Thursday, June 4, 2015

Model Intentions: I Got Duped, You Got Screwed

I don't have a photo of Punky, but this looks
 very much as she did in 1968 -- sweet and beautiful.
(10/5/12) Dear Punky Fortune:
    I have wondered for so many years how things turned out for you, and even if you’re still alive. Long after I’d moved to New York, I heard that your pimp almost beat you to death. I heard about the heroin. I heard that you’d had two kids before you were 20.
    I think you must know that whatever role I played in what happened to you was unwitting. I hope you realized that I was there with the purest of intentions. Decades later, the betrayal that affected all of us, but which victimized you and your girlfriends in unspeakable ways, still makes me ill. I am so sorry.

    Let me tell you how it happened. It was 1968. The two people who ran the Central City Community Action Center thought it was hilarious that I had dropped in to see how I, an earnest college student, could “help out” with all those “ghetto problems” they were trying to address.
    Mainly, Shirley and Victor teased me relentlessly about my whiteness. I didn’t mind -- I thought it was pretty unappealing myself. For years, I had longed to have some “color” -- some black blood, or Latin or Mediterranean or Middle Eastern, in me. I wanted some of that radiance, spontaneity, richness, street smarts and strong sense of self that people of color seemed to possess.
I was too white for everyone!
    They tried to scare me off by being incredibly vulgar. I was no prude, but they did succeed in shocking me with sexual stuff I’d never heard of. I won't repeat it -- there's no point in scarring anybody else for life. Even so, I stayed in my chair, pretending to be unfazed by their very graphic taunts, hoping they’d see that I was serious, and grudgingly think of some way I could contribute.
In 1968, I was hopelessly Caucasian
and insufferably optimistic.
    When Shirley finally said, “Just go on home -- you ain’t no use to us,” Victor interjected, “Not so fast, Shirl. I think I’ve got a way we can really use this chick.”    
   It was that exciting time when President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society had funded thousands of projects around the country to help the poor, largely minority populations of the inner cities.
President Lyndon Johnson and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
   “What can she do -- she don’t know nothin’!” Shirley jeered. She swallowed one spoonful after another of baking soda for her acid-ravaged stomach.
   “Who ARE you?” she said to me. “Are you rich? Because that’s somethin’ we could work with.”
    As soon as I’d walked in the door, they had mimicked my prim and proper way of speaking, dressing, and sitting, with my legs crossed at the ankles like Jackie O, my “perfect hair” and my ballerina posture.
    “You’re made up like one of them porcelain dolls,” Shirley heckled me.
    They accused me of wanting to use my volunteer work at the Center for my own enlightenment -- “gettin’ down with the ’hood” and “going slumming” --  which admittedly was part of my motivation. I had lived a sheltered, east-side life. I wanted to know some black people. I wanted to know some poor people. I wanted to know all kinds of people! I wanted to be “part of the solution.”
    Victor was masterminding a plan to exploit all that white girlishness they‘d been teasing me about. You remember him, don’t you, Punky? -- a loose, handsome dude with a smooth Afro who was always laughing, except when he was brooding.
  He was a very smart, well-spoken guy, just back from a few years with the Black Panthers in L.A. 
    (He was also well-read, a formidable adversary in an argument about anything, and surprisingly attuned to the "cosmic" aspects of life. Of course, I learned all that much later.)
    All I knew that day was that he had contempt for me, but he was perfectly willing to use me if he could figure out how.
    That was OK with me. I was there to be used.
    As it turned out, his plan wasn’t at all what I’d envisioned. My fantasy was very vague, admittedly, but it involved being in some kind of trenches with my newfound “brothers and sisters,” doing the hard but noble work that turns hopeless neighborhoods into hopeful ones, and that turns chaos into order, with flowerboxes and all that “Miss Whitey bullshit,” as Shirley called it.
    “She can work with the teenage girls,” Victor said. “Teach them grooming, makeup, fashion, poise, posture. She can give ’em some class. They could become models! She can get them ready for the runway.”
    I was dismayed. Wasn’t modeling a rather frivolous undertaking in this community that was wracked with crime, drugs, violence, teen pregnancy, high dropout rates and unemployment? It seemed like something out of a comedy skit to be teaching girls in this environment how to apply eye shadow and to coordinate their ensembles with good taste and flair. 
    I felt like Victor was blowing me off -- getting me out of the way -- by entangling me in some silly little scheme, instead of letting me try to contribute to the important work of neighborhood organizing.
    Plus: I didn’t want to give you young ladies the idea that clothes and makeup were what was important (even though they were to me!) I would rather help you understand that character was important, and that you were beautiful without makeup (even though my character was pretty defective, and I was totally addicted to makeup).
    And Victor was saying that I could teach you and your friends self-esteem, not realizing, perhaps, that I had very little of my own. I think that the reason I was such an overachiever was precisely because I had so little real, fundamental self-esteem that I was constantly seeking affirmation from the outside world.
    Victor and Shirley brought a couple of their colleagues in to get their input about the modeling classes, and even the clergyman was enthusiastic.
    The more they threw the idea around, the more convinced they became that if I put together a series of “seminars,” it might make a real difference in your prospects for a good life. You might come to see yourselves in a new light -- as confident, attractive young ladies -- with new possibilities and aspirations.
    I reluctantly admitted that it made sense.
    “And what would be cool would be doing a fashion show at the end -- sort of like a coming-out party,” Victor said. “We could put up a runway and find us some strutting catwalk music, and it would be a big deal for them and their parents and the whole community.”
    This was the era when “Black Pride” and “Black is Beautiful” were emerging as important, effective slogans, and it was intriguing to think that maybe I could help to advance those concepts.
    I decided to do my best. I didn’t feel qualified to teach any of the classes, but I would find people who were.
    I got the Elizabeth Arden sales rep  and “makeover” artist at ZCMI to agree to handle one session and even bring some free samples.
    I asked David, who’d been cutting my hair since I was in high school, if he would contribute, and he was very enthusiastic. He told me he’d get a friend of his, a black hairdresser in Ogden, to come in as well, since she would have more experience dealing with black people’s hair. 

