Monday, August 10, 2015
THE HEAT OF SUMMER, DIABETES & THE DRAFT, BOUNCING AROUND--FROM CHAPTER 5, CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
I had also begun to play softball and basketball again. My body quickly got in shape, as nineteen-year-old bodies will. I still did not think my diabetes demanded any more attention other than a morning insulin shot. My moods were less dramatic. In fact, they were wonderfully free of the highs and lows of a few short months before, and by the end of the summer I had turned Corinne on to reefer. It was not a big thing. It was part of the package. What were it, curiosity and opportunity? Should I read something deeper into it? I’ve tried, and can’t. I thought we’d enjoy it together, and we did. It did what it was supposed to do. Music was better, food was better, talk was better, reading was better, writing was better, dreams were better, plans were better, and sex was better. It was another button of the times: Stamp out Reality.
My father was friendly with a lawyer who knew a big shot at St. John’s University. “Go there for a few courses this summer,” he said, “and I’ll get him in for the fall semester.” I did, did well and it didn’t work. So much for pull. You could pull my dick, I told him. Instead, for the second time, I enrolled at Kingsborough as a part-time student in the evening. This time, I stayed for a year.
The year I spent at Kingsborough was, for the most part, uneventful. However, I was cooking in my private studies. I was writing my ass off and Corinne and I, once I got my license back, would steal my father’s car and go into Greenwich Village where we would buy books at The Eighth Street Bookstore and begin visiting jazz clubs and other Village haunts. I mean, shit, in those days you could see and hear Art Blakey play in a club near the corner of West 3rd and Thompson from the outside for nothing. Hell, you could go in, sit down and order a few beers, and it would still cost you less than a movie today. We’d hear Trane play at The Village Vanguard, Mingus at The Village Gate, and then there were all the clubs that showed folk singers, folk-rock singers and other clubs that catered to the first wave of electric music in America, like Cream at The Cafe Au Go-Go. Greenwich Village was alive like Christmas on Fifth Avenue every night of the week. There were button stores, and sweater stores, leather stores, The Kettle of Fish, The Bitter End, twenty to thirty Harley Davidson motorcycles parked in front of a dyke bar on West 3rd, Reggios, Dantes, The Hip Bagel, Poster Stores, Bleecker Cinema, and people who seemed just like us, but different.
Corinne accomplished another thing as well; she was my barrier. My folks were cooled out. They liked her enormously, and she them. Coming from the cold upheaval that was her life, my folks were the embodiment of heat from a Jewish skillet. And my parents, never ones to look much under the surface of anything--especially when it couldn’t possibly benefit them, enjoyed, were amused, got a kick out of my first real girlfriend. They clucked when they heard her tell of her mother’s infidelity. They nodded their heads in apparent sympathy when told of the neighborly betrayal but to them it was gossip, up-close gossip perhaps, gossip that wetted an appetite for disaster definitely, but nothing when compared to their own alchemy of paranoia, victimization, control, manipulation, and constant recriminations for a life that refused to conform to their idea of what life should be. In short, they were simply good ol’ ma and pa Savage.
That year, The Selective Service sent me a letter requesting that I come and visit. I remember, when I turned eighteen, going, as everyone of us had to do at the time, to my local draft board which in my case was across the street from Nathans. On their questionnaire I stated I was diabetic. Either they failed to acknowledge it or thought I had outgrown the disease. I can also remember the Selective Service wanting to draft someone who was blind. When this young man was informed of the draft board’s decision, he requested that he be sent to bombardier school after joining the Air Force. I, however, reported to Whitehall Street, in lower Manhattan, for my physical examination, armed with a letter from Dr. Z. and Milky Way bars. I planned to gobble them up just prior to my exam. I was leaving nothing to chance.
Yet, like so many things in my life, I was ambivalent about not being “draft material.” I grew up on my father’s war stories. He’d punched out a Captain for an anti-Semitic remark made to him which prompted them to assign him to “hazardous duty” overseas. He became the person his friends depended on when confronting typhoons and snipers. He was the poker player extraordinaire, backed by hundreds of dollars that some people on the base raised for him to use in “no limit” games when stationed on Hawaii. He won many thousands of dollars on a bluff hand. The stories went on and on and on. Well, who wouldn’t want to do that? That’s Hemingway stuff. Even to this day I can’t separate the bullshit from the poetry, and maybe that’s good. What else are myths? And so, I wanted to charge into the breach and lead men. I wanted to vanquish and conquer foes. And you know I loved to gamble, and win. BUT: I did not like mud. I liked to shower. Fuck being against the war, who wasn’t? That was an easy stance to take living in New York City listening to Blowin’ In the Wind, and watching monks incinerating themselves on the evening news. Anybody who had half a mind couldn’t stand it, but decisions like that are too intimate to make over a principle. Shit. You needed a really good reason, like comfort, personal hygiene, and liking the life you had, even for all the wrong reasons. Seriously, I was most afraid of dying, slowly. Going into the muck, and coming back without a leg, arm, or worse. I couldn’t, and still can’t, imagine myself in a completely dependent position, having bored nurses slip bedpans under my ass or having a real piss-bag attached to my side. If diabetes wasn’t the “clean disease” that I thought it was, I honestly can’t say what I would have done to myself. However, it drove home how unlike my father I thought I was, and how, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t be like him. My diabetes made sure of that, I thought.
