N.Y. State of Mind By Michael A. Gonzales (inspired by Nas)

Gonzalez

Photo by Paul Price

“The illest niggas in New York City live in Brooklyn,” my homeboy home LaRoc used to say, and in the summer of ’86, when we both dwelled in the hell that was the Brooklyn Arms Hotel, nothing could’ve been more true. More than two decades later, the building itself, which was directly across the street from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, has been demolished and turned into a parking lot. Going to see it the night before, a part of me wishes I could’ve pissed into the rubble, or at least watched the workers trucking away those broken bricks that contained so many ghosts from that bleak time.

 

Often I dream about that gloomy sixteen-story building. That towering welfare hotel, where my family was dumped when we had nothing, still looms in my imagination, an eternal monument to those desolate days. Waking suddenly, sweating profusely and breathing hard, I’d gulp some water and spend the rest of the night staring at the ceiling, remembering the time.

 

For years we’d lived in Queensbridge Projects. QB or Da Bridge, we called it. At fifteen, I was the oldest of three kids with my kid brother Eugene, two years younger than me, and six-year-old baby sister. On top of the TV, inside a cheap gold frame, was a picture of mom. Taken when she was in high school, her skin was the color of chestnuts and kinky Chaka Khan hair flowed down her back. That was in 1971; nine months later I was born.

 

I had a cool childhood, but sometime in early 1985 mom duke started messing with some dude named Rico, smoking that stuff when she should’ve been working, and within months, things started to fall apart. Bills went unpaid, food was lacking and it wasn’t long before the city padlocked the door.

 

You know you done fucked-up when you get evicted from the pj’s. The Housing Authority gave us an hour to take what we wanted. As we packed, nosy neighbors peeked into the apartment. Whenever anybody asked what happened, I’d stare them coldly in the eyes and reply, “Crack happened.”

 

We shamefully threw pieces of our lives into black bags. My own bags were stuffed with clothes, Batman comics and a shoebox full of rhyme books I’d been scribbling in since I was ten. Before our fall, I had Run-DMC and Just-Ice posters on the wall. Calling myself K.C. Boogie, I taped Mr. Magic and Red Alert every week and rapped hard in the bathroom mirror.

 

Shuffling through the doorway of the Brooklyn Arms, we walked across the dirty marble floor towards the rickety elevators dragging the trash bags. Overhead, a chandelier hung from the ceiling looking like a giant teardrop. The stench of garbage simmered from the overflowing trash bins, wafting through the hallway. I held my breath to keep from vomiting.

 

If the outside temperature was eighty degrees, inside the building it was a hundred and fifty. Two noisy stand-up fans, their blades covered with dust, circulated the foul air throughout the small reception area and offices. In the corner was a battered payphone. There were three old elevators, but only one was working, moving slowly upwards towards our room on the tenth floor.

 

In the long, dark corridor, the oily brown walls looked as though they were smeared with shit. From behind the doors I heard the wails of crying babies, grunting sex sounds, television theme songs, couples arguing in Spanish and playful children laughing. A few doors cracked open as the silent greeting committee glared. Black faces, white faces, yellow faces, a melting pot of sullen, sad-eyed faces warning us with their eyes. “Get out while you can.”

 

Looking as though she was sleepwalking, my mother finally opened the door. After we were settled, my brother and baby sister sat on the bed holding hands. There were only three beds in the room, which meant my sister and mom would sleep together. In the corner was a rusty radiator and in the middle of the floor, there were dried bloodstains.

 

Our first night at Brooklyn Arms, a giant rat ran beneath the door. On the second day, some Fila sweatsuit-wearing clowns jumped me in the lobby while a few feet away a tubby kid with a JVC boombox blared L.L. Cool J’s “Radio.” Minutes later the fat kid screamed, “Enough already! You motherfuckers trying to kill him.” As though the voice of God screamed through the chaos, the boys stopped beating me.

 

Without waiting for me to thank him, Boombox Boy broke out. Boombox Boy—that would make a dope hood superhero, I thought. Later, when my savior turned out to be LaRoc, I told him my idea for Boom Box Boy, and he laughed so hard grape soda squirted through his nose. “You bugged out, man” he said, wiping his face.

 

After only a week, my mother had become popular with the trife life crack head crew. Nappy-haired dudes were knocking on the door at all hours of the night. Dealers was askin’ her to test their product. Unlike other fiends who flocked inside “the Broken Arms,” mom had managed to retain some of her fineness and all of her teeth, which I suppose made her a hot commodity.

