There’s an “Inside Sport” segment, a couple of years old, that follows Bill Russell and Jim Brown as they make their way around the country on a road trip they’ve made a couple of times, stopping in urban centers around America to talk to gang-affiliated young men about being young men of color in America and the responsibilities inherent in surviving this construct.
It is tough love, but it is love nonetheless. Seen from afar, it feels like it could be another feel-good NFL film, the self -congratulatory kind not uncommon in pro sports coverage. Up close though, it is smarter than this. Both Bill Russell, formerly of the NBA Boston Celtics, and Jim Brown, of the NFL Cleveland Browns, know that they may be a generation (or two) too old for salient conversations with these young men to have the same kind of gravity that a dialogue with Michael Jordan or LeBron James might have. Both men are aware of this, and though they don’t use this particular forum to call out Jordan or James, the viewer wonders….
It is clear both men feel like the inaction of these and athletes like these have cost black America. This kind of honesty is not unusual for either man. In their playing days, both men were often painted by the white media as prototypical “angry black men,” and both of them would have told you that this assessment, at that time, was on the money.
They were outspoken, proud, and the kind of men who owned themselves. They kicked open the doors for all athletes of color who followed. Theirs was an effortless-looking defiance that became some of the defining iconography of the nascent Black Power movement of the 1960′s. They didn’t kowtow, they walked tall, and right from jump, they scared the hell out of the guys who made the rules.
Especially Jim Brown, who walked away from the NFL at the age of 29 to work in movies after a beef with the Browns’ owner, Art Modell. Modell was upset that Brown would be returning to training camp late because of his role in “The Dirty Dozen” and decided to fine the NFL’s all time leading rusher $1,500 a week until he returned. Jim Brown decided he was his own boss and told Modell to go piss up a rope. To this day, Brown is the only rusher to average more than 100 yards rushing per game.
A few years ago, when LeBron James announced he was leaving Cleveland, I remember how pissed everyone got. I didn’t really understand it until I saw a replay of the press conference and remembered just how engineered and produced the whole thing was, how LeBron insisted upon jerking Cleveland off and trying to imbue this moment with way more significance than it deserved, referring to himself in the third-person and basically conducting himself like an asshole.
And LeBron was a native son of Cleveland. His message to his hometown seemed to be, “I’ve out-grown you.”
As I watched it, my first thought was: Jim Brown never would have done this. He played his whole career in Cleveland, nine punishing seasons. He left too soon, but he left proudly, with a greatness Browns fans could savor forever. My friend Martin Mull, the insanely talented painter and actor, comedian and musician, actually lowers his voice when discussing watching Jim Brown play. Martin is lucky enough to know Brown personally and is even more awed by the man Brown became after football.
There are people out there who disparage Jim Brown for his anger, his relationships with women, and the rumors of domestic violence. But know this: nobody can see into another’s personal relationship. I wasn’t there and neither were you.
The Brown I see is the one urging young men to walk away from gangs—to embrace education and responsibility and their communities. The Brown I see was also, arguably, the first Black Action Star. Every time I watch “Any Given Sunday,” I marvel at Brown’s natural ease and power. Even as an older man he moves with a cat’s grace and purpose. A smart director could have built any number of franchises around him.
Jim Brown could have just stacked his money and done nothing—played golf, opened restaurant chains, and talked shit on TV. He could have hit the speaking circuit and rehashed the glory days, night after night, finally giving America what it wanted: an angry black man tamed.
He could have.
Except that he is Jim Brown.
The word “Apache” is another of those catch-all words used to denote many tribes of first-nation peoples. Apache is, in fact, many peoples. The Navajo and the Mescalero are also Apaches. I was ignorant of this because I was only taught the history of white Europeans. Of the 562 tribes of first-nation peoples, a great many of them from the American Southwest to the Plains states can be identified as Apaches. Geronimo and Cochise were both Apache. There were Texas Apache, New Mexico Apache, Arizona and California Apache, and many, many clans contained in those tribes.
The first Americans were as different state to state and village to village as Europeans and Celts were. It is an inexcusable blind-spot in American history that the story of our first citizens are barely known to us.
