Friday, February 26, 2010
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Monday, February 22, 2010
Bruce Jay Friedman
Novels include Stern, A Mother’s Kisses, About Harry Towns and Violencia! Plays and screenplays include Scuba Duba, Steambath, Stir Crazy and Splash.
FRIEDMAN: I first joined Magazine Management in 1954, and worked for “Big Jim” Bryans, who was editor of Focus and Picture Life. It was a valuable experience because he was the best “title” guy, or packager.
Q. Do you recall any of his titles?
FRIEDMAN: “What’s Worse Than Sex?” He’d send me back to sharpen up titles and blurbs, literally a hundred times, like a marine drill instructor. But when you become a marine, you’re really proud of it. [Publisher] Martin Goodman was also a very good title man. They believed in Big Emotions selling magazines, and they were right. I began as assistant editor of Focus, a small-format magazine, a quarter the size of say, The New Yorker. It was a sensationalized version of a successful one that Look had introduced called Quick, which you could also stick in your pocket.
Q: Who dreamed up Swank?
FRIEDMAN: Swank was the original title, if I’m not mistaken, of Esquire. It was a company owned by Arnold Gingrich, who published famous writers in it. Martin Goodman loved that name.
Q: So he revived the name in 1954, based on a magazine of the ’20s?
FRIEDMAN: In a sense.
Q: What’s an approximate chronology of the Mag Management titles you edited?
FRIEDMAN: There was Swank in the ’50s—it couldn’t make up its mind what it was. Strokebooks were beginning to come in. The first one that went the distance, so to speak, and was seriously sexy, was Nugget. Swank petered out at the end of the ’50s; Martin Goodman wasn't prepared to make it sexy. It was put on ice for a while. He didn’t want to be associated with the kind of magazines which led to the real strokers.
So he said, “I’m throwing you another magazine,” which was Male, one of his banner publications. And then he threw me another, which was Men, and then he threw me Man’s World and then True Action.
Q: Was there a distinction between Male, Men and Man’s World?
FRIEDMAN: It’s like today—when I write a hero, he’s never as good as the sidekick. I had four magazines at once. Male was supposed to be the mainline publication. I would try to put my “best stuff” into Male, so Men became the sidekick. As a result, somehow, Men would have the real stuff. To make a quick reference to Splash, the John Candy role had to be better, because the pressure was off. To spin that out further, True Action, which was supposed to be the junkyard—after all, you’re doing four titles, you gotta come up with 40 adventure stories a month—True Action, the ashcan one, was a sly favorite of mine. Because there was no pressure. The heat was on when it came to Male magazine, ’cause it had a record of good sales.
Q. Mario Puzo said he only wrote for Male and Men.
FRIEDMAN: He was one of our big guns, we would never put him into True Action. Imagine trying to get 40 stories, and I had to believe in each one. There was just a small group of guys.
Q: I heard you kept about 50 writers out there swimming in assignments.
FRIEDMAN: It’s an inflated number, because they kept me working. I never did any favors. The only thing I did that was of any value, which made me seem heroic, is that once every couple of weeks, I would go into Martin Goodman and say you really gotta pay these guys. He really didn’t like to sign checks. The checks weren’t for me, but it’s as if they were. So he’d piss and moan and finally do me a favor—do me a favor, by signing these checks.
Q. You always said that’s 80 percent of being a good editor.
FRIEDMAN: Getting the guys the money.
Q. Let’s return to your earlier days at Swank.
FRIEDMAN: It was the first one in which I was given full charge of a magazine. I had a secretary and one employee named Philip Cooke. It was an important experience for me, and also a frustrating one. I was given the editorship of this new title in 1954 and told to compete with Esquire. So I went ahead and got a Graham Greene story and a William Saroyan story, plus a few items which we then called “risqué.” I prepared the first issue, and saw that they very first page had a giant truss ad. So I stormed into Goodman and said, “I thought we were competing with Esquire?—this sets the tone in the wrong way.” The advertising guys were summoned and they fought me tooth and nail to keep the truss ad, because they’d lose revenue. The truss people always paid. So I put my job on the line and said the truss ad goes or I go.
Q. You mean I would have been a skinnier kid of the truss ad stayed?
FRIEDMAN: Yes, you were involved, so it was a daring thing. The compromise struck was that we’d run an electronics school ad in the front. But gradually they worked the truss ads back in.
