Thursday, February 11, 2016

*****Sitting On The Rim Of The World- With The Son Of The Neon Wilderness Nelson Algren In Mind -Sam Eaton’s Take

*****Sitting On The Rim Of The World- With The Son Of The Neon Wilderness Nelson Algren In Mind -Sam Eaton’s Take

From The Pen Of Bart Webber 

A number of years ago when I was in the midst of one of my periodic re-readings of the gritty Chicago-etched novelist Nelson Algren who worked the steamy, misbegotten streets of that town when it was like now "an anything goes" place from the endlessly brutal and arbitrary cops, Chicago's finest, doing what they damn well please to the mayhem and lost dreams down at the base of society if not up on Lake Shore Drive I wrote a rat-tat-tat rush of words and phrases extolling his work. My old friend from Carver in Massachusetts where I grew up, Sam Eaton, read the piece recently after he had read Walk On The Wild Side arguably one of the great novels chronicling the plight of the white trash in the last century who could not adjust, did not want to adjust when the deal went down and got nothing but knuckles and billy-clubs for breakfast for their efforts said he wanted to give his take on Algren, a more nuance  take. Sam said to me that he would take responsibility for what was written. He had better since I will not, no way.      


Yeah, Bart was right about Nelson Algren, right about how he had the misfits, the guys and gals who because of upbringing, hubris, fate didn’t cut the mustard, couldn’t go the distant in normal society and thus got burned up in the process, pegged. Had their number just like the midnight copper captain in one of his more famous who, just like today if you want to know the truth about cops, got tired of their same old, same old in a story Bart had me read one time. That is what got me interested in reading Walk On The Wild Side, got me hopped up on one Dove Linkhorn, a guy born to lose, imprinted with that born to lose sign so he might as well not have been born. Period. Here in this book or rather in the description of the origins of the Doves when they came to this green breast of American land, the origins of the Tobacco Road set, the “white trash” guys, is where I knew Algren was no fake, no fake at all no matter how good he might have had it growing up himself, no matter how far away from cheap street he might have actually been (and after Bart filled me in about a junkie girlfriend he tried to help go “cold turkey, ” more than once knew I was on to something about what Algren knew about what Jack Kerouac called the fellahin, Marx called the lumpen, who have always been with us we just don't see them except when they are pan-handling around the inner cities or conning somebody anywhere).

Bart, although these days he probably would not admit to it, wouldn’t mention it unless he was asked directly, and I came from Doveville, came from that “white trash” environment that Algren captured in the first couple of chapters about where guys like Dove got off the rails right from the start. We both grew up in the “projects” in Carver, you know the public housing every town and city has provided for a while to those who are down on their luck, can’t do better, or won’t. No matter how pretty a town tries to make the place look and the town of Carver didn’t bother much it is still the projects. It’s the projects because it is not so much the condition of the places, the lack of space and amenities people out in the leafy suburbs expect as a matter of course, or the sameness of everybody’s condition and thus poor material to jump up in the world in but because of the way it breaks your spirit, the way it grinds you down worrying about the basics of life and not having them, making your “wanting habits” larger than life.                 

Although Bart, whose father was just a poorly educated man who got caught up in World War II, got stationed for a while in Boston before being discharged, met Bart’s mother and decided to stay rather than going back up to rural Maine and his white trash kindred (I am not being unkind here to the old man, believe me, Bart said he could not believe a place was worse than the Carver projects when he saw the broken down shack, complete with rusted non-descript vehicles, the outhouse which served for relief of the bodily functions and the rat’s ass condition of the interior, the couple of times he went up there as a kid to see where his father grew up) and I, whose father was a drunk, a drunk straight up without the excuse of military service to explain his rotten ways escaped the worst the projects had to dish out it was a close thing, a very close thing. We saw Doves all around us, had some for friends, got tied up a little with their wanting habits which intersected our own.       