I'm white, and I'm proud of you.
     The two elderly French owners of the charming Main Street boutique, Adrien 'n Emilie, agreed to provide the clothes. The Jewish brother and sister had fled to America when the Nazis poured into their country. A gorgeous woman who was the manager of their shop, a former high-fashion model from Venezuela named Carmen, said she would love to give you and your friends instruction in the basics of “owning the runway.”
    Victor said he’d arrange for me to meet you and the other girls the following week. My beautiful mother came up with the idea of having all of you over for a Sunday “brunch buffet,” which turned out to be a delightful way to launch our relationship, don‘t you think? 
She was still so pretty, 35 years after she met you.
     The guy who drove the Center’s van delivered you six young ladies at mid-morning.
    Punky, I remember so vividly seeing you for the first time. As you emerged from the van, and the driver introduced you, I thought “Punky Fortune is the absolute cutest name I have ever heard.” And you were one of the very cutest girls I had ever seen.
    At that time, I hadn’t had any exposure to “mixed race” people, although it’s very common now, but I remember that when Americans were learning about Hawaii during the whole statehood debate, we were told that Hawaiians were unusually good-looking people because they had so many races mixed in.
    And you, with your black and Asian blood, were my first face-to-face evidence of what a lovely thing “miscegenation” can be: those huge eyes, full lips, dark skin and long hair…you were stunning to me. And so graceful and sweet.
    You were quite reserved, but your friends made up for it, hugging me the minute they jumped out of the van, running picks through those big Afros, laughing at everything and bursting with energy.
    The hugging part was huge for me. I honestly don’t remember ever having been hugged before. We didn’t hug in my family, and I had never been hugged by a friend of either gender. It just wasn’t part of the culture at that time, although people are hugging constantly these days.
     But to be embraced with such warmth and acceptance by you utterly exquisite, dear girls really moved me, and I have gotten misty-eyed many times since, just thinking about it. I’m afraid I was so surprised by the hugs that I didn’t reciprocate -- I just stood there in shock. I still feel bad about that. I wish I could have another chance to hug you all back.
    Meeting all of you out there as you emerged from the van elicited a sensation I’d never had before: I felt maternal, even though I was only four years older than you 15-year-olds.  I almost immediately thought of you as “my girls,” and I was thrilled at the thought that I might be able to make a difference in your lives.
    I had never been embarrassed to live in a nice house before, but your ecstatic wonderment at every detail of our living space made me feel guilty. Everything about the modern design, the artwork, and having our own bedrooms, and especially the back yard, with all those trees and flowers, made you all swoon.
   I think it was Camille who said, “If this was my house, I’d never leave. I’d just turn up the stereo and lay up in here all day.”
    I apologized for the classical music that my mother was playing, but Camille said, “It’s cool, it’s cool, it’s very cool.”
   As always, my mother had put together a sumptuous spread -- eggs, sausage, hash browns, grits, biscuits, two kinds of pancakes, chocolate waffles and a huge tropical fruit platter.
    You did not behave like the “ghetto girls” who were interviewed on the nightly news! You were all totally polite and upbeat, and my mother fell in love with you, too.
    After we finished, we went over the “modeling lesson plans” I had drafted to see if you had any suggestions.
 I remember that Tanya and Adele mentioned some things I hadn’t thought of, and you brought up the very important idea of doing some role-playing to learn how to apply for work after the training was over. They were all wonderful  improvements. We agreed on a schedule, and I drove you all home. When we dropped Ida off, I was sick. It looked like she was living in an abandoned building. 
    "Her mom is strung out," Punky said.
   The next couple of months were a blast, and it was all because you and your friends were such funny, enthusiastic and creative “students.” We drove all over town in my mom's Oldsmobile station wagon, and two of you always had to lie down in the back compartment for all of us to fit. You never complained -- you just stuck your feet out the back window and said it felt good to wriggle your toes in the breeze.
    We screamed Motown the whole way:
Ain't too proud to beg, sweet darlin'
Please don't leave me now, don't you go
Ain't too proud to plead, baby, baby
Please don't leave me now, don't you go

