And so it begins…….
As I sit listening to Miles Davis riff his way through “Silent Way” with a young Chick Corea, I still can remember so many details of Winner’s memorial service. I certainly remember how cold that day was. I don’t think I will forget my sunrise dalliance with Lisette anytime soon. And it would be hard to ever forget that surreal and bizarre encounter with Bonita Woolsey.
As the doors of the church opened, the chilled early morning mourners eased their way through the massive wooden doors, searching for their assigned seats so that they could assess the status which had been accorded to them and to others. These things were very important to some people.
I was simply looking for my seat, which I knew would be in a “special” row given my relationship with Winner. As I turned to go down the center aisle however, I happened to run into Ed Koch, the former mayor of the City of New York.
Ed Koch had been defeated by David Dinkins in his bid for a fourth term as mayor. He had been mayor for so long that some younger New Yorkers thought Koch’s first name was “Mayor”. When he was first elected mayor by a coalition of blacks and Puerto Ricans and liberals who found him to be far more progressive than the more “questionable” Mario Cuomo (who later became governor of New York), it was fully and absolutely expected that Ed Koch, the never-married Greenwich Village citizen and native New Yorker, would move forward in the liberal tradition of Robert Wagner, John Lindsay and Robert Kennedy.
Ed Koch fooled everyone. He turned out to be the Democratic Mayor of New York who had no problems endorsing of Ronald Reagan. He turned out to be the Mayor of New York City who actually bragged about closing the hospitals in the historically black communities of Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant.
Ed Koch turned out to be the Mayor of New York City who wanted to be portrayed as the one white politician in New York City who would “stand up” to the swarming black and brown mobs who always wanted something, who always wanted more, more and more, who always wanted something for nothing. He was the one Mayor of New York City who would call a spade a spade (so to speak), and not bother to apologize. He was Rudolph Giuliani before there was Giuliani – or maybe it was the other way around.
Koch was elected at the end of the Sordid Seventies in New York City. It was a time which had witnessed the President of the United States telling the town and its indomitable people to “drop dead” during its legendary financial crisis. It was a time when the moniker “Sin City” had replaced John Lindsay’s “Fun City”.
Being the astute and seasoned politician that he was, Koch decided that he would found his administration on the twin pillars of High Ideals and Good Government. By getting the reformers and good government types on his side, he would be free to show his real colors when the time suited his purposes.
Prior to his actual inauguration as mayor, he decided to demonstrate his belief in Good Government by selecting only “The Best” as the commissioners who would preside over the Byzantine complex known as New York City government. He established an almost infinite number of screening panels, one for each of the over thirty departments.
These panels were composed of experts who, in many instances, were in serious need of a life. After all, the Parks Department panel was composed of people who spent their every waking moment worrying about New York City parks (to each his own). Each panel was supposed to interview every possible nominee to be commissioner of their area of expertise. It was not a pretty sight and only the brave needed to apply.
The final part of Koch’s Good Government Plan was that he would interview the top three survivors of this veritable Iroquois Gauntlet. As fate would have it, he found himself interviewing me, one Paul Taylor, a young, black, Ivy League-type, who was a candidate to be Commissioner of the New York City Department of Human Rights.
In 1977, that position really meant something. Legends and leading lights like Eleanor Holmes Norton had held the job in the past. I had no way of knowing that Ed Koch had other plans for that job in the future – namely evisceration.
I remember that we met in the basement of a nondescript office building on Park Avenue. I also remember that I was focused and locked in and ready for this job interview. At the time I really wanted to be the next Commissioner of Human Rights of the City of New York. I had come to feel that it was my destiny. I had already convinced myself that I was by far the best person for the position.
I had read everything about the job. I had done my research. I had already drafted a series of bold and brilliant new initiatives and proposals that was going to put into effect in my first ninety days in office.
I knew everything about the job. I was ready for anything that the new mayor could ask me. I wasn’t arrogant or cocky. I was just supremely confident. I was ready.
And then, after shaking hands and going through some perfunctory resume questions, he asked his first substantive question. A question which I presumed was meant to begin his serious inquiry into my qualifications for the position of Commissioner of Human Rights for the City of New York.
“Do you have any white friends?”
There was a nanosecond or two of shock, disbelief and realization before I could say anything. I felt as if I had either lost my hearing or my mind. I tried desperately to recover my equilibrium.
“Do you have any white friends?”
I have had many interviews and conducted many interviews before and since that fateful meeting. One thing I have learned is that there are times when you know that you have the job or client, no matter what, and there are times when you know that even if you could stand on your head and spit gold doubloons, you are not going to get the job.
Initially I was shocked, that Ed Koch, someone that I knew, albeit tangentially, could ask such a stupid, asinine, bullshit, racist and idiotic question. I could not believe my ears! And then I composed myself and got a grip. I recognized the situation for what it was.
Ed Koch had no intention of appointing me to this job. His mind had been made up long before he came into the room. And then the perverse streak that I harbor and nurture, a side of me that is rarely exposed to the light of day. It slipped its leash and made its appearance on center stage.
