Monday, January 24, 2011
A LUCKY SHIRT
A Lucky Shirt
Edwin Forrest Ward
and this time
for Tonys: Doyle and Scibella
and for Emmet Grogan
I, Bobby Boyle, observe their routine. Twenty minutes before scheduled departure, into Union Station they trumble. (For the record: Trumble, a shape shifting love waddle of Denver cartoon lore, is a Barney of a figure, a character of Alfred Dietrich Kleyhauer III’s creation, Alfred being the only Denver bohemian Bob Dylan ever asked to meet way back when). Now, as I was saying, across the wide expanse of the marble floor of Union Station, Solo and Handler - as I call them - they trumble, two drill sergeants of the masculine gender, not so subtle in their overtly blue suit coats atop their more obvious personal body armor; blue: an indicator, for sure, of the undercover nature of their careers. My first day of study and observation, I realize that Handler and Solo are law even before I take into account the nose of the large German Shepard aside Handler. The canine’s toe nails clacking on the station floor conjure an auditory fever of hob-nailed foot soldier boots on flagstone (but that’s another era’s nightmare). This dog with his well-trained, discriminating sniff-er with nostrils flaring - collared on the end of the short leash in the grip of Handler - is a potent weapon in America’s War on Drugs.
Usually, the two agents part ways as they approach the waiting Amtrak train. Solo heads to the left and enters the last car on the south end of the Zephyr as the dog and Handler board at the other. Handler leads the dog down the stairwell into the lower baggage area as his partner, opposite end of the car, stands sentry at aisle’s end: a watcher, scrutinizing the passengers, looking for anxiety, fear, sweat, nervous ticks, and other profiled tells. After nine days of homework I have concluded that these two DEA operatives might come on any given day, but, so far without fail, they always arrive twenty minutes before departure.
Handler and Solo sometimes bring different dogs, and I get the impression that some of the dogs are in training, as evidenced by the observation that on a few occasions Solo arrives before Handler and dog. Solo descends the stairs into the baggage area of one of the cars with a backpack, suitcase or duffel bag. After reappearing empty-handed, he exits the terminal before returning with Handler and dog, predictably and precisely twenty minutes prior to scheduled departure. My plan becomes to wait until at least ten till departure before boarding the train, a nod to my calculated hope that Solo and Handler only work five days a week, figuring they have the day off if they are not in the station twenty minutes prior to departure. Note to self: it’s odd how those watching out, the guardians, the watchers, rarely suspect that they are being watched.
Hm, . . ., I remember another time and place (some forty years and two thousand miles different) where the watchers were watched.
I am working with a neighborhood community group, fighting the extinction of a neighborhood and standing up to the overtures of two major Philadelphia institutions (Drexel Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania) who are looking to expand. Read “expand” as tear down the homes in the hood and replace them with buildings devoted to scientific research, a consortium of buildings to be know as The University City Science Center. You see, the cold war, as well as the one in Vietnam, is going full tilt, and the military-industrial complex is flush with war money (hot and cold) and looking to fund major science centers. Physics has given us the A and the H and the neutron bombs and chemistry has given birth to the secrets of napalm and agent orange and new creative weaponry might be right around the academic corner if only there is more room to experiment. The neighborhood to be excised is mostly poor and black, and the loss of housing is considered to be just a way of doing business. The politics of eminent domain are not yet in the arsenal of urban development; otherwise, Mantua-Powelton, the hood in the way, would simply be wiped out. Blight for military might is a political equation hard to invalidate.
I have been assigned a three month stint as a liaison between Drexel University and the Mantua Powelton Community Planners Association. A federal agency is paying my salary as a student advisor. I am to facilitate the creation of a community newspaper, a task I actually know nothing about. The newspaper never happens but a lot of other revolutionary things do. For instance, a few of the neighborhood men I meet during my tenure become the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panthers. During the summer I work there, the MPCPA lays the foundation for the first “community school” in Philadelphia, a school that parents can opt to send their children to, if they are in the market for a little more blackness and civil rights in their children’s curriculum. The problems encountered are many, but in the autumn of Sixty-seven, the Mantua Powelton Community School does open, staffed by a consortium of Vista Volunteers, college students, community organizers, Black Panthers, and forward thinking educators from around the city and, indeed, the country. Naturally, a project such as this catches the eye of the FBI and half-way through my summer assignment as newspaper facilitator, it becomes apparent that those coming and going to our storefront office are being followed and observed, even photographed. Again, it’s not hard to spot the blue suit of a tail, especially when it is being worn by a white guy in a West Philadelphia slum. One night as I’m watching the eleven o’clock news with John Facenda, wouldn’t you know it, the front of the MPCPA office goes national as the FBI lines a half a dozen young black men up against the glass and adjacent wall and strips all six down to their birthday suits under the klieg lights of a planned photo op, all under the guise of looking for weapons, claiming the men are criminals: militant Black Panthers. To my knowledge the six neighborhood men subjected to this televised public humiliation are organizers and teachers, not armed revolutionaries. The next day the MPCPA decides to counter the bad press with a little prankster publicity of its own.
Now one of the other student liaisons enlisted to help produce the community paper is a photographer, who adopted the nickname of Grogan, after his hero, Emmet Grogan, who wrote Ringolevio, one of the bibles of Sixties’ underground political hipness. Emmet Grogan, for one thing, invented the peace sign of index and middle finger – a story in itself. My collegiate companion Grogan, at the suggestion of a Vista volunteer named Cassady, takes to surreptitiously tracking and photographing the followers; he shadows the FBI agents who are keeping tabs on the comings and goings of major MPCPA players. I remember a guy following me almost gets whacked by a bus as I dart across Market Street on my way to the subway.
