Tag Archives: robert burke warren

My Racist Friend

joyriding

When I see the hate-filled faces of the Neo Nazis, KKK, and assorted white supremacists, I feel revulsion, anxiety, and sadness. I also feel familiarity. Like most white Southerners, my family tree contains a carefully taught, particularly intense fear of difference.

My maternal grandmother, Gammie, was in the United Daughters of the Confederacy – her grandfather, Josephus Camp, Sr., fought for the South – and she cleaved to the Gone with the Wind fantasy of “the good old days” of Dixie: the Civil War was about state’s rights, the generals were men of honor with rebel spirit, slaves were often “family,” and the Jim Crow South was when “everyone knew their place,” etc. You can boil down all of the above to fear, learned at her daddy’s knee; fear of difference, and desire to remain separate from, and feel superior to that which is feared.

My estranged father died driving drunk in 1972, when I was seven, and my mother, Mary, never remarried, so she depended on Gammie to help raise my brother and me. For that we were lucky. Gammie loved us, we loved her, she showed up. It pains me to write anything negative about her, lest she be reduced to something she was not. But in truth, among many other things, she was an apologist for the Confederacy.

Interestingly, although raised Southern Baptist, Gammie married and bore the children of Salvatore “Sam” Lucchese, my grandfather, a Sicilian Catholic son of immigrants and lifelong Democrat, not a racist. Her distraught mother would only ever refer to him as “The Wop.” I like to tell myself that an unconscious-yet-engaged part of Gammie, a genuinely good and brave element discouraged and suppressed by her forebears, sought to commingle her DNA with Sam’s to begin the process of breaking the cycle of racism, of hate. If so, it worked. Mostly.

My mom, a Baby Boomer, rebelled against her upbringing. She exposed my brother and me to narratives and morals wildly different from what we saw and heard in Gammie’s house. We were hippie kids, grubby, longhaired, and barefoot, raised feminist (in our house, at least), taught that the absolute worst word in the world was nigger. (To this day I have a visceral reaction when I hear it.) Mom presented the rising multiculturalism of post-Civil Rights Act Atlanta as something to embrace. And embrace it we did.

The times were on Mom’s side. The 1973 election of Atlanta’s first African-American mayor, Maynard Jackson, signaled a shift that felt as normal to me as a change in season. We enjoyed the brief, post-Watergate, welcome novelty of our state’s former governor Jimmy Carter, an erstwhile peanut farmer and blue collar Democrat, rising to the White House in 1976. Other aspects of this environment that shaped us were integrated schools, friends and teachers of color, Jewish neighbors, queer neighbors, immigrant-owned businesses, and pervasive, genre-bending, rainbow-fueled music. Gammie’s politics didn’t stand a chance. They actually made no sense.

Yet somehow, I strayed. For years, when I’ve told told the story I concoct of my life, I’ve omitted an aberrant period of a year or so, when I rebelled against my mother’s rebellion. From age twelve to thirteen, I ran with a rich, charismatic, racist kid. I’ll call him Ricky Green. Today, when I see the so-called alt-right, I see Ricky, and I cringe at the version of myself that maintained a friendship with a kid who routinely said nigger, even as I protested. Especially as I protested.

I wonder why, exactly, I put up with it, as I didn’t before and haven’t since. I can say this: As a child, I was often afraid, obsessed with thoughts of death, made all the more intimate by losing my dad, having him here one day, gone forever the next. I was acutely aware of my connection to other people, and the prospect of another rupture terrified me.

Ricky Green’s cardinal trait was a dumb kind of fearlessness, and engaging with that helped alleviate my fears, of that I’m sure. To thirteen-year-old me, his racism was worth the payoff of feeling unafraid. Until it wasn’t.

~

Ricky’s and my story began in the summer between 7th and 8th grade – the summer of ’78. Quite abruptly, our shoulders had broadened, we’d grown taller, and girls bloomed all around us. They paid particular attention to sandy-haired, movie-star handsome, foulmouthed Ricky, who was not yet my friend, though we’d attended the same school for years. Even as he gleefully popped their bra straps, I noticed how girls nevertheless drank him in, how they convulsively giggled at his quips. How everyone gasped as he talked back to the teacher, even as that teacher hit him with a hockey stick, and pulled him, still seated at his desk, by his hair across the classroom. All the while, Ricky just laughed.

Soon after the hockey stick incident, Ricky seemed to sense my admiration, and invited me to his house. On the way home, we stopped at the Majik Market to play the Kiss pinball machine. Ricky mercilessly made fun of the Pakistani counter guy’s accent (behind his back). My face went hot with shame, but Ricky’s magnetism won out. Even as he whispered nigger in my ear when we passed an African American on the sidewalk – in part because it upset me, which he found hilarious – I continued hanging out with him.

Like me, Ricky was a latchkey kid. His very successful attorney father – who I never saw – had divorced his mother, and she was either not at their splendid, pine-shrouded home in an upscale neighborhood, or she was asleep in her upstairs bedroom, or, as Ricky said, she was “at the fat farm,” leaving us the run of the place. I have no recollections of her present as we raided the pantry, and/or watched R-Rated movies – Ricky called them “fuck movies” – on HBO. (The Greens were the only family I knew with HBO.) She slept so soundly, Ricky could sneak into her room and grab her car keys from her pocketbook.

“Let’s go for a ride in the Caddy!” he said, laughing. “You gotta help me push it into the street, though.”

“You can drive?”

“Fuck yes, I can. I’ll drive us to Kathy’s house. Ally’s there. It’ll be like the panty raid on Happy Days!”

Of course I helped. In the wee hours of the morning, we pushed his mom’s 1979 Cadillac DeVille down their driveway and into the street. I hopped in as Ricky started it up, wrestling with my nerves as he caromed through the suburbs, wind in his hair, laughing, radio blasting Styx and Kansas. We had no drugs or alcohol, just Ricky’s contagious bravado, perhaps the most potent intoxicant I’ve ever imbibed.