 

While she slipped out in the hallway, creeping in the shadows, I was left with the kids. Finally, a few hours later, she would come back looking bugged-eyed and crazy as she threw herself across the bed. “I can’t take this shit anymore,” I screamed. She stared at me, but no words came out of her mouth. “I’m surprised B.C.W. ain’t already taken the kids, but I swear this shit has got to end.”

 

Telling a crackhead it’s got to end is like telling a pigeon not to shit on the window ledge, but I had to say something. Instead of arguing back, mom simply sat up on the bed, stared at me with glassy eyes and started crying. I grabbed my notebook from the bed, ran out the door and fled down the stairs.

 

The cinderblock walls were painted an ugly gray and covered with graffiti; hundreds of names and crude drawings were scrawled in black markers while the stink of piss hung in the air like an invisible cloud. In my pocket was a crisp twenty-dollar bill my grandma gave me a week before for my birthday. I promised that I’d keep it a secret from my mother.

 

Reaching the ground floor, I crashed through the door and slammed right into the fat kid carrying his radio. Boombox Boy, with his oversized sound machine blasting Cut Master D.C.’s “Brooklyn in the House.” Still, holding the radio in his right hand, he picked up my dropped notebook and handed it to me.

 

“Slow down, duke,” he said. I looked him up and down, taking in his color coordinated blue outfit and spotless white Nikes. His hair was cut short, faded on the sides, and looked as though it was trimmed a few hours before. He wore a pair of Cazal shades and a gold nameplate that read LaRoc.

 

“Where the fuck you going so fast?” The boy looked at me and started laughing. Putting the radio on the floor, he extended his right hand. “I’m Stacy Grant, but people call me LaRoc. Don’t know what mom’s was thinking about, givin’ me a bitch name like Stacy.”

 

“Like Scott LaRock?” I asked.

 

“Except without the K,” he replied, poking at his chain. “No K.”

 

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I’m Kyle, man. Kyle Cooper.”

 

“Yo, dude, you gonna have to speak up. Ain’t no mushmouthin’ round here.” He had a hard Brooklyn accent that was warm and welcoming. Unlike the other boisterous boys he didn’t seem angry with the world. “Just chill, man.” Nodding his head towards my notebook, he asked, “You in summer school or something?”

 

“Naw, man, I write rhymes and things.” He nodded his approval.

 

“What you call yourself?”

 

“K.C. Boogie.”

 

“K.C. Boogie?” He laughed. “What happened, you got rid of the Sunshine Band? Naw, that name is corny. From now on, you Kool Kyle—Kool with a K.” He looked me up and down, shook his head approvingly. “Yeah, Kool Kyle, that’s the joint. Remember this day, because you have just been reborn.”

 

“You helped me out the other day, thanks, man. Them dudes was tryin’ to fuck me up.”

 

“They wasn’t trying, they was fucking you up.” At first his snap made me pause, but before I knew it we both laughed. For the first time in months, I was laughing.

 

“Why them guys so scared of you?”

 

“They ain’t scared of me; they scared of my brother Benz. I’m a fighter, but my brother is crazy. He one of them don’t give a fuck dudes. He runs most of the crack and coke in this spot. Me, I ain’t living like that. Naw, I’m into music, man. DJ LaRoc.”

 

“Now, that’s what’s up,” I exclaimed. “That’s my thing all day every day.”

 

“I spin a little, make tapes and shit. Trying to get into making beats, that kind of thing. Got some turntables up in my room I be practicin’ with. I ain’t no Grandmaster Flash or nothing, but I’m getting there.”

 

“How you got turntables and these fiends ain’t stole ’em yet?

 

“Shit, I done told you, my brother is the man ‘round here. They be better off stealing from Jesus; at least he forgives.” He laughed loudly. “You smoke, man. Wanna go puff?” For a second I stood there, silent, not sure how to answer. It wasn’t always wise to get too friendly too quick. Of course I wanted to puff, but I didn’t want dude acting like I owed him nothing.

 

As though reading my mind, LaRoc said, “Don’t worry, man, ain’t nothing going to happen to you. I got your back.”

 

Many of the people who lived in the Brooklyn Arms never seemed to leave the surrounding area. Talkative mothers stood with strollers outside the hotel puffing on Newports, the butts collecting at their feet like mutant flowers as they chatted for hours.

