Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Roots Is The Toots: The Music That Got The Generation Of ’68 Through The 1950s Red Scare Cold War Night-The Real Scoop Behind “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”-Martha and the Vandellas- Dancing In The Streets

The Roots Is The Toots: The Music That Got The Generation Of ’68 Through The 1950s Red Scare Cold War Night-The Real Scoop Behind “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”-Martha and the Vandellas- Dancing In The Streets

This sketch takes place in the 1970s but is driven, and driven hard, by the music of the early 1960s when the grifter described here first came of age and hence its inclusion. Frank Jackman

“Hey, brother, can you spare a dime?,” (or sister now something unheard of back in the day, back in the early 1960s, when some cop might pinch you at her request for disturbing the fair sex  for  being unseemly in public asking a proper lady for anything. Now here in the go-go 70s any human form is qualified for the hustle where every low-rent guy takes a shot figuring maybe to get something so the other party, particularly women, can get you out of their faces and move on) followed by “Got an extra cigarette, pal (or gal, ditto the sister thing except unlike back in the day, pal or gal, in the new age, as likely as not, probably has no butts, has no “cigs,” doesn’t touch the stuff ever since the Surgeon-General’s report put the fear of God in lots of people)?”

Yeah, Billy Bailey, William James Bailey, used-to-be brash corner boy, a contender for the title of king hell king of the corner boy night around Salducci’s Pizza Parlor, “up the downs” back in North Adamsville in the old days, the old days these days being the early 1960s before smart and brash corner boy Frankie Riley put an end to that dream by trumping all upstarts since  he was “in” with the shop owner, certainly had the panhandler lingo down, down pat, after only a few days on the bum. Funny during these few days on the bum this time he would almost blush when he thought back to the days when he used to laugh in the faces of swollen-faced raggedy-assed guys trying to pan-handle him for dough, trying to bum a smoke, and here he was with the brethren. Hustling maybe a little cleaner in attire that the brethren since he had not gotten down to second-hand Sally goods yet although a few more weeks with constant use of the few clothes that he did have might have him howling. Hustling too with cleaner breathe since he did not drink (that jones long over and done with substituted by several subsequent joneses including his current burden. He still felt that contempt for the buggers since he “knew” that a few days of this street work and he would be off the skids, on his feet again and then able to go back to laughing at the brethren, a good laugh too, while they pipe-dreamed their lives away.

Yeah, this was strictly temporary because his ship would come in before he wound up on cheap street like the boyos hanging around the Common swilling rotgut wine (or maybe low-rent whiskey if the day’s take was good) smoking tobacco “roaches,” butt end really off the ground and pissing all over themselves. However every once in a while he would get a funny feeling, kind of turn up his collar a little more, push his baseball cap lower on his head, put on sunglasses ( a real no-no in the pan-handler racket since you want the “marks” to see your desperate eyes, your pleading desperate eyes, to close the deal. Besides sunglasses might make them feel you just blew in from the coast.) when he realized that he was on the bum in his own home town, his ever-loving’ roots, Boston. (His hometown of North Adamsville close enough so that he did not have to tell people who asked the name of the town and could get by with Boston unlike if he was from Lowell or Lawrence or places like that. Sure he had been on the bum a few times, nothing big, once on the Mission in Frisco (where in the same day he walked across the Golden Gate Bridge and that night slept, slept newspaper for a pillow sleep, under that edifice), a couple of times on Larimer Street in Denver before they gentrified the damn place and along the arroyos down in Los Angeles with a bunch of Vietnam veterans like himself who unlike him couldn’t adjust to the “real” world. 

Yeah, those were a few day bums, maybe a week, couple of weeks, no more than a month and then back to the world. Short falls, maybe drunk too much and jobless, later maybe too much gambling on run-out horses and dogs (and no money coming in to feed the habits once he got behind), maybe some twist threw him over for a steady guy after he wore out his welcome (and her pocketbook). On the bum this time, this time though a real fall, in hock and up to his ass in debt, mostly big score no-go dope on credit deal debts,  when he had tired of drunk risks, gambling risks, frail risks,  guys looking for him, not Boston guys thankfully, well, looking for him to pay up. During the long days of pan-handling this time though he would think back to the old days, the days before the “falls” when hustling dough was just for some short money, pick up some spare change, to wander into free campsite, Volkswagen bus pick-up sharing stews, brews and dope hitchhike roads looking for the great blue-pink American West night with some honey, some Angelica honey, bum like a few years back. Angelica, the proto-type of his sexual desire in those days, all Midwest blonde, slender, frisky, proud and sensible, traipsing after him across half the continent before going home to Indiana and then later joining him in southern California before she decided on white picket fences and kids. Sweet kiss, baby, you were probably right when that last night you said your gallant knight was made of sawdust. Yeah, that was a while back, late 1960s back when even he sensed the world might be turned upside down. Hoped maybe he and his would get a fair shake in the world even though more pressing personal issues drove his days and nights. 