Let me give you one example, the one Bart would pick too if I had asked him to name the guy from the old neighborhood who could go toe to toe with the Doves of the world. “Red” Radley was the toughest hombre around (and that “red” moniker was not about his political affiliations, not in the red scare 1950s when we grew up under the cloud of the Cold War, he would have clobbered anybody who said that, clobbered anybody who claimed to be a red, or maybe even though about it too).  A couple of years older than us so his exploits worthy of our attention and admiration (and garnered us a couple of appearances in “juvie,” in kid’s court as a result for the "clip,"  you know the "five-finger discount" and trying to jack-roll a guy, an old town drunk after he got his monthly check, Jesus) Red didn’t look that tough but everybody knew that he was the guy who almost chain-whipped a guy to death from another neighborhood, another corner really which is the way “turf” was divided in those days leaving a bloody mass on the ground when he walked away just for being in Red’s corner (Harry’s Variety where even tough and "connected" Harry once told me long after Red went up to do his first armed robbery stretch that he was afraid of Red when he was only sixteen and that was why he never made an issue of Red staking out his store as his corner for him and his boys even though he was "protected" by the cops).       

Red had the classic story, a drunken long gone father (if it was his father since the guy he knew as this father before the guy split always claimed Red was not his kid), a tramp of a mother whose claim to fame was that she could outdrink most guys and gave the best blowjobs in town. No one questioned the latter by the way and there was plenty of anecdotal evidence for that claim from high school guys to old time winos who knew her when she was younger and they cared more about satisfaction of their sexual urges, having her "toot the whistle" they called it then than the hunt for Ripple). Red didn’t care if school kept or not once he got the idea to start “clipping” stuff from department schools and selling it to us (or anybody else) cheap to keep himself in clover. Got himself a gang of corner boys (Harry’s Variety, remember) including Bart and me for a few minutes (that is where our “juvie” experiences came in) and ruled his ‘kingdom” with an iron fist until he graduated to armed robberies (the place where Bart and I jumped ship). Wound up pimping his younger sister, only thirteen, for a while in between robberies (we thought it was cool although we were far from knowing what that pimping really meant). There was some talk too of incest with her but we let that slide not being sure what that meant or understanding the implications. Later, when he was between jail terms he would pimp whatever girlfriend he had to keep himself in dough.

Funny despite his outlaw status he could get some good-looking novena, rosary bead and "Bible between their knees" Catholic girls who you wouldn’t think would look at him once although he was a good-looking wiry guy and turn them into whores. And they didn’t think twice about it according to what Red told Bart one time about Cissie Gaffney whom Bart had had a crush on in his younger days. It took no big brain to know that Red’s attitude toward women was about the same as his attitude about doormats.         

Naturally the Reds of the world just like their kindred Doves try to go further than their inner resources will take them. Begin to think the whole world is just a little larger than the small pond they are swimming in where they have all the other fishes terrified, forget there are a ton of other tough hungry guys out there. Forget the coppers will throw you down if you do not own them. And so early on at about sixteen Red started getting taken down many pegs. The first time for a botched armed robbery of a gas station up on Palmer Street when a cop car was passing by and saw the action, the coppers put Red down to the ground and he stayed down as they handcuffed him, trussed him really. That began the cycle from which Red never broke until, from what we heard about twenty-five years later, Red fell to earth down South, North Carolina I think, strung out on junk, a habit which he picked up in one of his jail terms (and which made more than one girlfriend a whore to keep him from his horrors), fell down in a shoot-out with local cops when he was trying to rob a White Hen convenience store, armed to the teeth. So when we say Algren knew the Reds, (and us) of the world, wrote about them true you can take that wisdom to the bank. Here’s why if you need a more rounded out picture:       

He, Nelson Algren, the poet-king of the midnight police line-up, poet-king and true, no short-cuts, no pretty pictures, no lies leave that to the dopes in the line-up, leave that to the prosaic night watch captain who has heard it all, night court shuffle (whores, pimps, winos, and denizens of the all-night Hayes-Bickford weak coffee but cheap who are out and about gathered up by a whole unknown to John and Jane Q Public justice system which is grinding away relentlessly keeping John and Jane ignorant), drug-infested jack-roller (who likes the sound of a roll of nickels on bone, likes to work the dark streets around Jimmy the Polack’s Tavern on Friday nights when guys get paid and he gets “paid”), dope-peddler (mostly the guy who takes the fall, the guy who cuts the dope so tight that it makes Minnie squeal to high heaven but also the guy when that fifteenth “cold turkey” time didn't make it is the sainted bastard savoir our lord “fixer-man” all hail), illicit crap game back alleys (watch the Doves, Reds, and Shortys for they will always tilt the game if not watched just like back in some Harry’s Variety time when the messed up Madame La Rue pinball wizard games and Harry caught hell from his connected boys, Chicago-style, what did Carl Sandburg the old dusty poet call Chi ( a very far stretch from old hosanna westward trek all men are brothers Walt Whitman although he too knew grime), oh yeah, hog-butcher and steel-driver of the world. Wrote of small-voiced people(you know Joe regular guy this gas jockey smelling of greases and oils even with the Borax treatment, Jane regular gal waitress in the dead-end Pops’ Eats diner complete with stained tight white uniform and tired legs), mostly people who had started out in the world with small voices, small voices which never got louder.

