Dick Gregory, a Modern Master of Comedy and Activism

HE’S BEST KNOWN FOR HIS STANDUP ROUTINES AND PARTICIPATION IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, BUT THE BOOK ABOUT HIS EARLY LIFE IS A MASTERPIECE OF AMERICAN LITERATURE.

By Steve Silkin

Dick Gregory’s autobiography, “Nigger,” should be required reading. The pioneering standup comedian and civil rights activist, who died at 84 recently, created a masterpiece of humanism in recounting his youth on the outskirts of polite society, from his impoverished childhood, to his blossoming as a neighborhood wit, to his talent that allowed him to disarm the worst racists with an insult in the form a clever quip.

My friends and I have passed the book around for the last few years. I could speak about it for hours, and have done so with them. But I’ll step aside for a moment and let Gregory speak for himself, from his days as a shoeshine boy in Chicago taverns:

White and brown shoes. I didn’t want to get the brown polish on the white part so I put my other hand on the back of the white woman’s leg to steady myself. One of the white men jumped off his bar stool. “Get your dirty black hands off that white lady, you nigger bastard.” He kicked me right in the mouth. One of the other men came off his stool and grabbed the man who had kicked me.

“For Christ’s sake, he’s just a little kid.”

“Mind your goddamn business.”

WHOP! The fight was on.

The bartender jumped over the bar and grabbed me with one hand and my shoeshine box with the other. “Sorry boy, it’s not your fault, but I can’t have you around.”

Out on the sidewalk he gave me a five-dollar bill.

When I saw all the blood and pieces of tooth on my shirt I got scared. Momma would be real angry. So I went over to Boo’s house and spent the night. I told Boo that if I could get kicked in the mouth a couple of more times today, and get five dollars each time, man I’d be all right.

And here’s a dialog with a store clerk, after Gregory and his brother got a government check for a summer job that could have killed them: loading sandbags in stifling heat on a levee that broke and forced them to try to outrun the flood waters. They decided to shop at a department store for the first time:

What do you boys want?

Hat.

What color?

Brown.

What’s your head size?

Don’t know.

You have to know.

I’ll try it on.

Like hell you will.

The book details Gregory’s advanced thinking on how to calibrate his standup jokes in way that describes black life to white audiences in terms they could accept. Hugh Hefner caught his act one night at the Playboy Club and realized he was a star.

Why did Gregory call his book “Nigger?” This is for you, ma, he wrote in the dedication to the woman who conquered poverty with love. She hated the word, he explained, so whenever she hears it up there, he tells her, “just know that they’re advertising my book.”

 

 

 

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Leonard Cohen Is Not Gone

By Steve Silkin

THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF LITERATURE has featured only the rarest examples of lyrics to songs that were played on the radio or stages of concert halls. Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” is one of them. Even divorced from the droning, wistful melody, the subtext evokes the lightness and weight of the ideal love an artist has for his muse. “And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind / And you know that she will trust you / For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.”

Cohen died on Nov. 7 at the Los Angeles home of his son Adam and daughter Lorca. He was 82. His passing follows the recent release of “You Want It Darker,” which Adam helped him produce at their upstairs studio while the great singer-songwriter was struck with limited mobility. The New Yorker profiled Cohen on the occasion of the album’s release. The writer of the profile was the magazine’s editor David Remnick, leader of the standard-bearing publication of American letters. Remnick wasn’t going to assign this baby. This one, he must’ve said to himself, is mine.

Let us take a brief tour of the man’s catalog. The obituaries noted that he was seen as the Continue reading “Leonard Cohen Is Not Gone”

I Tell You Story So Crazy That You Maybe No Believe But Is True Story

By KAMAL P. JEAN ‘PANTHERE’ (as told to Steve Silkin)

NOV. 8 2016: ELECTION DAY. Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton. I signed up to be a poll clerk and was sent to the voting place in an apartment across the street from my childhood haunt, Topanga Plaza. On my lunch break, I walked around the corner to a Starbucks and sat down to relax. A Middle Eastern gentleman soon took the table next to me and began loading his laptop with downloaded music. We chatted about this and that, and he told me he was a deejay who had just arrived from a long residence at clubs in New York. Kamal P. Jean “Panthere” was his name, French for panther, as he’d first gigged in Belgium. I told him I’d just finished editing the memoirs of a World War II Latino fighter pilot who had been there during the Battle of the Bulge. He was excited when he found out that I was a writer, because he had met some quite interesting characters during his stay in New York and told me about some of them. Of course, it’s possible that I actually fell asleep in the Starbucks and dreamed this. But I seem to remember that this is what he said:

Is story of boy name Omar. They give him little job keep busy tell him bring goats to field in morning, let them eating grass, then bringing them back goat pen in one hour or when they stop eat, but they never stop eat, so he just bring them back when he feel tiredness.

So Omar do this each day. Omar parents happy, Omar happy, goats happy. Everybody happy. All good.

But one day Omar go pee on fence. Is that day story become terrible story not happy.

Electric fence so nobody steal goats which was problem before Omar born so Omar father Ali-Hooli put electric fence keep goats for milk and make more goats.

Tell Omar never touch on electric fence. But he did not telling Omar explain why, and why no pee near electric fence.

So one day Omar have to make big pee and so big stream hit fence but make no zapping Continue reading “I Tell You Story So Crazy That You Maybe No Believe But Is True Story”

Father’s Day: What About Mine?

