"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Buffalo Boy

A story from my early days in India in 1968.

“Not more than a week in Bombay, and I met Nailson N., a twitchy Goan in the dope business. His partner was Frankie B., who called himself Zebbede, an English cockney turned hippie who bought Danish pornography, sold it in the Gulf where horny Arabs paid top dollar; changed dinars for gold which he smuggled into India under a Sikh turban; sold the gold for the above-market prices the bangle-crazy Indians were willing to pay; bought opium-laced hashish (Bombay Black) at wholesale prices from Afghani dealers; then consigned it to Nailson who arranged for Chinese packers to secrete it into Hyderabadi bidri work and contracted Goan goondas to take care of Customs and the Kuwaiti ship captains.

When I first met Zebbede he had fulminating paratyphoid which had locked all of his major joints; brucellosis which had caused all his major organs to go pulpy; amoebic dystentery and, according to the story circulating around Breach Candy hospital, his parasite load was higher than ever recorded there. His wife, Zoe, had advanced tuberculosis, was a thin as a wraith, had not had a period in two years, had giardia lambia, worms, and amoebas, but radiated the flushed beauty of La Dame aux Camelias. They had both been on a mango fast for a month, but when Zebbede could not get out of bed one morning, and the landlady threatened to call the police because she wanted no foreigner dying on her property, Zoe paid the landlady’s sweeper and gardener to haul Zebbede to a taxi and help her take him to the hospital. 

Zebbede was a London East Ender who had had few breaks in his life. He had been in trouble with the law much of the time – petty thievery, mostly, but he was on the verge of getting involved in a big heist when he met Zoe who had just been to India. “Paved wif gold”, she said, and together they hatched the three-corner trade scheme.

Radhakumar Shah, an Indian who collected foreigners. One day I was listening to a bhajan at a local Bombay temple when Shah came over to me, told me it was his temple, and invited me to tea. Over chutney sandwiches and buffalo-milk tea, Shah told me that not only did the temple belong to him and his family, but also Shah Auditorium, Shah Stadium, and the Sri Devadas Rajkumar Shah Ladies’ College. I quickly learned that the Shahs, along with a few other Gujarati and Parsi families had built Bombay.

Shah’s father and grandfather had been conservative scions of the Gujarati community. Austere sepia prints of Goculdas Seth Shah, his grandfather, and Morarji Jindal Shah, his great grandfather hung on the walls of his Chowpatty apartment. However, perhaps because it had been at least two generations since any Shah had worked for a living, and whatever connection the Shah had had with the real world simply disappeared. Radhakumar had turned some cultural corner. Shah was an eccentric, collected both exquisite pornographic Moghul miniatures and had a fascination with animal buggery.  His eccentricity, his amazement about anything Western, and his delight in hearing what he considered were ridiculous social habits, were quaint; but there was a simplicity and innocence about him (despite his sexual interests) which made him appealing, and we became friends.

One day Shah confided in me that he turned off the lights to his Breach Candy flat at night and watched the neighbor in the building opposite "do it with dog", a mastiff whose penis was bigger than most men's (Shah had bought a pair of powerful binoculars, although he swore to me that the dog's whang was so big, he could see it with "naked eye").
Shah was obsessed by this woman (or her dog) and had to find out whether this unholy conjugal union was done for his benefit; and if so, what could it possibly mean? If she wanted his man-sized dong between her legs, she had a strange way of showing it.

Did she want a menage-a-trois? ("manger-a-trois", Tejpal pronounced it. "Manger, manger", he said. "Like Baby Jesus' manger......sheeps, goats").

"In manger-a-trois what would I do with dog? Or what would dog do with me?", he asked.   "Maybe she just wants ' my stiff ' in her”.

One day Shah happened to run in to this woman - and her giant mastiff – on the street in front of his building. He had the audacity - an audacity which came, I think, from being a Brahmin (the woman was Kshatriya at best; probably Baniyan) - to tell her that he had seen both her and her dog from his window. She stared at him, then broke down crying. He asked if she would like to walk a bit on Chowpatty Beach, and she agreed.

She told him an incredible story. She had grown up in a small village near the U.P. border with Bihar. Her father was a drunken peasant who beat her and her mother. Five of her six brothers and sisters ended up begging in Varanasi, and the eldest sister a prostititute in Calcutta. She was saved from this miserable and benighted life by Shri Anand Gokhale, a wealthy Maratha landlord who had extensive land holdings near Allahabad. Gokhale had seen her, one day, tending sheep in the fields near her village, took pity on this ragged urchin tending two or three equally ragged sheep. He invited her to come with him to his home and work as a servant in his kitchen. She took only a few seconds to decide and got into Gokhale's Ambassador.

Gokhale, it turned out, was a sex maniac - not for little girls, but only for animals. She was forced to watch day after day and night after night as Gokhale fucked, buggered, and sucked off all the farm animals - sheep, goats, horses, dogs......all. She told the transfixed Shah how he used to fuck chickens. He would spread their legs, impale them down on his cock (Shah laughed ever time he told this part of the story), and bury his head in their flapping wing feathers.

Gokhale, despite this shocking and disgusting behavior, was good to her. She had easy jobs in the kitchen, cleaning up after the cook or helping the upstairs servants with the beds. She came to accept the bizarre behavior of her employer - what else could she do? He was such a generous benefactor.

One day, Gokhale asked her if she wanted to "try".

"Try what?", she asked timidly, although she knew quite well what the old man meant.

"Well", he said, "Choice is up to you - woman is different from man. She can only be receptacle. So choice is limited. But good. You want ram? Very auspicious. Ram-ram". Here Shah interrupted to insist that this is where the line must be drawn. Buggery, bestiality are all part of God's infinite universe; but joking about Lord Rama is.........blasphemy.

"Donkey? Goat? Dog?"

The poor girl didn't know what to do. The memories of Gokhale reaming chickens, porking rabbits (predictably, Shah howled at this idiotic play on words), mounting sheep, horses, and donkeys were disgusting. He even acted like an animal, she said, biting the mare's back like a stallion,
rolling his eyes like a bull.

When forced to choose, she picked a dog. Dogs were always friendly, she thought. There were always dogs around her hut in the village, many of which she fed and became her friends. But the dog Gokhale had in mind was something else indeed. This was a big Alsatian, and she was afraid. "Don't be afraid, my little sweet", said Gokhale, as he stroked the dog's schlang.

"Who was his sweet?", asked Tejpal, rhetorically. "Girl or dog?"

To make a long story short, she submitted to Max the Alsatian and........well, you can guess the rest, liked it. Not at first, of course. The dog had foul doggy breath and drooled on her back. His fur was rough and raised welts on her bottom, and she was afraid he would bite; but in the end - so to speak (again Shah guffawing) - dog and girl became friends.

The dog thing became an addiction, the woman told Shah as they completed their round of Chowpatty, something she could not leave, even though the thought of the act itself repulsed her.

"And the open window", asked Shah finally. "Is it for me?"

The woman looked at him quizzically, and replied, "Of course, not my dear. It is for bitch in Flat 678. He is old dog, now, can't get it up like he used to. Poor animal. Someone once told me men think of young girls when they fuck their old wives. Is this true?"
Shah winced at the reference to his  crone of a mate, and decided it was time to say good-bye. "I close MY curtains after that", he told me.

From the perspective of my rooftop apartment on Peddar Road, I could see the entire city of Bombay. To the east, the shoreline of the Arabian Sea curved around from Breach Candy, along Chowpatty Beach to Nariman Point where the first new, modern buildings were being built. To the west was Bombay Harbor where both Arabian dhows and commercial freighters were anchored and where power launches left to take visitors to the offshore islands and the Elephanta caves. The Towers of Silence, the burial grounds where Parsi dead were taken to be consumed by vultures, were in a green, lush enclave in the Malabar Hills nearby, and to the north I could see the endless suburbs of Bandra and Deonagar, and finally the outline of the ghats that rose to the Deccan Plateau.

From the perspective of the street Bombay, despite its sweep of beaches, palm trees, and skyscrapers, was a city of dung and horse-sweat, diesel fumes, goats, curry, rotting garbage, and human shit; rickshaw bells, scooters, street peddlers and hawkers, banging pots; cheap sari cloth, and garish Hindi movie posters.
I smoked dope with Nailson and wandered through the Cages, the red-light district where prostitutes, painted like marionettes and dressed like Degas dancers, solicited traffic behind the wooden bars of their electric-blue and -green salons.

Standing by the Gateway of India on the day of my arrival in India, looking out over the Qatari dhows anchored in the harbor and the setting sun on the Arabian Sea beyond, surrounded by holy men, hawkers, and silk-saried women, smelling sweet incense and jasmine, and eating rose-flavored sweets and bhel-puri, I knew I had made the right decision. Within a few months, I was convinced: I had a penthouse apartment overlooking the city and two servants, my office was spacious and opened onto the sea, and I had a Gujarati girlfriend.

