Beyond the Pines: nightmare night
Ron's hopes of selling the stuff he'd brought with him from the West Coast literally went up in smoke. That of innumerable joints smoked by us and our friends, squatting on the bare floor like a bunch of Indians passing the peace pipe.
Among these as related last week was the organiser of illicit flights to Havana via East Berlin; a prominent member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, surely on the lists of both the FBI and CIA.
Having gone to school in East Berlin he of course was able to talk with me - or whisper, in case the place was bugged - in fluent German.
One day he suggested we all go to St. John the Divine, the
cavernous und unfinished modern Cathedral on the upper Westside, to hear
Martin Luther King. The Civil Rights leader's speech , expected to be
critical of the Vietnam War, was billed as heralding a possible bid for
the White House.
Aptly named Willy Blackman, the 19-year-old had a number
of cronies, none as lithe and black as he, but hefty types of various
shades and ages clearly after more than just the occasional joint.
One afternoon while I was on my own in the 8th Street pad
two of them turned up quite unexpectedly, politely asking me for a 'loan',
yet in a manner implying they wouldn't take No for an answer. Presumably
they needed the money for harder stuff than what was on offer at Ron's.
I had no cash on me I truthfully told them. So they suggested
we take a walk to my bank near Tomkins Square, center of the Lower East
Side, as Washington Square is of the Village. Here I cashed a cheque and
gave them the money.
Whether Willy was on heroin too I don't know, but he was
certainly into all sorts of other things besides pot, for example amphetamines,
which he called 'speed'.
One evening, having got thoroughly stoned first, he took
me uptown to a party of white friends, Civil Rights activists like himself,
but affluent middle-class kids. They of course lionised someone who just
about epitomised the new adage 'black is beautiful', and Willy lapped
At the height of the party he produced some 'speed', to
'top up' our high, insisting I should join him in taking it. I did, but
with dire results.
On our way back to 8th Street by cab Willy to my embarrassment
started talking in exaggerated southern accent, and yelling Watermelon!
every time he caught sight of a grocer's fruit display on the sidewalk.
But it was when I noticed a revolver on the seat beside the driver that
mild embarrassment turned into acute paranoia.
Panicked into thinking the driver might use it I assured
him that my black friend was 'quite harmless'. However this made matters
only worse, with an embarrassed Willy wildly apologising for his white
friend having a 'bad trip'.
Back at the pad Ron and the guys I had given money were
getting quietly stoned, and passing their joints to us.
But it wasn't until one of the latter casually mentioned
he worked in the morgue at Bellevue Hospital that paranoia turned into
My fears were exacerbated by the memory of having been mugged
a few nights earlier, right outside the house, by three black youths.
Shoving me into the dark hallway they took my wallet, containing forty
dollars, and threatened to take my high-heeled boots, bought in London's
Carnaby Street. Shall we kill him, one of them cheerily asked.
No doubt that was what Willy's friends were planning to
do I was convinced, before taking my Bolex. So I must stay awake. When
I saw Ron dropping off I threw a glass of water over his face. You're
having a bad trip he gently said.
When it began getting light outside, and they'd all dozed
off, I made my decision. Grabbing the Bolex and my Greek shepherd cloak
There happened to be a police car parked on the corner.
Greatly reassured, I started aimlessly walking south along the river,
then cross-town to the West Side, heading north after a while.
After an hour or so, about 6 a.m., I found myself on West
23rd Street walking past the entrance of a hotel called The Chelsea. Not
aware this was the Manhattan abode of famous literati and artists I blithely
A bleary-eyed night clerk looked up in astonishment. Had
I been out filming he politely inquired, with clipped British accent.
(He'd been secretary to the poet Robert Graves he later told me).
Yes, I said, almost convinced myself that I had.
As I came down again later that day, after a hot bath and
a good sleep, I found myself standing in the elevator next to a big man
with craggy features vaguely familiar to me from photos: the playwright
Fame at last? No. But at least, safe and sound, among the famous.