Small-voiced except that solitary confinement in some locked room junkie wail when deep in the “cold turkey” fits screaming for sweet Jesus lord fixer man, except that drunk dark tavern cheap low-shelf rye whiskey shrieking in the early morning high moon can’t find the way home some blind and another shriek when Lenny works that roll of nickels on his bones, yeah, except that stealthy jack-roller cry of delight once his victim wears that spot of blood on the back of his neck like some red badge of sap-dom, except that scream when some he-man decides that for a minute he would gain a big voice and smack his woman a few times to straighten her out (and she sporting a bruised eye and crippled shoulder, nowhere to go, what about the kids, and oh how he used to love her so and maybe he will change some day), except that holler when some john decided to bust up his paid-up junkie whore just because he could  (hell, she tried to hold out on him her protector, tried to do a trick on her own hook, tried to take the night off, the reasons are endless), except, oh, hell, enough of exceptions in the neon-blazing small voice night. Let little sketch, do, do for all the suffering mass who fall way under the social radar: 

“Frankie, I ain’t feelng so good, need a little something to calm my nerves down, get me back on top, get be back to being your sweet loving lady, your sweet Lorraine,” Marybeth Dolan said to her latest lover man Frankie, Frankie Malone, whom she had met about a year before when she was feeling blue and had gone out to Skipper’s Bar &Grille over on Division, that’s Chi town for the gyps, to have a few drinks, maybe pick up a guy for the night, maybe more she wasn’t that picky that night when she had her wanting habits on that way, when she needed a man in her bed to stop the crazy feeling she got when she didn’t have a man around.

She had seen Frankie around, around Division, remember in Chi town,  and around Skipper’s before, Skipper’s her home away from home when she wanted a man, heard he was “connected” to Lance Kelly, the big guy in the dope scene and who knows what else and as she was strictly a whiskey drinker she kind of passed him by, kind of brushed him off her dance card even if he was pretty good looking, and looked like he might be good in the saddle, her saddle. Heard too though that he had been hung up on junk, H, horse, whatever the guys at Skipper’s called it to show they were hip, or something after he got back from Iraq, back the first time in 2005 but had gone “cold turkey” and kept off the stuff as far as she knew.           

That first night they met she had gone into Skipper’s with her best red “come hither” dress on (some girlfriend had told her when she was just a girl, just starting to figure out guys, started wanting to figure out guys that red was the primo color to attract guys who were looking to score with girls, red come hither dresses seemed to work the best), sat down on a stool at the bar and ordered her regular drink, Chivas on the rocks, from Benny the bartender who sometimes when the place was not busy would have her drink ready as he spied her coming in the door, although not this night when the place was crowded since Eddie Clearwater, the old time electric blues guy who played with Magic Jim back in the day was performing on the small stage in the back room and he always drew a crowd.

Frankie had been sitting a few seats down when he first noticed her but since the seat next to hers was clear he came up to the empty seat and asked if anybody was sitting there. After the obvious “no” he asked if she wanted a drink, she said “no” since she already had a drink in front of her and thought that would be that. Instead Frankie said in a low murmur so nobody else would hear, “I’ve seen you in here before, seen you with Lenny Price a few times, and then lately by yourself. What did you do, get old Lenny the brush-off?”

“No,” she answered starting to think that very subtle thought that this guy was trying to pick her up and that might not be so bad, might be very good if he was off the junk like she had heard, “Lenny drifted out West somewhere, left me high and dry if you want to know, and good riddance since the guy was going nowhere and wasn’t that good a lover anyway.” That last part startled Frankie a little as he replied, “I’m a guy going somewhere, I’m a guy who you might want to get to know,” looking her up and down. Marybeth blushed her always Irish Catholic novena rosary bead blush which came up whenever a guy was giving her the sexy treatment although she had long ago given up her maidenhead, quaint word, and the Church.