In early August a street fair is held to introduce the idea of a community-run school to the neighborhood. The backdrop for the street fair is a plywood fence that has been erected around a house that has been condemned and is about to be razed. And on the eight foot high fence are hung blow-ups of the photographs of a dozen undercover federal agents who are currently working the hood. Spray-painted on the fence is the advise/slash warning: “Get to know your FBI.” As I said, the watchers rarely consider that they are being watched.
But back to Union Station forty years later. The Zephyr leaves at seven-ten and I’ve been here since dawn. As I spy no sign of Solo arriving early to plant a satchel for a training session and because at 7 AM Solo and Handler’s twenty til departure window of arrival has closed, I purchase a ticket for Chicago’s Union Station, one way, for if everything works out as planned I’ll be flying back to Denver a few grand to the good tomorrow night.
After stowing my small twin suitcases in the lower luggage compartment (mis-matched luggage is a smuggler’s tell) I get comfortable in the next to last passenger car. I sit midway by the window happy in my assumption that all is well. The valium I took when I left my Lodo loft is working and the usual anxiety that accompanies interstate trafficking in Mischoacan has been replaced with muscles relaxed, eyes a bit heavy-lidded, and a tension-breaking yawn of cool contentment. I could fall asleep and probably will, but not before this train leaves the station. It ain’t a done deal yet. Not till Grogan meets me in Chicago.
At seven ten, on schedule, I feel the Zephyr’s breaks release and close my eyes. But when I don’t feel the expected attendant locomotion of the train, I open them. I am startled and alarmed at two developments: one, the sight of Handler, a dog (that looks like a cross breed of a Coon Hound and Weimaraner), and Solo approaching the train from the ticket counter; and, two, the jolt of the Zephyr’s breaks being re-engaged. I laugh to myself at the irony of my silent lamentation, “fuck!”( – believing as I do that “fuck” is a Celtic verb of a word, meaning to turn the soil carefully, perhaps while looking for eggs.) It’s a mixed metaphor, but I can’t help but think that this nightmare of a DEA mixed breed will be turning the luggage carefully in search of the scent of contraband. I second guess myself and think I should have driven one more time the gauntlet of the interstate after all, instead of changing up to chancing things with Amtrak.
So I consider my options. I can exit the train, return to my home, minus my investment. That’s the easy way out as nothing about the luggage is traceable to me. Or I can retrieve my suitcases and stow them under my seat as I’ve never known Handler and his dog to ascend the stairs and enter the passenger compartment. The G-man and dog only search below and in the nine days I have observed them they only ever find the bags that Solo has planted. But as I’m wrestling with my problem, time runs out. Handler and the dog pick up the pace and before I count nine they are below in the luggage compartment, just inside the entrance to which sits my twin pot stuffed Samsonites. I have no alternative really but to see what happens.
I get up from my seat with prescription drug induced nonchalance and go to the stairway of the train. The loudspeaker asserts there will be a twenty minute delay and other passengers also arise from their seats and head likewise to the platform stairway, I suppose, to stretch their legs or maybe exit the terminal for another last smoke. I get off the train and muddle around the platform, followed by a half dozen other passengers. People alight from the cars adjacent to mine as well. Solo is nowhere to be seen and I can only assume he’s already on the train although from where I stand on the platform his location is a mystery. He could be in my car or the last car. My plan has proved flawed but I’m angling for an impromptu correction as I do believe in luck. After all, I’m wearing my lucky shamrock green and white striped waiter’s jersey with the solid navy back from my Boston Half Shell days when I made way too much easy money after getting off work late night in Denver playing backgammon sober with drunken gamblers in the bars of Glendale. For years, luck has been my religion, one of the few things besides love that I believe in. And as luck would have it, when I peer into the area where my suitcases are, Handler is disciplining the dog with his commands. “No” he’s telling the dog as the dog lies by my suitcases, “Follow me!” Obedient the dog gets up and follows Handler into the interior of the luggage compartment. With no time to evaluate the likelihood of my impromptu Plan B, I take a chance and grab my suitcases and head back up into the passenger compartment of the train, hoping my actions are unobserved, and sit where I’d been sitting before, stowing my suitcases under my seat. It’s then I hear the voice of Handler spilling out of the earpiece of Solo’s headset, alerting Solo to what Handler considers a situation that Solo should check-out. I calculate Solo must be sitting pretty close behind me given how well I overhear Handler’s remarks. “A guy in a dark navy shirt just boarded the train and he may have taken something from the luggage compartment. Something’s amiss although Coondog found the briefcase of coke they put on the train in Salt Lake. I just caught sight of a back. Probably a male, wearing a navy blue shirt and jeans. Could be nothing, could be something. Check him out if you make him. Navy blue shirt is all I really saw.”
And with that I press the navy blue backside of my shirt so far into the leather of the Zephyr seat, my impression’s probably there today. When Solo walks the aisle looking for a guy in navy blue and scans me, he only sees the Irish and white stripes of my waiter’s acrylic soccer jersey. My lucky, two-faced shirt indeed!
Twenty minutes later the Zephyr heads east out of Union Station and I sleep all the way to Chicago and business with my old friend Grogan.