Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I-95 North: The Outsiders

I'm Not On The Guest List? I'll Padlock the Club.


It was a particularly soul-deadening day at work a couple of weeks back—one of several in a row, and I took the better part of its evening catching up on clerical and household things I'd let slide over about ten days. In so doing, I gulped a heaping cup of coffee and wound up jumpily awake until an ungodly enough hour to catch the third (Why?) showing of Chris Matthews' “Hardball” program. Within minutes of viewing, a prediction I made earlier in the week pretty much came to pass—that Matthews would try to find a way during his broadcast to spin attention away from the burgeoning Giuliani/Kerik/Regan/FOX scandal and onto his own private “Moriarty”, Hillary Clinton. The barking little devil spent three-quarters of his show fuming and spitting at his guests in an obvious snit about where the day's news cycle was headed in spite of his anti-Clinton/Democratic dervishing. But much to his evident chagrin, he couldn't avoid dealing with the latent, newsworthy ugliness that the Giuliani “Hide-the-Moolah” story was building all by itself.

He had a panel on discussing the matter—on his terms, which ended up being a sneering “Is this a one day story?” bleat (Hope! Hope!! Hope!), and a huffy “Why does this matter?” (Answer: ”Because I'd rather it didn't—it might hurt Ruuuuuuuu-deeeeeeee!”)

The respondents featured the usual suspects—Salon's Joan Walsh, The Times's Bob Herbert, and one of the GOP's latest models off the pundit assembly line—from the compact, wet-behind-the-ears, dweeb-boy coupe series, one Matthew Continetti.

Matthews closed the painful (for him) discusion with those pundits and it ended on this bitchy note by Continetti:

CONTINETTI: ...She won‘t say which executive made this threat to her. She won‘t say what‘s on those tapes, if these tapes really exist. On the other hand, it gives you a preview of what a Giuliani presidency may be like, because all of these characters are going to come out of the New York woodwork if he‘s president and it will be the soap opera that was New York while he was mayor, except transferred onto a national stage.

MATTHEWS: You mean he‘s consorting with the wrong types.

CONTINETTI: Well, those are the types that live in New York. Only in New York.

MATTHEWS: Come on.

WALSH: I grew up in New York. I‘m not going to let you do that.

MATTHEWS: You don‘t have to hang out with Bernie Kerik and Judith Regan.

WALSH: I didn‘t hang out with Bernie Kerik growing up. There are a lot of good New Yorkers, Matt. Come on.

HERBERT: Those are the types that consorted with Rudy Giuliani.

WALSH: I‘ll give you that.

Now, it's pretty clear what Continetti was trying to do there from the think-tank/hothouse perch he sits on in his crisp, little “John-John” suit. It was a bit of the “Villager” mentality leaping forth reflexively, where the natural defense mechanism is to whomp anyone from those 400 miles up I-95 as an out-of-the-mainstream crazy . He and many of his “Born-or-Bred-in -the-Beltway” types have a bit of an aversion to those pushy, honking Noo-Yawkahs big-footing around the ol' cherry blossoms down there. But the little wingnut “Waldo” look-alike did prompt a bit of a discussion on the show as it ended, and got me to thinking about that whole idea of “the New York woodwork”—“those types that live in New York”, and just how a bunch like Rudy Giuliani, Bernie Kerik and Judith Regan managed to come to power and then congeal as a “crew”—like some mid-lifed, ersatz “St. Elmo's Fire” clique.

It's a legitimate issue to consider...because as a lifelong New Yorker, of a certain age and “experience”—thinking about the ascension of a slime-coated local like Rudy, and by extension, his equally creepy peeps, is a chance to take a hard, clear look at how we got here—with this totally compromised troika of New Yorkers dominating so much of the political stage thanks to their back room low-jinks and chicanery. They are hardly the people we locals want starring in an “I Love New York” tourism ad. Proof of that lay in Rudy's polling in his own backyard as of today against a Republican opponent living 3000 miles away. Arizona Senator John McCain's kicks his veneers back into his gullet by 15 points.

