Monday, December 29, 2014

New Year's with the Generalissimo: on the rocks, with a twist

     (dec. 30, 2012) Harris called me "flat ass." I took it as a compliment, even though it was intended as a playful insult. I was glad he didn't flirt with me. I wanted a father figure, and that's what he became.
    He was also a mystery. What, exactly, did he do in our office, anyway? He strode around in full military regalia, covered with ribbons and medals.What was up with that? Our young staff  regarded this middle-aged black man as a lovable, blustery eccentric who lived in a dream world. On New Year's Eve, I would discover just how neurotically grandiose he apparently was. And when he died, I would finally learn the real truth.
    I was drawn to Harris the moment I met him. He looked at me with warm, knowing amusement and a gap-toothed smile. Today, that might unsettle me -- what is so amusing? -- but at the time, I liked it. Before long, he nicknamed me "Slim." I liked that, too. 
    Did he know that Bogart did the same thing with Bacall in "To Have and Have Not"? I didn't see the film until about 20 years later, but Harris and I developed a quick-witted, saucily combative bantering style that was not unlike that of the golden-era Hollywood couple.

    Harris had the greatest posture -- providing a vast, in-your-face chest on which to display all those military honors. He had a shaved head, which intrigued me. Why would anyone do that? It was so brash, so bold, so defiant -- or so it seemed, way back in the 1970s.  It was a sort of "screw you" gesture -- the kind of gesture I appreciated, and still do. 
    Harris also had a deep, rich, cigarette-ravaged voice. I was a connoisseur of voices. To me, the only thing more attractive in a man than a resonant, sternum-thrumming voice was integrity. 
    Actually, I guess Power fit in there someplace as well.
   I was no fan of the military, although I am embarrassed to admit that a uniform used to give me a bit of a tingle. 
Is anyone else feeling a tingle? Can't they just dress up but forget about the war part?
     But what made Harris compelling to me was his intelligence -- and his piercing way of getting to the heart of who you were. He somehow eased me into opening up to him completely. Only one person in New York knew me better -- my best friend, Loretta Plotkin May. 

    He gave off  a wonderful Big Daddy vibe. Most of us had recently graduated from college and left home to conquer the "greatest city on Earth," and his manly presence was palpably reassuring, even though it was unclear whether he ever did any work, or why such a proud and cocky man would tolerate a boss young enough to be his son.
    There was much speculation about him. Who was he? No one could figure out how or when he wound up in our prison-reform agency. Well, at least he was black. The vast majority of our clientele was black, so it would have been quite unseemly, I thought, for our staff not to have even one African-American on it. 
His defenseless head cried out to be kissed, but we all resisted.
     Some people surmised that Harris's uniform was basically a "costume" that he'd cobbled together to make himself seem important. There were whispered implications that he had suffered brutal, emasculating racial attacks in his youth, and that he was now quite delusional as he attempted to repress this past and fabricate a "character" he could inhabit. He did strut around a lot, but it did my heart good just to see him passing by.

    I kept vowing to get to the truth, but whenever I was with him, he effortlessly commandeered the agenda, and I inevitably walked away with nothing. I did learn that he was divorced, and that his new wife, who was also in her mid-forties, was a lawyer.
    On sunny days, he and I went for brisk walks instead of going with the others to Chinatown or Little Italy for lunch. I loved this part of New York, a shining, open district, where the beautiful old court buildings presided, and Gracie Mansion, and all the staid municipal buildings in which dedicated federal, state and city employees worked were arrayed. 
Gracie Mansion, the mayor's residence, was a few blocks from our office.
    I guess most people would say we were bureaucrats, but I was proud of the bureaucracies for which I worked and with whom I collaborated during my years in New York. We were all there to do the right thing, to make things better and more fair. 

    I remember the noontime walks as sparkly and breezy, with rustling trees and flowering shrubs.
    Everywhere we went, men called out to Harris, "Good to see you, General," and, "Where the hell have you been, General....aren't we overdue for poker?"
I loved this "bureaucratic" part of New York much more than the commercial districts.
    "You trying to avoid me, General?" a tall, gallant man demanded one spring day. It was a hero of mine, Federal District Judge Morris Lasker, who died one year ago this month. Within six months, he would take me to lunch -- and within a year, I would be testifying in his court on behalf of prison inmates -- but right now, he was pressing Harris to make good on a bet, and buy him a double shot of Johnny Walker Red.
    "What about after work, you old crybaby -- I mean 'Your Honor'," Harris laughed, "as long as I can bring this young lady along." 
    I was thrilled: Two father figures, plus my new best friend, alcohol (and my old best friend, cigarettes). It was overkill, but I could handle it.