    When I asked if my open window was bothering anyone, Adele said, "Afros don't blow." That was one of several reasons I wished I could have one -- I was tired of my hair blowing in my face all the time. You all could get out the car looking as perfectly put together as when you got in. I was a tangled mess!
    I was ambivalent about the session on makeup, because I hated to see you kids get into the habit of painting your fresh young faces. It sure was fun, though. Diana, the young woman from Elizabeth Arden, had brought reps with her from two other classy cosmetics firms that had counters at ZCMI, and it totally blew your minds how they could change your “look” with different colors and styles of application.
Makeup really can make a difference!
    Even though nothing they had was made for black skin, the coral and rose blush looked beautiful on you, and the frosted powders and shadows and liners and bronzers and contouring tips kept all of us entranced for hours.
    We even did some real “out there” stuff, with yellow eyeshadow, glitter, and fur lashes. They gave each of you quite a goodie bag to take home. It was like Christmas. You were dancing around the room with joy.
    It was like Christmas yet again when Adrien ’n Emilie opened their boutique especially for us on a Sunday and let you girls take over the store, trying on everything you wanted, including their stunning array of scarves, hats, jewelry and other accessories.
    They were the first shop in the city to carry designer clothes for younger people, rather than the Country Club matrons serviced by a couple of other shops. I remember you all showing off your hipness in “mod” clothes by Evan Picone, Mary Quant and others who were renowned by the “in crowd” in Europe.
    Since Adrien and Emilie were quite elderly and very genteel, I was afraid they might become a bit alarmed as you girls dashed up and down the spiral staircase, your arms filled with stuff to try on, but they seemed to be both charmed and touched by your exuberance. Emilie had her nephew join us with a Polaroid camera, so he could take “fashion shots” of you as you tried on one “groovy” ensemble after another.
    Each of you selected three outfits to wear at the fashion show, and they helped you coordinate them with striking accessories -- the dramatic earrings, scarves tossed casually over the shoulder, rich leather handbags, saucy chapeaus, and boots or shoes.
    I was so glad the following  week when my hairdresser David’s black friend from Ogden brought along another black stylist. Iris and Virginia hauled in a whole range of products designed for use on black hair that none of us in "Whitey-town" had ever seen (more goodie bags!). Their conditioners and styling cremes brought out the softness and shine in your friends’ Afros, and they showed all of you a bunch of beautiful ways to exploit your natural hair, which you so often characterized as raggedy and unmanageable.
I thought "nappiness" was cute.
    None of us had ever seen cornrows before, or dreads, and they showed how to relax “frizzy” or “kinky” or “nappy” hair when a different look was desired, without using harsh chemicals or heat.