Yet, here Rudy stands. Albeit round-heeled, wading into the swamps, beaches and velour mouse-ears of Florida. A corner-backed rat who's going to hiss and scratch til the rake finally comes down on his neck there or maybe a touch beyond. By the numbers, he shouldn't be a factor. But somehow he retains his propper-uppers and patrons—spinners and shills. People shrilly claiming “He hasn't been beaten yet!” A factor somehow still. Dragging Kerik and Regan along with him and the caca-stained mattress they share. Improbably...reppin' hard for the town in every slimy, barrel-bottomed way imaginable.

“How did we get here?” How did they manage to become our ugly, national ambassadors? Are they really...New York?

In a sad way...yes.

But there's a reason for it, and to understand that reason, a little bit of history is in order.

The New York of today is in no way related to the New York of a mere thirty years ago. The city today is a shimmering hologram of a place—candy-colored, sleek and buffed—hardly the sweet/savory stew of a town it was in the 70's. That New York was an amazing place. Brusque, bold, and bawdy. Bright, bewitching, and beautiful. It pulsed, no—it throbbed where it now whooshes. A crazyquilt mix of high and low and rich and poor that now seems quaint since the post-80's re-stratification of the populace. It was NOT all good. But God help me, the good of then would be the phenomenal of now. It was the beginning of the end of the era of Noblesse Oblige—where the old-school wealthy in the city felt obligated to give back in ways that actually helped out everyone. You had The Fresh Air Fund established for inner-city kids to go to summer camps featuring grass and trees instead of glass-flecked asphalt and lampposts. Local-bred athletes like the late tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis gave local children free tennis lessons for weeks at a time in city parks every year. Picked up a nice chopping forehand from him, I did. You had a spot called “The Box” on West 48th Street—a black walled, free music space in the heart of the musical instrument district where you could walk in off the street and catch Jaco Pastorius, a Kenny Burrell or Anthony Jackson, or if you really got lucky, a Miles Davis jamming—for no charge.

It was also the Disco era—where Black folks, White folks, Latin folks and anyone else who could halfway hit the two and the four could shake their asses together at the big clubs in town—54, Xenon, The Loft and The Red Parrot to name just a few. And a lot of the rich and connected found themselves shaking ass right next to the much-less rich, but effortlessly hip at places like these. Ultimately by osmosis, hip and cool became the coin of the realm. Damn near everybody had it. My man Ray G. who sold cheap-ass shoes at the old Flagg Brothers store on Jamaica Avenue was a Goddamned star at trendy Xenon when he strolled in sporting his black Quiana shirt and seamless french-cut bells from Benhil. He danced a wicked Latin Hustle with our crew, and with the women who rolled up in the tint-windowed Fleetwoods, swaddled in furs and reeking of old and sometimes ancient money. We partied with them...and everybody hung because they were cool. Cool with who they were, to be precise—a silky debutante from West End Avenue, a Latin dude from St. Albans who sold cheap shoes 'round the way, but was savvy and sharp and quick on his feet, or with a smile and a quip...or even an underage high-school kid from Hollis who could dance a little, and whose teacher knew a bartender there and somehow got him past the velvet rope.

It was a time and a place where it was fabulous and shady and so wonderfully unpredictable that sometimes it felt like your heart would just explode with anticipation while standing still on line to get in.

All you had to do to enjoy it was to simply be yourself and let go of all the silly shit. You worked or went to school all day, and then on the nights and weekends, you released and sampled the varied earthly delights laid out before you. It was a carnal, sensual place, with a million things to light your nerves as if they were fuses, and we reveled in every little “explosion” we could set off.

