The International Writers Magazine: Life Stories
Exile on Main Street
I once had a cousin who was hanged at the U.S. Army prison in San Francisco as a thief. He did the hanging himself, one day before he was scheduled to be released.
This boy, Larry Kauffman, was already well-known by his family as a kleptomaniac and a thief within the family. So, nobody’s perfect right? But the fact is, he stank at it, which is astonishing, considering that he was a nephew of my father, Morey Bellows, who is historically acknowledged as one of the most accomplished thieves in the history of Chicago (and that’s saying a lot!).
Nevertheless, the whole family was devastated at the loss. My uncle, Saul Bellow, also the uncle of Kauffman, suffered a nervous breakdown and implored his runaway wife, Sasha, to please come home and minister to him in his hour of grief.
Reading this history in Zachary Leader’s precise and comprehensive biography of my extended family, “Saul Bellow, To Fame and Riches”, it immediately sprang to mind what the scenario would have been if it had been me who would have hanged myself in jail. Would the Bellow family sat Shiva for me, tore out its hair, rent its clothes in grief?
Not bloody likely! More like a fireworks display over Lake Michigan and a twenty-one gun salute – fired directly into the coffin. Seriously, though, a more realistic reaction of the Bellow family to news of my demise would have been, “Good! Fuck Him! Good riddance to bad rubbish”. Fuck it. I like it like that. I don’t owe anybody any consideration. Basically, except for their talent for grubbing money, this family constitutes a lamentable gang of dorks stumbling towards a goal of middle-class nirvana, and I was the n****r in the woodpile whom they just chose to ignore. Sigh, that’s the story of my life: a toxic substance made worse by a surfeit of talent and good looks, which put me way, way out of the “mainstream”.
In an earlier review of this biography, I ridicule my uncle for cloistering himself inside a barren room on the West Side of Chicago at age 23 and attempting to write something, anything, to gain purchase as an artist. What did he produce? Stories about a kid sitting in a room trying to write, duh. As with so many aspects of this book, I inevitably end up comparing my own development at an equivalent age to Bellow’s, and I keep coming up the winner.
By the time I was age 23, I had already been booted from the University of Illinois Urbana campus for instigating anti-Vietnam War activities (all the time maintaining a grade average which placed me on the Dean’ List, although that didn’t matter to them as much as my subversive personality); dropped acid and gone to Haight Ashbury in San Francisco; spent a year in New York’s East Village, dropping acid and getting chased around by the FBI for draft evasion. My attitude, exactly captured in a Frank Zappa comedy routine, was, “If they think they’re gonna draft me, they’re CRRRAAAZZZYY!” I had already seen too much to respect any kind of paternalistic authority, which I considered to be an unfunny joke, and not inclined to be sucked into the Black Hole of megalomanical self-delusions that Americans were digging for themselves, like a nightmare that drags the sleeper deeper and deeper into the farthest depths of Hell. Let them do what they want. None of it has anything to do with me anyway!
I mean, I got to see plenty from that vantage point of “Eight Miles High”, and it was obvious to me, possessing at age 20 more intellectual wattage than most adults do today, that the U.S. was at the edge of a huge nervous breakdown. Anywhere you looked, it was obvious. American cities were Up In Smoke. The East Village itself was a war zone of race and radical politics. People in the suburbs were becoming progressively stupider and more out of touch with reality. And the Vietnam War was shoveling more and more men into a roaring furnace of Hellfire. No future in me sticking around to be sucked into this vortex of hell, which I knew to be coming. A lot of people would have been kept in place because of family ties and family pressures to conform, but I was not one of them. I stuck my neck out, managed to put together a few bucks, and got the hell out of the country.
I eventually found myself living in a commune of hardcore nut cases on Rue Drolet, in the East End of Montreal. Life was sweet, if not elegant. We were five guys sharing a rent of $45. The landlord came to collect the rent on the first of the month and then disappeared until the next time, and that was all we ever saw in terms of establishment authority. Right down the block there was an outdoor drug market going on in Carré St. Louis, so there was some money floating around. A couple of blocks away was the Main, Boulevard St. Laurent, the old Jewish main street of Montreal, where my uncle used to live as a little child. It still retained its Jewish character, though all the Jews had long ago fled to the suburbs and only returned now in their big cars to do grocery shopping. It was a great food area with a liquor store where you could buy a gallon of rotgut Gamay wine for about $8.00. One gallon of that swill could knock out all the guys in my apartment for the night.
For an industrious kid, there were jobs available in the quarter, working as a grocery packer or factory hand in the garment industry. I did occasional things like that for a while, to pay my bar bill at the Hockey Tavern on Prince Arthur Street, where beers were two for a quarter.