 

Standing in front of the streetlamp on Ashland Place was a cold faced dude wearing a dookie gold chain, sharply creased black jeans, black Puma sneakers with thick red laces and a black baseball cap turned backwards. Dude stared at me without blinking until, finally noticing LaRoc, he smiled slightly.

 

“What up little brother,” the guy said. Standing in front of him, I noticed the Mercedes Benz logo on his cap. “Who you runnin’ with here? He look like somebody I know.”

 

“He’s a new jack. Calls himself Kool Kyle; he’s a rapper.” LaRoc said things with such authority you believed him, no matter how silly it sounded. “This is my brother I was telling you about.”

 

Benz nodded his chin towards me. “What up,” he sneered. “Where you little bastards headed?”

 

“Got a phat sack of good-good from the weed spot earlier. Goin’ get some Phillies, head over to the park and spark this shit.”

 

“You know, that’s where we be buryin’ bodies,” Benz said. “Ya’ll be cool over there. Any of them Fort Greene project fools step to you, you tell’em Benz your brother and I’m down with Supreme. They gonna recognize.”

 

In the park, me and LaRoc sat on the gray stairs, out the view of po-po, and exchanged stories. As we shared a forty-ounce of Olde English and puffed two blunts, LaRoc told me his mom had moved to an apartment in the Bronx, but he chose to stay on his own at the hotel. “Benz gives the owners loot to do his dirt and they don’t say jack. As long as they get theirs, they happy.”

 

By the time we left the park a couple of hours later, me and LaRoc agreed to collaborate on some music. After sharing my rhyme book with him and spittin’ a Buddha blunt influenced freestyle, he was the first person I trusted who gave me props.

 

Coming from Wycoff Projects, he thought of himself as the King of Brooklyn. For the rest of the day we roamed the streets, hanging out at Wendy’s in Albee Square Mall and, afterwards, walking over to Beat Street Records where the DJ was spinning Joeski Love’s “Pee-Wee’s Dance.”

 

“You like this song?” I asked LaRoc.

 

“It’s alright. The track is dope, but the lyrics are trash.”

 

“It’s a fun song?”

 

“Fuck fun, I like my rap to be hard, to have vision. You know, “The Message,” “Beat Bop,” “South Bronx,” that kind of stuff. The real, the grit, not just some shit about a dance.”

 

Joeski faded as “Eric B. Is President” was mixed in. LaRoc began bopping his neck to the funk. “Now, this is what I’m talking about. This is the kind of stuff that inspires me to go in the lab and make some dopeness.”

 

Within days we set off on a journey into sound. LaRoc’s room at the Brooklyn Arms was on the top floor. Old soul album covers covered the walls and his prized Technics 1200s were set up in the corner. In addition to refining his own dirty sound, sampling the drums from the Super Fly soundtrack and combining it with a James Brown jungle boogie bassline, he helped me craft my first serious song “Broken Arms,” a track about the bleakness of our humble abode.

 

With my brother taking care of our sister while moms continued beaming up, me and LaRoc spent hours practicing. “Just speak the truth,” LaRoc encouraged. “As long as you speakin’ the truth, can’t nobody tell you nothing.”

 

One humid August afternoon I went to his room and found it in complete disarray. In the corner, the turntables were in pieces and broken records littered the floor. He sat on the bed, too angry to cry, too stunned to be sad.

 

“What the hell happened?” LaRoc looked at me and shook his head. “My brother Benz owe these fools some money, but ain’t nobody seen him in over a week. These niggas gettin’ agitated and they want their money. They can’t find him, so they taking it out on me. Nigga not only skipped town with Supreme’s green, but also his bitch.”

 

A few hours passed, and there was still no sign of big brother. LaRoc jumped each time the elevator creaked open, each time he heard footsteps in the hall. “I gotta get out of dodge,” he said as he quickly packed a bag. Within minutes we hit the street, hurrying towards the Atlantic Avenue subway station.

 

Suddenly, everything became a dreamscape as a red ride screeched around the corner. Two dapper dudes leapt from the car, slammed their doors and ran towards us carrying nines. The shelter residents began to scatter, pushing baby carriages into the building and screaming for their badass children to get out the street. As they got closer, the thugs leveled their guns towards LaRoc, and one of them yelled in a Spanish accent, “Blame your brother Benz for this.”