Incredibly, we got away with it. This further emboldened us to joyride several times that summer, two thirteen-year-old boys in a Cadillac in the dead of night, dropping in on girls having sleepovers. We were never caught.

Eventually, Ricky got his hands on a bag of pot, and we began to get high, which dampened the impulse to sneak out the Caddy. We just sat around smoking joints, watching HBO, and eating junk food. As I dragged on the joint, Ricky was fond of saying, “Don’t nigger lip it!”

Later, while smoking a joint with my friend Johnny and his much older disco dandy brother, Gus, I aped Ricky. I said, “Don’t nigger lip it!” This was the only time in my life I’ve used that word. Gus and Johnny’s parents had emigrated from Cuba, and I thought Gus was the coolest. He said, “Don’t say that, man. I got a lotta black friends.” He seemed personally hurt, disappointed.

In that moment – an older person acting parental, calling me out, caring – something shifted. It would take a night of wingin’ for me to fully awaken.

Wingin’ entailed hiding in bushes and hurling rocks at cars. These episodes pain me the most, even more than my wimpy protests to the word nigger. Because we endangered people. For fun. The night our mutual friend – I’ll call him Jim – joined us, things escalated. Jim was particularly insecure, desperate to be liked, and would do anything Ricky asked. After a few volleys of rocks at cars, followed by running into the woods, Ricky held up an aluminum baseball bat.

“Wing this at the next car,” Ricky said to Jim.

Jim readily agreed, laughing maniacally. Soon, a Volkswagen Bug much like my mom’s headed our way. Jim flung the bat as hard as he could and it slammed into the car door with a resonant bang. The car screeched to a halt and we bolted into the woods by Ricky’s house.

Instead of my usual adrenal euphoria, I felt a cold wave of guilt. Clueless Jim and Ricky cackled, pushing pine branches out of the way, and once again, we escaped retribution. But for me, the thrill was gone. Was it because the VW reminded me of my mom and reignited what she’d taught me, clarified my shame? Perhaps.

Soon after, Jim told me Ricky was sick of me talking about my dad’s death. My father had been gone for six years, and to my horror, memories of him were fading. And I did, in fact, often mention him as a means of keeping his memory alive, and, quite honestly, to gin up sympathy. As sad as that seems now, I can actually understand how it could irritate a thirteen-year-old. But at the time, I seized on Ricky’s insensitivity toward my grief; I would use it to sever ties. This particular affront produced actionable rage. I challenged him to a fight next to the tire swings at school.

“Don’t say shit about my dad,” I said, as kids gathered to watch.

“I didn’t say shit about your dad!” Ricky said.

Ricky and I grappled and swung for about ten seconds before a teacher broke it up, and gave us a talking to. The teacher made us shake hands, and Ricky said, “Can we be friends again now?” I nodded, but we both knew it was over.

Summer came. I kept to myself. I slept on our screened-in porch, and rode my bike all over Atlanta in the middle of the night, thinking about finally learning to play bass. I’d been procrastinating picking up an instrument, resisting a pull from my future, but I was about to give in. One night, riding in the middle of a deserted road, I nearly wept with sweet anticipation, a sense of destiny. Mom bought me a plywood starter bass, and I immediately devoted myself to it. Within three years, I would be gigging in clubs, a working musician.

The last time I saw Ricky was junior year of high school. He was hanging out with the druggies, waving to me from the smoking area, a glazed Cheech & Chong expression on his face. He would soon either drop out or transfer. Years passed, I moved to New York, and my time with the racist kid faded, in part because I was loath to revisit it, afraid of being judged for having been so cowardly. My brother occasionally crossed paths with Ricky, though, and reported that he had become a restorer of old Atlanta houses, but had subsequently developed an anxiety disorder, become addicted to Xanax, and never left his home. A couple years ago, I learned Ricky committed suicide.

Had he changed in those post-school years? I do not know. Truthfully, I hadn’t thought much about him until I saw those young white supremacists marching, and I recalled childhood time spent with Ricky, thinking we were invulnerable. The pleasure I experienced in his company was in feeling unconnected to others, until I woke up to the painful, beautiful fact that no one really is.

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Luis Revisited

 

 

Eleven years ago, in the summer of 2006, my old friend Luis Fernandez de la Reguera was staying with us when he crashed his motorcycle on our street and suffered ultimately fatal head trauma. He lingered in the Albany Medical Center ICU, attached to machines for three days before they unhooked him, let him go, and harvested his kidneys and, to my astonishment, his liver.

Something in the summer air tonight brought him back to me. He is heavy on my mind and heart, and I am missing him, wishing with new acuity he was here to see his godson, Jack, now 19 and home from his first year away at college. These longings do not go away, apparently, but rather ebb and flow. Tonight, they flow.

I am remembering in particular telling Luis that Holly was pregnant. He was the first person I told. It was a summer night, not unlike tonight. He was bartending at the Lakeside Lounge on Avenue B, and I walked across Tompkins Square Park to tell him. Face alight with joy, he hugged me, his eyes wide, focused on my me with palpable heat. “You have intent on your face,” he said. “Intent.”

He was correct. I’d been floundering in my life, unsure if I was investing my energy wisely. One of the only things in which I felt confident was I knew I wanted to be a father. This had always been deeply true. Now it was happening, and my energy shifted, consolidated, concentrated on a single point, a spark of life we would name Jack. I would become his primary caregiver while his mother worked in midtown Manhattan, and we’d all navigate accordingly. I don’t really believe in Destiny, but it felt fated.