    It was that night that Harris and I became drinking buddies. It wasn't because we liked each other more than anyone else in town that we spent so many evenings tossing 'em back together. It was our urgent hunger for booze and more booze that made us comrades. 
This was our life, and what a beautiful life it was.
    We still observed the societal taboo against drinking alone, since that was a "clear warning sign" that you were an alcoholic (scary!), so we had to find someone to be with after work. It's embarrassing to "meet for drinks" (the all-purpose thing to do back then) with normal social drinkers. They have one or two, and that's plenty. I would -- seriously -- have, like, four doubles, and then go home for some more. Or I'd bring some in my purse, and go chug it in the restroom.
    Harris and I kept it coming, and whatever shame or foreboding we felt about the implications of this addiction we kept to ourselves. It was like an unspoken secret.

    Harris was always a complete gentleman -- honorable and chivalrous -- no matter how much he'd had to drink. He never even complimented my appearance, or made the almost-inevitable "if only I were single" remark. He never touched me, although he allowed me to take his arm a couple of times on our walks when the sidewalks were icy.
    I can't imagine how I could have elicited virtually nothing about his life in all our many hours together. I "interviewed" everybody I met back then, and I usually got answers. 
    When he asked me to spend New Year's Eve with him, I was reluctant. I hate New Year's Eve. Plus: what about his wife?
    "I told her I was going to ask you," he reassured me. "She's spending the holidays in Atlanta with her family. If it would make you feel better, why don't you come by and meet her? She knows you're like a daughter to me."
    I wore a midnight-blue velvet tuxedo and tiny, gorgeous earrings of (fake) sapphire and diamond. 
     Even I thought I looked good, and that almost never happened.
    The plan was to attend a dinner party on the East Side and then head for an illegal after-hours club in Harlem, where a beautiful young blues singer was creating a stir.

    The soiree was at the festively decorated, vast Park Avenue apartment of a lawyer who was a partner in one of the country's most venerable old firms. Harris looked quite imposing in his dress-blue uniform.
    It was a disaster from the moment we walked in.
    Everybody there was white, and it seemed obvious that Harris was the "token" black invitee -- a role I'd been told he was often called upon to fill (like in our office)  -- but no one expected him to show up with a white girl. The women -- all of whom were at least fifty years old -- seemed scandalized. They looked at me with open distaste and hostility. En masse, they turned their backs and walked away.
    I was shocked. I had never experienced such rudeness before, or such unvarnished rejection.
    Their husbands, on the other hand, were interested, as men often are, in high-class whores. One of them actually swept my hair back, pulled my chin up, and said, "Nice earrings." It was only out of deference to Harris that I didn't kick him in the balls.
    "You always were a man who appreciated the finer things," another said, with a barely concealed leer.
    "I'm outta here, Harris," I said, turning to leave.
    "Don't go, please," he whispered. "It will be OK."
Screw those stupid, arrogant white people! They make me sick.
    "I'm sorry, man -- it's not OK with me," I retorted, storming out and slamming the door. I took a swig out of my "flask" -- a vitamin B-complex bottle -- and decided to walk home. I had done a lot of booze-fueled striding in New York, and it was always exhilarating.
    But Harris came after me.