Well...not all of us, exactly. You see, there were those for whom “Fun City” was anything but. The ones who couldn't find “the two and the four” if you spotted them the one and the fucking three. An entire secondary culture of folks who were simply uncomfortable in their own skins and thanks to that, didn't get those “Fun City” outlets for release. They shook their heads ruefully at you on the trains on Saturday morning—you coming home from a night out and a diner breakfast in your sweat-loosened best gear, and they themselves headed into town to exchange those five pairs of Gold Toe socks, because horrors!—they got them home and realized they were more charcoal gray than heather gray. They didn't like seeing my boy Ray G. squinting in the blazing morning sun as he made his way down spoiled Jillian's steps on West End Avenue. “Fuck! That scone thing I just had was pretty good!”, he mused as he looked back at Jillian's steps—and laughed, “Ha!”, about the tasty orange juice she squeezed from the gleaming Oster juicer in that sun-dappled kitchen so Goddamned big that it echoed.

He “Ha!”-ed again as he went down the street, past “The Uncomfortables” who glared at him as they trundled on to doctor's visits or to trains to see elderly aunts and uncles just beyond the bridges and tunnels.

“The Uncomfortables”. They didn't like all that citified mingling and class-mixing. These were the boomers born from the late forties to the late fifties who hailed from insular little “Bunker-lands” all over town and it's outskirts, but didn't dig on the frenetic, big-city fun like some of their contemporaries who hung tough in town did. No, these were the folks who absorbed every slur, every stereotype and trope mom and dad would angrily spit at the TV during those sense-offending episodes of “I-Spy!” or “The Mod Squad”. These were the kids who didn't understand Woodstock because mom and dad had firmly inculcated in them that oh-so-sensible mantra “Who wants to get grass and mud stains on your new chinos from Alexanders anyway?” Giuliani, born in '44, Kerik in '55, and Regan in '53 are of that stock—Giuliani, a socially-malaldroit, outer borough dweeb reviled even by the local kids, Kerik, a bridge-and-tunneler of sketchy upbringing who just wanted out, and lastly Regan, another bridge-and-tunneler who never “got” the city and avoided it her entire adolescent and young adult life.

All three of 'em were in their twenties and early thirties during these halcyon days (and nights) of fun and expression in NYC. Most other folks their age were sipping the bacchanal wine and supping at the vibrant smorgasbord of city life. But not this un-merry band of outsiders. They didn't get it, they couldn't get it, and thus—didn't want it.

And the “not wanting it” didn't just go for themselves...but years later it was manifested in their mass bartending of frosty, cold hater-ade—for everybody.

So, they wonked around in their early jobs, immersing themselves as they didn't seem to have a lot of friends in general, and of course, even fewer with any semblance of that easy-in-one-own's-skin “cool”. Their crowd, what there was of it—didn't club, or for that matter even lightly sample the town's other, non-debaucherous charms. They played it safe—settling down as best they could with whoever they could, because misery doesn't just love love company—it thirsts for it.

And then...a miracle happened. For them that is. The 80's happened, to be precise. There was that sudden glut of easy money for little doings as ushered in by the patron saint of skating by—Ronald Wilson Reagan. Suddenly, that downpour of dough hit folks who weren't Astors and Vanderbilts by birth, but now aspired to be via superficial trappings. It was the age of Boesky, big, padded shoulders, and Bret Easton Ellis—whose “American Psycho” was misread as a cool book about a misunderstood guy by the boys and girls its characters mirrored, instead of as the scathing indictment of the viral amorality and nouveau-riche greed gone mad from the Battery to the “barrier” at 110th and Central Park South.

Oh, it went topsy-turvy and the outcasts looked on with glee, because they knew...Goddamn, how they knew, just what was coming.