I wanted Luis in on this. A couple months later, at the Dynasty Diner (AKA the Die Nasty) I asked him to be my son’s godfather. I wanted him in Jack’s life, to help teach, to shepherd. Luis was one of the bravest people I ever met, and he made me brave; he cast light on a bigger, broader picture of life. I wanted my son to know that sense of release, of expansiveness, where emotions like shame and regret dissipate, and joy and hope solidify, so you can touch and wield them.

Luis was taken aback, but he said yes. Rather than godfather, he asked to be referred to as padrino, i.e. “little dad,” a nod to his Mexican heritage. To be honest, he was a little mad at me for asking him. This came out later. Neither one of us really knew what we were doing, and as a man, he was still struggling to strike a balance in his relationships between no-strings-attached gypsy freedom and pledges of responsibility.  Still, he adjusted, and came to appreciate and love his role as Jack’s padrino. I had faith he and my son would find a distinctive relationship rhythm, and both would feel enriched. I was sure of this.

The following January 21st, he was the first to visit us at St. Vincent’s, when Jack was born. It was a Wednesday. A couple days later, Luis would drive us home in a blinding, record-breaking rainstorm, to the safety of our warm, dry St. Mark’s Place apartment.

 

In the days following Luis’ death, the smoke alarm outside the room he’d been staying in went off three times, with no smoke in the house. A blackbird flew in the dining room and perched, and then shat, on a tribute poster we’d made for Luis’ memorial. Our cat, Sis, caught an electric green hummingbird in her mouth, a horror to which Jack alerted me. I pried the bird loose from the irritated cat, prayed it would survive. After lolling stunned in my palm, it rose, hovered before my face, and zoomed away.

Years passed, and our lives carried on, as lives do. (Until they don’t.) Partly to assuage my grief, I jumped into the business of making children’s music as Uncle Rock,  surrounding myself with little humans unburdened by loss.

I also began to write in earnest. Luis’ death, combined with the death of my oldest friend Todd two years previous – about whom more in a few – spurred me on in this particular endeavor. (I’d been procrastinating for years.) But Luis’ presence was, and still is, so huge, I didn’t attempt to wrangle him into significantly meaty, dedicated prose. I was not ready. Nevertheless, aspects of his personality obliquely appeared in my work. All the while, my Writer Voice nagged me to come back to this presence later, and tell the story of our friendship, revivify the man and our connection as much as I can with the tools I’ve honed. I still intend to do it. It will be an undertaking. But I am working on Todd first.

(Luis’ and my mutual friend, Michael Poole, AKA The Professor, wrote about Luis beautifully and at length HERE.)

The few paragraphs I did manage about Luis are pasted below, shared at last. The file is dated September, 2006. I re-read them tonight for the first time in years. I banged them out in a haze of numb grief, closed the file, and got on with my life and work, which have been fulfilling, and for which I almost always feel grateful.

So please enjoy some remembrances of this man I loved, whose ghost rose in me tonight for reasons unclear, but who I welcome, as ever, despite the sadness. And while I’ve got your attention: forgive someone, call someone you’ve been meaning to call and tell them you love them, take a risk, hug a child, swallow rather than voice a complaint, take pleasure in your body. Seek out someone who makes you laugh, and laugh.

~

LAST CONVERSATION WITH LUIS

9-06

The last conversation Luis and I had was two nights before the motorcycle accident that cut short his life. The crash would occur three driveways from our 1910 Victorian house in rural Phoenicia, New York. He was on his way back home and we were all going out to have Mexican food. I remember being nervous about the prospect of Luis not being impressed with the Gypsy Wolf – the Mexican restaurant in nearby Woodstock. Having just spent three years on the Yucatan Peninsula, in the Mexican culture than ran thick in his blood, Luis knew whereof he spoke – and ate – when it came to Mexican food, and his stories of culinary adventures ran the gamut from sublime to horrifically disgusting and funny. For instance, he’d gotten parasites from eating a taco filled with brains, about which he laughed. I wasn’t nervous about what he would say about the Gypsy Wolf; the truth was always a given with Luis. I simply wanted him to be happy with his food.

Thirty-six hours prior to that day, in the dim light of a computer screen in the guest room of my home, Luis and I were riffing and laughing. Luis was allergic to our cat, so my wife Holly had given him an Allegra, and he was buzzing like he’d just drank a double espresso. And stimulants were not his thing; drawn to depressants, he’d struggled with heroin before I knew him, and he was always at odds with alcohol. On the Allegra, his already-protruding brown eyes were bugging out and his everyday rapid-fire speech was even more accelerated than usual. But it was like music, that voice – a New Orleans gumbo of oddball pronunciations, a giddy squeal-to-a-snort of laughter, laced with punk rock energy and sweet, soulful charm. I was exhausted, having worked that day at a summer camp, but I’d not yet had much quality time with Luis, so I fought my fatigue.

Luis had been with us for a week, having divested himself of his house in Mexico, bought an RV in Florida, and driven up I-95 to come and get a bunch of things I’d been holding onto for him during his time south of the border. His plan was to have a long-overdue visit with my family – which included his godson, my eight-year-old Jack – get his stuff, and turn around and head to Costa Rica to start a new chapter in his life. Included in that stuff was his beloved BMW motorcycle, which was in our horse barn, draped with heavy quilted blankets. A family of mice had taken up residence on the seat, nesting in shredded cloth on the cracked black leather. Amazingly, however, when Luis wheeled it into the bright August sun, the bike had started right up. In the day-and-a-half that followed our last conversation, he would tinker with it in the backyard. Some time later, while he lingered in this realm, tethered to machines to keep him alive, I would clean up the flattened cardboard box he’d been using to keep the oil spillage off the flagstones.