IT’S NOT YOUR TYPICAL FATHER’S DAY STORY: THE AUTHOR ASKS WHY HE COULDN’T HAVE HAD THE FATHER THAT HIS DAD USED TO BE

Richard M. Herd

I WAS EIGHT WHEN WE MOVED from Martinez in California to Tulsa. Dad, mom, me, my brother. But we drove back to California for three summers in a row and went to Trinity Lake with my mom’s parents, in the far northern crevices of California. We rented a houseboat and tied the ski boat to the side and drifted to various beaches. My dad skied for hours, and my grandpa drove the boat. Grandpa yelled, “Just follow along.” I sat and watched my dad carve huge rooster tail curves. Sometimes he went so fast, he caught the boat, no slack left in the rope, and sprayed us. That meant he was done. Grandpa made the huge sweeping turn to pick him up. There he was: my dad floating on his back, completely exhausted, endorphins pumping through his veins, and just staring up at the sky, his bare chest, yellow flotation belt, green swim trunks, and a wooden ski. He said, “This is the life Richie. This is the life.” I wish that guy was still my dad.

Continue reading “Father’s Day: What About Mine?”

Cleanup on Aisle Ulysses

IN HONOR OF BLOOMSDAY, CONQUISTADOR ASKED THE AUTHOR OF FINNEGAN’S WAKE TO COMMENT UPON THE CURRENT AMERICAN POLITICAL SITUATION.

James Joyce

COMES NOW PAUL, PAUL, a handsome lad with eccentric hair, a small triangle of it pointed down upon his brow, making him appear sometimes demonic, sometimes more demonic, who said you cannot make this stuff up and he is correct because no one on the seven continents, including Antarctica with its daft but pretty penguins, Antarctica, a land cursed and blessed with cold—and the cold is the curse; but it is such cold that it keeps the humans away, and the cold is the blessing—no one would have spun the tale of an unhinged tycoon who has touched the deep inner spirit or lack thereof of the people and they have thus anointed and appointed him the sage of the realm and now ask him to lead them into the future or the past—depending on their point of view and interpretation and level of nostalgia for an idyllic era that never existed—and, our unhinged one, all fecund in his nuttiness, despite of or because of that, he has been named the presumptive and presumptuous candidate for the party of elephantine capitalists, to battle against the also-presumptive and presumptuous candidate for the party of equus asinus capitalists, in

Continue reading “Cleanup on Aisle Ulysses”

The DWP Can Suck My Hydrant

DON OCHACHER ASKED WHY HIS HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATION WAS BILLED
$2,555 A YEAR FOR ‘FIRE SERVICE.’ THE ANSWER: IT’S A MASSIVE
DWP RIPOFF OF RATEPAYERS WITH PRIVATE HYDRANTS.

By Steve Silkin

PART 1: THE NEWS

THE LOS ANGELES DEPARTMENT of Water and Power has been charging property owners with private hydrants at least $7.5 million a year for “fire service” which in fact is nothing of the sort, and in exchange for that money does absolutely nothing: zero, nada, zilch.

Additionally, when ratepayers with hydrants on private property call to ask about the charges and services, phone representatives have recently said the utility tests service to hydrants—a blatant lie because the city’s Fire Department does that.

To make this whole sordid case even more revolting, DWP does not pass along any portion of the revenue to the Fire Department, not the least dime, while the utility pays the firefighters $5 for each hydrant tested on sidewalks and other public property.

By best estimates, DWP charges property owners $2,555 for each hydrant, and there may be more than 3,000 private hydrants in the city. This insanely rampant thievery now totals at least $100 million, because it’s been going on for at least 14 years.

Continue reading “The DWP Can Suck My Hydrant”

Republicans vs. Trump: What Would the French Do?

THE FRENCH HAVE CHANGED THE MAKEUP OF THEIR POLITICAL PARTIES AND FORMED ALLIANCES AMONG ENEMIES MANY TIMES. DEMOCRATS SHOULD MERGE WITH ANTI-TRUMP REPUBLICANS TODAY AND CLINTON SHOULD OFFER THE VEEP SPOT TO RYAN. THAT’LL TEACH THE TEA PARTY THE MEANING OF MAJORITY RULE.

By Steve Silkin

WHILE EXAMINING the past week in U.S. politics, I realized that many people in both major parties are ready for a dramatic, monumental overhaul. Most people think a change of the proportion I’m suggesting can’t be done. But look at France.

The French do not get mired down in their history, even though they’re so proud of it. They have had five constitutions, unencumbered by any phobias about tearing one up and starting over. Then doing it again—and again. (As in: “Mon dieu, the last one was bad, but this one is even worse.” Plus, after the Nov. 13 Islamic terrorist attacks, they went into a back room and rewrote two paragraphs of the current one. The changes were ratified a few days later. The little controversy that erupted over that died out within a week.)

French political parties have formed, split, merged, unmerged, died and come back to life more times than I can count during the past 40 years. On the right, Jacques Chirac and Valery Giscard d’Estaing split into the RPR and the UDF in 1976. Francois Mitterrand in 1981 co-opted the Communists by merging them into his Socialist government. The country had been riddled by strikes. He named Communist ministers to the departments where the labor unrest was most crippling—transportation, health care, industry. Who were they going to strike against? Themselves?

Continue reading “Republicans vs. Trump: What Would the French Do?”