Monday, July 18, 2016


At Princeton there's a theater
department doorway boldly
labeled, over the entrance,
'the Jimmy Stewart Playhouse'
or something like that. I guess
James Stewart was a Princeton
alumnus. He's that goofy-voiced
actor from, among many other
roles, 'It's a Wonderful Life', that
over-played, sentimental dumb-dog
of a movie that's been around forever
and used to get dragged out each Yule
season for about 30 plays a year.
I never could stand the guy, even
when he got all serious and
pretended to do Alfred Hitchcock
stuff. How can you take anyone
serious who's always, it seems,
on the verge of his face breaking
out into a big smile and grin, and
that stupid voice with it. Not
everything Princeton does is a
home run. George Will, for
instance. He's a commentator
and writer and news guy. I saw
him a few times walking around
and, I have to say, for someone
in town for reunion events and
university happening, he was
the most-sad-sack guy I ever
saw. No one even seemed to
want to talk to him, let alone
recognize him. He was just
glum-faced, and walking along
almost crying  -  it seemed. To
be lonely is one thing, but to be
lonely when you're famous, and
to be in the midst of lefty scholars
and such who won't even give
you the time of day or a dime
for that gumball, Jeez that's
got to hurt.
The other extreme of this was
always Cornel West. He's
probably got a few titles and
stuff that go with the name, but
I'm skipping them. That's his
deal, not mine. He's lucky
I just don't call him 'Corny.'
This guy, during the years he
was at Princeton, was a black
cracker, if you can imagine
such. Think of the crummiest
white dude you can think of  -
load, vain, egotistical, pushy  -
and then put that into the figure
of a black-suited black guy,
with a dandyish back scarf
flung over a shoulder, ever-
present yap and smile. That's
him. He was always in the
presence of a 'personal-assistant'
white babe. Always walking about
as a duo. He would stop, every
ten paces, if needed, and talk to
anything or anyone  -  including
the signpost or telephone pole
just passed. I talked to him a
few times, and found him basically
full of shit  -  his own, but shit
nonetheless. Aggrieved black
issues, frontal approaches, always,
to race and system. Never any
individual's fault in any way  -
always the 'system' for having,
yet again, failed someone, failed
a group, failed a race. Always
backed up with some weird
vocal cadence and some hand-
picked black-scripture stuff. So
full of it it couldn't move. That's
what thirty years of ponderous,
academic claptrap brings you.
The guy was, and is, the
King of Riffs.
In a town like Princeton, you're
constantly preaching to the choir.
Everything's alike  -  food, thought,
ideas, customs. Assumptions. So
you just go with the flow. Nothing
stands out, because everyone is
'assumed' to be exceptionally alike.
Probably the coolest thing I ever
saw, thought the bookstore auspices
anyway was the time we hosted
Amiri Baraka, for a talk and a
book-signing. In the era of 1964,
he used to be known as LeRoi Jones,
his birth name, from Newark. He
and his wife, Hettie, got pretty big
back then, beatnik-era stuff,
publishing small journals,
poetry readings, real forward
opinions and comments, writings.
And then, after a while, he changed
to the Black Muslim thing, like
militarism, and became Amiri
Baraka. I always understood
where he was at, the issues he
dealt with  -  in both identities.
I always liked his little plays and
things, and the poetry too. He
was just good, with a real strong
knowledge, as well, about old
black issues, slavery, the music of
the blues and plantation stuff. In
the Newark riots, in '67, when
like half the beleaguered city
was burned down, police
were shooting and killing,
National Guard was brought
in, he got his head smashed in,
was beaten and pummeled, and
then arrested, for promoting
insurrection or something.