“Actually Mr. Mayor, there are very few people who I call friends, and none of them are white But, I do know a few white people if that would help. I actually think I can remember their names if you give me a minute to think.”
No response to the response. And I must confess to some disappointment as I was hoping to engage in a little rhetorical fandango with this knucklehead who presumed to dupe so many millions. Ed Koch had an agenda that would not be denied. And it his mindset was certainly not going to be disturbed, much less derailed, by a wisecracking nonentity who wasn’t even going to be in his administration.
“What do you think is the reason for the high level of anti-Semitism in the black community?”
A Greek chorus in the back of my mind started chanting “Oh shit!” over and over. The issue was no longer whether or not I would get the job. The question was would I have to fight my way out of the small cubicle in which this interview was being conducted? Koch was not a small guy. And I knew that his biography was lavish in its reference to his being a real deal combat veteran. But the perverse side of me was not going to back down. No way. The fun had just begun.
“Well Mr. Mayor, its not that we black people hate Jews. We just hate all white people and in many instances, particularly in the ghettos where we live, Jews are usually the only white people that we see. Actually, the black Jews in Harlem don’t have a problem at all.”
There were some perfunctory parting words and that was pretty much the end of the interview. Not only did I not get the job, I didn’t even get a “regrets” letter thanking me for my interest. After that dance with the devil, nothing that Ed Koch did as mayor ever surprised me.
As I was escorted to my seat by a white-gloved usher (about five rows from the front, immediately behind the Tomlinson family members) there was not too much time to dwell on my Ed Koch saga. As visions of the former mayor evanesced into forgetfulness, I do remember thinking that Winner would have loved the white glove touch, although in his earlier years he had been nothing like a white glove type of guy.
It was getting close to show time. It was time to absorb and observe. The memorial service for Winner Tomlinson was another occasion and another reason for The Pride to gather.
Introducing……. Diedre and The Pride
The Pride is the term that I have used to refer to the black men and women, lions and lionesses actually, who have risen to prominence on Wall Street, in corporate America, and in the canyons of its law firms, accounting firms and management consulting agglomerations.
Being in New York, I am, of course, speaking of the New York version of The Pride. But The Pride is in Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami, New Orleans, Oakland, San Francisco, Denver, St. Louis and Los Angeles. Actually, The Pride is to be found all over America.
As a charter member of The Pride, I know that we are the beneficiaries of the seismic changes that hit America in the sixties and seventies. It was a change that allowed some black men and women to actually achieve on the basis of their ability and some limited opportunity.
The Pride consists of some of the most interesting, talented, intelligent, bizarre, insufferable, heroic, treacherous and memorable people that I can ever hope to know. I don’t kid myself, whatever I see in The Pride, the good and the bad, is in me too.
Many of them I genuinely like and some I love like brothers and sisters. Others are just too grasping, self-centered and opportunistic to suit my tastes. However, these are character traits that have virtually insured their success in these United States of America.
As I sit here now, pleasantly ensconced in my Sugar Hill townhouse, I know that I cannot afford to be too self-righteous or judgmental. After all, on that cold winter day, I sat in the sixth pew wearing a custom-tailored Giorgio Armani suit with a shirt sewn to my specifications by a Romanian shirt maker on West 43rd Street named Georges Tourvarian. My solid gold cufflinks were from Zimbabwe and the tie that I just happened to wear that day I had picked up at a little shop just off Bloomsbury Square in London. I know that The Pride is a part of me and I am a part of The Pride.
But as I sat there that morning, I couldn’t help but feel that I was a participant in some kind of surreal game. I have always known game when I saw it, and this was one of those times.
After all, most of the members of The Pride who were in attendance were certainly not there out of love or respect for Winner Tomlinson. They were there out of curiosity or speculation. They were there because there was business to be done, contacts to be made, acquaintances to be refreshed and refurbished.
I am not being judgmental. Its part of the American way of doing business, and there is no reason to begin to suggest that the charter members of The Pride would conduct their business any differently.
Consider this analogy: Dr. James Naismith put a peach basket on a wall and “invented” the game of basketball. It was meant to be an exercise regimen for football players in the off-season. But after Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Michael Jordan and Fly Williamson got involved, the game became The Game.
Business and finance and politics have danced a dance for many years in this country. But the dance never saw the likes of Bonita Woolsey, Gordon Perkins, Edwin Tomlinson or……….Diedre Douglas.
“Hello Paul. No surprise seeing you here. You do seem unusually thoughtful this morning. I hope you don’t mind if I join you?”
The always intoxicating fragrance of Ivoire de Balmain announced the arrival of my ex-wife as she slipped into the pew and somehow materialized next to me. I have always tried to pay attention at such events and to this day it still amazes me that she was able to appear at my side and surprise the hell out of me.
I don’t think of myself as some kind of all-knowing, ever-vigilant Yoda prototype. Nevertheless, I would like to think that I would have some vestigial awareness of the fact that my ex-wife was in the house.
