I sell nickel bags
Pretty good weed sure
Comes in bricks from Mexico
Ive seen the whole operation
The safe house up on Walton Ave
We went down to Manhattan to the city to party and goof around but we never went down there to sell drugs
Too much trouble
You could really get busted wide open down there and you never know you might never not come home for a coupla years and When you did it might be in a pine box and an Army uniform by way of Vietnam
I saw it happen to a kid from around our way by the name of Rodriguez
I said I sold weed I don’t smoke it
That it was because of the dope that killed my father and my uncle
For the college
For the City University of New York
For our people
The patriots of Puerto Rico USA
For the play Much Ado About Nothing
That big funny man with the voice like a horse who all he wanted was to put on a legitimate production of Shakespeare
That was the way that he talked
I never laughed at him though a lot of us kids did and he laughed right back
That was Bo
Beauregard to you
He was six feet five if he stood up straight with a belly that stuck out and a couple of spindly legs
Like a grown up giant bantam rooster like one of my granddaddys fighting cocks
He put Juan and I into his play because he saw right away that we had talent
A lot of the ones who laughed thought he was kind of queer or something but frankly I think Bo was never happier or more turned on as we used to say then when he was reading Shakespeare out loud to someone
He could have acted out every single one of the parts of the play himself if he could have done it that way but he was scared of something like the rest of us
The real tragedy was what happened to Juan
He called me Che because I had the tee shirt I was wearing it the first day we came out in front of the old tire factory it was a bright sunny day and they all had handpainted posters and scarves on their heads
My own Uncle Willie had a hand in the factory at one time
I had no idea it was turning into a college
It was Juan that put me on the news report that started my career as a symbol of the underdog
Tell them you oppose all conventional wisdom
Tell them that William Blake said that
And I did
Tell them that you sell weed but you don’t smoke it because there aint no jobs for people like us in our own community
I didn’t like the idea at first of ratting myself out on the 6 o clock news but I did it and it felt like a clean middle finger to all of them
That was the day we met big Bo. We are talking the fall of 1970.
He got us registered in the college and we met the Gonzalez sisters one of whom became my first wife and the mother of my three children
They were already in the play and studying to be dental assistants
Until what happened to Juan we were partners it was the best time in my life
17 is like that
We were standing in front of that old tire factory 149th and the Grand Concourse
Everyone had on hats and bandannas
We were all growing our hair out
We were mostly PRs a few brothers and Dominicans and some of the dwindling number of white boys
Juan said we had to politicize our lives
A cop liked Lucy too
She only liked Juan but she wasn’t stupid
That’s baseball we used to say
The driver lurched into reverse, bounced back down the curb, turned the wheel and hit him again. There was an awful sound and we drove away with no lights.
Only Lucy got in too deep
Juan gets rubbed out by a runaway cop car for starting fires which was three years later after I got back from Nam
And you tell me that lover boy was not involved I don’t buy it
Old Bo would buy a nickel bag here and there too did I mention
Saying you need to rehearse
But I got money to make
We did it in the empty lot beside the high school
It was ramshackle Im telling you
The building up the road was a shooting gallery with junkies hanging out of the windows day and night down under the Deegan was the hookers stroll
All in the shadow of the House that Ruth Built and the gold plated Bronx Courthouse
Wild bro I swear
I learned to write, landed a job as a tutor in the college writing center and mostly got out of the dope-selling business.
It might be sort of unpopular to say this but we treated the movement to save the college like it was a military campaign. Those of us from the Veterans Club. How could we have helped it? We were against the war like anyone else, I mean who is really for war, but we weren’t against the military. I was in the reserves when I came home and it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It gave us a way to wind down, if you know what I mean.
Our feelings about war were ambivalent. It was a lot of fun too. You found out what you were capable of and what you were not, pdq. Though clearly it was good to get out of Vietnam, we learned a lot.
I reenlisted twice myself and each year I served, three in total, was like a separate epic season of discovery. Even after I finished my last hitch I stuck around as a civilian free-lancing for the government, a kind of special forces rehab period that ended abruptly on April 30, 1975. I re-enrolled at Hostos in the fall and by spring the city was trying to close down our college. Forgive us, for taking it personally.
I started writing at Hostos, finished two semesters there then quit and got drafted. I re-upped in ’73, ’74 and in early 1975 took a job writing up reports on something called the over-integration of American soldiers. I was one of them. I had a girl there until I found out she was pregnant and it was not mine. Welcome to Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of American civilians and at-risk Vietnamese. A lot I had filed reports on, women in danger by relationships with our soldiers.
