"Beatnik” George Bermudez, an undercover narcotics officer, learned to play the bongos, memorized Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol,” and became a published poet in order to infiltrate drug rings.
Review of “St. Marks is Dead” by Joel Millman, The Wall Street Journal
“After I finish my solo do you guys want to buy and sell some drugs?”
As I rang the bell to the “pad” where I was told a crazy drug party was in progress, I gulped to clear my throat–I didn’t want to sound nervous when the host answered the door. “Beatnik” George Bermudez had had his cover blown the Saturday night before, and I’d been called in to replace him while he went into hiding for awhile. There was no telling what the beatnik drug “kingpins” would do if they caught a “rat.” Make him watch an entire Professional Bowlers Association tournament–they were kingpins, after all. Or it could be something worse, the ultimate in hepcat punishment: force me to listen to an entire evening’s worth of beat poetry.
I checked my shirt pockets; in one I had a voice-activated recorder to collect incriminating drug slang–“Mary Jane,” “weed,” “dope”–as evidence. In the other, a Sony Walkman with a tape of Oscar Wilde’s “Amor Intellectualis” that I could listen to surreptitiously if anybody challenged me to recite one of his poems. It was kind of a shibboleth among the druggie crowd; you had to know an Oscar Wilde poem by heart to make it into the inner sanctum, the room at the back of the apartment that had strings of beads hung from the lintel of the door frame to better conceal the illicit activity going on inside. “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” was no good anymore since Hernandez had been reverse-busted, and anyway, I could never figure out how your were supposed to get “jail” out of “gaol.”
Wilde: “Please–leave me out of this post.”
I heard footsteps coming down the stairs and, when they stopped, I assumed I was being examined through the peephole. The door opened just a crack–the “dealer man” didn’t unhook the safety chain–and I heard a voice say “Who’s there?”
“It’s me,” I said.
“Who’s is me?” the voice said.
“I think you mean ‘Who am I’–don’t you?”
“Don’t go all existential on me.”
“It’s not existentialism,” I said, bristling a bit. “It’s just good old-fashioned grammar.”
“I had quotation marks–inverted commas–around the ‘me’,” the voice said.
“Oh, well, in that case, everything’s ‘cool’ man,” I said. “I’m ‘Hepcat’ Herb Clark.” I could have added the rest of my moniker–“Bongo-Playing Narc”–but I was undercover, and so was allowed to conceal my identity to the ‘perp.'”
I heard the chain scrape back through the lock, then the door opened and I saw him: Frankie “Skitch” Mayerson, kingpin di tutti kingpins. “Who sent you?” he said.
“You’ve got to get inside the druggies sick, demented heads!”
“Bongo Players Local 148,” I said.
He looked me up and down with a skeptical gaze. “Lemme see your bongos.”
I pulled my bongos out of my rucksack. It was usually full of rucks but I had tossed them onto the ruck pile back at my “crib” before coming over.
“Skitch” looked them over, nodded and twisted his mouth into a little moue of approval. “Not as good as the ones George ‘Beatnik’ Bermudez used to play, but I guess they’ll do.”
I started to step in the door but felt the shock of a stiff-arm to my chest. “Wait a minute,” “Skitch” said.
“Are you a published poet?”
He must have thought he was dealing with a real rookie. “Of course I am.”
“Show me your publication credits,” he snapped.
“A day at the beach,” I said with a contemptuous grin on my lips. “Like fallin’ out of bed. It’s like takin’ candy from a . . .”
“Enough with the lame figures of speech!”
I reached into my rucksack and fanned my published poems in front of him, like a poker player showing a royal flush. “Light, plangent voices, Spitball . . .”
He didn’t seem impressed, so I turned over my hole card.
“The Christian Science Monitor.”
I heard him exhale involuntarily. “The same rag that published Sylvia Plath’s first poem?” he gasped.
Sylvia Plath: If you close your eyes, you can’t tell us apart.
“The same,” I said, and rather smugly.
“Then you’re jake with me,” he said. “Come on up.”
I climbed the steps behind him and when we reached his second floor apartment, I entered a den of iniquity. Once you walked through it, you got to the living room of iniquity, then the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom of iniquity.
“Everybody,” “Skitch” said. “I’d like you to meet ‘Beatnik.'”
“Hey, Beatnik,” everybody said. They were slovenly dressed and had bad posture, but each one kept their quotation marks on straight.
“Are you going to play the bongos for us . . . like the last ‘narc’ did?” a guy named “No Nickname” said.
I glared at him. A few of the other “Bohemians” in the room stifled laughs. For a group that thought of themselves as “liberated” I thought it was hypocritical of them to stifle stuff. But that’s how the “beat” crowd was; self-proclaimed non-conformists who dressed alike, talked alike and thought alike. A bunch of malcontents who were only happy when they were unhappy. So-called “rebels” who went out of their way to . . .
“Why don’t you stop your internal monologue and . . . like play something for us–‘Beatnik’,” a willowy blonde named “Venus” said.
“I’ll see you and raise you,” I said, narrowing my eyelids to grim little slits. “I’m gonna play a bongo solo and recite a poem at the same time.”
There was a gasp from the assembled multitude of attitudinizing post-adolescents.
“That’ll be wiggy!” a woman in a French sailor’s shirt said over the shoulder of the French sailor inside it.
“It would be like breaking the sound barrier, Daddy-O!” a cool tool in a beret said. “But . . . can you really do it?”
I snorted at him with disdain, and recalled a homely expression from my days of manual labor in one of the “m” states in “flyover country” unknown to these East Coast “sophisticates.” Out where men were men, women loved them, poems rhymed and jazz had a melody. “If you don’t think I can do it,” I said, “just hide and watch.”
A few of the crazy cats and kittens heeded my warning and crouched behind the second-hand furniture and coffee table. “5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1” I counted down, like some mad German scientist about to launch a rocket Americans needed foreign help to build because of the over-emphasis on social skills to the detriment of math and the sciences in our K-12 education system. And then I fired my jets and achieved lift-off:
Yeah, bongo-crazy baby . . .
You’re the one for me, oh yeah!
You’re oh-so-bohemian baby
Not at all meh!
I looked at the disaffected youth before me–they seemed to be “digging” my “groove.”
Everything’s ‘cool’ baby,
Although you lit a flame with your sparks!
I like your groovy nickname baby
which is held in place by your quotation marks.