“…Well, I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer
The future’s uncertain
And the end is always near…” – Jim Morrison, Roadhouse Blues (1970)
Silence. A battered old Ford screeched rounding our corner. Darkness screaming, and the quiet came again, haunting… like death. The evening air settled still, heavy with Jasmine, hot, humid, and thick as cotton in your ear. The snap of a night beetle echoed like a gunshot across Pacas, the barrio badlands of Pacoima, California—a Los Angeles county suburb famous for empty dirt lots, mountains of bald tires, used condoms, and Corona beer bottles. “We comin’ to get yuh, whitey!” a deep black face, a harsh thick mouth, blazing piano teeth out the car window racing through the night.
Inside, unknowing, we children piled on a sagging sofa. We sucked ice cubes watching The Ed Sullivan Show; “From New York City!” on a black and white Zenith television. A man twirled plates on poles: five, seven, twelve, twenty plates simultaneously! We witnessed this feat respectfully amazed. Respectful, because I was amazed at his handlebar mustache and perfect tuxedo.
That summer evening of 1965, my father—a non-combative man—forbade me, at 12-years-old, to hunt, fish, or shoot a .22; and moving against gravity, slow but determined, he worked in the garage attached to our home in the badlands. Resigned to a life of desperation, Dad lifted boxes, loading his van full of mothballs for sale. In the ’60s a successful mothball salesman could buy a house. My sister, mother, and I sat glued to our Zenith in the living room, for all the world clueless.
Outside, Dad looked up sharply, dropped a case, and gravity vanished. The cosmos suddenly lost all air becoming a terrifying vacuum. The old Ford slowed a block away, creeping to the end of our cul-de-sac… violently it happened; the Ford threw itself into reverse. On television an animated eagle sipping champagne reclined against the rear rudder of a giant plane, “TWA, the oooonly way to fly…” and it came down between two heartbeats.
The heavy garage door slammed shut, the front door flew open, and we found ourselves locked in the back bedroom while my father, a white Jewish pacifist, stood trembling in our driveway, brandishing a 14-Gauge Browning shotgun and strapping Pancho Villa style ammunition belts across his shaking chest. That August summer of 1965 the Watts riots exploded.
Take people, cut their legs and wrists with iron chains, toss them like garbage into the dark holds of ships where they live, barely, in their own excrement until they are sold to be whipped and hung, and tarred and feathered, and finally threatened with genocide in the West; how in the hell could the Watts riots not finally arrive with flying bricks and Molotov cocktails down the center of Avalon Boulevard? How do we kidnap, murder, and using civil legislation to torture people and then tell them it’s okay because they are part of some night terror called The American Dream?
“The first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man. Unless he understands this, he does not grasp the essential meaning of his life. You can kill my body, but you can’t kill my soul.” — Dr. Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide
The “Great White They” said white feature films such as Beach Blanket Bingo (William Asher, 1965). Stay with the party and everything unpleasant will go away. Really? Does anyone believe that? Maybe The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (CBS, 1959-63). Dobie and I had a crush on Tuesday Weld (as Thalia Menninger in the series) who was easily 20 years my senior. I also aspired to be Maynard G. Krebs (portrayed by Bob Denver). These were the first clues my parents missed concerning how desperately I needed authoritative direction in business and commerce, and that at too young an age I was already on the road to sexual perversion.
1965 is the first year I recall being cognizant of a person’s skin color. I’d been scared before, taunted by the neighborhood bully, but this marked the first time I experienced testicular paralysis. They were coming to get us, in the dark they were coming, and I couldn’t feel mine. When the police arrived they ordered Dad to drop his weapon. He froze with horror. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t peel his fingers off the gun. He too stood paralyzed. Both of them facing each other with guns macho-e-macho. That year I realized that Dad—who screamed that I was not going to learn how to shoot a rifle with the Boy Scouts of America; no weapons now or ever would touch his son—was a man willing to lay down his life for his family.