My friend, the art dealer Sara Jo Romero, is a child of New Mexico and one of my favorite things in this world is an Apache “teardrop” arrow head she gave me some years ago as a gift. She’d find them all over the high dessert in new Mexico. they are lovely; made from agate, which was almost like glass and shaped into a lethal tear-drop shape that was so sharp I could still cut paper with it easily. These arrow tips were often dipped in poisonous compounds from plants–jimson weed and hemlock– to insure death in the intended target.
The Apaches were great warriors and hunters, often trading the elk, pronghorn and other hides for other goods with neighboring Apache tribes. They often raided and were considered horse thieves (a hanging offense) by other tribes and white settlers. Still, nobody much wanted to fuck around with the Apache peoples. They were ferocious in war–even the Sioux gave them a wide berth.
The Comanche (also Apache) regularly got their asses handed to them when attempting to usurp their fellow Apache tribes both the White Mountain and Mescalero Apache stomped their ass more than once.
A couple of Apache guys I know have a bristling resentment with the Navajo because their reticence at identifying themselves as Apache. “It’s like they’re Navajo before they’re Apache. They are like the Mick Jagger Apache. They piss the rest of us off.”
My friend, Hector Maldonado, who is Texas Coushatta (which are not Apache), often explains to me that nobody has a nastier opinion of other tribes like other Indians do. Like every other tribe, like the Irish, Italians, Polish and Germans, we want to be around our own kind, and are suspicious shitheels to those who are different from us.
The popular version of American history was that the Americas were virtually uninhabited when mighty-whitey got here. The ruling mythology being that the existing 526 nations were like so many rabbits and turkeys.
‘Sit on your ass, Pilgrim. . .light up a Camel. This IS the promised land.”
Thankfully, the Apache had peyote and used it in ceremonial sweat rituals to seek visions. And if you’ve ever done peyote, you know that, after the ceremonial puking up of your toenails, the visions are NO problem. That’s right, Butchie, gag down a button or two, if you don’t have any plans for the next week. . .and you bought your ticket to the aural and visual tilt-a-whirl.
I have friends that make a yearly pilgrimage to Burning Man with a stash of buttons and don’t remember a goddamn thing other than “There was fire. Big fire.” It looks like fun–a bunch of smelly hippies burning shit and fucking in the mud, all the while dressed like the cast of the Road Warrior. The website sure is fun. Friends have begged me to go and I’m always tempted but I feel like I’m too old by about 25 years for this circus. It is not lost on me that this pagan bacchanal is held right in the nut-sack of what used to be the heart of the Apache nations. I am betting there are no small amount of spirits to summon there.
I keep writing what very little I know about First Nation peoples because in 2012, in the middle of an election year, it seems they are nowhere in this conversation. It seems the stories of the 526 nations of our first Americans have been rendered disposable. That is the way history works against us. Bankers, bean counters, and bloggers now decide what is worth saving and what is worth remembering.
We want badly to forget that we took this country at gunpoint. We burned other humans in piles next to newly built railroad tracks. For all of the proud words and hyperbole being tossed about, about “honor” and “change we can believe in,” the land itself tells our story and underlines our transgressions.
When you step into the voting booth? Know this: We live on stolen property. Every sidewalk, every gated community, every 7-11. And we descend from the most successful murderers in human history.
“On the eve of retirement, after bombing and shooting his way into the headlines for half a century, Cleveland’s leading racketeer, Shondor Birns, was murdered in a style he would have admired. Where do you begin to look for the killer of a man feared and hated by so many?
Duster Mooney was late. The candlelight procession that preceded Holy Saturday Mass at St. Malachi’s had already begun as Mooney, his fiancee, Eileen, and his parents hurried south on West 25th Street toward the church.
The evening was still faint with light and a gusty wind swept off the lake, but the temperature was surprisingly mild for late March. In a little more than two minutes the 8 o’clock mass would begin, and the only concern Mooney had was whether there would be room to sit in the crowded church.
Mooney felt the shock wave first. It was as if some unseen hand had reached out and had given him a terrific push. The impact of the force was breathtaking and it forced him to stagger back a step or two.
The sound followed. It was more like a loud W-O-M-P than anything else, the kind of sound you imagine a coal mine would make when it collapsed. Mooney, still stunned, looked to his right across the street, and saw a piece of sheet metal spinning high in the air. Christ, it was part of a car door!”