Dropping like flies were the patrician Lindsey-ites—well-meaning but oftentimes muddled in the minutiae of governance in a difficult city. CUNY, the City University System went from free to fee-ed as a “fuck them, it's about me” vibe rippled through every aspect of what once made the city a more sharing, caring place to live. And as soon as the admission-eligible citizens became majority minoritymean...was in. The once-mighty, benevolent old-money powers would age out, and their heirs—what few there were—just didn't hold the same opinion of good, ol' “Noblesse Oblige”. They simply lived off grandmama's and grandpapa's stiill-considerable money and abdicated their thrones of altruism. It created a vacuum, and into it stepped the new-money outsiders. No more giving away of libraries and railroad terminals and the like. Now it was mints on every overpriced hotel pillow as some sort of twisted “charity” from the symbols of the city's new, ascendant, ugly power-elite—“The Queen of Mean”, hotelier Leona Helmsley. And right next to her, squeezed out in the same time-frame, her squalling, fraternal twin in gleeful, ostentatious bastardry, one Donald Trump.

Oh yes...wasn't that a time. Self-centered meanness swept the country like a consumptive, gas-sprayed wildfire. Who shot that scoundrel J.R. Ewing? It was now cool to care about an unrepentant, evil creep. The new paradigm was that we didn't want him gone. America wanted to see him BACK and wanted to continue reveling in watching him do people dirty. But the truth is that the New York distillation of the new, raging “mean” was a rare and potent bottling indeed—hard to the taste, and dry to the mouth. And it's giddy, newly-monied vintners stomped out huge vats of it—while also drinking it up and staggering about, acting the fool towards all they came across— from then until now. It was merely one of the most destructive power-benders ever seen in this country.

When the angry graffitti and its matching cry went up from many folks—“Die Yuppie Scum!”, it wasn't just about the class warfare issue those it was directed at simplified it into. It was a desperate yelp against a thuggish coarsening of relations in the city. All of that “money for nothing, and the chicks for free” affected its beneficiaries badly. Where once the old high and low co-existed somewhat, the new breed with their new money and status walled themselves off in an attempt to define a new class structure—a new high and low where the two would never meet. A new New York that would harken back to a “classic” version of the city seen through a distorted lens of nostalgia.

The lust was for the neat, and perfect New York of “The Thin Man”, and Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies—of luxé and the tux. Toney digs, exclusive parties, and throwback cocktails—and of course, a good cigar. The problem was, this crowd didn't want to ever inadvertently stumble across any examples of that annoying, real, old New York.

What to do? What to do?

Say hello to “The Outsiders”.

The enforcers—the thug-wonks who toiled quietly for years behind the scenes in the city's bureaucracy and on the periphery of the cultural landscape—the city's new shapers turned to these people who as noted, viscerally hated the live-wire New York that they didn't understand, to bring the place to heel.

Hard-core prosecutors like Rudy.

Head-busting cops like Bernie.

And on the cultural front, gatekeepers like the Reagan-worshipping Regan.

But these “Outsiders” had a personal agenda of their own, too. You see, where their yuppie enablers misread Ellis's “American Psycho” into seeing its protagonist as a conflicted hero, The “Outsiders” picked up on a different book—Robert Caro's The Power Broker. That book detailed the malevolent application of bureaucratic power (over a span of 40 years!) by New York's “Master Builder” Robert Moses, and his “my way or the highway” (pun unintentional) style in dealing with the most vulnerable and powerless of the populace. The “Outsiders” misread—or perhaps more likely, selectively read the book's indictment of Moses' ways as an administrative “how-to” primer on getting things done. Moses (Robert) was the great paterfamilia figure of governmental ruthlessness, exhibiting the same sneering disdain for those he didn't and didn't want to understand.

Get along. Get out. Fuck your feelings. Fuck protocol. IT'S OUR TIME!

And payback would be a bitch. The “Outsiders” would exact revenge, hyper-criminalizing everything. “Annoying” squeegee-man were jailed, protests against mayoral policy were effectively banned at City Hall, and street-vendors may as well have been knife-chucking assassins. But most telling were those nightclubs—those discos that The “Outsiders” could never fathom and thus hated, many of those places were not surprisingly legislated right out of existence. The vehicle for the smackdown? Merely the little-enforced noise abatement laws now-perfect for smiting those loud, raucous reminders of that painful time on the outs.

