, someone to rest on among the mad push and pull of the crowd.
Mailer, to my fancy, looked a traffic officer directing the traffic. He was thoughtfully gazing over the bewildered crowd trying to step on his shoes. When I mentioned his pronounced look of prosperity, he flushed, and quick as a wink invited me to go down twenty-four flights and fight. No doubt on West 95th Street he would have socked me then and there.
American Jewish writers, savants, and other leaders of the current scene have gone from darkest Brooklyn to the heights without giving much evidence of having known civilization. The ever-pressing invitation to violence in the air of New York has accommodated itself, for some, into a cultural imperative. In New York men and women “leaders” are alike, and are forever dining, drinking, screwing, writing for magazines, lecturing on Godard, running for Congress on the energy of their stored-up ferocity. Don’t Abzug me, damn it!
What makes Mailer so marvelous in his way, so different from all the other intellectuals whose chief function is to tell you what the masses are thinking, what the masses want, is that he is all writer and really has no character outside of his characters. He is always practicing the next page. He is not, thank God, one of those Jews who currently think that they can blend into the American scene by specializing in public opinion. Fifty-two percent (or was it 73 percent) of the American people are square and getting squarer all the time, said Professor Herman Kahn at the University of Texas. Speaking in Jerusalem, Professor Irving Kristol, Henry Luce Professor of Urban Values at New York University, explained that “We have an interest…in preserving the status quo. Let us admit it, at least to ourselves.”
What status quo? Mailer is not an “intellectual” within the confines of that New York term that includes all managing editors, opinion gatherers, and opinion transmitters, but excludes scientists, novelists, poets, metaphysicians. Mailer is a character in search of himself as a novelist. He is always living a novel even when he is practicing his nonfiction novels. So he is not one of your “reality instructors,” but will live any confrontation, any idea, any mayoralty campaign or trumped-up movie for the ecstasy of writing it—or even of having already written it.
I first met him in the late Forties, when I was living in Brooklyn Heights. When friends brought me over, I noticed that he was following Jean Malaquais around with an attention that was not clear to me until I read Barbary Shore, or The Sorrows of the Old Left. Then there was Mailer the existentialist, Mailer the Texan, Mailer the White Negro in black leather jacket leading Norman Podhoretz in his black leather jacket around the poolrooms of the West Side. Mailer rehearses his writing more fervidly than any actor does his part. He is so intent on getting his most visceral sensations and thoughts on paper that I believe him capable of breaking off the most blissful lovemaking in order to describe it. The other night he was being Barney $$$ Kelly in An American Dream, and I should have addressed myself to the character, not the author.
The Reader’s Digest celebrated its 50th anniversary in the White House last night, a long way from the modest quarters in which it was born in New York’s Greenwich Village.
The white-tie party given in the State Dining Room by President and Mrs. Nixon drew a blue-chip attendance to pay tribute to the thick, little magazine of miscellany and homily that sells 30 million copies a month here and abroad.
Among the 100 guests invited were Secretary of State Rogers, John B. Connally, John N. Mitchell….
There were even writers—Irving Kristol, editor of The Public Interest; Sidney Hook, professor emeritus of philosophy at New York University, and James Michener….
* * *
A young woman in a singing group caused an embarrassing moment at a formal White House dinner tonight when she waved a placard and called to President Nixon to stop the war in Vietnam.
The incident occurred as the dinner guests assembled to pay honor to Mr. and Mrs. DeWitt Wallace, founders of The Reader’s Digest, went into the East Room and sat down for some entertainment.
As the Ray Conniff singers prepared for their first number, the young woman, later identified as Miss Carol Feraci of Los Angeles, waved a placard reading “Stop The Killing.”
At the same time she called out to Mr. Nixon, seated with his wife in the front row: “You go to church on Sunday and preach to Jesus Christ,” she said. “If Jesus Christ were in this room tonight you would not dare to drop another bomb.”
There were groans, boos and the shout: “You ought to throw her out.”
Mr. Conniff told Miss Feraci it would be better if she left, and she did.
The New York Times
January 29, 1972
Joseph K., a Polish Jew, actually escaped from one concentration camp, but ended up in Belsen. He remained in Belsen after the liberation, married a former prisoner there, and now, mysteriously rich, collects modern paintings. He has organized the surviving Jews of Belsen into a firm international group that publishes literary works about the Holocaust. Joseph K. has enlisted me, along with other writers, to support this effort by selecting works, granting prizes, etc.
So I went over to his flat at Madison and 70th to meet him. K. was downstairs in the lobby, feistily questioning the doorman about an expected package. Short, stocky, fighter type, he busily took me up, and as we went into his apartment, he went around the room lighting up two thousand Chagalls, seven hundred Picassos, ninety-three Manets, three dozen Braques. There were so many pictures that the effect was of being caught drunk right up against an insanely over-large movie screen.
