Who Stole My Country 109 – Back Into the Middle Class

It was shortly before Thanksgiving when Richard called, near panic in his voice asking me if I could drive him to Bennington, Vermont for a speech he was scheduled to give the next day.   I had one of my sons living with me in my apartment on 105th and Broadway.  Richard called in the middle of my afternoon shift. I couldn’t figure out a way to make the sixteen hour round trip.  He pled with me, but I saw no way of getting my cab back by my 3:00 am deadline let alone how to take care of my son, so I refused and suggested he take the bus.  Confused or anxious, Dick got off the bus half way to Vermont at the entrance to a boys reformatory.  He later said he was not sure where he was, but wandered onto the property where he was discovered sitting under a tree, unsure of what to do next.  A local doctor looked at him, contacted his sister who lived in New York, and put him on a bus for home.  I still feel bad about not driving him.

Somehow abandoning Richard propelled my next move.  Walking up Madison Avenue on a day off, I saw my shoulder length hair reflected in a store window displaying expensive men’s clothing, another failed interview behind me (this one at Dell Publishers where an old WBAI buddy worked).  The length of my hair had been noted, and as I left Dell I wondered for the hundredth time why the length of my hair was so important to everyone, but for the first time another thought instantly followed: “Why is the length of my hair so important to me?” I walked into a Madison Avenue barbershop and got a “business haircut” to the delight of the barber, who carefully saved my long strands.

The timing was fortuitous.  A week or so later, Carey McWilliams, editor of the Nation Magazine, the man who had sent Dick and me Special Agent Jack Levine ten years earlier, arranged an interview with a good friend, Marlene Sanders, who headed up the documentary unit CloseUp at ABC television news.  Clean shaven, short haired, with a new sports jacket, shirt and tie, creased pants and polished shoes, I convinced Marlene to hire me as a production assistant, another low man on the totem pole position.  I took a big cut in salary to leave cab driving and join the middle class.

Ed was disgusted.  We were in the bathroom of his big apartment on the upper west side.  All the windows in the apartment were open in a desperate attempt to relieve the overwhelming smell of petroleum based resins.  Ed had a new business in addition to cab driving.  He said he needed help.  He was importing large quantities of Mexican tile and making them into tables and wall hangings.  He had a wood shop set up in one of the bedrooms and an assembly line in the living room.  The neighbors didn’t complain about the high volume of activity in the elevators, or the hammering and sawing to make the tile frames, but they couldn’t deal with the stench of the resin that Ed was mixing in his bathtub and then pouring, bucket by bucket, over tiles inside frames creating a surface he named “Marcata.”.

Ed lived on the edge, utterly independent but also frequently illegal, leading to moves in the middle of the night.  Shortly after I turned Ed down on his Marcarta venture, his pet parrot, Pajarito, availed herself of an open window and escaped first to the roof, and then out toward the Hudson River never to be seen again. I was there having dinner and followed Ed to the roof where he vainly cried, “Parjarito” into the urban night.  His square face looked like a Mayan god.  Ed and Mimi had smuggled Parajrito into the country from Mexico at the bottom of a pail filled with dirty diapers.  No border guard asked to look inside.  The parrot had seemed an old friend.  “was she confused or did she want to get away?” Ed wanted to know.  I had no idea.

The failure of Marcata to sweep New York’s interior decorating business, the rising threats of neighbors and the loss of Parajito conspired to drive Ed and Mimi and their flock of five children out of New York City and back to San Francisco.  Family ties were now exhausted and I remained in New York alone.

I went to work for Closeup unit shortly after the first of the year.  I was assigned to Richard Girdeau, one of Marlene’s younger producer’s.  More established producers would have nothing to do with a new employee forced on them by the boss.  Richard was a university man, well trained,  with a stay at home wife and child living across the river in New Jersey.  He was working on a Close Up show called Justice on Trial, about disparities in the criminal justice system.  It was nothing we hadn’t known, but it was a good cause.   Richard wanted to shoot the film in black and white, like a film noir, a good idea that ABC and Marlene rejected.

After working together for a few weeks, Richard went to Marlene and told her I was at least an Associate Producer.  She raised my pay and promised to let me co-produce my next show. I still wasn’t making what I made as a cab driver, but I was on my way.

Richard sent me into the field on several research trips, including one to Boston, Massachusetts.  I was staying in the Ritz Carlton on the Boston Commons, and after a long day of interviewing, before dinner, I decided to take a walk in the park.  It was dusk.  The winter sun was dropping behind the buildings quickly as I approached the center of the park. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement in the trees first to the left and then to the right.  I caught a glimpse of two young men.  I turned around and headed back toward the hotel.  The movements in the trees turned with me.  I  began to move more rapidly.  Two young men, now clearly visible, kept pace and seemed to be moving in toward my walkway.  I pulled up the tails of my Polish raincoat and broke into a run.

I had gone from outlaw to mark, from predator to prey.  I’d made it back into the middle class.

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