In the guest room, we’d been talking about suicide. My friend Todd’s, in fact. Next to Luis, whom I’d know since 1985, Todd had been my oldest friend. The two friendships were similar not only in their length, but also in the fact that each was a thread that could be picked up effortlessly after weeks or months had passed. There was no awkward period of getting back in tune with one another – we always just picked up where we left off. In that last conversation, I’d played Luis a song I’d written about Todd, and, even though the song does not overtly state it, Luis picked up on something. “You’re still mad about that, aren’t you?” he’d asked, referring to Todd’s intentional drug overdose two years earlier. I’d replied that yeah, in addition to the myriad other emotions that torment my innards, anger still rises and falls, though with less intensity than before. In response, Luis told me a story.

He’d been 18, living in New Orleans, where he’d spent much of his youth with an abusive single father. Careening into manhood, Luis had moved out of his father’s house and into a shitty apartment with two fellow punk rockers. Tired of feeling bad all the time, Luis had chosen to kill himself. He’d waited until he was fairly sure his roommates would be out, then he’d purchased three bottles of Sominex and a fifth of Jack Daniel’s. He’d taken off his boots, downed his drugs and crawled under the bed to hide, and ultimately, to die. Through a series of unlikely twists of fate, one of Luis’s roommates happened to see the three Sominex boxes on the sidewalk outside the apartment, had sensed something, and had gone inside to look for him. Because he’d taken off his boots and left them in plain sight (“They were the only footwear I owned,” Luis laughed) the roommate eventually figured out Luis was in the apartment, found him, and called 911.

Luis told me he’d awoken in the emergency room with a tube down his throat, the taste of charcoal in his mouth, and a New Orleans cop in his face telling him he’d broken the law. He’d told the cop to fuck off, then got his shit together and headed for New York. “But man,” Luis said with a soft shake of his head, “when I was drinking that Jack Daniel’s and taking those sleeping pills… I was so happy. I remember that. I hadn’t been that happy in a long time.”

I can see his face as he said it – deep dark eyes filled with fierce love, and a trace of fear overcome by the heart that beat strong inside him. In my mind’s eye, Luis is stretched out on the bed a couple feet away from me, in blue Carhartt jeans and a white V-neck T-shirt, dingy white socks on his feet. He is smiling, in need of a shave. Scalp, and handsome, russet face covered with stubble; hirsute forearms, usually gesticulating expressively, are resting on his round belly. He’d told me on the phone, en route north to Phoenicia, that he’d gotten “fat and bald,” and he had. But he’d been surrounded by family love in both Mexico and Florida, a nurturing sort of love that he’d never experienced to such a degree with blood relatives, and when I saw him thus, I was happy for him.

I’ll never know if Luis realized what a gift he gave me with that story. The tale of his attempted suicide had broadened something within me. My compassion for Todd increased, and I could finally let go of some of the toxic sense of betrayal I’d harbored over his decision to leave behind his wife and newly-adopted daughter. I know now that when I go to that inner landscape to grapple with life’s difficulties, I will have a broader field on which to work my creative energy. Luis gave me that. And while I did realize it at the time, I suppressed an impulse to hug him. I did, however, tap one of his sock-covered toes and grab one of his shins and say, “I’m really glad you didn’t check out.” I said it as I was getting up to leave the room to go to bed. Luis was wearing me out.

“Yeah, me too!” he laughed.

He spent the entire next day with my son Jack, walking along the nearby train tracks, going into town for ice cream, and talking. The day after would be the day of Luis’ wreck, which remains a mystery. My neighbor says she saw the BMW stop abruptly – the engine likely seized up – and Luis pitch over the handlebars, landing on his head, which was protected only by a so-called “brain bucket,” i.e. a helmet mainly just for show. He’d left in our mudroom the helmet that likely would have saved his life.

But I focus on the day before, Friday, August 11th, 2006, when Luis and Jack hung out. That afternoon the two of them brought home a large rusted plate of iron with a railroad spike sticking out of it, which is still on the porch as I write this. Luis and Jack bonded that day. The accident and Luis’s subsequent death gave my then-eight-year-old son his first experience of grief. He cried many times with Holly and me between my trips to and from the hospital ICU.

Luis had sent Jack a T-shirt from Mexico emblazoned with a bandanna-wearing chulo on the front, and a low-rider with flames around it on the back. It’s too big, so it has become a nightshirt. Jack pulled it over his head a few evenings ago and wept. But he left it on and it kept him warm as he slept.

Perfectly Broken Southern Tour!

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Hello and Happy June!

I am prepping for my Perfectly Broken mini-tour through the South. Very excited to be doing events at Malaprops in Asheville (Thursday June 16th at 7 pm) Parnassus Books in Nashville, (Friday, June 17th at 6:30) and A Cappella Books in my old stompin’ grounds, Atlanta (Sunday, June 19th, 6 pm). I’ll also be dropping in on an Atlanta book club called “Reading Between the Wines.” They’re reading Perfectly Broken, and we’ll discuss it.

I’ll be posting all press clips. Watch this space. (And/or my Facebook page.)

More reviews have been coming in. You can read a great one from The Nervous Breakdown HERE.

Remember: if you’ve read the book and want to help out, you can (and please do) write reviews on amazon and Goodreads. Or just give stars. And of course actual word of mouth is still the best. Thank you.

Wonderful North Carolina public radio station WNCW asked me to send them a one minute audio file of me reading from the book, which they will use to promote the Malaprops event. Here ’tis:


On Tuesday the 14th, I’ll be renting a car and hitting the road for my first jaunt – 14 hours, give or take, to Asheville, where my brother and his family live. I’ll be staying with friends and family in every town. I expect Atlanta to be particularly interesting, as I’ll be seeing some folks I’ve not laid eyes on in 30 years – a combo of schoolmates from Christ the King Catholic School and Northside High School, members of what I have dubbed the New Wave Queer Underground, my family and friends, plus curious strangers attracted by the press.

I intend to blog as much as I can. Stay tuned!