This was the place where I started to learn French, to score drugs and to work in filthy industrial lofts with a gang of illiterate “Peppers”, as the Frenchmen were referred to, a stereotype alluding to their proclivity for drinking Pepsi Cola for breakfast, ruining their teeth and ending up with faces like jack-o-lanterns. My life was all comedic. I fell in with this kid Grégoire, who had just been released from the Canada Armed Forces after serving a tour of duty with U.N. peacekeepers in the Congo. We used to get fucked up, and he would tell me the same story about how he and his comrades drove their jeep off a cliff. Grégoire survived, but I think it had to have been a grisly scene, because he always kept going back to it.
Grégoire was working for this other guy, Gerald, out of a loft on the Main. They were making artisanal leather belts and selling them as a hippie item to small artistic boutiques that had names like Boutik Pikasso or Marché Bonsecours. These handmade jeans belts, with their ornate buckles, nailheads etc. were regarded as a fashion item. Gerald had trained Grégoire to make the belts and then left him alone to do the production while he went out to sell.
Gérard took me up to the loft. I was really impressed with all the tools, dyes, the belt buckles, nailheads. I thought “Wow!” As if on cue, Gerard says to me, “Fuck Gerald. He’s an arsehole. We don’t need him. Why don’t you and I go in as partners and start our own business!”
“You want to teach me this?”
“Yeah, it would be great. No more of this arsehole coming in and screaming at me every day”. Gerard started to do his impression of Gerald, which portrayed him as an effete, tyrannical egotist. The name of the outfit alone was enough to convince you that there was some truth to it: A Gerald Thing. Grégoire danced around the space. “Oh, it’s my Thiiing, you know. I am the creator, and he’s my slave because I am such a fucking GENIUS!” OK, I get the picture.
A set-up like this is all I would need to take off. I was like Saul falling off his donkey on the Road to Damascus. A skill like this could set me free. I tried to contain my excitement. “You think we could find a place to work?” I asked mildly.
“Oh, fuck yeah. I got a courtyard behind my apartment”. Grégoire lived in a hovel equivalent of mine just around the corner of the atelier. “We can set up a work table and work there.” I agreed to buy the tools, and Grégoire and I would split the cost of the leather and the buckles, and whatever we sold, we would split the profits. He expressed glee. “I can’t wait to see that cocksucker’s face when I tell him I quit!”
Now, talk about falling into a sterling opportunity that I was freaking made for, no hideous boss or idiot colleagues to answer to! In retrospect, the intercession of the spirit world, and the intervention of all my dead ancestors from Montreal , of whom I was at the time inconscient, must have been brought to bear to construct this golden path directly in front of my feet.
We went ahead, and Gregoire showed me what he knew, which was elementary, but it was enough: cut straight strips of leather using a steel tool, bevel the edges, paint the edges, paint the strap, punch the holes and attach the buckle, using rivets. Voilà, you got a belt to sell for $5.
||We would make up a selection and then sell the belts at the flea market in Old Montreal. Back in those days, the kids wore a lot of jeans, and a cool belt was the perfect accessory for jazzing up your look. The freakin belts were blowing out. This went on for the whole summer of 1969. It was good, and lots of partying with the freaks in Place Jacques Cartier. I managed to put away a few dollars. Then, Grégoire decided to call it quits, to move to a cabin in the country with his wife and kid. This guy never had too much attention span. Years later, I would see him seated cross-legged on the floor of the Métro stations playing a flute for spare change. I got to keep everything, but I didn’t have a space to work anymore, so I had to move all my tools and leather into the commune where I was living on Rue Drolet. The boys I was living with were OK with the idea of a leather factory in their house, as long as didn’t have to do any work themselves haha!
Pretty soon I was coming up with new styling ideas – and more customers. I hung out belts on consignment at hippie coffeehouses, and they were also good for a few bucks a day. By spring of 1970, I needed more room, so I took a big chance and rented a boutique space on the low-end part of Ste. Catherine Street, right across from the Montreal Forum, where the Canadians Hockey Team played. I was betting that the walk-in traffic from the street would cover the store rent. Meanwhile, I continued the wholesale business. In order to fill out my merchandise line, I got into unisex leather shoulder bags, belt pouches for carrying around your stash, watchbands, bracelets, leather cowboy hats and cool hippie sandals.
