In times of national tragedy the barometer of the mood of the people can best be researched in saloons and cathedrals. Being more comfortable in the former, Friday afternoon I stopped into a pub in the Wall Street area. Besides the normal Friday fare of melted cheese and fish, the main offering seemed to be paranoia.
A rumor was circulating that at the Dr. King memorial in Central Park a militant had suggested the group march on Wall Street and “get the money.” Negro waiters were eyed suspiciously as they served platters of shrimp and scallops. Dun and Brad could have sold a premium on food tasters.
The bull and bears drank in conclaves. The collective courage of the places was about as thin as strip of ticker tape.
Any horror about the murder was tempered with selectivity. A middle-aged man in a gray suit who was holding forth at the end of the bar summed up the establishment theory about the assignation: “It’s a shame it had to be him instead of that son of a bitch LeRoi Jones.”
Saturday night all of the civility of the city seemed to be located on 125th Street in Harlem.
The mood in the Village bars was its usual mixture of compassion and cynicism. The eulogies for King were secondary to the anti-American dissertations. Local social critics who have been theorizing about our national shame for years seemed to find some justification in King’s death, since it proved their thesis. The euphoric mood of a week ago when President Johnson withdrew was nowhere in evidence. Then again, there are those people who can only understand withdrawal.
Saturday night all of the civility of the city seemed to be located on 125th Street in Harlem. On the subway uptown, white passengers stared vacantly at advertisements, not daring to glance right or left at their fellow black passengers.
An old Jewish couple entered the train at 96th Street and sat down with the resignation that history was about to repeat itself. But in actuality the train ride was more serene than on a normal Saturday night.
The extreme west end of 125th Street was virtually deserted. A small restaurant owner snobbishly stated that this end of the block was always quiet. “All that noise and trouble takes place over by Seventh Avenue.” True, the street below was noisier, but trouble seemed nonexistent.
A tour of the street is always an education to the white outsider. Butcher shops advertise strange wares such as hogmaws, chicken necks, and slabs of salty pork that the downtowners usually relegate to the garbage pail instead of the stewpot. Nationally owned shoe chains display styles that would never see daylight on Fifth Avenue. A young man pointed to a pair of green suede shoes trimmed with alligator: “You see what I mean, man. That crap is straight out of Sportin’ Life.”
Some of these stores were looted Thursday night when the news of King’s murder reached the community. And when one looked at the twisted steel gates still lying in the street, he was struck by the anger of the destruction. The network of steel was mangled and bent as if the looters were pulling the white man’s veins out of their street.
“Things aren’t safe as it looks for a white man up here tonight.”
The copes, displaying their usual sensitivity, gathered in clusters in doorways, wearing orange plastic helmets with all the tactical intelligence of watching a red flag in front of a wounded animal.
But it was the people who were the city’s finest. Women shyly nodded greetings to the white face. Men who usually pass each other by lent their smiles and hellos as if they were passports to safety. The militants and the Mau Mau who usually deliver racial harangues on the corner of Seventh were absent; the word was that they were out trying to cool the kids who caused most of the damage on the preceding nights. A record shop was playing the words of King over a loudspeaker in the street. A cop car pulled to the curb and asked the woman inside to stop playing the record. A Negro cop with a white Ho Chi Minh reared called me over to his car. His black partner shook my hand, and they asked me politely to leave the area. “Things aren’t safe as it looks for a white man up here tonight,” the bearded one advised.
A group of young militants who were gathered around the record store watched the action. When the cop car pulled away, one of them stepped from the crowd. “Hey, baby,” he called, “what did the man tell you?” I smiled and said, “He told me my white ass wasn’t safe up here.” “Don’t listen to that bullshit—tonight we’re all brothers.” With that he put his arm around me and escorted me to a bar. “That’s the trouble with this place,” he said. “The only white cat who has the balls to walk up here is John Lindsay.”
“Tonight we have to obey the memory of that man and all be brothers.”
The long bar was covered in leatherette, and every five feet it curved inward, like a woman’s hip. A go-go girl in a bikini on a platform absent-mindedly humped pillows of cigarette smoke. The men at the bar were engrossed in conversation and boozing, and the go-go girl was left to entice phantoms. Men came up and shook hands, and we all talked of the sadness of it. I was told to keep my money in my pocket, that the drinks were on my newfound brother. “Tonight we have to obey the memory of that man and all be brothers.”
When I finally said I had to leave, the young man tried to sum up Dr. King’s love ethic. Perhaps it wasn’t exactly what the Baptist minister was striving for, but when the words of saints descend into the streets, one can’t grumble about translations. Putting his arm around me, the young man offered me one of the last things that remain the domain of the poor, “I love you so much tonight, brother, if you stick with me, I’ll see if I can set you up with a good piece of ass.”
[Photo Credit: Austin Hansen via NYPL Digital Collections]