A lot were left behind. I got on a helicopter, switched to a plane at the airport and 22 hours later it was only in my head. It took me awhile to shake it out. I wish somehow sometimes I could have just shaken it out of my right ear but it doesn’t always work that way does it. It really never does. They say war is over if you want it, sure, but they’re not talking about the soldier. So anyway I look back on Vietnam as some good and some bad.
What’s the word? Ambivalence, right. It’s a cool word.
Ezra Pound always said to write with words that are concrete. I was turned onto him by Professor Bo at Hostos, the first time I was there. He probably would have preferred Shakespeare but there is something clean and hard about Pound. He came to New York in 1970 and met with hippies in Washington Square Park. I saw him there. He was cool, man.
I came back and told Professor Bo who I had met and it blew him away. He gave me a couple of books. He always said college is not about the classroom. It’s out in the world.
We came back from Nam, for good or worse, to Hostos and they tried to take our college away. Well, we took it seriously. Our tactics might have seemed a little extreme. We took over the college. Preventing classes wasn’t our intention. The City University saved our lives.
We were a new kind of America, born from the ashes of the South Bronx. A lot talk about how great the Bronx used to be, but the Bronx didn’t fall, it was abandoned. We the people started Hostos College.
And in the fall of 1975 that Mayor Abraham Beame came up with the idea of disposing of three City University campuses to save money. Hostos was going to be dissolved into Bronx Community College.
We wrote letters. We gathered thousands at the Chase Manhattan Bank on 149th St. near Third Avenue. We collected signatures and marched on City Hall down in Manhattan.
A lot of city council members made speeches. We had eight buses worth of students, community members and faculty circling City Hall with placards, posters, and chanting. The next week copies of the petitions were sent to Gov. Hugh Carey in Albany. Two weeks later the coalition occupied the lone campus building 475 Grand Concourse, an abandoned tire factory. President DeLeon escaped through a window. We turned it into a child care facility. We showed films about Black Power, Cesar Chavez, Attica and Roy Brown gave a concert.
On April 3 at John Jay College the professors and administration tried to make up with us, but they had not committed crimes. They had not taken over a state government building. 10 days later police invaded 475 and forty of us, mostly students, were arrested. Most of us were released within days and we went back to classes.
We held one last massive last march in El Barrio from 116th Street on Lexington in Manhattan to the office of Mayor Beame’s and Gov. Carey’s financial control board on 56th and Sixth. Almost five thousand marched sixty blocks stopping traffic all the way. On June 11 the City University was fully funded by the state budget. I kissed my Gonzalez sister on the 149th St. Bridge and we made it down by the market. I got hired as a tutor and a week later we found out she was pregnant.
There has always been a market. The Harlem River meets the East River at the bottom of the Bronx peninsula. The Bronx side of the 145 St. Bridge from Manhattan crosses to 149th on the Bronx side.
By November 1975 the Bronx Terminal Market had seen better days, there were just a few legitimate businesses, some big depression era warehouse markets, but when the sun went down it really came alive. A man or woman in some sort of trouble could get whatever they wanted to salve their wounds. Near the river shore, under the moon was an old Cadillac, a Hoop de Ville with shot out tires, a big yawning mouth where the front end had been taken off and sold for scrap. The scrap metal plant was right across the river and ran all night.
It was a student who turned me on the first time, well a tutor. We were talking after class and went for a walk. I didn’t think it was a good idea, but those were wild days y’know.
You never think you’re going to get strung out. It was the day the vet club occupied the board of higher education. The tutor was one of the PR activists, a veteran, cool guy, a little crazy, touched by the war. You felt a little scared of him, sorry for him and fascinated all at the same time. I had done dope once before time after a poetry reading downtown. For some reason it didn’t stick. I was married y’know. But now I knew where to get it. Maybe it had something to do with me and Nancy breaking up.
The scene in my head that haunted me was out our tenement window in Harlem by the yellow light of one of those bulbs in a cage with someone’s white shirts and underwear hanging on a line across the way all night, my wife out there on the fire escape when I looked giving a back rub to the brother of one of her co-workers. I knew it was only a matter of time. It’s a weird thing when a woman does not want to sleep with you anymore.
The best idea I had at the time was to get a double dime bag of dope and share it with one of the kind ladies of the broken Cadillac out by the water. Some of the guys told them exactly how to do it, but I figured a girl like that knows her business. It took longer because of the dope but if you shared she didn’t mind.
The cracked windshield fogged up so when the cop beeped his siren, it startled me.
They waited till we finished. When I got out the one at the driver’s side said,
Where do you think you’re going buster?
I was thinking about walking over the bridge to Harlem.