Then Marybeth said, “Well, maybe I might if you are clean these days.” Frankie turned his head back away from her as if to say that how did she know that, and why, and answered, “Yeah, I’m clean, clean as jaybird although it wasn’t something I wanted to do, no way.” And thus started the love affair between one Francis Malone and one Marybeth Dolan, both to the Church born but now wayward sinners as she took him to her small studio apartment later that night after they had talked, danced a couple of slow ones when Eddie was finishing his last set and had closed the joint.                         

And so it went along for a couple of months they alternating between her place and Frankie’s room, efficiencies they call them in Chi town with a small kitchenette and half shower bathroom but really one big room, so room, going out to eat supper at various spots, some ritzy like The Four Winds, some just plain apple America steamed Wagon Wheel Diner when their appetites were up (usually after sex and she had performed a few tricks on him, “played the flute,” she called the trick which both agreed no self-respecting Irish Catholic girl should even know about less be able to do, to get down her throat that far although both laughed when she said from Frankie’s very limp penis he was glad that she did know and he just smiled the smile of a guy who knew he could get her to do that trick whenever he wanted). Skipper’s when the place had live music playing and just kind of going along.

Then one night, one Saturday night when they were in Frankie’s room after drinking the night away at the Sunset Club over near the Loop Frankie suggested they try a little something for the head, some righteous cocaine, girl, cousin he called it. Marybeth was confused, wasn’t sure that what Frankie meant was junk, heroin that he was offering her. So Marybeth asked what the hell was going on she thought he was off the stuff, off of heroin. Frankie laughed a sly laugh and said, “Yeah, I’m off that stuff but a guy needs a little something for the head to even out after tough days and so a little sniff, a couple of snorts gets me right. Besides its not addictive, really.” For some reason known only to her, a reason she would search for over the next few months she took him at his word.

Furthermore she was just drunk enough to want to stay high, wanted some “kicks” to go with their love-making, see where that led. See it made it easier to “play the flute,” not that Frankie wanted that steady and sometimes when she was drinking too much she had trouble gagging for some reason. Frankie took out his packet of white dust, grabbed a small plate from his kitchen cabinet and started crushing the stuff up with a razor. Then he took a dollar bill out of his pocket and roll it up to make a straw and say “Ladies, first” after explaining to Marybeth that you had hold the dollar bill straw to your nose and inhale through your nose. She did so and after taking a hit started to cough a little. Then she said she felt funny in her stomach and Frankie said that was natural as the cocaine dissolved. He told her to take another hit to cool her out. The second inhalation was not so bad and kind of made her horny. Made her want Frankie, who said just take another hit and I’ll take a few and we will hit the sheets. That night Marybeth had some of the best sex of her life, had an orgasm or thought she did, screamed through their love-making enough.

For the next few months almost every time Frankie and Marybeth made love they got going by doing a few lines, a few more each time although nobody was counting. Then one day a couple of months back Marybeth went into the bureau drawer where Frankie kept his stash opened the packet and set herself up a few lines to chase the blues away. That is what she told Frankie when he asked whether she had opened his stash or not, had said yes and then quickly asked if he wanted her to “play the flute” to get his mind off of her invading his stash. This went on a few more times when Marybeth said she was feeling blue before Frankie started to keep his stash outside the rooming house. He would bring just enough to keep her from feeling blue if she asked or if they were making love which was less frequent these days.     

Then this night, this lowdown night when Marybeth pleaded with him to give her a few lines Frankie for the first time realized, or maybe realized was too strong a word that Marybeth was getting too crazy on the stuff and he told her she would have to give it up, give it up just like he had kicked junk. She begged, pleaded with him, told him she would let him chain her to the bedpost and do what he wanted to do to her which she had previously refused to do as being too kinky, as not being sex but a perversion, if he would only make her well. She started jabbering loudly and Frankie could only calm her down a little by saying he would go get his stash. She cried out after him as he left, Oh Frankie, you are my angel of mercy, you are my guardian angel.” As Frankie walked down the stairs he shook his head in disgust, some angel of mercy."          