Q. You never did tune Swank to your liking?
FRIEDMAN: Well, this was about the time Playboy had been introduced. But Martin Goodman marched in with Nugget, which had the first real tits and ass, along with ribald classics. He threw the copy of Nugget down on my desk and smacked it, saying, “This is what I mean.” So I asked, “Where’s Esquire?” And he said, “This is what we’re really trying to achieve.” I said, “Well I don't see any truss ads in this book. Every page has color, and you have nips in here.” It was an impossible situation. I kept publishing Swank as some weird bastardization of Male and Esquire. It was some weird hybrid of classiness and adventure, and I wasn’t ever comfortable with it.
Q. How about the girls? There was a monthly feature called “Swank Dines Out With.” Sophia Loren, Jayne Mansfield, Anita Ekberg. Was that for real?
FRIEDMAN: Well, I dined out with them.
Q. You really dined out with them?!
FRIEDMAN: Well, not each one. But I did dine out with Jayne Mansfield, Cleo Moore, Tina Louise, I actually dined out with a half dozen. Others that Swank dined out with were pieces written for us by a Hollywood reporter, like Brigitte Bardot, which I kind of sharpened up.
Q. Didn’t that help the job along?
FRIEDMAN: Oh, yeah.
Q. Who was the most striking one?
FRIEDMAN: I still feel the impact of seeing Tina Louise when she was 18. She was one of the most astonishing looking people I’ve ever seen.
Q. Do you remember where you dined with her?
FRIEDMAN: Well, I don’t know if I actually dined—I know she came up to the office. It wasn’t always a question of dining out in a restaurant, I saw them in different places.
Q. Then it wasn’t actually over candlelight and champagne, like the logo cartoon?
FRIEDMAN: Maybe once. Although when I was dining out with Jayne Mansfield, a pilot came in during the interview and started to roll around with her, but she never missed a beat.
Q. These days, editors often preside over porn photo shoots for their magazines. Did the editors of Mag Management ever do that with girlie shoots?
FRIEDMAN: I never did; or maybe once, to come up with an early cover of Swank. Mel Blum was the art director, and I showed up at one shoot. One where the girls are on safari, and he was giving them little pinches and winking at me. It was a little hot, actually.
Q. You bought a lot of shoots from Russ Meyer?
FRIEDMAN: Well, you call them shoots, we called them sets. There would be a picture agent, usually a Viennese guy, who would come up with a briefcase full of “sets.” They were contact pictures of an individual girl, shot by one of his photographers. You’d circle the contacts you wanted; he would then blow them up, and you’d bring them in to Martin Goodman who would pick the final selection. He spent a lot of time laboriously eliminating nipples, or outer aureoles with a red pencil. There were conflicts, because he would have certain fetishistic inclinations different from mine. I thought his taste was really coarse, and I’m sure he felt the same about mine. He always prevailed since he was the publisher.
Q. Do you recall any reader mail from the ’50s concerning girls?
FRIEDMAN: Well, during the early Picture Life, a fella wrote a letter saying he only had a short time to live. He said if we could possibly run a photo of Mitzi Gaynor wearing one glove, while in her panties and waving, he might be able to squeeze out a few extra weeks.
Q. Were you able to track down such a picture?
FRIEDMAN: Well, we had no direct pipeline to Mitzi Gaynor. Ole Mitz. But we picked something out.
Q. You did a lot of freelance columns for Mag Management books, to help keep me in toys, which I’d like to thank you for. Were these, perhaps, the first rumblings of Lonely Guy advice? Items about hubcaps, spotting joydolls, car tips.
FRIEDMAN: Just like The Lonely Guy stuff, they always had to have some seedbed of reality. It doesn’t work when it’s all style, or there’s nothing behind it, nothing to tilt or make askew—there must be a bit of truth. They always did research at Magazine Management on what people were reading, what rated well. The columns were proven successes. There was yet another division there of adventure mags, with different editors. I remember one of those fellas handing Martin Goodman his version of Stag Confidential, with another title, and it was very jazzy and razmatazz, Shuffle off to Buffalo, it had all the expressions. But Goodman dismissed it with a smack, losing his temper. The guy had copied the outer shell, but it didn’t have a heartbeat. He was copying the moves, but he didn’t realize that it came essentially from some kernel of information or insight. I was very proud of those columns—even though I did them till I was blue in the face.
