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gangster - today's drawing practiceWednesday, 10.27.04: the Westies

A pal of mine recommended a book: The Westies: Inside the Hell's Kitchen Irish Mob by T.J.English. Somehow I thought it was going to be about 19th century or maybe 1920s gangs, but it was a surprising look at the New York City's upper west side during the 1960s - 1980s.

It always surprises me to read histories of my own times. It reminds me how quickly times change -- like the weather. Like everybody, I tend to look at our society and accept it as if it had always been exactly the way I perceive it today.

It's also so easy to see only the surface of things. My experience of Manhattan is that of the prosperous, gentrified 1990s and that of a tourist to the art world. Edgier than, say, Toronto but more fascinating than scary.

 What I gathered from this book was that life in the Irish enclave of the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood was always tough and brawling. Work came from the westside docks. You had to be scrappy to make it as a longshoreman, but the rules were clear. But in the 1960s the shipping industry collapsed because of air freight and threw the society into economic chaos. Those who could escaped to the suburbs. Those left behind got pretty nasty.

The violence is also startling. The likes of Mickey Spillane and Jimmy Coonan would kill you as soon as look at you. Bodies were disposed of by being chopped into little pieces. They were animals.

At first you think, God, are the Irish the cruelest people who ever lived? But then you start remembering tales of other mobs, from the Mafia to the feral children in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. You begin to think that this must be humanity's natural state. Strip us of our livelihood, strip us of our dignity, and look what we turn into. It isn't just a matter of survival -- having to steal milk for the babies -- it's the anger layered on to it.

One of my favorite questions is "where does the anger go"? When you are put down, betrayed, stomped on -- especially by people you have no power over -- what are your choices? Or do you even "make choices"? I was trying to get a handle on the topic back in 2002. And even earlier, on 3.5.00 I wrote:

I've been lingering over a long New Yorker article about Mike Nichols (Feb 21 & 28, 2000). Early in the article, it talks about a celebration of his final cut of The Birdcage. He says, "I was very emotional and very angry. I couldn't speak all through lunch… The film was so good, so strong. I realized I'd had no inkling of my anger at the people who had written me off. My reaction, instantaneously, was 'Fuck you, bastards. You thought I couldn't do this anymore. Well, look at this.'"

And yet [Nichols] is known for his imperial posture — detached, generous, and in control. He says elsewhere in the article: "The most useful thing is if your enemy doesn't know he's your enemy… Never let people see what you want, because they will not let you have it. Never let anybody see what you feel, because it gives them too much power. You're probably better off not showing weakness whenever you can avoid it, because they'll go for you."

Few angry people have the cleverness and strength to pull off what Mike Nichols does -- turning anger into art. Into laughter, no less. The natural thing, I surmise, is for the angry dispossessed to gang up, form their own protective culture, and figure out violent ways to get even.




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