* * *
That same year, President Lyndon Johnson committed to raising our ground forces in Vietnam from 23,000 men who couldn’t tell the North Vietnamese from the South Vietnamese, to an additional 175,000 men who could not tell the North Vietnamese from the South Vietnamese. No longer “advisors”, finally “troops”, the already protracted affair became publicly what it had quietly been since Eisenhower — a depredatory blood bath. It dawned on me, and devastatingly so—though, I thought my parents failed to notice—that now or later, or anytime between, I lived like a walking casualty. My impending death risked being trivialized in all camps from the street to the White House by a new political rhetoric I caught while sneaking a peek at Dad’s Playboy magazines; “White Colonial Racist (dead honky)”, or “Military Advisor (dead uniformed honky)”.
I was a honky Jew, and it seemed for me death waited everywhere. About this time in a young man’s life a well-meaning family member usually appears with the asinine advice, “Why, these are the best years of your life!”
Clearly, I was doomed.
The escape route evidenced itself early: grasp immortality. A real man guffaws in the face of death. I became invincible, eternal, a tough little shit practicing the gentlemanly art of rolling my Camels soft pack into a shirt sleeve, like Brando in The Wild Ones. Not to devalue human suffering, 1965 stands as a disastrous year for many, but not for Max Greenbaum. Though I weighed in at a magnificent 90 pounds with the homies calling me “Flaco“, I walked tall and eternal. I considered my chances of survival in the ‘hood and in a Christian nation would have fared better as a Roman Catholic rather than a Jew. In 1965 I swore off God, and right-handing it nursed my ever-growing sexual fantasy about Tuesday Weld, my very own shiksa, and learned to smoke—and smoking saved my life.
The next two years found me performing death-defying feats on a daily basis: guzzling gin and cutting school, huffing glue rags, acetone, and paint thinner, drinking codeine cough syrup by the gallon, ingesting diet pills, and learning how to construct hashish bongs out of toilet paper tubes and bits of tin foil. I grew into the young man mother warned me about; a stoned, bushy-haired hormone weaving in the wind, a mescaline-soaked broomstick with teeth, furious over the injustice of it all, and embracing the reaper.
I was confused about just what was “the injustice of it all”, but I viewed my newest favorite film Rebel Without a Cause staring James Dean, who I was certain held the answer to my first query, “Why am I here?” Dean was cool. I studied books and film and my cultural and political manifesto evolved suffering, wheezing between the fictional Dean Moriarty’s steering wheel of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the brass knuckle reality of Huey Newton’s right to bear arms. So what? So, what if I die! In a few years, they’ll draft my ass. I’m cannon fodder. Your boy on the front lines.
Dad bought me my first copy of the Los Angeles Free Press—big mistake—and took me to my first visit to a head-shop on Hollywood Boulevard and the Bodhi Tree Bookstore at the other end of town. It didn’t dawn on me that while Mom loved me, Dad knew my mind. He realized, like John Lee Hooker chanted, that “…the boy has the boogie in ’em and it gots to come out.” I was not satisfied to let life be. I howled insecurity. I was questing. I was cool, not like Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, but like Miles Davis cool, like John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme cool.
In my early teens, I had no friends to share my new cool with. I wanted to get out, get lost, I wanted to blow. I wanted the saxophone, but the school orchestra only had the oboe, so, I took it and chewed reeds for a year.
Kidneys, spleen, and liver, at 13 I hitch-hiked over Laurel Canyon to Sunset Boulevard hanging cool outside the Whiskey, hocking into my own private pool of historic fate, an adolescent face amongst the older new elite leftists, crowds of sheep wearing beards, beads, and make-up, and I wanted to be older. I wanted to die and get it over with or live free and ecstatic like the hairy beaded ones. The hell with whatever weekday she was, I wanted her coolness. I wanted her with stiletto heels, ripped nylons, ratted hair, and silver eye shadow. Obviously, I needed help but my mother still thought I was “basically a good boy”, and for my part, I didn’t want to make her cry.
* * *
I discovered this small thin 1939 novel in the library, Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo. When I hit the last page I became an emotional cripple. In the story about a paraplegic ex-soldier, told by his private hospitalized bedpan thoughts, his brain is all that survived after joining the service to become the best that he could be.
