James 5: 1-6

(or Amos 5:11, Ecclesiastes 5:8-13, Matthew 19:16-24)
 

Book 3 - pages 15-17


In New Orleans I lived with a black murderer named Nell. Like the other murderers I have known or stayed with, he was quite an ordinary person who had only become a murderer by accident or rather because of his social background. Naturally, it took some time before he told me about his past, as he had escaped from a prison in Nevada and was a wanted man; but like other criminals, he had a need to share what was weighing on him with another human being whom he could trust. No one can live alone with such a heavy burden. We lived with some other people out in the eastern part of New Orleans, and Nell tried, as much as circumstances would allow, to lead a normal, respectable life. Since he knew he would be sent back to a life sentence in prison if he got involved in anything, he tried as much as possible to stay away from crime, and made a living primarily as a blood donor. I did not think his chances of remaining free for the rest of his life were very great, but I tried hard to make his breathing-space of freedom as happy and encouraging for him as possible. I felt that he had already been punished enough before committing any crime by the poverty and humiliation society had subjected him to in his childhood. It was when I expressed this opinion during one of our nightly conversations that he confided in me about his crime, and afterward we were bound even closer to each other through this secret confidence. We often took walks or went to the blood bank together. Mostly we could survive by selling blood plasma twice a week, as the blood banks in New Orleans at that time were the highest-paying in the U.S.: $6.10 a visit. Only rarely was I forced to steal cheese and other small items from supermarkets in order to get full. I did not want Nell to do it, as he could end up getting a life sentence for it, while I knew that I would be able to talk my way out of such an embarrassing situation with the employees if I got caught. Nell was always pursued by his fate in this way. But never did it strike me so forcefully as on the evening I last saw him.

We had made the stupid mistake of walking down the street together in the black neighborhood where we lived, and thereby attracted the attention of the police. It is a mortal sin for a white man and a black man to walk together in a black neighborhood, as they are immediately suspected of being dope dealers. But being deep in conversation when we swung into the neighborhood, we forgot to part. It was not long before a patrol car pulled up alongside us in one of the dimly lit streets in the east ghetto. The cops were the nice jovial type who really only wanted to scare us, and therefore said that we could go free if we just handed over our marijuana cigarettes to them. I have seen the police use this method so many times in black neighborhoods, since they don't have to report the confiscated grass but can smoke it themselves. I did not carry anything myself, but knew that Nell had one or two joints, like most others. But suddenly Nell was seized by his fate's paranoia - the paranoia and distrust of his fellow man almost everyone of his social background has - and he refused to hand over the joints.

For my own part I would not have hesitated a moment. I had complete confidence in the cops. Nell's distrust of the cops made him jam up like a lock and act irrationally. The police are trained to observe that kind of reaction in criminals and they immediately got out of the car to search him. They only found two small joints and his knife, but since he did not have any I.D. they took him to the station for fingerprinting. I knew right off that I would never see Nell again. He had been tripped up by the paranoia and sense of guilt common to all poor blacks, regardless of whether they have committed a crime or not. It was the same paranoia which had originally made him a murderer.

After Nell had gone from this world," New Orleans suddenly seemed like a ghost town and I could no longer bear to stay in the same house. I wanted to leave the city, so I tried hitch-hiking in the direction of Baton Rouge. New Orleans is one of the hardest places in America to get a ride, and I waited on the Interstate with my sign for hours, hoping to get picked up before the police came. All of a sudden the only Rolls Royce I've ever gotten a lift with stopped in the middle of the three-lane highway to pick me up. It was right in the rush hour and we immediately created a big traffic jam of honking cars. Just as I had gotten into the car, the police came wailing up behind us to give us a ticket for this illegal stopping. The man who had picked me up said he would take care of it, went back to the cops and without a word gave them his card. When the police saw his name, they became all smiles and friendliness and followed him back to his Rolls Royce, clapping him on the shoulder while assuring him that it was only a trifle and that we shouldn't worry about it any more. I naturally wondered who this guy could be who got off so lightly without even a ticket. He told me that his name was Peter E. Stormgard, and that he had picked me up because I was standing with my sign, "Touring USA from Denmark." He had never before picked up a hitch-hiker, but he suddenly thought it might be f'un since he himself was of Danish descent. Normally this information makes me clam up instantly and get out of the car as fast as possible. I have long ago lost any desire to be with Danish-Americans, who all too often give me only one feeling: a sense of shame at being a Dane. To Danes visiting America I give this advice: if you want to get a good impression of the country, stay away from this population group, which in general represents one of the most racist and reactionary white groups in the United States. 80 percent of them vote Republican I have heard. All they can talk about is how wonderful it is to be rid of the high taxes back in Denmark. They run away from every human responsibility and would be willing to relegate blacks to a kind of psychological concentration camp if they could get their taxes lowered that way. I have met Danish-Americans who were red-hot Social Democrats back in Denmark, but in the course of just five years had been transformed into the worst reactionaries. Danish-Americans have about as much understanding of blacks and poverty as a whip has of the master/ slave relation-ship. They stand in glaring contrast to American Jews, who are the white group I generally feel most at ease and in harmony with. This surprises me as I come from a country where Jews seem to be assimilated to such a degree that I had never noticed or even heard of anyone mentioned as being "Jewish" before I left Denmark, and thus never felt any temptation to stereotype them like this. With my new "Americanized" eyes I can only conclude that this group seems to have a deeper understanding of black people's situation and of those mechanisms in the system that made them Europe's "niggers" for so many centuries.
 

