I had been to Toronto before and I had found it colorful, and actually, quite to my liking. Houses were painted whimsical colors, a practice that would have gotten them vandalized in Detroit. I enjoyed Yorkville Village, Canada’s attempt at Bohemia. In Detroit, as much as I love Detroiters, there is a real strong, stodgy, semi-skilled labor aspect that is almost the city’s defining character. I have a strong dose of this myself, and I like to think it was society’s fault. But the lunchbox mentality of Detroit was such that it could start a hipsters neighborhood, but not one that could withstand the forces a few blocks away. (Actually, once it became obvious that coffeehouses and “hip” boutiques made a certain amount of money, some “hip” capitalists attempted an ur-gentrification of one of the crummier blighted areas, naming, or re-naming it Plum Street, and set up head shops and natural food restaurants and even a traditional candle manufacturing spot. It lasted about as long as Comet Kahoutek. Like Haight-Ashbury itself, it lost all the urban turf battles to thugs; bikers, junkies and the narcotics squad, all the other elements which, like opportunistic diseases, find a soft opening and fill it.)
Pimp my Life
The Unintended Consequences of Successful Literature
ON THE SUBJECT OF THE 60s, I have to say that I’m finding the nostalgia with that decade to be kind of silly. I mean, did we really think that a time of unjustified overseas slaughter, cops describing your hair style as probable cause, carloads of rednecks attacking you on sight and businesses refusing to serve you would someday qualify as The Good Old Days?
Me, the first thing that always comes to mind is the most embarrassing: bellbottoms.
In the sixties, however, things were funky. And not just the music. The cities were funky; dirty, grubby, dangerous and full of the kind of colorful street life that people wrote songs about. Those that lived. As has been true ever since Jericho, every city had a rundown sin sector. There you could score dope, a hooker, a gun or a fake driver’s license. Or at least if you weren’t mugged or ripped off. There was a defensive line of grifters, burn artists and hustlers standing between you and what you’d come for. Some of their scams, like the murphy, had been around for decades, maybe even centuries, and owing to the endless stream of unsophisticated marks flocking in every night, they still worked.
This was true even in Canada. Despite their overwhelmingly nice, polite and civilized population, and a national crime rate only slightly higher than that of the Amish, they had a few misfits and fuckups. And like just about every other country in the world, they hadn’t the faintest idea what to do with them.
When I got there, I gravitated toward the sin sector, a bohemian quarter called Yorkville Village, and didn’t leave for almost a year. The criminal fog that society had cast over drug use created a shelter of sorts for the real thugs, and since the cops felt Bohemians were undistinguishable from burglars and muggers and even child molesters, the Village warehoused that rough, dangerous element as well.
And it was, actually. It was the designated hangout for motorcycle gangs, French-Canadian cutthroats, and gangs of belligerent Scots, fresh from The Gorbals, who could, from a standing position, kick your teeth out. And they did. It was also the new home for everyone freshly released from prison. These guys would mix uneasily with the poets, sailors, artists, musicians, easy women and vagabonds that make up Bohemia worldwide, and it was inevitable that the disparate cultures would both clash and rub off on one another. I want to talk about one of the odder examples.
I came down on the Bohemian side of things, and I hustled–as honestly as possible– various illegal commodities. One usually needs a partner—well, lookout—doing stuff like that, and I eventually teamed up with a guy named Lenny. Lenny was a runaway from one of the Northern provinces, and he walked a line somewhere in between the Bohos and the genuine hard guys. He was no flower child. He reasoned, correctly, that wearing floral clothes and shoulder-length hair were just another way of saying “arrest me for something,” so he sported short hair, a clipped, military-style mustache, and he dressed as though he was going to a bowling tournament. He looked tough, but he refused to hurt people when they got in his way. He just adjusted his market and act and tried to get on with everyone. And since this was the kind of stance I was taking as well, we became friends.
One night, despite his starched shirt and white socks, he got busted by an undercover cop. It must be remembered, as pathetic as it sounds today, that simple possession of a single joint of marijuana could—and did—get you five years in jail. Or worse. Selling bags of it, which is what Lenny was doing, could get you twice that. And instead of organizing and writing to elected officials and going on the talk shows explaining what a ludicrous waste of tax dollars and human capital this was, we just hunkered down and learned to carry weapons and not to trust anyone at all.