Trumbo tried telling the truth using his art. His literature received our country’s highest honor; a sweet-spot on The House Un-American Activities Committee blacklist. Trumbo, blacklisted with his typing hands tied and his mouth taped shut, still managed to sneak out the film script for Exodus. His seriousness as a Nazi sympathizer was never proved to my satisfaction.
The whole thing left me drinking and pill-popping against the day I would have to sign up for the draft.
* * *
Having graced school with my rare presence, Max “The Jewish Intellectual” gets his strut on, strolls into the classroom for one day astounding teachers with answers to questions they didn’t know existed. In my 14th and 15th years I was reading Rama Charaka’s explanation concerning a living universe with no death, which questions I tried asking and answering in science class until the teacher threw me out. I devoured Henry Miller’s fictional autobiographies of Paris; Miller’s early works when he was searching for freedom, when he walked the streets starving and angry—I was angry, and anger was cool.
“I want to prevent as many men as possible from pretending that they have to do this or that because they must earn a living. It is not true. One can starve to death—it is much better. Every man who voluntarily starves to death jams another cog in the automatic process. I would rather see a man take a gun and kill his neighbor, in order to get the food he needs, than keep up the automatic process by pretending that he has to earn a living.”~ Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn
Unfortunately, the intellectual scam didn’t work in gym class. Coach Himmler ordered me to play second from the end on the line. Thursdays were football practice. “You’ll love this, Greenbaum. It’ll make a man outta you. Grow hair on your chest.”
“Coach,” I said crouching, “I haven’t got a chest.” Himmler ground a steel whistle between his teeth. Lifting my head slightly, I, “Flaco The Magnificent”, stared fearlessly into the opposing face of my executioner. He crouched; a kid with warts on his arms. A husky kid made out of telephone poles. Expressionless. A massive upper torso constructed of two steel fuse boxes God welded together. An anal-retentive kid with blood-stained teeth and hair on his huge, round, wooden legs. Worse, he possessed chest hair, coarse chopped pieces of telephone wire wriggling up from under his shirt. I’ll bet the sonuvabitch has pubic hair, I thought. This is it. I’m dead. “I don’t know the play, Coach!” I stammered loudly, a final rabid plea to be taken out.
Himmler chewed his steel, “It doesn’t matter, Greenbaum. You’re a casualty.” The whistle blew. I recall only a single flash of pain before vomiting. The new plan evidenced itself clearly, to escape with an ounce of pride and a pound of flesh. I scraped my battered body off the field in less than the mandatory two minutes time-out called for nerds to scrape their battered bodies off the field.
“You’re a Nazi bastard, Himmler.”
“What was that?”
“You heard me,” I was dead anyway, “and don’t hand us that crap about being Czechoslovakian. You’re a German’s German. A killer. A murdering kraut. And one more thing—”
“Greenbaum, you’re outta here!”
Trotting happily off the field, I retrieved my cigarettes from the bushes next to the locker room. The showers stood deserted, so I lit up a quickie inhaling deep. I’d faced death. I was Brando with ash pouring out of both nostrils in thick trails.
“Hey, Flaco, whyfore you so angry, man? What you’re up against, man?”
“I dunno…” I shot a deep, thoughtful, suffering internalized look, a Brando special. “What a yuh got?”
I considered smoke rings but couldn’t move my tongue or operate my jaw. The kid made out of telephone poles punched me in the kisser before knocking the air out of me. Distant schoolboy cheers sailed through high transom windows like a dream minutes old. Smoking, cool once again.
James Dean died, I thought, in a car accident. A rebel car accident, and that’s got to be the coolest.
Forty minutes later guys busted humps running in from the field. “Did you hear what happened to the big kid?” my locker partner asked. “Didn’t you hear us screaming, Greenbaum?”
“Hey, I was busy here,” and I flashed him my cigarette, flicking the ash, spitting a piece of tobacco off the end of my tongue. All at once 35 shower heads sprayed steam into the room and that’s when I saw him, an apparition floating through mist. The kid made out of telephone poles loomed towards me. He limped, packed in surgical gauze, mummy wrap spiraling from his hairy collar bone down to the hip. “He got his ribs busted up bad,” my partner whispered. The kid made out of telephone poles inched by. His neck creaked while he struggled to turn it, obviously fighting with something important he wanted to say.