A car and driver were at my disposal; membership to the Breach Candy Club, an elegant seaside enclave was inexpensive and easy to arrange; air travel to the Himalayas and the valleys of Kashmir, to Khajuraho, and the beaches of Goa and Kerala was cheap and uncrowded. Every night there were concerts of classical Indian music, and recitals by the masters of the sitar, sarod, veena, and tabla were commonplace. The bazaars, markets, temples, ashrams, rikshas, holy men, Victorian rail stations, cricket fields, and elegant Parsi mansions of Bombay were right outside my door.

LOCAL BOY DOES GOOD said the caption under my picture in the New Britain (Connecticut) Herald, December 18, 1968 in an article about my imminent departure for India and the food relief work I was to undertake. As I considered my good fortune I thought: If this is doing good, I’ll take it.

One day Shah invited me to visit his village in Gujarat. He wanted to visit distant relatives that still lived there and check up on the administration of the large family ashram, but the real reason was to visit the “buffalo boy”, a Peace Corps Volunteer who, despite careful vetting by Washington (the ideal Volunteer, it was said, should be a lot like a Greyhound bus driver: careful, at home with routine, never adventurous, rarely angered, respectful of simple rules), had gone mad. The villagers had found him one morning in a buffalo manger, currying the animals with a corn cob, had recognized his madness, and thereafter treated him as respectfully as a holy man. They gave him buffalo milk to drink, mangoes, and food scraps.

Buffalo Boy had been living in the village for about six months before Shah had heard of him; but he had never gotten around to a visit until almost a year later. He had been curious about the boy because he thought that the boy might in fact be holy; and now that he had discovered the dog lady, he wanted to know what the boy did with the buffalos.

We went to Gujarat by road, a long, hot drive through city, past the ragged, muddy slums out by the airport, through the salt flats, and finally to the town of Thana, not far from the Gujarat border.
Shah insisted that we stop at the New Light of Asia restaurant for lunch. It served “English food”, he said. It did, but it was a sorry, lamentable parody of a Western restaurant. It was a miasma of darkness and sickening smells. Tattered, dusty curtains, hung half off their rods, and there was water-stained, crumpled newspaper stuffed in the rigging to keep out the sun. Flies settled on bits of food and spilled drinks on the tables and buzzed in tall glasses of stale drinks where they had gotten stuck. The dank thick air, circulated through a damp moldy straw tick to cool it, smelled of roach spray. The waiters’ white coats were smeared with old, yellowing curry; the seat of their pants black from where they had continually wiped their hands. The food was served in grimy, chipped plates – a few bits of chicken-like pieces swimming in a greasy gruel; gritty rice with chips of stone and gravel; and stiff, leathery chapatthis. The New Light of Asia was not just a bad Indian restaurant; it was the bad Indian restaurant.

To Shah’s disappointment, Buffalo Boy was as mad as a hatter. When we went into the animal shed, he started bellowing. He was totally naked, and hair was tangled and matted with buffalo shit. He crawled around the shed on all fours under the buffalo tethered there, and they started bellowing, swinging their heads, flinging slimy strands of spit around the room.

“This boy is not holy”, said Shah. “He is cuckoo. We must remove him from village”

The next morning Shah called the Peace Corps who were very happy to know where he was. Buffalo Boy’s parents were Washington lawyers who in addition to being disconsolate over their missing son, they were in a very litigious mood and had threated to sue the entire State Department. Therefore when the Chevrolet truck pulled into the village, it was carrying not only the head of the Peace Corps who had flown to Ahmedabad from Delhi, but the American Consul from Bombay, and the Peace Corps doctor. The only way they could coax him out of the grange was to truss him up like a rodeo steer. They threw him in the Jeep where he bellowed and slathered, his eyes wide and rolling, pissing and shitting all over the back seat.

What amazed them most was not the horrible spectacle of Buffalo Boy grunting and mooing in the animal shed; it was the fact that the villagers thought that this idiot was holy. “One fucked up country”, said the Consul.

They all lived in the American Compound, a walled enclave of modern housing, up-to-date diswashers, washer-dryers, electric ovens, central air conditioning, its own power and water supply, baseball and softball fields, bowling alley, schools, restaurants, bars, social clubs and the American Commissary - a supermarket of Walmart proportions. Leaving the Compound meant watching Indians shit on the side of the roads, naked children take a piss on on dusty patches of ground in front of their rag huts, avoiding mangy rabid dogs picking garbage from gutters and blind beggars holding one-armed babies.

“He is the one fucked up”, said Shah referring to the Consul. “Motherfucker wery fucked up.”
“We may need you as witnesses”, the Consul said, “in case the boy’s parents want us to initiate any proceedings against………..”

Here he paused, and looked around the dusty village. It was late May, just before the monsoon. Everything was parched and dry. An old woman sat on the ground in the shade of a mango tree with a few shrivelled carrots and a fly-covered liver displayed on a stained cloth in front of her. As the sun had moved higher, a mangy dog moved from one place in the dust to another. Villagers stood around the truck gawking at Buffalo Boy who had smushed his face up against the back window and was making faces at them.

“Forget it”, said the Consul.

Mr. and Mrs. Harold W. Martin, the parents of Buffalo Boy, had done very little travelling in their life. They were both from London, Ohio, a small farming community near Kentucky, had gone to Ohio State for both undergraduate and law school degrees, and had married soon after graduation. After working in Ohio – she as an attorney for the the Ohio State Power Commission and he for the State Labor Department - they took jobs in Washington, DC. He moved up in the Labor Department and she stayed in the power sector, but moved to a private law firm which litigated on behalf of newly privatized power companies.

All their work had been domestic, their travel in the early days when their children were young to visit the grandparents in Ohio; later the took short winter vacations to Florida; and only in their middle-aged years had they ventured outside of the United States joining Ohio State alumni tours to France, Italy, and Germany.
After their son, David, had graduated from Ohio Wesleyan, where he had not done particularly well, he joined the Peace Corps. His parents, if not enthusiastic, were supportive. David would surely find himself in the Peace Corps, and then could return to the United States to study the law.

During the first six months of his two year tour in India, David’s letters had been enthusiastic. The Peace Corps was wonderful, he loved his village, he was making progress in establishing chicken farming, and India itself was endlessly fascinating. For the next three months, the letters dwindled to almost nothing. In the first of only two letters during the third month, he spoke only of “the river’s insults” in a kind of parable that described a river’s meanderings and associated it with modern culture, but other than that, his musings were indecipherable. His last letter enclosed a piece of cow dung wrapped in string. A small scrap of paper said: “Fuck the river”.

When Mr. and Mrs. Martin received this letter, they immediately called the Peace Corps who insisted that David was fine; a lot of young people forgot to write their parents in the first flush of the Peace Corps experience; there was nothing at all to worry about.

In fact, the Peace Corps didn’t have a clue as to where David, now Buffalo Boy to the villagers of Shahnagar, was. They simply lied to the parents, figuring that the boy would turn up within a few weeks – it wasn’t unusual for Peace Corps Volunteers in those days to take weeks of informal study tours within India without informing headquarters – and if he didn’t, they would begin to search. They were sure that the boy was visiting a Peace Corps friend in some part of India, and he would turn up soon.

When Buffalo Boy did not turn up, either by himself or after a thorough canvassing of all 278 Volunteers in the country, they began to worry. They still did not want to alarm his parents, and continued to tell them that they were sure David was visiting friends in Goa or Madras – in fact he had a girlfriend there. Not to worry.
Finally, Mr. Martin said, over an international connection that faded in and out, “Find my son or I’ll sue your fucking ass to Timbuktu”. This was followed by threatening letters by Martin’s lawyers, copied to Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, the State Department, and the American Ambassador in Delhi. Despite the litigious threats, the Martins were obviously concerned.

While all this was happening, Buffalo Boy had become part of Shahnagar. When he arrived, after a 12 hour walk from his village in Maharashtra, the villagers thought that he was just a hippy, and they left him lying under the big mango tree near the Panchayat office. Only when he came up to Shri Deshpande’s bungalow and Deshpande and his brothers saw his crazy eyes and matted hair did they realize that this was not a hippy, but a holy man. When they saw his neckless of cow dung pieces wrapped in string, they were convinced.
It was the tradition in India to care for wandering sadhus or holy men. Many villages have them, and the sight of these near naked, stringy men, in matted hair, smeared with ashes and painted with the emblems of Siva or Vishnu, was common.

They were even more in awe of Buffalo Boy when he chose the animal shed as his resting place. Someone in the village had heard the story of Bethlehem story and word got around that Buffalo Boy might be an incarnation of Jesus Christ.

After a month’s searching, the Peace Corps had to admit that David Martin was officially missing, and they so informed his parents, who were on standby to come to India at a moment’s notice.

If it hadn’t been for Shah and his feudal visit, Buffalo Boy might not have been found for months. Word of the village’s holy visitor was filtering out, however, despite the villagers desire to keep Buffalo Boy to themselves, and someone would have called the authorities eventually; but you never knew what Indians would do.
It took some doing to figure out that this was an American, first of all, since when we found him, he was just bellowing and lowing. He could have been American or equally Dutch, German, or English.