Q. What was a typical Magazine Management breakfast?
FRIEDMAN: You mean, what’d we eat up there? There was a counter downstairs called Boyd’s Chemist, at 655 Madison, and there was a terrific counterman named Eddie, a jolly Richard Pryor-type fella who was trying to break into television. They had fresh orange juice, a great bagel and coffee.
Q. How did you pick the cartoons?
FRIEDMAN: They came in two different ways. There were a few cartoon agents, a guy named Art Paul, an old Broadway character who stuttered, and he would come up stuttering with a pile of cartoons. He was like [Broadway composer] Jule Styne, the least likely guy to have great cartoons, but he had great ones. Then we had a Cartoon Day, where individual cartoonists would come up, and I would see them and make selections on the spot. Some of these guys were distinguished cartoonists. On the back of each cartoon was a coded box where you could see crosses—sometimes there were eight crosses. I would know I was the ninth person they were seeing, so a less secure man would have been offended. But I like to think my judgment was better than the first eight guys who passed. It was a simple matter of The New Yorker paying the most, so Herb Goldberg would want to publish his stuff there first. I would sit and chat with these guys, many of who were exceptional men who did brilliant work. We used a lot of cartoons.
But earlier, Swank had a different approach, since it was “classier.” The Swank cartoons were picked more for their appearance than wit, to go opposite the truss ads. Guys who could do sexy broads had an edge. Then there were cartoons that came in through the mail. I was careful to pick my own cartoons, I was very proud of that, something I jealously guarded. The highest honor I ever conferred on anybody was when I trusted Mario [Puzo] to pick out cartoons. I think his eyes would moisten if he remembered—it really was a matter of conferring supreme trust in somebody to let them choose your cartoons.
© 2003, 2010 Josh Alan Friedman
Friday, February 19, 2010
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Monday, February 15, 2010
Throw ’Em a Few Hot Words
He never spoke about the magazines outside the office and rarely brought them home. As a tyke in the late 1950s, I couldn't fathom what my dad did up at Magazine Management—but it looked profoundly fun. Manual typewriters banged away above my head from partitioned bunkers, the fatherly aroma of cigar smoke everywhere. I grabbed handfuls of rubber bands, paper clips and pencils with pyramid-shaped erasers to bite. Cork boards dripped with clippings and memos. It was a bustling New York newsroom, a fraternity of hard-typing men and muscle-bound illustrators at easels. The moment I learned to hunt and peck on a typewriter, by first or second grade, I banged out a page, thrust it into my father's lap and demanded, "Publish it!"
By the time I did enter the game, the men's adventure genre was gone. Magazine Management itself dissolved in 1975. Unlike millions of World War II vets, whose lifelong romance with the noble war was always an industry, those of us raised during the ’60s saw nothing adventurous about Vietnam. Nobody wanted to revel in stories about napalm vs. gooks or Cong hell camps in a war where we were the bad guys and the losers. For the generations to follow, the market slid ever crotchward; mankind was more intent on skipping over text and cutting to the chase—vaginas and nothing but vaginas. After Playboy sold its sibling Oui, it degenerated yearly, until the day it was sold to notorious publisher Murray Traub in the ’80s. (Traub’s magazines operated from the same building as Show World on 8th Avenue.) Oui, like most others in its genre, bottomed out with typo-laden smeary ink, triple-ghost, out-of-focus photos and dirt-cheap printing. Writers became nearly obsolete—strokebook packagers only need apply.
All of which makes the distant era of men’s adventure magazines seem fiercely literary by comparison. The feisty lower ranks of the newsstand spawned dozens of pulp empires. There was Pyramid, Stanley, Star Editions, Candar, Jalart, Hanro, Volitant, Rostam, Emtee, even Fawcett and Macfadden. All had editorial offices in midtown Manhattan. Hundreds of butch titles came and went: Man’s Daring Adventure, Man’s Action, Men in Adventure, Man’s Illustrated, Challenge for Men, Man’s Magazine, Real Men, Man to Man, Man’s Book, Man’s Epic, Men Today, Climax, Sir!, Dude, Nugget and Cavalier.