Yeah, Nelson had it right, had that ear to the ground for the low moan (more of a groan, not for him his contemporary Jack Kerouac’s moan for man, “beat” moan for man, all Catholic beat and rise, although they heard those same longings, that same rat’s ass despair of the midnight oil), the silence in the face of ugly Division Street tenements not fit for the hogs much less the hog-butchers (cold water flats, rooms so small so no space to breath, no private thoughts except that some guy next door knew what you were thinking and said cut it out, peeling wallpaper or paint it does not matter, dripping sinks that spoke of no recent plumbing and why should the landlord care but get this Division Street had kindred in Taffrail Road, Carver, Columbia Point, south-side Racine, the Bronx, they are legend), had the ear for the dazed guys, drunk, disorderly, maybe on the nod so quiet (that nod not the nod of youth when you recognized some guy you sort of knew in passing as a sign he was cool with you but the low-down nod of somebody in a place that nobody can reach) spilling their pitter-patter to Captain just like back in home sweet Mississippi, Georgia, wherever ( and could never go back to face Mister James Crow and his do this, don’t do that, stay here, don’t stay there, keep your head down enough of that).

Algren had the ear for the strange unrequited fates of what did that same Jack Kerouac of the “moan for man” call them, yes, the fellahin, the lump mass peasants (and what is the same thing once they get off the farms and the out of the country air, the urban peasants, for at least in America they are when you scratch underneath their surly looks and bitter end despair they are not that far removed from their roots, from all their old sack of potatoes lives), met coming out of men’s bars on fugitive mile long riverbank mill town Lowell streets loud and boisterous ready for a fight or a kiss with some waylaid back alley); broken-back Fresno fruit fields (stoop labor, bracero labor that only the Aztec bronzed “wetback” could stand picking cucumbers here, garlic there going norte); and, Mexican nights all night bumpy bus ride sweating and stinking coming of going someplace) except now they are hell-bound bunched up together on the urban spit ( a righteous word and it fits), small voices never heard over the rumble of the thundering subway build to drown out the cries of men), working stiffs (stinking hog-butchers with blood-stained hands hulking slabs of pork, sweated steel-driving men edging toward the melting point as they hurl their metals into the grinder to mesh and mix the great urban superstructure, grease-stained tractor-builders out at John Deere, frayed-collared night clerks in some seedy flop (frayed collar both necessary for night work since the winos could have cared less about what some holy goof wore, the  con men are sneaking out the back door and the whores are trying to hold off their latest john until they see cash), porters sweeper out Mister’s leaving from his executive bathroom, and glad they have the work since it beats down home sweated fields).

And their women too, the fellahina [sic], cold-water flat housewives making do with busted up toasters, egg-shelled stained coffee pots (shaking their heads at some Anglo-American poet going on and on about measuring lives by coffee spoons), Bargain Center leftover drapes, frayed kitchen curtains; cheap Jimmy Jack’s Diner waitresses to earn the family daily bread their misters of the golden dream youth the world is our oyster promises couldn’t deliver surly pencil in ear and steam-tray sweated too tight faded white uniform with telltale leftover gravy stains hustling for nickels and dimes; beaten down shoe factory workers flipping soles and heels by the score at piece rate, piece rate if you can believe that, work men did not do, would not do; working back room donut shops filling donuts with jelly, cream, whatever, hairnet caked with debris, ditto her ill-fitted sugar encrusted uniform, to feed the tribe that she had too close together and proved too much when the deal when down; the younger ones, pretty or plain, hitting Benny’s Tavern for a few quick ones and maybe a quick roll in the hay if some guy pays the freight (the plain ones depending on that); older women sitting alone at smoke-filled bars on early evening paydays looking that look, that come hither honey look, doing tricks for extra no tell husband cash to fill those weekly white envelopes when the rack-renter and the utilities bill collectors hammer at the door; other older women, younger ones too come to think of it, hustling for a fix if she is on the quiet jones).

Sometimes despite all their best wishes and fruitless rantings their kids (already street-wise watching older brothers working back alley jack-rolls, cons, hanging in front of Harry’s Variety doing, well, just doing until the midnight sifter time rolls around),  growing up like weeds with nobody at home in an age when mothers stayed at home, who turned out to be disappointments. But who could expect more from the progeny of small-voiced people, of guys who sat around gin mills all night (maybe all day too I knew a few who inhabited the Dublin Grille in my old hometown of Carver, a smaller version of Chi town, another town filled with small-voice people, just fewer, small tenements, cold-water flats, same seedy places not fit to hang in, genteel people hang in).