“Listen carefully to him”, Shah said to me as Buffalo boy bayed in the night. “You are American. Americans know each other. Is he from your country? Even in bellowing of buffalo there may be some telltale accent”. I suspected he was an American – only the Peace Corps had young people deployed widely in the country, but I could not be sure. There was only one telephone in the village, and getting a line through to Bombay was difficult. After five calls over two days to get through, I finally got the Peace Corps, but they said that my description did not seem to match anything they knew about David Martin. Only inadvertently did I mention the dung necklace, but the connection was made, and the mission to rescue Buffalo Boy was dispatched.
In the meantime Shah had been talking to the villagers who did not want anyone to take away their holy man. “The villagers are worried that if Peace Corps finds out that Buffalo Boy may be Jesus Christ, they will surely take him. I told them that Buffalo Boy is not holy, only batty, but they are not listening”.

The next day when we woke up and went to the Panchayat Office, everyone was suspiciously quiet. “They have taken him, I am sure”, said Shah, and went we went to check, the animal shed was empty.
The villagers had not gotten more than a mile out of Shahnagar, when Buffalo Boy bolted and jumped in an irrigation ditch where water buffalo were getting cooled down by two young boys. The boys, startled and then frightened by this wild foreigner jumping over them into the water, ran up the hill. The buffalo, now untended and frightened by the Buffalo Boy’s thrashing and moaning, lumbered out of the ditch and started in a slow gallop along the rode. The villagers ran over to Buffalo Boy, and decided to tether him. If he believed he was a buffalo, they reasoned, he would not resist the tether.

If it hadn’t been for an Army jeep from the nearby cantonment passing by, the villagers might have made it to their proposed hideout – little known caves in the cliffs in the lower ghats; but when the Lieutenant saw ten villagers walking along the road with a tall, wild-looking foreigner on a buffalo tether, they stopped.
Without much conviction they told the villagers that Buffalo Boy must be mad, that they should return to the village, clean him up and report him to the proper authorities.

By the time the Peace Corps arrived, the villagers had put Buffalo Boy back in the animal shed. Although Shah had not been able to convince them that he was not holy, but just batty, he was able to convince them that the full weight of the American government would be brought to bear on the village if he were not returned. No lift irrigation scheme promised by Children are Precious. No Green Revolution rice. No nothing.
The trip back to Bombay in the Peace Corps vehicle was hell. The Peace Corps had no way of knowing what to expect. I didn’t tell them to bring a cattle car for the boy; I just helped to identify them; so they had brought no restraints, nor any sedatives. One of those K-9 fences for the luggage space would have been better than nothing; for as it was, the Consul and the Embassy lawyer had to share the back seat with him. Although the villagers had tried to clean him up and give him a clean kurta pijama, they could do nothing about his matted hair which smelled of buffalo piss, stagnant ditch water, and shit.

The problem was what to do with him when they got him back to Bombay. The Martins had taken the first plane to India when they got the word that their son was located, and were now waiting in the American Embassy. The Consul had a good idea: “Why don’t we take him in the back way, get him to the infirmary, and knock him out with Demerol. We can clean him up, give him a haircut, and then let his parents see him while he’s out. Buy us some time to get our shrink to talk to him, maybe limit our losses. Stall the parents. What the fuck. Buffalo Boy is over 21.”

Mr. and Mrs. Martin remained still and ashen on the early morning trip back from Bombay airport. These were the days before highway beautification schemes in the United States had begun, let alone India, and the road went for miles past ragged lean-tos; past the potters’ colony – a low-caste slum smelling of shit and rancid goat; past naked children pissing in open sewers; past hundreds of Indians silhouetted in the pale light squatting to take a shit. The smells of dung and horse-sweat, diesel fumes, goats, curry, rotting garbage, and human shit were overpowering.

We passed slow trains so overcrowded that people were hanging off the sides and riding on the roof. There were passengers on every inch of the hard, wood benches; there were children on the lap of every person on those benches. Improvised hammocks were slung across the car from one side to the other, and babies swung and lurched a few feet above the heads of the passengers. Boxes, bundles, sacks, and suitcases were piled everywhere. Mothers held their babies out the window to shit. Passengers downwind had shut their windows, and streams of piss and rice water smeared the glass half-way down the car. Every window was a disgusting mess of flecks of spinach, bits of corn and a long, yellowish smears.

There were people shitting in gutters, in dumps, on street-corners, on railway tracks, in open lots, in alleys. Naked kids shat on dusty patches of dirt in front of their huts while chickens pecked at their turds. Women, only somewhat more discrete, shat in the shadows, behind walls, beyond a thatch of palm fronds.
“How are you liking India?”, asked Shah, oblivious to Mrs. Martin’s grief and desperation. As he spoke to her, Mrs. Martin reached for the window handle. “I don’t know whether to roll it up or down”, she said.
To the shit and goat smells had been added the smoke of dung fires and the stench of the tidal flats just beyond the sea wall. The oozing muck of low tide, a thick slime of raw sewage and mud, was swarming with flies. Rats crawled out on greenish, sodden, rotting planks exposed by the low tide to pick at dead fish.
Mr. Martin put his arm around his wife. “Don’t worry, dear”, he said. “It will be over soon. Mr. Shah is taking us to a five star hotel”. Mrs. Martin sighed. Her blouse was stained with sweat; her face was greasy and smeared with perspiration, road dust, and black diesel exhaust. She looked terrible.

Finally, as we approached the turn-off to Juhu Beach, the tall apartment buildings of Bombay could be seen across the harbor. The road changed visibly as we entered the city limits. Shops and tea stalls appeared and palm trees shaded increasingly substantial dwellings. “At last”, said Mrs. Martin; but her happy mood was shortlived, for soon the streets became more and more crowded with bicycles, rickshaws, and bullock carts. The noise grew louder as the suburbs gave way to the crowded neighborhoods of Bandra, Gurgaon, and Borivli. The noise of street peddlers and hawkers, motor scooters, cow bells, and thousands of people banging pots, pounding spices, breaking rocks, or just shuffling their way through the crowds became unbearable. The garish colors of cheap sari cloth, movie posters, banners, ribbons, in glare of the now hot sun and stifling air became blinding and sickening.

Mrs. Martin’s face was now a very pasty color. Traffic barely moved. It was suffocating in the Ambassador. “Oh, God”, Mrs. Martin sighed; but Tejpal continued to rattle on. “There is Shah Textile Mills”, he said, pointing to the red brick building built on two city blocks, “and there is Shah Foundry. My great grandfather, Mohan Seth Shah, built both in British days.“

The Taj Mahal Hotel, a wonderful Victorian Palace built for the visit of George III and kept in immaculate condition – polished brass fittings, rosewood floors and stairs, burnished mahogany railings, Persian, Afghani, and Kashmiri carpets; potted palms in shiny brass planters, and cane furniture – must have seemed like Xanadu to Mr. and Mrs. Martin. Sweat-stained, grimy, and defeated by the trip in from the airport, the Martins were greeted by liveried, turbanned Sikhs, regal in white coat, red sash, puttees, and ornamental swords. They were fawned over by desk clerks, bell hops, and floorwalkers. “Welcome, Mr. and Mrs. Martin”, they all said. “Welcome to India”.

Maybe India wasn’t so bad after all, Mrs. Martin thought. By the time she lay down on the broad canopied bed, let her head sink into the down pillows, and felt the soft breeze of the ceiling fan, she had forgotten Gurgaon and Borivli. “I can’t wait to see David”, she said to Shah.

David, however, had escaped through back window of the Peace Corps infirmary. The infirmary was primarily used as a holding station for volunteers who had come down with amoebic dysentery, hepatitis, or typhoid; and they were too sick to even turn over let alone climb through the window and into the back alley below. Apparently the Peace Corps doctor had underestimated the virulence of Buffalo Boy’s madness, and the conservative dose of sedative that he had given him wore off in just a few hours. All that remained in the infirmary room were Buffalo Boy’s pajamas. He had left the infirmary exactly as he had come in – naked and wild-eyed.

The Peace Corps called a emergency council – the Director of the Peace Corps, the American Consul, the Consulate’s chief attorney, and Shah. Although the Americans had instinctively ruled out any Indian in their deliberations, they were finally persuaded by a deputy that if Buffalo Boy had gone back to the village, Shah was the only one who might persuade them to give him up. “Remember”, he said, “the villagers think he is Jesus Christ”.

They had to tell the Martins, of course, what had happened, and no sooner had poor Mrs. Martin gotten used to the linen sheets and hot water of the Taj then she was again back in the streets of Bombay. “Oh dear”, she said. “What will we do?”

“You will do nothing”, said Shah who eagerly agreed to take charge of Mrs. Martin. “I will do everything. I know where your son is at this very minute, and it is my duty to find him. Never fear”.

The Peace Corps did not describe Buffalo Boy’s disappearance as an escape; not even an unexplained absence. “He apparently has gone to visit friends in the city”, the Martins were told. Although he had not left a note, they were sure he would be back by the end of the day. Mr. Shah would take them back to the Taj where they could keep cool and rest up for the happy reunion in the evening.