 

Seconds later, they opened fire. The shooting seemed to go on forever as flames erupted from the barrels. Screaming loudly, bullets ripped through LaRoc’s flesh as his body shook wildly, but still he refused to fall. As I ran in the opposite direction, droplets of blood splattered on my forehead like a sloppy kiss.

 

When LaRoc finally collapsed, the men dashed back to their ride as I ran over to comfort my friend. Weeping softly, LaRoc took his final breaths as sirens screamed in the distance.

 

For days, my hands felt sticky with his blood. For days, splashes of LaRoc’s blood remained splattered on the street, serving as a constant reminder that, as my grandmother used to say, tomorrow ain’t never promised.” For days, I sat in LaRoc’s old room, salvaging his sounds and packing away his cassettes. For days, I sulked and cried as I answered questions from the police, caseworkers and news reporters.

 

After a week, I finally made up my mind, kissed my brother and sister goodbye and fled into the darkness of New York City carrying nothing except a plastic bodega bag containing my rhyme book, a bunch of my homeboy’s beat tapes and the belief, as instilled by LaRoc, that one day I was going to make it. Forget about simply livin’ large, my goal was to be a lyrical giant spitting the truth.

Bio: Michael A. Gonzales is a native New Yorker who has written about rap music since the 1980s. In 1991 his co-authored book Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture was published. His work has appeared in The Source, Vibe, Rappages, XXL, New York and Wax Poetics His fiction has appeared in several print and online publications including The Root.com, Bronx Biannual, Dark Mask edited by Gary Phillips and Black Pulp. His newest story “Graffiti City” will be published in SOLEDAD #2.

 

Portrait Of The Artist As A Consumer: Michael A. Gonzales

Books

Since last year I’ve lived in Baltimore, or as I like to call it, the City of Poe. While this creepy metropolis has gotten quite a reputation for being crime ridden, drugged-out landscape where dudes name Omar walk down the streets with a big ass gun, my life is luckily quite different that the characters on The Wire. Indeed, a small list of my favorite places in the city include Normal’s Books & Records, the coolest used shop in the hood, where I go at least twice a month in search of something by Georges Simenon, Harlan Ellison, Rosa Guy and other favorite writers.

I’m working on a new short story called “Frankie Five Hundred,” about a Black woman model in 1959 living in Harlem. While researching the period, I found two books at Normal’s that were quite helpful. How I Became Hettie Jones, by writer, journalist and ex-wife of LeRoi, Hettie Jones and Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson, novelist and former girlfriend of Jack Kerouac. In addition, last year I found paperback editions of Pinktoes and The Primitive, both by my hero Chester Himes. I bought them, but the type is much too small for me to read.

Music

I’ve always enjoyed having eclectic taste in music which can switch from Mozart to Wu-Tang without warning. Truthfully, I don’t listen much new music, though a few years ago I found myself spinning the Weeknd’s singles “Wicked Games” and “The Hills” a lot, because I just loved his drugged-out coke king angst. Of course, that was before he got all Michael Jackson and started dancing while trying to feel his face.

Albums

Fresh/Sly Stone

1999/Prince

Walking Wound/Everything But the Girl

Super Fly/Curtis Mayfield

Pre-Millennium Tension/Tricky

Betty Davis/Betty Davis

Brown Sugar/D’Angelo

Mezzanine/Massive Attack

“Take a Bow (single)/Madonna/Babyface

Bitter/Meshell Ndegeocello

Movies

The French Connection

Annie Hall

Shadows

Super Fly

Uptight

The Anderson Tapes

Out of Sight

Light Sleeper

Being There

Taxi Driver

Comic Book Artists

Jack Kirby

Steve Ditko

Howard Chaykin

Alex Nino

Bernie Wrightson

Michael Wm. Kaluta

Jim Steranko

Kyle Baker

Los Bros Hernandez

Bill Sienkiewicz

Television

The Odd Couple

Homicide

The Twilight Zone

Sanford & Son

Barney Miller

X-Files

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Atlanta

Law & Order

A whole bunch of cartoons

Comedians (my other favorite storytellers)

Richard Pryor

George Carlin

Jack Benny

Robin Harris

Steve Martin

Mike Nichols

Eddie Murphy

Chris Rock

Lily Tomlin

Redd Foxx

Filmmakers

Sidney Lumet

Shirley Clarke

Wong Kar-wai

Malcolm Lee

Jules Dassin

Francis Ford Coppola

Charles Burnett

Peter Bogdanovich

Lynne Ramsay

Spike Lee

Spiritual Godparents

Malcolm X

Bob Fosse

Chuck Jones

Miles Davis

Chester Himes

Billie Holiday

Zora Neale Hurston

Vincent Van Gogh

Francis Bacon (painter)

