Dog Net

Another compliment Miss Griffiths paid me on my report card (See my blog “Lower School”) was to note I wrote “fine stories.”
She had us write one a week. She divided us into groups, within which we read our stories to each other. Each group then selected a story to be read to the entire class. My stories were always selected. I wrote an series about a small band of soldiers, either in World War II or Korea, rich in camaraderie, like the Blackhawks, but only one story survives, and it is none of these. [Author’s Note: I wonder if this band and my quest for the right gang of buddies to hang with represented an effort to re-establish the “happy” family that had been lost following my sister’s death. Readers are welcome to keep this in mind.]

“Dog Net,” which is the surviving story, parodied the TV show “Dragnet” and was heavily influenced by my admiration of “MAD” comics. It was also a ground-breaking example of appropriation art. I did not tell Miss Griffiths but the idea – and some of the material – came from my neighborhood pal, Mickey Kipper, who’d regaled me with his recollections of a comedian he’d heard on the tube..
In any event, Miss Griffiths called “Dog Net” to the attention of Mrs. Woerner, the head of the Upper School’s English department, and Mrs Woerner selected it for inclusion in “The Literary Supplement,” a (to me) unheard of honor for a Lower School student. [Mrs. Woerner would become a great champion of mine in the Upper School. She continued to admire my writing – but not my spelling and punctuation – and she never gave me an “O.”]

The distinction of having my story selected for “The Literary Supplement,” at the time, had less impact on my sense of who I was or whom I might become than had my inability to handle overhand pitching, which had eliminated my plans to play first base for the Phillies. But it stuck with me. When you do not have an abundance of successes, you keep those you do accrue, neatly at hand. “Dog Net” was probably in my mind the afternoon I sat down across from Professor Leviathan (See my blog “How I Became a Writer ii”). But I had the good sense not to mention it.
Here is how it began (slightly edited). Be warned, it does not stand the test of time:

“This is the kennel. 2500 dogs. I see ‘em all. I’m a police dog. .ARF… arf-ARF arf.We were working on a homicide detail. My partner’s name is Spotty. The boss is Captain Tige. My name’s Rover. ARF… arf-ARF arf.”

Bonus Coverage

Here’s a web site I highly recommend for fans of Berkeley and the off-beat, if that’s not a redundancy.

Lower School

I had a good three years.
I had fun with my friends. (My two closest and I formed OYLTO, a Treaty Organization, utilizing the first letters of our last names. NOTE: Since I have a history of fictionalizing my friends’s names, I have fictionalized their initials too.) I played soccer ineptly and baseball semi-eptly. I gave a my generation’s definitive interpretation of the villainous, one-eyed Duke of Coffin Castle, in our fifth grade (unauthorized) adaptation of James Thurber’s “The Thirteen Clocks.” (This performance was slightly sullied by my overlooking my decision to raise my eye patch between acts and re-don my glasses and then resuming my portrayal with my glasses in place and my eye patch in the middle of my forehead.)
I received less critical acclaim when, my spirited, if thoroughly off-key audition performance of “The Halls of Montezuma” failed to win me a seat in the school chorus, and I was cast to stand mute as Joseph in a Nativity scene tableau, while nearly everyone else among my contemporaries sang Christmas carols. My father, among the aisle-sitters, was most critical in his assessment of finding his son in this role.

Friends’ Central’s grades ran, top-to-bottom, “Outstanding,” “Above Usual,” “Usual,” “Below Usual,” and “Seriously Below Usual.” I got “O”s in Reading, Literary Appreciation, Written Composition. I got “A”s in Oral Composition, Arithmetic, and Social Studies, for which I recall composing papers on Peru and Albania, researched entirely in the Encyclopedia Britannica, Jr. I got “U”s in Art, Crafts, Music, and Phys. Ed. So I obviously pre3maturely concentrated on the Core Curriculum aspects of the process.
Even more noteworthy were my teachers’ comments. From the start, I was identified as someone “not… working to (his) full ability,” a judgment whose accuracy I would confirm throughout my academic life. I needed to improve “self-control” and “neatness.” I did not pay attention to “detail.” I lacked “organization.” I was “careless,” easily distracted” and, in class, “disturbing.” [On the other hand, Miss Griffiths, who taught me both in fifth and sixth grades and who penned most of those complaints, also complimented my “fine sense of humor,” “incisive comments,” and “mature grasp of current affairs.” I was, she concluded, “a stimulating person to teach.”]
Each report card afforded space for parents to reply. My mother took the opportunity to note how pleased she was at my “progress” and how I seemed “to be enjoying school…” (Adele, on reading these comments, said they raised my mother even further in her estimation for her ability “to focus on the important things.”)
My father did not commit his thoughts to paper. But he was free with them around the dinner table. Public schools had been fine for him. And if I did not do better at FCS, he would yank me out.

