James Brown – I got you
James Brown changed my life. Deep down, heart and soul, forever.
In 1965 I went to work for a publishing company up in the Bronx that produced textbooks and magazines aimed at cosmetology and charm-and-modeling schools. I was 23, and it was only the second full-time job I’d ever had. Among other things, I wrote a monthly column for one of our student-model magazines on how to succeed by dressing well and projecting a professional aura. I was the least likely author imaginable for such a column, a young beatnik riding into work every day on a motorcycle, frequently wearing mismatched socks. Nobody in the office seemed to mind.
Once a year, in the heat of the summer, the company sent a delegation of editors and salespeople to Miami for a week-long beauty and modeling products convention. We had a booth and displayed the latest editions of our books and magazines. I had been with the company less than a year but was drafted to go along. I had never been to Miami, and it sounded like fun.
We arrived Tuesday afternoon and were up for business on Wednesday morning. By Friday evening, after three days of manning the booth, making small talk with cosmetologists and product reps, spending every waking minute pushing the products, I was ready to slice my wrists. Not only was I terminally disinterested in cosmetology per se, I was dismayed to discover that the folks who attended these shows were just…not my peeps.
Remember, back home it was 1965 in New York City. When I got off work and parked my motorcycle at the curb on Spring Street in lower Manhattan, I spent my “real” life hanging around with folk musicians, underground filmmakers, jazz players, drag queens, poets, underground newspaper editors, volunteer trip guides at the League for Spiritual Discovery, eminent Trotskyites and other serious political activists. The cosmetologists in Miami were so square they were practically cubical! And they were all white, white, white. I don’t recall seeing a single black face in three days of mixing and mingling. I was in culture shock.
There was a big business dinner Friday night, but I pled illness and planned to spend the evening reading in my room. Maybe I’d find a jazz station on the radio.
But as I looked through the Miami Herald over a room-service hamburger, a small movie listing caught my eye. In less than an hour, a local theater was showing Godzilla vs. Mothra — an esoteric Godzilla movie that I’d never seen. I was a hard-core film fanatic, an auteurist of the Cahiers du Cinema (the influential French film crit magazine) school, and, as it happens, a Godzilla completist. I didn’t know my way around Miami at all, but had a feeling that this theater was not within walking distance of my fancy Miami Beach hotel. But, hey, there was a line of taxis outside; I wouldn’t have any trouble getting one to take me to see Godzilla vs. Mothra.
I was wrong about that, though. When I gave the cabbie the name of the theater, he’d never heard of it. No problem; I had written down the address, and gave it to him. His eyes widened. “Oh no,” he said. “You don’t want to go there.”
“Why not?” I asked innocently. I was still so excited at finding a new Godzilla movie I thought everyone would get it.
“You can’t go there!” he declared. “That’s Niggertown.”
I had heard that expression only once before, outside Biloxi, Mississippi, as I was being driven around by a perfectly charming white couple who were doing graphics for a textbook we were publishing. It shocked me deeply the first time I heard it, and it chilled me even more now. My parents had brought me up right. But I was neither clear enough nor confident enough then to object, so all I said was, “I don’t care. That’s where I want to go.”
The taxi driver gave me an ominous look. “OK,” he said, “but I’m not waiting around for you and I’m not coming back.” He put the car in gear and we were off.
As we drove, I had time to get nervous. Maybe I was being hasty. While I knew a few black musicians to talk to, as far as I could remember I had never been in a neighborhood (or even a room) where they were in the majority and I was in the minority. Now that I thought of it, I had never even gone to Harlem. I’d always been scared to climb the steps at the 125th Street station — or even to get off the A train.
But the thought of returning to hordes of white cosmetologists at the hotel boosted my courage, and I kept my mouth closed as the scenery changed from soaring hotels of cast concrete to small wooden houses and crowds with black faces standing around on the corners. It was hot, the cab windows were open, and a hint of wood smoke and BBQ drifted inside as we drove deeper into the ‘hood.
The theater was on the corner, diagonally across from a small record store. There seemed to be 50 or 60 black folks hanging out in the intersection, chatting, laughing, looking at me. I paid the cab driver, and he disappeared around the corner. I was all alone.
The theater box office was right there, so I stepped up and handed over $3. “Movie don’t start for an hour,” said the black woman behind the glass.