    "Let's get drunk," he said.
    We had never used that term before. It seemed oddly intimate, as if a barrier had just been breached. I defused the moment by punching Harris in the shoulder.
    "Actually, I got started while I was getting dressed," I laughed.
    "So did I," he replied.
    We went to my neighborhood bar -- my very own "Cheers" -- up near Columbia, and sat across from each other in a dark, cozy booth. 
    Harris did get quite drunk. As much alcohol as he and I had consumed together, I had never seen it affect his behavior. Maybe it was because of what had just happened to us that he was more susceptible than usual to its effects. 
    He ranted. He was hot and bothered. He was very un-Harris-like.
    "If they knew what I had been through to protect their lily-white lives, they'd show some respect," he muttered. 
    It was totally un-Harris-like to mention race.
    For the next couple of hours, in a jumbled blur of locales, images, and eras of human history, he talked about his military heroics -- beginning at age 18 -- the 10,000 men who were eventually under his command, the infamous battles, beaches and bombing raids. Getting shot. Getting shot again.
    "When I was a prisoner of war, I never gave up one shred of intel to the Germans," he said. I listened, in a bourbon-tinged daze, to one tale of derring-do after another. "In Korea, I captured hundreds of Chinese, without causing even one injury."
Chinese being captured. No one injured.
    He went on and on about psychological warfare, and being an "attache" at two embassies, and being summoned back into service in Lebanon and Berlin and Tel Aviv, and flying our troops to Africa. What were we even doing there, back then? I didn't understand any of it. He must have been in bizarro world.
    Harris was making a case -- enumerating the reasons he was worthy of respect --  not even looking at me. The stuff poured out as if it had been pent up for decades. I assumed that he had been fabricating it in his mind for decades. He said he was with the legendary black Tuskegee Airmen. Wasn't that in, like, ancient times? Or not ancient, since there were planes involved, but I thought of those famously fearless guys as being from some long-lost, sepia-toned era.

    He'd been awarded three major medals for bravery, he said. He was the nation's first black two-star general. He had flown more than 10,000 hours in the defense of American interests.
    When I thought he was finally running out of steam, he launched into his supposed victories as a journalist. He had written books, and worked for radio and major newspapers. He was the first black reporter for a TV network in Vietnam. He had worked for NBC and CBS, he said, and for Time and Life and Newsweek. He had pretty much covered every major antiwar and civil rights event during the second half of the 20th century. He hung out with Malcolm X.
   This was all getting a bit weird for me. This person didn't seem to be my cynical, no-nonsense pal. He was sounding totally deranged.
    Suddenly, the usual Harris resurfaced. 
    "Shit, it's almost 11:30 -- we've got to get back across town," he said. "I'm meeting Henry for a cocktail at midnight."
   "Who's Henry?" I asked.
Henry Grunwald was a major force in magazine journalism.
    "Henry Anatole Grunwald, a magazine guy," Harris said.

    I knew very well who Grunwald was. He had been managing editor at Time for years and would eventually become editor in chief of all of Time's magazines. I had met him at a party thrown by writer Martha Duffy last year. (Nan and Gay Talese were there. Jason McManus, the current editor of Time, was there. Aaron Asher, the very charming editor-in-chief at Farrar, Straus and Giroux was there. He later took me to lunch and offered me a book contract. J. Anthony Lukas, who took me to the party, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who committed suicide a few years later.) Mr. Grunwald  was a courtly, charming immigrant from Austria.
    "Let's grab a cab," Harris said.
    This seemed rather dubious to me.
    "We do it every year," Harris said, as we sped toward midtown. "He slips away from his family party and we toss back a jigger of the most expensive bourbon they've got."
    I was dismayed. This was going to be a disaster. I didn't want Harris to be humiliated, but I couldn't believe this was really going to happen.
    We sat in the bar for two hours, and -- of course -- one of the most esteemed gentlemen in American journalism did not dash in to share a toast with Harris. Harris didn't want to leave. He was sure that Grunwald had just been held up, and would be there any minute. 

   When I returned to work the following Monday, there was a telegram on my desk. I had never actually seen a telegram before. It was from Grunwald, who was in Brussels for some reason -- I don't remember what -- and he was sending his effusive apologies to Harris for being unable to meet for their traditional midnight shot of whiskey.
    It was signed, "As ever, Henry," which struck me as funny. 
     If Harris had been at home that afternoon, he would have received the telegram before our fateful evening, but he had spent the day with his two children from his first marriage.
    (Why a telegram? Wasn't that rather quaint? Grunwald was still very much an Old World figure, Harris explained to me later. He used a fine fountain pen, wore an antique pocket watch and carried his cigarettes in a silver case. The rhythms and rituals of his home life were as if he still resided in turn-of-the-century Austria.)
    When I carried the telegram down the hall to Harris's office, he was on the phone. He was reading aloud from notes on a yellow legal pad, as if dictating.  He said, "The condition, once referred to in the DSM as 'stress response syndrome' is now regarded as a trauma-related issue that is lumped together with all 'situational disorders.' It has gotten no official recognition from the Department of Defense, despite its prevalence among returning veterans."
    The Vietnam War had officially ended just months ago. I had no way to know, of course that what Harris was describing would be renamed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder within five years. Nor did I realize that he was calling in a story that would appear in Time magazine several weeks later.