Lenny made bail, and was soon back on the street. But he was marked. Everyone thought that the cops had turned him and he would grass on his friends for a reduced sentence. I felt the same way, but I did attend his arraignment, and some subsequent legal adventures. I acquired a new partner and went about my business. If I felt bad about leaving a friend high and dry at his moment of need, I soon got over it. I wouldn’t have if we had been working in some legitimate field. This is another example of the small-time crooks and smaller-time bohos learning from each other.
A few weeks later, all of Lenny’s charges were dropped, and I saw him cruising the streets in a new convertible, next to a wealthy-looking lady, easily twice his age and three times his weight. The street take on this was that she had paid off the cops and the judge, and through that purchased Lenny.
We were all pretty impressed. This was, in fact, too good to be true. This was every lowlife hustler’s dream. All he had to do was keep this old lady happy and he would be spared the jail time, sudden gunshots on the street, and, eventually, the janitorial career that looms in the futures of thugs and Bohos everywhere.
Around the same time, I left town, and in fact did some jail time back in the U.S. Doing my bit, I had come to the realization that I didn’t have what it takes for a life of crime. It’s one of the lowest circIes of capitalism, and it called for a level of arrogance and meanness that I didn’t really have. I found that I couldn’t bring myself to gut a colleague over a disputed seven dollars, and that marked me as a sissy, someone that could be trifled with. I mean, if a guy can’t even respond in the socially accepted manner when the situation clearly calls for it, he might as well turn in his razor and two-tone shoes and get a job. Which I did. Upon my release, I entered the world of gainful, low-level employment and didn’t return to the Village for almost a year.
It was, amazingly when you consider what it would become, exactly the same. All the hangouts were still there, in fact the verb “gentrify” was only five years old.
I went into the Penny Farthing, my favorite coffeehouse. That place had an entirely new crop of long-haired, bell-bottomed guys and gals, indicating that I hadn’t been the only one to have law enforcement issues over the past year. But over in a corner, there was one pathetic looking wretch; unshaven even by 60s standards, wearing what I would charitably call rags, and snarling silently at everyone in sight. And a closer look revealed that this human wreckage was my old pal Lenny.
Well. I had reported his good fortune with the wealthy benefactor as too good to be true, and indeed, it must have been. Even in jail, I had never seen such a picture of such overarching, overwhelming misery. He seemed to be staring at some hideous, dark corner of the world, on the off-chance that a man-eating tiger might shred him.
According to the once-famous writer Frederic Prokosch, there is a sub-society in South Asia that seems to worship despair. They sit around, do nothing to sustain themselves, and moon about the edges of society, glowering, mumbling about how pointless life is. If the rest of the world didn’t toss them stale bread and the occasional dead pigeon they would just sit there until they starved to death. They find no positive spin on anything that has ever happened anywhere. Their function is to inflict their misery upon the rest of the world, and die whining about how awful life was.
I don’t know how actually true this is; Prokosch later admitted to making a lot of his material up. But if such a cult did exist, this version of Lenny would have had no trouble with their entrance exam.
“Hey Lenny, man. Good to see you.”
Long pause. Then, “Hmgfph…”
“I did some time in the States. But it’s done. I’m a free man.”
Longer pause. “Snurgf…”
“You okay? You don’t look so good.”
I looked at him closely. He wasn’t stoned, riding out some powerful acid trip or anything like that. He was just, you know, Snurgf…
Well, consoling people is not my strong suit. I don’t like to hear about other people’s emotional issues. My recipe for dealing with sad people is to leave their company immediately. I generally go to another table, whip out a book and dive into it. This is a very quick, cheap way to leave town for a while. So, I had a book in my pocket, and I whipped it out and handed it to this zombie across the table.
“Lenny, read this. Read anything. Read a well-written book. You’ll feel better afterwards. I guarantee it.”
Long pause. Then, “Whrplfug…”
And I left him. I headed back to Detroit, figuring that I had Done Good that day.
Good intentions, alas. How many times have we heard the one about no good deed going unpunished? How many times have we done something nice, with the purest of heart, only to see it turn into a disaster that people will blame you for? You lend someone your car and he drives straight into a Mack Truck. You give an old friend a hearty slap on the back, only to learn that she’s recovering from spinal surgery…
I mean, I was trying to help a friend get out of a difficult spot. Reading is one of the best ways to do that. Reading can let you, in the words of Somerset Maugham “…cheat (the) insistence of your own thoughts” for a while, and return to the world in a better state.