“Greenbaum,” he spoke as if the soul already departed its vehicle, monotone, a zombie except for the telltale twitching of an eye. “About what happened before, out on the field. It weren’t personal or nothin’. Still, it’s a good thing you left when you did, else I’d a had to kill you.”
Coach Himmler jammed himself behind the kid, propping him up with one hand and slapping him on the back with the other. “You’re a player, son. Hell’s bells, I wish I had thirty more like yuh!”
I looked down at my burning cigarette, up at the kid made out of telephone poles, and back down at the cigarette, and I knew. Smoking had saved my life.
* * *
In 1970, at the age of 17, Dad and I had a heart-to-heart. Two years earlier I left school. This is to say, that the Los Angeles City school system no longer wished to support my anarchistic tastes in the reading material which I chose to bring with me on campus in the spirit of sharing enlightening concepts with other students: Ramparts, Playboy, The Los Angeles Free Press, The San Francisco Oracle, and Rolling Stone were not appreciated as fine literature. It appears one is judged by the company one keeps and the material one reads. In this case I broke the code when Jim Morrison decided to take a dump on stage during a concert, and my favorite reading sources all deeply felt that Jim’s bowel habits of late deserved publication. Jim, and my own personal habit of leaving campus during lunch hour to go shoot pool, knock back a beer, and continue my obsessive search for Tuesday Weld at the local bar in Big Mama’s Billiards, was not an area of my personal needs any of the local schools would compromise on. For the last two years I had been looking for work, but not too hard.
During our heart-to-heart Dad gave me a choice; join the service, which meant landing face down in a Vietnam rice patty with my balls shot off, or accepting his one-way ticket to Israel on the overseas work farm program for Jewish boys lacking direction. I regretted informing the draft board of my world tour, deciding to advance my interests, and broaden my scope with no forwarding address. Ripping a pair of bell-bottom jeans, I attained instant spiritual depth as a road-weary sojourner, “Nirvana-Max”, a traveling symbolic cultural icon without guilt; not a shred, not an ounce, harboring no remorse for my actions and no misgivings save one—that America could not yet board civilian passengers to the moon. If so, I would’ve hopped that puppy the way Slim Pickens rode the bomb in Doctor Strangelove, without stopping to pack a spacesuit. No place on earth existed distant enough from the United States and Vietnam. For the last year or so, I lived on visions of Walter Cronkite and body bags.
I landed on a kibbutz and invented a life. Told the girls “Nirvana Max” flew in from Hollywood, that I played poker with Frank Zappa in Laurel Canyon, and hung on the strip with Jim Morrison and the guys.
Truthfully, I made love, smoked a lot of hashish and opium, and drank myself into a nightly stupor. The air lingered fresh and labor felt intensely honest to the bone, simple and invigorating. The kibbutz showed first-run movies like Easy Rider, and color television with Roger Moore staring in The Saint. I spent nights reading the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. I told lies between subtitles, calculations, computations, and reckonings to close the big sale, to get laid.
“I mean, man, we’re all out here with something to sell… and it’s pathetic.” — Dennis Hopper to Merv Griffin
Occasionally, a few of us workers gathered in a doorway at night, talking and laughing and smoking cigarettes, listening to the fighting and shells exploding across the Jordan, and reading about the war in the Jerusalem Post. In Israel bullets fly, bombs explode, people die, homes are lost, and there is much grief. However, if the service of those who have died is to mean anything, life, the daily life of the loved ones they have left behind to be the living fulfillment of a dream, must continue. It is not without compassion and understanding suffering that I write here, life in Israel has its beauty, and for a young man in search, life on a farm 9,000 miles away from the Los Angeles metropolis felt good. Stars hung low at night, and I wanted to touch them.
A profound sense of harmony offered itself—a transcendental state; to be a part of it all, but more than merely the sum of all parts. I actually began reading the Bible and traveling to various landmark locations; the sweet wineries of Rishon Lesion, the shadowed, blanketed hashish dens of Nazareth, the brothels of Haifa, the Dead Sea—that’s all, just a dead sea. For the first time in my life, removed from the streets of Los Angeles, Nirvana Max journeyed uncontaminated by fear, feeling the ancient mysterious lure of Jewish roots, and it happened during this time in Israel that I discovered the importance of developing as a serious smoker. The gentlemanly art is not to be taken lightly.