“Somebody surely will notice him before he gets too far”, said the lawyer. After all, there are not that many foreigners here”.

True as far as it went; but what the recently-arrived Mr. Levenson did not realize was that foreigners already walked around naked. What about the German hippies in Goa, who wandered around naked except for a thong up their crack and a leather pouch for their balls?

“No”, said Shah. “They are definitely not noticing. We must find him”.

It would take him at least a week to arrive in Shahnagar – if he arrived in Shahnagar. He wasn’t a dog, after all, and couldn’t sniff his way back; and did he even know the name of the village? He might wander for months without anyone taking notice.

After Buffalo Boy had escaped from the Peace Corps infirmary, he wandered down Breach Candy Road to Chowpatty Beach where a young boy was cooling his buffalo down in the water. It was not uncommon for buffalo to wander through residential communities, and although Bombay was now a very densely-populated city, there were still broad maidans, grassy median strips, and untended gardens, and buffalo could graze there before being herded to the Muslim slaughterhouses near Juhu. Buffalo Boy mooed, grunted, and slathered when he saw the buffalo. He smeared himself with dung, made himself a crown of seaweed, and picked up an old piece of bamboo that had floated in with the tide to use as a cane.

After hearing of Buffalo Boy’s first hours on the streets of Bombay, pieced together from a variety of accounts (Indians were quite forthcoming about Buffalo Boy after they heard that he was a foreigner, but not before), the Peace Corps psychiatrist thought that the little care he had given him must have worked, because he was walking on two legs, not down on all fours like they had found him in Shahnagar.

It turned out that the boy, Mohan Das, was a Gujarati like Shah, albeit a lower-caste one. His family had come from Makkargunj, a village not far from Shahnagar in the same district. The fact that the boy was a Gujarati was not much of a coincidence. Bombay was built by Gujaratis and Parsis. There were tens of thousands of them in the city. What was remarkable was that Mohan Das was from the same district as Shahnagar. Just like Italians from Sorrento all clustered in New Haven, where my parents were from, Gujaratis from Bharatpur District all settled in Gurgaon where Mohan Das lived.

Mohan Das, had not heard of Buffalo Boy when he wandered up and started mooing at his buffalo, but like most Indians in Bombay or Calcutta who were used to naked sadhus walking on their thoroughfares, paid little attention to this obviously holy man. The fact that he was a foreigner did not register on Mohan Das. If he noticed that Buffalo Boy was not Indian, it was totally irrelevant and inconsequential. He was a sadhu, and Mohan Das has been brought up to respect them.

Only three days later, when he arrived back in this Gurgaon community – the half-way point to the abbatoirs in Juhu - was he told who was accompanying him and the buffalo. Not only had Buffalo Boy’s reputation spread to Bombay, it had now gained in lustre and importance. God had seen to it that Buffalo Boy/Jesus Christ was reunited with the people of Shahnagar

The Gujaratis of Gurgaon brought Buffalo Boy back to Shahnagar where he had a tearful reunion with the villagers. He was so happy to see his buffalo friends that the mooing and slobbering went on into the night, and the next morning the village panchayat arranged a simple ceremony to celebrate his return. Shahnagars were all Vishnavites, and a painted statue of Lord Vishnu was placed on a pedestal in front of Buffalo Boy’s manger, garlanded with flowers, anoited with ghee, and given offerings of bananas, coconut, and betel nut.
Shah knew that a string of “coincidences” would unwind, and that Buffalo Boy would end up back in Shahnagar. He was only surprised at how fast. “God is usually not so quick in his work”, Shah noted, “but who are we to question?”.

Although the villagers were now most reluctant to let Buffalo Boy go again, Shahnagar was not a rich community, and the offer of Mr. and Mrs. Martin to pay for a lift irrigation scheme salved whatever religious regret they may have had. They left a large picture of their son in the village, and Shah told me years later that it still was enshrined in a grotto that stood nearby the place where the old manger had stood. Ironically the manger had to be torn down because the most productive place to dig for water, Indian hydrologists determined, was in the precise spot where Buffalo Boy had lived.”

Nicky Norks

Erroll Impellizieri was a successful businessman who grew up in Newark, had a house in Mantaloking, and was building a “mansion” in Matawan where his wife was from. No matter where he moved, he was still a Nicky Nork. In Newark if you didn’t have a house in Neptune, you had one at Omaha Beach. If you had a little bit of money, you moved to Mantaloking, your wall-to-walls were a little bit thicker, you had more convertible furniture, but you were still a hot-combed, manicured, goomba with a high-roll collar.

Erroll’s father ran a smoke shop in Newark when he was a kid, the kind with girlie magazines in the back behind the cigars. Erroll kept his eyes open when he wasn’t whacking off in the can with a copy of Pussy Cat, and learned enough about sales, inventory, customer demand, and product to get him started in the production end of the Jersey porno business. He moved up in the porno world, then got Larry’s Lugno’s father – his brother – to bankroll him with some family money. He set up Erroll Productions, fronted with a lot of soft porn, but as hard core as you could get in the late 50s. He got into mail order, sex paraphrenalia, and rubbers; then built a roofing business which made him a millionnaire.

With piece of the profits, Erroll had built the Matawan mansion. Out of sentimentality, he fashioned the back patio to look exactly like the Down Neck house he grew up in as a kid. He even bought the back siding and patio storm door from the owner of his old house, layed down a plastic grass carpet, and build a vinyl roof just like Down Neck.

Erroll’s oldest child, Flora, went into the roofing business with her father, but they soon began to squabble. He wanted her to be in charge of the Central Jersey operations, but she refused, saying she had had enough of his Nicky Norks when she was growing up, and wanted to try her luck farther south, on the Main Line. Her father gave in, and she took over the Philadelphia office. A few months later she was caught in flagrante with a Maytag sales rep in a motel in Neptune. Her father had heard of her fling and had her followed.
The pictures the private eye had taken of the motel surfaced a week later in the Jersey Journal – Erroll was always big news. The paper had juxtaposed a picture of the motel with one of her back patio – the motel in Neptune was a commercial version of her house in Matawan – and basically said “once a guinea, always a guinea”. She had been devoilee and never made the news again.

Erroll’s wife, Angela, never got over it, but rather than sulk, she made it her business to rehabilitate Erroll’s name. She became involved in charity work and, with Erroll’s money, worked her way down the Jersey Shore towards Philadelphia. By that time Erroll had made his millions, and his wife spent more and more of it for good causes.

She financed the Angela Erroll wing of the Lower Marion Mother of Mercy Hospital, the Angela Erroll Pavilion of the Upper Darby Little Sisters of the Poor Convalescent Home; and finally, her goal of acceptance and reconstruction of the family name complete, the Angela Erroll Pavilion of the Bryn Mawr Sibley Memorial Hospital.

She, like her husband and daughter, however, could never completely shake off their past. Although her picture was always in the Jersey Journal and increasingly in the Upper Darby Sentinel, it was always with the wrong people. Alderman Paluzzi, for example. He had gotten a breaking-and-entering charge against her middle son dismissed, and she had never forgotten him or the good times the families had had together at Asbury Park.

Paluzzi, however, had had one hand in Ocean County’s till and the other up the skirt of the Country Treasurer for years, and the state was getting wise. He had befriended the Treasurer on a Jersey Shore Renaissance Weekend and cooked up a scheme with her to siphon off more than Matawan’s share of road money to his contracting business.

When the money was finally all in his bank account, Paluzzi dumped her. Enraged, hurt, and pissed, she talked to state prosecutors. Paluzzi was indicted and the papers were all over it. Paluzzi, however, had gone into hiding, and the only pictures the Jersey Journal could find were archival shots of Paluzzi – and, of course, Angela Erroll – cutting ribbons.

So, Angela Erroll went the way of her daughter Flora, and was never seen in public thereafter.
None of this bothered Erroll. He was too busy making money, and for him, the thrill was in the making, not the spending. He never counted the millions his wife spent on hospital wings, charity balls, and Mantoloking galas. He had written Flora off at the time of the Neptune scandal, not because of the scandal itself, but because the Philadelphia roofing operations which she was supposed to have managed had gone disastrously in the red. “Out fucking when she was supposed to be managing”, Erroll had told Larry.

The result of all this was that Erroll looked upon Larry as the son he never had. Fed up with his daughter, he showered all his attention on Larry, and when he returned from Idaho, Erroll got him a half-show job at the Newark Housing Authority. He apologized to his nephew for not being able to get him a no-show job. The Authority’s payroll was already stretched because half the people on it were no-shows and no work got done by the other half. Lou Bazano, the Executive Director kept adding no-shows because they kicked back half their salaries directly into his pocket.

Bazano “hired” all the deadbeat brothers-in-laws of Newark City Councilmen, so they never complained; but even Bazano couldn’t keep the Feds out of Newark, and they were beginning to ask a lot of questions. The no-show scam was chump change as far as Bazano was concerned. His big money came from the business of urban renewal – razing perfectly good North Ward housing and replacing it with shoddy high-rises. Bazano was in bed with all the Jersey goombas in the demolition and construction business and the Mafia bosses who kept the non-goombas quiet.