Nelson never wrote, or wrote much, about big-voiced people those who Greek tragedy played big but rather those who stumbled, tumbled down to the sound of rumble subway stops out their doors (that damn elevated shaking the damn apartment day and night, rattling the windows, so close passengers got an eyeful when some floozy readied herself for her night’s work or not bothering with modesty, high as a kite, just letting herself not feel anything). Never spoke of people who fell off the rim of the world from some high place due to their hubris, their addictions, their outrageous wanting habits never sated before the fall, not some Edenic fall, not some “searching for the garden” like Jack and Burroughs uptown tea-fed hipsters claimed they were seeking just ask them, but a silly little worldly fall that once it happened the world moved on and ignored.

Wrote instead of the desperately lonely, a shabby-clothed wino man talking to himself on some forsaken park bench the only voice, not a big voice but a voice that had to be reckoned with, of the donut and coffee stuffed cop swaggering his billy club menacingly to move him on, or else; a woman, unhappy in love, hell maybe jilted at the altar, sitting alone like some Apple Annie in that one Ladies Invited tavern on the corner, the one just off Division where she had met that man the first time and meets all men now, all men with the price of a drink, maybe two, no more, and that eternal price of a by-the-hour flop over on neon hotel, motel, no tell Mitchell Street.

Yeah, a big old world filled with the lonely hearing only their own heartbeats, heard no other heartbeats as they waited out their days. What did T.S. Eliot, the poet and a guy who if strait-laced and Victorian knew what he was talking about call it like I said before but it all fits, oh yeah, measured out their lives in coffee spoons. Nelson wrote of alienated people too, not the Chicago intellectuals who were forever belly-aching about the de-humanization of man  about how we had built a mechanical world from which we had to run but the common clay, the ones who manned the conveyor belts, ran the damn rumbling subways, shoveled the snow, hell, shoveled shit day and night. (Studs Terkel, a guy Algren knew, a guy who knew a thing or two about the fellahin and the dirty linen Chi streets, could quote chapter and verse on these guys and their eternal studies about the plight of man, and they merely made of the same clay.)

Wrote of the night people, not the all night champagne party set until dawn and sleep the day away but of the ones who would show up after midnight in some police precinct line-up, the winos, the jack-rollers, the drifters, the grifters, the midnight sifters, maybe a hooker who had not paid the paddy and thus was subject to the grill. Wrote of the  people who inhabit the Nighthawk Diner (artist Edward Hopper’s all sharp angles, all dim lights outside, bright fluorescent no privacy, no hiding lights inside, all the lonely people eating their midnight hamburgers with all the fixings from the look of it meaning a no go night and so that lonely burger and cup of joe, fresh off the greased grill, another grill that forlorn hooker knew well), or Tom Waits’ rummies, bummies, stumblers, street-walkers looking for respect all shadows left behind, take your pick), the restless, the sleepless, the shiftless, those who worked the late shift, those who drew the late shift of life, those who worked better under the cover of night in the dark alleyways and sullen sunken doorways.

He wrote big time, big words, about the small-voiced people, big words for people who spoke in small words, spoke small words about small dreams, or no dreams, spoke only of the moment, the eternal “only the moment.” The next fix, how to get it, worse, how to get the dough to pay the fixer man, he, sending his woman out on the cold damp streets standing under some streetlight waiting for Johnnie and his two minute pleasures, she if she needed a fix, well, she trading blow jobs for smack, so as not to face that “cold turkey” one more day. The next drink, low boy rotgut wines and cheap whiskies, how to get it, the next bet, how to con the barkeeper to put him on the sheet, the next john, how to take him, the next rent due, how to avoid the dun and who after all had time for anything beyond that one moment.

Waiting eternally waiting to get well, you in such bad shape you can’ t get down the stairs, waiting for the fixer man to walk up the stairs and get you well, well beyond what any medical doctor could prescript, better than any mumbo-jumbo priest could absolve, to get some kicks. (Needle, whiskey, sex although that was far down the list by the time that needle was needed or that shot of low-shelf whiskey drove you to your need, again.) Waiting for the fixer man, waiting for the fixer man to fix what ailed them.