"Excellent Publications," anxious for credibility denied to the pulps, generously offered its resources on each masthead: “Permission is hereby granted to quote from this issue of this magazine on radio or TV, provided a total of not more than 1,000 words is quoted.”
Real, the short-lived title created by a former Magazine Management editor, ran an article in 1964 called “That Dirty Mess in Vietnam!: Is The U.S. Fighting for a Rotten Cause?” The lead: “Somewhere in the stinking jungles of Vietnam an American GI was dying with a Communist bullet in his belly.” Even anti-war pieces had the political attitude of John Wayne.
Mario Puzo’s piece on sharks (Men, April 1966) predated Jaws by a decade in its aquatic paranoia. It detailed all manner of questionable shark attacks at our nation’s beaches. What would today draw ire for wrong thinking, it suggested readers “go out and kill sharks” to vent anger, as sharks are the most evil monsters on earth. Even more against wildlife was “great white hunter” T. Murray Smith’s “The Monster Every Hunter Enjoys Killing,” an anti-crocodile polemic in Pyramid’s Bluebook from 1965. “I Was Lion Bait. . .” from a 1966 issue of Guy, recounts the moment-by-moment dismemberment of the arrogant Barranco—King of the Lion Tamers—with real photos. Finally, in a 1968 For Men Only, the tide changed with a sympathetic portrait of “nature’s unloved children,” with ample warnings to call off the heartless slaughter of the American wolf.
Thinning out wildlife was but one recurring theme. If all the fatalities listed in men’s adventure magazines were tabulated, the human race might have been wiped out. Though sex became the dominant subject after war played out, a stubborn resurgence of The Good War is still upon us. Historian (plagiarist) Stephen Ambrose’s reglamorization of WWII in the 1990s spawned a new battlefield of movies, documentaries and novels depicting the glory of brotherhood in battle. So nothing much has changed after all.
The illustrators who provided the fabulous covers of soldiers with anacondas wrapped around their necks surrounded by nymphos—now seen as classic period art—were a breed apart. Many were serious bodybuilders, actually resembling the action heroes on their covers. Art Director Mel Blum, for one, was a huge, deaf weightlifter, though he remained terrified of publisher Martin Goodman. “Did Guh-man like it? Is it all right with Guh-man?” he would often ask Bruce Jay. Mort Kunstler was another top-dollar free-lance artist, who could command about a thousand bucks for a detailed painting of a civil war death camp. He was the only one who could take Blum at arm-wrestling, in which they often engaged.
James Bama, a first-string artist, was yet another weight-lifter. Bruce Jay recalls visiting his studio, where he added brushstrokes to a dozen canvasses at once. Then there was Al Hollingsworth, possibly the first Black cartoonist in men’s adventure, whom Bruce Jay brought in early on. Hollingsworth was an exceedingly jolly fellow who later became a distinguished painter, and—needless to say—was also a massive weight-lifter.
The five interviews to follow in the coming weeks on this blog were conducted on behalf of Swank’s 30th Anniversary in 1984. My tribute to Magazine Management’s history was an anachronistic rebuke to tits ’n’ ass mags of that moment. By 1984, Swank was an “impulse buy” —the newsstand choice, you might say, for a customer who had already tired of that month’s Playboy, Penthouse or Hustler. Its pages were strictly gyno, all accompanying text exclamations of orgasmic frenzy. Swank and Stag, then published by Martin's son, Chip Goodman, were the only two titles extant with direct lineage to Magazine Management. Chip, who passed away not long after, seemed quietly satisfied to publish this last hurrah in honor of his heritage. The layout included space-age bachelor pad Swank covers and vintage cheesecake. God only knows who read it.
© 2003, 2010 Josh Alan Friedman
Next week, my interview with Bruce Jay Friedman, followed by Walter Wager, Mario Puzo, John Bowers and Mel Shestack.
Friday, February 12, 2010
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Monday, February 8, 2010
I was a contributor for two different coffee-table art books on the history of men’s adventure/girlie magazines. Below is my chapter from the Taschen History of Men’s Magazines series, edited by the great Dian Hanson in 2005. But Taschen ran my chapter accompanied by dozens of cover illustrations that had nothing to do with the magazines from Magazine Management, of which I wrote. (Taschen ran sado-maso and Nazi covers, that would have offended the World War II-veteran writers and editors from Magazine Management). The editing was also botched, changing my meaning and intent. But what follows is my original piece, the first of several on the subject we will post on this blog.