In fact, the only reason why Larry Lugno could even consider the Idaho scam was because of Lou Bazano. Larry remembered Uncle Erroll and his father sitting in the parlor of the Jersey Shore house, telling stories about Lou Bazano’s genius in the double scam. Bazano put no-shows on the payroll, used the kickback money to get the building inspectors to stay home on inspection day, got them to kick back a piece to the councilmen who rubber-stamped all contracts with his goomba construction friends.

“I’m sorry”, Erroll said to Larry. “Maybe next year Louie will move you up to a no-show. For now, I got you a job with Joe Lucca in Supervision. They don’t supervise nothing because Louie’s paid off all the inspectors that you’re supposed to supervise. Just punch in in the morning, come back at 4:30, and go home”.
Absolutely nothing got done at the Newark Housing Authority. Monday all Sunday’s NFL games were discussed. Tuesday, the NFL analysis continued, and talk of Thursday’s bowling night started. Wednesday and Thursday were all bowling; and Friday was bowling post-mortem.

Every week was like this. Football bullshit on Monday after the NFL games. Fucking shine this, fucking monkey that. They not only Monday-morning-quarterbacked every play of the Giants’ game, they turned it into a soap opera. Andy Robustelli’s niece had cancer; Charlie Conerly left his wife because she was fucking a Baltimore Colt.

Bowling bullshit on Tuesdays, two days before Bowling night when the goombas went down to Jersey Lanes to have bowl-offs with Social Welfare, Finance, or the Teachers…….scores, who made the 8-10 splits; and who Dolores from Tax was screwing. Where Irene from Curriculum got her hair done and how could she bowl with those long nails which she got done by the same beautician who gave Mike Manfro and Joe D. blow-jobs on her lunch break.

More bowling bullshit on Wednesday and Thursdays. Post-mortem bullshit on Fridays. Goomba recriminations about the Sanitation guy’s personal bowling ball that wasn’t regulation size, how Louie the manager needed to get some new lighting over Lane 3. How you could see Elaine Petrucci’s cunt crack, her jeans were so tight; and how come her husband let her bowl alone looking like that?

Monday it started all over again with football bullshit.

Everybody had a scam going. Mike Mullo owned the local that ran the east piers at Port Newark, and every third Friday was bazaar day. Mike could get anything - new Italian shoes, Irish whisky, French cognac, even a complete bedroom set of genuine Empire furniture. “I can get youse shoes”, Mike would say. “I just can’t guarantee youse no size”.

Mike took orders and three weeks later, your package was in the file room. Mike knew a guy in the Port Dispatcher’s office who told him when an interesting shipment was coming in; Joe D’s uncle Charlie told the union guys to pay off the ship’s captain and to be sure to leave the hold open on their way home, and Mike and Joe D. helped themselves.

There were always fuck ups. Instead of Florentine pumps or French shirtwaists, Ella Drucker and the girls often got sardines or anchovies; and this bullshit got put into the daily routine along with bowling and football.
When the girls – secretaries in Supervision where Larry was assigned – weren’t talking about Mike Mullo’s bazaar, they were shredding the guys they worked for. They ragged on Faggy Joe Reilly who, they suspected, had some sugar daddy in Trenton otherwise he would never would be in Lou’s lair; beat up on Tony Menino who drank only Metrecal and was pussy-whipped by his wife who was fucking one of the County Supervisors; tried to ruffle the feathers of Joe D’ who got his hair blow-dried down at one of the new Hair Stylists on North Broad Street. “What else d’ya get blown, Joey”, Esta would always ask when he came in, resplendent, coiffed, manicured, shaved on Tuesday afternoons.

Eileen DiMarco was a secretary at the Housing Authority with big tits, almost no hips, and skinny legs; but she knew all the guys were all fixated on her tits and knew how to use them. When Larry was hanging around the water cooler she would come behind him and ask, “How’s urban renewal?”. Then, pushing her tits into his back, and running her tongue around his ear she would whisper, “But you don’t need much renewal, do you, Larry?”

Larry put the hustle on her. He bought her grinders at Sal’s, and they had lunch in the park. They went out for banana cream pie. Her husband had a straight job and worked an evening shift, and Larry figured he could get a quick fuck anytime. It turned out, however, that despite the big come-on, Eileen was mortified that someone would find out she was cheating on Tony, and the only place she felt safe was the drive-in in Kearny and then only on Thursdays when she knew the guys were bowling and her mother was at church.
The first couple of times Larry and Eileen necked like teenagers; then she let him fondle, then suck those torpedo tits; but she never let him go any farther. “I want you, Larry. I really do. But not here. I want it to be right”. Although Larry had heard that sorry line before, suddenly it seemed the most reasonable thing on earth. “What the fuck am I doing with Eileen DiMarco in the back seat of a car in a Kearny drive in, behind the fucking Meadowlands landfill dump, sitting on top of a hundred goomba dead bodies?”

After six months of Housing Authority bullshit, Larry wanted some action, so he and two of his goomba friends from Down Neck, Billy and Lou, started up their old car dumping business. They got rid of cars down at the port for Nicky Norks who got in debt from too much rococo furniture and needed the insurance money to cover it. They made a few bucks, and it beat hanging out Down Neck.

In recent months, however, there was a space problem. When Larry got started dumping cars, you could drop them over the side at any pier. Now, it was hard to find a spot. The economy was picking up, Port Newark got more commercial traffic than ever before, and freighters were tied up at half the piers. Goombas from the North Ward had started dumping shine cars, and the field was getting crowded; and Nicky Norks were using the port instead of the Meadowlands’ to get rid of small shit. Dumping an Olds one night Larry said he saw three pieces of a bedroom set he lifted off a kike truck sticking out of the water at Pier 47.
Some nights you had to drive down to the end of the dock to find a place to get rid of your car. It was dark down there, much of the the wooden planking was rotted out, and it was a long way back, particularly if you had to leave in a hurry. On one night we passed pier after pier with no luck. Fifteen through twenty-five had freighters and tankers tied up. Twenty-six was where the furniture was dumped. Twenty-eight was the goombas’ dump.

“There’s a lot of fish down there”, said Billy.

“Are you crazy? It’s a fucking underwater junkyard”, said Lou.

“It’s the reef effect. I saw it on TV. Dumped cars is like coral reefs after a while. Fish like to hang out there. You could scuba dive”.

“And what do you think you would see? Fucking eels? There ain’t nothing down there but used scumbags and sofas.”

At Pier 31 Larry could see two cars, the front half of one is hanging off the edge of the pier; the other, a Cadillac, is manoevering for position to push it into the water. Larry recognizes the car and the driver, another goomba from Down Neck, Joe Fanucci. Fanucci had let his kid brother do the dumping to give him some practice; but the the kid jumped out too soon, knocked the shift lever into reverse on his way out and jammed the transmission solid.

Fanucci gently nudged the car up to the back bumper of the goofball’s car. “Don’t take its temperature, asshole. Push it!”, yelled Harry.

But the Caddie was not much bigger than the Pontiac, and Fanucci couldn’t move it. His back tires whined and smoked, and splinters from the wooden dock shot out from behind. Lights went on in the Greek freighter docked at the next pier.

While they all stood around thinking, Fanucci went over to the warehouse behind the dock and climbed into a fork lift that was parked near some empty crates of whisky. In a few minutes, he got the engine started and in a cloud of black diesel smoke floated towards us.

Fanucci positioned the fork under the rear bumper, fiddled with the levers in the cab, and gunned the engine. Instead of lifting the rear of the car, the fork swung out from underneath. The lift whirled in a complete circle, the fork slicing towards Andy who jumped like a Cossack to avoid the prongs. Andy went for Fanucci, who shut the door of the cab. “Try it out first, you asshole. Why do you think there’s different levers?”

Fanucci figured out the levers, moved the forklift back into position under the back of the Pontiac, and began to lift. As he did, the car began to slide forward and slowly tip farther over the edge of the pier. When the back wheels were about to go over, Fanucci stopped the lift and hollered, “I can’t go no more. I’ll go over with the fucking car”. The two huge prongs of the fork were too wide for the Pontiac, had gotten impaled on the fenders, and were sticking out like cow horns. The front wheels of the forklift were now off the ground; the front end of the Pontiac half-way down the wall of the pier and suspended over the water.
“Everybody move back”, Fanucci yelled. “I’m jumpin’ out”

The cab of the forklift, however, was perched high up over the engine, and to clear the doorguards and the wheels, Fanucci would have to jump more than four feet sideways. Fanucci was even fatter than Charlie Broglio, who, after Larry’s uncle had gotten him a job with the Sanitation Department, found he couldn’t fit into the cab of the garbage truck. “He don’t even fit in the truck”, the supervisor said to Larry’s uncle. “Get him the fuck out of here”.