In a previous review of the biography of my uncle, I ridicule the behavior of my grandfather, Abraham Belo, for crapping out when confronted for the first time in his life with the prospect of having to put in a day’s work, and being obliged to leave town, dragging his tail. His mama had brought him up too soft, and he obviously figured that the same qualities that brought him success in Russia would cause him to rise to the top in America without trying, but fast-talking and wily tricks don’t get you ignited over here, especially if all you know is Russian. The illustrative point here is that I was succeeding at age 22 with no resources where my grandfather, who was a much more mature man at the time of his stay in Montreal, had flopped despite arriving with a big bag of money and a family safety net to back him up.
|I called my boutique Beowulf (later changed to Deans Boutique de Cuir), after the Viking in the ancient novel who slays the dragon, and I put up a sign with a Viking jamming an electric guitar. When the frigid winter weather set in, I realized that all the seasonal hippie and touristic merchandise had no appeal in skiing conditions. On top of that, I came down with pneumonia. I had rented a cold water flat on St. Antoine Street, in the Old City, and the diesel fumes were coming in from both sides, the heavy truck traffic on the street and the snowplows that coughed in poison from my backyard.
Since I didn’t have medical insurance, the hospital doctors gave me a box of suppositories to jam up my butt and sent me back to freeze in my shabby apartment.The only thing that saved me was that a couple of girls came over to nurse me through my delirium, which lasted for days until the fever finally broke.
If that wasn’t enough, the Canadian government had proclaimed a state of “apprehended insurrection” as a result of the James Cross/Pierre Laporte terrorist kidnappings executed by the Front pour la Libération du Québec (FLQ), and rounding up subversives. My name was on their list, but when the army came to my house to arrest me, I was in a delirious state, so they let me slide along, people, probably calculating that it would be worse if I died in custody. So, I dodged that bullet, but only because I was already half-dead anyway.
How I could get on an arrest list didn’t particularly surprise me, considering the class of people I was associating with at the Nelson and Iroquois bars in Place Jacques Cartier, which was a wild and riotous spot, particularly during the warm months. The place had seen a riot not too long earlier, when French president Charles de Gaulle had pronounced his infamous “Vive le Québec Libre” speech from the balcony of Montreal’s city hall, right across the street, for which he was expelled from Canada. The punchline of that story is that after sticking his impressive Gallic proboscis in Canada’s politics, he returned to Paris just in time to confront the May 1968 Revolution, which resulted in his own loss of power. That is the International Youth Revolution of the 1960s, the same gang that eventually brought down Nixon, and I always felt like I was associated with a larger cause.
||I was a pretty forlorn creature, trudging around in the cold and sleet with bags of belts; hefting big parcels stuffed with rolls of leather hides on the Métro. Being age 22, I was no mental genius, either. I bought a big load of cowhide shoulders from this crook named Max Gutenstein to fill an order for Le Château, a popular local chain. I made up the whole order and delivered it to the store, and the next day they made me take the whole order back. Freakin Max’s leather was rotten, and the finish cracked the moment the girl tried to close the belt. I have learned all my nasty lessons the hard way, and it has taken a piece out of me.
But there was no alternative, except to keep on going on. And anyway, I was good at it. I learned some leather braiding techniques from a handicraft book and made some really cool lines of braided jeans belts, which I sold for very good money. A lot of little things like that, the money was good. All I needed was more retail customers. There was no going back to living with the smoking freaks on Rue Drolet.
That dead winter of hanging around in a boutique filled with tourist merchandise while the icy wind and sleet howled outside my window made a big impact on me. The occasional customer would come in and inquire about a leather jacket, leather pants or vest, but I didn’t have a clue about garment construction. I finally resolved that accessories alone would not keep me busy. I needed to be more versatile.
But, anyway, that would be for the future. In the meantime, all I could do was count on the wholesale end and pray for a miracle. My philosophy has always been to keep working and wait for my luck to change, and it did, but only after I had been bleached white by despair and self-doubt. Now, here is the impossible part. My deliverance was no less than Uncle Sam. In May, a girl came into my boutique and introduced herself as Diane, a functionary employed by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. They were presenting an exhibition of American Folk Art, funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce, in the great geodesic dome on Ile Ste. Hélène, on the site of the former Expo 67 World’s Fair. The new fair was to be called “Terre des Hommes” or “Man and His World”, and the U.S. contribution was to demonstrate artisanal handicrafts, like pitchfork makers, painters of Amish barn icons and the like. They were looking for a leather designer to fill out their program. She told me, “I heard that you’re an American who works with leather and that you speak French”.
I said, “All that’s true, miss. But I’m a draft dodger. There are arrest warrants out against me if I step foot in the States”.
She waved her hand dismissively, “Oh, that doesn’t matter. We’re all against the war. Do you speak French?”
“Sure”. And by this time I could, as long as it was about leather belts, sandals, handbags, etc.
“Can you start tomorrow?”