Life in These United States

At the suggestion of an e-mail correspondent, I interrupt my previously scheduled elementary school reminiscence for the following announcement.

His headset jack would not plug into his I-phone, so he made an appointment with the Genius Squad. At the door of the Apple Store a Less-Than-Genius suggested that his case might be the problem.
His case was not the problem.
May I see your phone, the Less-Than-Genius said.
Of course.
There’s a bead inside, the Less-Than-Genius said.
I have no beads, he said.
Your appointment is with Joe, the Less-Than-Genius said.
Joe, a Genius, said, There’s a bead inside.
I have no beads, he insisted.
Joe took the phone behind closed doors. He returned some minutes later to report the phone could not be fixed.
The good news was Apple would replace his phone. The bad news was that because the defect was due to “a third party,” he would have to pay $79.
You mean the bead, he inquired.
Indeed, Joe meant the bead. Joe offered him a needle-nosed flashlight so he might see for himself.
He saw light reflected back at him.
A Japanese man, his hair worn in a knot, was at the table with problems of his own. He borrowed the flashlight and looked into his own unfixable phone. Dust, the Japanese man said, smiling broadly.
He paid the $79. At his request, Joe re-installed Pandora, so he could again hear Red Garland.
Do you think, his wife asked, that the Genius Training Manual instructs, When the customer reports a jack will not go into a phone, reply…


As I said (See blog of August 19), I liked Friends’ Central.
Lea School (Grades K – 8) was in a grim grey building. Friends’ Central’s Lower School (Grades K – 6) was in an unimposing one that may have been an estate’s stable or barn. (The Upper School, grades 7 – 12) , elsewhere on the grounds, had been the estate owner’s much grander home.) Lea divided each grade by September and January admissions of 30 0r 40 students per class. FCS’s classes had two 20-student sections. (By the Upper School, there would be an additional section.) Lea School had a macadam playground, where we played softball and varieties of stickball against each other. FCS had fields for soccer, football and baseball, and we competed against other schools. It had two gyms and Lea School none.
My Lea School classes had been predominantly Jewish, maybe a half-dozen gentiles, of whom three or four were black. My FCS class had no blacks and six or seven Jews. (My graduation class of 69 had one black and 15 Jews, which was more than enough for it to be known as “the Jewish Quaker school” among its competitors.) Unlike most private schools in the area, it was co-ed. In my fourth grade class photo, I am the tallest child and the only one with glasses.
Initially, FCS had rejected me. (My father has suspected anti-Semitism.) But just before classes began, a slot opened, and after the intervention of a prominent Quaker – the father of my blonde friend across the street (See blog of August 17), it was offered to me. I was delighted. I had loved those fields. (There was even a patch of woods, with a creek through it.) I liked my classmates and felt comfortable with them. I read the same books – the Hardy Boys and the Landmark Series. I wore the same Davy Crockett and Civil War caps. I was sent from the room to stand in the hall for disruptive behavior enough times to prove myself a regular guy. I could smack an underhand toss over the fence. (Trouble would develop when we switched to hard balls fired overhand.)
I knew from movies and comic books that private schools were not looked upon favorably in some circles. Nor, for that matter, were kids in glasses. These downsides had not yet manifested. The Jewish part had even scantier relevance.


This is an expanded version of a piece that appeared on-line at The Broad Street Review, October 4, 2009, misguidedly titled “For the Love of a Dog,” the second of what became an initially unplanned series about growing up in the 1950s.