While visiting an historic mosque steeped in religious tradition, a small holy man wearing his black habit — born into it — warned that if I wished to light up I would have to step outside. I stared into his gray face and it became apparent. He worried about more than nicotine on walls, it was smoke in God’s eyes, a love for The Master; his was a position of caring for the Caretaker, and his sincerity warmed me. After time spent elevated in sanctification, in that house of Elohim, the spirit moved me yearning for tobacco.
I spotted a makeshift bar across the street between two crumbling buildings. Grabbing a seat, I ordered a Four Star beer and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Next to me, an old man drank his bitter Turkish coffee crinkling a newspaper in the sun, planted in his chair as though pushing out the most satisfying bowel movement of his life.
A great deal can be said for youth traveling far from home. The best time to be left on one’s own is when one is too young; coolness dresses in new subtle definitions. It no longer requires emulating others. Maturation begins, compassion, a feeling for the natural life, and one’s adolescent lies diminish, they’re trite; the time arrives to begin life’s journey in earnest. So, what if Brando is better looking than me? I look like what I am… between long drags of smoke, I have a style of my own. My own mind. Why not stand simply as a man amongst men? When I get back stateside, I’m switching to filters.
I noticed, firing up a smoke and inhaling deeply, that the mosque did a brisk tourist trade while few locals appeared interested. The old man smiled in my direction and I smiled back. I offered him a cigarette shaking it out of the package, which he accepted, and it was then, at that precise moment when the old man reached for the cigarette with his nut-brown, pudgy fingers, that the rear of the mosque blew to smithereens. The bomb blew so loud it covered the human scream tossing shards of a black habit in the air.
Later, the old man and I sat talking and smoking; not because we didn’t care, but because this is the way of life in a country at war—that is to say, I learned sadly that afternoon, life goes on. “Ah, to be young again! When I was your age I still lived in my native Hungary, but I dreamed of traveling. You, young man, are blessed. Relax, sit. Enjoy a cigarette. Drink beer. Don’t let anything rush you. The world is yours!”
‘Thanks,” I said, trying to make sense out of the commotion across the street, people scattering in all directions like body lice. My first feelings of belonging to the family of humankind. Something snapped. I became connected and I cried.
The old man rubbed out his cigarette butt. “You know,” he said, “they never allowed smoking inside the mosque.”
I watched the military, rifles slung over their arms, high stepping cautiously through chunks of debris. I slid away the empty ice cream plate decimated by ashes and melted vanilla goop, and I knew that smoking had saved my life.
* * *
In my 40s, a universal search for personal satisfaction struck me as an immature unattainable ideal. Wasted. A silly neon blip in the gas of eternity. During the early ’90s, Sunset Boulevard lay ancient and barren before its due, fallow, no longer producing artistic populace, arthritic and lonely as a vagrant dying from exposure at 5AM.
Middle-age coolness required café’ au lait on scroungy sofas in Santa Monica’s 1st Street coffee houses. The rhetoric changed from a political hard hip to a rhythmic slip of the tongue by white guys talking blackness, blackness being gangsta, Nicholson wearing shades in the dark, and Latinos mobilizing for the first time to vote the ‘hood. It was very cool, especially Nicholson in shades flashing his leering toothy grin, once witnessed impossible to forget.
But I’m cutting past my stride, sliding down the merry hillside bereft of marijuana and booze, a victim of the uneven distribution of wealth; feeling in the pit of my stomach that I would never make it because at that late stage of the game I had not arrived. I had not achieved. I became the vagrant—a self-fulfilling prophesy, and don’t think it didn’t hurt.
At night my body curled in on itself as though regressed to adolescence, as though they were coming in the dark to get me. The doctor’s diagnosis, stomach pain is stress. He prescribed pills. I was older and had lived ecstatically. Perceiving existence through my heart with pockets empty, and the fear of death as the vagrant, gripped at my ankles wrapping itself around my throat. I smoked three packs a day, but it didn’t help. I’d become a man. The heart-to-heart one must have with one’s self arrived. I never found Tuesday Weld. I found a woman who Tuesday couldn’t possibly hold a candle to. But in the end, the heart-to-heart is always an alone moment.