    I don't remember exactly why or how it happened, but Harris and I stopped hanging out together. We still had a fond regard for each other, but it seemed like it was time to pull back, I guess. I got a job with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and then I left the city, but I never forgot Harris. Over the years, I tried to find him online, and in 2004, I finally did. 
    There were obituaries in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Washington Post.  The two most prominent black newspapers in the country, The Amsterdam News and The Chicago Defender -- both of which had published early Harris's work -- also printed tributes.
    The Post had the longest staff-written article about Harris, who had died at age 78 from lung cancer. 
     I was stunned to read that everything he had told me in his drunken monologue -- and much more -- was true.
    It seemed that he had been all over the world, as a command pilot, an attache, a strategic planner, a psy-ops mastermind,  a commander. 
    He had enlisted at the age of 18, and he had indeed been assigned to the Tuskegee Airmen. 

    After his service in World War II, "he was recalled to active duty in the Air Force during the Korean War and served in a Far East psychological warfare unit," according to the Post. "In November 1950, he was with the 1st Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir, a major battle."
"One of the most infamous engagements of the Korean War."
     "From 1951 to 1953, he was assigned to the office of the assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserves in Washington. He subsequently served tours as an assistant air attache at the U.S. embassies in Tel Aviv and Beirut. 
     "He was recalled to active-duty service again for the Lebanon intervention and the Berlin crisis.
    "Among his military decorations were the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit and Purple Heart," the Post reported.
    But if he hadn't retired as a major general until 1985, how could he have been working with our office in 1975? And how could he have made time for all his journalistic coups, which the Post also enumerated? It said he retired from reporting in 1985 as well.
    Before he had even graduated from college, he received a Billboard Magazine dramatic series award for a radio drama, of which he was executive producer.
       "He was a journalist for newspapers, radio, television and magazines for much of the tumultuous second half of the 20th century....he was a domestic and overseas correspondent for Newsweek and Time magazines, a war correspondent for NBC and a staff producer for "The CBS Evening News," the Post continued. "His photograph of Malcolm X with his family one week before his assassination in 1965 is still widely reproduced."
Dr. King's speech was the highlight of the 1963 march on Washington.
      "He covered the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, the 1968 Poor People's Encampment and the widespread unrest in U.S. cities during the 1960s, including the 1968 riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention and racial upheaval in Harlem, Newark and Los Angeles. In 1965 and 1966, while on leave from Time Inc., he was director of public affairs for James Farmer at the Congress of Racial Equality.  He then resumed his coverage for Time of the nation's socioeconomic inequities.
    "He co-wrote 'The Negro Pilgrimage in America,' published by Bantam Books, which he helped to update and expand after its success in 1970. He also was the military essayist in 'African-America: Portrait of a People,' an 800-page black history anthology published in 1994 by Visible Ink Press."
    The obituaries made no mention whatsoever of his work for our New York City prison-reform agency in the 1970s.
    The obits hit me hard. I grieved for Harris's death. I grieved for the fact that he had never let us know him. Why did he keep his achievements a secret, and allow himself to be perceived as a lovable but rather clownish character?
    And how did he manage to show up at our office, day after day, when he was still in the midst of two other demanding and prestigious careers? No wonder he wore his military uniform to the office. I wonder if there was a Clark Kent outfit under that.

    Were we a sort of secret family that he kept on the side, unbeknownst to his "real" family at the Pentagon and in the newsroom? Was he even on our payroll, or did he just insinuate himself into our midst as a lark? What a fantastic, elaborate prank! Just to mess with the minds of some clueless white kids!
    I can hear him laughing -- that raspy, smoky laugh. 
    We never even hugged. God, I wish I could hug you now, you crazy mystery man.  
    You're still very much loved, Harris.