Until I was three, we lived with my father’s parents in South Philadelphia, at 10th and Baimbridge. My grandfather’s parents had arrived in South Jersey, with a group of Jewish emigres from Russia, for whom the Belgian-born Baron Maurice Hirsch had acquired land to farm in accordance with Socialist principles, though none of the Jews had ever owned land or farmed. My grandfather ran away as a teenager and worked as a machinist, up and down the east coast. (What he thought of the baron’s principles may be divined from his naming his first born, my father, Herbert Spencer Levin.) When my grandfather returned to South Jersey, he married the first girl in the community to have graduated high school.
She had plans for my grandfather and encouraged – some would say forced – him to become a doctor. This was not as difficult as it sounded since, in those days, there were medical schools which advertised on the equivalent of matchbook covers. My grandfather succeeded and established his offices on the first floor of his house. (I remember only its cabinets, whose shelves were enclosed behind glass doors, which folded upwards and which we inherited and two algae-choked fish tanks which returned, occupied often by mutant albino creatures, in my dreams for decades.) His patients, usually first generation Jews, Italians, and Negroes up from the South, whose ranks included Moms Mabley and Peg Leg Bates, paid him in cash or backyard produce or homemade wine. He was also, I learned much later, a drinker, a philanderer, abusive to his wife and children. But I was his first grandchild, and had favored nation status.
My grandfather always had dogs, usually chows or huskies or a mix, and usually mean. (My father spoke with rare respect and awe of Ming, a black chow from before my time, who, if his basic disposition was any indication, had been named for the villain in “Flash Gordon,” not the dynasty.) I grew up among such beasts. My favorite childhood picture is of me in a box, peering over the edge, surrounded by several drooling pups. I was completely at ease with dogs. I petted every one I met on the street or in Rittenhouse Square. And I loved stories about dogs. Dogs who rescued owners from fires and floods. Who fought off wolves and cougars and bears. Who, stolen or lost or cruelly sold, found their way across vast wildernesses to where they belonged.

After my sister Susie was born, we moved into a row house in West Philadelphia, on 46th Street, off Pine. (My grandmother, I also later learned, was to come with us, but she died shortly before the move took place.) When my Uncle Manny came home from World War II, he lived with us. So for a while did my Aunt Esther and Uncle Bernie and their baby daughter Elizabeth. My brother Larry arrived a year after that. One of my earliest correctives to my erroneous thinkings occurred in our first years on 46th Street. Because Susie was blonde, I had reasoned that was what distinguished boys from girls. No one had bothered to correct, but then I met a five-or-six-year-old boy who lived across the street, a Quaker, who was even blonder, so I had to reconsider the issue.
One day, I’m unsure when, my grandfather arrived unexpectedly and announced he had a present for me in his overcoat pocket. I pulled out a squirming, yipping ball of fur. Uncle Bernie, reacting to one of the puppy’s primary proclivities, named it Puddles. Puddles grew into a handsome dog. He had a barrel chest, a thick reddish brown coat, with a white ruff and white paws. He was intelligent, loyal, trustworthy, reverent, clean (within limits), obedient (ditto), and, I am sure, had we only been able to recognize it, as witty as Oscar Wilde. I certainly found him a more valuable addition to the household than my sister or cousin or brother. Then my grandfather arrived to borrow him. (This was not discussed with me at the time either, but Puddles had become old enough to breed.) He put him in his car and off they rode. But when my grandfather opened the door on 10th Street, Puddles, recalling who knows what traumas of his youth, or what confidences his mother may have shared with him, bolted.
There were no tracers-of-lost-dogs then. No one festooned fences with flyers or organized phone banks of inquiry. My parents, exercising the proper standard of care, alerted the pound. My grandfather was remorseful, and I was bereft. “He has tags,” my parents said. “Someone may call.” But when the phone rang, it was only Mrs. Kipper or Mrs. Hartz to discuss ORT with my mother. Then, several days later, the sun not yet risen, Uncle Bernie, readying for work, heard a scratching at the door. A somewhat thinner, somewhat bloodied Puddles, relying on some blend of instinct and intuition and the knowledge gained in his one journey to our house as a six-week old and from it on the occasion of his (to his mind) abduction, had found a street that crossed the Schuylkill and made it the four miles back. He had not crossed the Great Plains or the tundra, but in our lives he loomed heroic.