–Cleveland Magazine, 1975
Michael D. Roberts
– – –
On March 20th 1975, Shondor Birns, Cleveland’s version of Al Capone, was blown to smithereens by a car-bomb. It was a mode of death Birns was quite fond of in his own practice of disposing of enemies. Most likely, his killer was connected to Danny Greene, an Irish-mob-former-union-leader on the Cleveland waterfront. It could have been many others as well; Birns was perpetually at war with the black criminal gangs as well over control of the numbers racket in Cleveland, and he wasn’t shy about flexing his muscles.
So ended five decades of his dominance in the underworld of that city.
He was something of a local celebrity in the ’50s and ’60s, palling around with Lou Boudreau, Bill Veeck, and Bob Feller to name a few, as well as prominent businessmen he bought rounds for at Alhambra, Cleveland’s premier watering-hole for the big shots in town.
He served much the same function as a guy like Toot’s Shorr or Sherman Billingsley did in their New York saloons. Birns fancied himself as something of a flaneur or a man about town in his later years.
This was Cleveland, Ohio in the mid-seventies and Birns was in a life and death battle with Danny Greene for control of the city’s criminal enterprises and unions, and had tried to kill Greene no less then six times with car bombs. My friend, Stan Klein, a child of Cleveland, told me that in the summer of Birn’s death, over sixty car bombs went off in Cleveland.
At the same time, Lake Erie was a chemical mess. The only fish that could survive in the toxic drink were the wholly unattractive sea lamprey, which look like nothing so much as a yard and a half of snot attached to a sucker disc at one end, and the lowly carp, which my pal, Stan, swears some Cleveland entrepreneurs tried out as an ingredient on. . .pizza.
Really. No Shit. Carp Pizza.
Stan Klein also told me he drove by the Shondor Birns crime scene back in ’75 and there were scraps of Shondor’s flashy wardrobe hanging in trees and on telephone lines. this was also the same year the Indians had 10-cent beer night at the ballpark. It ended in a riot of projectile beer bottles and fights, and rumor has it the team mascot got shanked.
Cleveland became the scrappy carp of American cities. No matter what indignities they must endure, they trundle on with the tacit knowledge that things can always be worse and probably will be.
They comfort themselves with feel-good bromides like, “It could be worse. . .it could be Detroit. It is an odd, beautiful city with a rust belt history and muscle and resilience. It is a place of mordant humor that produces cheery outlooks like that of the late Harvey Pekar. My pal, Stan, knew him a bit from the record stores and comics shops they both frequented and assured me Harvey’s distracted, misanthropic view of the world was no act. “Oh Yeah. He’s Cleveland.”
Even the underworld of this place was decidedly working class. Birns largely made his dough from numbers, gambling, and Union skim. He and Danny Greene fought over this prized turf for years. Only a scant yearand a half later, the notoriously hard-to-kill Greene would also be blown to bits by a car bomb, the seventh such attempt on his life.
They, the citizenry of Cleveland, for better or worse, seem to have been spared the bigger variety of criminal. The Bernie Madoffs, the Jack Abramoffs, the Donald Trump-types who fleece cities, only and always with the
bigger lie. . .the smoke-and-mirrors-type hustles common to bigger cities and economies and populations which always mean “more suckers.” Bigger. Better. More glorious. . .carp pizza.
Cleveland’s vices and criminal enterprises seem almost heart-warming and homey compared to the hustlers that take us over the hurdles now–the insurance, real estate and medical professions are constructed in a way that fuck us far harder and longer than guys like Birns or Greene could have never dreamed of.
Cleveland is Ohio’s biggest city. It has some gorgeous architecture–some of those last-gasp-of-the-Industrial-Revolution beauties. It also has an idiosyncratic and wholly American history; a place of fascinating contradictions and great epic narratives. Like we Chicagoans, hey suffer from a cursed baseball team and the city rests on a great gray lake of unpredictable temperament murky legends. It feeds into the cursed Cuyahoga, which once caught on fire and, before the EPA got a hold of it, was orange.
It is part of the mysteries of Ohio. . . Why do they stay? Why do they leave? There is an odd survivor’s pride about those who come from Cleveland. They are very proud of having lived there and when they meet each other, there is that unmistakeable Midwestern warmth and goodwill. They’ve even learned to laugh about the carp pizza, and the Mayor whose hair caught on fire.
What I would pay to see that happen here!