So not for Algren the small voice pleasant Midwestern farmers providing breadbaskets to the world talking to kindred about prices of wheat and corn walking the road to their proper Sunday white-clad church after a chaste Saturday red barn dance over at Fred Brown’s; not for him  the prosperous small town drugstore owners filling official drug prescriptions hot off some doctor’s pad and selling the under-aged liquor as medicine without prescription for whatever the traffic would bear; and ,not of Miss Millie’s beauty salon where the blue-haired ladies get ready for battle and gossip about how Mister so and so had an affair with Miss so and so from the office and how will Mildred whom of course they would never tell to keep the mills rolling do when the whole thing goes public.

Nor was Algren inclined to push the air out of the small town banker seeking a bigger voice (calling in checks at a moment’s notice), the newspaper publisher seeking to control the voices or the alderman or his or her equivalent who had their own apparatuses for getting their small voices heard. One suspects that he could have written that stuff, written and hacked away his talent like those who in the pull and push of the writing profession had (have) forsaken their muses for filthy lucre. No, he, Nelson Algren, he, to give him his due took dead aim at the refuge of society, the lumpen as he put it in the title of one short story, those sitting on the rim of the world.

And he did good, did good by his art, did good by his honest snarly look at the underside of society, and, damn, by making us think about that quarter turn of fate that separated the prosperous farmer (assuming as we must that he, secretly, was not short-weighting the world), the drugstore owner (assuming as we must that he, secretly, was not dispensing his wares, his potent drugs, out the back door to a craving market) , Miss Millie (assuming as we must that she, secretly, was not running a call girl service on the side), the banker (assuming as we must that he, maybe secretly, maybe not, was not gouging rack rents and usurious interest), the newspaper editor (assuming as we must that he, very publicly, in fact was printing all the news fit to print), and the politician (assuming as we must that he, secretly, was not bought and paid for by all of the above, or others) from the denizens of his mean streets. The mean city streets, mainly of Chicago, but that is just detail, just names of streets and sections of town to balance his work where his characters eked out an existence, well, anyway they could, some to turn up face down in some muddy ravine, under some railroad trestle, in some dime flop house, others to sort of amble along in the urban wilderness purgatory.

Brother Algren gave us characters to chew on, plenty of characters, mostly men, mostly desperate (in the very broadest sense of that word), mostly with some jones to work off, mostly with some fixer man in the background to wreak havoc too. He gave us two classics of the seamy side genre, one, from The Man With The Golden Arm, the misbegotten Frankie Machine, the man with the golden needle arm, the man with the chip on his shoulder, the mid-century(20th century, okay) man ill at ease in his world, ill at ease with the world and looking, looking for some relief, some kicks in that mid-century parlance, and, two, from Walk On The Wild Side, that hungry boy, that denizen of the great white trash night already mentioned, Dove Linkhorn, who, perhaps more than Frankie spoke to that mid-century angst, spoke to that world gone wrong, for those who had just come up, come up for some place where time stood still to gain succor in the urban swirl, to feast at the table, come up from the back forty lots, the prairie golden harvest wheat fields, the Ozarks, all swamps and ooze, mountain wind hills and hollows, the infested bayous and were ready to howl, howl at the moon to get attention.

Bart said he remembered reading somewhere, and I have forgotten where now, that someone had noted that Nelson Algren’s writing on Dove Linkhorn’s roots was the most evocative piece on the meaning of the okie–arkie out migration (but that is just a moniker to stick on those people they were legend all over the South and Southwest as the fields of gold went fallow) segment of that mid-century America ever written, the tale of the wandering boys, the railroad riders, the jungle camp jumpers, the skid row derelicts. Hell, call it by its right name, the white trash, that lumpen mush. And he or she was right, of course, after I went back and after Bart mentioned the idea re-read that first section of Walk On The Wild Side where the Linkhorn genealogy back unto the transport ships that brought the first crop of that ilk from thrown out Europe are explored. All the pig thieves, cattle-rustlers, poachers, highwaymen, the -what did some sociologist who looked at the in the Age of Jackson when they were coming over in swarms once the industrial wheels seriously kicked up in Great Britain, call them?, oh yeah, “the master-less men,” those who could not or would not be tamed by the on-rushing wheels of free-form capitalism as the system relentlessly picked up steam, the whole damn lot transported. And proper society said good riddance (and proper Eastern seaboard would later echo that sentiment).  