Fanucci revved up the engine, opened the cab door, and put the forklift in forward. The Pontiac groaned and whinged as it went over the side, pulling the forklift down on top of it. As both vehicles went down, the rotten guts of Port Newark came floating up – scummy tires, chunks of mattress, slimy, rotten shoes.

The next day, the story of fat Fanucci went around the Housing Authority. By the time it made the rounds and came back again, everything had gotten all twisted. It was not just some goofball’s car that got dumped but a connected guy’s car that Harry had stolen. He had sold it to a Nicky Nork who got cold feet when he found out who it belonged to and paid Fanucci to dump it.

According to the story, it was not Fanucci’s brother who had fucked up the transmission, but some dickhead from Queens who was just visiting him; and when he had told Fanucci that he had done a lot of dumping in his day, he implied bodies not cars even though he had never dumped more than a refrigerator.

Fanucci had been so fixated on setting up a car-dumping pyramid scheme where he would take a cut each time a goofball’s car went over the side and wouldn’t have to do it himself, he didn’t catch the innuendo, and wouldn’t have been impressed if he had. Fanucci had a reputation for dumping live bodies in the river. The cement shoes went on before the goofball was dead.

Besides, the dickhead who wanted in on the car dumping didn’t even have a driver’s licence. He had gotten it pulled by the NYPD not only for causing three crashes on the B.Q.E but because his double dickhead uncle tried to fix the citations like they were parking tickets on Mulberry Street. Not that you needed a licence to dump cars, Esta Drucker said; and you certainly didn’t need brains if Larry, Harry, and Andy could do it.
It was all bullshit. If it had been the day after bowling night, none of it would have ever come up.

Italian Americans at Yale

I was one of a few students chosen for admission to Yale under a special, experimental program that in many ways preceded the revolutionary reform of Kingman Brewster and Inslee Clark. It was called (I found out only years after graduation after Larry Migliaccio, an attorney, also Yale ' 64 and fellow beneficiary of the program managed to force an academic Freedom of Information Act in 1979) Italo-Search.

Yale in the late Fifties had begun to come under increasing pressures from New Haven to invest more in the city - not only in infrastructure, but in human resources as well. It wasn't enough, City officials said, for Yale to hire the men and women who served the elite; it was important for them to recruit talented New Haven students for Yale's undergraduate body itself. The time had come for New Haven's Italian-Americans to stop serving strawberries, and to eat them.

Yale agreed, but with a prejudice characteristic of the times, assumed that any Italian-American New Haven student would be only suitable for menial work, agreed to admit Richard Puzzi,, Alderman Guido Marucci's highly recommended candidate who had been a football standout at New Haven High. At least this slab of hairy meat would make short work of the Princeton line, so fuck the grades. A memo went out to all Puzzi’s professors at the beginning of the year: "Pass this ape".

To Yale's surprise, Puzzi turned out to be a below average football player - he ended the year only as a fourth down lineman on the freshman team. To their greater surprise, he turned out to be quite a good student, with a particular aptitude for math - not a remarkable aptitude by any means, but far greater than they had ever imagined. By the end of the year, Puzzi not only had passed every course, but had garnered a B+ average. The New Haven aldermen were obviously pleased - and vindicated - and pressured Yale to expand their enrollment of New Haven Italians. Yale refused, insisting that Puzzi was a fluke. Unfortunately for Yale, with the arrogance and disdain that characterized Yale Town-Gown relationships up until the mid-Sixties, its politically naive spokesmen were more than candid and public in their pronouncements. "Mr. Puzzi", an Assistant Dean told the Journal-Courier, "may be a champion of his people, but he is certainly not a champion of our people".

The aldermen were pissed. Angry letters poured in to the Journal-Courier demanding a retraction, a public apology, and reparations - twenty Italian-Americans from New Haven must be admitted to Yale to the Class of 1964 or else (the threat of a university-wide strike of kitchen and maintenance workers was implicit). Worse yet, Italian-American delegates to the Connecticut Legislature got into the act. Picking up the political cudgel and wielding it at the state level, Assemblymen DeVito, Garofano, and Binelli excoriated Yale at every turn. If this was not bad enough, it was an election year, and Yale bashing was a sure-fire vote-getter. Soon any Connecticut WASP was fair game. Cartoons of St. Grottlesex airheads summering on the Vineyard, prattling about our people - all portrayed as vapid Gatsby-esque dilettantes - appeared in every paper from the Hartford Courant to the Naugatuck News.

Yale knew they had to settle, but were convinced they could do it on their terms. Negotiations began with a certain civility - as uppity as the Italian-Americans were getting, there was still a visceral respect for the well-born - but they quickly broke down. Observers reported a class war - invectives with language that veered perilously close to the ethnic slur came from both sides. The talks broke off, and only because both politicians and university administrators knew that the Yale-New Haven marriage could never survive a nasty divorce, a new date was set for talks to resume.

Two months later, to avoid further roasting in the press and increasing political pressure from Connecticut and now national politicians, Yale made a generous proposal to New Haven: it would take a minimum of two New Haven residents per year, would make a public apology for the "our people" interview, and would recruit up to five Italian Americans from Connecticut per year if and only if they were the most exceptional candidates. The standards Yale set were so high that the Admissions Office was convinced that they would get no suitable candidates. The Connecticut politicians, a bit uneasy about the almost unattainable qualifications, felt at the same time that they could not back down on them - of course the descendants of Gallileo, Michaelangelo, and Bernini could meet the highest standards.

And so Italo-Search began; and on an early acceptance program, I was admitted to Yale. After Migliaccio obtained all the Italo-Search files in the late Seventies, he sent relevant records to each of us of the Class of 1964. Mine read: "Parlato is an exceptional student. In a personal interview (February 18, 1960) he showed a remarkable range of intellectual interests, a depth of perception, and an understanding of complex issues that demonstrated a maturity far beyond his years and far beyond the expectations of Loomis, this manifestly second-rate school on the backwaters of the Farmington River. His essays were remarkable for their insight and grasp of subtle and complex issues. His teacher comments were celebratory: ' The best student Loomis has ever had.....An exceptional mind........Brilliant..........Destined for success '. This is the Italian-American we are looking for".

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Jekyll, Charleston, Savannah, Beaufort

We went on another Southern trip.  Not a Cracker Trip, because those were explorations of the rural South, this was a vacation to warm weather, beaches, and Southern cooking.
Incomparable! We stayed at the Jekyll Island Club, a resort and winter watering hole for the captains of industry of the 20s – Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Crane, etc. They came by train from New York, ship from Brunswick GA to the island and spent time hunting and wintering in warm weather. 
The entire complex – main hall, Annex, and separate family cottages were used until about 1925, then abandoned until serious and meticulous restoration in the 1980s.  The result is magnificent (check out www.jekyllclub.com) and there is nothing like this spacious, gracious complex – large, sunny rooms with sunporches; classic Victorian dining room, croquet lawn, handcrafted cottages with meticulous detail, walks along the River, live oaks, manicured lawns.   The beach is not far, a State Park so no one on it, miles of white sand, perfect ocean beach.
The Sunday buffet is expansive and good.  Food at the restaurant on the pier excellent, nice bar, super view of the river.
Prices for large rooms overlooking the lawns around $250.
A big disappointment.  I am not sure what I was expecting – perhaps something grand, old, charming Southern plus modern restaurants, cafes; upscale waterfront; arts and culture…something special.
What we found was: a) a tacky waterfront, tourists-laden, T-shirt shops and cheap beer; b) an interesting working river and port, great to walk along the quais in the early morning before tourist action; c) a New Orleans style garden district with great houses and gardens and the famous Savannah squares; d) great beaches nearby – Hilton Head and Tysbee….great for us, because of the above expectations we stayed four nights, too much for the city alone.  Beaches super.
Food was mediocre – another disappointment.  We based our choices on the NYT reviews, usually reliable, came to the conclusion that reviews are not comparing Savannah restaurants to NYC, San Fran, or DC, but within a local context.  So, restaurants are trying hard to meet these standards, but falling far short.
A lovely city, the best (and perhaps only) part to see is the residential area with old 18th century houses, both English and Huguenot.  An area on two rivers (Charleston is a peninsula), you can spend hours roaming the streets.  The waterfront promenades are fabulous.
The food, as above, was very ordinary.
Wonderful small town, the best part of which are the OYSTERS!!! from Eding Creek – sweet, succulent, a bit briny, superb! and those of Bluffton nearby, same delicious incomparable quality.
p.s. We have always stayed at Inns and historic B&Bs on our Cracker Trips – great to talk to owners, managers; read local history, enjoy plantation settings.  A mistake to stay in cities – expensive, none of the local history,.

Miss Lucy

Miss Lucy
My name is Lucy Dilford and I run the River Overlook B&B in Greenwood, Mississippi. The River is the Yazoo which had its days of glory when it flooded in ’27, but now, especially at this time of year, it is low and rank. I recommend that any actual overlooking from my front porch wait until Spring when the rains come and the magnolia blossoms are out all along Main Street. In 1927 the Yalabusha and Tallahatchie, the Yazoo, and a hundred other rivers and streams as far north as Minnesota kept rising with rains that lasted as long as the Biblical Flood and there was nothing left from the Mississippi to the Hills when it was done. As soon as we were able to dig ourselves out from the sludge and debris the Yazoo dumped on us and began to rebuild the downtown, realign the railroad tracks, and re-open the courthouse, the town fathers erected a monument showing the depth of the water at its height. It was twenty-two feet. That’s twelve feet above the bayonet tip of the Confederate soldier standing in the square; up to the top windows of the Bank building; and clear above the hardware store and notions shop that had stood long before ‘27.