Marvin Gaye

Bio: Essayist/short story writer Michael A. Gonzales has written about books for CrimeReads, Longreads, Catapult and The Paris Review. His fiction has appeared in various magazines, journals and websites including Brown Sugar edited by Carol Taylor, The Root, Art Decades, Bronx Biannual edited by Miles Marshall Lewis, The Darker Mask and Black Pulp, both edited by Gary Phillips. In addition, Gonzales has written about pop culture, visual art and film for The Village Voice, New York, Wax Poetics, HYCIDE, Pitchfork and Newark Bound. Upcoming short stories will be published in the photo book It’s After The End Of The World by Gerald Jenkins and SOLEDAD #2 edited by Jeremy R Richey.

Photo by Paul Price

Gonzalez

HOLLYWOOD’S AFRICAN AMERICAN SINGING COWBOY RIDES AGAIN IN PROSE! ‘THE ADVENTURES OF THE BRONZE BUCKAROO’ DEBUTS

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From out of the Wild West, gun on his hip, song on his lips, returns a historic hero of the silver screen in brand new stories. THE ADVENTURES OF THE BRONZE BUCKAROO is now available in print and idigtal formats from Pro Se Productions.

Portrayed by singer/actor Herb Jeffries, The Bronze Buckaroo, Bob Blake, appeared on screens in 1939 as the first African American singing cowboy. Cast in the mold of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, The Buckaroos’ films had one major difference. They sported largely African American casts and were produced by African American companies. With four films usually listed as the Buckaroo’s legacy, this truly great moment in cinema history has been largely forgotten, except for film experts and fans of great stories. THE ADVENTURES OF THE BRONZE BUCKAROO features 51X5bNcLBaLMichael Gonzales, Robert J. Randisi, John Lutz, Gary Phillips, Christopher Alan Chambers, Frankie Y. Bailey, and Percy Spurlark Parker, each giving their own take on the most unique Singing Cowboy to ever ride into a theater! Load your sixguns, saddle up, and get ready to charge into two fisted matinee movie action with THE ADVENTURES OF THE BRONZE BUCKAROO!

With a rip roaring cover and logo design by Jeffrey Hayes and print formatting by Marzia Marina and Antonino Lo Iacono, THE ADVENTURES OF THE BRONZE BUCKAROO is available now at Amazon and Pro Se’s own store for 11.99.

This unique anthology celebrating one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets is also available as an Ebook, designed and formatted by Lo Iacono and Marina for only $2.99 for the Kindle at Amazon  The book is also available on Kindle Unlimited, which means Kindle Unlimited Members can read for free.

 

Reflections/Iceberg Slim – Record review by Michael A. Gonzales

a7fb1231ac3ab5b5f2f3ee22d72cb147Living in Harlem in the early 1970s, my father’s apartment on 7th Avenue and 123rd Street was upstairs from an infamous Harlem bar known as The Shalimar. Glancing out of daddy’s fourth-floor window on a Friday or Saturday night, it wasn’t uncommon to see rows of brightly hued Cadillac’s lined-up from corner to corner with their equally flashy owners hanging in front of their rides before parading inside the lounge. In the beginning I had no idea who these dudes were, but after seeing the blaxploitation classic The Mack when I was ten, I realized that the rainbow coalition of sharp dressed men were pimps.

In addition to providing the world with an underrated Willie Hutch soundtrack album, The Mack provided a window into a world of vice that regular folks (i.e. squares) knew little about and inspired more than a few wayward souls. Still, a few years would pass before I realized that The Mack, as well as other pimp films The Candy Tangerine Man and Willie Dynamite, were partly inspired by Iceberg Slim’s bestselling memoir Pimp: The Story of My Life.

Originally released in 1967 from Los Angeles based pulp publisher Holloway House, the book’s author, whose real name was Robert Beck, was a former gentleman of leisure, a devilish man from Chicago who relocated to the city of angels to restart his life and spend time with his mother in her dying days. Working as an exterminator by day, he and his wife Betty (he dictated as she typed) worked on Pimp at night and sold it to Holloway House for the small fee of $1,500. Pimp would go on to sell millions, though it wasn’t sold in bookstores, but was instead marketed in urban candy stores, gas stations, record shops and head shops throughout Black America. In 51-years, the book has never gone out of print, and has served as an influence on varied creative artists including artist Fab Five Freddy, rapper Ice-T and author Irvine Welsh.