    David gave everyone a good trim, and he added some highlights here and there just for fun.

    When Adele insisted that her Afro be cut back to only an inch or so and dyed a rich gold, everyone except for Iris tried to talk her out of it. It turned out to be dazzling, and many years later it would become common for black women to dye their hair blonde.
    The session with Carmen, the Venezuelan former model, was the most challenging. Carmen, who was dark, ravishing, and ultra-skinny, with long shiny auburn hair, had left the world of professional modeling after 10 years of world travel and “too much pressure, too many cigarettes and too much cocaine.”
    She was a good-natured but relentless teacher, pushing you to practice your moves over and over, until you were ready to collapse.
    “Posture, posture!” she cried. “Pick up those knees! Get those hips in gear! Look straight ahead no matter what!”  She insisted that we meet the following week, after you’d had time to practice some more. “We’re not there yet,” she said.
   “Remember: You are proud. You are beautiful. You are FIERCE,” she added. “Stand up like a queen -- chin high, shoulders back. Say with your eyes ‘I am indestructible.’ And OWN that catwalk ladies. Let everyone know by the way you move that you are IT.”
    She exhausted all of us, but I think we all appreciated that she cared so intensely. And after the subsequent session, she pronounced you “ready for prime-time.”
    I was pretty much just the Mama Cat in all these sessions -- the chauffer and the encourager-in-chief. I had very little -- really, nothing -- to contribute.
    I got quite a bit of vicarious pleasure from the various lessons, though. I had never had a “makeover” at a cosmetics counter, and I‘d never used department-store makeup. Mine was the cheapest stuff you could buy, on sale, at the drugstore.
     I had never bothered trying on such expensive clothes as the ones you chose at the boutique, because I knew I’d never buy them.
    And the ironic thing about the hair issue is that I had wanted an Afro for years. Your friends were always stroking my hair, saying how they yearned for tresses that were smooth and shiny -- hair that rippled in the breeze, hair you could “toss” -- which they felt gave white girls a big advantage in the flirtation department (it does come in handy).
    A few years later, after I’d moved to New York, I took the plunge, and got a "permanent wave" that was so tight I hoped to wind up with a nice big Afro.
Be careful what you wish for.
    What a disaster! I couldn’t even get a comb or brush through it. It wasn’t even hair anymore, it was some crazy kind of fur. I had to have it all cut off. Served me right, I guess, for not being grateful for what I had.
    On the night of the big “coming out” fashion show, the scene backstage was just like it is on TV, with all you models, sitting on stools in front of mirrors, being touched up, combed out and perfectly poured into you various ensembles.

    We were nervous, but thrilled that it was really happening.
    Each of you had your three outfits lined up with all the right accessories, and we had practiced quite hilariously the art of stripping out of one ensemble on the way to slipping into the next, as if we were at Fashion Week in New York (except that they were too stupid to use black models -- we were way ahead of the Big City in that regard).
    The music was already blaring away out there in the gym, and Victor had somehow found a big disco ball to hang over the runway. It was sending sparks of colored light around the room.
    There were lots of people already milling around, drinking Kool-Aid and smoking. Some of the kids were doing “The Bump” as tunes by Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, The Temptations, James Brown, Aretha, Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and The Supremes played.
    You once told me you wished more than anything that you could be as pretty as Diana Ross. 
    Punky -- honest to god -- you were way prettier than she. You were ravishing. More importantly, you were a young lady with character and dignity. You were lovable!