How about getting in and taking a ride?
They didn’t cuff me or anything. We drove east back into the Bronx on 149. The cop driving looked like an eagle with this great reddened beak of a nose. He sniffed, coughed, drinking what smelled like gin and lemon soda from a wax paper cup that had long sweated out any firmness from a straw. His partner looked rookie cop, ex high school linebacker-type all over.
He didn’t look at me.
He occupied himself with the radio, ignored his partner’s admonitions to me, clearly pretending that the dirty policeman fumes his partner was perspiring out of every pore didn’t stink into his narrative. The lights were on at Yankee Stadium to the north, like a great spaceship about to take off, like a separate society of reality. The car radio played Cosell and Gifford ABC Monday Night Football. The driver looked at the mirror when he spoke to me.
He said, There’s going to be a deli on the corner. You go in, I’ll beep the lights and they will hand you a paper bag. If you run or try to, I will drive up on the sidewalk and run you over.
Up on Courtlandt Street, next to a bike shop, he pulls up real slow and I get out with him coming to a complete stop.
The partner was answering a call for a domestic disturbance in the projects.
You could see them looming up behind the bodega, the Melrose Houses.
The guy behind the counter was white. He looked like he could have been a cop but something about him was off. He didn’t have the right haircut for one thing. The cop outside burped on the lights. The not-a-cop fellow spit into a paper cup and reached under the counter. There was an old woman in rags reaching for some bread on a counter and she turned at the sound, saw me and sniffed. She looked at me and she knew in an instant that I was compromised, doing the bidding of some madman also laden with the recriminations of a forgiving lord yet in her smile and slight crinkling of her eyes there was mercy and understanding beyond all measure absolving my sins, the hooker’s, the dealer who had sold me the dope even the cop. I took the bag from the counterman, he knew too, stumbled out the door and got back in the car.
I tapped the passenger cop’s shoulder but he did not turn. The driver grabbed the bag.
He pulled away, and with one hand on the wheel and one on the paper bag, he gunned it. The old Plymouth engine grabbed as we climbed the incline. At the top of the hill the fellow crossing the street started to run. The driver swerved, and hit him in full stride, up on the curb against one of those tall metal things that were used to call a cop or a fire engine in the old days. The guy crumpled and slid down to the sidewalk.
The passenger cop made a choking sound.
The driver lurched into reverse, bounced back down the curb, turned the wheel and hit him again. There was an awful sound and we drove away with no lights. The driver pulled to a stop like it was nothing in front of the projects. His partner got out, looked around, sighed like he had just decided the weight of the world then ran into the houses with his radio fuzzing, fumbling with the snap over his .38. The driver cop got out slowly after opening up the glove compartment and putting the paper bag inside. He still had it in his hand. He thought better of it, took it out again and stuffed it under the front seat.
He never looked back at me. He looked over the bumper in the light from the outside of the houses. He wiped it off with his forearm sleeve then walked in past the usual suspects hanging outside. I left the brown bag. The world of sin is too small.
It was the next day at school at a rally on the Grand Concourse when I heard some students talking that I realized I had been in the car that killed the Mule’s brother and there were things that I knew that I was better off not talking about where matters of life and death could be decided by luck and circumstance on the whim of a reprobate, another mother’s son gone wrong jacked up on gin and soda in the middle of the night in a land where right and wrong are either side of a coin left spinning on the sidewalk.
It landed tails.
When I got arrested a couple weeks later in a protest at Hostos, I was looking over my shoulder at all the cops.
But that night I walked from the Melrose Projects back to the man on the sidewalk.
He was lying there.
A terrible sound came from him. He was trying to breathe. A couple of his back ribs were stuck through the skin of his back. I went to a payphone, found a quarter in my back pocket and dialed 911.
They asked if I wanted to leave my name, and I told them:
Are you on the scene?
Uh, I’d rather not say.
Sir, will anyone be there to meet the ambulance?
I don’t know.
Can you repeat the address?
I obeyed, dropped the phone and walked toward the man.
It was hard to get that close because of the sound. There was a shoe store with the gate pulled down. I leaned against the gate and lit a cigarette.
There was no one else on the street. It was going on one o’clock. When the ambulance workers pulled up, I ran out and flagged them down, pointed to the poor fellow, to Juan Colon. I retreated to the grate and lit another cigarette. After a minute I started walking. There was a saloon open back down the hill across from Hostos.
I walked in, sat down and ordered a double gin. I drank two more before I sat back and lit a cigarette. I already had one going. For some reason this made me start crying. A tear ran down my cheek. It felt so good. I don’t why. I went to the bathroom and finished what was left of the dope I’d bought.