Puddles lived with us another two or three years. It was a time without leash laws, and urban dogs roamed free to ravage garbage cans, risk crossing Walnut Street, rendevous with one another, and encounter mankind’s varying dispositions. And one day an older, red-headed boy, whom I knew from the Lea School playground, where I was not in attendance, said Puddles had bitten him. Uncle Bernie, Puddles’s greatest champion, could hardly bring himself to think what the boy must have done to have provoked the attack. (For decades, when revisiting the story, he would link it with his walking into the living room and seeing Elizabeth gripping Puddles’s tongue in both hands, seeing how far she could stretch it, and Puddles stoically communicating his wish that this experiment be concluded.) But biting dogs could be gassed upon an unverified accusation and a magistrate’s order.
Somehow, my father brokered a deal. It may have involved payment to the bitten boy’s parents. It may have involved the political capital he had accrued as a Democratic party loyalist. By then Uncle Bernie’s family had moved to Overbrook Park, which was far enough away that Puddles would not endanger the red-headed boy or anyone else within the magistrate’s jurisdiction. It was agreed that if Puddles was banished, charges would dissolve.

I was sorry to see Puddles go, but I recognized the greater good. His new home abutted Cobbs Creek Golf Course, which provided eighteen holes to explore, a rivulet in which to splash, an actual patch of woods with rabbits to chase and skunks by whom he would be saluted. (Hell, at seven or eight, I could have enjoyed such a life myself.) For a time, we visited nearly every weekend, and I believed myself remembered and welcomed. I had other dogs, though none attained his stature. (The most notable was a fox terrier-like mutt who once demonstrated her regard for me by delivering three puppies on my bed without disturbing my sleep.)
Puddles lived a full and happy life. In the end, as with Rocky Raccoon (almost), Jay Gatsby (indirectly), and Stanford White (but without the kinkiness), it was love that did him in. He and a neighboring boxer regularly fought for the affections of a local chippy. On the last occasion, the boxer nearly chewed off one of his ears. After its repair, Puddles developed an infection of the brain. He was old then, and, following the vet’s recommendation, Uncle Bernie and Aunt Esther had him put to sleep.
They wished later they hadn’t, but I am certain that Puddles would have told them it was fine. They had made things fine for him for a long time.


[Somehow I got confused, so “Treasure,” which was blogged two days ago, was deleted and had to go up again. Now here’s what was intended to go up today.]

The Packet
The other day I received a package from my brother. He had been cleaning out his house, preparing to sell it, and found things my parents must have given him when they sold their house 40 years ago and moved into a one-bedroom apartment.
This material began with my birth and continued into my early adulthood. Some of it I had; some I was familiar with; but some astounded me. I had no idea they had collected it. I felt great delight at having it before me – and great guilt for having allowed disgruntlements and discontents from preventing me from demonstrated the reciprocal consideration and kindness toward my parents that this appreciation of me deserved.
But someone has told me that all children feel they have not done enough for their parents, and all parents feel they have not done enough for their children. And as my brother said, when he admitted sharing some of my feelings, they could not help being themselves and more than we could help being ourselves. (Also when I mentioned my experience to a woman of my age, with whom I chat at the Wrench Café, she thanked me. She saved similar material for her sons and was pleased to know they would receiving it. Maybe, it occurred to me, all parents have this “hoarding” gene and, not being one, I had not known this until what was in my mailbox bit me.)
Anyway, I have a series of pieces I’ve written about growing up in West Philadelphia in the 1950s, which I had intended to re-blog here. Now my plan is to do that but to intersperse them, more or less sequentially, as I work my way through this box.

Among the things my parents saved (See blog of August 15) were cards from when I was born, my first through fourth birthdays, and my bar mitzvah. The bar mitzvah cards, for reasons to be explained, were not of much interest.
I was a first born son of a first born son. My father, Herb, had two brothers, Babe and Manny, and one sister, Esther. My mother, Rebecca, had a sister, Mary, a brother, Leon, and a step-brother, Sam, all of whom, except Manny who was in the service, lived in Philadelphia, and none of whom, as yet, had any children. So I was a big deal.