Most people who stay at my house are overflows from the new hotel built by the Viking Corporation built last year. That only happens when all their stove people come in from around the country, there’s a cotton festival and a revival. Now, it takes some bad planning for that to happen, but it does more often than you’d expect. I do get a few Yankees every year doing a Delta blues excursion. They’ve heard about J.L. Hunter who at 85 still growls and belly-aches at 12 noon every Thursday on KBGW, our local station broadcasting from Cottonlandia, an old warehouse renovated as a museum. There’s nothing much in there except some dried out cotton plants, a broken down wagon, old mule halters, and a few pictures of black folk bent over picking cotton, so they only open the place when J.L. is playing or when there is a Cotton Board or stove convention.
Fantasy is a wonderful thing, and it keeps the Yankee tourists coming to Mississippi. They come here all ready to see the South they’ve read about in Uncle Remus, Gone with the Wind, or Mississippi Burning. They’ve made up their mind before they leave home that they’re going to tell about the endless white fields of cotton, the romance of the Yazoo, and the soulful blues of J.L. Hunter no matter what they see and hear.
Any B&B owner who tells you they make a living off the business is lying. I’d have to be full up for 365 days of the year just for me to pay off the mortgage; so I have a regular job as a psychiatric nurse, and if any guests are expected I get my neighbor to open the door and show them to their rooms. She shuffles out her door in housecoat and mules and goes through my house like a guide in an art museum. “This here’s the kitchen where y’all be havin’ breakfast”. Or: “Here’s y’alls bedroom. There’s the shower and the commode which should work if Mr. James fixed it after the last guest gummed it up.”

Most of the guests driving here think they’ve got the wrong place. I tell people on the phone, “Be sure you take Route 7”, but nobody ever follows directions so half of them come through Peaker’s Bend and get an eyeful of the old and very unreconstructed South. It’s harmless enough – our colored areas are nothing like New Orleans or what you have up North – but the shacky look about all the houses and people just sitting around doing nothing on the porches can look like something from sharecropping days if you’re not used to it. Then they see Betty Granger traipsing through the weeds and on up my front stairs and they’re convinced they should have left Greenwood off the tour.

My husband James hasn’t worked since ’92. He fixes things that are broken in the house and is working on taking up all the warped boards on the porch; but he thinks showing guests around is beneath him so Betty does it, and I have to nurse her brother as compensation. He is incontinent and senile but was released from Jackson two years ago because they needed the bed space. I tell Betty that being a psychiatric nurse does not mean dealing with his bedpans and cleaning up the food he sprays around the room; but she says “A deal is a deal”.

After the tourists have seen Cottonlandia and heard J.L. Hunter I send them to Miss Bowen. She’s got seven sheds full of the finest antiques in the state if you can find them under the dust and debris. Most of the stuff is junk, although she won’t admit it. She’s got old sleds, thresher parts, flower stands, cradles, shotguns, and washboards. I guess she’s just one of these old ladies who hoards things; but has enough money, space, and good taste in antiques to stay respectable. She’s also has had the good fortune of having Moses Brown with her for years. Moses is a restorer and refinisher who antique dealers from New Orleans have been trying to pry away from her for years. Moses is the only one who knows where anything is in those sheds, and he keeps an eye on Miss Bowen as well. She forgets to eat, and Moses defrosts a piece of meat for her every morning and lays it out on the kitchen table. She has never thanked him or even mentioned it; but without Moses she would go hungry and probably wonder why.

She has always been a stickler about the price of her antiques. She’s tagged each one with a price which could just as well have been from yesterday’s auction in Oxford as from a place and time she barely remembers. If you want to buy something, she checks the tag, eyeballs the piece, and quotes a price which could be – depending on her mood the day she tagged it - as overpriced as anything in New Orleans or worth not much more than a old umbrella. These days she would be lost without those tags. I have seen her fumble for a price on an item which had lost its tag, and if it hadn’t have been for Moses, she would have given the piece away.

I grew up in the Mississippi Hills not far from the Alabama state line. My father was a farmer who grew corn, raised pigs and chickens on five acres, moved to soybeans when the price went up. I’ve got one brother who went North and has never come back since; and two sisters who stayed at home, married local, and never will leave even if they hit the Lottery. My mother still owns a notion store, one of the only two places not boarded up on the mainstreet of Splunge, a town that never had more 500 people. It now has none since you can’t count my mother who drives in from the farm or the owner of the hardware store who lives in Alabama. My mother and Miss Bowen would get along real well because of the hoarding. My mother has so much junk piled up in the store the few customers that wander in can’t even make it down the aisles without knocking down old combs, doll heads, bolts of material, and bags of balloons. The material is so old it is faded and getting brown on the edges, and all the balloons have that crinkly look which means they would crumble and fall apart before you could get your lips on them. She sits in the front corner of the room and crochets baby booties by the hundreds. She got it in her head to send a pair to Queen Elizabeth when Prince Charles was born, and one of the Queen’s Ladies in Waiting sent her a thank you letter, embossed with the royal seal and signed with a real signature. When word got around that bonnie Prince Charles was wearing a pair of her booties every new baby in Nenosha County had to have a pair too. She had the letter framed and still shows it to any tourist who wanders through.

I was in the store one day when one of these tourists came in to look around. He asked my mother how long she had owned the store, which was 50 years, and he said “You must have seen a lot of changes in this town”. I knew what he meant – everything was boarded up, a car passed once a morning, the cement on the railroad siding was cracked and weedy, old boxcars sat rusted and overgrown with kudzu. She thought a minute and answered, “No, can’t say that I have”. Well, that’ll give you some idea what living in a small town in Mississippi was like. There was so little in it that when it went to seed she hardly noticed.

My brother doesn’t think much of Northern tourists who come down here, and always asks me how I can cater to them at the B&B. A doctor he met told him that he and his wife had just come back from the Delta and loved it. They stayed in great old plantation homes, ate country fried cooking, visited little towns like Splunge, and talked to people like our mother. “Slumming”, my brother described it. “Nothing but elitist slumming. They stay at $250-a-night plantations, eat five dollar steam tray filling station lunches, commiserate with black folk when they drive through shantytowns, and pick cotton plants to bring back and put in their offices”. Sour grapes. Every poor Southerner who has left the South resents every Northerner who finds anything but misery and servitude here; and my brother is no different. He can’t forget his childhood, and he blames the whole South for it.

I may not have had the the ambition of my brother, but I wasn’t going to be a red dirt girl in a country song for the rest of my life either. I just figured I didn’t have to go as far away as Boston to take a step up. I enrolled in nursing school in Jackson and came home weekends to help my father on the farm and sort out my mother’s junk at the store. Even then, boxes were piled three and four deep and closing in on each other so much that whole aisles disappeared. My mother never wanted to throw anything out from her “inventory”. She had little business sense – no rotating stock, shelf appeal, mark-ups or discounts for her - and she just bought junk from catalogues and piled up the merchandise until she could barely see over it from her perch by the front window.

Yankee tourists aren’t that bad. They’re a bit eager, but I’d rather have them then some of these Viking guys who have pussy on their minds the minute they arrive, like some escapees from prison; and certainly more than these holy roller preachers who come in for revivals. They’re looking for pussy as much as the stove guys; they’re just more sleazy and sneaky about it . We’re no different from any other small town in the South and get our share of revivals. Every Spring there are two or three, and in the Fall they start up all over again. We’ve got Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches; AME Zion, Emmanuel, Beulah, Enon, Faith Temple Spiritual, and ten other black Baptist churches; and every other boarded-up dry cleaners, haberdashery, or shoe store in the old downtown has been converted into a walk-in Pentecostal or Charismatic congregation. With a new church built every year, you’d think there’d be no need for storefronts, but they’re all stuffed to the gills every Sunday.

The stove guys hang around the house waiting for my husband James to be alone, then ask him where they can get some action. The preachers hang around the tent until only the groupies are left, weed out the weak and infirm and hit on the dewy-eyed ones who have stood up for Jesus.

“Action”, James drawls to the stove guys. “Hmmm, I guess for that you’d have to drive up to Oxford, but it’s mainly college bars and keg beer. Or then again you could head up to Tunica on 49. It’s a bit far, but they’ve got the casinos…” James just likes to be ornery because he wouldn’t mind a little pussy himself, but his bum leg has put him in a funk. Ol’ James isn’t that much different from the preachers. I’ve seen him buzzing around sweet young things at church picnics, bringing them ice tea and giving them a shoulder to cry on about how boring life is in Greenwood and how there’s nothing here but cotton farmers and stove guys. “Take Billy Perkins”, I overheard Marva Lane whining one summer afternoon. “He thinks showing off his sweaty muscles in a cutoff T-shirt is hot. Like I’m going to get turned on watching him lift a tire off his truck”.