I remember getting into a conversation with the bartender about the college. He was from the neighborhood and he was curious.
What is this whole thing about a bilingual institution? he asked.
I explained what was important about Hostos. He told me he was the first in his family to go to college, but he had not finished. You should go back, I told him. Everyone at Hostos is like you. Somebody told me they’ll take anybody.
It’s called Open Admissions.
We talked while closing, cleaning up and said goodbye as he was locking up and pulling down the grate.
It was after five. I went across the street to my office. It was a tiny little room we all shared, a combination lounge. The African was there. We talked and I gave him my coffee and donut. You could smoke anywhere in those days, so there were ashtrays.
I sat at the chair, leaned back and woke up with a bolt two hours and forty five minutes later. I had an eight o’clock class to meet. We did ‘Sonny’s Blues’ by James Baldwin and you know what it was one of the best classes I think I ever had. It was like I was fighting for my life and who I was. It was amazing.
The thing is I had started at the City University at Manhattan Community College. The original campus was in a shabby office building in the theater district in Times Square. My first job in the Bronx was up at Bronx Community. The campus is the old New York University Theological Campus. There was a Stanford White library in ruin from a fire. They shot that movie Love Story and it came out when I was working up there.
I remember the first day I was talking to class and there was a dead dog in the middle of Martin Luther King Boulevard. I worked at Hunter College and at New York City Tech, at Medgar Evers; the thing to do was to bring a resume to the department secretary. They are the ones that run the department. And then show up during registration when they were looking for warm bodies. Call and keep calling.
Most of the time I had jobs at least three different campuses until they made a rule about it, but that was later.
I sold my first short story for 25$ to the Sewanee Review. There were a lot of writers around. Richard Price worked at Hostos and Frank McCourt taught at City Tech.
There were bars nearby all of the campuses where you could get a beer and talk the talk with fascinating people. It was Hostos where I got strung out and it happened after I witnessed the death of Juan Colon. Officially of course no one would say his death had anything to do with the eventual takeover of the 475 building but I beg to differ. I never liked the teachers union the Save Hostos Committee. Their hearts were in the right place but they were white boy liberals.
I’m sorry but it’s true. They would have never taken over the building.
The students were pissed off after Juan was killed. It’s great to write letters to your congressman and all that crap. I get it believe me, I am an English teacher, but I am a writer too and a writer’s job is to see the big picture and this is how I saw it. This part of the story should be told. The thing is that all of the real militants the ones that took over the buildings the ones that were pissed off when Juan was killed by the man, the ones that fought the man were students and they were just passing through. That’s what students are supposed to do. The ones that stay are the faculty and for that they get to write the history. And their history is whitewashed.
They ignore the killing of Juan Colon and you cannot that’s all I’m saying. Maybe it’s guilt on my part. I’m glad this whole thing is anonymous, not that it was my fault. What could I have done? I was a hostage. Anyway I got strung out. I started ordering a lot of textbooks and selling them back to the bookstore. When I got desperate I stole them from the office. There were file cabinets and people left their books in drawers. It didn’t take much to go through them. Sell a book or two and buy a couple double bags. I was ashamed of it but it happened. That’s how I lost my job. Someone caught me red-handed and called security. The dean of students escorted me off campus. It was funny because the whole campus was just that one building.
He said, I think you should take a sabbatical.
It took me a few years to get clean but eventually I made it back. I never told anyone all this before but you know it feels pretty good to get it off my chest.
I read that book The Firm in the detox at Lincoln Hospital which ironically is right around the corner from Hostos. It was my fifth one. I got arrested again and went into Phoenix House. I cleaned bathrooms with toothbrushes, wore sandwich signs that said I am an Idiot, the whole nine yards. They went hard on me because I had the Master’s Degree in Literature. It was in there that I wrote my first script. I went out to Hollywood with it. I planned on teaching out there, but I never had to. The first script sold and I have been working in the movies ever since. I have never made a lot of money but sure I do all right. But it was Hostos that I got my start.
It was the ferment of the whole place. Everything was life and death. We were all up against the wall and it was electric. It was like stepping over the third rail.
— Drew Hubner
7 thoughts on “The Peoples College”
amazing piece, from beginning to end.
This is brilliant and I never wanted it to end.
Wow brother-in-law, what an amazing voice you have conjured up..I was spellbound and felt the tension mounting in me as it did in the story.
dude you are on it!
always amazing. I looked forward to ‘east of bowery’ entries, miss them now that they stopped but didn’t realize the second novel was out. going to buy it now.
thanks for the words, drew.