I received my initiation to men’s magazines in the late 1950s when I was about three years old. My mother often escorted me into Manhattan via the Long Island Railroad, which I believed swam underwater as it tunneled below the East River toward Penn Station. Our destination: 655 Madison Avenue, the offices of Magazine Management. Cigar-smoking gents with rolled up sleeves and loosened ties were hunkered down within a maze of cubicles, banging away at Corona typewriters. Their individual fox holes, stacked with clippings and photos and illustrations, were barely partitioned by office dividers. An assembly line of painters and letterers applied dainty brushstrokes to canvass, creating the very action-adventure covers you see here. It was a factory training ground for writers of the World War II generation—my father included.
Bruce Jay Friedman resided as staff sergeant of his own bunker behind a Royal manual. He was surrounded by even bigger stacks of glossy war photos, corkboards dripping with memos, news clippings and stuffed file cabinets. A 1950s cover of U.S. News and World Report framed on his desk, asked, “If Bombs Do Fall, What Happens to Your Investments?” For most of his 12 years at Magazine Management, my father edited four now-forgotten titles—Male, Men, Man's World and True Action. Assigning 40 stories a month, his crack editorial team included Mario Puzo, John Bowers, Mel Shestack, George Fox, Jules Seigel, Walter Wager. A rival team, in another section, was headed by Noah Sarlat, whose flagship title was Stag. Male and Stag ran neck in neck with monthly sales over a million each. This was magazine heaven. Gloria Steinem did a feature story on the company in the early 60s, focusing on this hard-typing fraternity of novelists and screenwriters, epitomized by Mickey Spillane, who held a desk there in the ’50s. They knocked out millions of words a month.
My dad never spoke about the magazines outside the office, and practically never brought any home. The Magazine Management “books,” as they ironically referred to them, were a low rung of publishing, devoid of any prestige. Though he sort of loved it there, it was a job, very much subordinate to being a novelist.
Under the umbrella of Magazine Management, hundreds of publications came and went: men’s adventure, semi-sophisticated cheesecakers, movie fanzines, Western adventures. A one-man operation resided in the corner called Marvel Comics. That one man was Stan Lee. The shelves in the storeroom bristled with new entries each time I visited. Spider-Man and Fantastic Four were beyond my comprehension, but I grabbed first editions of them hot off the press. They were later discarded to friends—who made a fortune selling them.
This empire was ruled by Martin Goodman, who resembled Hopalong Cassidy in a fedora hat. Saluted by one and all as Mister Goodman, supposedly since childhood, he was the consummate newsstand tactician. He began in the 1930s, with pulp titles like Star Detective, Mystery Tales, Uncanny Stories, Ka-Zar, Marvel Science Stories. Some credit Goodman with having created the entire men’s adventure genre; others say he merely issued second-rate imitations of successful magazines.
Swank, for instance, was introduced in 1954, right after Playboy and Nugget came about. “I was told to compete with Esquire,” said Bruce Jay. “So I went ahead and got a Graham Greene story and a William Saroyan story, plus a few items which we then called ‘risque.’ I prepared the first issue, and saw that the very first page had a giant truss ad. So I stormed into Goodman and said, ‘I thought we were competing with Esquire? This sets the tone in the wrong way.’ The advertising guys were summoned in and they fought me tooth and nail to keep the truss ad, because they’d lose revenue.”
Full-page automotive, truss and baldness ads helped keep Swank at the bottom of the newstand, below Argosy, Collier's or Popular Mechanics. Never sure whether it was an adventure, literary or girlie book, Swank survived through different ownerships after Magazine Management ceased operation as such in 1975. Martin Goodman’s son Charles, who interned at Magazine Management in the ’60s, acquired Swank and Stag in the 1980s, where they remained “impulse buys” (after a wanker had purchased his monthly copy of Playboy, Penthouse or Hustler, and came back for more). Charles “Chip” Goodman developed his own empire of strokers, spinning off women’s exercise and swimsuit ’zines. An amiable chap, he also specialized in low-risk imitations of whatever else was successful on the stands. When Charles passed away in middle age, the Swank-Stag stable fell, seemingly by default, into ownership of the printer. They are the last two surviving men’s mag titles with direct lineage to Magazine Management.
