EXCERPTS FROM “THE VELVETEEN GULAG” [a memoir]: CHAPTER 13:THE GIRL ON THE MEXICAN ASHTRAY

vegas 74
the author (right) and his (half?) brother, Vegas ’74

Sometime in early 1972, after two years of anxious planning, my father moved to Vegas from Chicago, inspired by the assassination of Fred Hampton, who was offed by “The Pigs” during the Xmas season of ’69. My father saw the writing on the wall but he couldn’t quite read between its lines: he assumed Fred was executed for working for Black Power. Father fled to Vegas and he took his much-younger wife and his two sons (well, one definite son and one possible artifact of my mother’s counter-infidelity… my little brother always looked and acted uncannily like a Mexican half-brother, in my opinion) with the sense that he was fleeing for his life, missing the point entirely, the point being that Fred was terminated for having cross-racial appeal, for uniting Blacks and Whites, for refusing to play the divisive game that Black Power leaders, post-King, were on the payroll (consciously or not) to play in ‘69. It was true that my father’s phone was tapped and he was under surveillance in the street but that was standard for anyone as bearded and radically active as he was in the 1960s. But he was flattering himself to think they would have killed him. He killed himself, very slowly, starting near the end of WW2, by picking up cigarettes at the age of thirteen.

Father and his Mother
father and his flapper mom

Nevertheless, I was glad to get away from the Southside of Chicago, where I knew without delusion (unlike my father) that my time really was running out. For grade-school kids in the ghetto, back then (and no longer), there was an amnesty that lasted roughly until the end of puberty. When you were old enough to understand sex, you were old enough to join a gang, and the last thing I wanted to do was join a gang. The Blackstone Rangers were a legitimate gang at the time. The Black Panthers, like the preposterous Symbionese Liberation Army, were merely a co-creation of the FBI.

I hit Vegas, as geographically far South as I had ever lived,  just in time to avoid gang conscription in the Upper Midwest and to face, instead, antebellum grotesqueries of the South West… the most vivid example of which was probably an evil,  pug-nosed fourteen-year-old redneck ginger named Gallagher who actually tried to intimidate me with a horse, thanks, trotting and rearing and whinnying around me as I walked home from J. Harold Brinley Junior High School one day. There I was trudging across the desert (I preferred walking to taking the school bus) while Gallagher on his horse circled me and shouted “Are you a nigger or a white boy?”

Which sort of reminded me of the time, way back in the ghetto… I suppose I was nine or ten… when I was walking across Block 17 with my buddy Peter Clarke (another pale-skinned mongrel) and some brother or other yelled out a second-floor window, “Hey white boy!” And Peter said “He’s talking to you!” and I said “He’s talking to you!” but… fuck me. A horse?

There was Gallagher and there was the time I was allowed to attend a populist lecture on astronomy, dragging along my father, brother and his much-younger wife and after the lecture we discovered that someone had spit on the back of my shirt. And there was the time I entered a Woolworths in Vegas, my father waiting in his Mercury Cougar, to exchange a Super-8 Heckle and Jeckle cartoon reel for the kind I actually needed for my projector, an 8mm reel, or some such technical fine point, and a plainclothes security guard apprehended me on the way into the Woolworths with an obviously-used-but-unbagged reel for which I had no receipt, my father watching the entire exchange from the comfort of his Cougar,  hoping, probably, that the traumatically-embarrassing injustice might radicalize me. It didn’t. But I sure as hell learned not to wander a Woolworths with unbagged merchandise.

Think of it! High School in Vegas in the 1970s! The feathered hair! The Fu Manchu mustaches! The lip-gloss! The halter-tops! The Mormons, the Arabs, the Cowboys, Airforce brats, slot machines, Afros and mysterious lights in the skies!

I remember my history teacher, Mr. Schieble, openly flirting with red-faced, beautiful Barbara Clemmons, who was all of fifteen.  I remember the semi-annual race riots and hiding out in the library with nerd-buddies as various possies, Black or White, went rampaging by the little round windows in the library doors, one direction, then the other. I remember my lushly Queer and middle-aged  Sci-Fi Lit teacher, Don Bacchus, going on and on about Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy (Don was an acquaintance, probably) and seeing in Bacchus’ super-thick glasses an endearing resemblance to Ray Bradbury.

I remember buying my lunch at the 7-ll across the road and reading a very fresh, dripping SAWIN SUCKS BIG GREEN DONKEY DICKS on the outer-wall of the gym while sucking on a brain-freezing chocolate Slurpee and hearing the Stones weave a sexy-sad spell with Angie on a radio through the open window of a student’s car in the parking lot behind me. Sawin was the vice principal and it was impossible to not imagine him sucking the described dick whenever I saw him in his cheap suit in the hallways after that. I’d seen very little graffiti in the Southside ghetto of my childhood and the little graffiti I’d seen had never been nearly as obscene, or effective as literature, as that ode to poor Sawin, who is probably still pleasuring the same donkey in Hell.

In 1971 I was an avid reader of John Lilly and Robert Monroe’s Journeys Out of The Body, which I now see as the intellectualized version of my mother’s unquestioning veneration of Edgar Cayce and Paramahansa Yogananda, whose Autobiography of a Yogi was a central and incongruous feature of our two-storey ghetto apartment, with Yogi’s cover picture looking uncannily like a portly version of my mother, those deep-set eyes pleading to be taken seriously despite so much evidence to the contrary.

My experiments in separating my ego from its husk (aka Astral Projection) began in earnest in Vegas, when my hormones finally hit in a hot thick tide and I’d find myself in bed late at night, suddenly wide awake but paralyzed, my body asleep, a buzzing roar in my head and a creeping terror around the edges of my bed. Four years later I heard exactly the same sound (the buzzing roar) on an album by the prog-rock super-group Yes, a sound-effect in a transition between one song and another, by which time I was an adept at either actually leaving my body for little excursions while friends and family slept, or I was adept at what they call Lucid Dreaming, but the beginnings of that talent cropped up in Vegas.