But of all the books in this world, I probably shouldn’t have given him Pimp, the Story of my Life, by Iceberg Slim.
BOOKS AGAIN INTERLUDE:
Now, I will not answer to the charge of gutter literature. Pimp is the story of a black American, forced, by undeniable racism, into the world of vice, one of the few trades that were open to blacks in the middle of the 20th century. Or, it could just as accurately be described the story of an evil, bad-assed nigga in a land with lots of them. Either way, I think it’s a must-read.
Mr. Slim (Robert Beck) was an intelligent man, but he was infected with what he called “street poison” at an early age. He used his good looks, charm and cunning to succeed in the black American underworld, a land as unforgiving as a medieval battlefield. Pimp is hugely insightful, well-written—or at least well-edited–and it launched a very interesting literary career. His book about Otis Tilson (Mama Black Widow), which chronicled the life of a gay black man in 1930’s Chicago, is a minor masterpiece and deserves a lot more attention than it got. I maintain that white Americans who get all of their information about black Americans from positive image productions are getting a partial picture at best.
Pimp, despite Beck’s obligatory, rote and patently insincere protestations, did glamorize the pimp life. He spent a lot of time analyzing his former profession, and the flash and front that went with it. He writes quite seriously about his worries about having “only” ten thousand Depression dollars to get through a rough couple of months. He made it look very difficult, but a hell of a lot more interesting than working on the line at Ford. He shone a light on a profession that the respectable world considered the vilest, lowest, most contemptible lifestyle around; and if he didn’t bring it into the mainstream, at least he humanized it a bit. Who knows what the anthropologists are going to look at next?
END BOOKS AGAIN INTERLUDE
More time passed, and I went back to Toronto about six months later, and headed straight to the Penny Farthing. The instant I walked in I saw Lenny. Or what I assumed was Lenny.
For this guy was not weighing different methods of suicide. This guy was smirking, dressed in the height of what passed for fashion, sporting expensive jewelry and even a manicure. A manicure, for Christ’s sake. Getting a manicure in late ’60s Bohemia was on a par with getting a flat-top haircut. With fenders. What, I thought, is going on here?
The minute he saw me he jumped up, ran over and shook my hand. The brightest smile I had ever seen lit up his face. The way his eyes shone, I might have been the advance man for the Rapture.
“My man!! My man!! I’m so honored to see you! You saved my life!! You pulled me out of the valley of despair!!”
I did? What the hell was he talking about? It had been a while since I had last seen him, and all I could remember was that he had been ready to stick his head into a cement mixer. Now, he seemed ready to audition for a beer commercial.
“You showed me the way!! You lit up my path!! Where would I be without you?? You turned me on to the book of all books!!”
Again, I did? I was getting uncomfortable. His almost lunatic happiness seemed like the kind you get when someone has found a new religion. I wondered, what book? Had I given him a bible?
“Man, you saved my life!! I mean it!! I was down in the mud, so low that— This is the new me!!!“
Suddenly he shut up. All the joy and goodwill toward his fellow man flew right out of his face, replaced by an evil scowl. He looked past me, and I turned to see.
A young woman had entered the café. She wasn’t that pretty, and she carried herself sadly, with a built-in air of depression and what we would now call low self-esteem. She also had some bruises, here and there.
“Bitch,” Lenny snarled, “I hope you gots my scratch. You bettah hope you gots my scratch.” This was delivered in the cold, cruel tones we associate with melodrama villains. “Scratch,” by the way, is an ancient underworld term for money, used in Iceberg’s book and practically nowhere else, ever. I know. I tried it once, talking to some playahs in a Detroit dope house. They almost fell over laughing.
“Scratch? Scratch? Watchoo say? You say scratch?? Hey, Dewey! White boy here wansta know how much”—huge laugh here—“scratch he gotta put down!” Loud laughter, all around the room.
“He say what?? He say scratch??” More laughter. Far more laughter.
“All right, guys, really, c’mon, you know, all I meant was—“
“Don’t be pullin out no blade. Ya’ll might scratch yo’seff!” Roomfull of laughter.
“I ain’t playin’ no pool with Whiteboy here. He gonna scratch da 8 ball!” Huge laughs, all over the place.
“Oh for Chrissake. It wasn’t that funny…”
“Hey, ya’ll hear Pops Armstrong’s new LP? Scratchmo Live!” Virtual howls and hoots from everyone present.
“Oh, you know, just forget it. Forget I mentioned it.”