RBW

Indie stores with signed copies of Perfectly Broken to ship to you:

LITTLE CITY BOOKS

GOLDEN NOTEBOOK

OBLONG BOOKS & MUSIC

 

 

Mom’s Missions

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RBW, Mom, Britt, 1972

Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. I was born the following year. In the early days of my life, changes both tangible and subtle wrought by this landmark legislation – and subsequent amplifications of the Act – informed my life. The shadows of the Jim Crow South – the era of my immediate ancestors – receded, but would creep back through the decades. That darkness was – and, sadly, remains – always on the periphery of the South from which I sprang.

In my earliest days here, my single mom, the daughter of a journalist, wrote copy for ad agencies. (The Civil Rights Act did not guarantee her equal pay for this work, incidentally.) I retain but a few recollections of this time. My memories begin in earnest when she took a job with a federally funded program called Equal Opportunity of Atlanta, or EOA. The Equal Opportunity Act was part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, also enacted in 1964. When Nixon took office in 1969, the government kept it going, and Mom jumped on board to help poor people – mostly African Americans – get off welfare, find jobs and good homes, and keep their kids off the streets by employing them.

Mom had been raised in a racist household, and brainwashed, like most of her white southern generation, into Fear of the Blacks and Distrust of Big Government. EOA was a chance to continue her ongoing rebellion against those tenets AND put food on the table for my brother and me.

She invested her considerable energy in the very activities her parents’ old-guard peers regarded with mortal terror as “the n*****s taking over.” This included supporting Andrew Young in his unsuccessful first bid for Congress in 1970. She planted a campaign sign in our all-white neighborhood, a wooden sign that was three times vandalized and replaced. In my memory, these activities gave her more pleasure than anything.

At EOA, Mom wrote radio spots and created programs like Rent-A-Kid, wrote and edited copy for brochures and pamphlets, and went into the black communities to engage citizens, from elders to hipsters to preachers to unwed moms. Once in a while, she would take my brother, Britt, and me.

Perry Homes was a housing project in “the black section” of Atlanta. A tornado swept through one night, and did serious damage. All was darkness. McDonald’s donated a couple hundred cheeseburgers, and Mom and some EOA co-workers drove through the pitch-blackness with Britt and me in the bed of a truck, five and six years old, handing out burgers to residents huddled around trashcan fires. They were baffled and grateful. Like a lot of my childhood, it was both scary and fun. My brother remembers a man insisting on showing us his knife wound. In the glow of flashlights and cigarette ash, Mom was full of energy, unafraid, and all smiles.

One summer Sunday we went to a black church somewhere in Atlanta. Despite the sweltering heat, everyone was in their Sunday best, which mostly consisted of dark wool suits for the men, and immaculate, long dresses for the women. Even the kids were dressed up. My mom, brother, and I were the only white people there, and we had no Sunday clothes. Mom had some business with a young preacher, who strode out in long black wool robes and commenced testifying to much response from the crowd, who yelled and hooted and sang. This both exhilarated and frightened me.

I can still conjure the potpourri of sweat-soaked fabric, hair oil, and aggressively soap-scrubbed hands, wafting in waves, buffeted by fans in the hands of every congregant. Each fan – a piece of cardboard on a popsicle stick – featured a trinity of faces: MLK at the top, flanked below by Robert Kennedy and John Kennedy, each with their famous sayings below their portraits. We took one of these home, and the three figures looked back at me from the kitchen wall for years afterward. I memorized the snippet from each man’s speech, RFK’s being my favorite: “Some people look at things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’” (MLK’s was from the “I Have A Dream” speech and JFK’s was “Ask not what your country can do for you, etc.…”)

I’d never seen a preacher so worked up. He worked the pulpit like a rock star, sweat pouring down his face. In the middle of saying something about the Lamb of God, he collapsed with a clatter and boom on the wide floorboards. The room gasped and fell silent. Two men hurried over, ready with smelling salts, which they waved under his nose. He rose, drew a ragged breath, waved off his minders, and launched right back into his sermon. The church fell in with him, like nothing had happened. His passing out seemed a regular occurrence.

Every summer, Mom took us to the Piedmont Arts Festival, in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. Britt and I roamed barefoot and free in clouds of patchouli, incense, and pot smoke; we wandered in and out of stalls where young, scraggly, fragrant merchants sold leather goods, tie-dye, head shop items, and art in all manner of media; musicians played on stages and among the people, singing their anthems and laments while Hare Krishnas jingle-jangled along the winding paths. Grilled meat, spilled beer, oiled skin, stinky feet, cigarettes: all hung in the thick, hot air.

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It was the waning days of hippie-dom, but you wouldn’t have known it. It seemed like the heyday. The willed embrace of chaos so favored by the counterculture often scared me, but at the Piedmont Arts Fest, I successfully tapped into my brother’s and my mom’s contagious fearlessness. My brother and I were quick enough to elude pursuers, ready to climb to the upper boughs of a tree or to burrow beneath a gewgaw-strewn table if need be. We were hippie-kid outlaws, half-pint tricksters who could wreak mischief and vanish into the melee at will. We had fun.

Mom would catch up with us by evenfall, when sweat trickled onto my eyeglass lens, the salty drops skewing and refracting the soft lamplight, transforming it into a private vision of will o’ the wisps dancing above the exhaling park, my own little lightshow across the scuffed lenses of my glasses. In the homebound VW, Britt and I, filthy, scuffed, and happy, would crumple into each other and fall asleep as the streetlights passed overhead, our mother puffing on a cigarette, humming along to the radio, tipping ashes into the cool of the evening. Ready for anything.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. 5-8-2016
hippiemom

Sam F. Lucchese, Savior of My Bloodline

Salvatore "Sam" Francis Lucchese, circa 1920

Salvatore “Sam” Francis Lucchese, circa 1920

Today, April 21st, is my late grandfather, Salvatore “Sam” Francis Lucchese’s birthday. I honor him, now more than ever.