There were not only cards but telegrams, hand-written notes, and penny postcards. (The cards probably cost a nickle or less.) Cute animals abounded, ducks, kittens, and many puppies. One had Bambi and Thumper and one Superman. (For whom were they intended, I wonder. By the time I would recognize them, they would have long been packed away, if not discarded.) In the spirit of the times, one could be folded into a soldier’s cap, and one afforded a slot within which to save pennies, accompanied by a note from the sender, my future dermatologist, expressing his wish to my father that they be used “to shoot all the Nazis.”
[Another item of interest was my mother’s hospital bill. She had been in Pennsylvania Hospital 15 days, at $8 per. The delivery room had cost $10, as had my circumcision. Lab costs were $2, the phone $.83, and newspapers $.40. Her physician charged another $150. “Fifteen days in the hospital,” a friend said. “You must have been a handful from the start.” “Hey,” I said. “At $8/day, including meals, it was probably better than moving back into 10th Street, with her in-laws.”]

Both sets of grandparents and all my aunts and uncles sent cards. So did people who remained friends of my parents the rest of their lives. But many came from people I did not know and can not recall ever having heard mentioned. Who were “Goldie and Raymond,” “Aunt Frieda and Uncle Ben,” “Mrs. Herman Wierle,” “Sarah Pincus,” “Mr. & Mrs. H.J. McGlade, Sr.”? How did they connect to my family, and when and how did this connection end? Did they peer at me in my crib, and what did I think? Dream? Hallucination? Demon? When I did not know what dreams, hallucinations or dreams were.
They are all gone, of course, as is everyone who could tell me.


The other day I received a package from my brother. He had been cleaning out his house, preparing to sell it, and found things my parents must have given him when they sold their house 40 years ago and moved into a one-bedroom apartment.
This material began with my birth and continued into my early adulthood. Some of it I had; some I was familiar with; but some astounded me. I had no idea they had collected it. I felt great delight at having it before me – and great guilt for having allowed disgruntlements and discontents from preventing me from demonstrated the reciprocal consideration and kindness toward my parents that this appreciation of me deserved.
But someone has told me that all children feel they have not done enough for their parents, and all parents feel they have not done enough for their children. And as my brother said, when he admitted sharing some of my feelings, they could not help being themselves and more than we could help being ourselves. (Also when I mentioned my experience to a woman of my age, with whom I chat at the Wrench Café, she thanked me. She saved similar material for her sons and was pleased to know they would receiving it. Maybe, it occurred to me, all parents have this “hoarding” gene and, not being one, I had not known this until what was in my mailbox bit me.)
Anyway, I have a series of pieces I’ve written about growing up in West Philadelphia in the 1950s, which I had intended to re-blog here. Now my plan is to do that but to intersperse them, more or less sequentially, as I work my way through this box.

How I Became a Writer (vii)

Law School (3.)
Penn replaced numerical grades with adjectives. That made it nearly impossible to flunk out. I failed Tax. I received “Excellent” in Fed. Courts. I was mediocre everywhere else.
My main interest was extra-curricula. I had a skill. I wanted to make a contribution. I volunteered to interview clients and do legal research at the Voluntary Defender’s and Community Legal Services. I taught “Your Civil Rights” in a public high school. (“The kids’ll want to know,” someone told me, “what to do if a cop wants to look for drugs up their asshole.”) And I rode as a civilian observer in a patrol car on its evening tour.
I never caught a violent crime or kicked-in door. Mainly I saw DUIs and domestic beefs. One night two young officers shoved a broad shouldered, 40 year old against the booking desk. He smelled of alcohol. He wore a houndstooth cap. The fly on his slacks was down. He had a four-inch scar over one eye. The charges were Loitering and Prowling.
He had $.62 and a billfold stuffed with papers. On a job application, he had penciled, “Have attain some excellence as a boxer.” “Hey, Pete, watch out. This guy was a fighter,” one officer said. Pete laughed. “What’s your name?” “Charley Scott.”
“Charley Scott?” I said.
The man nodded.
I had seen him the best night of his life. He had knocked out Sugar Hart in the ninth in a fight they still talked about. Then, for Christmas money, he’d gone up to New York and lost 5-4-1 to Benny Paret, and Paret got the title shot. Within a couple years, Paret was dead, killed in the ring by Emile Griffith, and Scott was on his slide.
He left for Detective Division, light on his feet, a fighter’s bounce.