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However, since Slim wasn’t making much loot from his gritty literary efforts, in 1976 he teamed-up with his saxophone playing buddy Red Holloway, whose band performed nightly at the Parisian Room. Holloway helped him get a record deal with Ala Enterprises, a subsidiary of the African-American comedy album folks Laff Records. The end result of their collaboration was the album Reflections, recently reissued from Modern Harmonic, a strange, but aurally enticing one-off that featured Iceberg reciting what is known as hustler toasts, a type of ghetto poetry that was popularized on street corners and prison yards, two places Slim knew a lot about from his hardcore life.

Although some critics think that Reflections inspired gangta rap, truthfully it was the toasting tradition itself, as well as Slim’s books, that inspired the genre more so than that record.  On Reflections, Slim dropped lyrical jewels about wicked whores (“The Fall”), his own dying mother (“Mama Debt”) and a sharp dressed pimp who becomes a shabby heroin addict (“Broadway Sam”), Holloway’s quartet supplied the laidback grooves of easy listening soulful jazz that blends perfectly with the rhythm of Iceberg’s velvety voiced speech patterns. On “Broadway Sam” we hear a hint of the Drifter’s 1963 hit “On Broadway” played on guitar while on the “The Fall” we get a taste of Holloway’s smoky sax, but the musical solos on Reflections only last a few beats before Iceberg slides in and starts talking about sin again.

Reflections sounds a little dated, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. A natural born shit talker, Slim’s voice is hypnotic, but he doesn’t rush through his words as he patiently schools us lames about the pimping game that he never tries to glamorize. “You know the price when you’re dealing vice,” Iceberg says coldly on the opening track. But certainly if you don’t, you going to learn tonight.

Bio: Harlem native Michael A. Gonzales has published short fiction in Brown Sugar (Random House), Bronx Biannual (Akashic Books), Crimefactory and Needle: A Magazine of Noir. He lives in Brooklyn.

Hard Knock Life: On the Films of Abel Ferrara by Michael A. Gonzales

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Nobody loves New York films more than a native. From the time I was a kid growing-up in Harlem during an era when the city wasn’t pretty, I’ve always had a thing for moviemakers who were able to capture the grit of my town on celluloid.

Of course, there are exceptions, like my favorite Woody Allen flicks Annie Hall and Manhattan, as well as the Neil Simon scripted The Goodbye Girl, but for the most part the movies I got the most pleasure from were the ones that showed the Big Apple’s rotting core, worms and all.

Over the years, I have repeatedly watched The French Connection, Super Fly, The Warriors, The Education of Sonny Carson, Taxi Driver, Serpico, Death Wish, Gordon’s War and Dog Day Afternoon, all films that perfectly fit into my aesthetic of what constitutes a great NYC film: raw, gritty and somewhat unpredictable, much like the city itself.

In the early 1990s, the two New York films that had the most affect on me were Abel Ferrara’s double dose of big city sleaze The King of New York (1990) and The Bad Lieutenant (1992). Ferrara was himself a native New Yorker born in the Bronx in 1950. Like my favorite Bronx Boy creative folks writer Jerome Charyn, director Stanley Kubrick and rapper KRS-One, he is a no bullshit kind of guy.

Ferrara started making flicks in the early 1980s, B-movie fare with cool names like Driller Killer, Fear City and Ms. 45, but it wasn’t until 1990 that I was introduced to his bleak worldview and neo-noir sensibilities.

King_of_new_york_ver1Staring at the poster for The King of New York outside a Times Square theater, where a few feet away hookers walked the block and three-card monte cats ripped-off tourists. I wandered into the movie house not really knowing what to expect. Sitting amongst a typical neighborhood crowd who screamed at the screen and smoked weed openly, as the movie began it didn’t take long for me to block out the distractions and become absorbed by Ferrara’s dangerous visions of thug life in our hometown.

Released at a time when “the drug game,” primarily crack and powered cocaine, ruled the streets of the city, Ferrara’s film introduced the viewer to recently released kingpin Frank White (Christopher Walken) and his gang of black henchman led by Jimmy Jump (Larry Fishburne). Determined to take over the drug trade, as well as giving back to the hood by building a state-of-art hospital in Brooklyn, Frank unleashes a blood-bath gang war on everyone from the Italian mob to the Chinese gangs.