My writing gene comes from Sam. As I’ve nurtured it this last decade, communing with the DNA he bequeathed me via my mother, I have connected to a man I never felt close to in life. Most significant, I’ve realized how that writing gene altered the course of my family for the better, pivoting the line away from darkness. I feel that significance, and I am so proud. My grandfather was a quiet, unassuming hero, the savior of my bloodline.

~

Sam F. Lucchese, as he was professionally known, was born in 1900, in Victoria, Texas, to Sicilian immigrants, Giuseppe and Anna. Giuseppe and his brothers were renowned boot makers from Palermo. In the late 1800s, they’d come through the port of Galveston to make footwear for the Army at the Texas/Mexico border.

Sam, however, cared nothing for boot making. For reasons we will never know, when he came of age, he chose to make a life as an American writer. He did not go to college, but rather taught himself.

His cousin, Cosimo, turned Lucchese Boots into a thriving business. (LBJ is buried in Lucchese boots.) Sam, meanwhile, became a typesetter straight out of high school, and worked his way up to editor. In the 20s, he accepted a position on a paper in Georgia. In the Peach State, he met the beautiful, charismatic Genevieve Camp, my grandmother.

I never got a chance to know Sam. Although not unkind, he wasn’t really a kid person. My mother says he wasn’t “a hugger” in her youth, either. I don’t think Sam and I ever had a conversation. Yet, he was always around, a benign, calming presence, easy to take for granted. A diminutive Sicilian-American who loved All in the Family, black instant coffee in a plastic mug, and his poodle, Nicole, a gift from Tony Curtis. As children, my brother and I spent a lot of time in our maternal grandparents’ bungalow home. While our grandmother, Genevieve, aka “Gammie,” was very affectionate and present, Granddaddy spent hours in his musty basement office, focused, tapping incessantly on a manual typewriter. To this day, the distinctive percussion of a manual typewriter reminds me of him.

Before my birth, he primarily wrote arts-related features for Hearst-owned newspapers, most significantly the Atlanta Journal, for which he was entertainment editor most of his professional life. He was the publicist for Gone with the Wind and he interviewed the Beatles when they played the Atlanta Stadium in 1964. He retired from the Journal the year I was born (1965) but did not stop working; he wrote for Variety and other outlets, including the Atlanta Playboy Club’s At the Club publication. His writing put food on the table, paid the bills, kept my mom and her two sisters in saddle oxfords, and put them through college.

After a long decline, Sam died from Alzheimer’s in Atlanta in 1986, just before my 21st birthday. I was touring with the Fleshtones, in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. I flew home to help my brother and cousins carry the casket, my fingernails painted black, Mardi Gras beads dangling from the epaulet of my biker jacket.

~

Genevieve Camp, circa 1920s

Genevieve Camp, circa 1920s

 

Gammie did not speak much of her history until just a couple years before she passed in 2000 at age 94. While she displayed no photos of her family, the Camps, in the Lucchese house, she festooned the walls and surfaces with framed pictures of her and Sam’s progeny – their daughters, my brother, our cousins, me – and many movie stars they’d met on junkets. This lack of documentation of her pre-maternal life aroused no curiosity in me. Until Gammie, in the winter of her years, addled from falling down and hitting her head a few times too many, began to talk of the distant past.

Much is still shrouded in Southern Gothic mystery, but what emerged was a harrowing story of Gammie’s father, Josephus Camp, a hopeless alcoholic, failed attorney, likely bipolar. Darkly handsome. He would eventually blow his brains out in the 50s, and Gammie’s mother would insist she come help clean up the mess, which she did. He left behind a legacy of addiction, shame, and fear; carbons of letters thick with the scariest racism – i.e. hatred from the pen of an educated, eloquent, crazy person.

The Camps were devout Southern Baptist. Gammie’s siblings, Imogene and Joe, were both certified mentally ill; she with paranoid schizophrenia, he with what they called “dementia praecox,” which was likely schizophrenia with excessive manic features. Movie star gorgeous Imogene was able to function in society, but Joe spent most of his life institutionalized in the state mental hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia. Nannie, the febrile Camp matriarch, wrote of their relentlessly stressful life in journals now in my mother’s possession.

I knew none of this until my son, Jack, was born in 1998, and I was thirty-three.

In the middle of the maelstrom was Genevieve, my Gammie, eldest child and caregiver for her entire family. The rock. Yet, I imagine her desperate to find a way out of the doomed drama that was her family, a drama she would not speak of for decades.

To her racist parents’ horror, her ticket out was the short, blue eyed, Catholic, Sicilian writer, Sam F. Lucchese. On top of all those qualities, Sam was a “Yellow Dog Democrat,” meaning he would rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican. The Camps, diehard conservative Republicans who loathed FDR, would refer to him only as “The Wop.”

According to Gammie, she had two suitors named Sam, so she called my grandfather “Casey.” This nickname would stick for the rest of their lives. Gammie’s parents desperately wanted her to marry the other Sam, a lily white Protestant guy whose parents did not hail from a country so close to Africa. The other Sam was, like the Camps, likely an apologist for the Confederacy, one who romanticized “the old ways.”

But no. Genevieve Camp chose the swarthy Wop. To her parents’ dismay, she converted to Catholicism, and began the process of shutting them out from the family she created: three girls, whose father would be faithful, a solid man who would not be consumed with alcohol-fueled madness about race, religion, or some destructive fantasy about white supremacy.

And Sam chose her. He spirited her away to Texas, where they married among his kin, surrounded by the lilt of Sicilian dialects, excellent food, and hardboiled Texas folk, a bright sun blazing down, my grandfather resplendent in a double breasted white suit, my pale-skinned grandmother holding the hand that would write them into a new life in the New South. The writer. She married the writer, and put her faith in his ability to spin sentences into money. It was an excellent call.

