A continuing tale of life in the boonies
Poets who matter: No. 12 – Bob Dylan
FARMINGTON – The Rochester Poet Laureate selectors are due to hold their first meeting in Council Chambers on Thursday, Oct. 4.
In this regard, I have very disappointing news for anyone cheered by last week’s revelation that applicants for this prestigious position must agree to undergo criminal background checks. Behind-the-scenes e-mailing now suggests a complete backing away from this laudable stance.
I had thought the idea an excellent one. Poets, as a class of irritating agitators, have been getting away with things for far too long. News that they were about to be scrutinized at last, I surmised, would have had scores of ‘em packing up their paper scraps and podiums and berets, and panicking towards the city boundary in their Priuses, like middle-class Okies in a Dust Bowl.
But, oh no! Not now. Not when word gets out that the criminal background checks are off the table. Mark my words – the flow is going to reverse. The welcome mat is out. Rochester is going to become a destination, folks, for ne’er-do-well, trouble-making poets from all over the country. Criminal record? No problemo. It reminds me of Bob Dylan’s lines, tweaked slightly:
Wanted man in Albuquerque, wanted man in Syracuse,
Wanted man in Tallahassee, wanted man in Baton Rouge,
There’s somebody set to grab me anywhere that I might be,
I’m heading up to Rochester, where poets can roam free.
Bob Dylan - now there’s a man who’s penned acres of drivel, beret or not. Once in a while, though, he’ll produce a golden nugget, which, with minor changes, may capture the mood of another place and time. It is because of this universal vein in his work that Dylan is worthily on aboard, this week as a Poet Who Matters.
I was reminded of him the other day upon getting a phone call from the son-in-law of Gale Grace (she who writes the Farmington Veterans column). He, the son-in-law, after passing along a news snippet, asked about my Scottish accent, learned that I was from Glasgow, and had worked as a police officer in a huge, desolate area of the city called Easterhouse.
“Have you heard of the Drummy?” he asked, and described his brief encounter with one of the housing project’s gangs and how he managed to talk himself out of a tense situation.
I once knew the Drummy well, and the atmospheric opening lines of Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues flooded into mind:
When you’re lost in the rain, on your ain,
And it’s Easterhouse too,
You’ve finished off the Lanny*,
And there’s not a taxi anywhere in view,
Don’t put on any airs
When you’re down on Drumlanrig Avenue,
They got some angry wee men there,
And they’ll really make a mess out of you.
Around 1967, all over the sprawling, featureless Easterhouse housing estate, angry wee men, a.k.a. mental young teams, were painting their provocative territorial graffiti - Drummy, Den Toi, Pak, Bal Toi, Fleet, Rebels – on every viewable public surface. Gangs clashed with knives, bottles, rocks and clubs.
Well, they’ll stone ya when you’re walking ‘long the street was dangerously true, if someone happened to walk in the wrong neighborhood.
Ambulances responded with stretchers and bandages, newspapers with banner headlines and the police with two special eight-man snatch teams.
And the riot squad they’re restless,
They need somewhere to go,
On Desolation Row.
Yup, there was Dylan again, right on the money.
An English song and dance man called Frankie Vaughn, he who once co-starred with Marilyn Monroe, expressed interest in solving the Easterhouse violence. While performing in a Glasgow theatre for a two-week run the limo-riding Mr. Vaughn met with “gang leaders’ numerous times, surrounded, of course, by press photographers and reporters. The police, though justifiably disparaging off camera, agreed to a brief amnesty, during which knives and makeshift weapons were dumped in garbage cans by grinning teens as newspaper flashbulbs popped. After the novelty of this idiocy wore off, gang warfare continued apace.
In 1968, with local government and private funding, the Army’s Royal Engineers arrived in Easterhouse and built two large conjoined Nissan huts on waste ground to provide a place for gang kids to go. A small staff was hired to run what became known as the Easterhouse Project Trust. On board was Archie Hind, whose Glasgow novel, The Dear Green Place, had been published to acclaim a couple of years before.
Literary ability was not able to convert into sociological success, though. Beset by continuing gang troubles, crippled by a lack of funding, and dogged by the ever headline-hungry press, the door of the Project closed within 18 months.
As Easterhouse became synonymous all over Britain with vicious gang violence, policy makers went back into a huddle, and decided to make city grants available to the EPT if a police officer was assigned to help quell the chaos. Between 1972 and 1975, three police officers were seconded to the Project, each moving away after promotion to the rank of sergeant. With gang kids only admitted for a few hours each week, and exclusive time allotted to quieter teens in the vicinity who were not part of the mayhem, ambitious police officers found they had time on their hands to study for their own self-advancement
Only the Drummy now used the indoor soccer hall and the snooker room by dint of their dominance in that part of Easterhouse. When I was sent from Blackhill to run the place in the summer of 1975, I discovered a couple of wiser gang heads to be interestingly cynical. They had heard Dylan’s Only a Pawn In Their Game, in which Authority gives a poor American white someone to hate – a poor American black. In the absence of such a racial divide Easterhouse, it was their inevitable role as poor whites - the reserve pool of labor in an economic downturn, or cannon fodder in a war - to hate other poor whites. Who were the politicians kidding? And I was only going to use them for a year, before getting a promotion, wasn’t I?
With the permission of the trustees of the Project, which by now included a Member of Parliament, a Professor of Sociology and a former Chief Constable among others, I was able to start the Afternoon Club for the legions of older teenagers and young men of Drummyland. Being daylight, when people act with slightly less irrationality than in the evening hours, a few members of the Pak (now called the Aggro) drifted in without conflict.
Teenage girls came too for the music that was hooked up, and I saw that one lass was actually crocheting a woolen square while she listened. Knowing that it would only take one fight to finish off the Afternoon Club, I had a thought. Suppose that girl showed other girls how to crochet, and they made dozens of squares, and then sewed them together and presented the finished blankets to Old Age Pensioners.
It was slow going, but within a week, we had obtained several crochet hooks and made five squares. Time to phone the press.
The resultant photograph in a national paper of three girls crocheting blankets for pensioners, while several other girls pretended to, had an unanticipated effect beyond the immediate beneficial publicity. Bags of wool began to arrive from all over Scotland. Not all of them came to the Project, though. Some wool was mailed to the new police station in Easterhouse, and I would get a testy call to come collect it because they were not in the effing knitting business, they were in the jailing business.
One old lady from another part of Glasgow phoned the Project to ask if I could pick up some wool she wished to donate after reading about the nice wee lassies in the paper. I arrived at her flat and she explained that she had collected wool all her life with the aim of knitting for her grandchildren, but now she was crippled with arthritis. Aw!
I dragged three large bags full of a generous old woman’s colored yarn on the bus back to Easterhouse and felt guilty. There was never a chance the Drummy girls would ever crochet enough squares to make as much as half a blanket for even a tiny pensioner. The idea had been to create the illusion of domestic usefulness, in order to safeguard the Afternoon Club.
Over the long haul, the latter did transpire to be the greater good, but whenever I eyed the mountain of gifted wool in the storeroom after a bad day, I had ethical qualms. Added to that, a pesky reporter kept calling up to find out when the first blanket was going to be presented!
Like Judas of old,
I lie and deceive;
A gang war can be won,
I want you to believe.
* Lanny = Lanliq, a cheap fortified wine.
September 29, 2007
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