Anyway, you'd figure it had to
happen. His merit badge was a
bloodied head.He was better off
in NYC, and was probably
sorry he hadn't stayed. His
own fame it was that betrayed
him. They stayed in Newark,
his later wife and him, not
Hettie, was always approachable,
never changed his ways, and
stayed honest and true to
himself  -  and face it,
that's very difficult to do,
as an outsider, a writer,
and agitator and a poet,
let alone a black one. So,
when he came to Princeton,
to talk and sell and sign
his new book, I was
surprised. What was cool
was, when he arrived, how
he came across. First, he
was a little old guy, small,
surprisingly so, a little stooped
and slow. He always had some
cool, strange eyes, or the view
of his eyes, or something I
could never place, but it was
charismatic, perhaps, or strange
or something. His son, Ras
Baraka  -  actually now, the
renegade Mayor of Newark  -
undoing all of that Uncle Tom
Cory Booker years stuff, going
heavily militant black again,
sweeping the city with a
new radicalism  -  he entered
first, with like a posse of
or six strong-armed guys.
Security, on the lookout,
muscle, not trusting. They
planted themselves, in
complete silence, at the
corners of the room, and
Amiri, and son Ras, went to
the center table. The audience
was about 60 people  -  fans,
in the know, interested intellectual
types, college kids and black
radicals too. A good, punchy
mix. None of the kind of
genre-ladies we'd get for, say,
Joyce Carol Oates, who'd have
a new book like every 14 days
and get a talk and a hearing
probably twice a year. All she
ever got for an audience was
swooners, virgins and general
pulp fans. Baraka was tough.
Ruled the room, took charge,
but in  a small, understated way.
It made you just really want to
stay interested. He was filled
with theory and tales and
subject matter worth hearing.
All about Nina Simone, all
whacked-out and crazy, those
years she lived with them in
Newark (they put her up). How
she'd come down all hours and
start playing the piano naked.
Dazed and almost comatose,
sometimes. A real comic scene.
Old blues music and all the
itinerant ways it was carried
about and came north. Old
black lore stuff, and history.
It was very cool. To see him
sitting there, in the bowels
of a crusty, privileged Princeton
bookstore, floored me. They
had actually let the enemy in!
There was a line of people,
mostly young and fawning,
wrapped along the two walls
alongside of him, for the
question-period microphone.
He answered everything, and
then the line for book-buys
and signing. I enjoyed it,
and he even personalized
my copy of the book, and we
had some cursory conversation,
sitting around with Ras. What
surprised my the most? The
absence of fly-boy Cornel West,
from right across the street  -
unless he was out of town or
something. Maybe he didn't
want to have to come in
with his white babe.
Or without her.
The weirdest bookstore gig I
ever had was with Ralph Nader.
He'd written, about 2010 maybe,
some gigantic, doorstop-sized
book of like 10 billion pages,
his first 'foray' into fiction  -
about some futuristic society
where in all the bad things
he's ever gone on about were
in positions of power and
controlling people. His job
was to try and explain it all,
and sell some copies of the
book, so as to have something
to 'sign.' He was so flaky,
I'm still amazed. He had this
younger guy with him, like a
retainer or something.
Immediately, by himself, and
before Ralphie boy would even
enter had a list of demands to
be met  -  which of course we
met. 'Mr. Nader is claustrophobic.
This table must be moved. He
will not sit here  -  you must take
the table and put it as the base of
the stairway, so that right there
is the way up, and the way out.
In his view, to the side.' That
was the first. Another  - 'Mr.
Nader will not use these sorts
of pens. They must be Sharpie,
felt tip, No. 3 size.' We had to
send someone out to quickly
round up about 30 of those,
for, also, he would only use
each one  a few times. Then  -
it went on  -  about the water
on the table, the microphone,
the room temperature. Whew!
I think he sold like 10 books,
and no one seemed really
interested in him anyway.
So, anyway, even in  a place
like Princeton, with that James
Stewart Theater and all that,
it was all about 'performance.
You'd better perform, or you're
gone. Cornel West, song and
dance man that he always was,
was always on, in a constant
performance. Joyce Carol Oates,
always off, dull, and dreary.
We should have had Poe.
(It really is a wonderful life).

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