James doesn’t realize that when women feel they can talk to you about other men – even the likes of Billy Perkins – they figure you’re too old to be interested. To them he is just an old gimpy out-of-work cotton ginner, and he still doesn’t get it.

Greenwood reinstated celebrations for the Fourth of July a few years ago, even after the South’s longest holdout, Vicksburg. Union forces captured Vicksburg on July 4th, 1863 and the city has never gotten over it. Greenwood never had any major battles of the Civil War, or at least none to match the historical importance of Vicksburg’s; but never got over it either and is proud that it was at the heart of Southern resistance to the Second Aggression of the North in the 1960s. James always thought the Fourth of July holdout was stupid. We have been Yankified as much as anybody, he said, maybe more; and after two defeats the South might as well face facts and take a holiday like everybody else.

Once every couple of years I can get my mother to shut the store and to come to Greenwood for a week. James always objects and says that she would be much happier if I went up to Splunge to visit; but it is easier for her to close the shop – which gets one customer a week at best – than for me to shut down the B&B; which is what I would have to do because I can’t leave the running to either James or to Betty Granger. James says that taking care of my mother is worse than a houseful of guests. “She’s not here more than a day and I see her junk everywhere. Explain to me why she put three boxes of potholders in the bathroom.”
With me working at the hospital and James out most days with his friends, my mother wanders the downtown. The owner of the Gift Shoppe has known her since we moved here and sells her items they can’t move at cost; and there are enough people who keep a yard sale going on their front lawn permanently that my mother never comes home empty-handed. There’s one old lady a few blocks from here that trucks out her junk every morning, trucks it in at night. She never sells much, and the price tags are getting all beat up and unreadable; and some of the stuff she never bothers to bring in. It took two people to get the ornate birdbaths shaped like Venetian gondolas out into the yard, but nobody wants to buy birdbaths no matter what they look like. The old lady is actually running an outdoor gift shop, but calls it a permanent yard sale to avoid getting a city license and paying taxes; but it makes no difference what she calls it because she never sells anything until my mother comes to town.

My father died five years ago and is buried in the hills near the farm. He wanted to be cremated. “No sense in taking up valuable land”, he said; but my mother said that since he had complained for 50 years about the miserable fields he worked, six feet more or less wasn’t going to deprive anyone of anything, so why not be given a proper Christian burial like everyone else.

When my father died my mother stayed in the house, but the fields just went to seed. There was no way my brother was coming back from Boston; my two sisters were happy enough to have their husbands away most of the time on the oil rigs in the Gulf; and I wasn’t about to go back to the hills. I worry about my mother because she is alone all day in the store and alone all night at home; but she’s stubborn. The house is beginning to get as junked up as the stores, and I’ve asked the neighbors to keep a lookout and check in on her every so often; but they’re two miles away, and if the dogs hear a car come crunching up the gravel drive at night they’ll charge it and leave slather and spittle all over the windows trying to get in.

My work as a psychiatric nurse is no picnic, but I was trained for it and it was my ticket out of Splunge. I spend mornings at the Greenwood Hospital psychiatric ward - mainly Alzheimer’s patients, occasional teenage suicides, and druggies who come in strung out, delusional, aggressive, and mean. I don’t go near them unless I have two orderlies with me. In the afternoons I attend to my private patients, mostly Alzheimer’s cases who live at home but who are constantly falling, banging their heads, or burning themselves. One patient had turned on the gas, put pots on all burners, but forgot to put anything in them. When I walked in, the kitchen was filled with smoke from all the caked-on grease which had been blowtorched off.

Sometimes I wonder about James in the head department. He has taken up the same board on the porch and nailed it back in twice. He says it is because there’s no point in wasting good lumber when the board is flat, but I’ve never seen him out there with a level, and the board is still as bent as a bow when he gets through. Betty Granger says it’s because he doesn’t have enough to do and his mind wanders, but I have seen enough of Miss Bowen and my patients at Greenwood to have to wonder and worry.

When I first opened the place I subscribed to B&B Quarterly, a trade magazine; and it had a list of do’s and don’ts: “Your throw pillows should complement the color scheme of your bedrooms. Always use fruit in your breakfasts. They’re healthy and festive”. I know some owners make their breakfast dishes so complicated that the guests don’t know where to start eating, especially the ones with three or four layers. This may be all right for Yankee tourists who are used to the “architectural” creations suggested in Southern Living, but these cracker preachers who come in here want fork to hit egg and be done with it.

One tip the Quarterly had was “Diversify your clientele” which, given our location is hard to do. I would have liked to have weddings and anniversaries which are big revenue-earners for most B&Bs; but other than Billy Perkins and Marva Lane who would want to spend their wedding night on theYazoo River with James banging porch boards and Mrs. Granger poking in the weeds trying to look in the bedroom window?
Besides, if I followed the advice of the Quarterly, I would have to make the place romantic and put books of love poems beside the bed, heart-shaped soap in the bath, and ceramic cupids on the mantelpiece. James and I stayed at a B&B in Hernando that had so many cutesy pillows, stuffed animals, and dolls on the bed it looked like one of the theme yard sales that are becoming popular here.

We had an Assemblies of God revival here last year, and the preachers stayed here. It takes three preachers for one revival because the main preacher sweats through his suits and his assistants have to take over when he goes backstage to change. At breakfast they yammered on about their golf games and their wives’ shopping bills; and at night said their dogs were barking, kicked off their shoes, and sat in the parlor to do a postmortem– how many people accepted Jesus, how the band played, how much they took in, and did they notice the girl with the big tits third-from-the-left in the choir. I have never held preachers to a higher standard – they have the same frailties and strengths as the rest of us - but these ol’ boys stretched my convictions.
The stove guys are no different – they bang away about golf and their wives and rehash sales figures no different than the preachers. James says it’s like snapping towels and talking poontang in the locker room. All men are the same.

I don’t know how much longer James will keep on making sense. The floorboards on the porch episode was just the first of many. I can’t leave him alone, Betty Granger is too far gone to be of any help, and if I quit my job we’ll have no income. The only choice I have is to ratchet up the B&B business – stop relying so much on the stove company and the preachers, do some PR, and suck some more Yankee tourists down here. Right now it’s nothing more than a dribble. My model is the Riverdale B&B in St. Martinsville, Louisiana which features a testimonial on its website: "The rooms were the biggest we had ever seen, and furnished with beautiful antiques - rates in our opinion is a steal - truly elegant, with wonderful food and great coffee …My personal favorite, with its vast rooms and its dreamy view of the Bayou Teche".

Now, none of this is true but it’s not a lie either which is the genius of the website. There is a view of the Bayou, but only if you look out the bathroom window in the back. That far from the Gulf the bayou is stagnant and greenish and littered with Coke cans and coffee cups. The “antiques” are nothing but old furniture, most of it mismatched, chipped and wobbly. The rooms are big but empty; and the roach spray has soaked so deep into the woodwork that the smell will never come out.

As I said before, most tourists travel to confirm what they already know, so the B&B they describe to their friends will always be the dreamy view of the Bayou Teche and have nothing to do with the roach spray, the stale coffee-flavored chicory, and the greasy beignets.

If I do more business and keep my rooms filled throughout the year and not just at revival and stove times, I will have to figure out a way to keep James out of sight when guests are around. One day he barged out of his room wearing only his bathrobe and floppy mules, walked right up to one of the preachers asleep in the armchair, dogs up on the Ottoman, and says that he wants to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Preachers always work from a practiced script and aren’t particularly good at improvising but being startled out of a deep sleep by poor naked James, hairy stomach and sagging balls in his face, this one had no chance. “Well”, said James. “What are you going to do about it?” I figured I had to rescue him before the pastor could realize what was happening, so I picked up his Bible and read James a verse from the page the preacher had been reading before he nodded off, which was from the Song of Solomon, all about rapture and ecstasy. I remember chapter and verse because I was so amazed at the time that these bastards were so horny they had to get their pizzles dingled even from the Good Book. James was satisfied, and I took him back to bed.

If I do go big time, I will have to figure out a way to keep James in his room or at least on a short leash when he is out. I don’t find it cruel to laugh at some of the things he says or does – that would just be ignoring something which is funny; but I don’t want Yankees telling dinner table fables about Southern inbreeding. It’s OK if I join James in his demented world, but no one else is allowed.

There’s a point when you have to admit you have no money – never have and never will. You can go years ignoring it, or simply choosing not to accept it; but one day there it is. In your last gasps of denial you can say, well sure we don’t have much money, but we’re not on welfare, like all of Peaker’s Bend; but that excuse is no better than the Yankee tourists who use the tarpaper shacks as a backdrop for their distorted image of the South.

“Lucy, where’s my toothbrush?”

I can only say that God knew what he was doing when he guided me into psychiatric nursing and the B&B. I have a permanent guest, and he is my patient.