But then Diedre Douglas has always been something of a surprise. She has always been a luminous presence and a wondrous woman.
“Good morning Diedre. Now I know this is an important event, if the divine Miss Douglas is making an appearance!” I spoke sotto voce.
“Don’t yank my chain Paul. It’s too cold and too early for your usual nonsense. At least try for an original line or two.”
It has always amazed me how Diedre could use words to cut to the bone. More amazingly, I have never seen or felt the blade, until it was too late. Every time, it has been too late. This was yet another one of those times.
“With all due respect to Winner, it looks like the usual suspects are filing in. No surprise there.”
“No, Diedre, I guess there is no surprise. The surprise would be if the usual suspects didn’t show for something like Winner’s memorial service.”
I couldn’t help but noticed the understated by entirely elegant black dress with purple trim that she was wearing. I am no expert on women’s clothing, but I would have bet that it came from the St. John’s collection. Of course, that would only be a guess on my part.
Even though the mink that she wore was also understated, I am certain that it cost a year’s salary for some midlevel corporate executive. Even now, when I think of her wearing that mink I have to smile at the thought of the next part of our conversation.
“Lovely fur you’re wearing, by the way.”
“How kind of you to notice, Mr. Taylor. What happened, did you take your “happy” pills this morning? Or is there a teenage cheerleader convention going on in town that has you in such a pleasant mood?”
“Ouch! You should be careful with that tongue of yours. You’re using live ammo today.”
“I’ll thank you to leave my tongue out of this conversation.”
Diedre has always had a way of delivering lines in an absolutely stern fashion with only the hint of a flash of humor that dances through those large and lovely eyes of hers for the briefest of moments. I thought that I saw that flash that morning. Was that double entendre or was it just my imagination, running away with me?There was no way that I could be sure. So I continued.
“Duly noted, Ms. Douglas. But have you noticed how many of your sisters are wearing lovely furs this morning? I mean, the fur is flying this morning!”
“No Paul, I did not notice. But now that you mention it there is some excellent taste in furs being shown here this morning. What’s your point?”
We were able to carry on this conversation more or less freely, as the doors of the Riverside Church were now wide open and the invited guests were streaming in. Even as people tried to maintain proper decorum and solemnity there was a great deal of energy in the air. Our conversation was not particularly noticeable.
“Well Diedre, even my untrained and unsophisticated eye can see minks of every description–nutria, blackglama, what have you. I have seen beaver, sable, fox, raccoon and ocelot. But doesn’t it make you wonder why, at a high profile event like this, we haven’t seen one animal rights activist. Doesn’t that surprise you in the least?”
This was not the first time that I had raised this issue with a woman of color, so Diedre’s response didn’t surprise me in the least. However, even though I had known the woman for twenty years at the time, the crystalline gravity and sheer intensity of her response took me by surprise. As she arched her eyebrows I knew that I had treaded on very thin ice indeed.
“Paul, my dear, you don’t see any animal rights activists here because they know that they would have the living Jesus beaten out of them if they even thought about spilling paint on one of these sisters.
“I’ve got to tell you, as a black woman I have to put up with indignities every day that you men can’t even dream about. I have to take shit from white men, white women and my beloved black brothers. I will be goddamned to hell if I would let some chucklehead who cares more about a glorified rat than black children in Harlem or Tunica put a drop of paint on anything that I own and have earned. Anything!”
There was silence between us as I absorbed what Diedre had told me and reflected upon it. In all the years of protests concerning the wearing of leopard, raccoon and mink furs, I realized that I have never ever seen even a tiny story or article about paint being thrown upon a black woman wearing a fur coat.
A few people spoke disapprovingly about Aretha Franklin after she wiped out an entire species of fox to get the fur for the outfit that she wore to Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. But I don’t recall any cans of Sherwin Williams being opened in protest of her outfit. Talk is cheap and hospital bills are not.
In fact, ever since that conversation with Diedre, I have paid more attention to this subject. I am still waiting for the brave and noble animal rights crusader who loves those cute little minks so much he or she is willing to risk their lives by throwing a can of Malaccan Cinnamon Crimson Red Dutch Boy paint on a female member of The Pride in a mink coat.
The sense I get is that activist would be dead before the last droplets of red paint hit the ground as cunningly concealed scimitars, Uzis, stilettos and tridents were drawn from scabbards, holsters and other unknown and unspeakable hiding places. I have to confess that it would certainly be worth the price of admission at any price.
Diedre’s comments rang sure and true. And on a very real level I could understand what she meant. Even after all the master’s degrees and Perry Ellis outfits and American Express Platinum credit cards, as a black woman she had to stand guard over her dignity, her self esteem, her personhood. There was no telling from which direction the next dignity-denying assault might come.
This was deeper water than I had anticipated in initiating this conversation. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, Diedre and I might have an opportunity to talk like human beings again. At the time I had no idea of what fate had in store for the both of us. For the moment, we both realized that it was best to just let the intensity of the moment pass so that we could resume our role as voyeurs.