Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning

by Thomas Beller


barrow Street ny 10014

Neighborhood: West Village

It was January 1st, 2001. New Years Day. The sky was exceptionally blue. Snow had fallen heavily two days earlier. It was still on the ground in drifts, white and pretty,  but the air was balmy. My girlfriend and I were taking a long meandering stroll in search of a place to eat brunch. It was such a nice day that we were in no hurry to get inside. We poked our nose into one place and then another.

It was a big day for debris. The sanitation department, understandably preoccupied with salting and plowing, had missed a pick up. Although that strange era of the Christmas tree carcasses had not yet begun, the boxes which had held presents – computers and stereo’s and so forth – were all daintily out on the curb. Less daintily, some of the garbage bags had been ripped open and their contents littered the sidewalk. Just a few blocks earlier I had come across a gruesome pile that mixed old food and Christmas wrapping; it all lay in a gross mess a few feet away from the Pink Teapot, where a long line of expectant brunchers shifted from foot to foot.

We went to  Grange Hall, but it was a madhouse. We put out names down, waited thirty seconds, and fled.

Then, on Barrow Street, I saw a photograph of Robert Kennedy Jr. lying on the pavement. Our mood had been that of window shopping, loitering, and now she let me crouch to examine this trash as if it were treasure.

r kennedy1

Robert F. Kennedy On a Visit to The Lower East Side in 1968
photo: Fred W. McDarrah for the Village Voice



This pile with the image of Robert Kennedy was different. It was smaller and comprised almost entirely of printed matter: old newspapers and so forth flapping in the cold air. We stopped, and almost immediately I realized there was an incredible archeological trove at my feet: old copies of the Village Voice, Time, The New York Review of Books, almost all dating from the late sixties and early seventies. I began looking through the pile. A youthful and handsome Yitzak Rabin adorned a New York Times Magazine from 1975. A 1970 copy of Time Magazine featured a striking graphic and the cover line: Urban Gorillas. Among the pages flapping on the street were issues from I.F. Stone’s newsletter. And then the photo of Robert Kennedy Jr. which, upon inspection, adorned the June 13, 1968 issue of the Village Voice.

I picked it up, it’s pages damp from the melting snow, and saw two cover stories, one by Pete Hamill and the other by Jack Newfeld, both datelined Los Angeles. Kennedy had just won the California primary when he was shot.

Two Minutes to Midnight: The Very Last Hurrah,” was the Hamill headline.

It began: “It was, of course, two minutes to midnight and the Embassy Room of the Ambassador Hotel was rowdy with triumph. Red and Blue balloons drifted up through three golden chandeliers to bump against the gilded ceiling. Young girls with plastic Kennedy boaters chanted like some lost reedy chorus from an old Ray Charles record.”

r kennedy3

Newfield’s piece was headlined: “The Stone’s at the Bottom of the Hill.”

It began: ” It was a little before midnight, a half hour before he was to be assassinated as he reached out to grasp the workingman’s hand of a $75 dollar a week Mexican busboy in the bowels of the Ambassador Hotel. Robert Kennedy was holding a victory cigar in his swollen and stubby fingers, and squatting on the floor of room 511.”

It was kind of thrilling to encounter all this on the street–the weird mixture of grief and excitement in the voices of both writers, the suddenness with which this long ago event entered my own life. I took an odd pleasure in the color of the paper, yellow and chipping at the edges and saved, by some twist of fate, from the garbage dump, to be laid out in the street waiting for whoever might be interested. I was interested. I took out my camera and snapped photographs.

The writing caught my eye: it was so personal, swaggering, individual.

After a few moments crouching down there amidst this garbage pile turned archeological site, the question arose: how did this get here? Either the person had died, and someone had cleaned out the apartment, bagging up all the accumulated debris. Or, on a lighter note, whomever this belonged to had decided they had lived long enough with their historical and political archive and it was time to clean house. They had bagged up their closet, full of the passion of New Year’s resolution to simplify, open up, and let go of the past, and only an unlucky combination of snowstorm, sanitation screw up, a particularly hungry or angry homeless person ravaging through the bags, had resulted in this little museum display.

It was a depressing and exhilarating display.


The magpie tendency, by which everything is saved, and the home becomes a mad labyrinth through which only its owner knows the way, is a tendency that I share, to a point, and therefore abhor. It’s a terrible fucked up defense mechanism that crowds out life. I’m not saying every desktop must be immaculate, every floor picked clean. But that tendency to surround oneself with debris, to make a cave for oneself, I think it ought to be resisted. Janet Malcolm, at the conclusion to her amazing book on Sylvia Plath, The Silent Woman, has a scene where she encounters a man who lives amidst such debris. It is a horrifying image, and, for Malcolm, a metaphor for memory. Which is why, for all my own tendencies towards clutter, I strive for cleanliness and order and, dare I say it, a certain minimalism–it affords room for the mind to find itself, somehow.

But that is all bullshit or rather I think such things to combat another tendency, which is the desire to bring home someone else’s trash. Do not take any of this home I thought to myself. But the temptation was strong.

Out from the monochrome of newsprint peered the corner of a colorful yellow book. I reached down and picked it up.

Its title: Fetishism.

The subtitle: A study of Abnormal Sexual Stimulation. By Dale Gordon, Ph.D.

At the bottom of the cover, in sturdy block print: A LATE HOUR LIBRARY FACT BOOK / ADULT READING.

I spotted a photograph turned over on its back and reached down and turned it over. It was a black and white picture, homemade, of a naked woman. There was a scalded moment of incomprehension, the bright sense of possibility and excavation coming up against this lewd picture, which felt so private yet was lying on the wet sidewalk. The woman faced the camera sitting on a couch. Her legs were spread. She looked a bit like Liz Taylor, circa Cleopatra.

Her breasts were small, nipples pale, and in between her legs, there was no hair, and the singular, cycloptic nature of that eye staring back at me was really disturbing.

This natural progression down the picture to that part of her body was, shared by my girlfriend, who was crouched over my shoulder like an umpire looming over a catcher. The slightly sordid novelty of the picture became, when I saw it through her eyes, awful.

I wanted to drop to picture and somehow rewind the moment; it was searing for its unexpectedness.

“Oh, Honey, I’m sorry,” I said.

“That’s what you find when you go through people’s trash,” she said. “Trash!”

I looked down at the pile on the street.

“But it was so interesting,” I said. “I’m sorry about the picture.”

I did not know what, exactly, I was apologizing for; perhaps for all men and their weirdness, or perhaps because the sensibility that saves old Village Voices, which I had found so interesting, turned out to harbor that cruel and ugly little picture. On the ground near where I had dropped it was a spool of tape from one of those old fashioned reel to reel tape recorders. When I first saw it I thought it had lent the whole assemblage a secret taping, Watergate atmosphere, but now I regarded it again and wondered if it was something pornographic. I.F. Stone, RFK, and dirty pictures. It was a weird combination.

We continued on our walk, and when we turned the corner onto Hudson street the sun hit us; we put it all behind us; we had a lovely brunch at Hunter’s and Angler’s and they served us Irish Breakfast tea that you poured through a strainer into beautiful cups. She had a tuna melt. The day resumed it’s beautiful, haunted, slightly hungover New Year’s Day feel. When we got outside the sky had started to take on that threatening hue a clear winter day gets when the sun starts to set, and we went home. I carried the copy of Fetishism my pocket, a souvenir.


I thought of all of this again after reading, for the first time in ages, Donald Barthelme’s story, Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning.

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