Never one to do any acting halfway, Walken is at his best as Frank White. Whether talking shit or gazing out of the window in his Plaza Hotel suite, the audience cheered for that troubled man who has so much on his mind. Yet, as good as Walken was, he was no comparison to Fishburne’s role as the bugged-out, blow-sniffing, gun shooting Jump, who had more swagger than a million Jay-Z’s.

Looking like his daddy might’ve been a Black Panther back in the day, Jump is crazier than most cokehead gangsters are, but he still he reminded me of a few cool, but deadly dudes I knew in Harlem. Fishburne doesn’t walk in the film, he moves swiftly as a dancer, quietly as a jungle cat. Screenwriter Nicholas St. John also gave Jump some of the dopest lines in the movie. “Trust isn’t one of my stronger qualities,” he says, moments before killing a drug dealer.

One can imagine Fishburne today, all flabby and stone-faced, turning on the telly and seeing himself more than two decades later and wondering, “What happened to that brilliant motherfucker?”  Additionally, the film also featured wonderful co-starring performances from Wesley Snipes, David Caruso, Paul Calderon, Steve Buscemi and Roger Guenveur Smith.

Since many of those actors had worked together in other New Yorkcentric films, the ensemble acting was seamless as the robbers, cops and various baddies battled for supremacy while ducking bullets. Yet, while King overflows with violence, there are many dimensions to the film, as though Godard, fairytales and gangsta rap, also inspired Ferrara equally.

The Schoolly D. songs used in The King of New York, especially “Saturday Night,” only added to the hip allure of the film, an aural black cherry on top of a cake made out of dynamite. A few years later, when other MCs were still quoting Oliver Stone’s overrated Scarface script as though it were the holy grail of gangster movies, an overweight rapper named the Notorious B.I.G. showed his love for The King of New York by dubbing himself “the black Frank White.”

While obviously influenced by Martin Scorsese, who’s Good Fellas came out the same year, Ferrara’s perspective in The King of New York of our beloved sin city was more twisted. Shot by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, the film has a strange texture that works perfectly. Between he and Ferrara, the nighttime streets, rides on the subway and various shoot-outs, including the brutal climax where damn near everybody dies, feels like something Frank White might be actually dreaming while he’s dying in jail.

Like most of Ferrara’s films, The King of New York was shot on a tight budget, but the director still managed to master mix a calm art-house sensibility with a manic pulp vision that was dark, dangerous and intoxicating. However, if King scrapped the surface of the scum that drove cabbie Travis Bickle crazy, then The Bad Lieutenant dived in deep and just continued swimming to the bottom for infinity.

Harvey Keitel played the title character, a cop so damaged that even his fellow officers were disgusted by his behavior. The cops give him sideways glances when he accidentally drops a kilo of coke he stole from a crime scene, a part of the movie that always makes me cringe, or talks badly about the Catholic Church putting-up a $50,000 reward for the capture of the “boys” who a raped nun. Still, that is small stuff compared to the rest of the inspired decadence of the ninety-six minute movie.

The Lieutenant, who wasn’t even given a name, was perhaps one of the most damaged characters in ‘90s cinema, filled with enough dread and pathos to fuel six David Fincher films. As he smokes crack in tenement hallways, masturbates in front of two teenaged girls and shoots-up with a hooker, we almost feel sorry for this pale faced mess of a man. Embracing those dark and scary places, Ferrara shot The Bad Lieutenant, which he co-wrote with Zoë Lund, as though it were a modern day horror movie.

bad_lieutenant_movie_image_harvey_keitel_02Yet, if the King of New York was a dream, then The Bad Lieutenant was a nightmare. The movie’s unintentional (I think) comic relief comes when he is at home surround by crying babies, an oblivious wife and a old, white haired mother-in-law who says nothing, but stares at Keitel fearfully. She seems to be the only person in the house who actually looks at him, but she has enough fear for everybody.

While the thin plot concerns the raped nun who refuses to identify her attackers, Ferrara’s masterpiece was in actuality a brilliant study of a man who no longer believes in anything: a Catholic who doesn’t believe in God, a cop who doesn’t believe in the law, a man who doesn’t believe in death because he’s already living in hell.