* * *
On a January night in 1994, late, I looked over at my wife, Ann, lying next to me in bed and I blurted it out, “God in heaven, what do I do now! What do I do to save my pitiful, insignificant life?”
Her eyes fluttered in the dark and she bolted upright. “Jesus, Max! Honey, I’m asleep.”
“Sorry, babe. I think I’ll take a drive.”
Blowing exhaust on the Hollywood freeway, doing 80 in a 55mph zone, because I’m gangsta, I’m Dean, I’m Brando, I’m Nicholson, dammit, and I’m desperate to save my god-damned fucking life!
Check el coche’ ahead in the right lane. Low Riders? Maybe they have guns. Maybe I’ll ease up and shout my most explosive obscenities at them because I, Max Greenbaum, spit in the face of death! I drove exhausted of starving, struggling, searching, and of living.
I fumbled around for a cigarette lighting it off the dash, pushing the car to 85, gaining on death in the right lane.
I don’t know why the cigarette slipped out of my mouth or rolled between my legs into my crotch on the seat. I panicked for a split second. At 85mph it only takes a second to lose control. Spinning and fishtailing I passed death in the right lane. When the car slowed and I swallowed my heart, I remembered the cigarette. I pulled off the freeway bridge onto Vine Street below. The cigarette had dropped to my feet, and reaching for it I bumped my head under the steering column. It felt as though someone rocked the car.
The motion stopped for two seconds and then the whole street buckled, asphalt losing control of itself, breaking and protruding out of the night at odd angles. Another moment of silence and as I dared raise my head a horrendous thundering, a rolling and pitching ahead in the dark. The freeway bridge high above rumbled and groaned, twisting like a single strand of concrete pasta tearing in three places. Straining my eyes in disbelief, it appeared death in the right lane hung over the bridge’s side by its rear wheels. Not a prayer for death.
After the 4AM earthquake, I sat in my car on Vine Street in Hollywood exhaling. Feeling serene, in control. So, they die? Each one of us continues the journey. If such a thing as owning my life existed, I owned it. I had faced death. I blew a long steady stream of light gray ash out from between my lips, and I knew smoking had saved my life.
* * *
Why write it now—too far from the beginning and not far enough from the end? I sit in my bed on the 14th story overlooking Los Angeles, its outlying suburbs spread like dirty soap scum under a thin layer of smog. Sunset Boulevard snakes quietly, gently from the Eastside, through mid-town, the Westside, and all the way down to the beach. I have, against all odds, arrived. As a matter of fact, I am Max, just Max. I prop up my notebook and if I want service, if the literary life makes me hungry or thirsty, all I have to do is tap a button. I’m writing about the search for coolness; the story of a trivial existence in an infinite universe; the legend of how smoking saved my life; of confusion mistaking anger for reality and finding love and appreciation for my fellow man. I can say with all honesty, the journey is as clear and knowing as it will ever be. However, the quality of understanding doesn’t knock with impunity.
A pleasant-looking woman wearing her starched uniform carries in a food tray. She leans forward, an ear pressed close to the vocal instrument I strap over a hole in my larynx. I try buzzing out a thank you and tell her I won’t be needing her for a while. Some nurses understand this buzzing better than others. She understands. Before leaving, she checks the oxygen flow to my plastic tent. The oxygen travels through tubing connected to green steel canisters, the kind that labeled with a flame and read “CAUTION. HIGHLY FLAMMABLE.”
I feel good. In control. Marriage is good, friendships are good, and good deeds are good. I had a friend who died, who used to say, “Dream the dreams that the dreamers dream.” The journey for coolness is worth everything and nothing unless you come out the other side knowing that coolness always has been, always is, and thus it will be in a world of acceptance. Lunch tasted good and satiated, I reach for a cigarette twisting it into place in the hole. I’m about to light a match, to sneak just one last smoke when I remember the canisters, and I know…
” Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” — James Dean