Interestingly, while Gammie converted to Catholicism, she did not convert to the Democratic Party or leave behind the racism that her chronically terrified family carefully taught her. Not hardly. She remained a product of the pre-Civil Rights Act, Jim Crow South. In years to come, she and I would argue about civil rights, unions, and miscegenation, and she would infuriate and disappoint me. I would wonder how the man who enthusiastically voted for Jimmy Carter could live in relative peace with the woman who adored Ronald Reagan. And I continue to marvel at how much Gammie’s love, despite her reprehensible moral and political beliefs, shaped me.

I have come to realize this: by accepting Sam Lucchese’s marriage proposal way back when, Gammie contributed to change almost in spite of herself. I recall how she did not make any great effort to convert anyone to her batshit crazy, backward views, smiling enigmatically as I grew ever more liberal, like her husband and like my mother. I prefer to think Sam appealed to the better angels of her nature, secret forces that helped her take baby steps toward the right side of history, an evolution her youngest daughter, my mom, would continue in passionate earnest, and which her great-grandson, my boy Jack, amplifies with captivating, inspirational vigor.

It all began with Sam F. Lucchese. He enabled the pivot that changed everything. Thank you, Granddaddy. And happy birthday.

Sam F. Lucchese, 1972.

Sam F. Lucchese, 1972.

 

 

 

 

Robertburkewarren.com, Perfectly Broken, etc.

Dear Faithful Readers,

Perhaps you’ve wondered where I’ve been. I see eight months have passed since my last post, so if I do not see you in “real life,” you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking I’ve been idling.

I’ve not been idling.

In June, my big brother, Britt, took me to Peru. It was my 50th birthday present.

Peru

 

In the picture above, Britt and I are at 16,000 feet, in the upper reaches of the Vilcabamba pass. (If you click on the pic, you’ll see the whole album on Flickr.) Because of the clouds, you can’t see the massive glacier behind us. Ascending that mountain was the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically, and I almost did not do it. But Britt convinced me I could. We had some adventures. You can see some in the photos. I will write more about it all before too long. (I promised Britt I would.)

Upon returning home, I got a full time job as Program Director for the Roxbury Arts Group, a nonprofit in rural Delaware County, NY, about a 40 minute drive from my house. I’ve been booking performers, administrating, and helping bring the arts to a particularly underserved segment of the population. It has its rewards.

The publication date looms for my novel, Perfectly Broken. At this writing, it is a mere three weeks away. Advances went out a few months back and I’ve received a handful of very kind reviews on Goodreads. You can read them HERE.

How, you may I ask (I hope you do), may I get a copy of Perfectly Broken? Simple! You can order it from your local bookseller (be sure to say it’s by Robert Burke Warren, as there are a couple other books with that title), or you can order it from amazon.

In fact, for the rest of this month, there’s a sale on the Kindle version. SIX BUCKS! And be advised: pre-orders encourage corporate overlord amazon to promote my book. Just sayin’.

Lastly, I’ve been writing a lot. A couple short stories, more posts for the Weeklings, and the odd piece of journalism. I’ve collected some of that on the WORKS page of…

My new website! That’s right: robertburkewarren.com is LIVE. It’s got a lot to offer, I daresay. The aforementioned collected works (I’m adding to that daily), my bio, an EVENTS page (lots of readings planned for my book) and NEWS, which will keep folks up-to-date on radio interviews, features, reviews, etc. Also, the SOUNDTRACK page features songs from and inspired by Perfectly Broken. You can stream and/or download them for free. Several of the songs are plot points in the book. Play them loud.

I will still be blogging here, but as you can see, I am more consumed with work – of both the day job variety and my creative endeavors – so perhaps not as much. But I’m glad to say I’ll be traveling to promote my book and working on its follow-up. You can keep up to date with me either at robertburkewarren.com or my Facebook page. I also tweet on occasion.

Thank you for reading me here, and for the very inspiring comments and encouragement. All helps me get my work done.

Speaking of which, I am off to do just that.

sound as ever –

RBW

 

 

 

 

 

In With the Out Crowd: Remembering My 80s Youth

“I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints / I am frightened by the devil, and I’m drawn to those that ain’t afraid.” “A Case Of You,” Joni Mitchell

kingtuts

King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut (latter day)

Queer folk shaped my 80s youth.

Many who shepherded me through crucial years were – and are – what we now call LGBTQ, but that term was only just being concocted back then. In any case, more than anyone else, they showed me how to recognize family, love, forgiveness, grace, and courage. Both literally and figuratively, they taught me how to dance.

It took a village, indeed. An East Village. 

~

In the way most people recall their college years, I recall my time with queer folk. While my friends were enrolling in BFA programs, I threw myself into the wind, traveling with hope. I headed north with a bass and an amp, landing in Manhattan to couch surf in the winter of ’85. The folks who caught me, cut me a break or two, had my back, and directed me toward my various destinies, were what we would now call the LGBTQ community. I learned more essential, useful life lessons from them – usually in a bar thick with beer-and-cigarette stank – than I ever learned in any classroom.

Playing bass in the East Village Orchestra, The Palladium, 1985

Playing bass in the East Village Orchestra, The Palladium, 1985

While none of my “scenes” had labels, distinctions can be helpful. To that end: my roots are in the New Wave Queer Underground of Atlanta, and the mid/late 80s post-punk/pre-Giuliani East Village scene. In each of these, it’s important to note, nobody delineated between “gay community” and “straight community.”

In my Atlanta years, bands, plays, art exhibits, and late-night hangouts teemed with all manner of sexual persuasions. For the most part, it was all fine, our own brand of same-old same-old. I knew some disapproving parents, but no tyrannical parents. (Quite a few “old hippie” parents.) I also knew some kids who harbored secret nonhetero tendencies, but they weren’t tortured by the furtiveness in which they couched their desires; they actually kind of dug it.