Giuliani was the vanguard of the number-crunching, fine-print scanning evil wonks bent on scorched-earthing all that was, and his enforcers on this were the likely suspects—his police commissioners, Howie Safir and Berniie Kerik—respectability-aspiring, blue-collar hammers for “the man”. But what sealed The “Outsiders” new lock on power was one, last, fatal spasming of the old guard's power—the election on New York's first, and only Black mayor David Dinkins. His election over Giuliani so polarized the city, and infuriated those outer-borough Bunker-lands (Staten Island, NY's whitest borough in fact enacted secession procedures from New York proper not long after Dinkins election) into hard political action against the old guard. Dinkins would have no second term, as Giuliani sniped, bitched, needled, and flung scat from the sidelines during Dinkins' entire term—with help from his new breed patrons on the media side, and swept into power on a pounding fist and a constant, yapping bark.

We've documented here more than once what “Giuliani Time” was like for those who didn't look like him or for those who wanted a basic modicum of fairness. But what also happened was a celebration of that evil dismissiveness of compassion. Fellow bitter outsiders were absorbed into the power circle now and got “the hook-ups”, finding themselves being plugged into the sparking outlets of power by their titular leader Rudy. It was now their party, “and you could fucking cry if you wanted to”—they didn't care. Lame as they were, they gamely play-acted their own stilted versions of Whit Stillman's party-fied New York. (And that's really saying something—playing stilted versions of Whit Stillman melodramas.)

But now that they had the “house to themselves for the weekend”—who to party with?

Certainly not the old money crowd they'd recently deposed. Aside from themselves, who else was there to clink glasses with over the glorious coup d'etat?

Why, merely the city's darker, below-the-radar forces for ill-gotten gain that the old guard had barely managed to keep at arm's distance. Their fellow Outsiders. REAL outcasts. That would show the elite! Thus we wound up with curious scenarios like the police commissioner consorting with gangsters, the Mayor jetting about on casino bosses Gulfstream jets, and book-cooking to hide the squiring of his latest “Goumada”. And you then see a patient cultural player like Regan, storm to the fore thanks to her shrewd, and crazed true-believer-ish promotion of the practitioners and pundits of the new cruelty. With that, the clique was complete. Dangerous demagogues, their P.R. people, and the scandalous, head-cracking rough fringe embraced to spite the patrician past and to stoke the the heady thrill of the dangerous. The long-belated “partying” they craved was on—and having no context for it, and waiting so late in life to “celebrate”—if you will, they went too Goddamned far.

Like kids denied sugar their entire lives and then left in a candy store over a weekend, they lost their minds—Giuliani worst of all, with his odd predilection for attention-getting via kooky dress-up, the ramping up of his Queegish paranoia and temper over anything that displeased him, and of course, his vain, personal excesses. A nonsensical, roundly-panned “Bunker In The Sky” that was little more than a government-subsidized fuck-pad and a bastardly, macho exhibitionism at the expense of family and personal reputation, just to name a couple of them.

Kerik bogarted about town as Rudy's “wingman”, covering for his peccadilloes, and racking up his own share while swaggering in bullet-headed glory as a brass-knuckled thug-cum-copper. Nabbed tables at Rao's next to the silver-haired “Dons” as if he was a connected fellow “operator”—instead of tossing 'em in the clink as his job denoted. Chickies, chickies, Chickies on the side. Pulled some strings and got a city jail named after himself—a fairly hubris-filled move for a still-living cop with so many other names to choose from of “killed in the line of duty” fellow officers, but hey...to da victah goes da spoilz..