“I ain’t nevah gonna forget that. And you ain’t nevah gonna forget it.” Even more laughs.
And he was right, I never did.
END SCRATCH DIGRESSION
“Daddy, I got some—“
“Bitch I don’ wanna hear no shit ‘bout some a mah scratch. Some a mah scratch might jus’ pay fo’ yo’ tombstone, nasty bitch.” I should mention here that Lenny was born and raised somewhere around the Hudson Bay Territory and had met perhaps four black people in his life.
“Bitch,” he hissed. “You tryin’ to make me mean?” His tone indicated that making Lenny mean was the last thing anyone should ever, ever do. It also implied that up to now, he had been being nice.
He walked over to her, holding out his hand. She quickly stuffed some notes into it. He looked them over.
“Getchoo ass out dey and get da rest. You hear me, bitch?”
The unfortunate young lady nodded quickly, eagerly, and got the hell out of there.
Lenny turned to me, smiling widely. “Now,” he said, “Dat bitch gonna get da money right.”
By then, of course, I had remembered the name of the book.
Well. Doctor Frankenstein, move over. In fact, compared to Lenny, Frankenstein’s monster was a lovable, misunderstood giant who killed in self-defense and whose only real crime was smoking a cigar indoors. It was another example of the unintended consequences of successful literature. Three different losers claimed The Catcher in the Rye as the inspiration for their shooting sprees. Could Nietzsche, with all his brilliance, have imagined what people like Hitler would be doing with the thoughts in his books? For that matter, could the various authors of the various bibles envision centuries of pogroms, the Crusades and Tammy Faye Bakker? And now it looked as though I was going to get a charter membership in this club. Without any of the royalties.
So, I was in an “ethical” dilemma. I don’t approve of beating women up. I mean, Iceberg didn’t approve of beating women up. Well, at least indiscriminately. He wrote that the biggest mistake of his career was angrily punching his bottom woman and breaking her jaw, a slice of pimp discipline that ultimately landed him in Leavenworth. The pimp game, he said, over and over, is a psychological profession. His mentor told him that “a good pimp could cut off his dick and still pimp,” although I didn’t think I ought to make that argument to Lenny.
But I was still enough outlaw—it takes a couple of years for those particular fires to die down—that I didn’t want to come off as a prude. I had to acknowledge that Lenny was living from a working hustle, still sleeping late, thumbing his nose at the squares and paying his bills—including his manicurist’s–at the same time.
But I didn’t see any point in hanging around after that. Something went stale in the Village; all at once, it turned sordid. I didn’t like the new Lenny, any more than I’d liked the New Nixon. I found Lenny’s new world to be even more depressing than his previous one. He was hustling, yes, he was free of alarm clocks and shift supervisors, yes, but he was doing it at the grubbiest, lowest level of the sporting life; chasing his whore down and snatching the money after every trick. Mack men who do this are known–in Iceberg’s world, anyway–as chili pimps, and on that particular ladder, there are few rungs lower. And here he was, smug about it. Like so many low-level crooks, all he had to do was avoid panhandling for a few months in a row, and he felt that he was now a bad-ass playah.
All of this, I have to admit, was kind of my fault. If I’d needed another reason for leaving small-time crookdom, it was sitting back there at the Penny Farthing, counting out Canadian two-dollar bills with manicured fingers. So, it was time to leave, and stay gone for a long time. I went back to Detroit and resumed my place on the loading dock.
I went back to Toronto in 2017. The Village, of course, was unrecognizable. A confederacy of yuppies, cops and real estate developers had invaded, armed with New England lampposts and pots full of ferns. They left a generic row of high-rise buildings with all the originality and character of a french-fried potato. Nobody tried to sell me anything illegal. No hookers smiled and wiggled. No bikers revved their engines, no fights erupted. No drunken Scots drop-kicked me in the chin. No bistro sold anything for under ten dollars. And no one, of course, had heard of a small-time pimp who talked like a Richard Pryor impersonator. One guy referred me to Snow, the white rapper from an Irishtown housing project.
What’s Lenny doing now? I still wonder about that now and then. Since he was Canadian, raised with a sense of decency and a work ethic, I like to think that he woke up one afternoon, took a serious look at the idiotic figure he was cutting, shrieked with embarrassment, and hopped on the first train back to Puvirnitug. Maybe he dropped back into organized society. Maybe the Hudson’s Bay Company needed a well-dressed greeter at one of their outlets.
The HR department would have been impressed with his manicure.