On Whitehall Street was a big, old, crumbling edifice housing the administration that processed all of the perspective Army inductees. High ceilings, lights coated with decades of neglect, long winding staircases, indented by the feet of who knows how many deaths, leading to labyrinths, opening to passages, lined with rooms, large and small, inhabited by Army personnel, and white coated doctors and lab technicians, all churning out the future defense of America. I walked in and went up to the desk thinking I’d just hand the letter over to the soldier manning the desk and be, well, dismissed. He glanced at it and pointed the way toward a large corridor lined with wooden benches.
“There?” I said.
“Yeah, there.” he growled.
Not a happy guy, I thought as I ambled over to join my brethren already sitting there. And what a crew my brethren were. Humanity sat sprawled before me on the benches, some black, some Hispanic, some Asian and Caucasian. Their dress, expressions, and body language told you all you wanted to know about who didn’t want to, and those who couldn’t serve their country. Some slumped, sleeping the sleep of the dead, mouths open, dribble coming from a corner, hanging precipitously above a wrinkled shirt. Others sat rigid, straight-backed, had eyes so bugged-out by amphetamines that they stared at what only they could see, faces half-shaven, most, if not all, praying for psychiatric deferments. I was out. I knew that for a fact. I was purely an observer. At least I thought I was.
No more than ten minutes had passed when I heard a commotion where I had come in. There was laughter and shouting from voices I thought I recognized. In another two minutes, they filed in, the Coney Island crew, and what a wild crew they were: Butchie, Bruno, Larry M. and Tommy Schmo. I couldn’t believe the Army wanted them, and I don’t think they could believe it either. In any event, they were going to make believers out of the Army. We exchanged greetings and they sat down next to me.
A sergeant had other “greetings” in mind as he ushered us into a large hall and told us what to expect that day, tests, tests and more tests. We then were told to go into another room and strip to our underwear. Wearing jockey shorts and socks, standing next to a pile of my clothes and clutching the letter from Dr. Z., I waited for the next directive. With fitful eyes I scanned the room. Light filtered through the grimed transoms bathing us in sallowness no matter what our natural complexions were. We were all a signature away from death.
“All right,” the sergeant barked, “come and grab a cup here and go over there into the latrine, piss in the cup and bring it back here.”
Dutifully we all lined-up, got our cups and filed into a large squared room which served as the bathroom. There was a long trough-like channel where we were supposed to pee. The five of us, the Coney Island Five, walked up to the trough and began to pee. I chuckled.
“What gives man?” Larry asked.
“Ah shit Larry, they ain’t gonna take me--I got diabetes.”
“Diabetes? What the fuck’s that?”
“Diabetes?,” I paused, “sugar, too much sugar’s in the blood. It shows up when you pee too...if you’ve eaten enough sugar...and I have, man, believe me.”
By this time Tommy Schmo was leaning over to my left and Bruno was leaning over to Larry’s right. “Yeah? Is that so?...Gimme some of your piss man.” And with that he puts his cup under my dick. I pissed in his...and Tommy’s...and Bruno’s...and when Butchie saw what we were doing, he decided, without knowing anything about it, to come over, and so I pissed in his cup too.
Unbeknown to us, the sergeant had been clocking this action for quite some time. He came up between me and Larry. “Dump those goddamn cups!” he ordered.
I dumped. We all dumped.
“Now assholes, listen up. I don’t give a good goddamn whether this man here has diabetes, a kidney infection, syphilis or is naturally insane. Don’t mean nothin’ to me. But you will piss again. In fact, you will now begin to drink water until you can pass piss again.” Which we did, separately. It cost us about an hour of our time.
The blood test was next. It was at this point that I gave the letter I had been clutching to a doctor. I wanted to make sure that the person I gave the letter to knew what diabetes was. He still made me take the test, told me to finish the day’s exams, but it was just a formality. I thanked him and moved on.
I met up with “the crew” again when we had to take our intelligence/mental exams. I sat next to Bruno. I was answering my exam questions when an Army official came around to inspect our papers. He stopped, peered over my shoulder, then Bruno’s. His arm extended over Bruno’s figure, and with his index finger pointed at Bruno's paper he exclaimed, “What’s that!?”