I began the weird practice of lying in the blacked-up closet with headphones on (full of white noise) to simulate a kind of sensory deprivation and utilize Monoroe (or Lilly’s) technique of fragmented relaxation, addressing one body part at a time, starting with my toes… and breathing so deeply it was close to hyper-ventilation. I’d get to the point that my body felt asleep… unable to move… while my mind was terrifying awake… and sometimes I’d have the sensation of spinning in my bed.

I didn’t reach the point of being able to go on little trips (or “trips”) until I was in my later teens, living in Philly, listening to Yes albums. And all that without the benefit of drugs, which didn’t stop my father from searching hopefully through our desk drawers and leaving hidden tape recorders running on the top shelf of the book case when he drove his much-younger wife to her night classes (she was getting her PhD at UNLV), a technique he absorbed from his long association with the FBI.

In Chicago, my pre-sexual love life always tended to center around the smartest girl in whatever class I was in at the time because I was always, every year, in every school, the smartest boy. Everyone agreed, for example, that Tamara Jones and Smart Boy were some kind of pair in 6th grade and there was a tacit agreement between Tamara and Smart Boy (information transmitted, and an understanding ratified) via shy smiles, though Tamara and Smart Boy never spent a moment together outside the classroom. I can see Tamara’s face very clearly as I write this and with the amusing twist that her features were doubled,  twenty years later, in the face of a German model I dated in Berlin, the same pouting lower lip and short nose and trusting eyes, the one face Black and eleven and the other face Germanic and nineteen. Well, it was relatively safe for Smart Boy to make love to the German model in 1991 and it was encouraged for his socially-backward self to hold Tamara Jones’ hand in 1970 but kissing Jacqueline H. in Vegas in 1972 might well have gotten Smart Boy lynched. Gallagher and his horse would have been there with bells on.

Jacqueline H. was the smartest girl in the class and I shared Smartest Boy status with Stacy M. (my best friend), who was smart in a Physics way and so beyond dorky, even, that Jacqueline H. would never be paired with him in the minds of the student body, as racist as it must have been. Jacqueline and I were an imaginary couple based on the ground rules that we must never, together, obviously, be anything more than imaginary to anyone, including us. She was a mousy fox who I only saw once without glasses on: the time we were paired together in some class project and were to be working on it together and she came to school that day wearing contacts and in tight, hip-hugging black bell-bottoms and a Farrah Fawcett-like flourish to her normally-bland do. And my jaw dropped, spiritually. I may actually have sprouted a stiffy.

My father drove me home from school that day (because I was carrying the school project, whatever the fuck I was; I seem to remember a model of a Roman Trireme I’d carved in balsa wood) and as we pulled out of the school parking lot I saw Jacqueline and she saw me and we waved and put my father on Radical Racialist Red Alert. I’m surprised our family didn’t pack up and move back to Chicago the next day.

Try to understand my father, whose mother was a pale blonde creole in her early twenties when my Wealthy Black Undertaker grandfather married her in his fiftieth year. Granddad made his fortune on the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Grandmother met her death in 1933, at 26, having fallen, as reported in a newspaper clipping I have, off an upper balcony of the ancestral mansion (pushed by her mother-in-law, family gossip has it) leaving a semi-orphaned father who didn’t look Black at all.

His hair was straight and dark copper; his skin, after a zillion desperate hours race-bathing in the Vegas sun, looked bronze at best, his features very Euro, doomed never to have anyone think “Black!” the first time they’d meet him. Which is why he took up smoking at 13 and Militancy after the Korean War, trying to masculinize himself a bit… trying to Black Up.

I have a distinct memory of sitting in the seat behind his much-younger and modestly-Afro’d wife, in the Mercury Cougar, in Chicago, on a cold grim day, and the Cougar slowing to a growling crawl as we creepily paced a sweet little interracial couple to intimidate them while I seethed in the back seat, more moral at ten than my father was at forty. Who was this half-breed to persecute miscegenation? The human mind is a funny device.

So when my father caught me waving adolescently at Jacqueline H. from that same back seat in the school parking lot he went into Racial Paradox Paroxysm Mode and hatched a clumsy scheme. Within a week of the forbidden wave we all, one supper-time, paid a strange visit to a Black family on the Other Side of Town (because we lived, ironically or not, in an otherwise all-white development, 3228 North Arlene Drive)… a Black family featuring a son a little younger than me and a daughter exactly my age.

What I remember is being ushered into an upstairs bedroom in which a Television was on and as my (half?) brother and I entered the room, a thrill pulsed through the skinny girl my father had chosen for me; I (pretend to) hate to brag but I was that handsome; sending her bespectacled brother into fairly-hysterical mock-mode. That kid was funny as fuck. We were up in that room for what felt like days and the daughter was being as sexy-charming as possible but, see, I was always a little Puritan (what I had loved about Tamara Jones, beyond her smartness, was her shyness) and this Vegas girl’s flirty ways turned me off, I sort of curled an inner lip at her tactical program. A show called Midnight Special was on the Television and a redneck rock group called Black Oak Arkansas was performing a raunchy song called Jim Dandy and she was grinding and giggling and shaking her little booty and then sort of ended up atop a dresser (this is the weird part) and was actually too mesmerized or secretly shy or something to excuse herself and leave the room for ten minutes because suddenly the funny brother started shrieking with mad mirth, “You peed in your panties, girl, you peed in your panties!” and, Jesus, sure enough, there was a new puddle of piss in a big Mexican ashtray on the dresser she’d been perched atop and that poor girl must have died of shame.

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