The bar that year was The Aftermath.
Chuckie Tusk, Billy McDonnell’s ex-cop uncle, had a cheesy Italian restaurant a block from Lorna’s. He let Tommy and Max open up the basement on his liquor license. They hung posters of Belmondo and Dylan and James Dean on the walls. They put a lava lamp by the register and “Good Vibrations” and “Rainy Day Women” and “Spend the Night Together” on the jukebox. A couple times Max let me card people, which was cool.
But we weren’t like before. I was still scared of acid and had quit meth once I heard how bad it was. Max was shooting it. I was playing basketball in an alumni league with stock brokers and endocrinologists. He was getting high in apartments smelling of cat piss with people who saw a night shift at the post office as a step up. I was headed toward the Bar. He had dropped the French he needed to graduate. “Whatever happened to you, man?” I said. “I’m happy,” he said. He told me pot would be legal within five years; the major tobacco companies had already registered the groovy brand names. (With the same assurance, he would tell me a few years later that heroin was not dangerous. The overdoses the media reported were really suicides. “You’ve seen the notes?” I said.)
One snowy night, we closed the bar early and, loaded with beer and Dex, headed his old Buick to the East Village. The car floated back and forth across three lanes. We couldn’t see two feet through any window. Back in his apartment, we laid our score across a Daily News headline: “$50,000 College Dope Ring Smashed.”
I saw that in my story too.

I read Tortilla Flats, Confessions of a Shy Pornographer, The Magus. (“There comes a time in each life like a point of fulcrum,” I wrote in my journal. “At that time you must accept yourself. It is not any more what you will become. It is what you are and always will be.”) I dated a teacher of deaf children, a go-go dancer Hesh fixed me up with after I put in a word for him with the judge assigned his latest bust, a divorced cellist studying at Curtis. “I could care about you,” she said. “You’re intelligent, sensitive, attractive, together; and you’re not a head. Could you care about me?” I didn’t say anything. “Have you ever cared about anyone?” “There was this girl in college.” The next time I saw her, she was in a booth at Frank’s pressed against a French horn player with a paisley necktie and purple, wide-wale corduroys.
Johnson bombed Hanoi and Haiphong. Students seized buildings on the campuses of Northwestern and Cheyney State. Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Tampa, Newark, Durham, Memphis, and Detroit burned.
Dylan crashed his motorcycle and broke his neck – or didn’t.

Stanley Kessler was married at the Bellevue and took a job in mergers and acquisitions at a thirty member firm on Broad Street. Tim O’Cullinan was married under a tent in Scarsdale, and Tank Nonnanucci in a church in Boston, and Mick Magyar a country club in Wilmington.
Max married Rose in the living room of a Justice of the Peace’s in Upper Darby. The bride wore pink hot pants and a halter top. The groom wore shades and a Day-Glo painted ankle cast he had earned jumping off The Aftermath’s bar. (“He thought he could fly,” Billy said. “What else?”) Gino and Flossy and Goatley and Hickey and Moates and Hesh and Will and Billy Harley and Sally and Bernie and his old lady were there. We were in suits and Levis and madras and minis. We came in cars and on bikes. “I pronounce you man and wife,” the J.P. said. “You owe me $10, young man.” Then we went to the Center City Sheraton and turned on.
I was doing nothing I liked. I was hanging with people to whom I no longer connected. I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t studying. I was thinking nothing new.
Mark Harris’s new book mentioned Adele twice.
I grew another beard.