These days, when I see modern, troubled kids who must be talked off the ledge with the “it gets better” movement, I realize how odd my scenes were, and how charmed. I wish with all my might that one of those shamed, disaffected kids could get a postcard from the Rocky Horror crew, circa 1981. It would make them brave, and it would make them fight back.

Of course I see now that we were in a bubble. At the time it didn’t seem so, partly because, being kids, we were self-centered, and anything beyond our sphere did not warrant our attention. And the alphas among us were some of the most willful people I’ve ever known, to the point where the heteronormative standard (as we now say) was, quite frankly, effectively branded as insane. Being pretty heteronormative myself, I sometimes felt a little out of place, but not so much that I wanted to flee. On the contrary. I wanted to belong, I wanted to be brave like them.

~

Later, in Manhattan, at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, a bar on the corner of Avenue A and East 7th Street, a new set of offbeat characters welcomed me into another arty oasis. Together, in a lovingly tangled skein, we hung out, worked our money gigs, turned each other on to music, played in bands, and could not have cared less if he/she was intimate with their own sex, or whether he/she liked to wear, say, heels, or, say, combat boots, or dye their hair, or experiment. People uptight at our lack of concern – and of course, many of my peers had fled such folks – were the butts of our jokes, and we laughed our asses off at them.

Maggie and Doug, co-owners of King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, hired me a few months after I turned 20. I’d been working midnight to 8 AM at the Village Copier for $5 an hour, and washing glasses at 8BC (bar-club on East 8th between Avenues B and C). King Tut’s needed a non-heroin-using glass washer/bar back. and my brand new bandmates Mark and Keiko, who I’d met through impresario-activist Jim Fouratt, introduced me to Maggie and Doug, who hired me on the spot. I soon graduated to bartending and bar managing. (Not being a junkie came in handy.) From that connection, from Maggie and Doug taking me on, I can now trace every major event of my life.

I’d come to New York a few months previously, reeling from some heavy girlfriend drama and family issues, and even though I didn’t consciously realize it then, I see now I was eager to find a way to be alone and to enjoy a community. I’d bounced around apartments, was unhealthy and depressed, and very close to heading back to Atlanta, but with the kindness of a few strangers, I found my way.

With my East Village scene, I found that balance of aloneness and community for a couple years, especially when the aforementioned Mark and Keiko let me (illegally) sub-lease their Ave B. railroad apartment. Tisch School of the Arts actor-in-training Peter McCabe become my great friend and roommate, and I was set. I paid my bills from cash I kept in a Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee can, and on occasion, I was happier than a pig in shit.

NYE

Bartending at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut on New Year’s Eve, 1989, with April Palmieri.

It was not wasted time. I played music, began to write, and spent many hours walking the streets of Alphabet City, often in the pre-dawn. With the Wah Wah Hut crew, I broke into the Pitt Street Pool to swim, and watched many a sunrise over Tompkins Square Park, the last Manhattan park with no curfew, where fires burned and kids a little less lucky than me camped.

Indeed I was lucky. In addition to being the recipient of the largesse of a few people, I was, unbeknownst to me, in the last wave of artists who could move to NYC and live cheaply. Within a decade, those days would be over.

As the 80s played out, AIDS ravaged my community. It still chills me to recall sick friends dying in their prime, to remember the feel of their wasting-away hands grip mine across a hospital bed. But when so many – including me – lived in fear of illness, or indeed, became ill, outsiderness remained a source of pride and power. We all hunkered down and embraced our outsiderness even more. Some of the braver ones marched on government buildings – the amazing ACT UP crew comes to mind – transforming grief and rage into action. Among other things, they shamed Burroughs-Wellcome into lowering the price of AZT by 20%. This was real, tough love. And it was a lesson.

There was so much love. Some at the Wah Wah Hut wished for stardom, but at the same time, were loathe to leave the love we knew in East Village obscurity. (Although one of two did achieve that stardom dream.) It was uncommon, this love, infused with, but sometimes beyond, sex; an amalgam of friendship, family, foxhole intimacy, erotic fascination, and besotted crushes, spiced with a healthy degree of disdain and pettiness, maybe a little bad behavior (OK, a lot) just to keep it lively. (We were kids, after all.) I think, in our hearts, we knew how special this all was, but we could not articulate it, and even if we could, we would not have done so because it would’ve been very uncool.

This era didn’t last, because these things never do, as this grumpy old man now knows. People eventually let go, or they fled; everyone, in their way, moved on, relinquishing apartments, turning the page on a life chapter lived with gusto and abandon. Some died, and we mourned them, and mourn them still.

When it was my time to go, I did, with my wife and son. My son was four when we left NYC for the Catskills, and he’s now nineteen and guess what? He’s finding his way among LGBTQ youths who are much less in the shadows than the queer kids I ran with when I was my boy’s age. That makes me smile. They shine, these kids, they make great art, they look after one another, and although I don’t say it aloud very much, lest I get a withering look, they take me back.

My short term recollection is starting to go. Mostly, when I meet new people, I can’t remember their names. It is vexing. But part of my memory is ironclad, at least for now: seems I will never forget the names of the queer and queer-friendly East Village denizens who took me in and/or steered me toward the better part of my life: Jim, Sally, Vinnie, Maggie, Doug, Brian, Jesse, Stacy, Kate, Richard, Byron, Byron, Luis, Itabora, Michael, Grace, Stan, Jo, Lucy, Annie, Paula, Denise, Monica, Effie, Ethyl, Wendy, Ida, Chuck, Curtis, Chris, Lady Bunny, Bob, Marleen, Baby, Mark, Keiko, Gerard, Bernard, Nick, George. They were all there to help me become me, and their names are on my heart.

~

(In this Nelson Sullivan video, shot in the Pyramid Club basement dressing room across from King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, I enter with my then-girlfriend Holly around 1:41. It’s 1988, and I’m twenty-two.)