What the fuck! I was a draft dodger who had just been hired by the U.S. Govt. to be put on display in the freakin geodesic dome in the Expo islands, one of the city’s high points of glamor. This even shocked the shit out of me, and I was used to A LOT!
Now, here’s the deal: I had been in Montreal for a couple of years already, living, working, running my little boutique. But I didn’t have any papers, except for a Canada Social Insurance card that I obtained through the mail. This is how my grandfather, father and uncles lived in Chicago for a score of years after infiltrating from Montreal, only I did it in the other direction haha!
|After recovering from the shock of getting hired, I saw my chance and I took it: “Is there any chance I can get an employment letter for my immigration file?” I asked innocently. She said, “Of course you can. I’ll have the letter ready for you when you come to work tomorrow”. When I got the letter, I hustled it over to an immigration lawyer I knew, and he immediately fast-tracked my immigration papers, with my job listed as a consultant for the U.S. government. If that doesn’t beat all, I don’t know what does, and for people who might be skeptical that I am making these stories up, I have got all the documentary proof to substantiate all these assertions.
You can’t tell me that the spirits of my ancestors were not blowing me along with a freakin wind up my poop. I managed to hang on to that gig for the full three months of the fair, and they installed me in the place of honor, right at the top level where the long escalator led from the ground floor entrance. I was the first thing that you saw in the place. I set up some merchandise from my boutique and some tools, and I started off cutting, painting, dying and braiding strips of leather and making them into belts. The crowds of tourists seemed satisfied to watch the braiding, and I kept my hands busy. As soon as I finished the piece I was able to sell it to a spectator for $20, which was a whole lot of money in those days. I sold of few of those every day, plus I was selling little notions out of the Pavillion’s gift shop, which sometimes amounted to several hundred bucks per day, plus I made up business cards, to send customers over to my boutique on Ste. Catherine Street, which I had hired this other kid to run for me. On top of which, I was collecting a check each week from the U.S. Govt. I met a whole lot of notable artists and celebrated my 24th birthday in that dome.
This is to illustrate my point. At age 24, I was exploding with talent. What might I have accomplished if I had grown up with all the advantages of a Bellow child? Of course, that was an impossibility, since my mother, who was clearly insane, would have insisted on getting into the act. There is no way my father or I could have shaken me loose from her, especially if there had been money involved. I basically know my father from Zachary Leader’s portrayal of him, and I knew my mother from personal experience, and no other outcome was possible than for me to be obliterated and destroyed by the combination of my own progenitors’ vile natures. It’s a common enough story, but due to a freak convergence of artistic and historical occurrences my relationship (or lack of one) with the Bellow family has achieved an historical cultural resonance. It’s a Kardashian reality show, but featuring a higher level of brains, greed and money than just airheads with big butts.
At age 24, I had earned my wings as an artist, and not sitting in a bleak room in grandma’s house trying to squeeze out a freakin story, or even an idea. I certainly was incomparably more talented than my cousin, Larry Kauffman, whose signature achievement was to hang himself in jail, but whose death provoked frenzied anguish and mourning throughout my father’s family. So it’s mean and nasty that despite my talent I should be so ill-considered by my own blood relations as to constitute an unspeakable disgrace. It particularly begs the question of why Saul Bellow would turn his back on me, considering all the talent I was showing. I can only surmise that it was for wholly selfish reasons of ego, and to protect my half-brother and half-sister from having to share their eventual inheritance of my father’s fortune against me as a litigant in surrogate’s court. For me, that is probably closer to the truth. I have remarked that people often seem to feel the need to protect their grown children, who have been brought up soft as teddy bears, from what they perceive as my voracious nature. I can’t help suspecting that my parents’ meanness toward me was somehow connected to each one’s desire to hurt the other, and that I was the voodoo doll that they both stuck pins in to punish each other, unless somebody presents me with a decent argument to the contrary. They were both ugly personalities, whatever their outward appearance, and capable of doing monstrous harm to a small child. Unfortunately, no social mechanism or recourse existed in those times to address the interests of abused children.
America fucked me, but it also redeemed `me, so take your choice. Uncle Sam saved my life, saved my business, stocked my boutique with attractive merchandise, paid for my design courses and proper French classes, and put me on a solid basis. I got to be on Ste. Catherine Street during the 1976 Summer Olympics, and when Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize I was perfectly situated right on the Main Street of the city where he was born and which revered him. I put together a comedy act and a design portfolio that eventually landed me a job in New York fashion. If I had remained in the States like an obedient sucker, I probably would have ended up in jail and hanging from a hook like my cousin, but nobody even to mourn for me.
© Dean Borok September 2015
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