Well, all the same, to a Danish-American in a Rolls Royce 1 could not say no, and right away I started entertaining him with travel stories so that he would invite me home. I especially emphasized my experiences with Rockefeller, Kennedy, etc., since all little millionaires look up to the big millionaires and therefore I knew he would ask me home with a feeling of thus being brought a little closer to the Rockefellers. (Like many young Scandinavians shocked upon their first visit to the U.S. at the enormous discrepancy between the rich and the poor, I still had a strong dislike of the rich.) It worked, and I ended up heading back toward New Orleans. He owned the city's 16 finest and most expensive hotel, right in the heart of the French Quarter. Everyone in town knew him, and later I was told that he owned a large part of the French Quarter and was a housing speculator (slumlord). A fabulous suite in his hotel, "Hotel de Paris," was put at my disposal and I was told to just ring the bell whenever I wanted anything. Black waiters in freshly pressed uniforms brought everything to me on silver trays, with unbelievable servility. I sat out in the garden of the hotel and let a black waiter bring me one thing after another in an attempt to get him to open up, but it was impossible. He probably felt his whole existence threatened when I addressed him as a normal human being. I sat pondering how strange it was that at this moment Nell was being "served" by white prison guards in hell, while I was being served by black waiters in heaven. It was as if everything in our lives had, in a natural way, brought us each to his own place, and our short friendship had only been a utopia. But it struck me that Nell, as a black, had actually come further, for wasn't he more free than this broken servant who was only able to hold his head up by learning to enjoy his own oppression here in this rich Dane's sadomasochistic universe? Wasn't Stormgard a murderer and annihilator, while at the same time seemingly a tender, quiet and unhappy human being who had learned to exploit to the utmost the mechanisms given him in this society? Furthermore, people said he was the richest homosexual in town, which meant he himself was part of an oppressed minority group. The security in these surroundings was nauseating. I felt restless and lonesome. It was a favorite hotel of the richest and most glamorous film stars, but there was no human contact. Should I go out in the street and find a poor person to share my luxurious suite and a bottle of wine? No, one should not buy friendship with wealth, I thought. Not even borrowed wealth. It didn't occur to me at the time that per-haps I had tried to buy his friendship with my stories. I only stayed there one night, a terribly lonely night.

For years I had shared home and bed with people, and it came as a shock to suddenly be lying there all alone. After my silver-tray breakfast the next day, I rushed headlong back to freedom, determined to find some people to live with. On Bourbon Street two young girls came running up to me to get my autograph. Being tourists, they had gone into the famous hotel out of curiosity and had seen me sitting there at breakfast under the palm trees and therefore assumed I was a movie star. For a moment I felt tempted to play "movie star" and maybe get to stay with them, but then chose to tell the truth. They lost all interest in me, and I realized that I was back down to earth again. Because of the many tourists, it is impossible for a vagabond to find a place to stay in New Orleans. Towards evening I was very hungry and recalled Bonnie's Grill on Decatur Street, which Nell had once shown me. Bonnie was an enormously fat white woman who ran a dingy little coffee bar. Bonnie was the type who could only speak to people in coarse, bad-tempered words and was always bawling them out, but the more harshly she talked to people, the more she loved them. She could easily have made good money from the cafe, but instead she was always broke because the place was frequented by the poorest street-people, and Bonnie gave free meals all day long to people who had no money. Bonnie remembered me all right, and knew I had no money, so right away she shoved a big bowl of grits in front of me, and later on hamburgers and other good things. She stood there in all her immensity with her hands on her hips and watched me without a word, but I knew she liked me be-cause I had known Nell. Without mentioning Nell she said after a long silence: "You can come and live with me now." So I moved into Bonnie's cheap, messy apartment. There were lice and fleas and several inches of dust everywhere.

What happened in the next few days was peculiar, for although we could barely communicate with each other and did not have a sexual relationship we quickly became closer than I have been to any other person on my journey. When we realized that we were probably the only ones Nell had confided his past to, we be-came inseparably bound to one another. Living with Bonnie was like living on a volcano of human warmth. She is the only one I know of who is still running the "under-ground railroad". To live with her was to be woken up almost every night by some black man on the run from the law. Here they all found a place of refuge. Bonnie loved black men, especially those who in one way or another had revolted against the master-slave relationship. She had always been that way. Earlier, she had live( in Jacksonville, Florida, but had been beaten up and driven out of town by the whites. She had gone to New Orleans, which is considered a freer Southern town.

Actually, her own two children were neglected and needed clothes, healthy food, and vitamins; but on the other hand they had, through their mother's actions, been brought up not to hate, and were far healthier in their own way than most white children. Throughout their childhood they had seen murderers, thieves, rapists junkies, and other felons take the place of their father in their mother's bed, but they had experienced them all as human beings because they saw them through the eyes of their mother, who refused to accept this as their real identity and who thus, through this faith in human beings, actually created human beings. For these children terms such as "murderer" and "nigger" had no meaning, since in Bonnie's home the men all behaved as then "Daddy," and this was how the children saw them. There was always rejoicing when a "Daddy" had come out of prison. Bonnie sighed a bit because they would never see Nell again, but she was already prepared to take in a nee Nell. Bonnie and I developed a quiet understanding and affection for each other which over the years grew into such a strong love-relationship that time and again I returned to New Orleans to live with her. Bonnie doesn't know whether she is Jewish or Danish or Irish or Polish. She is just American, she says.

Excerpts of letters.

 

 

Copyright 2005 AMERICAN PICTURES; All rights reserved.

 

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