The main preoccupation third year was the draft.
It worked like this. You registered when you were 18. You were eligible until 26. Each local board had a quota, but you were safe if you were physically or mentally unfit, if you were an alcoholic, drug addict, homosexual, felon. That didn’t help most law students, but your board could also defer students or if your work was important to the nation. Since most of us had gone straight from high school to college to law school, we were 25 and needed one more year.
Vietnam had quotas rising, so guys from small towns or rich suburbs were eye-ing the Reserves, the National Guard, and JAG. But I was from a neighborhood where boys didn’t go to college, let alone law school. And my board’s chairman’s son was a second year student at Temple, and what it did with me would set precedent for him.
I thought about a Masters degree (“Boring”), a clerkship (“Been there”), the Peace Corps (“Two years”). One afternoon, I picked a copy of Ramparts off a desk in the library. It had a color spread on the Haight Ashbury. I could not believe people walked around in public like that. (What is now known as “The ‘60s” did not hit most of the country until some time between the Democratic Convention riots in August 1968 and Woodstock a year later. Philly had about six hippies in 1967. They hung at Rittenhouse Square, where the police rousted them for freaking out old ladies.)
I decided to let VISTA send me to San Francisco. I thought I was promising material. I hung with Al Hickey. I was for the exclusionary rule. I opposed capital punishment and the NBA’s de facto-ed half-white rosters. “I still might end up,” I wrote on my application, “working for a Philadelphia law firm, but at least it would not be because I had taken the easy road simply because it was easy and well-traveled and there.”
It did not escape me that Adele was in San Francisco.
It did not escape me she was my insanity.

Max shot speed for ten days before his pre-induction physical. He wore to it a fatigue jacket, filthy jeans, loafers without socks. When they passed out questionnaires, he dropped his pencil. He picked it up but dropped his paper. He picked it up but made such a mess, he crumpled it into a ball and demanded another sheet – yelled for a new sheet he was so into the questions. Max was shaking and sweating so badly, the sergeant sent him to the medical officer. The officer asked if he wanted meds.
Then he certified Max as crazy. Max went home and everyone else stepped closer to the rice paddies.

The call woke me one morning in June. “Robert Levy? Terrence Killeen. Assistant counsel to the Office of Economic Opportunity. Congratulations. You’ll be providing legal assistance to community action groups in Chicago. And tell your local board General Hershey says we’re in the national interest.”
I had no idea what community action was.

How I Became a Writer (vi)

I took an apartment in Powelton Village, a neighborhood to Penn’s north, of sycamore-shaded streets and big houses broken into tiny apartments for poor blacks, un-gallery connected artists, unpublished writers, out of power agitators, and assorted misfits, eccentrics and madmen. (Ira Einhorn, the hippie guru/trunk murderer-to-be, was already there, spouting off about Marshall McCluan and who killed Kennedy to a crowd of six. John Africa, who would build MOVE into an organization whose members’ home a future mayor would deem it necessary to bomb, wasn’t yet.)
My apartment had splattered floors like Jackson Pollock had been its previous tenant. Each time I went out, I thought every Negro I passed would offer me a joint, each long-haired girl would comment on the book I was carrying and invite me to her pad.
Never happened.

Law school was looking up though. We could choose some courses. (I went with Advanced Criminal Procedure, Evidence, Con. Law.) The professors tempered the bullying and ridicule, as if our re-enrolling had earned us that much.
First semester, my average went up eight points. Second, it dropped four but was respectable. One night I dreamed I was living in a shack in the Keys with a sign in the yard: “Robert A. Levin. Bait. Tackle. Attorney-at-Law.”
It seemed the best I could imagine.

I was smoking pot with Max every weekend. And snorting meth-amphetamine.
I liked drugs because they set me apart. (I knew only one other law student who did them.) I felt part of this dangerous, elite vanguard. It was cool to be at a party, knowing you were high and no one else was. But soon Max was turning on more people – and dealing on the side. Instead of drugs being something cool guys did, it was as if turning on made you cool. Like if somebody you always thought was an asshole passed you a joint, you were supposed to dig him.
Then LSD hit. Max grabbed onto it too. Those were the days of stories about teenagers burning out corneas staring into the sun and English lit instructors jumping through windows and running naked down the street and being at parties with a girl trying to flush her foot down the toilet or a naked guy, a top hat over his cock, tipping it to everyone who walked in.
That was not how I wanted to be remembered.
Or maybe I was chickenshit.