Those days, those days after the hellish army routine, the “Nam bummer, the Nam bummer before he hightailed it with the arroyos brothers who couldn’t face the “real” world down in L.A. he practically made a religion, yah a religion out of living “free,” living out of the knapsack(oddly an old World War II surplus job found at Snyder’s Army and Navy which he father had told him he carried all thorough Europe when it was to kick ass with the Nazi), living under bridge (not arroyos brother bridges but nice, meaning girl company nice, sleeping bag also Army surplus and light campfires and fine stews), no sweat, if need be. But those “golden days” dried up a few years back and now here in 1976 he was facing a real skid row choice. How it happened he will get to along the way but first let’s set the parameters of what 1976 panhandling, to put an eloquent name on it for “bumming”, shiftless bumming , looked like and how to survive in the new age of everybody me-ing themselves, even with people who were not on the bum. Christ, lord the times were hard, hard times in old Babylon, no question.

See, a guy, a guy who called himself “Shorty” McGee for obviously physical reasons but who knows what his real name was, maybe he didn’t remember either after all the rum-dum sterno heat years and the endless backsides of skid row haunts, that he had hitched up with for a minute, an overnight minute at the Salvation Army Harbor Lights Center over in the South End kind of hipped him to the obvious tricks of the new down-at the-heels road. Like putting the two requests, change and “cigs,” together when you were panhandling. See, Shorty said it was all a matter of psychology, of working the crowd, the downtown crowd, the bustling workaday Park Street Station crowd hurrying to and fro looking for quick lunches, maybe a minute shopping spree in Jordan Marsh’s or Filene’s, and the Copley Square sunning themselves crowd on the benches across from the library maybe reading a book or feeding the pigeons, right to get you out of their sights and back to whatever sweet thing they were doing. So you endlessly put the two requests together, time after time after time, and always. And what happened was that when they turned you down for the dough ( as happened a lot), or maybe took you literally and pieced you off with just a dime, Christ a dime that wouldn’t even buy a cup of joe, could feel good about themselves, if they smoked, smoked cigarettes anyway, by passing you a butt. Billy thought, nice, this Shorty really does have it worked out just about right. Of course dimes and drags were not going to get him out from under, not this time.

Well, rather than leaving the reader out in the dark, Billy Bailey this fair 1976 spring was not just on the bum, but on the lam as well, keeping his head very far down just in case there were some guys who were looking for him, or worst, the cops, in case some irate victim of one of his scams took a notion to “fry his ass.” Of course he was counting on them, those victims, being mainly friends and acquaintances, of not putting “the heat” on him since he had already promised through the grapevine that he would make restitution. But we are getting a little ahead of the story, let’s step back.

The early 1970s were not kind to “free spirits” the previous name for what on this day were “free-loaders” and Billy, well, got behind in his expenses, and his bills, his ever expanding bills. But see the transition from free “s” to free “l” caught him off-guard, moreover he was just then in the throes of a fit of “the world owes me a living,” a serious fit. Why? Well see, he as a pauper son of the desperate working poor, “felt” that since he missed out on the golden age benefits of his youth that he was to make up the difference by putting the “touch” on the richer friends that he had acquired through his doing this and that, mainly high-end drug connections (not really rich but richer since the really rich were hunkered down behind about fifteen layers of fortresses, physical and legal, and as some writer who knew what he was talking about really were different that you and me, no question).

The long and short it was that he work the deal this way, this way once he got his hard wanting habits on first he would “borrow” money off Friend A under some scam pretext of putting it to good use, usually using some exotic drug story as the front (yes, his good use, including several long airplane fight trips to California and other points west-no more hitchhike roads for this moving up the food chain lad) and then borrow dough off Friend B to cover some of his debt to Friend A. Something like an unconscious classic Ponzi scheme, as it turned out. And then when he got to Friend X or somewhere around there things got way too complicated and he started “kiting” checks, and on and on as far deep into his white- collar crime mind as he could think. That could only go on a for a short while and he calculated that "short while" almost to the day when he would have to go “underground” and that day had sprung up a couple of weeks before.

So it took no accountant or smart-ass attorney to know that dimes and drags were not going to get him back on his feet. Nor were many of the schemes that Shorty had outlined over at Harbor Lights as ways to grab quick cash. (Hitting the poor boy charity circuit, good mainly one time, grabbing stuff on credit using somebody’s credit card gained through guys who sold fake credit cards and then selling the stuff quick and deeply discounted. Some check finagling. All things that really took sunnier times to work and squeak maximum benefit from. These were chicken feed for his needs, even his immediate needs, although some of the scams would fill the bill for a rum-dum or life-long skid row bum. But here is the secret, the deep secret that Billy Bailey held in his heart, after a few nights on bus station benches, cold spring night park benches, a night bout under the Andersen Bridge over by old haunt Harvard Square (girl-less and with no cozy sleeping and stew campfires), and a few nights that he would rather not discuss just in case, he finally figured out, figured out kicking and screaming, that the world did not owe him a living and that if he wanted to survive past thirty he had better get the stardust and grit out of his eyes. But just this minute, just this undercover spring 1976 minute, he needed to work the Commons. “Hey, brother, hey sister, can you spare a dime?” “Pal, have you got an extra cigarette?”

Postscript: Not all wisdom ends happily, and not all good intentions grow to fruition. Yes, Billy paid off his debts to his friends, mostly. However, Billy Bailey was killed while “muling” in a drug war shoot-out in Juarez, Mexico in late 1979 trying to do an independent score when the bad boy Mexican and South American cartels were bundling things up. Found face down with two in the back of the head. Yeah, Billy Bailey had moved down the chain a lot since the days when he was a contender for the king hell king of the corner boy night.

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