Joseph K. sat at one end of a long yellow sofa, and his wife at the other. She is cheerfully plump, and was wearing a sleeveless dress. Her blue concentration camp number, printed on her arm, seemed longer than other concentration camp numbers I have seen; there may have been more than one number.
We were having a very genteel tea, cakes on paper doilies, the tea served in cups so fragile that under the stress of the conversation I thought the cup would break in my hand. It seems that the French government insists on reburying, in a mass grave, the bodies of the French who died at Belsen. Since this means digging up everyone else, Joseph K. and his organization of Jewish survivors have been fighting this French intention with everything they have.
Trying to manage my tea and the little cake precariously balanced on my knee, I listened with astonishment to Joseph K.’s ferocious, weeping account of the legal efforts being made to counter the French government. I did not fully take in or even credit all the details. But whatever the case was, Joseph K. certainly believed it. Impatiently, restlessly occupying one end of the yellow silk sofa, scalding me with his outrage as he talked with every muscle in a torrent of inimitably disgusted Yiddish laden with the anatomical details of decaying bodies, he was literally howling with indignation while over his head a whole procession of Chagall’s sylphs and bearded fiddlers floated over the roofs of his romanticized Vitebsk.
Joseph K. hurried me around more pictures in the other rooms of his apartment, then hurried me into his limousine, replete with chauffeur. In the midst of the rush hour traffic, he talked about the last days in Belsen, and how the British on April 15, 1945, stumbled on this (deeply hidden) camp in North Germany to find typhus raging, forty thousand sick, starving, dying prisoners, while over ten thousand corpses were stacked on the ground.
Joseph K. complained that everything was now falling apart. He had never expected, when Belsen was liberated, that the postwar period would be one of such chaos. Then he cried: I need some good news! Give me some good news!
* * *
Isaac Bashevis Singer is a vegetarian, does not drink, and looks as if he lived on bones. Singer, so bald, parchmentthin, white, the unquenchable story-teller who looks more austere than any man of God, tells me, with a look of surprise, that he is invited to lecture at leading universities in America. Although he knows well enough how much his fiction is admired, he likes, superstitiously, to pretend that his accent is a barrier to some final acceptance in this country.
Singer, the Warsaw Rabbi’s son, descended on both sides from rabbis, rabbis, rabbis, looks in his total spareness more unlike most middle-class American Jews than would the Prophet Isaiah. He is so pale, strict, formal, austere, that though he spends every minute writing, he seems to live, still, under the traditional bonds of old Polish and orthodox Jewry: here is God’s people and out there is the heathen world.
With modest, smilingly hesitant manners, he softly, deprecatingly whispered to me that lecturing at American universities, he is disturbed by the number of young Jews who seem to be spearheading protests against the Vietnam war. “It is not our business to complain against the government,” he said with more than a touch of severity in his altogether disciplined countenance. “It cannot do any good,” he said sadly to me in the plane as we returned from the conference in Washington protesting death sentences against the Soviet Jews who had tried to steal a plane. “It can only make things worse.”
* * *
From Shmuel Ziegelbaum, representative of the Jewish Workers Bund in the Polish government-in-exile (London), to the Premier and President of Poland, May, 1943, just before his suicide:
I take the liberty of addressing to you my last words, and through you the Polish government and the Polish people, the governments and peoples of the Allied states—the conscience of the world.
From the latest information received from Poland, it is evident that the Germans, with the most ruthless cruelty, are now murdering the few remaining Jews in Poland. Behind the ghetto’s walls the last act of a tragedy unprecedented in history is being performed. The responsibility for the crime of murdering the entire Jewish population of Poland falls in the first instance on the perpetrators, but indirectly it is also a burden of the whole of humanity, the people and the governments of the Allied states which thus far have made no effort toward concrete action for the purpose of curtailing this crime.
By the passive observation of the murder of defenseless millions, and of the maltreatment of children, women and old men, these countries have become the criminals’ accomplices. I must also state that although the Polish government has in a high degree contributed to the enlistment of world opinion, it has yet done so insufficiently. From some 3,500,000 Polish Jews and about 700,000 other Jews deported to Poland from other countries—according to official statistics provided by the underground Bund organization—there remained in April of this year only 300,000 and this remaining murder goes on.
I cannot be silent—I cannot live—while remnants of the Jewish people of Poland, of whom I am a representative, are perishing. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto took weapons in their hands on that last heroic impulse. It was not my destiny to die there together with them, but I belong to them, and in their mass graves. By my death I wish to express my strongest protest against the inactivity with which the world is looking on and permitting the extermination of my people.
I know how little human life is worth today; but as I was unable to do anything during my life, perhaps by my death I shall contribute to breaking down the indifference of those who may now—at the last moment—rescue from certain annihilation the few Polish Jews who are still alive. My life belongs to the Jewish people of Poland and I therefore give it to them. I wish that this remaining handful of the original several millions of Polish Jews could live to see the liberation of a new world of freedom, and the justice of true socialism. I believe that such a Poland will arise and that such a world will come.
December 14, 1972