We had a new place to drink.
Lorna’s was on Walnut, two blocks from the law school. A circular bar filled most of the room. There were stools around it and booths along the east side. The juke box played “Midnight Hour” and “Summer in the City” and “Devil With the Blue Dress On.”
Lorna was a black haired, blue jeaned mother of two, who’d got title in a divorce. Her bartender, Billy McDonnell, was a hatchet-faced, pompadoured sociopath from Fishtown, the worst white neighborhood I’d ever seen. Her bouncer was Hesh Berkowitz, a 35-year-old clammer from Absecon Island, who’d once shot up with Lennie Bruce. Her base clientele were cops and felons and beauticians and Penn football players looking for fights and the occasional copy writer down from New York or blues guitarist up from New Orleans who’d heard this was a scene.
Then there was us. “Us” was me and Max and Rose. I brought Travis Cost, who was studying Tolkien, while hustling chess and pool around Powelton Village, and Al Hickey, the only black guy in my class to come back second year. Al brought Ray Goatley, a Negritude-inspired collagist, and Don Moates, a runner for Titus Blood, a p.i. lawyer and local CORE chief; and Don brought Will Tottenham, the dental school’s major doper. Max brought Flopsy and Mopsy Goldstein, daughters of a neurosurgeon, whom he’d known since Labor Zionist camp, and Pumps, who brought Dan Indio, a stock clerk who’d helped him steal the safe. Flopsy’s husband Randy, who was AWOL from the army came; so did Mopsy’s, Gino DiPieto, who’d served two years on a Nike base on Guam. Gino brought Reds Wolf, another West Philly guy he’d been in the service and who was working as typesetter; and Reds brought Bernie Blumberg, who had a Mexican import business in New Hope he was thinking of converting into a head shop; and Bernie brought Pete the Pipe, a diesel mechanic from Upper Darby, and Billy Harley, a biker with no teeth, and his girlfriend Sally, who didn’t talk; and Sally brought her girl friend Annie, whose father played first violin with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and who slept with Tommy and Hesh and Tommy again.
One of them would be stabbed to death in prison and one jailed for smuggling guns and dope and one die in a car wreck on his way back from a Black Panther meeting and one after falling off a cliff while drunk and one from infections secondary to intravenous drug use and a few simply dissolve into time; but I didn’t know any of this then.
I once went 36 nights in a row.

I went out with a Negro girl I’d met in high school, a salesclerk at Wannamaker’s, a girl who’d led cheers at Overbrook for Walt Hazzard and Wally Jones; and, some nights, after leaving them, I took long rides out Baltimore Pike and thought about Adele. I read Cuckoo’s Nest and Tenants of Moonbloom and Sot Weed Factor. (“One must needs make and seize his soul, and then cleave fast to it, or go babbling in the corner,” I wrote in my journal. “One must assert, assert, assert or go screaming mad.”) ) I wrote the “Bars, Jazz Clubs and Coffee Houses” chapter for The Collegiate Guide to Philadelphia. (When the copy I submitted included Drury Lane, a Center City gay bar, the editor showed newfound interest me that didn’t quite register.) I bribed an usher to sneak me into a sold-out Academy of Music and saw Dylan plant himself at the stage’s edge and spit “Like a Rolling Stone” into his audience’s teeth. I began a story about a college basketball player whose roommate is arrested for stealing a safe. By its end, the player was to lose his friend, his girl, and basketball.
Lyndon Johnson ordered the DMZ bombed. 200,000 anti-war demonstrators marched in New York. Omaha, Chicago and Cleveland burned.

I turned down a summer job with the Law Students Civil Rights Research Committee to clerk for a Common Pleas Court judge. LSCRRC would have shut me in a library. Clerking gave me people to experience.
Like the 13 year old boy who accused his next door neighbor of forcing him to commit oral sodomy. Like the deaf and dumb 19 year old who communicated only through a sign language understood by no one but his grandmother. Like Willy Smith, imprisoned since 1948 on a confession beaten out of him by police. I wrote the opinion that set Willy free.
I thought, You get one life. If you do not do things in it while you have the chance, you never will. Why then, I thought, do things that substantially increase your chance of losing that life? Why, for instance, fight a war that will make no difference?
The next march, I stepped off the curb.