Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning

by Thomas Beller


barrow Street ny 10014

Neighborhood: West Village

It was New Years Day, 2001. The sky was exceptionally blue, and the snow that had fallen so heavily two days earlier was still on the ground in drifts, white and pretty. I was walking down the street when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a photograph of Robert Kennedy Jr. lying on the pavement. I stopped to take a closer look.

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

My girlfriend and I were taking a long meandering stroll in search of a place to eat brunch, but it was such a nice day that we were in no hurry to get inside, and instead we poked our nose into one place and then another. We bumped into Robert Kennedy Jr. on Barrow street. We were in retreat from the brunch crowd and Grange Hall, which was a madhouse. We put out names down, waited thirty seconds, and fled.

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.

This pile was different, though; 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. 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 Gorilla’s. 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.

This pile of garbage suggested a sensibility, a personality; here was a political identity, and literary one, and, also, a neighborhood one.

I glanced at the old Village Voice, 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."

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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 whomever might be interested.

The writing caught me eye: it was more personal, swaggering, individual than most journalism one reads these days (including what can be found in the oddly neutered Voice of today).

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 a unlucky combination of snow storm, 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.

Depressing for three reasons.

1) 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 therefor abhor. It’s a terrible fucked up defense mechanism that crowds out life. I’m not saying every desk top 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.

2) The depressing nature of the news being reported (and some strange familiarity to it, some echo in the current moment of the confusion of this moment long past).

3) The fact that was I was crouched down on New Year’s Day, examining a pile of garbage. I started this web site in a burst of idealism and opportunism. I had faith that, if nothing else, it would lead me into strange and uncharted territory. Well, here it was, territory strange and uncharted: the debris of some stranger’s life, someone who might be alive or dead or recently shipped off to a nursing home, who knows? And who, in their right mind, cares! .

And just when the strangeness of the moment hit me, the peculiarity of my peering at a pile of some stranger’s garbage strewn around the sidewalk, the contents of this pile took a peculiar turn. 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.

So there was a little good humored smut to go along with the progressive politics.

I spotted a photograph turned over on its back and reached down and turned it over. It was a black and white picture, home made, of a woman. She was seated on a couch, legs spread, looking up at the viewer with cold, impassive eyes to which a fair amount of black eyeliner had been applied. Her hair and make up had a Liz Taylor, circa Cleopatra, feel. The eye liner was all she was wearing.

Her breasts were small, nipples pale, and in between her legs there was no hair. She was not spectacularly beautiful, and my first thought was that she was an old girlfriend. It was a bit of home made porn. My eyes moved from her eyes to her mouth, her breasts, and then to the uncovered flesh between her legs. She was shaved there, and the striking 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, I assumed, 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 threw her eyes, awful. Strike! You’re out!

I wanted to drop to picture and somehow rewind the moment; it was searing for its unexpectedness, really gross and of course sort of fascinating, but walking around in a brunchy mood with your girlfriend on New Year’s Day is no time to be sifting through other people’s porn; no time to be staring into the reproachful gaping eye hole at the center of a black and white picture that’s been picked up on the street!

I dropped it, though not before a brief hesitation during which I wondered how it might go over if I said: "Gee, what a weird picture. I’m going to take it home and include it in the piece about this fascinating pile of political and social media history!" Instead I dropped it, and stood up.

"Oh, Honey, I’m sorry," I said.

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 cool, secrete 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, slighty 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, the copy of Fetishism stuck inside the damp old papers under my arm.

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