    I had hoped to meet your mother that night and tell her so, but she never showed up.
    I was shocked to learn quite awhile after that night that only two parents came, and one of them left with some guy before the show even started. That is so sad. It still makes me sick.
    Finally, it was show time. I was manically chewing one piece of Juicy Fruit after another. I went out into the gym just as the spotlight came on and our DJ from Job Corps took the mike to announce, “Here come the smokin’ ladies of Central City!”  The music blared forth, and the strutting of my darling “glam girls” began.
    I was standing in back. It was hot and claustrophobic in there. It was quite dark, except for the spotlight, and to be honest, I felt kind of uneasy.
    I realized that it wasn’t the kind of crowd I’d expected. I thought it would be a very wholesome community celebration.
    There were a few kids and a few women, but mostly it was dudes, looking up at you -- my dear, bright-eyed teenagers -- as you paraded past, with that saucy, hot-stuff walk you’d practiced so diligently. It looked as if some of them were taking notes.
    My heart was sinking before I even knew why.
    Victor came and stood beside me. He laughed.
    “You did your job,” he said, poking me in the ribs.
    “Those men….” I said. “What is going on here?”
    “What did you expect?” Victor replied. “You know there’s no jobs for black models. Here or anywhere else. Who did you think was going to hire them? You fool! But you groomed ‘em good. They’re ready to be turned out. Before you know it, they‘ll be out on Second West in hotpants, struttin‘ their stuff. And thanks to you, they know how to strut it right.”
    “Turned out” was a phrase I’d actually come across in my Black literature class. It’s used by pimps to describe the process of manipulating a girl into prostitution, usually by using some combination of flattery and fear.
    “Don’t give me that bullshit look of being shocked,” Victor said. “You’re not stupid. You can’t play the innocent card with me. Have you looked around this neighborhood? Have you looked around this fucking COUNTRY? There’s nothing out there for these chicks. Punky’s probably the only one who would even have finished high school. They earn it on their backs, or they go on welfare. So you can go home feelin’ good about yourself -- that was the idea, right? They’ll be working girls. That’s better than the alternative.” 
    “Victor, you know this isn’t what I thought was going to happen…it’s a total betrayal," I said, holding back tears. “They’re just kids!”
   “Maybe this will teach you not to be stickin’ your nose in shit you don’t understand,” he replied harshly. “Just get on out of here, and go back to your Miss Whitey life. Leave us the fuck alone. And don‘t worry about your babies -- they‘ll be so strung out on ‘Big H’ that they won‘t be feelin‘ a thing.”   
    I did get out of there, and I never went back. What I don’t remember, Punky, is why I didn’t do something -- contact the authorities, I’m not sure what. I think I felt so stupid and guilty and embarrassed that I wanted to forget it ever happened. I probably was afraid that anything I did might make matters worse.
    Spring quarter ended, I started a full-time job on campus, working for the University’s provost, and living in the dorms, with my boyfriend just one dorm away. That was convenient. I guess I did go back to my Miss Whitey life.
    What’s ironic is that eventually Victor and I became very good friends. A number of people have found it hard to understand how this could happen. What he did to you and your friends was despicable, and so was involving me. 
    It's important to realize that Victor was a young man who had just come out of a deep immersion in L.A. Black Panther militancy. I respected this group, because I believed that their radicalism was justified, given the brutal racial situation in this country, which our politicians continued to ignore (and still do, as far as I'm concerned).
    Victor had returned to Salt Lake City determined to maintain the cold, harsh tone of Panther dogma, which understandably demonized white people. He believed in it. I never blamed him for the way he treated me.
    The way he treated you girls was another story, of course, and the only explanation I have for how he could brutalize his own people that way is that Panther culture was notoriously sexist. Women were expected to help advance the revolution "on their backs," as one guy put it, and otherwise to get out of the way. Like all political movements, it wasn't perfect, and I'm deeply sorry that you were victimized by one of its major flaws.