Regan, the ultimate “Outsider” didn't even live in the city's Five Boroughs. She grew up off Exit 42 on the Southern State Parkway in Long Island, went from there to Poughkeepsie's Vassar College and didn't even come back to town until the mid-eighties—after a reporting job at The National Enquirer (!) in Boca Raton. Upon her return to NYC, she bulled her way into the city's china shop of a publishing industry—eschewing all the trappings of propriety and decorum therein. She injected a froth-mouthed WWE style into what was prestige-level publishing, raging at critics and hoarsely carny-barking to promote her freak-show line-up of tomes—like Jenna Jameson's cheesey How To Make Love Like A Porn Star, The Surrender, which dealt with the sexually explicit tales of a former Balanchine dancer ('In which she relates giving anal sex to two boyfriends. It’s a tract about her tract. “I wasn’t going to mention the anal thing,” said Bentley, “but Judith got very excited about it and insisted.”), the ugly, “fictional biography” of Mickey Mantle, and of finally, the camel's back -snapping O.J. tome “If I Did It”. She was a proud, unabashed jerk with no compunction about showing off her retrograde politics while clumsily stomping about the city she acted as if she owned—just like her co-horts in creepiness Giuliani and Kerik. So no one should be surprised that this terrible troika representing government, law, and culture would somehow find themselves linked together like a set of cheap magician's rings.

Rudy's campaign Mayoral manager was Roger Ailes, who would eventually run Fox News for Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch would hire Judith Regan at Fox holding Harper Collins. Rudy hires Bernie Kerik who chased ass with him and would then literally grab ass with Judith Regan at his own little 9-11 fuck-pad.

All three of these magnificent, malevolent “Outsiders” were ascendant immediately after the fall of the Twin Towers, their little boats lifted on the sea of stupid that overwhelmed America at the time. Rudy was hefted to “Man Of The Year” status and a prohibitive presidential favorite. His buddy Kerik was pushed by Rudy as “America's Cop” and very nearly the country's Homeland Security Chief. And the fabulous nutbar Regan would begin expanding her entertainment tentacles into a mini-television production empire.

This was their peak. It would never get better than this.

But it most certainly would get worse. Bernard Kerik presently sits under indictment and eventual trial for everything but eating a man's still-beating heart. They even took his name off the city jail. Judith Regan magnificently imploded her career with racist slurs and a jaw-droppingly stupid book, managing to be too batshit to work for Rupert Murdoch(!) and then capped the self-immolation by threatening to cripple Murdoch's precious network with a nasty, vengeful twist. And now, even she's been paid off to protect what little bit remains.

The last of the NYC Woodwork-spawned, BMOC/”Outsiders”.


Who as every day goes by sees his last chance, the Florida primary and pretty much his entire campaign seeping back into that rotten “woodwork.”

Drowning in the polls and worst of all, forced to cadge work from staffers the millionaire candidate can no longer afford to pay.

How ironic that the big-willie “Outsider” from within New York is now about to close the door on the brief era of his sort's dominance, while actual Outsiders, some would call “carpetbaggers” representing New York—Boston-born Mike Bloomberg, the city's Mayor, and the State's Senator, via D.C./Arkansas/Illinois, Hillary Clinton stand infinitely better chances today of being considered for President than Rudy.

The old town ain't what she used to be.

And somewhere in the city an old school DJ digs deep in the crates at home. His old club is long gone—thanks to Rudy. He flips a record onto the turntable and hits the start button. The bass kicks in loud. Horns. The guitars. Folks used to “hustle” to this jam.

I talked to my friend again today...
This is what he had to say,
You’re going up in smoke,
going up in smoke,
going up in smoke.
And we ain’t got no hope,
we’re going up in smoke

Lights up a ciggy and the smoke curlicues as he taps his foot to the beat. A neighbor pounds the wall.


He turns the music down a bit. 'Cause the days of “The Hustle” are done.

The days of the New York Hustle...are done, baby.

Somebody tell Rudy.