The population of California after World War II was filled to the brim with such types, the progeny, the feckless “hot rod” boys who took some wreck of car (sometimes literally) and made to “spec,” boys mostly too young to have been though the bloodbaths of Europe and Asia like their older brothers would be the vanguard of the “golden age of the 1950s” now spoken of with reverence, building some powerful road machines out of baling wire and not much else, speeding up and down those Pacific coast ocean-flecked highways can’t you just picture them now looking for the heart of Saturday night, looking for kicks just like those Chicago free-flow junkies, those twisted New Orleans whoremasters. Wandering hells angels riding two by two (four by four if they felt like it in Mill Valley or Pacifica and who was to stop them not the good citizens of the “golden age” and maybe not the cops, not when they were in a swarm anyway) creating havoc for the good citizens of those small towns they descended on, descended on unannounced (and unwelcomed by those same good citizens). In and out of jail, Q, Folsom, not for stealing pigs now, but armed robberies or some egregious gang bang felony, but kindred to those lost boys kicked out of Europe long ago. Corner boys, tee-shirted, black leather jacket against cold nights, hanging out with time on their hands and permanent smirks, permanent hurts, permanent hatreds, put paid to that Algren observation. All the kindred of the cutthroat world, or better “cut your throat” world, that Dove drifted into was just a microcosm of that small-voiced world.

Algren spoke of cities, even when his characters came fresh off the farm, abandoned for the bright lights of the city and useless to that short-weighting farmer who now is a prosperous sort, making serious dough as the breadbasket to the world. They, the off-hand hot rod king, the easy hell’s rider, the shiftless corner boy, had no existence, no outlets for their anger and angst, in small towns and hamlets for their vices, or their virtues, too small, too small for the kicks they were looking for. They needed the anonymous city rooming house, the cold-water flat, the skid- row flop house, the ten- cent beer hall, hell, the railroad jungle, any place where they could just let go with their addictions, their anxieties, and their hunger without having to explain, endlessly explain themselves, always, always a tough task for the small-voiced of this wicked old world. They identified with cities, with city 24/7/365 lights, with Algren’s blessed neon lights, city traffic (of all kinds), squalor, cops on the take, cops not on the take, plebeian entertainments, sweat, a little dried blood, marked veins, reefer madness, swilled drinks, white towers (the hamburger joint with cheap fast wares before Big Mac drowned out everybody else), all Pops’ Eats night diners (see it always comes back to that lonely, alienated Nighthawk Diner just ask Waits), the early editions (for race results, the number, who got dead that day, the stuff of that world), a true vision of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawk for a candid world.

He spoke of jazz and the blues, as if all the hell in this wicked old world could be held off for a minute while that sound sifted thought the night fog air reaching the rooming house, the flop, the ravine, the beer hall as it drifted out to the river and drowned. Music not upfront but as a backdrop to while the steamy summer nights away, and maybe the frigid lake front winter too. Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, he spoke of a small-voiced white world, residents of white slums and pursuers of white- etched dreams and only stick character blacks but his beat, his writing rhythm made no sense without the heat of Trouble In Mind or that cool blast of Charlie Parker, Miles, Dizzie be-bopping, made absolutely no sense, and so it went.

He spoke of love too. Not big flamed love, big heroes taking big falls for some hopeless romance like in olden times but squeezed love, love squeezed out of a spoon, maybe, but love in all its raw places. A guy turning his woman into a whore to feed his endless habit love, and her into a junkie love. A woman taking her man through cold turkey love. A man letting his woman go love, ditto woman her man when the deal went wrong. When the next best thing came by. Not pretty love all wrapped in a bow, but love nevertheless. And sometimes in this perverse old world the love a man has for a woman when, failing cold turkey, he goes to get the fixer man and that fixer man get his woman well, almost saintly and sacramental. Brothers and sisters just read The Last Carousel if you want to know about love. Hard, hard love. Yah, Nelson Algren knew how to give voice, no holds barred, to the small-voiced people.

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