    Over time, Victor came to realize how cruel and misguided he had been, and he expressed remorse many times. He became a force for good in our city, and he earned the respect and affection of both the white and black communities.
    Victor and I developed a powerful platonic connection, and I loved him. I still do.
    He mellowed into a very all-embracing guy after getting over his conviction that all white people were evil. We hung out a lot, and he even took me to meet his very warm, gracious mother and chess-genius younger brother, Johnny, in a nice, modest home on 1100 East. 
    I admired his mind so much, and I regarded him as a gifted philosopher (and even a sort of mystic).  He later taught Black literature for awhile at the University of Utah, in addition to his work for the Community Action Program.
    He became the state's first Black Ombudsman.
    After I moved back East, I always saw him on my visits home. We’d go out drinking and dancing, or to Porters and Waiters for some good Southern cooking. He had enrolled in law school, and although his chaotic personal life made it difficult for him to focus, he is so intelligent that he readily grasped the concepts and values of our legal system. He graduated, passed the Bar exam, and established a small practice devoted to assisting the poor.
    I always asked about you, Punky. For a long time, he claimed not to know anything, but he finally did tell me about your being beaten up so badly, about the heroin and about your kids. The last time I asked him if he knew how you were, he said, “She’s fat and fucked up.”
    Then he laughed and said, “Not really -- who knows what’s up with Punky. The Punky you knew is long gone.”
    I'm afraid that the Victor we knew is pretty far gone as well. He is still a striking figure, with a huge silvery Afro and a modest beard, but he is frail. He's been in the hospital several times. As deep and brilliant as he is, he never settled down into a manageable lifestyle, and he never took care of himself. (Victor has now died, seven months after I posted this article. I have appended his obituary below.)
    It's all so sad, Punky. So many beautiful people down the drain. I pretty much went down the drain, too, but mine was a "segregated drain" -- for white girls who never learned to stay in their own neighborhooods and mind their own business.
    So, my darling girl, I guess you’re about 58 years old. Are you out there, are you safe, did things get any better for you?
    I have been haunted by what happened to you and your lovable friends for all these years. I’ve had so many experiences since then that were troubling, challenging, dramatic or painful -- and in which I was sometimes a victim myself  -- but this one really kicked me in the stomach, because I was complicit, however unwittingly, in the victimization of others. The guilt and sadness remain vivid. I’m sure I’ll never get over it. I hope you did.


Victor Marshall Gordon

 Victor Marshall Gordon
1939 ~ 2011
   Victor Marshall Gordon, attorney at law, writer and civil rights activist, passed away Thursday, November 3, 2011. Victor was born in Salt Lake City on February 6, 1939. He received his law degree in 1978 from the University of Utah. Also In 1978, Victor became the Black Ombudsman of Utah.
   Victor was preceded in death by his parents John Marshall Gordon and Oma Gordon-Prescott and his son Victor Etienne Gordon.
   He is survived by life partner, Sandra; siblings Camille, Johnny, and Angie; daughters Elysha, Tristyn, and Megara; step-children Malka, Miriam, David, and Deborah; seven grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and five nieces and nephews.
   A memorial service will be held this Friday, November 11, 2011 at the Calvary Baptist Church 1090 South State St. S.L.C., UT 84111 at 12:00 p.m.
Published in The Salt Lake Tribune on November 8, 2011
The saga of Victor's fall from grace as the state's black ombudsman. I wrote this in 1979.,1133091

My clumsy efforts to aid in the battle for civil rights continue in these  posts:

Readers tell me that this story, about the downfall of a truly great man, is "devastating." It certainly was (and is) for me, since my journalistic assignment is what triggered it: