A lot of people back then had nicknames. This was done for legal reasons as much as for vanity. Although at the time I was maybe the third most paranoid person in the city (I even worked at an East Village store called Paranoia, where I was unofficial poster-boy for the cause), I did not have a front name, as some called it, though in high school I’d been dubbed “The Doctor” by my obnoxious English teacher: thus named because five minutes before class was dismissed I’d pack my briefcase (we carried attaché cases, like something Don Draper might possess to go along with his narrow tie, great hair and seductive inscrutability), as though I were on my way to my next surgical procedure.

But in the Village I was clearly not paranoid enough to assume a name. Being at Paranoia brought me into contact with people with a multitude of identities. One afternoon a perfectly nice guy came to the store, started chatting, and when I asked his name he said, “Call me Gandalf,” something I steadfastly refused to do, as he was clearly not Gandalf and the hash he sold me a few days later at a free Clear Light concert at Tompkins Square Park could hardly be considered magical to any degree whatsoever. Too little a Gandalf, too much a Dick.

One rather pretty girl (“chick,” was the word) insisted she was named Tigger, which turned her instantly from a cute possibility into a stuffed animal from an unreadable book. There were the people with outrageous names, such as Joshua Sunflower Jagger Goldberg and those who genuinely had something to hide. “I’m just the Indian,” the Indian of few words who’d come to the city from an unspecified place in the Southwest told me. “Let’s just leave it at that.” There was the Vietnam vet, a former Green Beret who occasionally stopped by to tell me how he’d come whizzing down strung wires in the jungle and silently cut the throats of the enemy. He was hired by Andy Warhol to design the acrobatic elements to Warhol’s Electric Circus nightclub. He told me, “I’m using the same kill technology we used over there. Except this time the people coming down them will be in clown makeup and won’t be armed.”

People came to the Village that summer generally because they were on the run from something: home in the suburbs with its predictable meals, demanding parents and the endless drag of Scarsdale High; some were running from the law, whether state or federal, and reasoned, quite correctly, that they could lose themselves in the crowds of tourists and freaks that peopled the streets then: you could appear as outrageous as you wished and you would look just like the guy to your right and the guy to your left. Even the Oakland Hells Angels showed up (ostensibly, a cop informed me because I was stupid enough to ask, to fight a rival gang in Washington Square Park—the battle never ensued, as the gang from Pennsylvania didn’t make the date), which led to a potential beatdown for me from Hells Angels’ lead wheelman Sonny Barger when I came upon his bike—“hog” was the term—in the middle of a First Avenue sidewalk and, not knowing to whom it belonged, began to admire the big shiny thing, touching the handlebars and such, unaware that Barger was watching this from a nearby doorway through slitty, angry eyes. The point is that Hells Angels didn’t have to assume identities; the colors they wore said it all, and you simply got out of their way as quickly as possible.

The police generally left us alone then. Oh yes, they were there, and it was a sweet beat, I expect, watching the longhaired hippie girls strolling down MacDougal Street and sniffing the air for a contact high now and again as people openly sucked on joints. The FBI was always around, or at least the terror side of me was certain of it: men in suits taking photos, often of me (and why me? I continue to ask), as I walked out of Nedick’s or the Hip Bagel on a Sunday morning. We also had the narcotics agents—the “narcs”—who never bothered to disguise themselves. These were no Serpicos with long hair and the mook walk Pacino managed to carry off in the movie. These were guys with cars and ties and sports jackets who looked like they’d just graduated from a Midwestern university and who’d sit in the Eatery on First Avenue—prime busting territory at any time—and eat their burgers, while we emptied the air from their tires or dropped lit cigarettes in their jacket pockets as we strolled by, high as kites. No, we were all being played by the law back then. They were biding their time, and when the big busts fell hard on our complacency, heroin came downtown, and that, as they say, was that.

I’ve always theorized this seemingly law-free existence was partly due to Abbie Hoffman. The police needed to show the terrified straight public who lived, say, on the Upper East Side or north of the Bronx that they were doing their duty and keeping the thumb of the law down tight on our zonked-out long-haired heads. Word was that someone in the NYPD would give Abbie a call, Abbie would notify the local network news organizations and the potential bustee, the police would storm up the stairs of some 13th Street tenement, Channel 7 camera and reporter racing up after them, and viewers would catch a glimpse of the thing we saw every day: an apartment with a bathtub mounted incongruously in the kitchen, the usual bare mattresses, the strewn laundry, the hungry cat, the overflowing litter box—and no dope. Not a joint or a pill. “Okay, fellas. Place is clean,” and they’d head back down to their cruisers, our Boys in Blue having done their duty.

One night, or should I say one morning around two, I happened to be strolling down Second Avenue when I looked into the window of Ratner’s restaurant hours after closing time to see Abbie Hoffman with a couple of guys in suits sitting around a table and smoking cigars. Abbie liked to play both ends of the system. It brought him to a high polish and always made him look better in the light of day. (He once stepped into the store and asked if I’d trade him a tab of acid—Owsley, ‘natch—for the ice-cream cone he’d just bought.) In other times he would have been a superb PR man. He liked the lights and he served them well.

Enough of the digression. The whole business with names became more confusing when we had two regular customers named Boots. Customers meaning that they didn’t necessarily buy anything, but liked the music we played (in rotation: Revolver, Sergeant Pepper, the first Doors album, Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane, among others) and enjoyed the company we kept there. Though unrelated, the two Boots looked oddly alike. Both were bald and had goatees, and only the tall one, a silent type behind tiny wire-rimmed glasses, who seemed as though he harbored secrets, and not only about himself, wore boots, knee-high and leather, all the time that hot summer. He was known as Boston Boots, while I came to know the shorter one a lot better. I won’t use his real name here (because I’m certain it never was his real name, and if it was, well, I could be dead when you read this), but he was a Mexican whose family had come across to California decades earlier. I’ll call him Pablo. His goatee was, I should mention, more like the beard of Ho Chi Minh, thin and long and more sad than revolutionary, but the comparison would please him even now, all these years later.

Pablo carried with him at all times Mao’s Little Red Book, and knew most of it by heart. He’d been in Bolivia with Che Guevara, and was also a paid-up member of the National Liberation Front (i.e. the Viet Cong). He was a streetfighter (“You have got to learn California foot-fighting, man,” he told me, though I never pursued it, as I would never, even by staring someone down, seem as threatening as Pablo could). Due to a combination of chemicals and naturally-grown psychotropic substances, fact and fiction was often blended to produce a life story that drew upon the three-headed monster of possibility, deeply-held wishes and cold hard facts.

Yet Pablo was a genuinely dangerous man in many ways. He was as pure a revolutionary as I’ve ever known. One evening we went up to Harlem to meet H. Rap Brown, who, for those who don’t know, headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee before becoming Justice Minister for the Black Panthers, afterwards serving five years in Attica for robbery. He is currently serving a life sentence for murder. He was, and I assume still is, one tough motherfucker. We met him, I recall, just outside the Apollo Theatre, where he’d given a speech. I had presumed Pablo and I were the only apparent white people there, but when Rap came out and addressed our little group, he made it very clear that I was Whitey and Pablo was not, which of course he wasn’t. There was nothing about Pablo—save for his pale skin—which said he was anything but a revolutionary, and Rap recognized it at once. It governed Pablo’s behavior twenty-four seven, even when he first introduced me to the addictive delights of methamphetamine crystal, to which I quickly became hooked. If you were up all night, he felt, one could plan a revolution while the ruling classes slept. Barricades could be erected, firearms stolen from the U.S. Army Reserve (not a hypothetical; Pablo actually was involved in an arms deal involving an insider who was smuggling guns out of the base), Molotov cocktails concocted. If you were up all night you could draw up plans, plot an overthrow, organize the resistance.

Use speed long enough and you can sleep after taking it, just as an alcoholic will drink until sobriety (or, returning to Don Draper, present a brilliant advertising campaign after three lunchtime martinis and a nap with a secretary). You can mix it with opium and have a nice long waking dream that, trust me, moves very, very fast. I discovered as an English major that I could write things while on it that, in morning’s bright light, made absolutely no sense whatsoever to any human being in existence, and any music I practiced and taped while speeding always sounded brilliant and breathtakingly spectacular, until I played it back the next day only to realize that I was producing hours of sheer unmusical garbage while I worked my steady way through three packs of Camels and drank liters of Coca-Cola. This was no way to plot the coming revolution, comrades.

On Saturday evenings various political groups would set up little tables on the east side of Sixth Avenue. There would be the John Birch Society as well as veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the Americans who’d fought the good fight during the Spanish Civil War. There’d be splinter groups up and down the sidewalk, and it was always crowded, at least one American flag was always burned, and fights would often break out between rival groups, with pamphlets being thrown and fists connecting with jaws. Pablo taught me how to agitate. “What you do, see,”—and I can hear his voice even today, a little Mexican, a little Southern Californian—“is mingle, right? You mingle, you get in with them, and then under your breath you say ‘agitate, agitate, agitate,’ and it works every time, they go nuts, trust me, man, it always works.”

So we’d mingle and say “agitate, agitate” under our breaths, and it was like magic, the very word itself worked on their nervous systems as would muttering “lambchops, French fries, spaghetti Bolognese” as you walked through a crowd of starving refugees. Then we’d go have a cup of coffee with some old Spanish Civil War Veteran with his medals and beret and he’d smile benignly at our revolutionary yammer while remembering that he had actually been in the front line of that good fight and not on Sixth Avenue on a balmy Saturday night.

Using a front name was often a way to save one’s skin. Thus, if you sold someone a bad batch of drugs—bad acid, bad speed, bad anything—and the buyer wanted to find you, simply asking for “Lion Man” or “Zeus” (or even Gandalf) would get you nowhere. “Where the hell is that Zeus, huh? Sonofabitch burned me on this bad dope,” and no one would blink, as Zeus, well, Zeus was a god, right, and he lived in Olympian splendor somewhere in Greece. (I actually knew an aptly-named Zeus, a studious and gigantic English major fifteen times bigger than I was, who, it was said, ran the entire heroin distribution business at my college.) But if I decided to burn someone, they’d have my name, phone number and address, and could hunt me down whenever they liked. It only happened once, and I still owe my old school friend five bucks for the bag of oregano I sold him. At least he knows where to find me.

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J.P. SMITH is a frequent reviewer at The Nervous Breakdown and the author of seven novels. His latest, The Drowning, will be published in January 2019.

8 responses to “The Game of the Name”

  1. D.R. Haney says:

    My God, you write well. I’ve only read one other piece by you — “Keef” — but that piece and this one are evidence enough that you’re one of the best contributors to this site, as if you need me to tell you so.

    Something else you don’t need me to tell you: speed and writing go together like bread and butter. There’s a long tradition of writers hopped up on speed, going back much further than Susan Sontag, who admitted to composing most of her essays during speed-addled sessions that lasted for days without sleep. Caffeine and nicotine are both low-grade forms of speed, of course, and I don’t believe I personally know any writers who don’t make use of least one of the two while working. In fact, I’m now boiling water for coffee, and I should go check the kettle.

  2. Zara Potts says:

    “Too little a Gandalf, too much a dick.”

    This is possibly the best line I’ve ever read. I’m trying to think how I might appropriate it and use it as often as possible, I hope you don’t mind.

    Brilliant.

    I’m in agreement with Duke above. Your writing is fantastic and this piece is no exception.

    • J.P. Smith says:

      Zara, your name is familiar to me, as I’ve undoubtedly–almost certainly–read some of your pieces. Thank you so much for your very kind words about my piece. I do appreciate them.

  3. I’m joining the chorus of Duke and Zara — fabulous post.

    I loved the following:

    People came to the Village that summer generally because they were on the run from something: home in the suburbs with its predictable meals, demanding parents and the endless drag of Scarsdale High; some were running from the law, whether state or federal, and reasoned, quite correctly, that they could lose themselves in the crowds of tourists and freaks that peopled the streets then: you could appear as outrageous as you wished and you would look just like the guy to your right and the guy to your left.

    These words just breathe… really, really fabulous.

  4. mutterhals says:

    “as he was clearly not Gandalf and the hash he sold me a few days later at a free Clear Light concert at Tompkins Square Park could hardly be considered magical to any degree whatsoever.”

    Ha! My nickname means cervix in German, I got it from the book Men, Women & Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    “If you were up all night, he felt, one could plan a revolution while the ruling classes slept.”

    There’s something that’s so funny about this, and yet, probably wouldn’t be if Pablo was in front of me, in the flesh.

    As others have said, good write, JP. Very dense, and well-crafted at the same time.

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