Bruno, without looking up replied, “What’s what?”
Jabbing his finger for emphasis, the Army guy asked again, “That, that; what’s that!?”
Bruno, not used to being talked to like that, especially from a stranger, swiveled his head, almost like Linda Blair in The Exorcist and answered, just as loudly, “What’s what? Tell me what!”
“Why, in the name of God,” the official inquired, “when it said to write you mother’s maiden name you answered, ‘Mom’?”
Bruno hesitated for a brief instant and replied, “Because that’s what the fuck I always call her.”
“I don’t believe that; I have never heard that, never.”
“Well you better believe it,” Bruno continued, “that’s all I know her as, ‘Mom’.”
The room was silent, stunned probably. The officer turned and walked away.
I finished first and left the building. I figured I was out and wanted to stay out. I lit a cigarette and waited for them opposite the Induction Center. They came out together, laughing. We piled into Bruno’s car and headed back to Coney Island where we stopped at Nathan’s to eat. None of them were drafted, except Rubin.
Rubin, who lived in Seagate, but was part of the Coney Island crew was snatched by the government. All his life he had been the butt of jokes and now he was going into the asshole of the world. Never what you would call smart, he had proved his resilience long ago. He was thrown off a bridge in Staten Island landing up to his waist in mud, and while climbing an abandoned house in Seagate one night, they lured him into jumping into rose thickets. Jailed one evening after a melee on Kings Highway, he had to go the bathroom but had no toilet paper. Johnny in the next cell assured him he did, only to see, while sitting on the toilet, rolls of toilet paper roll helplessly down the corridor. And so, when Rubin went into the service and became something of a hero, he was written up in the New York Post, he came back to Coney Island expecting a “hero’s welcome”. Instead, George, upon seeing Rubin and his outstretched arm, slapped him in the face for mentioning his mother as a guiding and motivating influence, but not George. Hello Rubin, welcome home. We did take him to Garguilio’s that night much to Rubin’s delight and amazement.
Kingsborough was asking me to take some required courses in order for me to matriculate into a full-time day student. They had some fucking nerve. It was time for me to transfer. It was becoming almost more work rounding up all my transcripts than taking the required courses, math and a foreign language. It was now one of life’s challenges not to take courses that were required. A director at The Seagate Center was also a phys-ed. teacher at New York City Community College, now New York Technical College. He arranged for me to be a matriculated student if I would consent to take my language requirement. I figured one out of two isn’t bad. With Corinne’s help, I passed Spanish. The only phrase I mastered was, Es la una punta--It is exactly one o’clock. That was the time the class ended. The teacher laughed as I held up my arm that held my watch on my wrist and signaled her.
In the fall of 1966, my father, with the woman who had influence at Sullivan County Community College, went into business together, while he still maintained the supermarket in Brooklyn. To be more specific, his partner maintained the supermarket while he played with a new toy. It can best be said that the woman, a very wealthy widow, was in love with him and, he, knowing this, had her put up all the cash for the Chock Full O’Nuts franchise that was located on University and Waverly Place, across the street from NYU in Greenwich Village. I needed a car. “No problem,” my father said. “Ask her, nicely.”
I told her that I wanted a car to enable me to get from classes to Manhattan where I would manage the store a few hours during the day and early evening. Taking the train would mean hours wasted. Hours that could be put to better use working and studying. She bought me a new Pontiac Grand Prix, the first of two cars she’d pay for.
If you stay too long looking at that abyss, the abyss, as Fredrich N. would say, begins looking back at you, and who could afford to have that happen?
Besides, there were far too many women to worry about either cultivating or having a conscience. It was Revolver and Rubber Soul. It was long dresses and granny glasses, dungarees and tie dyed shirts, broke and braless. Money was to be burned or laughed at. I had loved Greenwich Village for years, and now I worked there. I would come at any hour, go behind the counter, pour myself a cup of “Heavenly” coffee and watch the parade of people coming and going in and outside of the store. I would watch them sit, alone or coupled, in conversation or drifting or adrift, and I’d fantasize about the women. I’d want them all and want them all to want, and devour, me. At this time, I was writing and reading my ass off, mostly beat writers in an attempt to emulate them. I wanted an older woman, a beatnik, a Beatrice, a depraved Beatrice, wearing black stockings, a writer or artist, perfumed, with a hint of perversity in her eyes and me on her lips. Corinne had said to a friend of mine that the first mistake she made with me was telling me that she loved me. My life was too tame, too routinized, too coupled, too “good.” I was looking for trouble.
pgs 51-55, From Chapter 5: JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Greenwich Village, 2015