Millions of blue collar men made up the adventure market in the 20 years after WW II. This generation had an insatiable appetite for the Good War—with cheesecake photos salted in. Once Magazine Management exhausted coverage of every known WW II battle, they began to invent new ones. A counter attack on roller skates against a giant tank armada, or Allied pilots launching attacks from whorehouse bases. Most of the reader mail arrived from vets correcting details about the battles that never existed.
Mario Puzo, a WW II soldier himself, wrote at least three huge “book bonus” stories a month for Male and Men. “It was absolutely the best training a writer could get,” he told me. “The funny thing is, I don’t think I ever wrote anything about gangsters. World War II was a bonanza. But Korea and Vietnam were losers.”
Though Puzo wrote several stories about Vietnam, he said, “They were absolute poison. Readers hated it. Also, we weren’t the heroes. Just like the Korean War. We used to call that The No Fun War. World War II was The Fun War. And you could get some mileage out of the Civil War and World War I.”
“It was like Kabuki theater,” explained novelist John Bowers, the point man for “hotsie-totsy” stories about vice raids and joy dolls. Bowers arrived in New York after a puritanical Tennessee upbringing. “You followed a certain ritual. Women were vehicles for pleasure, they weren't full-rounded characters. They were always ready, gripping, sexed-up.”
Every writer on staff learned to keep the action moving, cut copy, cut adjectives, never overwrite. “Give them Big Emotions,” intoned “Big Jim” Bryans, an early editor there. Coverlines like “100 Times a Murderer,” “The Night 80 Call Girls Took Over Sing Sing,” and “Use the Whole Damn Fleet, But Save Ensign Thompson!”
In the sex department, Martin Goodman restricted the staff to phrases like “dark triangle” and “heaving chest.” Art director Mel Blum spent hours meticulously airbrushing out aureoles or stray pubic hairs from girlie photos—only to spend the latter years of his career brushing them back in.
How did the men’s adventure market slowly mutate into pornography, and nothing but? Here are two factors: The world of the pulps died. Vietnam did not promote adventure, like earlier wars.
During the ’50s and ’60s, there was never an admission that any magazine endorsed masturbation. Their use for abuse in bus terminal toilet stalls was a shameful solitary secret. Even Playboy readers figured they were lone perverts when they went to work over the centerfold. The stories always provided cover. Literary pomp and circumstance aside, take the girls out of Playboy and circulation would drop to 14 readers.
It may have been implied in mags such as Titter or Wink that an erection might be in order. But girlie mags never proclaimed themselves strokebooks until around 1980. As men’s magazines slid ever crotchward, magazine covers screamed out More-Masturbation-for-Your-Buck, demanding you rip off your pants and get started before you reached the table of contents. In an about-face, by today’s standards, a reader certainly would be more embarrassed caught reading the gibberish copy than stroking off to the pictures. And so, as passage of time highlights fond American pastimes, yesterday’s pulp becomes today’s art.
© 2010 Josh Alan Friedman
Friday, February 5, 2010
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Monday, February 1, 2010
“How do you keep count?” I ask.
“That’s what it sure feels like,” says my friend, who spells his last name Hellenback—“As in been to hell and back,” he clarifies.
David Hellenback is surely the longest-surviving homeless man in Dallas. Anybody here would recognize his grizzled, pugilistic face. Just when you think he’s gone forever, a year or two later, he appears in another sector of the city, settling into a back alley, a 7-Eleven lot or under a highway bridge. Would he consider a men’s shelter?
“Hell no, I haven’t given up on life.”
I first met Hellenback in 1988 on Greenville Avenue, when he was still allowed in a few bars, like the Winedale. But he was soon barred from each one. When he poked his head in, a bartender would point to the street, and Hellenback knew where to go. No establishment in Dallas, save for the Lew Sterrett Correctional Facility, grants him entry.
Like most winos from old skid row, he has a full, robust head of hair. Better able to brave rain, sleet, or snow than the United States Post Office, he’s a schizophrenic with an iron constitution. Hellenback resembles the great actor Robert Ryan, or late Dallas rockabilly legend, Ronnie Dawson. Or Jack Dempsey, who he sometimes thinks he is.