Keitel, unlike his friend Robert DeNiro, never stopped challenging himself when it came to taking difficult roles, and in The Bad Lieutenant, he played the ruined character with the rawness of a pus-oozing sore. Unlike other scary cat directors, my man Ferrara (the tainted saint of cinema, the outlaw auteur, the Hubert Selby Jr. of movies) captured it all.

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Harlem native Michael A. Gonzales has published short fiction in Brown Sugar (Random House), Bronx Biannual (Akashic Books), Crimefactory and Needle: A Magazine of Noir. He lives in Brooklyn.

 

Fiction: One More Chance by Michael A. Gonzales

22519426_10155031025497717_6031561382650838239_nEverybody remembers the first time they had a gun pointed at them. Although it’s been months, sometimes I’ll be lying next to my woman and suddenly flashback to that black nine millimeter aimed at my skull.

It was the summer of ‘88 and I was still living uptown where shattered glass crunched underfoot and the bustling boulevards were electric with vice. To strangers unfamiliar with the wildness of Harlem, my decaying tenement on 145th might’ve looked dangerous.

Yet, no matter how many crack cowboys and toothless hookers sat on the stoop, I was never scared. My girlfriend Zoë was a different story. Every time she came to Harlem, she acted as though poverty was contagious.

Zoë and I were 22-years-old seniors at the School of Visual Arts. Wanting to be the next Robert Mapplethorpe, but without all the dicks and homo shit, I was a photography major. Zoë was an abstract painter with a loft on Gramercy Park.

Coming from Detroit, her rich mother paid the bills. Though she proudly talked about, “Da D,” it was obvious from her Goth make-up and all-black wardrobe that she was more of a Depeche Mode suburban chick than an inner city Motown girl. “I don’t know why you can’t just let it go, Andre. Your old neighborhood died years ago. There is no renaissance, only ghosts. You should just move downtown with me.”

“You don’t understand, I was raised up there. Uptown, that’s where my peoples at.”

“Your peoples?” Zoë laughed, shoveling the last piece of sushi in her mouth. “Why you always talk like you’re more street than you are? When we met, you were reading Kafka and talking about Wim Wenders. Now, you Mr. Ghetto? Mr. Keeping It Real.”

“I’m just saying, it’s going to take more than a few whores and dope boys to make me move.” After knocking back a few sakes, I stumbled to the A Train and nodded out until reaching 145th Street.

According to the subway station clock, it was almost midnight. Walking the two avenue blocks to my building, I was shocked when I ran into my old buddy Darryl Jenkins sitting on the steps of the abandoned school PS 186. Recently graduated from Syracuse University, Darryl was one of the few old friends not in jail or the graveyard.

“Man, so good seeing you,” I said.

“I just came down for a few days. Figured if I hung-out in front of this dump long enough, I’d run into you.”

Darryl pulled out a phat sack of weed and a few Phillie blunts. Like old times, we decided to go to my building and smoke.

Standing in front of the door, I realized I’d left my keys at Zoë’s and randomly pressed the intercom. Somebody buzzed us in and we ran up the back staircase; since I rarely wore sneakers, my hard-bottomed dress shoes click-clanked on the marble steps.

Sitting on the top stair rolling the blunt, I faintly heard something downstairs, but when I looked over the banister there was nothing. “Ain’t even smoked and already paranoid,” Darryl laughed.

Lighting the blunt, I thought I heard creeping footsteps, but before I could say jack, a midget murderer everybody called Inch was aiming his burner at my head. “Word Gotti, you got to stop ringing my bell! I thought you assholes were cops.”

We had all grown up together, but last I heard, Inch was serving a stretch in Rikers for blasting three drug dealers a few years back. Word on our street was he dragged the corpses into the closet and stole a suitcase of bloody money. How he got out so fast was beyond me.

“Yo, we’re sorry,” I stuttered. Darryl was silent. “Believe me, it was an accident.” From the way Inch’s left eye blinked, it was obvious he was doing everything in his power not to kill us. Blinking a few more times, Inch finally put the gun down.

Scrambling down the stairs, I ran to the payphone. Fishing a quarter out of my pocket, I dialed Zoë. “I changed my mind,” I yelled. “I’m moving downtown. Tonight.”

Copyright © 2010

Photo by Carl Davis.

Harlem native Michael A. Gonzales has published short fiction in Brown Sugar (Random House), Bronx Biannual (Akashic Books), Crimefactory and Needle: A Magazine of Noir. He lives in Brooklyn.