He has an upbeat demeanor, an easy smile, and in defiance of those who would argue to the contrary, I don’t believe he is an unhappy man.
“I’ve forgotten more stuff than anybody else remembers,” says Hellenback. He rattles off the starting lineup of the 1958 Milwaukee Braves, each man’s position, and even the management. Then he knocks off the lineup of the 1930s’ St. Louis Cardinals, the Gas House Gang. And here’s where he gets his wires crossed. He’s got Jesus Christ at 2nd Base.
“Whoah, there, David,” I interject. “Jesus never played for the Cardinals.”
Hellenback pauses to scratch his chin, considers hard, then breaks out laughing. No, of course not, he realizes, acknowledging his schizo moment. Unless Hellenback sees into dimensions we don’t, and knows things we can’t perceive.
“Do you think Willie Nelson is General Custer?” he asks.
No, I don’t believe so.
“How ’bout Jimmy Carter?”
No, not him either.
“Well, don’t leave a soldier lying in the field,” he says, when we part. “And don’t lie to Jesus. Jimmy Walker told me that.”
It’s unclear whether he means the whiskey or the dandified 1920s mayor of New York. For an old man of the streets in Dallas, Hellenback has some mystical connection to the streets of Olde New York. Over the years, he’s claimed to be on the run from Joe Profaci, who ran one of the five families, in Brooklyn. No doubt, he believes it. Other times, he’s stopped me in the street to tout betting tips on fights or horse races. Like he was on his way to see a Benny Leonard fight, the Jewish lightweight champion from the Lower East Side—in the era of WWI.
“Benny Leonard combs his hair in a perfect creased part,” he said, recounting the well-known legend. “His mother doesn’t know he’s fighting when he returns with money for her. He comes home after a fight without a hair out of place. That’s ’cause nobody can touch him.”
I delve into the cosmic time-space continuum sometimes myself, and few places suit me better than Lost New York. So I enjoyed a number of afternoons hanging out with Hellenback in the back alley behind my local 7-Eleven, during his 2007 stint there. Hellenback kept a set of home-made weights in the bushes and we lifted weights together. He used an extra long crowbar for reverse curls and a behind-the-neck military press. Then squats. “See, time is too valuable to waste.” He took off his shirt and flexed his muscles for women at the payphone. Each was inspired to quickly leave.
Hellenback says he’s been run out of many towns. He was first arrested as a youthful offender in Syracuse, NY, when he was 16, for joyriding in cars. “We never stole ’em, always left ’em afterward.” He was sentenced to three years, but had a good lawyer who got him three months in a mental hospital instead. According to Hellenback, the worst thing in jail or on the streets are rats. As in people who will rat you out. Never drop a dime on anybody.
When he was staying in my neighborhood, Hellenback picked up trash around the back alley of 7-Eleven in exchange for coffee or a roll. At the Laundromat next door, he serenaded customers with the banal “Ballad of Paladin” from the old TV western, Have Gun Will Travel.
“He must have an angel looking after him,” said a worker doing laundry, aware of Hellenback’s longevity on the streets. If it gets to freezing outside, Hellenback flops at the Avon on Lemon and Oak Lawn, that regal apartment building no one realizes is a flophouse. Meanwhile, Hellenback snuck into the back of the Laundromat late at night. He demonstrated, opening the back door with great effort. “Don’t say anything, they’ll arrest you for sleeping here. I don’t disturb anything. But they keep arresting me for wearing no shirt.”
Thus, part of the ongoing bureaucratic folly of arresting the likes of Hellenback, going by the book on petty offenses. He is what the police refer to as “shelter resistant.” His arrests are for vagrancy, public intoxication, open lid on a container. “They arrest me almost every day. In Phoenix they used to arrest me twice a day.”
So, the figure of his 1,200 arrests in Dallas does sound like a reasonable estimate. Some day I’ll check the records. Once, in 2002, he showed me his jail release papers from that day, as he emerged clean-shaven and well slept after a four-month stint at Lew Sterrett. And in high spirits, as usual.
I haven’t seen David Hellenback in over a year, so it’s possible he’s finally joined the Gas House Gang. But I always expect he’ll return somewhere.
© 2010 Josh Alan Friedman